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, December 04, 2013

NYRA will rue its decision to raise admission, parking prices

Things are looking up for NYRA. Slot revenues at Aqueduct have exceeded the most optimistic forecasts. For the first time in years, a positive bottom line for the racing operations is anticipated in 2014. With all this good news, NYRA is rewarding its fans by raising admission and parking prices at Belmont and Saratoga.

MIAMI, Dec. 4, 2013--Real life experience is always more valuable than book learning.

Pricing matters. Raise it, even by what seems an insignificant amount, and you are going to lose sales. This point was driven home to me while I was still early in elementary school.

My family’s livelihood came from my father’s newsstand in upper Manhattan. (It was also where I had my first introduction to bookmakers. But that’s a story for another day.) My first recollection of what my father did was when the Daily News and Daily Mirror were 4 cents apiece.

I remember when they raised the price to a nickel. It seemed a welcome development beyond the extra revenue. By that time I was giving my father an occasional break when school allowed. It was a huge pain in the ass to give a penny change for each sale.

But a big downside immediately showed itself. In spite of the higher prices—actually, because of them--our family’s income took a substantial hit. Hard as it might be to believe now, that penny made a difference to a lot of people. The number of papers my father sold declined sharply.

To some readers, who could easily handle the increase, it was a matter of principle. They felt they were being squeezed and resented it.

These examples are relevant in light of NYRA’s announcement that it plans to raise admission prices next year at Belmont and Saratoga. It is absolutely mind-boggling and unacceptable that grandstand admission is jumping from $3 to $5; clubhouse $5 to $8.

NYRA’s photogenic president Christopher Kay labels the increases modest. In what universe is a 67 percent increase for the grandstand and 60 percent for the clubhouse modest? That’s huge and almost unheard of in any business, especially one that is struggling in vain to retain customers.

The biggest challenge for any race track is ever dwindling low attendance, which has been on a death spiral for years. NYRA is down 9 percent this year. Even Saratoga, which massively promoted its 150th anniversary this past summer, was down.

There’s no telling how steep the decline at the Spa really was. Saratoga’s attendance has been bogus for years, artificially inflated by thousands of spinners on giveaway Sundays, who could be seen walking away from the track, their arms laden with goodies, before the horses were in the paddock for the first race.

Kay’s remedy to reverse the slide? Raise prices.

This is a kick in the soft spot for the loyalists left. The only possible rationale for the increase, which all business principles teach will cost NYRA customers, is that they will make enough money shafting those who do come to the track for an extra few bucks a day to make up for those who find other ways to bet the horses--or not to bet them anymore.

Parking is also going up, although to what extent hasn’t been disclosed. To a racing fan, the price of parking is merely an adjunct to the admission gate. It’s all part of the cost of a day at the races. If there is a business anywhere that has corrected a slump by raising its prices, its identity remains secret.

The reason for the increases is what’s really galling. It’s unmitigated greed. Aqueduct will remain free because of its racino, which is generating profits beyond the wildest imagination of the most optimistic forecasters. But unlike other tracks that have to get by without slots, Belmont and Saratoga might as well have slots because they share equally in the proceeds under the NYRA umbrella. There is no separate Aqueduct revenue, Belmont revenue and Saratoga revenue. It is all NYRA revenue.

Instead of rewarding those who have stuck with it for this windfall, by cutting prices and/or reducing takeout, NYRA is socking it to them.

Whatever happened to Kay’s goal to enhance the race track experience? My experience doing anything has never been enhanced by paying more. This is an especially strange strategy from a former executive at Toys R Us, which became the industry leader by selling its goods at bargain basement prices.

Kay told the Blood Horse that he hopes to reduce the drop off at Saratoga by broadening the marketing reach to include the entire Northeast corridor. I can envision the campaign. “It might cost you a small fortune in gas and tolls to drive hundreds of miles to Saratoga but we’ll make it up to you by soaking you more for admission.”

Because of the ancillary expenses of a trip to the Spa, as well as its atypical ability to draw younger fans who are more budget conscious than older horse players, Saratoga might be the most sensitive to price increases.

Here's something else that Kay probably didn't consider. At $5 a pop, rather than $3, those giveaway trinkets won't be so alluring to spinners. Lose several thousand on each of the giveaway days and there's no way Saratoga attendance doesn't continue its downward trend.

For the first time in years, NYRA expects to have a positive bottom line in 2014, exclusive of VLT profits. If this projection is based on increased revenue from higher admission and parking prices, while ignoring the reality that fewer people in the stands means fewer dollars bet at the windows, NYRA and Kay are in for a most unpleasant surprise when the books are audited this time next year.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Friday, November 29, 2013

Be thankful for another great weekend of racing

Thoroughbred racing is the never-ending season. Four weeks after the nominal championship at the Breeders' Cup, a terrific Thanksgiving weekend of racing all over the map could shake up the rankings in several divisions.

MIAMI, Nov. 29, 2013--Thoroughbred racing is unique in many ways. Not the least is it has a never-ending season. Viva la difference!

When the final official at the Breeders’ Cup was posted, media group think established several givens. Will Take Charge had overtaken Orb as top 3-year-old. Groupie Doll had defended her female sprint title. New Year’s Day and She’s a Tiger have the inside track to the juvenile championships. Mucho Macho Man might have surpassed Game on Dude as the leading contender for the Eclipse for older horses.

Only four weeks later, it’s, “Wait a minute. Not so fast.” There’s still a terrific Thanksgiving weekend of racing that could shake up the picture.

Game on Dude can move back to the head of the older class with a winning performance in the Clark at Churchill Downs. Why this is even necessary is an interesting argument. Not to take anything away from Mucho Macho Man but how a horse with two wins from five starts could be in the conversation with a winner of three Grade 1’s during a five-for-six season, is mystifying.

The Clark also gives Will Take Charge an opportunity to state his case as outstanding 3-year-old. Or weaken it. There’s no disputing D. Wayne Lukas has the “now” 3-year-old. But aren’t Eclipses supposed to be for a body of work over the entire year? A win in the Clark would give him his second Grade 1 to go with a pair of Grade 2’s as well as a near miss in the Breeders’ Cup Classic against older horses. The latter seems to be his strongest talking point.

Not to be overlooked is Goldencents, who is taking on the big boys (and girl) in the Cigar Mile. His credentials compare favorably to Will Take Charge. The Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (against older) was his second Grade 1. (He also won the Santa Anita Derby in the spring.) If he gets the job done at Aqueduct Saturday, he will be the only 3-year-old with three Grade 1’s on his resume. He also had a second in a Grade 1.

Anything less than wins or photo finish losses by Will Take Charge and Goldencents and the ball is back in Orb’s court.

Orb will not have won since May but neither did last season’s champion, I’ll Have Another. Orb still has the big kahuna, the Kentucky Derby, on his credit sheet as well as the Grade 1 Florida Derby and Grade 2 Fountain of Youth.

As disappointing as his Preakness and Belmont were, it should not be overlooked that Will Take Charge was well up the track behind him in all three Triple Crown races and Goldencents trailed him home in the Derby and Preakness.

If Mucho Macho Man is an outlier candidate as top older horse, it is totally baffling how Groupie Doll can be considered the leader for best female sprinter. Have we time-traveled back to 2012? In 2013, she had only a weak win at Presque Isle Downs before her encore in the BC Distaff Sprint. If she can back that up with a win over males in the Cigar Mile, I withdraw my objections. If not, I can’t understand how anyone could offer her for championship consideration.

Dance To Bristol won seven of 10 starts, including a Grade 1. She competed from January through November, the epitome of a season-long body of work.

For that matter, why not Mizdirection? Her repeat in the Turf Sprint (against males) was her fourth win in five starts. All were on grass but where does it say outstanding female MAIN TRACK sprinter? One of Groupie Doll’s two wins was on kitty litter, which more resembles turf than dirt.

Honor Code (my fix) might have run the most impressive race of the Saratoga meeting in breaking his maiden. He followed it up with a troubled second in the Champagne. He has every right to be considered for top juvenile colt if he can put in another big one in the Remsen.

I don’t like the idea of She’s a Tiger backing into the juvenile filly title off two non-winning races but I can’t see anything in the Demoiselle or Golden Rod to overtake her. But you never know.

College football is one year away from making horse racing a lone wolf. The first genuine NCAA playoff will isolate horse racing as the only major sport whose championships are decided at the ballot box rather than on the field of competition.

Maybe it’s time for racing to join the mainstream. Instead of subjective votes for the various categories, a point system-- say 10-7-5 for Grades 1, 2 and 3 with lesser awards for lesser placings—should be instituted to settle titles in the various categories. Horse of the Year could still be decided by a vote among the various champions; the best of both worlds.

If nothing else, this would encourage the stars to show up more often. What could be bad about that?

Written by Tom Jicha

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Saturday, November 23, 2013

Congress has more important things to do than hassle racing

Congress has launched its latest round of hearings into drug use in horse racing. Ironically, the first session came the day after a congressman pleaded guilty to buying cocaine from a narc. Don't hold your breath waiting for hearings into drug abuse by lawmakers.

MIAMI, Nov. 23, 2013--The irony should not be allowed to pass unnoticed that the day after Florida Rep. Trey Radel (R) pleaded guilty to scoring cocaine from an undercover narc, Congress opened its latest round of hearings into proposals to bring the drug problem under control. Not the drug problem in Congress; the drug problem in horse racing.

Radel isn’t an isolated case. He’s merely the latest elected representative to be caught. It’s a matter of conjecture how many members of Congress are shooting, smoking or snorting illegal substances as they ponder and pass laws that impact every American’s life.

What is beyond dispute is the number of Congressional hearings into the matter. It’s the same as the number of races Orb has won since the Kentucky Derby.

Meanwhile, the proposed legislation under consideration by the Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade to bring racing under federal scrutiny is the third in two years. Which do you consider more crucial to the nation’s future: whacked out lawmakers or juiced horses?

This in no way should be construed as a defense of illegal drug use in racing. The cheaters, when they are caught, should be severely punished. Richard Dutrow should not be the rule not the exception.

What’s more, fixing races is a criminal offense. Those caught committing serious violations, as opposed to miniscule drug overages, should face hard time.

Three trainers and a clocker at Penn National were charged Friday with race-fixing. The story said they could face from 20 to 45 years in prison and a half-million dollars in fines. History teaches there is a fat chance penalties so severe will be ordered even if they are convicted totally as charged.

If hard time was handed down more often for race fixing, it would go a long way toward discouraging chicanery.

It takes only a little common sense to identify likely outlaws. When a five percent trainer most of his life starts winning with 40 percent of his starters and routinely moves up claims from Hall of Fame caliber trainers, you know something is up. Fail to include this into your handicapping regimen at your own risk.

A catalyst for the latest round of grandstanding is the unchallenged exaggeration that drug usage is rampant and killing horse racing. “The perception is that drug use in racing has become pervasive,” said Rep. Lee Terry (R.-Neb.). The Jockey Club contributed to this hysteria with its study that most racing fans share the perception that trainers are using performance enhancing drugs.

So what? It's how people act on such perceptions that matter.

Many Americans also share the perception that their elected officials are “crooks.” This is how Congress gets a 9 percent approval rating. Yet incumbents have an extraordinary success rate when they run for re-election.

People always look for others to blame for their failings. They lose a race, the winner is juicing. Fans might bitch about drug abuse but this doesn’t turn them off to the sport. Handle keeps rising at many venues, including the Breeders' Cup and those that aren't up are down by insignificant margins.

Money spent at the blue chip horse auctions continues to go through the roof.

There are two full-time horse racing channels. It wasn’t that long ago that the only TV exposure racing got was the Triple Crown races.

These positive developments are taking place as racing is being challenged by new competition from casinos and other forms of legal gambling, which siphon untold amounts of discretionary income that used to find its way to race tracks.

Does this sound like a sport in its death throes?

Naysayers counter by pointing to declining attendance at race tracks. This is a specious argument in an era of widespread simulcast venues as well as the availability of live coverage morning through night via computer, smart phones and TV.

Truth be known, racing’s alleged drug problems are a pet issue of The New York Times, which has declared a jihad against the sport. When The Times makes an issue of anything, Washington jumps to attention. Hence the latest hearings.

Just as with its unwavering support of Obamacare despite daily revelations of its shortcomings, including from former champions such as President Clinton, The Times never lets facts get in the way as it practices advocacy journalism on its news pages.

Phil Hanrahan, chief executive of the NHBPA, was quoted in the Racing Form citing statistics from the Association of Racing Commissioners International that 99.97 of all post-race drug tests come back clean of serious performance-enhancing drugs.

Lest anyone think I’m a total naïf, I have no doubt that racing’s 99.97 figure is partially a product of the cheaters always being one step ahead of the tests. But the good guys are catching up.

Hanrahan contended the 99.97 percent figure proves that federal intervention is not needed. “The job is already being done.”

OK, that’s an overstatement but to no greater degree than those who allege that every horse is juiced and every race is fixed.

Written by Tom Jicha

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