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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Tuesday, January 27, 2015

New NYRA rules ignore real problem: winter racing

Reacting to a disheartening number of fatal thoroughbred breakdowns, NYRA has come up with a new series of rules and regulations, one more pointless than the others. They all gloss over the real problem. Winter racing at Aqueduct attracts a disproportionate number of problem horses. The only solution is to curtail racing during the worst weather months of the year.

MIAMI, Jan. 27, 2015--The latest steps taken by the New York Racing Association, whose board is now dominated by political appointees, are examples of what happens when racing allows politically motivated individuals rather than horse people to dictate when and how racing will be conducted.

Less than a month into winter racing (with five racing dates knocked out by weather) there have been 14 thoroughbred deaths. This is a horrid, unacceptable situation demanding informed, thoughtful attention.

Rick Violette, president of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, stated emphatically after saddling Upstart to a dominating win in Gulfstream’s Holy Bull, “There is nothing wrong with the (Aqueduct) racetrack. I have 30 horses that I train over it every day.”

(Of course, his best horse is training under optimal conditions in South Florida.)

Violette was speaking as an individual but what he said is in synch with the official NYRA position. So, if it’s not the track, it has to be something else. Any horsemen and most fans can see the hastily created remedies for what “something else” might be are drastic over-reactions designed by people with limited racing expertise.

Meanwhile, the real culprit, winter racing, over populated by horses with infirmities that render them incapable of earning their keep during the prime racing months, gets a slide because curtailing it doesn’t serve political interests.

There is no relief in sight. Gov.Cuomo indicated last week that the state is not ready to privatize NY racing again, which was supposed to happen by this coming October. If you are offered a deal by the devil to live without fear of death until the state relinquishes control of NYRA, jump at it.

The most ludicrous new rule, in a tight photo, is the edict that horses will not be allowed to run back within 14 days of a race. There are, however, about a half-dozen examples of horses who fatally broke down after having run more than once within those parameters.

However, these cannot be taken in a vacuum as cause and effect. Other horses ran within the same period without negative ramifications. Some even won.

Did the horses in this sample have a history of injuries that caused them to the sidelines for lengthy periods? Were they horses being dropped drastically in claiming price, a red flag to soundness issues? What pharmaceuticals were they being treated with? Just taking the number of days between starts ignores these other potential factors.

There are ample examples of horses running back with great success far more quickly than the new rules allow. Willy Beamin won the 2012 Albany Stakes at Saratoga then came back three days later to take the Kings Bishop which, as a Grade 1, is supposed to represent the most difficult race in the sport to win.

Emollient fired a clunker in the 2013 Gulfstream Oaks but came back seven days later to win the Grade 1 Ashland. What’s more, Emollient has continued to race regularly at the highest levels. She won a couple more Grade 1 races in 2013 and another this past September, almost a year and a half beyond what NYRA would have people believe is a debilitating regimen.

NYRA has already bitten itself in the buns on this one. Eight horses, who were entered before horsemen were fully aware of the new restrictions, had to be scratched from the Jan. 25 card, resulting in two three-horse fields and two four-horse fields on a nine-race card. How many new friends among those who made the trip to the track do you suppose this made?

It could be worse on Thursday. Eleven of the 63 horses entered are ineligible under the 14-day rule, according to the Daily Racing Form. This is before normal scratches. Maybe the blizzard expected to bury the Northeast will spare NYRA the embarrassment of running the Thursday card.

Nosed out for pointlessness is the reduction of NYRA’s winter agenda by three races a week. Winter cards on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday will be reduced to eight races. This is like, instead of giving up smoking, cutting back from three packs a day to two.

It is indisputable that the fewer the races, the fewer chances for breakdowns. Continuing this to its illogical conclusion, why not seven-race cards or six or five until we get down to zero when, of course, there would be no race-related breakdowns.

Not to be underestimated for the distinction of most absurd new rule is the one that raises the minimum claiming level for maidens to $16,000 from $12,500. Only someone totally oblivious to the way claiming prices work would be impressed by this. The $16,000 claiming races will now be populated by horses who have been running for $12,500 and would be entered for $10,000 or $7,500 if it were the bottom.

The “poor performance” list is another joke. Any horse beaten by 25 lengths has to work a half-mile in 53 seconds before it can be entered in a race again. This is ridiculous on a couple of levels.

It doesn’t distinguish between a horse getting beat 25 lengths in a stakes or even a high priced claimer and one losing by 25 lengths in a bottom level maiden claiming race. Also 53 seconds is hardly a taxing standard. A horse that has to go all out to make 52 4/5 isn’t going to be any more competitive on the NYRA circuit than one that lumbers under the wire in 53.

Expectations are these rules, especially the 14-day restriction, will be re-examined and likely shelved when the better horses start showing up in the entries during the spring.

Isn’t this a de facto admission that the real problem is winter racing?

Written by Tom Jicha

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Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Twice caught rider faces third battery allegations; How does racing allow this to happen?

Roman Chapa, who has been suspended twice--for 19 months and five years--for using a battery is being investigated again for the same offense for a ride at Sam Houston Park last Saturday night. This is why arguing for tougher cheating rules is a joke. What's the point when someone who has been convicted of one of the most serious offenses can get a second and third chance?

MIAMI, Jan. 20, 2015--Racing can pass all the tough regulations imaginable in an attempt to keep the game honest but without stern enforcement and punishment it’s all an exercise in public relations.

Texas racing officials are investigating jockey Roman Chapa for carrying a battery in urging Quiet Acceleration to victory in Saturday night’s $50,000 Richard King Stakes at Sam Houston Park. He has been "suspended summarily" pending completion of the probe.

The investigation was triggered by a photo taken by the track photographer of Chapa and Quiet Acceleration as they crossed the finish line. The shot appears to show something in the palm of Chapa’s hand.

We all should have learned from one of the most embarrassing episodes in racing history that a photo such as this is not enough to level allegations. In the wake of Funny Cide’s victory in the 2003 Kentucky Derby, The Miami Herald, on the basis of a photo that appeared to show Jose Santos with something in his hand, ran stories raising the possibility that Santos used an electrical device in the Run for the Roses.

The photo turned out to be an optical illusion and Santos was completely exonerated. He sued the newspaper and a confidential settlement was reached. Meanwhile the damage to racing was done.

There also was the outrageous, baseless allegations by Eric Guillot that Luis Saez used an electrical device in the 2013 Travers. Like Santos, Saez was totally exonerated and Guillot eventually walked back his assertions.

As always, Santos and Saez being cleared was buried, if reported at all, by media outlets that sensationalized the allegations.

However, there are significant differences between those incidents and Chapa. Santos and Saez had sterling reputations. Chapa has already been suspended twice for lengthy periods for use of a “machine.” He was sidelined for 19 months in 1993 by Texas for being caught using a battery. Apparently he didn’t learn a lesson. New Mexico nailed him for five years in 2007 for the same offense.

There is also ample circumstantial evidence. Chapa and Quiet Acceleration won last year’s King Stakes. Since then the horse has been ridden by five different riders without finding his way to the winner’s circle. He went off at 10-1 Saturday.

The first two days of the Sam Houston meeting, Chapa won with five of eight mounts with a second and a third. Any jockey can get hot over a short period but given Chapa’s history, it’s tough to give him the benefit of the doubt.

The bigger point is why was Chapa licensed at all after the second offense? You know the old expression, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” What do you say about someone who makes a fool of you a third time? More to the point, what do you say about people who put themselves in a position to be fooled a third time?

Zapping horses also raises humane and safety issues. Nothing will get a horse to overextend himself like a jolt of electricity. It also could cause a sudden veer to the left or right, which would endanger every other horse and rider in the field.

This is such a blatant, conscious, arrogant offense, it should carry a lifetime suspension, period. No fourth chances. Those who might argue anyone can make one mistake lose their moral standing when a rider gets caught a second time.

It is inexcusable and unacceptable that any racing commission licensed Chapa again after the Texas and New Mexico suspensions.

It’s pointless to suggest new regulations to clean up the game when cheaters can operate secure in the knowledge that if they get caught, the penalties will rarely outweigh the potential gains.

A season to savor coming up

Put a bunch of opinionated horse players (is there any other kind?) in a room and almost anything said can turn into a lively discussion/debate. The other night at the Eclipse Awards, someone opined that despite California Chrome and Bayern vying for Horse of the Year, 2014’s sophomore class was a weak bunch.

A couple of others, myself included, immediately jumped in with dissenting opinions. I thought last season’s top 3-year-olds were one of the strongest groups in recent memory. A 3-year-old male hadn’t won Horse of the Year since Curlin in 2007. It was another six years back to Point Given.

Curlin had no serious competition among males of his generation. He garnered 249 of 266 votes cast. His closest competition was the filly who beat him in the Belmont, Rags to Riches. Five-year-old Invasor, 2006 Horse of the Year, was next.

Some—well at least me—feel that Shared Belief, whose only loss came when he was mugged in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, is better than either California Chrome or Bayern.

The riches among foals of 2011 goes deeper than that. The first six finishers in the Breeders’ Cup Classic were 3-year-olds—Bayern, Toast of New York, California Chrome, Shared Belief, Tonalist and Candy Boy.

Shared Belief and Toast of New York had already run away from older horses in the Pacific Classic. Shared Belief did it again in the Awesome Again. Tonalist, the Belmont winner, bested a field of the East’s best older horses in the Jockey Club Gold Cup.

Hoppertunity, who didn’t run in the BC Classic, led a 1-2-3 sweep by 3-year-olds in the Grade 1 Clark, the fall’s most prestigious handicap in the Midwest. Protonico and Florida Derby champion Constitution ran second and third, respectively.

Let’s not forget the 3-year-old filly Untapable vanquished her elders in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff.

I rest my case. The best part of this is all of these now 4-year-olds are coming back in 2015.

Hoppertunity has already launched his 2015 campaign with a romp in the Grade 2 San Pasqual.

Wicked Strong, the Wood Memorial and Jim Dandy winner, also is gearing up for another season.

The first date to circle on the calendar is Feb. 7. If all goes according to plan, California Chrome, Bayern and Shared Belief will renew their rivalry in the San Antonio. The same afternoon, a few of the East’s top 4-year-olds could show up in the Donn. TV has taken notice. These races will be the centerpieces of the new season of major stakes on Fox Sports.

Injuries and attrition will surely take their toll as the season proceeds. Candy Boy and Toast of New York have already headed overseas. Bayern has had a minor setback, which could keep him out of the San Antonio.

Nevertheless, have thoroughbred fans ever had as much to look forward to at this point of the season?

Written by Tom Jicha

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Tuesday, January 13, 2015

More nails in winter racing’s coffin

Eleven horses have died since this year's winter racing began at Aqueduct. Four of the first eight racing days in January were lost to brutal weather. Two races were run last Friday before the card had to be scrapped. Two horses broke down in those races. One was put down immediately, the other's fate is uncertain. Yet NYRA and some horsemen continue to defend the indefensible. Winter racing needs to go.

MIAMI, Jan. 13, 2015--It was the epitome of denial. NYRA executives and prominent New York horsemen held a meeting last Saturday to discuss steps to be taken to make winter racing safer for thoroughbreds and jockeys. Less than a month into the bad weather season, there have been 11 thoroughbred fatalities. This is ahead of the pace of 2011-12 when 21 fatalities threw the state and animal rights groups into a frenzy.

How ironic that this meeting was called in the midst of a weather-caused four-day break (two races were run Friday before the rest of the card was canceled). This is Mother Nature’s reminder that winter racing is not a good idea. It’s a matter of conjecture how many more days will be lost before the spring thaw.

Everyone at the meeting knows the solution but no one wanted to say it. Winter racing, at least during January and February, should end.

More horses suffer fatal injuries at Aqueduct than at Belmont and Saratoga combined. Do you think the fact that lower caliber horses--almost by definition those with problems—dominate the Aqueduct programs has anything to do with this?

The rest of the industry knows. There are only three graded stakes during January and February.Two of them, the Withers and Jerome, made their grade when they were run during the spring and summer and the do-nothing graded stakes committee hasn't adjusted.

What’s never discussed is that not only are racing dates lost, horses can’t be trained properly or at all during the worst of winter. Rick Violette, a fierce advocate for his constituents as president of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, takes his better horses to Gulfstream during the winter.

So trainers and owners, especially lesser outfits trying to eke out a living when they have a shot at purse money, sometimes wind up running questionably fit horses. Surely this contributes to the injury and fatality numbers.

Martin Panza, senior VP of racing operations, fell back on the state mandate to race 120 days total at Aqueduct but acknowledged that it might take only a meeting with legislators to lower this number. With the fatality crisis reaching critical mass, no legislator wants to be attached to voting against a rule intended to preserve horses’ lives, not to mention serious injury to jockeys, or worse.

All sorts of band aid remedies are being offered. Jockeys are being urged to tell vets if they feel anything is amiss with their mounts. Trainers are being asked to be more conscientious about entering horses with questionable fitness and health issues.

Twenty horses were said to have been ruled off because they are not competitive. Considering some of the horses that still find their way into the entries, it would be interesting to hear what the standards for banishment are. But at least NYRA has standards to start with.

Winter racing is going to end in the next few years anyway. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has been ogling Aqueduct since he got into office. Winter racing stands in his way.

Belmont is not winterized and it would cost a fortune to renovate it for racing in the cold. A March-December schedule at Belmont is doable. There would be some unbearable days at the beginning and end of the season but not so many as to scuttle the idea.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel had a pet philosophy when he was President Obama’s Chief of Staff: “Never let a good crisis go to waste.”

The fatality rate this winter has created a crisis atmosphere. It should not be allowed to go to waste.

On second thought…

There are no mulligans in Eclipse Award balloting. If there were I would have to give a lot of thought to changing my vote in the Juvenile Male category.

I put Texas Red in the first position, the only one that matters. Place and show ballots are only to dress up the nomination announcements.

I was influenced by two factors. Texas Red won the big one at the end of the season, the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Moreover, he did it with an electrifying move not seen in this race since Arazi.

My other consideration was American Pharoah, who I put second. Texas Red’s main competition ran the final race of his three-race season in September before he went to the sidelines with an injury.

In my Horse of the Year ballot, I gave the nod to California Chrome on the basis of his four Grade 1 wins, equaled only by Main Sequence and Untapable, neither of whom won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.

Thus it would seem contradictory that I would pass over American Pharoah, who won two Grade 1 stakes, twice as many as Texas Red. But Grade 1 status isn’t as indicative of quality in 2-year-old events as it is in other divisions. Sometimes half the field is eligible for entry level allowances and there’s almost always a maiden or three.

This is why I have argued in vain for years that there should be no Grade 1 races for 2-year-olds other than the Breeders’ Cup events, whose fields are dominated by stakes winners.

Indeed, American Pharoah was a maiden when he won the Del Mar Futurity. The horse who ran second as well as in American Pharoah’s Grade 1 Front Runner was Calculator, also a maiden. Beating a maiden twice is not Eclipse worthy in my estimation.

But it is Calculator who has me second-guessing my Eclipse vote. His dominant win in the Sham on Saturday underlines the quality of American Pharoah. If American Pharoah is open lengths better than Calculator and Calculator is open lengths better than those who lined up against him in Southern California’s first Derby steppingstone, maybe American Pharoah is something special, which I really don’t believe Texas Red is.

I appreciate that a race in 2015 doesn’t count in 2014 Eclipse balloting but it did open my eyes to the thought that I might have underestimated American Pharoah, who buried Texas Red by almost five lengths in the Front Runner, in which my Eclipse choice also finished behind Calculator.

Written by Tom Jicha

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