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, June 25, 2014

Saratoga returns to quality over quantity

Martin Panza, who put together the spectacular Belmont Stakes card and is inaugurating the Stars & Stripes Festival next weekend, also wants to restore Saratoga to its proper place as the home of the finest racing in America. Toward that end, the NYRA executive is shortening cards by eliminating cheap races, which have detracted from the image of the Spa in recent years. Also, those trumpeting the TV ratings of the World Cup as a sign that soccer is the next big thing in America, should take a moment to compare the tune-in to that of the Belmont Stakes of "that dying sport of racing."

MIAMI, June 25, 2014--Martin Panza for Racing’s Man of the Year.

NYRA’s senior vice president for racing operations keeps outdoing himself. He created the greatest non-Breeders’ Cup card ever on Belmont Stakes Day.

On July 5, he’s laying the groundwork for a new international turf event, a worthy complement to the Arlington Million carnival, with the first Stars and Stripes Festival.

His next venture might be his boldest and most laudable of all. He’s endeavoring to return Saratoga to what it used to be.

Panza announced Monday that quality will trump quantity at the Spa when the season opens July 18. About 15 to 20 fewer flat races will be presented in an effort to “try to bring back what Saratoga used to be,” the gold standard for the finest in quality racing.

This hasn’t been the case in recent years. The priority degenerated to jamming in as many races as possible to build the bottom line. It didn’t matter that many were woeful collections of cheap, formless, chronic losers, whose only merit is there are so many of them it was easy to fill fields.

Employing refreshingly candid language, Panza said, “I’m not writing all those cheap claimers.” He singled out non-winners of two on the turf and bottom level maiden claimers on the turf. “If they want more races, then that’s what you have to run.”

In recent years, these races, more appropriate for snowy weekdays on Aqueduct's inner track, not only diluted the quality racing that used to be Saratoga’s hallmark, they were strategically placed within the Pick 6 to enhance the likelihood of a carryover.

Panza’s plan is to run only nine races on Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, although the latter two afternoons also will feature a jump race to open the card. However, the up-and-down set will be segregated from the traditional program with a 12:25 post time, 35 minutes ahead of the normal 1 p.m. first post. The jumpers also will be omitted from the Pick 5, which will start with the first flat race.

Panza is remaining flexible on Friday, Saturday and Sunday cards. Ten races will be the target on Sunday. However, an extra race or two might be added to extend the program to accommodate the time slots set aside for three live Fox Sports telecasts.

Saturday, which draws the biggest on-track crowds and simulcast participation, also will feature additional races, according to Panza.He can't be faulted for that. Racing is a business. If there are enough “extras” that fill, he said, they also will be used on Friday.

Twilight cards on Friday have been eliminated at the behest of local restaurants, who contend the later final race negatively impacts their dinner business.

Ten or 11 race Friday cards could be a win-win compromise. Fans would still be released to downtown Saratoga an hour sooner than they would be with twilight racing. Meanwhile the extra race or two could be an incentive for those driving up from New York City or other distant locales to get an early start on their weekend at the Spa. An opportunity to catch the final four or five races is more inviting than rushing to make the final two or three—especially when the last race isn’t the garbage heat it has been.

Perhaps paving the way for another dramatic revision to the Saratoga season, Panza responded to questions about the potential negative impact to the total handle from fewer races by pointing out that Del Mar produced more revenue after reducing its weekly agenda from six days to five.

Given the declining foal crops and overly conservative training methods in vogue, a five-day week at Saratoga has had its advocates for several years. Saratoga remains the only major thoroughbred meeting that sustains a six-day agenda. But this is a debate for another year.

Panza isn’t promising an overnight transformation. “Rome wasn’t built in a day,” he said. The racing programs at Saratoga have been deteriorating for too many years to restore their former glory in one season.

But the mere fact that he is making the effort to take steps in that direction makes him the Man of the Year. If he gets it done, he’ll be the Man of the Millennium.

World Cup is no Belmont Stakes

Soccer enthusiasts are going ga-ga over the attention the World Cup, especially Team America, has generated in the United States.

“Footbol” buffs and trend searching media are swooning over the 18.2 million viewers who tuned in to the U.S. 2-2 tie with Portugal on Sunday. This made it the most watched soccer game in U.S. TV history. This is a harbinger of soccer joining football, baseball and basketball as a major American sport, they argue.

Some of the same folks will tell you that thoroughbred racing is a dying sport. But let’s look at the facts.

All Sunday’s World Cup game would have needed was another 2.4 million viewers to match the 20.6 million in the TV audience for the Belmont Stakes--and this wasn’t the all-time high for the third jewel of the Triple Crown. That distinction is held by the 2004 Belmont, when 21.9 Americans tuned in to watch Smarty Jones go for the Triple Crown.

Funny, I don’t hear any soccer fans saying the World Cup needs to be tinkered with and fixed.

Colorado track offers no drugs bonus

I won’t be so vain to suggest last week’s column triggered an action that could be the start of something big and wonderful for racing. So let’s just say sometimes great minds think alike.

Arapahoe Park in Colorado is initiating a program that will pay a $1,000 bonus to the winner of a race who goes to the post medication free. This includes Lasix, Bute, flunixin and keteprofen, all of which are legal in Colorado.

This takes my suggestion a laudable step further to pay a bonus (or write Lasix-free races) to horses who race without the anti-bleeding medication.

“The future of racing is going to be race-day medication-free and we at Arapahoe Park want to be ahead of the curve,” said Bruce Seymore, executive director of Mile High Racing and Entertainment, the parent company of Arapahoe Park.

From his mouth to God’s ears.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Wednesday, June 18, 2014

A positive approach to Lasix-free racing

It borders on disgraceful that every horse who competed in the 10 stakes on the stellar Belmont card ran on Lasix. These are the thoroughbreds who will eventually find their way to breeding sheds. Obviously not every one of them needs Lasix. Restrictive attempts to curtail its usage have failed. A new approach, which offers rewards for running medication-free, might be just the thing to start momentum rolling in a positive direction.

MIAMI, June 18, 2014--Belmont Stakes Day was one of American racing’s finest hours. It also was one of its most distressing in spite of memorable performances by Tonalist, Palace Malice, Close Hatches and Bayern, among others,

The card was hailed as the greatest assemblage of equine talent ever on a non-Breeders’ Cup program. More than a hundred of America’s most talented horses entered 10 stakes, six of them Grade 1. The bummer was every one of them raced on Lasix.

It almost defies the laws of probability that not one of the nominally best thoroughbreds in America went to the post without the controversial pharmaceutical. The same day, Ascot also conducted its biggest afternoon of racing. Not a single Euro raced with Lasix.

Why did every American thoroughbred race with Lasix while not a single Euro did? Because they could in the U.S. and couldn't in Europe.

The bloodlines of Europe’s finest intersect repeatedly with those on our side of the Atlantic. Many of Europe’s champions were bred on U.S. farms. So there is no plausible explanation for why all our championship caliber horses—just about all our horses, for that matter--are purportedly bleeders yet none of theirs are.

There are, of course, Euros who bleed. Some are treated the old fashioned way, with rest and TLC. The others wind up being shipped overseas to race in the drug permissive U.S.

Even though you would never know it from the Belmont Stakes card, or that at any other track in America, there are American horses who do not really require Lasix. If there aren’t, we ought to shut the whole thing down. Unfortunately, the way things are now, we’ll never know how many fall into this category.

There might be a way to start to find out. What the trans-Atlantic contrast underlines is that Lasix is being used in America for reasons beyond its stated purpose of controlling exercise-induced bleeding. I have been told by countless trainers that they uniformly administer Lasix out of fear that if they don’t, their competition will have an edge. Some owners demand it for this reason.

The Breeders’ Cup tried to introduce some sanity to the situation. It decreed that in 2012 Lasix would not be permitted in its juvenile stakes; the following year the ban would be extended to all the championship races. The hope was that thoroughbreds at the highest levels, the ones who wind up going to the breeding sheds, could be weaned off Lasix.

Attempting to go it alone was misguided. It made no sense to force horses, who run all their other races under one set of rules, to adapt to different conditions for one race a year. Also, the engine that drives racing is gambling. This introduced an element of uncertainty for bettors, which has a negative impact on wagering.

The experiment never was given a chance. Entries for the 2-year-old races the first year plunged, so much so that the Juvenile Sprint, a rich prize you would think would have attracted scores of candidates, was abandoned.

Facing the universal ban the following year, horsemen rebelled, some threatening to boycott the entry box. They also indicated that if the ban wasn’t lifted for future renewals, they would withdraw their permission to simulcast. No simulcasting, no Breeders’ Cup.

There might be another way. In place of the vinegar approach, how about trying some honey? Tracks should experiment with carding races open only to horses willing to run Lasix-free. This would liberate horsemen, who administer the drug solely out of fear that their competitors might have an advantage.

Lasix is not cheap. Trainers and owners struggling to make ends meet might welcome a way to reduce expenses.

A reason often offered for the short fields, which have become the bane of the sport, is the dehydrating effect of Lasix. Horses, who run on it—essentially every horse--are said to be unable to come back as quickly. This, of course, is the opposite of what was claimed when Lasix legalization was being debated.

As few as one or two additional starts annually per horse could contribute to a stronger profits-and-loss scenario for a barn. Lower foal crops can be directly attributed to reduced demand as owners get out of the game because of its cost. Anything that mitigates this would be a step in the right direction.

Since there would be a limited number of Lasix-free races, at least at the start, horsemen who objected to money from the purse fund going into these restricted races would face the scorn of public opinion. Besides, the multitude of races would still be run under current race day medication rules. If it became initially difficult to fill such races, another way to achieve the desired end would be to enhance the purse for those running Lasix-free, in the same way state-bred horses are rewarded for running in open races.

If horsemen persisted in their objections, perhaps someone like the Jockey Club could find a way to finance the purse enhancements for Lasix-free entrants. Hay-oats-and-water proponents have spent a fortune in vain trying to change hearts and minds. A program such as this could produce tangible evidence that Lasix is not essential to competing successfully.

It’s worth a try, isn’t it?

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, June 12, 2014

Coburn’s Rant Predicted Here

America was taken aback by the graceless rant of Steve Coburn, part-owner of California Chrome. But it shouldn't have come as a surprise to readers of Horse Race Insider. It was predicted last week in this column that Coburn would go off if his colt didn't win, because he set the stage months ago when California Chrome was just a leading candidate for the Triple Crown races.

MIAMI, June 11, 2014--Steve Coburn’s post-Belmont rant shouldn’t have come as a surprise to readers of

I led my Belmont preview column by referencing Coburn’s remarks from this spring that an owner, who joined the Triple Crown grind late or took off the Preakness, was “cheating.” In the immediate aftermath of a crushing defeat, the co-owner of California Chrome resurrected this theme and took it a step further, labeling owners who don’t run in all three Triple Crown events are “cowards.”

It’s easy to be affable when things are going as well as they were for Team California Chrome this spring. How someone handles adversity is a more revealing sign of character.

Admittedly, this is a bit harsh. Coburn is a 10-pound bug to the highest level of racing and even more of a newcomer to dealing with the media, who love to pretend they are your friend until an opportunity to play “gotcha” materializes. He doesn’t have publicists to advise and protect him by telling him to shut up. So under normal circumstances, he deserves to be cut some slack.

However, with a night to sleep on his intemperate remarks and given ample opportunity to walk back what he said, if not outright retract them, he exacerbated the situation on Sunday. He compared what happened to his horse to a child in a wheelchair being taken advantage of by an adult. It was one of those moments when you cringe and go, “He didn’t really say that, did he?”

Someone with PR savvy must have finally gotten to Coburn. He issued an apology on Monday’s “Good Morning America” that should have been done when he had the opportunity the day before. He said he was ashamed of himself and did not mean to take anything away from Tonalist or his connections. It was so late, it reeked more of damage control than sincerity.

Dumb Ass Partners certainly is an appropriate name for at least half of California Chrome’s ownership team.

Coburn also showed a lack of understanding of racing and what the Triple Crown is. This is not the World Series, NBA Finals or Stanley Cup playoffs, a winner-take-all, four-of-seven series. The Derby, Preakness and Belmont are separate classic races, each a prestigious and lucrative prize in its own right. Owners and trainers are entitled to prepare their horses, or not, as they see fit.

If Coburn’s viewpoint had been the rule, the Preakness and Belmont would have been three-horse races, shams that few would have paid attention to. The NBC contract would soon be history.

Speaking of which, the TV ratings for the Belmont were the highest since Smarty Jones’ Triple Crown attempt in 2004. Approximately 20.6 million viewers watched. This was more than three times the 6.4 million for the prime time Stanley Cup finals game between New York and Los Angeles, the nation’s two biggest markets.

The tune-in also was 50 percent higher than for the NBA Finals on Sunday in prime time--when more TV's are in use than any other night--featuring America’s love-them-or-hate-them Miami Heat. Not bad for a sport supposedly on its death bed.

California Chrome did not fall short of the Triple Crown because Tonalist was the fresher horse. He didn't come up short because there was an 11-horse field, more than any Triple Crown winner had to contend with. The Belmont now pays back to eighth place, so this is going to be the new normal.

He didn’t lose because Victor Espinoza gave him a questionable ride. You have to admire the nerve of Randy Moss to take this stand, especially after Jerry Bailey more or less told him he didn’t know what he was talking about. Bailey’s counter to Moss’ contention that Espinoza should have gone to the lead was that California Chrome already had a target on his back.

If California Chrome went to the front, he would have had several horses immediately taking shots at him, extending him sooner than would have been prudent. Isn’t this what they said about Stewart Elliott on Smarty Jones? But compared to Moss, what does Jerry Bailey, the greatest big race jockey of his generation, know about riding horses?

I can’t say for sure but I doubt grabbing a quarter shortly after the start was a significant factor. Maybe it was adrenaline kicking in but California Chrome showed no sign of distress and looked to be making a winning surge in mid-stretch, more than a mile after the incident. Alas, he couldn’t sustain it.

California Chrome became the 13th horse in 36 years to win the Derby and Preakness only to fall short in the Belmont for the same reason most of the others did. He was beaten by the Belmont distance and horses who could handle it better than he could.

He was right there after a mile and a quarter. He and Tonalist were almost side by side in mid-stretch. Tonalist went on. But with the race and the Triple Crown on the line, California Chrome started to hang, as horses whose tanks have been emptied do.

Tom Durkin, in his final Belmont, called it: “California Chrome is laboring late.”

Runnerup Commissioner is a nice horse but probably a cut below the very best. However, he has a Belmont winner top and bottom in his pedigree. He was particularly suited for the mile and a half. Show horse Medal Count hadn't hit the board on conventional dirt since his maiden win at Ellis Park. But being by Dynaformer, he, too, is bred better for 12 furlongs than California Chrome.

The distance is what beat him. Not three races in five weeks. I don’t think it’s going too far out on a limb to say that at a mile and an eighth or even a mile and a quarter, California Chrome would beat Commissioner and Medal Count almost every time.

California Chrome’s connections said repeatedly he was coming into the Belmont bigger and stronger than ever. His workouts had clockers gushing. So even though I know I’m spitting into the wind, could we please can the talk about changing the time frame of the Derby, Preakness and Belmont?

California Chrome wasn’t going to beat the horses who finished ahead of him at a mile and a half if the Belmont was run on July 4, Labor Day, Thanksgiving weekend or New Year’s Eve.

If something needs to be changed—I would argue vehemently against—it is asking 3-year-olds who have never run a mile and a half, and probably never will again, to handle such a grueling route. But if the distance is diminished, so is the Triple Crown.

With more than a hundred thousand fans at each of the three races, TV ratings near an all-time high in an era when there are more viewing options than ever, the Belmont getting attention all week on the morning shows, the late-night gabfests and everything in between, and now the continuing attention thanks to Coburn, why would anyone in his or her right mind want to change anything?

Written by Tom Jicha

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