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, August 24, 2016

Travers Day: A Veritable Feast for Everyone

Saratoga Springs, Aug. 25, 2016--Horse players are a tough crowd. Making them all happy is well nigh impossible.

(If you don't think so, read from the comments section of this site.)

However, Saturday's Travers might be able to turn the trick. The Midsummer Derby is loaded with star power for people who still get turned on by the sport. Every 3-year-old of consequence, save Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist, who is undergoing a "growth spurt," will be here.

That so many horses have the credentials to win will make it a super betting race for those who reduce champion thoroughbreds to "the two horse" or "the six horse."

Preakness winner Exaggerator, off a smashing win in the Haskell, is the 3-1 morning line favorite. In spite of his lustrous credentials, that price probably will be available when the 14-horse field is loaded.

If beating the favorite is your game, you could be handsomely rewarded. The winners of the Belmont Stakes, Jim Dandy, Tampa Bay Derby and Louisiana Derby are all double digits on the opening line.

How about 15-1 on Belmont Stakes champion Creator? His Jim Dandy was dull but that wasn't the goal and he might appreciate the 10 furlongs as much as anyone in the field.
Laoban, who broke his maiden with elan in the Jim Dandy, is also 15-1.

Todd Pletcher, chasing a loose on the lead Chad Brown in the trainer's derby, has Belmont runnerup Destin at 10-1. Gun Runner, third in the Kentucky Derby, also opens at 10-1.

Brown has a pair of contenders in Connect and Gift Box, the 1-2 finishers in the Curlin. Connect is an underlaid 4-1. Gift Box, who had a tougher go of it than his stablemate in the Curlin, is an enticing proposition.

The legendary Joe Hirsch used to say he didn't root for a particular horse in a big race, he pulled for the best story. What could be a better story than Bob Baffert, a year after the American Pharoah heartbreak, getting his second Travers with either American Freedom or Arrogate. The former is the shorter price at 6-1 off his second in the Haskell.

However, Arrogate, at 10-1, is the one who interests me most of anyone in the field. He's never run in a stakes but the stylish way he has won all three of his two-turn races, the most recent at 1-20, suggests still untapped brilliance.

Statistically, Arrogate mirrors the career of American Pharoah. He got beat in his sprint debut but he's been untouchable since. He's no American Pharoah but he won't be 35 cents on the dollar, either.

Speaking of great stories, no matter what happens in the Travers, it takes second position if Lady Eli makes a successful return to the races in the Ballston Spa. This is the stuff of big screen Hollywood movies.

For those unfamiliar with her story, the undefeated filly stepped on a nail returning from her sixth straight triumph in last year's Belmont Oaks. She developed often fatal laminitis and was a long price to survive, let alone race again.

But she beat the odds under the TLC of Chad Brown, who has patiently nursed her back to what everyone hopes will be her old self. You don't have to make a bet to root like crazy for her.

Brown isn't giving her one. Earlier this week he announced he is entering Sympathy as a rabbit for Lady Eli. You don't do that unless you're pushing all your chips to the center of the table.

It's a curious tactic. Sympathy has been on the pace only once in five U.S. starts, in a low level optional claimer, whose half went in 51 and change. But second-guessing the white hot Brown is a low percentage play.

Lady Eli isn't getting a layup. Among her challengers is Sentiero Italia, two-for-two over the Saratoga lawn, including a huge 2016 debut on opening day, and Miss Temple City, who beat the boys in the Grade 1 Maker's Mark at Keeneland.

The loaded afternoon also includes
the Kings Bishop, the year's premier sprint for 3-year-olds. This is the race that introduced Runhappy to racing's big leagues last season. Kiaran McLaughlin is hoping this year's renewal reintroduces Mohaymen to the sports' top level.

Mohaymen must be perplexing to McLaughlin. He was a lot of people's favorite for the Kentucky Derby when he ran his record to five-for-five with winter wins in the Holy Bull and Fountain of Youth. He went off the 4-5 favorite against Nyquist in the Florida Derby, where it inexplicably all went bad.

Getting beat by the then still undefeated Nyquist was not a badge of dishonor. However, he also finished well in arrears of Majesto and Fellowship, solid horses but not among the top echelon. Fourths in the Kentucky Derby and Jim Dandy followed.

The latter led McLaughlin to call an audible. Mohaymen came to the Spa with the Travers his target but he lands Saturday in the seven-furlong Kings Bishop, his first sprint since breaking his maiden at six furlongs. If the turnback doesn't help restore his reputation, the only thing left is turf.

The Kings Bishop is typically loaded. Fish Trappe Road and Economic Model, 1-2 in the Dwyer, will go at it again from the disadvantageous one and two posts. Summer Revolution has won his two starts for Rudy Rodriguez by more than 10. Bob Baffert is bringing in Southern California speedballs Drefong, who has won his last three by 19, and Jazzy Times off a 6 1/2 length romp at Del Mar.

Mohaymen could run his A-race and not get the money.

The King's Bishop, the eighth race, kicks off one of two all-stakes pick fours (a third pick four starts with race two). The Travers, race 11, is in both.

An argument could be made that each has been reduced to a pick three, since Flintshire, the best grasser on this side of the Atlantic--perhaps an unnecessary qualifier--is in both. He's close to a free space in the Sword Dancer, race 10, the start of the late pick four and the penultimate race of the first one.

Even as a pick 3, hitting one of the four packs won't be easy. The ninth race, the Forego, has a dozen crack sprinters headed by A.P. Indian.

Lady Eli's return has been reserved for the race after the Travers. This is a strange decision since the thinking of carding a couple of races after the main event is to let the crowd gradually winnow out. You're not a fan of horses if you can walk out before the return of Lady Eli.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Lost: A Racetrack and Probably Some Fans

SARATOGA SPRINGS, Aug. 18--What a relief. In the midst of my 1600-mile drive to Saratoga, I began reading stories that said the track at Saratoga had been lost on Saturday. My immediate thought was, how could people be wasting time looking for Pokemon when the most famous race track in America is missing?

Thankfully, this turned out to be hyperbole. The lost track, as described by Johnny Velazquez, turned out to be justification for the jockeys to refuse to ride the last six races of the card.

I was on the road, so I have no idea how extreme conditions were at the Spa. But I do know I have been there many times when it was raining when I woke up in the morning, never stopped all day, yet a complete program was run.

I also know that no matter how hard it might have been raining, it likely didn't exceed the Biblical downpours at Gulfstream a couple of times a week during summer. Nevertheless there hasn't been a rain cancellation in my memory.

When it's really bad or lightning is in the area, horses are held in the paddock until conditions become more tolerable. Even on the gloomiest of days, there is sufficient natural light during to run until 7 p.m. and beyond. NYRA called it quits not much after 3 p.m.

NYRA certainly didn't want to lose a Saturday at Saratoga. However, you have to wonder how much effort was made to save the cancelled races. You also have to wonder how much consideration was given to the potential long term repercussions to Saratoga and the Adirondacks tourism industry.

Saratoga probably draws a greater percentage of fans from in excess of 100 miles away than any other racetrack in America, especially on a Saturday. Fans last Saturday are likely to think twice the next time they consider the marathon drive if there is even a hint of a storm.

Also, fans pay $200 or more a night in area hotels and motels to spend a day or two at the Spa. Speaking from first-hand knowledge, a lot of these reservations are made weeks or months in advance. There also is sure to be hesitation on the part of many to making this commitment next year.

Change for better but not bettor

Drugs are a scourge of the sport and a turnoff to fans. But so are shenanigans like the one in Wednesday's tenth race.

Jackie Davis was listed on the program as the rider of Greyjoy. Just before the seventh race, after Pick 6 betting had closed and Pick 4 betting was well in progress, Larry Collmus announced a late rider change. Irad Ortiz was taking over the mount.

Jackie Davis was 0-17 at the meeting and five percent for the year. Irad Ortiz is a multiple riding champion and is hitting at better than 20 percent, his norm.

It's a matter of conjecture how many fans, especially at simulcast venues where sound is turned off, were unaware of the switch. But Graybar, despite dropping from a second for $30K claiming to a $20K claimer paid $13.60.

With a winless Jackie Davis this would be understandable. With a champion rider, not so much.

It shouldn't be allowed to happen.

More games riders play

Florent Geroux drew a three-day suspension for a ride at Del Mar on July 23. Instead of doing his time, Geroux did what comes naturally for riders. He appealed.

After winning four stakes at Arlington, including the rich Beverly D and Secretariat, on Million Day, Geroux withdrew the appeal and will serve the penalty Saturday, Sunday and Wednesday, well ahead of the big Travers Stakes weekend.

When rules can be manipulated without consequences, there is no point in having them.

Stakes losing their grade

The American Graded Stakes Committee has come to a conclusion long obvious to everyone in racing: there are too many graded stakes. The clincher might have been all the four-, five- and six-horse stakes this summer at the premier Saratoga and Del Mar meetings.

Supposedly there will be a thorough review before the 2017 graded stakes roster is unveiled with the goal being a significant reduction in graded stakes.

I have a couple of suggestions. There should be no graded juvenile stakes until the Hopeful at Saratoga and Futurity at Del Mar. This was underlined last weekend when the Best Pal out West and the Saratoga Special each went to the post with six entrants in what were glorified one-other-thans, as most 2-year-old stakes are until the fall.

Both had Grade 2 status, a sham when you consider the quality and tradition of many other Grade 2 stakes for 3-year-olds and up, which are held to a higher standard by the committee.

Along these lines, another way to cull the graded stakes roster is to downgrade any stakes that goes to the post with fewer than six entrants for two consecutive seasons. What stronger argument is there than four and five-horse fields that there are too many graded stakes.

A Grade 1 would fall to Grade 2, a Grade 2 would become a Grade 3 and a Grade 3 would drop to listed. The higher grade could be regained after the stakes had two consecutive years of at least six entrants.

The two-year qualifier is so that a stakes wouldn't suffer from one monster, such as Songbird, scaring away the opposition. A fringe benefit would be this would probably cause a consolidation of stakes, which theoretically would increase field size while absolutely reducing the number of stakes.

This winnowing down of graded stakes will not come without protest. Breeders are likely to strenuously object. Grades are their marketing tools, however misleading they may be and they are unlikely to give them up without a fight.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, August 11, 2016

To get people into racing, turn fans into owners

Most racing fans dream of owning a horse. The cost puts this dream out of reach for all but the wealthy. Churchill Downs pioneered an idea this spring, the CD Racing Club, which allows fans to become part of an ownership syndicate for as little as $500. One of the two horses the Club owns has already won. Hundreds of members and their friends, some of whom probably never go to the track, were there to cheer her on. This mirrors a personal experience. A group of racetrack friends pooled our money and bought a $20,000 claimer, who won his first two races for us then got claimed for $40,000. We hope to get back into the game ASAP. Most importantly, each of us had an entourage of family and friends to root on our horse. They, too, can't wait for us to get back into the game. Racing has scores of new fans.

MIAMI, Aug. 11, 2016--The best way to get more people, especially young people, involved in racing is to get them really involved in racing.

This isn’t double talk. There’s nothing more involving than following a horse in which you have an ownership interest, even an extremely modest one. I speak from first-hand experience, which I will get into shortly.

Racing partnerships are nothing new. The late Cot Campbell was a pioneer with his Dogwood Stable. Outfits like West Point Thoroughbreds and Centennial Farms have enjoyed noteworthy success selling shares of horses, many of whom have developed into stakes winners, to multiple investors. However, those outfits cater primarily to high end investors for thoroughbreds with fancy pedigrees.

Churchill Downs has devised a way for people in the grandstand to feel like those in the Turf Club. The Churchill Downs Racing Club offered shares in a thoroughbred for $500 apiece with a goal to sell 2,000 for a total pool of $100,000. This would cover the cost of buying a 2-year-old and training expenses for several months.

Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas, who has always been great at promoting the game, agreed to train the horse.

Churchill made it clear that there were no expectations of a profit. Most horse owners lose money. Nevertheless, from the response, you would have thought Churchill was selling $5 bills for a buck apiece. The 2,000 shares sold out so quickly, a second offering was made.

This was just the start. When the first of the CDRC horses, Warrior’s Club, a son of Medaglia d’Oro offspring Warriors Reward, made his career debut on June 16, Club members showed up in force. They bet, too, knocking their horse down from a 15-1 morning line to 6-1 at post-time. Alas, after showing early speed, he faded to fifth.

Still, it was a promising debut with the prospect of better days ahead. Indeed, Warrior’s Club ran third in his second start, his only other appearance under silks to this point. I’ll bet there aren’t many Club members who are sorry they joined.

The second Club horse, Dial Me, did even better. After running fifth in her first start, she made it to the winner’s circle next time out at Ellis Park. “Was that a maiden race at Ellis or the Derby?” Lukas was quoted in the Paulick Report as asking. He could hear the wild cheering over the phone from Saratoga.

Actually, Dial Me, a daughter of young stallion Dialed In, didn’t exactly make it to the winner’s circle. There were so many Club members, family and friends wanting to get into the victory photo, it had to be moved out onto the track. How many of those folks do you suppose would have been at Ellis otherwise?

This is one good idea that is being embraced around the nation. Little Red Feather Racing on the West Coast announced the other day it plans to make low investment partnerships in horses available, details to come.

A Gulfstream official told me his track hopes to launch something along the lines of the Churchill Downs Racing Club by the time the prime winter meet opens.

The fun and excitement the Kentucky people are having mirrors my own experience. A group of racing writers and their friends put together a relatively small syndicate this spring to buy into the ownership game. Some were in for a couple of hundred dollars, some for a few thousand. I can’t tell you for sure how many people are in the group but I can say it’s more than a weekday crowd at Aqueduct.

Out of respect for the others, many of whom have a lot more invested than I do, I won’t get into names. The relevant point is we claimed a horse for $20,000. My share amounted to a few strands of hair in his tail. But the day he made his first start for us, my wife and I felt like the Zayats.

Call it beginner’s luck but our horse won. I’ve hit some good bets in my life. In fact, one of them financed my investment in the horse. But I was so excited that as the horses were being loaded, my wife asked how much I bet. It was only then that I realized I hadn’t bet a cent and, as friends will testify, I never pass a race. But when he surged to the front and drew out, I was shaking from excitement.

I hadn’t said anything to anyone because I was so worried about how well he would compete. This drew a chorus of “I can’t believe you didn’t tell me about the horse.” You would have thought I had been trying to keep the price down.

The next time, I had an entourage bigger than Justin Bieber—and the horse won again. The winner’s circle photo wasn’t as chaotic as that for Dial Me but we’re working in that direction. Every one of my friends and family members—a lot of whom had never been to a track--stayed for the full afternoon and made me promise I would tell them every time the horse raced, because they want to be there. They were hooked. One or two asked if they could get involved the next time we buy a horse. That was just me. Multiply that by the number of people in our syndicate.

Disaster of a sort struck in his third start for us. He ran fourth, missing third by a nose. But the sad story was our $20,000 claim got taken for $40,000. (I will hate the trainer who claimed him forever.) A sharp friend and former owner of a million dollar winner called to congratulate us on a home run. We had doubled what we paid for him and won a couple of races.

This might have been true in the big picture but my wife and I sure didn’t feel this way. It was like Family Services had snatched one of our kids.

As I write this, we’re packing for our annual trip to the Spa. Our syndicate’s bottom line is healthy so by the time we head home I’m hoping we have a new “child” to embrace. So does my battalion of family and friends.

If not, I’ll be first in line when Gulfstream rolls out its Racing Club.

Written by Tom Jicha

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