Tom Jicha

Tom Jicha grew up in New York City and worked with John Pricci at the short-lived revival of the New York Daily Mirror. Tom moved to Miami in 1972 for a position in the sports department at the now defunct Miami News.

Tom became the TV critic in 1980 and moved to the South Florida Sun Sentinel in 1988. All the while he has kept his hand in sports, including horse racing. He has covered two Super Bowls, a World Series and the Breeders’ Cup at Gulfstream Park.

He's been the Sun Sentinel’s horse racing writer since 2007 as a staff member, and continues to this day as a free-lancer.

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Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Florida allows Churchill to keep Calder casino, fire 241 racing employees

Florida racing is better off with Gulfstream in command and Churchill Downs out of the picture. But it's not right that CDI can make believe it still is involved in racing to keep its casino. While it is raking in the slots cash, CDI is laying off 241 employees, who worked in Calder racing. The only potential bright spot is Hialeah might be closer to getting back into the game.

MIAMI, July 16, 2014--Florida has become infamous for barrel racing, flag racing, a quarterhorse “meeting” involving about a half dozen horses racing twice a day, all owned or connected in some way to the owner of a bush league operation, and a jai alai fronton in which a father and son played all the matches against only each other.

All of these were used as flimsy justifications—thankfully, not all of which have succeeded--for the introduction of poker rooms and simulcasting.

Then there’s Tampa Bay Downs running programs on June 30 and July 1, the final and first day of the state’s fiscal year, to establish itself as a year-round racing venue and qualify to be a host simulcasting site.

These creative contortions of law would be amusing if they were not so infuriating. Is anybody in charge in Florida? Nominally, yes. In reality, no, most of the time.

However, the low rent shams are put to shame by the travesty being allowed to be committed by Churchill Downs Inc. at Calder.

The latest abomination is the revelation that 241 employees, according to the Blood-Horse, will be laid off as a result of racing ending at Calder. While these people are heading for the unemployment line, CDI continues to rake in big bucks in its slots parlor.

How can the state let this happen?

When legalization of slots was being debated, the prime argument was gaming would save horse racing and the jobs the sport generates. Now CDI has its racino, but no longer has anything to do with racing and 241 people are out of work. All of this with the state’s blessing.

There will be a two-month meeting at Calder in October and November, solely to fulfill CDI’s obligation of running at least 40 dates to keep its slots license. You can bet case money that lobbyists will be working lawmakers hard to have even this obligation stricken. In any case, CDI will have nothing to do with the fall meet. It will be entirely under the control of Gulfstream.

Calder will not even open its building except to a few racing officials. Fans will be confined to tents. It’s still mighty hot in mid-autumn in Miami.

The widespread belief is that when the fall session ends, the Calder building will be demolished. But the racino will still be there. In fact, it will probably be expanded once the grandstand is out of the way. So much for saving racing.

Florida racing is better off with Gulfstream in control. With the head-to-head conflict with Calder eliminated, Gulfstream had the fullest fields in the nation this past weekend. Saturday’s 11-race card drew 126 entries. Sunday’s 10-race program had 122 entrants.

For the past few years, CDI has treated horse racing like skunk spray. To add insult, giant neon letters on the Calder grandstand, visible from the Florida Turnpike, read “Calder Casino.” Not a mention of horse racing. Even while it was still a full-time race track, Calder’s advertising was totally geared to the casino.

It’s not a stretch to suspect that CDI welcomed being put out of business by Gulfstream. Why is it this is obvious to everyone but the state, which has adopted a Sgt. Schultz stance: “I see nothing.”

I’m not a legal expert but I would think the 241 employees being laid off at Calder could make a case that without racing, CDI should not be allowed to operate a casino. At the very least, this could prove embarrassing in an election year to Gov. Rick Scott, whose political mantra has been putting Floridians to work.

For all his eccentricities, Frank Stronach is dedicated to racing. He’s an Eclipse winning owner and breeder, who loves the game and races his stock all over the U.S. and Canada. In spite of his schemes to surround Gulfstream with a mall, a water theme park, a giant horse head statue and goodness knows what else, racing has always been Stronach’s priority and the track the focal point of the property. Gulfstream has a casino but its advertising is heavily tilted toward horse racing.

The only potential positive that could emerge from the murder CDI is being allowed to get away with is it offers a glimmer of hope that Hialeah could get back into the game. Almost simultaneous to the announcement of the Gulfstream-Calder settlement, Hialeah announced a $60 million renovation of its facility, including a new high tech simulcasting center.

This is the second stage of improvements to bring the fabled track back to what it once was. Hialeah already had been spruced up for the opening of its racino and card room, which was made possible by a winter quarterhorse meet.

But Hialeah president John Brunetti has been unwavering in declaring his intention to restore top class thoroughbred racing, which has been absent for more than a decade.

An opening seems to be emerging. Gulfstream’s Tim Ritvo said his track is not about to give up any of the 190 dates it fought so hard to obtain. However, Ritvo said Gulfstream is willing to work with Brunetti to bring Hialeah back into the picture. The 40 Calder dates are the ones that would be in play.

A positive sign that Ritvo’s statements are more than public relations rhetoric is Gulfstream allowing Hialeah, about 14 miles away, to pick up its simulcast signals. Gulfstream does not have to do this.

Brunetti , whose track is located in a heavily Hispanic area, has powerful allies in Tallahassee among Miami’s Latin legislative caucus. He has made it clear he intends to call on them next spring when the legislature reconvenes. All they would have to do is work through a bill to free CDI from its obligation to conduct 40 days of racing and award the 40 days to Hialeah.

Don't under-estimate Brunetti. He got the legislature to pass a bill that allowed him to get a slots parlor even though the original amendment that opened the door to expanded gambling was written to specifically exclude Hialeah.

It would be galling to see CDI rewarded for bad behavior but that plane has left the gate.

Another alternative is for Hialeah to lease some or all of the Gulfstream-at-Calder dates.

Gulfstream-at-Calder-at Hialeah, anyone?

Stranger things are winked at all the time in Florida.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Wednesday, July 09, 2014

It’s not fair: East has big races but titles are won in California

Shared Belief once again demonstrated the potential to become one of the most exciting horses in years with a dominant score in the Los Alamitos Derby. If he runs the table in the Pacific Classic and Breeders' Cup Classic, he could not only grab the 3-year-old title from California Chrome but also capture Horse of the Year. He could do all this without ever leaving California. That isn't right.

MIAMI, July 9, 2014--Here we go again.

Beholder has won a pair of Eclipse Awards without winning a stakes east of California. It’s not inconceivable she could capture a third in 2014 under the same circumstances.

The dazzling sophomore stakes debut of Juvenile Eclipse champion Shared Belief in Saturday’s Los Alamitos Derby suggests that overtaking California Chrome for 3-year-old honors is within reach. If it happens, he, too will do it without ever racing outside the Golden State.

Jerry Hollendorfer said after Shared Belief crushed his rivals in the Los Al Derby (nee Swaps Stakes) that he has no intentions of putting his star on a plane. Why should he? Shared Belief is a gelding so it’s all about earnings and there’s plenty of easy money to be made in California.

The Los Al Derby was a $500,000 event. Del Mar’s Pacific Classic against older horses, the next stakes Hollendorfer has targeted, carries a $1 million purse and it’s on an artificial surface. Shared Belief is 4-for-4 on fake dirt. The Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita is worth $5 million. On top of that, there is a $1 million bonus awaiting a horse who sweeps that triple.

If Hollendorfer opts for a BC Classic prep at Santa Anita, there’s the Awesome Again, whose $250,000 pot amounts to pocket change.

It’s a formidable gauntlet, especially for a horse who missed the first half of his 3-year-old season with recurring foot issues. But after Saturday, who’s to say Shared Belief is incapable of pulling it off?

He answered the biggest question surrounding his unbeaten record, now five-for-five: could he be as effective on real dirt as synthetics? Another eased up victory—no horse has yet been able to seriously challenge him in the stretch—with a 105 Beyer, a point below his career best while racing a mile and an eighth for the first time, puts that to rest.

The next test is a mile and a quarter in the Pacific Classic, the same distance as the Breeders’ Cup Classic. But his sire, Candy Ride, won Del Mar’s biggest race at 10 furlongs.

All sports have become star-driven, so should the dynamic son of Candy Ride continue to roll, he could do more for racing than even California Chrome’s run at the Triple Crown. Being a gelding, Shared Belief could be around for years. Perhaps more importantly, he’s partially owned by Jim Rome, whose talk show audience is dominated by young males, the demographic racing has to attract. And Rome loves to talk up his horse.

If both stay sound, a showdown with Derby-Preakness champion California Chrome seems inevitable. It, too, will almost certainly be at Santa Anita. Art Sherman has said California Chrome will have one race before the Breeders’ Cup Classic, either the Awesome Again or a prep at his Golden Gate base.

The only downside is even if Shared Belief runs the table, which would make him odds-on for both the 3-year-old championship and Horse of the Year, he will have done it without ever leaving the West Coast.

Tonalist could add the Jim Dandy and Travers to his Belmont Stakes and Peter Pan scores and further burnish his resume with a win in one of NYRA fall races against older horses. None of this will matter if he doesn’t go west and beat Shared Belief on his home court.

Think Princess of Sylmar last year. She seemed a lock for an Eclipse after consecutive wins in the Kentucky Oaks (Beholder was among those behind her), Coaching Club American Oaks, Alabama and Beldame, vanquishing multiple Eclipse winner Royal Delta, among others. If the Princess had stayed in her stall back east, she would have been a strong favorite to be voted queen of her division.

But on Santa Anita’s concrete speedway, more appropriate for NASCAR than a horse race, she had no shot against hometown speedball Beholder. There went the Eclipse.

Four of the seven dirt races (excluding the Marathon, a now discontinued novelty) were won by Californians. A fifth, She’s a Tiger, used her speed to finish first in the Juvenile Fillies only to be disqualified. She won an Eclipse anyway.

Sprint winner Secret Circle took home an Eclipse after only two wins, both at Santa Anita.

Only three of those winners have run outside California since (New Year’s Day was retired after the Juvenile). None have won. She’s a Tiger was seventh in the Eight Belles at Churchill. Goldencents was second and seventh in stakes at Belmont. On her home track at Santa Anita, Beholder won a small stakes. Then she came east for the Ogden Phipps, where she was a well beaten fourth.

This underscores the inequity of anchoring the Breeders’ Cup in one place, especially one with the pronounced bias of Santa Anita, then using the results as the decisive factor in determining championships. It’s like making Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium the permanent home of the Final Four.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Gulfstream Control Good for Florida Racing; Elsewhere Adios Synthetics

The long pending agreement that turns over control of South Florida racing to Gulfstream and The Stronach Group is a good thing for racing because it gets Churchill Downs Inc. out of an important racing state. The downside is CDI is being rewarded by being allowed to keep it's casino after running racing into the ground.

The landmark agreement that turns over control of South Florida racing to The Stronach Group was described by Gulfstream President Tim Ritvo as a win-win situation. Indeed Gulfstream and Frank Stronach are winners. Gulfstream is now the unchallenged leader of Florida racing and with Santa Anita controlling the bulk of Southern California dates, Stronach now rules over two of the nation's racing centers.

Could NYRA be next? Stronach has been in the mix before and could be again when NYRA becomes privatized in the next two years.

The only downer in the agreement is that Churchill Downs Inc. doesn't deserve a win in this situation. The deal means it has gotten away with murder: The death of Calder as a race track has been sealed, just as Hollywood Park's fate was sealed when CDI sold it to a land development company.

Racing will continue at Calder for 40 days a year in the fall for the next six years, the minimum Florida demands to keep a casino license. But rest assured that efforts will be made during the interim period to have that requirement modified to free CDI from any involvement in racing.

Terms of the agreement include Calder ceasing all simulcasting immediately. Rumors are rampant that the Calder grandstand will be razed and racing will be conducted under temporary facilities each fall.

CDI also is turning over it's interest in HRTV to the Stronach Group.

Trainer Phil Combest said it best. "Churchill Downs has long made it clear that horse racing is only a means to an end for them. They're a casino company now."

No More Kitty Litter

The decisive repudiation of the era of synthetic racing was struck last week when Keeneland and Del Mar were awarded Breeders’ Cups.

The 2015 renewal went to Keeneland and the 2017 event to Del Mar. It’s not coincidental that Keeneland will rejoin the mainstream of American racing by restoring a conventional dirt strip this fall and Del Mar will follow suit in time for next summer’s racing season.

The awarding of the Breeders’ Cup was the sport’s way of saying, “Welcome back.”

This will leave only second and third tier tracks with fake dirt ovals. The arguable exception is Arlington Park but the Chicago area oval emphasizes turf for its major races. Moreover, if Churchill Downs Inc. wasn’t so tight, it, too, would probably convert back to real dirt.

Even Meydan in Dubai, whose sheiks answer to no one, has gone back to conventional dirt.

The anticipated fallout of the abandonment of the well intentioned flirtation with artificial surfaces is the outcry that the safety of horses is being overlooked. A sufficient body of evidence has been established that there are fewer breakdowns on synthetics but the numbers aren’t so overwhelming that they require the reinvention of the game. Extending this argument, all racing should be on turf, the safest surface of all. Alas, it’s just not practical.

To get back to the Breeders’ Cup, it’s long overdue that Keeneland be selected as a site. It didn’t happen sooner because spacious Churchill Downs, an hour away, was the preferable Kentucky venue because of its capacity and proven ability to handle Breeders’ Cup size crowds. Unfortunately, the casino-obsessed bean counters at Churchill Downs have taken it out of the Breeders’ Cup rotation.

The feeling persists that the Kentucky breeding community, the heart and soul of the thoroughbred sport, is being thrown a bone, that the 2015 Breeders’ Cup will be a one-shot stop at Keeneland, just as it has been at Monmouth, Lone Star and Woodbine.

The Breeders’ Cup didn’t even allow Keeneland a singular day in the sun in making the announcement. It had to add that the following two renewals will be back in Southern California. Between the Keeneland and Del Mar stops, Santa Anita will host the 2016 Breeders’ Cup, its fourth shot in five years and sixth in eight years. Del Mar will make it five Southern California Breeders’ Cups in six years and seven in ten years.

Various representatives of Breeders’ Cup have made it clear that if they have their way, the BC will be anchored permanently in Southern California. Barry Weisbord, publisher of Thoroughbred Daily News and a BC board member, is an outspoken proponent of Southern California as the permanent home of the BC. He told the Paulick Report, “I’m not a proponent of coming to Keeneland in November and have made my feelings well known to fellow board members.”

You could almost anticipate Weisbord, who reportedly is pondering a run at the BC Chairman position, doing a rain dance outside Keeneland in 2015 and running around the paddock with a thermometer in his hand to remind everyone how much warmer it is in Southern California.

Weisbord is an unabashed elitist. In the Paulick Report piece, he said, “I’ve had a lot of opportunities to travel throughout the world and see horse racing at places that scream elegance, sell elegance and are most successful. That’s what separates racing from other sports. The more elegance we can deliver the better off we are.”

He wasn’t talking about accommodating the $2 bettors in the grandstand.

What’s more, it’s not the elegance of the dining rooms for the swells but the horses who can be delivered that determines the success of Breeders’ Cup. Once it becomes apparent that the Breeders’ Cup is just another year-end Southern California event, it will lose the support of a lot of horsemen east of the Great Divide. In some cases, it already has.

NYRA has been out of the Breeders’ Cup rotation because of its own political and financial problems. But a lot of those have been alleviated and it demonstrated on Belmont Stakes Day that it can run a Breeders’ Cup caliber event. It also has something Santa Anita and Del Mar don’t—a boatload of casino money, as well as an imaginative leader in Martin Panza.

If NYRA can throw $8 million at the Belmont card, it surely can come up with a few million more to stage a rival Breeders Cup-type event, should this become necessary to break the Southern California stranglehold, especially with a couple of years to get ready.

Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that because two Breeders’ Cups will inevitably lead to no Breeders’ Cups.

Written by Tom Jicha

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