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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Thursday, December 17, 2015

Once upon a time, stewards looked out for fans

It's amazing racing survives the people running it. Last Saturday, a late change of riders, which never should have been allowed, was rubber-stamped by the stewards and not announced to the public until after some multi-race wagers had closed. At the annual racing convention last week in Arizona, racing's honchos thought the best idea presented to them was a game in which handicapping, the element that separates racing from lotteries and slots, is totally irrelevant.

MIAMI, Dec. 17-2015--This happened at Hialeah some years ago. Because of the passage of time, I can’t positively identify the people involved. However, as what’s left of my memory serves, it was Walter Blum, retired jockey turned steward, and Jose Santos, then as dominant a jockey as Javier Castellano is today.

It was just before the last race on a Saturday. There were no pick 3’s, 4’s or 6’s in those days, just a late daily double. In the few minutes between the feature, the first half of the double, and the horses being saddled for the finale, it was announced over the public address system that there would be a change of jockeys. A 10-pound bug boy on the program was being replaced by Santos.

Blum, in the media area of the press box between races, heard the announcement and exclaimed, “Like hell.”

Putting the fans first—this really used to happen--he went back to the stewards room, got the trainer on the phone and told him, “Either the kid rides the horse or I’ll scratch him.”

Blum was admirably fan-friendly in another way. Frustrated that Hialeah’s John Brunetti routinely had the start of races dragged ridiculously past the listed post, Blum sent a message. He ordered the betting windows locked. The problem didn’t go away completely but it got a lot better.

Fast forward to last Saturday at Gulfstream. One of the first things I learned as a cub reporter was you can never count on your reader having read yesterday’s paper. So I’ll briefly recap what JP detailed the other day. Matthew Rispoli was listed on the overnight and the program as the rider of Valid in the Harlan’s Holiday Stakes. Sometime before “riders up,” Rispoli--ready, willing and able to ride--was bumped off the horse for Castellano.

JP said he first heard the announcement just before the race. He quoted Caton Bredar saying the same thing on TVG. I was en route to the paddock, so I didn't hear it at all. In other words, the public was alerted to the change long after betting on the final pick 3, 4 and 5 and Rainbow Six had closed.

This wasn’t exactly the same as the long ago situation at Hialeah. Rispoli is not a 10-pound bug. He’s a competent young rider, who won a stakes the last time he rode Valid. But he’s no Castellano, who has dominated Gulfstream the past three or four seasons like no rider since maybe Pat Day in Kentucky.

I’m not suggesting there was any betting coup or anything untoward as it relates to the race. Valid was the deserved morning line favorite and might have won with any rider in the room. His connections can’t be blamed for getting the leading rider. If I owned the horse and had a choice between Rispoli and Castellano, I would have done the same thing. But they shouldn’t have been allowed to make the change so late in the game.

This was another reason for fans to feel screwed, that they have no chance against the insiders. No amount of promotion or marketing dollars can undo the damage of those feelings.

‘Swopstakes’? Really?

Tis the season to be jolly, so I apologize for being so cranky.

However, an avalanche of recent developments, including the Valid rider switch, makes those of us who champion racing want to throw up our hands and ask, “Why bother?”

Few things could convene a coalition of such disparate figures as Andy Asaro, JP, myself and resident curmudgeon WMC on the same side. One is that racing’s greatest asset and strongest marketing tool is a player can use his brain to control his success to some extent. This is what keeps me coming back.

This apparently is lost to the hierarchy of the sport. A $15,000 first prize was offered for new and innovative ideas at the annual Racing and Gaming Symposium in Arizona last week. Eighty-nine entries were submitted from around the world.

A concept dubbed “Swopstakes” from an Australian company—hence the strange spelling-- took home the prize. Swopstakes has nothing to do with handicapping. It is pure luck, in essence a different type of lottery game. To me, the description makes it sound like the old NBC show “Deal or No Deal.”

The way it was presented, Swopstakes involves selling millions of lottery-like tickets, with the outcome decided by the results of a series of horse races. This is the only connection it appears to have with racing, although picking numbers out of a hat could serve the same end.

Using round numbers for convenience sake, a six-race sequence of 10-horse fields would produce one million distinct combinations, if my math is correct. It’s essential that every ticket has to be sold, since there would be only one possible winning combination. I have seen reports that the takeout could be as high as 30 percent.

The twist that makes Swopstakes unique is players would have the ability to buy and sell live tickets as the sequence progressed. Someone who had a ticket with, say, the first three races correct could offer it for sale to the highest bidder. This would continue right through post-time for the final leg.

The logistics are not unprecedented. Back in the early days of the pick 4, then known at New York harness tracks as the Twin Double, a ticket with the winners of the first two legs had to be exchanged for a new ticket for the final two legs. There was bartering galore by the mutual bays—all of it illegal—as players sought to obtain the number of exchange tickets they felt they needed to hit the bet. The higher the payoffs on legs one and two, the more those exchange tickets were worth.

The critical difference between the Twin Double and Swopstakes is handicapping was the key element of nailing the harness race bet. Swopstakes is pure luck.

Another difference with Swopstakes is the marketplace would reopen after each race through post time for the final leg. Also, the sale of tickets would not only be legal, it would be encouraged.

Prices of the Swopstakes winners wouldn’t matter, since there would be only one grand prize winner whether six odds-on favorites or six 100-1 shots won. Handicapping, the element that separates racing from lotteries and slots, would be irrelevant.

What happens if not every combination is sold? Do we hold up post-times until a sellout is achieved? Granted, this wouldn’t be far removed from what tracks do when they don’t hit megabucks guarantees for multi-race wagers.

Time between races would almost surely have to be extended to allow for the buying and selling. To accommodate what amounts to lottery players, tracks would alienate horse players, who come to handicap, bet and watch the races.

Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of dollars, which might have gone through the pari-mutuel windows, will be tied up with no churn. Like the pick six, the jackpots would likely be scooped up by syndicates. The little guys would have to be content with whatever they could negotiate for live tickets along the way.

From all the ideas from all over the world, racing’s honchos thought this was the grand prize winner.

Why do we bother?

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, December 10, 2015

Racing invites new ideas but probably will ignore them

A program at this year's racing convention in Arizona invited people involved in the game to contribute 45 ideas in 45 minutes. The limited time frame allotted is likely indicative of the attention the suggestions are likely to get from racing's powers-that-be. But suggestions were made that deserve serious scrutiny. The guess is HRI readers also have some of their own.

MIAMI, Dec. 10, 2015--The racing industry came up with a novel idea for its annual convention in Arlzona, a gathering notable for the lack of novel ideas it has produced over the years.

Five people from various facets of racing were challenged to come up with nine ideas apiece. The panel included Steve Byk of radio’s “At the Races”; Darryl Kaplan of “Trot” magazine; Steve Koch, executive director of the TRA Safety and Integrity Alliance; Peter Rotondo, vice president of media and entertainment for the Breeders’ Cup; and Amy Zimmerman, director of broadcasting for The Stronach Group.

Do you notice a glaring absence? None of these people primarily speaks for the fan. Where was a representative of HANA? How about Andy Asaro? Or John Pricci? My guess is the swells didn’t want to hear their ideas.

That this was primarily public relations theater, which based on past performance was going to be paid little heed, can be gleaned from the session’s title, “45 Ideas in 45 Minutes.”

If a panelist had, hypothetically speaking, come up with an idea so brilliant it would propel horse racing past the National Football League in popularity, it was still going to get 60 seconds, the same allotment as the suggestion that racing bid to be included in the Olympic Games.

Not all the ideas were new, which doesn’t mean they don’t warrant further discussion. Byk brought up uniform reporting of payoffs (50 cents, $1 and $2, depending on the wager). JP and I have been championing this for years.

When I heard about this exercise, I composed a list of some of my own ideas before I read the ones offered to see how my thinking coincides with those invited to speak. So there is some duplication.

Near the top of my roster is one that feeds off the uniform payoff reports. Fractional betting has proven its popularity beyond dispute. The $1 Pick 6 at the Breeders’ Cup substantially outhandled last year’s $2 minimum. Fifty-cent pick 4’s at NYRA tracks outhandle $2 Pick 6’s. With most betting now being done via self automated machines and computers, there is no reason to continue to enforce arbitrary minimums.There also is no longer a defense for breakage.

Uniformity among tracks is a must if for no other reason than to alleviate confusion among simulcast bettors. What explanation can there be for Frank Stronach’s Laurel to offer 50-cent pick 3’s but not to extend this to Stronach’s Gulfstream and Santa Anita, where $1 is the minimum. Also, $1 daily doubles can be made at Laurel and Gulfstream but not at Santa Anita. I'd love to hear the explanation.

I’m also in accord with a suggestion from Koch. He brought up the idea of a centralized group of officials, who would rule on inquiries and objections from around the nation. Hiring people with vast experience in racing would take it out of the hands of what are at many venues political hacks or friends of track management.

The NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball have such a system in place, but what do they know?

Despite the “let’s get it right” justification in team sports, those making the decisions still err on occasion. So bad calls would still occur but hopefully less frequently. If nothing else, this would remove cries that decisions at the local level are made to create or protect jackpot payoffs.

Zimmerman came out in favor of extending this to full transparency, allowing cameras into the stewards stand while potential disqualifications are being deliberated. This is another one that was on my list.

If I had been asked, I also would have suggested:

Curtailing (or ideally ending) rebates by raising the simulcasting rate for facilities with no connections to a race track, essentially internet sites, to a level where it is not fiscally viable to offer kickbacks. Lots of businesses offer better deals to big customers but these discounts do not directly come out of the pockets of the general public. When the rebate guys punch a horse down from 2-1 to even money, because their klckback compensates for the lower price, the $2 player gets screwed of half his profit.

This also would curtail the suspicion that computer players are able to bet after the gate has been sprung. Tracks are adamant this is not the case. They would have been just as adamant before the Breeders’ Cup Fix Six scandal.

You would have to be Social Security age—alas, many players are--to remember an old supermarket game in which people could win money or prizes matching tickets based on old races shown on TV once a week. Bring it back. Self interest is a great motivator to get people interested in racing.

Some might find the sport so exciting that they would visit a track for the real thing. Along these lines, tickets should be redeemable for admission, parking, a program or some other perk at the local track.

An innovation at Saratoga last summer, a low buy-in handicapping contest, should be widely imitated. This gives people with limited disposable income a chance to experience the thrill of the big money tournaments.

If attracting a younger demographic and newcomers to the game is a serious goal, a day at the races has to be made more affordable. Every time a track offers dollar sodas, hot dog and beers, attendance swells. Apparently nothing is learned.

A buck might be too low to generate satisfactory revenue but $3 beers and $2 sodas and hot dogs would still produce nice profits. Why is it tracks can’t understand that they will make more money selling a customer three beers at $3 apiece or two hot dogs at $2 than selling none of either at $6 each? Perceived value is crucial in marketing. (Gulfstream has $2 beers at certain bars and it must be doing well because it has endured season to season.)

In a related issue, something has to be done about the Racing Form now costing more than $10, depending on where and when it is purchased. I’ve unfortunately been involved in the closing of a couple of newspapers, so I understand the financial challenges print publications face. But $10 is a killer.

The less expensive Equibase program is a step in the right direction but the way the game is played now, with simulcasting from all over, a lot of players need two or even three of these. This wipes out any savings.

Las Vegas racebooks have a no-frills “Players Edition,” with only past performances, for a $5 cover price. I’m sure the race books subsidize this but if they can do it, so can tracks, especially those with casinos attached.

Another lesson to be learned from casinos is reduced takeout keeps people in the game longer. Except for the hardcore, racing fans are seeking entertainment and fun. The longer they get to play, the more likely they are to return. Unfortunately, this is probably a non-starter until rebates are ended.

Horse Race Insider readers regularly impress with their contributions in the comments section. Surely some of you have ideas of your own. The floor is open.

Written by Tom Jicha

Comments (18)


Thursday, December 03, 2015

Gulfstream opens its winter season with a player’s delight

Gulfstream kicks off its championship winter season Saturday with the Claiming Crown, an event that fulfills bettors fondness for full fields with plenty of price opportunities. The nine races have drawn 121 entries with the smallest field being 10. A couple of new rainbow-chasing bets, a rolling Hi 5 and a second Pick 5 on the opening five races of each card, have been added to the betting menu.

MIAMI, Dec. 3, 2015—“There’s no beginning, there’ll be no end…” is not only a verse from the old pop ballad Love Is All Around, it’s a description of America’s national racing scene.

Year-round racing has eradicated any sense of a roundly recognized opening and closing day of the season. The Eclipse Awards might be the only entity that recognizes a Jan. 1-Dec. 31 season. Every locale has its own parameters.

Few are bigger than opening day of Gulfstream’s championship season Saturday. Thanks to the positioning of the Claiming Crown as the inaugural event, it might be one of the best betting days of the year. The series dedicated to the blue collar heroes of racing has grown to nine races worth more than a million dollars cumulatively in purses.

Bettors love full fields and few days deliver better than the Claiming Crown. The shortest field is 10 for the Iron Horse. Fourteen or more passed through the entry box for five of the nine stakes, each worth in excess of $100,000.

The name is somewhat deceptive. To qualify, a horse must have run for a designated claiming price during the previous two seasons. But the fields are littered with shrewd claims, who advanced upward to the stakes ranks.

“The Rapid Transit is good enough to be a Grade 3,” said P.J. Campo, director of racing for The Stronach Group and Gulfstream general manager. Indeed, defending champion Grande Shores is likely to be no better than third choice behind multiple New York stakes-winner Stallwalkin’ Dude, who was third in the Grade 1 Vosburgh, and Trouble Kid, who knocked out a loaded field in the Gallant Bob on the Pennsylvania Derby undercard then finished first in the DeFrancis Dash, only to be disqualified.

Campo, a former racing secretary at NYRA, is loving life since coming to Gulfstream. “I’ve learned more in the last two years here than I did in my 15 years in New York.” Where he formerly concerned himself with filling races, he now has to oversee the racing program, a casino and The Village, the mall built around the racetrack. A water park is soon to come.

A couple of Claiming Crown defending champions also are back: Loverbil, winner of the 2014 Express, and St. Borealis, who got the money a year ago in the Tiara.

Gulfstream has resuscitated the Claiming Crown, an admirable concept, which was in its death throes as it drifted around the country. The key was scheduling it as the focal point of opening day. In spite of almost year-round racing, the start of Gulfstream's winter meeting endures as an anticipated event.

This is the final year of the Claiming Crown’s four-year contract with Gulfstream but Campo is confident a new deal will be worked out. “The timing (in late December when tracks up north are shutting down for the winter) is good and everyone loves to come to Florida.”

Another key factor is Gulfstream has streamlined the nominating process so that owners and trainers don’t have to put up fees until a few weeks before the event. At one point, nominations had to be made during the summer. The connections of claimers don’t even know if a horse will still be in their barn that far down the road.

The Claiming Crown epitomizes Gulfstream’s refusal to rest on its laurels. There was no shortage of potential life-changing jackpot pools when Tim Ritvo came up with the Rainbow Six, a unique concept in which the full pool was distributed only when there was a single winner. Some jackpots have exceeded a million dollars and drawn the attention of bettors nationwide. Detractors, including some of the most prominent names in the gambling world, scoffed but the Rainbow Six not only is an indisputable success, it has been widely emulated.

A couple of new wagers with the potential for breath-taking payoffs have been added to the menu: a rolling Hi 5, starting with the first race, and a second Pick 5 on races 1-5. Both had test rollouts at the Gulfstream West meeting. A third experiment at GPW, a $5 quiniela on the final race of each day’s card, will not be continued.

Gulfstream has reached out to its sister tracks in Maryland and NYRA to bring in a couple of the industry’s most respected closed-circuit analysts, Gabby Gaudet and Andy Serling. While closely identified with New York racing, Serling knows the Gulfstream terrain. Before his NYRA duties kept him in the frozen north, he used to be a Gulfstream winter regular as a bettor. Those who got to know him offered a player’s ultimate accolade: “He’s got a really good opinion.”

A not insignificant side benefit of NYRA granting Serling a leave of absence during January and February is an agreement between the tracks to make every effort to stagger post times so that the most popular winter signals in the East don’t wind up having races break from the gate in frustratingly close proximity. Players, including this one, have been pleading for this accommodation for years.

Campo said he’ll also make an effort to bring Stronach owned Santa Anita into this pattern. Given California’s notorious, “We are the center of the universe” attitude, this might be easier said than done.

The Claiming Crown is only the start for Gulfstream. Multiple stakes, many of them graded, are scheduled for most Saturdays.

There also is the traditional rollout of Classic hopefuls. Orb came to Gulfstream a one-for-four maiden winner in 2013. He won all three Gulfstream starts, including the Fountain of Youth and Florida Derby, en route to capturing the Kentucky Derby. Big Brown had won only one race, on the grass at Saratoga, before he took the Florida Derby path to the Churchill Downs winner’s circle in 2008.

For the first time in memory, Todd Pletcher, 12-time Gulfstream training champion, is coming south for the winter without one of the big-time prospects for the spring classics. “Don’t worry,” Campo said. “He’ll come up with some.”

History backs this. Materiality and Constitution each came to Florida as an unraced maiden and left Gulfstream as Florida Derby winners. Coincidentally, both won their debuts on Jan. 11.

Until last weekend, it appeared the strength of the Derby generation was going to be based on the West Coast. Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner Nyquist, Swipe, the colt who has chased him home four straight times, and Exaggerator, winner of the Delta Jackpot, are all stabled at Santa Anita.

However, the undefeated Mohaymen ran his record to three-for-three with an eye-catching score in the Remsen on Saturday. The same day, Airoforce, whose only blemish in his first three starts, all on grass, was a second in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf, came from off the pace to win his main track debut in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes.

Both will be at Gulfstream this winter with the April 2 Florida Derby circled on their calendar.

Written by Tom Jicha

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