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, April 21, 2015

Top of racing loaded again but there’s trouble below

The 3-year-old crop of 2014 was exceptional. This year's group has shown the potential to be as good or better. Below the surface things are not as rosy as they will seem next Saturday.New Jersey racing is in jeopardy because its breeding program has all but evaporated. With casino subsidies being threatened in other states, this could be a preview of things to come. Like America, racing is in danger of losing its middle class.

MIAMI, April 21, 2015--We could be in the midst of another decade of champions. Another Secretariat, Affirmed and Seattle Slew hasn’t emerged but the past couple of years has produced a depth of outstanding horses.

This doesn’t have the zing it would have had before Shared Belief’s injury Saturday but even with what happened in the West Virginia Classic, positive news can be found. Most importantly, Shared Belief’s injury isn’t life threatening. It probably isn’t career ending, according to the early prognosis. The fact that he’s a gelding means we still might get to see this superstar on the race track again.

In any event, Shared Belief is only part of what was an extraordinary group of 3-year-olds last season. Their exploits outside their own division included sweeps of all the marquee races against their elders: the Jockey Club Gold Cup (Tonalist), Pacific Classic (Shared Belief), Clark Handicap (Hoppertunity) and the big one, the Breeders’ Cup Classic (Bayern). If there is precedent for this, I’m not aware of it.

The best part is these prestigious stakes were won by different horses and doesn’t include California Chrome, underling the depth as much as the brilliance of the foals of 2011. Let’s not be sexist and overlook super filly Untapable.

Less than two weeks from the start of the Triple Crown grind, another grand group is percolating. Dortmund and Materiality have never lost and they probably won’t be favored in the Kentucky Derby. This distinction is expected to fall to Eclipse champion American Pharoah, whose overpowering brilliance has people speculating whether he is the second coming of Slew. This might be going overboard at this stage but grandiose dreams are what keep horse people getting up in the morning.

We’re not going to have to wait too much longer to find out.

There’s depth in this year’s crop, too, maybe as much as in 2014. Carpe Diem, Frosted, International Star, Firing Line and Upstart have already won major stakes with the promise of more to come.

What’s amazing is racing has gotten back-to-back crops of this caliber in spite of the foal count having dropped almost in half from peak years. There’s a good news/bad news element to this. The top of the game is still strong, verified by the strong performances of the premier auctions.

The decline comes primarily from the lesser part of the breeding game, the dream-bred-to-a-dream horses. This still can produce a California Chrome. However, most wind up filling the cards at second- and third-tier tracks. The question is which will disappear first, these tracks or horses to race at them.

It’s a matter of conjecture how much more the foal crop would plunge if not for the casino-supported state breeding funds. The bad news is, as has been widely predicted, many of these states—Pennsylvania, Indiana, West Virginia, et al--are taking second looks at the millions that go to thoroughbred racing in a period when state budgets have shortfalls in the billions. Racing is going to come up an also ran whenever it comes down to schools and medical care vs. purses and breeding funds. It’s a no-lose issue for demagogic politicians.

Without gaming support, a lot of states are going to become New Jersey. You won’t see many, if any, races for New Jersey-bred 2-year-olds and 3-year-olds this summer at Monmouth. Incredible as it may seem, only 142 foals were registered in 2013.

It’s impossible to track how many have died, been injured or just aren’t fast enough to race. Divide that in half for gender separation. Logic suggests it will be difficult, if not impossible, to put together more than a handful of maiden races and it will take almost all summer for enough horses to break through to stage an entry level allowance.

Races for New Jersey bred 3-year-olds could be even more difficult to fill. Only 170 foals were registered in 2012 and a season and a half of racing has culled that herd.

For sake of comparison, New York had more than 1,400 registered foals in each of these years.

Not many players will bemoan the loss of New Jersey bred races but a strong state bred program is essential for any track. With New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland fishing for open horses from the same pool, it’s not being alarmist to speculate that New Jersey racing is in dire jeopardy of fading away.

If the casino supplements start to be withdrawn, this could be the beginning of a trend. Make that an acceleration of a trend. The demise of Suffolk Downs marked the end of racing in New England, a region that used to be teeming with race courses (Narragansett, Lincoln Downs, Rockingham Park and the fair tracks).

Last week, the Stronach Group warned it can’t and won’t continue to race at Golden Gate, the lynchpin of Northern California, under current circumstances. Several issues are at play, including the disruptive allocation of dates to fair tracks. But the core problem is short fields of poor quality that attract neither fans nor handle. Like New Jersey, California gets no assistance from casinos.

We might be getting closer to predictions that the day will come when racing will be conducted for the most part only at major venues such as New York, Kentucky, Florida and Southern California with bettors elsewhere participating via simulcast.

Fortunately racing isn’t baseball, where the big leagues are dependent on minor leagues all over the map. Rarely do horses from the sticks have any impact on the big stages.

I’m not insensitive to the mom and pop breeding and racing operations but it’s the nature of all business that the whales eventually swallow the minnows. How many Main Street shops have been put of business by Walmart? I’m not endorsing this, just recognizing it as the way things are.

Racing will seem rosy next Saturday. At the top, it is. But like America, it might be losing its middle class.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Derby points should play a creative new role

Dortmund and Materiality have never lost. American Pharoah and Carpe Diem are unbeaten this year. But one of the top Kentucky Derby contenders could have his first defeat sealed before he steps onto the track. Whoever draws the No. 1 post is all but eliminated. This should not be the fate of any serious horse. Let one of the under-achievers swallow the poison pill. An easy way to accomplish this would be to have the connections pick their posts in the order of the points they have earned.

MIAMI, April 15, 2015--It takes a pretty special horse to do what everyone expects and still impress the hell out of you. That’s what American Pharoah did in the Arkansas Derby.

There were two questions he needed to answer: Could he rate and was he beating anything?

He answered the first with elan, sitting patiently off Bridget’s Big Luvy, a horse intent on getting the lead at any cost, then blowing right past him and spread eagling the rest of the field in fast time while being geared down to the wire.

The second question will have to wait until the first Saturday in May. Off his juvenile form, when his vanquished foes included Breeders’ Cup Juvenile champion Texas Red, American Pharoah should have the right response for that, too.

It would be a shame if bad racing luck cost him the opportunity. This could befall him or any of the other key contenders at the post position draw. It has become almost a given that whoever draws the one hole might as well stay in the barn. Ask any trainer if he would rather have the one or the twenty and you’ll get a look that says, “You’re really even asking that?”

There’s a 20 percent chance one of the perceived Big Four—A.P., Dortmund, Materiality and Carpe Diem—will draw the poison pill. Throw in some other serious players, such as Frosted, International Star, Firing Line, Mubtaahij and Upstart, and the odds for disaster striking at the post draw creep toward the 50-50 level.

There is a simple remedy. The Derby points system has done its job. There aren’t any no-shot pure sprinters such as Trinniberg to compromise the chances of legitimate contenders and there is no horse of exceptional promise who will be left on the outside looking in. It might be time to utilize the points in a creative new way.

The tricked up post position by selection draw, which had a deserved short shelf life, should be brought back with a revised formula. The connections of the horse with the most qualifying points should pick a post first, followed in descending order by points earned.

Because not all Derby preps have the same degree of difficulty, the obvious favorites wouldn’t always get the first or second choice but they wouldn’t have to sweat getting the dreaded rail. That would be left for an outsider who snuck in at the bottom of the points list.

This also would add an additional conversation point to the qualifying races. Anything that gets people talking more about racing merits consideration.

This obviously can’t be utilized for this year’s running but it’s worth looking into for the future.

Decoupling moves forward

The Florida legislature has advanced bills that will achieve the long anticipated “decoupling” of pari-mutuels from racinos and card rooms. Decoupling would free greyhound and horse tracks from having to operate racing to have slots and card rooms. Florida lawmakers meet in full session only in March and April, so if it happens, it will be before the playing of “My Old Kentucky Home.”

The impact could be dramatic in South Florida. Gulfstream could be relieved of the obligation to run a two-month meeting at Calder/Gulfstream West. The sole purpose of this exercise in absurdity is to meet Churchill Downs’ racing requirement to keep its slots license at Calder.

It galls me beyond words that the bottom-liners at CDI would get exactly what they want but the game is better off without them.

A pipedream is the end of the Gulfstream West session could open the door to Hialeah getting back into the picture, since it is to Gulfstream’s benefit to have a respite somewhere on the calendar.

Alas, people close to the situation say a thoroughbred renaissance at Hialeah is the longest of longshots. John Brunetti is game but his sons don’t share his enthusiasm for racing and they discourage any venture that might have an impact on their inheritances.

It would cost tens of millions to refurbish Hialeah, starting with an entirely new barn area. The quarterhorses use temporary facilities, which would be unacceptable for the caliber of thoroughbreds we would hope to see at Hialeah.

But we can dream, can’t we?

One brave man in all NY

It’s encouraging to see there is at least one racing figure with the cajones to speak out against Gov. Cuomo’s extended takeover of NYRA.

John Hendrickson, spouse of Marylou Whitney, said he is “extremely disappointed” that the governor rammed into the state budget process a provision that will extend the state’s (read Cuomo’s) control of NYRA for at least one more year. The governor appoints the majority of the patronage loaded NYRA board, so they do whatever he tells them to do.

A plan to re-privatize NYRA was supposed to have been completed by the end of this year. Now we are looking at the start of 2017 at the earliest. But in situations like this in New York, one more year is never just one year.

VLT’s were kept out of Aqueduct for a decade while politicians wrangled over which favored campaign cash cows were going to get the franchise and how the pie was going to be cut.

Hendrickson was quoted in upstate newspapers as saying, “NYRA has completed all the tasks required by state statute. However, state government has not followed its own law. What prevents the state from extending it takeover of racing indefinitely?”

If there is an answer to this question, it has not been forthcoming.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Friday, April 10, 2015

Arkansas Derby might be rare case of ‘It’s not about the money” being the truth

The Arkansas Derby figures to be a well endowed public workout for American Pharoah, "a spectacular, spectacular horse," in the words of Justin Zayat, who manages his father's racing operation. For the others, the final major Kentucky Derby prep is an opportunity to grab enough of the minor share points to earn a berth in the Churchill Downs starting gate.
MIAMI, April 10, 2015--It must be nice to have a track put up $1 million for your final workout before the Kentucky Derby. This is the position Zayat Stables is in with American Pharoah in Saturday’s Arkansas Derby.

The Eclipse champion juvenile didn’t work up a sweat in demolishing the field in the Rebel. Justin Zayat, manager of his father’s racing operation, pointed out during an NTRA teleconference this week that American Pharoah works out faster than he was forced to run in the Rebel. This could be the case again in the centerpiece race of the Oaklawn season.

Skeptics have noted that American Pharoah was allowed to gallop uncontested on the lead, which is why he ran slower than in some of his morning breezes. Zayat’s response is that was because no one wanted to be a sacrificial lamb. “He’s a spectacular, spectacular horse. Honestly, that’s the reason he’s never been challenged.”

No one from Team Zayat is concerned that someone could foul things up by going on a suicide mission early against the champ on Saturday, according to Zayat. “We’ve rated him in the morning. He’s not a headstrong horse trying to pull you the whole way. He has shut off and relaxed. If there’s a horse, who wants to go out there and try to duel with him on the lead, he could easily sit off that horse.”

For naysayers, who complain American Pharoah hasn’t beaten anything, Zayat noted that as a 2-year-old he easily handled Texas Red before that one went on to win the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. He also twice put away Calculator, who rebounded to win the Sham Stakes by more than four lengths despite racing wide.

There’s a practical reason why it’s unlikely any of American Pharoah’s rivals will empty the tank trying to take him on early. The Arkansas Derby is one of the rare occasions in sports when someone who says, “It’s not about the money,” might be telling the truth. For the other not so magnificent seven who passed the entry box, it’s primarily about qualifying points for the Kentucky Derby.

American Pharoah is safe with 60 and the 40 for second will get any of the other Arkansas Derby horses into the Derby starting gate. This includes Bridget’s Big Luvy, whose win in Laurel’s Private Terms on March 21 didn’t carry Derby qualifying points.

Jeremiah Englehart, who trains Bridget’s Big Luvy for Tom O’Grady, says the Arkansas Derby is all about earning a spot in the Run for the Roses. Englehart said he has known since the eighth pole of the Private Terms, in which Bridget’s Big Luvy went unchallenged wire to wire, that the pursuit of Derby qualifying points would become the priority.

“Tom’s a Louisville guy. He lives there with his family. He has a big party the Thursday evening before the Derby that a lot of people know about. So I knew all along when (Bridget’s Big Luvy) was coming down the stretch what our plans were going to be.”

Englehart, who trained Ria Antonia to upset the 2013 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies, is realistic about his chances of earning the 100 points that go to the winner. “I’ve been a big fan of American Pharoah for a long time, so I understand how nice of a colt he is. I’m kind of honored to be able to run against him. We’re the newcomer in the race. I was expecting him to run well in the Private Terms. He did and I’m expecting him to run his race this time. Is it going to be good enough to win? I’m not sure.”

Some in the Arkansas Derby don’t even need to finish second. The 20 points for third should be good enough for American Pharoah’s Zayat stablemate Mr. Z, who has 14, and The Truth or Else, who has 11. Anything less and their prospects are dicey.

Mr. Z might not even run, Zayat says. In addition to American Pharoah, the barn has El Kabeir safely into the Derby field, so the only reason Mr. Z was entered was for his trainer D. Wayne Lukas, according to Zayat. “He’s the greatest trainer of all time. If he tells us he thinks Mr. Z is a legitimate Kentucky Derby horse, we’ll run. I honestly don’t think he can hold a candle to American Pharoah.”

Far Right (22), Made From Lucky (20) and Bold Conquest (17) could be in the running with the 10 points for fourth. The cutoff right now is 30 even after the defection of Prospect Park on Thursday. But history teaches attrition and owners, who exercise discretion over valor, will take others out of consideration.

Ron Moquett, who trains Southwest winner Far Right, said he has been scoreboard watching the Derby points standings on a regular basis. He also appreciates what his horse is up against trying to beat Amercian Pharoah. “I’ve been hearing words like Seattle Slew. If that’s the case, we’ll be reading about the horse who ran second to (the new) Seattle Slew.”

You get the feeling that the connections of any of the Arkansas Derby challengers would gladly settle to be that horse.

Written by Tom Jicha

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