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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Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Derby bar might go higher this year

If 20 points is the magic number to earn one of the Kentucky Derby's 20 starting berths, 10 horses are already in. Barring attrition, with all the really big points races still to come, 20 probably won't be enough this year. Unfortunately, the showdown between the male and female juvenile champions, American Pharoah and Take Charge Brandi, won't take place in the Rebel, as expected, because of an injury to the filly. On the older horse front, fans are being challenged to finish the sentence, "Shared Belief is the best horse since..."

MIAMI, March 10, 2015--The Kentucky Derby bar might be set a little higher this season. Based on the first two years of the qualifying points system, the conventional wisdom has settled on a 20-20 formula; 20 points would be enough to earn one of the 20 starting berths.

At the risk of being made to look foolish by the unfortunate but seemingly inevitable attrition rate that hits as the first Saturday in May approaches, it likely will take a few more than 20 points in 2015.

Ten horses already have hit or exceeded that magic number and each is currently training toward a final big points prep. Fourteen others have at least 10, including Eclipse champion American Pharoah, who will make his seasonal debut in the Rebel Saturday.

This is with three 50-20-10-5 races—the Rebel, Spiral and Sunland Derby--left before the seven big 100-40-20-10 final preps. It should be six. Giving the UAE Derby equal status with the back on dirt Blue Grass, Wood Memorial, Florida, Louisiana, Arkansas and Santa Anita Derbies is an insult to those races.

American Pharoah’s return looks less challenging with news that Eclipse juvenile filly champion Take Charge Brandi has a chip in a knee and will be out for at least 60 days. Owner Willis Horton and trainer D. Wayne Lukas had been planning to take on the male Eclipse winner in the Oaklawn race.

I can’t recall the last time Eclipse juvenile champions met as 3-year-olds, certainly not this early in the season. I’m going with Foolish Pleasure vs. Ruffian in 1975 until someone comes up with a more recent example. The ill-fated match race took place on July 6, after Triple Crown season.

American Pharoah appears to be on a different level than the Rebel's remaining probable starters but one of them is going to run at least second and get 20 points.

If you are going to take on the champ, Saturday is the time to do it. He hasn’t been out since September, he’s shipping cross country to an unfamiliar surface and Bob Baffert is too good a horseman to squeeze the lemon dry in March off a long layoff. Baffert also has the comfort of not needing to protect an unblemished record. However, he is still in a dicey situation. No matter how bad the weather or track condition, he almost has to run. A scratch would leave him with time for only one prep before the Derby.

I placed American Pharoah fourth in the first Horse Race Insider poll of the season only because Dortmund, Upstart and Carpe Diem have won major races as 3-year-olds. If American Pharoah performs as I expect in the Rebel, he goes right to the top of my poll next week.

The best since…?

Still don’t believe Bayern should have come down in the Breeders’ Cup Classic? Toast of New York, too, for that matter. Shared Belief demonstrated again Saturday in the Big Cap that if you don’t mug him, he’ll beat you to death.

He has turned “How good is he?” into a rhetorical question. He’s the best. The real question is the best since who? Zanyatta? Curlin? Spectacular Bid?

On the same Santa Anita track on which he suffered the only defeat of his 11-race career, Shared Belief annihilated the dozen coaxed to run against him for the minor shares of a $1 million purse.

The contemptuous ease with which he won makes terms for his opponents like "overmatched" and "outclassed" redundant. There aren’t many horses, perhaps any, who aren’t overmatched and outclassed by Shared Belief.

A case could be made for Bayern. He did cross the wire first in the only race Shared Belief lost. But he’s being nursed slowly back to health after a foot abcess. You have to wonder how anxious Baffert is for a rematch after what Shared Belief did to California Chrome and his other star older horse Hoppertunity.

I have a feeling you won’t see Bayern and Shared Belief in the same starting gate before the Breeders’ Cup Classic. This isn’t a knock on Bayern or Baffert. If I managed the career of a brilliant horse like Bayern, I would scoop up the millions in big pots available in races where Shared Belief is not.

Maybe Honor Code is a worthy challenger off the way he won last to first against some talented opponents in the Gulfstream Park Handicap. The list gets slim beyond that.

Jerry Hollendorfer has said repeatedly he is not anxious to put his Eclipse champion on a plane, but it looks like he probably will. Hollendorfer said this week he's pointing toward the $600,000 Oaklawn Handicap next month.

It would not have been the worst call to give Shared Belief a couple of months freshening in advance of a Gold Cup-Pacific Classic-Awesome Again summer and fall campaign leading up to the Classic. Foot problems necessitated a five-month layoff after his perfect juvenile campaign, but since he came back to the races last May he has raced practically every month.

But he’s doing well right now and Mike Smith said the Big Cap took absolutely nothing out of him.

Shared Belief is the biggest fan attraction in racing. But his greatness will never be fully recognized until he demonstrates it east of the Rockies.

Hollendorfer mentioned the Oaklawn Handicap as a possibility on a radio show Sunday and also told Jay Privman of the Racing Form that the $1.25 million Met Mile on Belmont Stakes Day is under consideration.

Shared Belief showing up in the latter, perhaps against Honor Code, would be the only antidote for NYRA not having a Triple Crown possibility, should that come to pass.

Shared Belief would have to win only one of these races to silence the “what did he beat in California?” naysayers and the owners are a sporting lot. If something unexpected happened and he got beat, he would still have the Breeders’ Cup to restore his reputation.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Future bettors send it in, Apollo laughs

Every year a new colt, unraced at 2, inherits the mantle of the one who is going to defy the curse of Apollo by winning the Kentucky Derby. Futures bettors send it in on him. This year's model is regally bred Khozan, two for two at Gulfstream, Last year it was Constitution, who won his first three. Two years ago, it was Verazzano, four-for-four to start his career. A little further back it was Curlin. Yet the curse remains unbroken... Meanwhile, out West, the posse has finally caught up with A.C. Avila.

MIAMI, March 3, 2015--It wouldn’t be Kentucky Derby season with a flavor du jour. Khozan is this year’s. All it took was a couple of blowout wins at Gulfstream. He broke his maiden on Jan. 24, winning a seven-furlong dash by 3 ½, which was merely a sign of things to come. Coming back in a one-mile allowance on Feb. 22, he freaked by 12 ½.

This is all it took for him to vault him to the top echelon among individual horses in the third stage of Kentucky Derby Future wagering. His 13-1 odds placed him behind only American Pharoah at 8-1, Dortmund at 9-1, Carpe Diem at 10-1 and Withers winner Far From Over also 13-1, with about $600 more bet on him. Breeders’ Cup champion Texas Red was 14-1 and Upstart was 15-1.

American Pharoah is the Eclipse champion 2-year-old, a two-time Grade 1 winner. Dortmund has won four in a row, including a couple of stakes, one of them a Grade 1. Carpe Diem, expected to make his 3-year-old debut Saturday in the Tampa Bay Derby, is two-for-three, including a win in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Futurity and a second in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. I’m at a loss to explain the heavy support for Far From Over but he’s at least a graded stakes winner.

Like Khozan, Upstart won two races at Gulfstream this winter (despite what the stewards ruled). They weren’t a maiden special and an entry-level allowance. They were the Holy Bull and Fountain of Youth.

The dates of Khozan’s two wins are significant. They are both this year. He is the latest “second coming” to defy the curse of Apollo. It is 133 years since Apollo became the most recent 3-year-old, who didn’t race as a juvenile, to win the Derby. So, we are not talking about a small sample.

Not insignificantly, Apollo paid $129 to win, about $100 more than a $2 wager on Khozan in the Derby future will get you. Moreover, those who took the price on Apollo knew he was going to run in the Derby.

This puts Khozan in the hoofprints of Constitution a year ago and Verrazano in 2013, coincidentally also both from the Todd Pletcher barn. Constitution won his first two starts on Jan. 11 and Feb. 22, then capped his South Florida winter by running away with the Florida Derby, which appears to be Khozan’s next target. Constitution didn’t make the Kentucky Derby and didn’t win again until this year’s Donn.

Verrazano went Constitution one better. He won his first four races, two at Gulfstream (notice a pattern?) then the Tampa Bay Derby and Wood Memorial. He ran 14th in the Kentucky Derby.

The greatest example of all that the curse of Apollo is nothing to scoff at is Curlin. He broke his maiden at Gulfstream then galloped in the Rebel and Arkansas Derby. But the best he could do in Louisville was third.

He went on to win the Preakness, the Jockey Club Gold Cup twice, the Dubai World Cup and was twice Horse of the Year. But the Run for the Roses was too tough a challenge too soon.

Some year an unraced 2-year-old will win the Derby. Those who make light of the curse of Apollo, which, of course, is not a curse but a reflection of the necessity to build a foundation, will laugh and say, “See, I told you so,” as if one exception in more than 130 years makes a point.

Maybe Khozan will be the one. He certainly has the breeding as a half to two-time Eclipse champion Royal Delta and Grade 1 winner Crown Queen, who was four-for-four (all on turf) last year.

But unless you refuse to believe that we study history to avoid previous mistakes, you should demand more than 13-1 on it happening.

You call this justice?

The sordid saga of Masochistic continues in spite of an egregiously tardy ruling by the California Horse Racing Board. Last Friday, the CHRB finally suspended trainer A.C. Avila for 60 days and fined him $10,000 for what appears to have been an outrageous case of stiffing a horse to set up a betting coup.

The fine and suspension, which should not have taken a year, is the maximum the CHRB can assess. Incredibly, a hearing officer reportedly recommended 30 days and $5K. That this is the case is what’s wrong with racing. If Richard Dutrow can get 10 years, it’s an insult that Avila gets only 60 days. Dutrow’s alleged offenses involved taking edges to win races. Avila, from all indications, did the opposite.

Regular readers know this has been a crusade of mine because it was so blatant. One of the first lessons journalists have drummed into them is you can never assume anyone read yesterday’s story. So a brief recap: Masochistic made his career debut on March 15, 2014 in a Cal-bred maiden race at Santa Anita. He ran fifth at 8-1. Post-race tests found the presence of 40 times the legal limit of acepromazine, a tranquilizer.

Moreover, in a report to the CHRB, the stewards expressed concern that Masochistic’s jockey, Omar Berrio, “prevented his horse from giving his best race.” We live in litigious times, so people have to be careful how they phrase things. But if you can’t read between those lines, the educational system has failed you.

Masochistic next surfaced in an open maiden race on the Kentucky Derby undercard, a day when you can bet tens of thousands of dollars without totally killing the price. Off a fifth place at 8-1 in a Cal-bred maiden race, Masochistic opened odds-on before drifting up to 2-1. He won by 14.

The 4-year-old, who beat only three of eight Cal-bred maidens in his debut, then won twice more. He didn’t lose until running second in the $200,000 Los Alamitos Mile.

The day after the ruling came down, Masochistic made his 2015 debut at Santa Anita, with Avila listed as his trainer, and won for fun in a non-winners of “two-other-than” optional claimer. His next stop, according to Avila, is the Churchill Downs Stakes on the Kentucky Derby undercard. Talk about returning to the scene of the (alleged) crime. Talk about gall, Avila has indicated he intends to appeal the penalties.

His next hearing shouldn’t be in front of racing officials. If the entire incident doesn’t warrant a criminal investigation, we might as well strike race-fixing laws from the books.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Tuesday, February 24, 2015

TVG-HRTV merger offers opportunity to get it right

The merger of TVG and HRTV offers the opportunity for the combined operation to meld the best of both networks into the superior, fan-friendly channels horse players deserve. The ideal would be more HRTV and less TVG. No matter what decisions are made, they can't be worse than those made by the stewards at Gulfstream Park this past Saturday.

MIAMI, Feb. 24, 2015--Dueling horse racing channels never made sense. There simply isn’t enough audience for it to be cut in two. It’s a wonder TVG and HRTV have managed to co-exist and survive this long. Their affiliation with advanced deposit wagering operations obviously has been the life-saver.

This doesn’t mean the merger of TVG and HRTV is a good thing. Let me clarify. It doesn’t mean it will be a good thing for consumers—i.e., horse players. Mergers aren’t designed to benefit the public. They are negotiated to serve the bottom line of the companies being combined.

How the TVG-HRTV merger will play out remains to be seen. There is only one certainty. People will lose jobs. They always do. Combining operations to avoid duplication is a cornerstone of mergers and acquisitions.

The discouraging aspect of this merger is that TVG is buying out HRTV. This means TVG executives will be making the decisions on who stays and goes as well as the creative direction of the channels. Familiarity gives TVG’s incumbents the inside track.

This could be a double whammy. There are good people at both networks but as a whole, HRTV’s on-air talent is stronger than TVG’s. Jeff Siegel, Laffit Pincay, Brad Free and Caton Bredar (who previously worked for TVG), to name just a few, outshine their counterparts at TVG. It will be a shame if they get lost in the shuffle.

More significantly, HRTV’s approach is far superior. From its outset, TVG’s target has been casual and new fans. TVG commentators talk down to the audience, as if they were taking a novice to the track and feel compelled to explain the most basic fundamentals. The hope is channel surfers might happen upon TVG and stay.

The goal to expand the audience beyond the hardcore is praise worthy. Alas, it is delusional as well as insulting to real horse players, the core audience. I’m a casual fan of golf and tennis. The grand slam events of both sports get my attention. But I don’t watch a minute of the mundane coverage on The Golf Channel or Tennis Channel. I’d bet this makes me fairly typical. Likewise, viewers who aren't racing fans are not going to sit watching races just because they are there.

To construct a network business plan on getting and holding non-horseplayers because they happened upon a horse racing channel is like hoping to hit a Pick 6 with a single combination.

HRTV’s commentators recognize they are talking to dedicated players, betting serious money. They conduct themselves as if they are old friends swapping informed opinions.

Also, many of HRTV’s peripheral shows surrounding the races are valuable tools. There isn’t a better show to set up a day’s racing than The Player, hosted by Siegel and Aaron Vercruysse, who personify treating viewers as knowledgeable friends rather than rubes. Weekend table-setters Against the Odds and The Edge are must-see TV for me. Pursuit of the Crown and Pursuit of the Cup put the relevant seasons into sharp focus.

TVG’s strongest talking points are the workout shows during the run-up to the Derby and Breeders’ Cup. It is also more conscientious about displaying potential exotic payoffs and will-pays. Minor tracks get more attention during the non-prime racing hours, too.

Not using the merger to mine the best of both worlds and rethink the way TVG presents itself will be an opportunity missed and a disservice to racing fans.

All we ask is consistency

The Fountain of Youth was another big race whose aftermath was not dominated by a discussion of brilliant and disappointing performances but controversy over a stewards’ call.

The disqualification of Upstart was not a terrible takedown. He did come out in the stretch and bump Itsaknockout.

The problem is the maddening inconsistency of the Gulfstream stewards—all stewards, for that matter. Earlier in the card, House Rules blatantly came over and took away the path of Sheer Drama in the Rampart Handicap. Fortunately for House Rules, Sheer Drama got herself together again to come on and nose out Wedding Toast for the place.

The inquiry sign went up but the stewards ruled there would be no change because, it was explained, the incident did not cost Sheer Drama a placing. The stewards decided she was going to finish no better than second. Under this logic, if Wedding Toast had won the place photo, House Rules would have had to come down.

After the incident in the Fountain of Youth, Upstart found another gear and wound up crossing the wire almost three lengths in front of Itsaknockout. That there was contact is indisputable. Whether it cost Itsaknockout a placing is a matter for debate and conjecture. Luis Saez on Itsaknockout did a fine acting job making it look as bad as possible.

Watch the replay and you’ll see Upstart and Itsaknockout were on even terms in the final turn. Upstart was the quicker of the two. In only a few strides he put a couple of lengths between them. Although Itsaknockout was coming on again when the stretch contact occurred, he never got closer than Upstart’s saddle cloth. As soon as Upstart felt him there, he rebroke and drew away, just as he had on the turn.

So an argument could be mounted that Itsaknockout was not going to finish better than second anyway. By the Rampart precedent, Upstart should have been left up.

Moreover, there were extenuating circumstances. Just as Upstart was seizing the lead from the fatigued Frosted, who looked like the winner at the top of the lane, Frosted came out and bumped Upstart, pushing him toward the center of the track, where Itsaknockout was coming hard. But Upstart didn’t get the benefit of the doubt that House Rules, who had no excuse, did, even though Upstart went under the wire almost twice as far ahead as House Rules.
The Rampart and Fountain of Youth were close calls, jump balls as Todd Pletcher put it after the FoY. The final race on the card, a maiden event on the turf, was not.

The stretch run was so similar, it was eerie. At almost the exact same point, Danish Dynaformer, who finished first, came out and, according to the chart, “bumped repeatedly” with Dreaming of Gold, who finished second. The inquiry sign went right up again.

Racing writers in the press box were marveling about the improbable similarity of the two races. One (not me) said, “If this race was on dirt and the silks were the same colors, you could have easily thought it was another replay of the Fountain of Youth.”

There was one significant difference. Danish Dynaformer, who won by only a neck, was left up.

Two races, with almost the exact circumstances, produced different outcomes. To be precise, the stewards produced two different results. The last race non-DQ was as bad a call as I have seen in years. To have it happen a half-hour after a takedown in a much more significant race is intolerable.

It's not as if Gulfstream's stewards don't have a history of making baffling decisions with standards that change from day to day and, in the case of this past Saturday, from race to race. A controversial decision almost exactly one year ago, which thwarted a $1.66 million Rainbow Six jackpot, was the talk of racing for weeks. In the aftermath, a lot was said but nothing was done.

When jockeys screw up, the stewards have them in to explain what happened and why.Gulfstream's Tim Ritvo and P.J. Campo owe it to their customers to invite the stewards to explain themselves.

All players ask is consistency. Is that too much?

Written by Tom Jicha

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