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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Friday, March 29, 2013

Final Derby preps start with best and worst

It's effectively win or place and you're in as the big seven Kentucky Derby preps begin this weekend. The best and worst of them will be run Saturday. The Florida Derby has Eclipse champion Shanghai Bobby, Fountain of Youth winner Orb and two-time Gulfstream stakes winner Itsmyluckyday. The UAE Derby has nothing likely to be prominent in Kentucky on May 4. Breeders' Cup runner-up He's Had Enough, whose post Breeders' Cup campaign in the U.S. has been dismal, will try to sneak in the back door to Churchill Downs. Also Saturday is a full-field crap shoot in the Louisiana Derby. Still to come, the Wood and Santa Anita Derby next week and the Blue Grass and Arkansas Derby on April 13. Here is a ranking of the relative merits of each prep.

MIAMI, March 29, 2013--Not all final Kentucky Derby preps are equal, even if Churchill Downs is treating them that way when it comes to doling out qualifying points for the May 4 Run for the Roses.

Three of the final seven championship stage stakes are this weekend. They are not only “win and you’re in” but “place and you’re in,” too, since second is worth 40 points. They range from the strongest of the final preps, the Florida Derby, to the weakest, the UAE Derby, which has no business counting for any points.

Here is the way I see the relative standing of the not always magnificent seven preps.

The Florida Derby (March 30) has the most high quality depth with three of the top five horses in most Derby polls, Orb, Itsmyluckyday and Shanghai Bobby.

Orb looks a lot like the 2013 version of I’ll Have Another. He had a moderate 2-year-old campaign but showed his promise breaking his maiden in his final start of 2012. He is two-for-two as a 3-year-old, including a vanquishing of then undefeated Violence in the Fountain of Youth. Significantly, the 2013 victories have come in his only starts around two turns.

However, tread carefully in the Florida Derby. Orb has the 50 points to make the Derby field, so Shug McGaughey isn’t going to have John Velazquez wring him out.

Shanghai Bobby (24 points) and Itsmyluckyday (10) are not yet safe, so there will be no taking it easy in the rematch of the Holy Bull, which produced a Gulfstream track record.

The Wood Memorial (April 6) A showdown of unbeatens, Verrazano and Vyjack, would be the equal of the Florida Derby except for one factor. Neither needs additional points to qualify for the Derby, so it’s another case of perhaps leaving something in the tank for the first Saturday in May.

This could open the door for Normandy Invasion, back on his home track, Maryland late-developer Mr. Palmer and Elnaawi, who had a tough trip in the Gotham, to grab a substantial piece of the purse and the crucial Derby qualifying points.

Then again, the V-boys might be good enough to dominate with B efforts.

Bob Baffert’s highly touted but notably absent Power Broker could also wind up here if he doesn’t stay home for the Santa Anita Derby.

The Santa Anita Derby (April 6) features round two of Jerry Hollendorfer’s Hear the Ghost vs. the colt Bob Baffert considers his top Derby hopeful, Flashback. The latter did the hard work in the San Felipe only to be run down late by Hear the Ghost’s well timed swooping move from the back of the pack. An argument could be made that Flashback, who loomed the winner at the sixteenth pole, didn’t see Hear the Ghost coming until it was too late to fight him off.

Goldencents, Doug O’Neill’s big hope for a Derby repeat, was dueled into submission by Flashback but has run too well in his other starts to be dismissed.

Baffert is likely to have at least one other starter, Southwest winner Super Ninety Nine, who might do the dirty work on the front end for Flashback.

Unless someone replicates Secretariat’s Belmont or there are bizarre results back east, the winner of the Santa Anita Derby figures to be no better than fourth or fifth choice in Derby betting.

Arkansas Derby (April 13) Oxbow has become the wise guy horse in many circles after running his guts out in vain due to brutal trips in the Risen Star and Rebel. Having The Coach, D. Wayne Lukas, calling the shots adds to his appeal.However, it’s hard to rank a race, whose probable favorite is coming off back-to-back defeats, higher.

This is especially true when Oxbow’s main challenger could be Overanalyze, winner of the famously unproductive Remsen.

A couple more second-stringers from Team Baffert, hard trying Den’s Legacy and late arrival on the scene War Academy, also will attempt to punch a ticket to Louisville.

Louisiana Derby (March 30) This is a quantity over quality event with 14 starters, most of whom have shown flashes of brilliance without really distinguishing themselves.

Todd Pletcher’s Revolutionary is the one to beat but it’s always dicey to take a short price on a horse with his broken field, late running tendency. But if you're going to run like that, the Fair Grounds, with its stretch that goes on forever, is the place.

Another Pletcher, Palace Malice, epitomizes promise without production so far.

Baffert’s Code West, a courageous second in the Risen Star, also figures to be fighting to the end.

A victory by Titletown Five or undefeated Departing wouldn’t be as shocking as I've Struck a Nerve's 130-1 upset in the Risen Star.

Blue Grass (April 13) The winners since Keeneland installed Polytrack have been Dominican, Monba, General Quarters, Stately Victor, Brilliant Speed and Dullahan. The Hall of Fame in Saratoga isn't holding a spot open for any of them.

Dullahan did get up for third in last year’s Derby but he has never won a race on anything but an artificial surface. Brilliant Speed, despite a third in the Belmont, was essentially a turf horse.

Rebel winner Will Take Charge and Uncaptured, second off a layoff in the Spiral, will attempt to reverse the trend of turf and kitty litter specialists dominating this stakes.

There certainly will be enough turfers bidding to keep the streak going: Noble Tune, Charming Kitten and the most intriguing of all, Rydilluc. After a disappointing main track debut, Rydilluc has rattled off three dominant turf scores. Trainer Gary Contessa said the lone defeat was a product of other circumstances, not a dislike of the main track, and that Rydilluc has handled dirt as well as turf since then.

UAE Derby (March 30) A misguided attempt to foster internationalism has this among the 100-points-to-the-winner preps. It shouldn’t be.

Breeders’ Cup runner-up He’s Had Enough will try to sneak through the Derby’s back door with a win or a second. It will be a travesty if it happens. Off his 3-year-old races, there would be no way he would qualify back home.

This is not an attempt to list all the possible Derby horses or to forecast which race will produce the winner. Too much can happen in the next five weeks.
But if you like a 3-year-old not mentioned here, right after you register a comment about what an idiot I am, get on a plane to Vegas, because you will be handsomely rewarded in the futures book if you are right.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Friday, March 22, 2013

Juvenile Stakes Poor Precursors to Derby Success

The new Kentucky Derby points system has taken a lot of heat, deservedy so. Supposedly changes will be made for year two. If Churchill Downs wants to do something dramatic, it should cease awarding points to any juvenile race. The one exception should be the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, whose prize should include an automatic qualifying berth in the Derby. If this isn't also the Eclipse champion, he, too, merits an automatic pass. Being a champion of a generation should matter. The total exclusion of turf races in the points system also needs to be re-examined. Animal Kingdom is as much a grass horse as he is a dirt horse and Barbaro went into the Derby with more starts on turf than dirt.

Miami, March 22, 2013--The Kentucky Derby points system, which ends its second phase this weekend, has been a more inviting target for barbs than Sarah Palin, including some from me. Inasmuch as Churchill Downs is promising that tweaks are going to be made, I have a few suggestions.

The allotment under fiercest attack deserves it. The Breeders’ Cup Juvenile should be in a category of its own. The notion it is no more important than the Royal Lodge Stakes in England, the Grey Stakes in Canada, the Delta Jackpot on a bullring or a roster of other late-season 2-year races is wrong-headed.

The BC Juvenile should be a win-and-you’re-in. Many years, the winner is also the 2-year-old champion. Only one BC Juvenile winner has doubled in the Run for the Roses (Street Sense in 2006) but this is still a significant achievement, worthy of a berth in the Derby. I’ll take it a step further. If the BC Juvenile winner is not also the Eclipse winner, the champion, too, should be seeded into the Derby.

There would still be 18 or 19 other spots up for grabs. How many Derby winners do you suppose might be excluded, who wound up 19th or 20th on the points scale?

Conversely, I wouldn’t award points to any other 2-year-old stakes or even the runnersup in the BC Juvenile. Coincidentally (or perhaps not) the only 3-year-old in the Top 10 of the latest HRI poll, who was an outstanding 2-year-old, is Shanghai Bobby, the 2012 BC Juvenile winner and Eclipse champion.

As for shutting out the rest of the juvenile stakes, why not? Most recent Derby winners—e.g, I’e Had Enough, Animal Kingdom, Mine That Bird, Big Brown—have been on few Derby radar screens for their juvenile prowess.

It serves no purpose to go back too much further as horses are trained so differently now. Four or five races is considered a demanding campaign, so any analysis of form is based on samples too small to be meaningful.

Two-year-old stakes are fine conversation starters during racing’s hot stove period but rarely are precursors of Kentucky Derby success.

There is especially a tendency to get overly excited about late season 2-year-old stakes, especially those around two turns. There is no greater example of this than the Remsen, the first significant mile-and-an-eighth for 2-year-olds.

This year, as in many others, the Remsen is turning out to be an uber-negative key race. The top three finishers—Overanalyze, Normandy Invasion and Delhomme—catapulted toward the top of many preseason Derby rankings. Four months later, they might not even make the Derby field.

Overanalyze was fifth in a very ordinary (except for Vyjack) Gotham. Normandy Invasion was fourth in the Risen Star, which is also suspect since it was won by a 130-1 shot. Delhomme was 11th in the Rebel and is reportedly off the Derby trail.

Those who made the Remsen leap overlooked a basic handicapping rule. A race that produces a three-horse blanket finish probably is a race in which none are very special. This is true at every level.

Another consideration is the history of the stakes. The Remsen has been the source of a litany of 2-year-olds who have disappointed as 3-year-olds. In 2011, the top three were O’Prado Again, Souper Speedy and El Padrino.

The Remsen’s best recent year was 2010 when Honor and Serve outran Mucho Macho Man. MMM went on to finish third in the Derby but Honor and Serve didn’t win again until an allowance at Saratoga the following summer. For the record, the show spot in that Remsen went to Mountain Town.

Buddy’s Saint was all the rage after winning the 2009 Remsen. He ran ninth in his 3-year-old debut, the Fountain of Youth, then was never heard from again. The horses who finished closest to him in that Remsen were Peppi Knows and Citrus Kid.

The first three in 2008: Old Fashioned, Atomic Brain and American Dance.

The point is someone has to win this nine-furlongs-in late-November stakes. The really promising 2-year-olds are pointed toward the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile a few weeks earlier. The Remsen winner could be just beating the best of what’s left.

The Kentucky Jockey Club took a lot of heat at the end of last year because the Beyer figs identified it as an exceedingly slow race. The 3-year-old performances of the place and show horses, Frac Daddy and Dewey Square, have verified the figs.

Maybe the KJC winner, Uncaptured, can reverse this trend in the Spiral on Saturday. But given the price he is likely to go off, coming directly from a farm to a stakes, the value is in betting that he won’t.

The exclusion of all turf races from Derby points consideration also needs to be re-examined. Theoretically, this seems fair, since the Derby is a dirt race. Ergo, horses who perform well on that surface should get preference.

But Animal Kingdom is more than anything a grass horse and Barbaro was a two-time stakes winner on turf before he set foot on the main track in a race. Moreover, he went into the Derby with three turf races to two on dirt.

I’m not calling for all turf stakes to be treated equally on the points scale. But how about three grass races for 3-year-olds, one at Gulfstream, one at Santa Anita and one at the Fair Grounds, being given some Derby points consideration.

A seeming turf specialist, Rydilluc, could be a sleeper going toward this year’s Derby. His connections are putting all their eggs in one basket, the Blue Grass, which is often kind to turf-type horses.

I wish he had been included as a separate entry in the final Derby future pool, because if he runs in the Blue Grass the way I think he will, his price on the first Saturday in May will be appreciably shorter than it would have been in the futures pool.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Friday, March 15, 2013

Florida Turf Wars: Calder Fires First Shot at Gulfstream

The cold war between Churchill Downs-owned Calder and Frank Stronach-owned Gulfstream is getting hotter. Calder has scheduled its biggest day of the summer, the Summit of Speed, for July 6, the day Gulfstream will launch year-round racing. Calder also has repositioned three big stakes days for December, when it ordinarily would have given way to Gulfstream's premier winter meeting. Could repercussions impact next year's Kentucky Derby qualifying points at Gulfstream and Santa Anita? Ask Hawthorne, whose Illinois Derby was cut out of the mix because of a disagreement with Churchill.

MIAMI, March 15--Calder is taking it right to Gulfstream as the tracks barrel toward their head-to-head conflict in July.

Calder has positioned its biggest day of the summer, The Summit of Speed, for July 6, the first Saturday the tracks are scheduled to run opposite each other. To be fair, the Summit card, which includes four graded and one listed stakes, was run on the corresponding Saturday last year. But with the potential conflict, you have to ask if it would have been prudent to go unopposed a week earlier. As it stands, the best racing day of the summer will be overshadowed by the first head-to-head competition.

Calder also has multiple stakes days planned for three subsequent Saturdays during July and August. If nothing else, this will deplete the availability of quality runners in South Florida, which are in short supply in any case during the summer. What might be left for Gulfstream is a matter of conjecture.

Calder also has moved three big stakes days, with five graded events, from November last year to December 2013, Gulfstream’s winter season kickoff month. However, there are gaps in Calder’s November schedule, which seem to have been strategically conceived to allow these stakes to relocate back to where they have been.

This might be a sign that Churchill Downs Inc., Calder’s parent, still believes a compromise can be reached before Floridageddon. The consensus viewpoint around both tracks is that Gulfstream owner Frank Stronach will come up with the right dollar figure to get Churchill Downs Inc. to step aside on weekends, so that Gulfstream can run unopposed.

When Stronach made his move on December two years ago, Churchill huffed and puffed, bellowed and threatened, but ultimately took the money and didn’t run.

This seems to be the only immediate solution. The strong-willed Stronach is as adamant as Custer that he is going to do what he is going to do.

Since he became involved in race track ownership, Stronach has belly-ached about not being allowed to operate his business whenever the fit takes him, as he could in other fields. In laissez faire Florida, he has finally found the place where he can do it—at least in the short term. It remains unthinkable that the state will allow him to destroy a $5 billion industry.

This isn't just a South Florida issue. If the dispute lingers, there could be repercussions that impact the Triple Crown. Would Churchill downgrade Kentucky Derby points for major 3-year-old races at Stronach-owned Gulfstream and Santa Anita, costing them marquee horses? Unthinkable? Did Churchill cut out the Illinois Derby because of a beef with Hawthorne? Has the Louisiana Derby been upgraded to top tier because it is owned by Churchill? Anything is possible.

There would be legal complications to racing’s Corleones and Tattaglias carving up the territory during the year that starts July 1, because the deadline for requesting 2013-14 dates has passed. Also, Calder is obligated to run 80 days a year to keep its Calder and Tropical licenses and the casino attached to it, which Churchill has made clear is its priority.

But the state will likely be willing to bend some rules to avoid a scorched earth war. The legislature is in session, so the arbitrary cutoff for dates requests could be changed. Also, Calder could fulfill the casino mandate by racing on weekdays.

Calder’s stakes schedule is a non-issue. Gulfstream has announced nothing special for the summer, so the added-money races could be moved across town, where they would be more than welcome.

The British aren’t coming: A new headache has emerged for the Breeders’ Cup. The British have announced a Champions Weekend to start in 2014. Six Group 1 races, corresponding to Breeders’ Cup races, will be contested on Oct. 17-18. In all likelihood this will be two weeks before the Breeders’ Cup.

The chances of a top Euro running in both events, two weeks apart, would be slim and none--and slim is scratched.

I suggested a couple of weeks ago that the Breeders’ Cup should consider moving the event weekend back to the two days after Thanksgiving. That Friday is one of the few non-official holiday dates when millions of people have the day off from work. In addition, the competition from televised college football is substantially less.

Not that it would be much of a consideration considering the mutually strained relationship with NYRA but if the Breeders’ Cup ever does decide it would like to bring the championship races back to the nation’s biggest market, another obstacle has arisen. The first weekend in November is set in stone for the New York Marathon, which fills thousands of hotel rooms throughout the metropolitan area. So a later Breeders’ Cup would be a necessity.

Two apparently obvious drawbacks are non-starters. Since this would take place after daylight savings time ends, lights would be a necessity. But temporary lights have been in use for years at football stadiums. Moreover, NBC’s desire to have at least the Classic in prime time would obligate NYRA to install lights in any event.

As for the threat of bad weather, NYRA has staged a big weekend around Thanksgiving, headed by the Cigar Mile, for years without serious weather issues.

The extra three weeks a Thanksgiving weekend would create between the Breeders’ Cup and the later season climax for Euros is one more reason to consider the move.

Written by Tom Jicha

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