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 18, 2015

Final Derby preps keep getting further out

Imagine trainers scheduling their horses' final Kentucky Derby preps in February? It's not that far fetched given the way the game is now played. Five weeks used to be thought of as much too far out for a final Derby prep. Many of the key preps were two weeks before Louisville. Now five weeks has become the ideal. If the winner of this weekend's Spiral or Sunland Derby goes on to take the Run for the Roses, maybe six weeks will be the new norm--until someone wins off a seven- or eight-week layoff.

ALSO: New York Keeps NYRA Franchise Another Year

MIAMI, March 18, 2015--It was about a decade ago that Gulfstream moved the Florida Derby to five weeks before the Kentucky Derby. There were dire predictions that the Florida Derby’s days as a major Kentucky Derby prep were over. Trainers would balk at getting stuck in a no-man’s land of going into the Run for the Roses off such a long layoff or having to squeeze in another prep in the interim.

Barbaro put that theory to rest. Now five weeks is considered ideal, so much so that Rick Violette, in spite of all his New York connections, is keeping Upstart in South Florida for the March 28 Florida Derby rather than going home for the Wood Memorial a week later. I’m not a fan of the strategy but kudos to Violette for doing what he feels is best for his horse.

It’s becoming ridiculous. There’s a good chance that the winners of this weekend’s Spiral Stakes and Sunland Derby will go straight to Louisville. If one of them should take the Run for the Roses, six weeks could become the new normal.

In the imitative world of horse training we appear to be heading down a slippery slope toward races in February becoming final Derby preps. Then we wonder why horses can’t handle the Triple Crown regimen of three races within five weeks.

Athletes, human and equine, tend to be able to do what they are trained to do. Train a horse to run every month and a half and that’s what you will get. It’s not coincidental that the last three Triple Crown winners ran in an era when the final preps were two weeks or less from the Derby and came two weeks after another round of preps. Horses then were primed for the Triple Crown grind.

IMO, the big four in the Horse Race Insider poll are on one level and the rest are a cut below. I could see any one of American Pharoah, Dortmund, Upstart and Carpe Diem becoming a really special horse. Maybe more than one. We had two—Shared Belief and California Chrome—last year.

I’ll be pulling for American Pharoah for a couple of reasons. That the Arkansas Derby--American Pharoah’s likely final Derby prep--is only three weeks out from the big one is a major factor. Something has to happen to get the pendulum swinging back.

I’m also a little ticked at the way his smashing Rebel triumph is being diminished. I don’t dispute the fact that he got away with slow fractions and that there wasn’t a genuine Derby contender chasing him around the Oaklawn oval.

This is more than counter-balanced by several factors that made his effort extraordinary. He hadn’t been out since September, he shipped cross country to race over an unfamiliar surface and, to exacerbate the situation, the track came up sloppy. It hasn't rained in California since San Andreas was a no-fault. Let’s also not forget American Pharoah had a problem with one of his shoes a step or two out of the gate. He shook them off and came up giant.

Who did he beat? It didn’t matter. He has nothing left to prove in that area. He beat Texas Red by five in the Front Runner and Texas Red came back to win the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile by 6 1/2. Among those eating Texas Red's dust that day were Carpe Diem and Upstart.

American Pharoah beat Calculator in the Front Runner and Del Mar Futurity. In Calculator’s next start, he galloped in the Sham. So, could we please stop with “Who did American Pharoah beat?”

It looks like none of the Big Four are going to be facing anything special in their final prep. Dortmund will be meeting the same bunch in the Santa Anita Derby that he put away in the San Felipe.

Upstart will be confronted in the Florida Derby by horses he has already outrun this winter, some more than once. The only ones to beat Upstart as a 3-year-old are the Gulfstream stewards. One possible new shooter is Todd Pletcher's late developing Materiality but the Florida Derby is not a definite for him.

Carpe Diem is heading back to Keeneland for the Blue Grass, where he romped in the Breeders’ Futurity last fall. No horse in the Horse Race Insider or NTRA Top 10 is listed as following him there.

Except for the fact that it’s a million dollar race with generous minor shares, who would want to take on American Pharoah in the Arkansas Derby after what he did last Saturday?

International Star will meet most of the same horses he beat in the LeComte and Risen Star in the Louisiana Derby.

The Wood Memorial is shaping up as the best of the Derby preps from a competition and betting standpoint. El Kabeir, impressive winner of the Jerome and Gotham, will get a rematch with Far From Over, who ran him down in the Withers. Frosted, who looked like the winner of the Fountain of Youth at the top of the stretch, also might return to Aqueduct, where he was second in the nine-furlong Remsen. Wicked Strong came to Florida last winter off a third in the Remsen, had a dismal winter at Gulfstream then returned to New York to win the Wood.

Cuomo hanging on to NYRA

We saw this coming. Buried in Andrew Cuomo’s budget for next year are a couple of lines that indicate the state of New York intends to continue control of NYRA for at least another year. NYRA was supposed to return to private hands by the end of 2015.

The budget process is still in its early stages but there has been no blowback to the NYRA proposal so it’s probably a fait accompli. No surprise. Anyone who thinks Cuomo, who appoints the majority of the NYRA board, is going to surrender those plums is naive.

This is the state whose long time speaker of the house, Sheldon Silver, is under indictment for corruption. Cuomo might be in trouble, too, if he hadn’t disbanded a commission investigating corruption at the highest state levels when it appeared the posse might be closing in.

More to the point, it took 10 years to get VLTs into Aqueduct even though the delay cost the state billions in revenue.

Who is going to make a serious bid to buy NYRA when it’s not known what the state intends to do about maintaining Aqueduct as a race track, winterizing Belmont and the future of casinos in the Big Apple. Without bids, the state has to maintain control. And this is just how Cuomo wants it.

Written by Tom Jicha

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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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