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, June 04, 2014

California Chrome with my heart, Tonalist with my head

California Chrome, No. 2 in the starting gate but No. 1 in the hearts of most of America, is the horse to beat and the one few want to see beaten in the Belmont Stakes.

However, the 3-5 morning line favorite will have to overcome breeding that says he will be in trouble when he reaches the top of the stretch at Big Sandy having run as far as he ever has and still has a quarter-mile to go.

He also will be challenged by fresh horses, a factor his supremely confident co-owner, Steve Coburn, said he feared as far back as April. One of those,Tonalist, who drew the outside No. 11, has everything you would look for to score the upset.

MIAMI, June 4, 2014--Steve Coburn has been Muhammad Ali-like throughout late winter and spring. The co-owner of California Chrome brazenly professed to have no doubts his colt would run away with the Santa Anita Derby, Kentucky Derby and Preakness. As Ali would say, “It isn’t bragging when you back it up,” and California Chrome has done that.

The Belmont was another matter, Coburn said during an NTRA conference call prior to the Santa Anita Derby. It wasn’t the mile and a half distance--California Chrome’s biggest obstacle--that Coburn fretted over. His concern was that his colt would be denied the Triple Crown in the Belmont by a fresh horse who had skipped the Derby and/or Preakness.

“To me, going in just the Preakness or Belmont is cheating,” Coburn said. “If you’ve got a horse you think can do it, put him in the first race and keep him in the second and third races.”

Coburn is obviously a student of the game. The past eight Belmont winners skipped the Derby or Preakness or both. Afleet Alex is the only colt in the past dozen years to win the Belmont after competing in the first two legs of the Triple Crown.

Afleet Alex is also the only Belmont winner during that period to even run in the Preakness. The second jewel of the Triple Crown almost always gets the Derby winner but, in recent years, the majority of Derby also-rans have tended not to show up in Baltimore two weeks later.

This explains why Pimlico president Tom Chuckas is pushing hard to change the spacing of the Triple Crown races. He isn’t thinking of what is good for racing. He’s all out for his own track, which, to be fair, is his job. With a month between races, Chuckas argues, more top Derby contenders would also show up in Baltimore.

A well researched piece by Natalie Voss, published by the Paulick Report, notes that the Triple Crown trail has taken many forms over the years, including a different order of the races. However, an accompanying chart shows that 10 of the previous Triple Crown winners did it within a 35-day time frame, same as now. Coincidentally, seven had exactly 35 days.

Three did it within an even more compact period. Assault accomplished his sweep within 28 days; Gallant Fox did it in 29; Sir Barton in 32. The exception is Citation, who had 42 days between his Derby and Belmont. This is still less than Chuckas and others, who advocate a month or more between the Classics, would prefer.

But I digress. To return to the point, if California Chrome is to fall short, it most likely will be a fresh horse, or a horse fresher than him, who spoils everything…and not one who also chased him home in the Preakness. This would eliminate General a Rod, who drew post 10, and No. 5 Ride on Curlin, whose 12-1 morning line seems generous in light of his second place in the Preakness.

I wouldn’t leave the latter off exotic tickets. He has hit the board in six of eight career stakes but has never reached the wire first in an added money event.

The only other starter likely to draw much support is Derby runnerup Commanding Curve, who's 15-1 from post 4. However, he still has only a maiden win on his resume.

Better places to settle for those who feel compelled to try to beat the favorite are Wood Memorial winner Wicked Strong, who'll start from post 9, and No. 11 Tonalist, coming off a win in the Peter Pan. Wicked Strong had a troubled trip in the Derby and was one of the few still running hard at the end. He’s also a New York-based horse, which has proven advantageous to recent upset winners Palace Malice, Da’ Tara and Birdstone.

Like most of the hundred thousand-plus who will be at Belmont and the tens of millions watching on TV, I’ll be rooting for California Chrome to end the Triple Crown drought. But as a player, the horse who interests me most is Tonalist, also New York-based. The Peter Pan was only the fourth race of his career, so he is fresh.

Tonalist’s breeding is a pole better than California Chrome, who is by a sprinter out of an $8,000 claimer. Tonalist is by the hot sire Tapit, out of a mare by Pleasant Colony, an outstanding dam sire, who missed his own Triple Crown in the Belmont when he was a tired horse, according to his trainer, the late John Campo.

Tonalist’s 3-year-old campaign has been stellar. He opened by breaking his maiden at nine furlongs at Gulfstream, then ran second in an entry level allowance at the same distance. The winner, Constitution, next won the Florida Derby. Tonalist bounced back to capture the Peter Pan over the Belmont strip without having to go all out, a perfect prep. So while he is fresh, he has ample foundation with three wins at a mile and an eighth.

Because of its infrequently contested distance, the Belmont is often a jockey’s race. Ronnie Franklin managed to get Spectacular Bid beat, Kent Desormeaux probably cost Real Quiet his Triple Crown, and Stewart Elliott made his move way too soon on Smarty Jones, to name just a few riding gaffes that denied racing a Triple Crown winner. None of those riders were Belmont regulars at the time.

Victor Espinoza, who is unbeaten aboard California Chrome, is an accomplished journeyman but, as a Southern California regular, has rarely ridden the only mile and a half track in America. Tonalist has Joel Rosario, who rides Belmont every day and is one of the strongest finishers in the sport.

I hope I’m wrong and California Chrome makes history but most of the key indicators make Tonalist the horse to beat.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Wednesday, May 28, 2014

California Chrome racing to maintain Triple Crown as we know it

The 12-most recent horses who have had a shot at the Triple Crown in the Belmont Stakes have fallen short. This has ignited cries that the tight five-week schedule needs to be changed to accommodate the way horses are trained in the 21st century. However, a review of history and statistics argues against the theory that the current time frame has anything to do with the 36-year drought since Affirmed beat Alydar (both ran in all three races) to capture the elusive prize.

MIAMI, May 28, 2014--California Chrome will be racing to make history in the Belmont Stakes. He also might be racing to affect the course of future racing history.

A sweep would silence those who say three demanding races within five weeks makes a Triple Crown unattainable to the modern thoroughbred. A feat can’t be labeled impossible when it has been done.

Should California Chrome fail, cries to scrap contemporary history and lengthen the time frame of the Triple Crown will become deafening, even though there is scant evidence the proximity of the races is responsible for the 36-year drought.

The Triple Crown has been won 11 times. The three most recent were achieved within the same five-week time frame. Since Affirmed in 1978, 12 horses have had the opportunity California Chrome has on June 7. Their failures can be traced to myriad reasons.

I’ll Have Another didn’t get his chance two years ago, suffering an injury on Belmont Eve. No one has figured out what happened to Big Brown in 2008.

Smarty Jones appeared to have the Triple Crown won in 2004, opening a four-length lead in the stretch only to have Birdstone nail him in the final few yards.

Funny Cide had the lead at the top of the stretch in 2003 before fading to third behind Empire Maker, who was arguably the superior horse, especially at 12 furlongs. War Emblem lost all chance in 2002 when he stumbled badly at the start.

The Triple Crown appeared conquered in three consecutive years, 1997-99. Silver Charm had a daylight lead in the stretch only to be run down in the final yards by Touch Gold. No horse will ever come closer to a Triple Crown without winning than Real Quiet. He got nosed out in a bob of heads the race caller labeled “too close to call.” Charismatic led into the stretch but faded to third, possibly the result of a debilitating injury.

Sunday Silence in 1989 fell victim to “New York’s Easy Goer,” a colt who was virtually unbeatable at a NYRA track.

Alysheba’s defeat in 1987 was blamed on him having to race without Lasix, then prohibited at New York tracks.

You have to go back to Pleasant Colony in 1981 to find an instance where Triple Crown fatigue was mentioned as the reason for a loss in the Belmont. Johnny Campo said his horse was tired but a shot at a Triple Crown was irresistible.

Spectacular Bid’s defeat in 1979 was attributed to a safety pin and/or Ronald Franklin’s amateurish ride.

With the exception of Pleasant Colony, what is the explanation for the Triple Crown candidates outrunning all but one or two horses in most cases, many of them fresh challengers. Even Pleasant Colony got home third.

During this same period, Risen Star, Hansel, Point Given and Afleet Alex won the Preakness and Belmont after coming up short in the Derby—running the same trio of demanding races within five weeks--with their second and third races stronger than the first.

California Chrome will be the 34th horse to vie for a Triple Crown after winning the first two legs. The 11 who turned the trick translates to 33%. Over decades, this is the same percentage of winning favorites in all races. To put it another way, about 67% of all favorites lose, so why does the same percentage by Triple Crown candidates ignite cries for drastic change?

Only three horses from this year’s Derby accepted the challenge to come back with “short rest” in the Preakness. They ran 1-2-4. Last year, Derby horses running back in two weeks finished 1-2-3-4. In 2012, it was 1-2-3. I could go on, but I think the point is made.

The horses are able, but most trainers are unwilling. It’s the uber-conservative management of horses now in vogue that is driving the movement to extend the time between the 3-year-old classics. It’s hard to find a modern trainer who would run stakes horses back within the two weeks between the Derby and Preakness or even the three weeks between the Preakness and Belmont. However, 15 horses in 35 years—a tad short of half—have run the entire Triple Crown gauntlet and won two of three.

If there’s a logical culprit for the 36-year gap, it’s the mile and a half distance. Had the Belmont been 100 yards shorter, Real Quiet and Smarty Jones, at least, would have swept the series. Silver Charm might have.

There are those--D. Wayne Lukas being the most prominent-- who have argued for shortening the distances of two of the three races—a nine-furlong Derby, a Preakness at its traditional 9 ½ furlongs and a mile-and-a-quarter Belmont. This would be like making tests easier so more students could get A’s. Future Triple Crowns would be deemed inferior in historical context.

California Chrome’s connections are reporting that the son of Lucky Pulpit—not exactly 12 furlong breeding, but it wasn’t 10-furlong breeding, either—are reporting he is training like “a monster” and appears stronger than he did going into the Derby or Preakness. This is little more than a week after his second grueling race within 14 days.

So if he gets beat, it won’t be because of Triple Crown fatigue, according to the people who know him best. But this won’t deter horsemen and the media from offering that as the reason.

I’m hoping California Chrome denies them the opportunity and shuts them up for at least a few years.

Belmont tickets skyrocketing

Some thought it was a flight of whimsy when I suggested the best way to make money on California Chrome in the Preakness was not to take the 1-2 odds but to invest in reserved seats for the Belmont. I wasn’t kidding.

Lo and behold, Forbes reports that since the Preakness, prices for Belmont Stakes tickets have skyrocketed. Two weeks out, the average price for a Belmont ticket on the secondary market was $407.94, according to Forbes. This is 48% higher than the price before the Preakness.

Granted, 48% is slightly less than the 50% return at the Preakness betting windows but the price of tickets is likely to get higher as the race approaches and excitement builds.
My far-out suggestion was just another form of astute money management.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Churchill getting what it deserves from HANA boycott

The Horseplayers Association of North America boycott of Churchill Downs and other CDI properties is an unqualified success. Handle is down substantially, so much so that Churchill could wind up with less revenue this season than it generated with a lower takeout last season. Meanwhile, a co-owner of California Chrome has joined the legion of people in and around the game to condemn CDI for the way it treats owners, trainers, jockeys, fans and the media.

MIAMI, April 21, 2014--Churchill Downs should be glad California Chrome isn’t Mr. Ed. If he was a talking horse, he could join the chorus complaining about the way Churchill Downs Inc. (CDI)--the casino-oriented corporation with the misleading racing name--treats owners, trainers, jockeys, legends of the game, fans and the media.

Steve Coburn, part owner of the Derby and Preakness winner, became the latest to register his disgust with CDI in the aftermath of the second jewel of the Triple Crown. Despite the exhilaration of capturing America’s biggest race, Coburn said his partner, Perry Martin, was so put off by the way he was treated at the Derby that he decided to not even attend the Preakness. “Even though we won (the Derby), it was a bad day for my partner and his family.”

The mind boggles at how shabbily Martin must have been treated to ruin a day that is the dream of everyone in horse racing. “The hospitality we received at Churchill Downs wasn’t very good and Perry decided he and his family were going to watch the (Preakness) somewhere else in the world,” Coburn said. Martin apparently couldn’t be convinced that every track doesn’t treat people as poorly as Churchill.

Saying he was as “serious as a heart attack,” Coburn went on. “We got to Churchill and not only did I complain but there were other trainers, owners and even jockeys complaining about the way they were treated.”

CDI issued a corporate-speak apology. “Our team wanted to satisfy the California Chrome team’s needs when they were communicated to us. We regret that their experience at Churchill Downs appears to have fallen short of expectations.“

Martin’s mother reportedly needs assistance to get around. Churchill did little to nothing to accommodate her, according to Coburn.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Churchill pulled the handicapped parking spot of Ron Turcotte, who rode Riva Ridge and Secretariat to back-to-back Derby triumphs. Churchill also told Turcotte, who is confined to a wheelchair as a result of a racing mishap, it had nowhere for him to watch the race.

Also during Derby week, Rick Porter, owner of Normandy Invasion, who would have been one of the favorites in the Alysheba Stakes, was informed there would be no seats set aside for him and his Fox Hill Farm partners.

“What is wrong with this management group?” Porter asked on the Fox Hill website, which was reprinted by the Paulick Report. “No wonder racing is on the decline. They don’t have any regard for the owners, in my opinion. They are for themselves and the race track, as I see it. Not only do I feel that owners are treated like second class citizens by Churchill Downs, so, too, are the handicappers and everyday bettors.”

This was right after the Louisiana legislature had to threaten to pull CDI’s license at the Fair Grounds unless long overdue repairs were made.

Then there’s the situation at Calder, which is doing as little racing as is required in order to keep its slots parlor. Expectations are an agreement will be announced any day now that will have Gulfstream take over Calder’s racing operation while CDI keeps the slots casino. Thankfully,this would end the debilitating head to head war for horses going on since last summer.

Responsibility for shutting down race tracks is nothing new to CDI, whose fingerprints are all over the demise of Hollywood Park. Why? Because it became clear that California was not going to approve slot machines at race tracks.

The only times CDI shows any attention to racing are the lucrative Oaks and Derby days.

The greatest pressure on CDI is coming from an unlikely source, a coalition of bettors, organized by the Horseplayers Association of North America. HANA has called for a wagering boycott of Churchill and other CDI tracks. The catalyst was a significant raise in takeout, announced just before Churchill’s spring meet opened. The rake on straight bets went from 16% to 17.5% and multi-horse bets jumped from 19% to 22%.

It’s not as if Churchill needed the additional revenue to stave off bankruptcy. The stock price increased by 35% last year and CDI’s top five executives were paid almost $28 million.

HANA launched a similar boycott when California instituted a takeout raise and it led to a low takeout Pick 5.

The Churchill boycott is succeeding beyond anyone’s most optimistic projections. Handle at Churchill through the first 14 programs is down $19.3 million for the first 14 days, according to HANA. Isolate the regular racing programs from the lucrative Derby and Oaks days and the decline is in the area of 23 percent. If these trends hold through the rest of the season, Churchill will take in less money than before the takeout was hiked.

HANA called for a boycott of all CDI properties and Arlington is also suffering severe declines in wagering. (Because of the direct competition with Gulfstream, year to year comparisons for Calder are meaningless.)

The success of the HANA boycott should send a message to tracks nationwide that they could become the next target if they jack up their takeout.

Written by Tom Jicha

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