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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Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Gulfstream DQ furor a symptom of vast discontent

Only one bettor lost out when a DQ in the final race Saturday at Gulfstream negated a $1.6 million payoff. But hundreds have weighed in with their dissatisfaction. This is indicative of widespread frustration at the inconsistencies of stewards.

MIAMI, Feb. 26, 2014--The furor over a disqualification in the final race at Gulfstream Saturday, which cost one player more than $1.6 million, is a case of the inevitable finally coming to pass.

I was at Gulfstream Saturday. My opinion is that the DQ was justified. But if the stewards had left up Collinito, it wouldn’t have been the worst non-DQ in history. (Game on Dude’s first Big Cap has been the leader in the clubhouse since 2011.)

A point that has been overlooked and which should be a concern to all race tracks is that only one person suffered from the DQ. Yet hundreds, maybe thousands, have weighed in with their displeasure. The only way to interpret this is that the anger at Saturday’s DQ is a manifestation of vast frustration with the whole system.

A foul in one race is not in another. There is no standard and there should be.

Thus John Pricci’s call for total transparency in the stewards’ booth, including audio and video of their deliberations during inquiries, should not just be brushed away. At least players would know which offenses are going to result in a disqualification and which are not. This, of course, assumes there would be consistency once the stewards were put on record. This might be a leap too far.

However, I don’t totally agree with J.P., because, as I said in a comment on his piece, cameras change behavior. This is why trials are televised but jury deliberations are not.

Gulfstream’s 12th race Saturday was a close enough call that nobody would be talking about it if it had happened elsewhere on the card. Its impact on the monster jackpot is responsible for all the attention.

Race tracks should have seen this coming. The new priority nationwide has inarguably become building life-changing jackpots in bets such as the Pick Six and Rainbow Six. It’s the steps taken to create these situations that have invited skepticism.

Stakes races with long traditions, even Grade 1’s, have been shifted from their customary position toward the end of the program to the third or fourth race to take them out of the Pick 6 if the field is short or there is an outstanding favorite, which would reduce the numbers of combinations purchased. Formless races with huge fields of established losers have replaced them in the showcase positions on the card. (This wasn’t the case Saturday but it has been on many more days than not.)

It has become unmistakably clear that the new priority is to create carryovers at almost any cost. They generate media attention, a huge handle into that pool and a positive ripple effect to the rest of the card. With a unique bet like the Rainbow 6, whose jackpot is distributed only if there is a single winner, the windfall to a track’s bottom line could resonate for weeks, even months.

Ergo, bettors can’t be faulted for suspecting chicanery when a borderline call, such as Saturday’s, comes down in a way that benefits the track. Many fans consider stewards to be an extension of management.

Until the advent of rainbow-chasing bets, the beauty of the pari-mutuel system was tracks had no stake in who won and who lost. This has been perverted into a “we win when you lose” scenario. Long term, this cannot be good for the game.

The obvious remedy, eliminating bets with carryovers, is a non-starter. My guess is even those screaming the loudest would not want to see this happen.

The next best thing is to take steps to downplay how much the tracks covet carryovers. These include not pushing stakes out of the most lucrative multi-race wagers, not scheduling races loaded with first-time starters in the middle of the sequence, so tote board action can’t offer clues as to who is live, and refraining from almost gloating over the P.A. and closed-circuit TV systems that there will be a carryover even before the bet is finished.

None of this is likely to happen because tracks know bettors have short memories. Whatever hard feelings there might have been from Saturday, there was no carryover (I couldn’t resist). Bettors pumped another half-million-plus dollars into Sunday’s pool.

An unfortunate byproduct of the Gulfstream controversy is it has become the main topic of conversation from a day when preps for the Triple Crown should have been, especially with the third (next-to-last) Kentucky Derby Futures pool opening Thursday.

The Derby future is still a fool’s wager when anything resembling serious money is involved. Every year about half the eventual Derby field goes off at better odds on the first Saturday in May than in the futures. And you get your money back at Churchill Downs if your selection doesn’t run.

As best I can surmise, the whole purpose of making a futures bet is to be able to show off winning tickets to prove you picked the winner a few months out. If it substantially outpays the final toteboard odds, all the better.

Forget the field at 6-1 (and likely lower when the pools close). There are no bragging rights for taking that position.

Cairo Prince deservedly is the shortest price of the individuals at 8-1. He killed the Holy Bull field and has lost only once, by a nose, after a bad ride. He’s beaten Intense Holiday, who won the Risen Star, enough times to retire the trophy. But with the Derby favorite going to the post in the area of 4-1, 5-1 the past few years, there’s no value.

Top Billing is the underlay, sharing morning line favoritism with Cairo Prince. He ran a good but not great race from a tough post against a vicious track bias in the Fountain of Youth. Alas, everyone in the world knows it. So no value here, either.

Honor Code, the only horse to beat Cairo Prince and the individual favorite in the last futures pool, is next at 10-1. That he still has not run as a 3-year-old could goose his odds up a few points. If he wins the Rebel, he will be one of the favorites in Louisville, so he might be worth a flyer at double digit odds.

Shared Belief is the most confounding proposition. He’s listed at 12-1 but should drift higher since his participation in Louisville becomes more doubtful every day that he doesn’t work out. It’s not encouraging that Jerry Hollendorfer shipped the Eclipse champion, who has been troubled by foot issues, out of Santa Anita to Northern California.

I painted myself into a corner with last week’s column in which I questioned how poll voters could put him below horses he had dusted. Not to be hypocritical, I put him on top in the first Horse Race Insider poll. I still think he could prove to be the best of his crop, but if he hasn’t worked by this weekend, I’m cutting bait on him.

The morning line is too generous on a couple of colts listed at 15-1, Bayern and Tapiture. If you can get that price, which I doubt, they are worth a shot.

After a 15-length entry-level allowance romp, Bayern is being compared to Bodemeister, who might have broken the Apollo jinx (no horse who didn’t race at 2 has won the Derby in more than 125 years) if Trinniberg hadn’t gone on a pointless kamikaze mission in the 2012 Derby. If the Derby points system has accomplished anything, it is keeping pure sprinters like Trinniberg out of the starting gate.

Tapiture's Southwest was the most impressive prep last week. He demolished everyone but Strong Mandate, who once again had a troubled trip. Still, if I had to make one play, Strong Mandate, at anywhere near the 20-1 he is listed on the morning line, would be it.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Results don’t count in Derby polls

Kentucky Derby polls are ubiquitous this time of year. But the weekly rankings often make it seem that the results on the race track don't matter. (In late news, a spike has been driven through the heart of synthetic race tracks.)
MIAMI, Feb. 19, 2014--Polls are an American obsession. People love to be asked their opinions and avidly follow the results. Thoroughbred racing isn’t exempt. But sometimes you have to question their usefulness, to say nothing of their wisdom.

At this stage of the prep season, it’s pointless to attach any significance to Kentucky Derby polls for two big reasons: Shared Belief and Honor Code. Each has had minor physical issues, which have delayed their season debuts, although they are still on track to jump onto the Derby Trail. Until they do, or drop out, it’s impossible to gauge where the rest of the generation stands.

Shared Belief earned the Juvenile Eclipse with breath-taking performances in the Hollywood Prevue and Cash Call Futurity. Since then those races have gained luster.

In the Prevue, Shared Belief buried Kobe’s Back by almost eight lengths. This past Sunday, Kobe’s Back rejoined the Derby picture by winning the San Vicente by more than five.

In the Futurity, Shared Belief allowed Candy Boy to get first run on him, then reeled him in and ran away from him like a man competing against a boy. Candy Boy rebounded to capture the Robert B. Lewis so impressively that those with short memories are calling him the best in the West.

In fact, in the latest Courier-Journal poll, Candy Boy is ranked fourth, five places better than Shared Belief.

Honor Code came to Florida as the de facto leader of the New York-based crop off his re-rallying win over Cairo Prince in the nine furlong Remsen. Cairo Prince might not have gotten the best of rides but he took the lead in late stretch and allowed Honor Code to come back and beat him. Nevertheless, Cairo Prince’s romp in the Holy Bull has many rating him above Honor Code.

In the Courier-Journal poll, Cairo Prince is ranked ahead of everybody, No. 1. He has so impressed the voters that Conquest Titan, who ran a non-threatening second in the Holy Bull, is rated eighth, one spot ahead of Shared Belief. So a distant second is enough to put a horse ahead of an undefeated Eclipse champion.

It would not be a surprise to see Shared Belief and Honor Code fall even further down Top 10 lists after the results of this week. Tapiture is surely going to pick up supporters off his facile win in the Southwest, with highly regarded Strong Mandate, who has a knack of running himself into tough trips, chasing him home.

Saturday’s Fountain of Youth and Risen Star also are likely to produce winners who will move up in the eyes of many. Unfortunately, limit fields in both could compromise the chances of an untold number of Derby hopefuls.

Once again, in the Fountain of Youth, there is a “what have you done for me lately?” scenario. Commissioner out gamed Top Billing in a January 3 allowance at Gulfstream. But Top Billing became the talk of the track with an eye-catching win in a subsequent entry-level allowance. In the Courier-Journal poll he is up to second and Commissioner is No. 5.

Why? Because Top Billing won an allowance Commissioner wasn’t eligible for because he beat Top Billing. Go figure.

What’s more, in spite of drawing the 12 post for the 1 1/16th mile Fountain of Youth, with its short run to the first turn, the headline on the Blood Horse advance was “Top Billing Headlines Fountain of Youth.” So much for what happened on the race track. There are some who will say Top Billing had the tougher trip. The fact remains that in mid-stretch they were nose to nose and Commissioner came out best.

This isn’t to say Top Billing won’t turn the tables on Commissioner Saturday. Three-year-olds can improve dramatically from race to race this time of year and Top Billing’s allowance win was as impressive as has been seen this winter. But as of right now, the fact lost on poll participants is the score is Commissioner 1, Top Billing 0.

The FoY is not a two-horse race by any means. Gulfstream Derby winner General a Rod, who got the best of Wildcat Red by a head in the New Year's Day mile, meets that foe again. Since then Wildcat Red had a dominating win in the seven furlong Hutcheson Stakes. A mile and a sixteenth might be as far as he wants to go but sprinters can have success at this distance at Gulfstream.

Almost Famous, highly regarded in Kentucky last fall, had a tougher than looks trip in the Holy Bull, challenging the pace all the way and holding on to miss second by less than a length. He could move forward off his first race of the year.

We Miss Artie won the Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland last fall but, as I have pointed out repeatedly, results over Keeneland’s fake dirt track have proven to be meaningless when the winners show up elsewhere. We Miss Artie’s seventh in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile is just the latest example. (Very happy news on fake dirt tracks to come).

The Risen Star is a total crapshoot. Sixteen entered and though only 14 will be allowed to start, it would take a miracle for half the field not to have to endure troubled trips. Too bad, since this is the first Derby prep bringing together horses from the major winter racing venues. Bob Baffert and Doug O’Neill are sending in contenders from California and Todd Pletcher is shipping in a well regarded starter from Florida.

One of the locals, LeComte winner Vicar’s in Trouble, got the worst shafting, drawing post 14. This could advantage the LeComte’s second and third place finishers, Albano and Gold Hawk. The Louisiana contingent also includes Rise Up, winner of the Delta Jackpot.

Pletcher will go for his third Risen Star win in five years with Intense Holiday, third behind Cairo Prince in the Holy Bull.

Bond Holder brings the strongest credentials from the West, a win in the Grade 1 Front Runner and fourths in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and Cash Call Futurity. In the latter, he was no match for Shared Belief. But if he were to win Saturday, you could bet case money that he will be ranked higher than Shared Belief in next week’s polls.

Baffert’s hopeful, Hoppertunity, a half brother to Executive Privilege, comes in off a three-length maiden-breaker around two turns.

The logical move in pursuit of a more meaningful result would have been to split the Risen Star. It didn’t happen because of the Kentucky Derby points system. This is the first weekend of the 50-20-10-5 allotment but if the race had been split, those points would have been halved. The only way to avert this would have been to make both divisions worth the announced purse of $400,000, an onerous burden for any track.

If the goal is to get the best horses into the Churchill Downs starting gate on the first Saturday in May, this is a rule that needs to be re-examined.

Ding dong, kitty litter is dead

I am positively giddy at another long overdue logical move. Del Mar has caved. It will restore a real dirt surface to its main track in 2015.

This effectively ends the era of synthetics. When Del Mar gets real, Keeneland will be racing’s outlier, the only track that stages major races on kitty litter. So it should be only a matter of time until Keeneland rejoins racing’s mainstream.

Arlington still has a synthetic but its big races are on grass. Turfway runs a big race whenever it can scrape together a few dollars, which isn’t often. Besides, as a winter racing center, Turfway is one of the few places where a synthetic makes sense. Woodbine is in a world of its own up in Canada.

There are many ramifications to Del Mar’s decision, which came just before my publication deadline. I’ll have a lot more in future columns

Written by Tom Jicha

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Friday, February 14, 2014

NYRA’s New Belmont Stakes Day: Feast or Famine?

MIAMI, February 14--The Belmont Stakes Day lollapalooza is a bold gambit. This will be one of the greatest days, if not the greatest day in racing history not called the Breeders’ Cup. NYRA should be applauded.

But it could be too much of a good thing. Coupled with two additional races on July 5—the Belmont Derby (nee Jamaica) and Belmont Oaks (nee Garden City)—fortified with million dollar purses during Belmont’s spring meeting, it could turn into an orgy of unjustified excess.

Come Belmont Stakes day, all will have a better idea whether or not a million-dollar purse guarantees a million-dollar field. Stakes can’t be turned into instant classics just by throwing money at them.

A rubber match between Princess of Sylmar, who should have won the 3-year-old filly championship, and Beholder, who did, would justify jacking the purse of the Ogden Phipps to $1 million. The greatest East-West showdown since Easy Goer vs. Sunday Silence also would be deserving of a day of its own. However, if only one of these great fillies makes the race, it will become such a non-event it will probably be scheduled early in the card to keep it out of the Pick Six.

The otherworldly purses are fueled by slots money. But several states and Canada have already begun to question the social justice of tens of millions going to racing that could be going to schools and infrastructure.

It’s one thing to pump up the Belmont Stakes. For more than a century, it has been an eagerly anticipated component of the Big Apple social calendar. But creating million dollar races just because you can is inviting scrutiny. Gov. Andrew Cuomo is no friend of racing and the new mayor of New York City, Bill de Blasio, is an avowed socialist.

What’s more, de Blasio made outlawing horse drawn carriages in Central Park one of his earliest goals. He says it’s inhumane. So you know where his head is when it comes to horses.

It’s a matter of when, not if, these politicians start making eyes at the slots funds allotted to horse racing.

I get the explanation that this is money that must be spent on purses--for now. It won’t necessarily be there forever, especially when such an ostentatious distribution by NYRA hands political opportunists powerful ammunition to snatch it away.

This also is a shot across the Breeders’ Cup bow. It’s a not very subtle message that enough is enough. If Southern California is awarded the 2015 Breeders’ Cup after three years at Santa Anita, NYRA is demonstrating that it is ready, willing and able to stage a competing championship event for horsemen in the East and Midwest. This is especially true if Del Mar and its synthetic main track get the 2015 nod.

Also, packing so many traditional late spring and early summer stakes onto one program could degenerate into egregious overkill. If a Triple Crown is on the line in the Belmont Stakes, you could card 12 supporting races of maiden New York bred claimers going five furlongs on the turf and there will be in excess of 100,000 people on the grounds.

With no Triple Crown at stake, anything more than half that audience will be a good day. Given the likely cost of admission for fans, it will be an exceptionally good day.

NYRA CEO Christopher Kay said during a teleconference that the prices had not been set and would be announced shortly. You have to be pretty gullible to take this at face value. With all the planning it took to put this day together, it would be irresponsible for the NYRA hierarchy not to have solid projections of what they can anticipate coming back.

When Kay said admission and seats would be comparable to the tariffs at the Derby and Preakness, it became clear he didn’t want the prices to become the story that day, which they would have.

Using the first two jewels of the Triple Crown as a gauge, fans can expect to have to come up with several hundred dollars for decent seats, more for good ones. General admission is likely to be in the $35-$50 range with the clubhouse roughly double. (Last year, it was $10 and $20). This will be just to walk in the door.

Kay is either a cockeyed optimist or delusional. He also said he envisions Belmont weekend filling hotel rooms in New York. Are there that many owners, trainers and jockeys? With simulcasting, ADWs and OTB, players have no compelling reason to travel, especially into the teeth of New York prices.

He also says he hopes to have European representation in the stakes. Good luck with that. The Belmont coincides with Royal Ascot. If NYRA does attract any Euros, it will be third stringers (who often are good enough).

Historic events such as the Met Mile as well as the Princess of Sylmar-Beholder showdown will be reduced to afterthoughts, no matter how heavily increased their purses. The Belmont will be the sole focus in the media and among fans. This will be true to a great extent even in the absence of a Triple Crown possibility. Ardent fans might relish the great afternoon of racing but to sports editors in the print and electronic media, the Belmont Stakes will be the story.

With all the great horses who run at Churchill Downs during Derby week and the lure of the richly endowed Belmont supporting card an ideally spaced five weeks later, I’d hate to be the racing secretary at Pimlico trying to put together the Preakness festival.

The creation of a super-sized Belmont Day almost comes across as an exercise in reverse psychology. “You know the first year we do something like this, there will be a Triple Crown possibility.”

We can only hope.

Written by Tom Jicha

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