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 Sentinels horse racing writer since 2007 as a staff member, and continues to this day as a free-lancer.

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Friday, October 18, 2013

Fans in middle of Florida simulcast blackouts

A new fan-unfriendly tactic has emerged in the war between Gulfstream and Calder. Without any warning or notice, Gulfstream pulled the simulcast signals of all Stronach Group-controlled tracks on Calder's Festival of the Sun day. Calder has all but said it will do the same thing with Churchill Downs-controlled signals in the near future.

MIAMI, Oct. 18, 2013—The Calder-Gulfstream feud promised to get progressively uglier and it hasn’t disappointed. Now fans have become collateral damage.

The latest tit-for-tat came Oct. 12. Fans arriving at Calder for the Festival of the Sun program discovered they wouldn’t be allowed to wager on cross-town Gulfstream or any of the other simulcast signals under the control of The Stronach Group. This included Santa Anita, the prime reason to hang around after live racing, as well as Laurel, Monmouth and some lesser tracks.

Fans weren’t the only ones caught off guard. “Nobody sent a letter, e-mail or a phone call that we were not getting this content,” Calder general manager John Marshall said. Calder didn’t become aware of the blackout until it began to program its TV monitors and wagering system, according to Marshall. “Tote informed us that we were unable to wager on this list of race tracks.”

No communication was necessary for the Calder executive to deduce Gulfstream’s motivation. A week previously, Calder began supplying Mardi Gras Casino (nee Hollywood Greyhound Track) with its roster of racing signals. Mardi Gras is only a traffic light up the road from Gulfstream.

“Gulfstream disapproved of Calder sending content to Mardi Gras,” Marshall said. “To express that disapproval in a punitive nature, they decided to withhold content from Calder.” Gulfstream picked a juicy spot, Calder’s biggest day of the fall.

Calder’s accommodation of Mardi Gras can’t be for the money. It has to be negligible, since the dog track previously hasn’t been allowed to offer thoroughbred racing until 6 p.m. and hasn’t done much, if anything, to make the public aware of the new opportunity to bet thoroughbreds in the afternoon. Besides, anyone who wants to bet horses can just drive a mile down the road and do it under better circumstances at Gulfstream.

This was an in-your-face move by Calder, smarting that Gulfstream provides its thoroughbred signals to Hialeah Park and Magic City Casino (nee Flagler Dog Track).

The people most inconvenienced and ticked off were fans, especially those who had done some homework and formed opinions on the blacked out tracks. It’s a shorter price than Cluster of Stars will be in Saturday’s Iroquois Stakes that Gulfstream fans will endure the same blackout out of the blue of Churchill Downs signals in the near future.

Marshall all but confirmed this. “We’re thinking about giving them notice and withholding the Churchill content.”

Right now this wouldn’t be much of a jolt to Gulfstream and its patrons. Calder is the only Churchill track of note running. But in a couple of weeks Churchill Downs opens its traditional fall meeting. Fair Grounds follows shortly thereafter. That worm will turn in December when Gulfstream and Santa Anita move to center stage of winter racing. Long term, it’s advantage Churchill again for the biggest day of the year on the first Saturday in May. Hopefully, the war won’t continue to escalate to that point but these situations have a way of careening out of control. It would be in the interest of both tracks as well as the habitually overlooked fans to call off this tactic.

Fortunately, the Breeders' Cup at Santa Anita isn't in play. Separate contracts cover those simulcasts.

I’ve never understood why both tracks don’t give their signals to all the area dog tracks and jai alai frontons, especially since the introduction of racinos have brought about the elimination of admission and parking charges. Calder and Gulfstream have almost nothing to lose and at least something to gain.

Tracks get to keep a higher percentage of on-track wagering but more of nothing is nothing. Patrons at the other facilities are there because of convenience or some other reason that makes them unlikely live racing customers. Given the opportunity, they might bet a few bucks on the horses.

Then again you have to remember how many tracks dragged their heels on simulcasting, which became the backbone of the game. The same is true of lower minimum wagers, which also have proven to be a boon. If there is any industry other than horse racing more consistently unaware of the desires and needs of its customers, I’m not aware of it.

The latest Calder-Gulfstream contretemps is complicated by a serious faux pas by Calder. On Saturday, Oct. 5, the signals sent from Calder to Mardi Gras for the first time included Gulfstream’s live racing, a big no-no. Marshall acknowledged this. “That was wrong. It was communicated to Gulfstream that this was done in error. It was corrected and will not happen again.”

While apologetic over his track’s mistake, Marshall is militant in labeling Gulfstream’s back-at-you as a breach of contract. “We have a contract between Churchill Downs Inc. and The Stronach Group. It’s very specific that you have to give 10 days notice of withdrawing signals. The Stronach Group hasn’t given us any notice. It’s just more of Gulfstream’s behavior in thinking they’re not accountable to follow the rules, that they are above the rules, whether they are contractual or statutory.”

Gulfstream’s president Tim Ritvo chose not to respond. However, a Gulfstream spokesman said more than the Mardi Gras incident provoked the blackout. Calder also is in arrears of payments owed to Gulfstream from simulcasting, he said.

Meanwhile Calder is pushing the state to rule in favor of its position that Gulfstream’s Saturday-Sunday agenda does not qualify as an authentic race meet while Calder’s Friday-through-Sunday regimen does. “There is reference to three days being a live race meet,” Marshall said. “There is no reference in the statute declaring two days a week as a live meet.”

The definition of what constitutes a live meet is crucial to the dispute since it carries with it the lucrative right to be a hub for simulcasting throughout the state. Simulcast revenue is at the heart of this dispute. “This continues to be a circus with simulcast revenues and who is eligible to receive them among Calder, Gulfstream and Tampa,” Marshall said.

The law is vague and subject to liberal interpretation. Tampa Bay Downs ran programs on June 30, the final day of Florida’s fiscal year, and July 1, the start of the new year, and is claiming year-round simulcast rights even though its live season is December through the first week in May.

Marshall is hopeful new leadership at Florida’s Department of Pari-Mutuel Wagering will see things Calder’s way. Even if this happens, it could be a short-lived victory. Gulfstream has been talking about expanding to a third day of racing. If the statute is interpreted Calder’s way, the extra day would probably be added as soon as it could be included in the condition book.

Then Calder and Gulfstream could find something else to bicker over.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Friday, October 11, 2013

Titles should reward achievement, not lack of failure

Some opinion-makers are predicting that Wise Dan's second in the Grade 1 Shadwell Turf Mile, which was transferred to the main track, will cost him his chance at a second Horse of the Year title. There's something wrong with a system in which it can be more rewarding for the game's stars to play it safe and not run.
MIAMI, Oct. 11, 2013--Star power drives sports at the highest level. Thoroughbred racing analysts constantly decry the game’s lack of it. Injuries and premature retirement to breeding sheds are primary culprits.

Not to be overlooked is the counter-productive practice of punishing racing’s biggest names in year-end polls for showing up and losing while giving them a pass for not leaving their barn.

Point of Entry has raced twice this year, winning once in February at Gulfstream and once at Belmont in June. Nevertheless, he has been consistently in the top five in the weekly NTRA poll, ahead of several horses who have two or three times as many stakes victories.

Groupie Doll did not make her first start of the year until Aug. 10 at Ellis Park, where she ran third in an extremely moderate Grade 3. She didn’t win for the first time until Sept. 9 at Presque Isle Downs in an extremely generously endowed Grade 2, with a former $4,000 claimer in closest pursuit. Then she lost again at Keeneland in the Grade 2 Thoroughbred Club of America.

In spite of this, almost all year she has ranked ahead of Dance To Bristol, also an older female sprinter, who merely won seven races in a row from February through August, including the Grade 1 Ballerina. Obviously, if you have a reputation, protecting it by staying in the barn is a prudent policy.

Keep in mind many of the NTRA voters also participate in the Eclipse voting.

Then there’s Wise Dan. Few would have faulted the connections of the reigning Horse of the Year if they had scratched him last Saturday when a monsoon struck Keeneland just before the Shadwell Turf Mile, leading to the race being taken off the grass. (Why is the question? The Arc was run over a much heavier course on Sunday and no one thought anything of it.)

Conscious that a lot of folks would have been disappointed if the nominal biggest star in the game took a pass, owner Morton Fink and trainer Charles Lopresti opted to let Wise Dan run. It wasn’t the first time they had done this. A biblical rain fell on Churchill Downs on Derby Day. Nonetheless, Wise Dan stayed in the Woodford Reserve Turf Classic while Point of Entry scratched. Yet Fink and Lopresti have been unjustly criticized for cherry-picking their spots.

The decision to run last Saturday wasn’t entirely altruistic. Wise Dan had almost as splendid a record on fake dirt as he does on grass. Moreover, it was a Grade 1 (and stayed that way despite the surface switch), the purse was $750,000 and the field wasn’t nearly as formidable as some of those in other marquee races over the past couple of weeks.

The official sign had barely been posted on Silver Max’s upset win when racing’s opinion-makers began to predict that the second place finish would cost Wise Dan his chance at a Horse of the Year encore. His three Grade 1 and two Grade 2 wins this season apparently no longer matter, even if he rebounds to make it six-for-seven in the Breeders’ Cup Turf Mile.

It’s not an arguable point that many of these pundits, smarting all season that Wise Dan won the title in 2012 against their wishes, have been aching for an opportunity for payback.

If Game on Dude wins the Breeders’ Cup Classic to cap an undefeated season, he should be a unanimous choice for Horse of the Year. This would have been true even if Wise Dan had won last Saturday. A close defeat or a solid try despite a troubled trip also should be sufficient for Game on Dude to take 2013’s gold medal.

However, if he throws in a clunker like last year, the title should be up for grabs and Wise Dan should not be written off for running second under far from ideal circumstances when his undefeated record could have been preserved by keeping him in the barn.

The criteria should be what have you done, not what did you fail to do.

FTBOA an ungrateful bunch

The Florida Stallion Stakes, inaugurated in 1982 at Calder, will be run for the final time there Saturday. In an appalling display of lack of gratitude and loyalty, the Florida Thoroughbred Breeders and Owners Association are moving the six-race series to Gulfstream next year.

Gulfstream should not be faulted for aggressively pursuing the Stallion Stakes, which will be renamed the Sire Stakes. It was a coup for the Stronach Group and Gulfstream president Tim Ritvo to be able to land what has been one of the premier attractions of Florida summer racing for many years.

It didn’t hinder their effort that Calder, since it got its casino, has treated racing as a necessary evil.

However, without the nurturing of Calder over the years, the Stallion Stakes wouldn’t be the magnificent showcase for Florida horses and stallions that it has become. Most recently, FSS graduates Big Drama and Awesome Feather went on to win the 2010 Breeders' Cup Sprint and Juvenile Fillies, respectively.

This year's edition could produce a couple of Breeders' Cup hopefuls, the colt My Brown Eyed Guy and the filly Scandalous Act, each of whom dominated the first two stages of the series. How well they handle the stretchout from six and seven furlongs to a two-turn mile and a sixteenth will go a long way toward deciding whether they make the trip to Santa Anita. Both are owned by Gilbert Campbell and trained by Kathleen O'Connell.

Calder’s support of the state’s breeding industry has gone well beyond a handful of rich stakes races. It has provided a stage for tens of thousands of Florida-breds to launch their careers and establish themselves. These opportunities encouraged investment in Florida-breds, which reaped hundreds of millions of dollars for breeders.

This should count for something. Obviously it doesn’t to the FTBOA.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Guillot needs to be punished for frivolous claim

Investigators have totally rejected Eric Guillot's claim that Luis Saez used an electrical device to urge Will Take Charge to victory in the Travers. Saez's exoneration should not be the end of this sorry saga. Guillot should face substantial sanctions for lodging a frivolous claim of foul, just as a jockey would be.

MIAMI, Oct. 9, 2013--The total exoneration of Luis Saez should not end the sorry saga of Eric Guillot’s outrageous allegation that the jockey used a buzzer to urge Will Take Charge to victory in the Travers. Guillot needs to be punished.

Investigators for the state of New York took a month to find the irresponsible charge leveled by the trainer of Travers runnerup Moreno wholly unsubstantiated. Anyone who examined the video of the race—this included Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey-- could have come to the same conclusion in five minutes. You have to wonder if the state took so long merely to look like it was putting more effort into the investigation than was necessary.

Jockeys, who lodge frivolous claims of foul, are subject to fines or suspensions. The same should apply to Guillot. He brought dishonor to the sport and tarnished the name of a rising star in the jockey ranks. There even would have been criminal implications for Saez. This is another example of sensational charges producing over-sized headlines and the retraction being buried.

Saez has the option of a civil suit for the damage done to him. Jose Santos reportedly won a substantial settlement from the Miami Herald, which printed a story that he might have used an electrical device aboard Funny Cide in the 2003 Kentucky Derby. (A confidentiality clause was part of the settlement.) That charge, too, was found to be baseless.

NYRA should also extract a pound of flesh from Guillot, who, unlike a newspaper, makes his living from the sport. A hefty fine, a lengthy suspension or a refusal to grant him stalls in the future should be among the options.

In addition to being wrong, Guillot made his allegations in a disrespectful manner. A college degree or even a GED diploma is not a requirement to become a trainer or lodge a claim of foul. But the gravity of what Guillot alleged should have demanded more care be put into his claim, even if it required outside assistance. There was, after all, $400,000 at stake, the difference between first and second in the $1 million Travers. A lawyer could have done what was necessary in a couple of billable hours.

Guillot’s claim was comically inept in punctuation, spelling and tense. He didn’t even get the name of the horse he was claiming against right. If his beef was written on a cocktail napkin in the wee hours after a night of commiserating, it couldn’t have been more inappropriate.

“I Eric Guillot am filing a complaint for our lost in the race called the Traver’s (sic) at Saratoga on Aug 24th 2013—My horse Moreno was beat a nose on the wire by horse named Take Charge Indy (actually Will Take Charge)—After suffering biggest defeat in our career—my brother Chip who was here cooking Cajun food had recorded races on NBC line for family once he got home and watched replay on NBC on big plasma TV he said it was obvious the kid had trouble celebrating cuss of black device in right hand switching too left hand and tucking under left shoulder under saddle pad! We feel this has crossed every integrity line of horse racing and would like this investigated an resolved!”

Breeders' Cup needs to OK Lasix this year

John Pricci asked a question in a recent column that should not have to be raised. Will the 2-year-olds in this season’s Breeders’ Cup show their best form without Lasix?

That this is an issue is a product of pure stubbornness on the part of Breeders’ Cup. The ban on Lasix was supposed to be in effect for all Breeders’ Cup races in 2013 after only being the rule for juvenile races a year ago.

It was a disaster, leading to a 20 percent drop in entries for the 2-year-old races, a corresponding decline in wagering and the eventual abandonment of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Sprint, which drew only five horses and was won by a maiden, who hasn’t been heard from since.

In a rare display of unity, national horsemen’s organizations told the Breeders’ Cup, starting in 2014, no Lasix, no simulcasting. Whether horsemen should have this omnipotent veto power over the engine that now drives the sport is an issue for another day. They do and they used it.

Breeders’ Cup could have stood its ground this year. But fearful of slim fields and handle throughout the two-day festival, they went for a face-saving compromise. The ban would remain only in the 2-year-old races.

So we have a situation where owners, trainers and horseplayers will have to guess how the juveniles will perform in a situation that most, if not all, have not faced before and will never face again.

This makes no sense other than as a balm to Breeders’ Cup’s pride. Theirs was a noble effort but it failed. Breeders’ Cup should acknowledge this and lift the ban before Nov. 1, so that juveniles can race under the conditions that will prevail for the rest of their careers and that will be the rule in all other Breeders’ Cup races.

Written by Tom Jicha

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