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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Tuesday, February 24, 2015

TVG-HRTV merger offers opportunity to get it right

The merger of TVG and HRTV offers the opportunity for the combined operation to meld the best of both networks into the superior, fan-friendly channels horse players deserve. The ideal would be more HRTV and less TVG. No matter what decisions are made, they can't be worse than those made by the stewards at Gulfstream Park this past Saturday.

MIAMI, Feb. 24, 2015--Dueling horse racing channels never made sense. There simply isn’t enough audience for it to be cut in two. It’s a wonder TVG and HRTV have managed to co-exist and survive this long. Their affiliation with advanced deposit wagering operations obviously has been the life-saver.

This doesn’t mean the merger of TVG and HRTV is a good thing. Let me clarify. It doesn’t mean it will be a good thing for consumers—i.e., horse players. Mergers aren’t designed to benefit the public. They are negotiated to serve the bottom line of the companies being combined.

How the TVG-HRTV merger will play out remains to be seen. There is only one certainty. People will lose jobs. They always do. Combining operations to avoid duplication is a cornerstone of mergers and acquisitions.

The discouraging aspect of this merger is that TVG is buying out HRTV. This means TVG executives will be making the decisions on who stays and goes as well as the creative direction of the channels. Familiarity gives TVG’s incumbents the inside track.

This could be a double whammy. There are good people at both networks but as a whole, HRTV’s on-air talent is stronger than TVG’s. Jeff Siegel, Laffit Pincay, Brad Free and Caton Bredar (who previously worked for TVG), to name just a few, outshine their counterparts at TVG. It will be a shame if they get lost in the shuffle.

More significantly, HRTV’s approach is far superior. From its outset, TVG’s target has been casual and new fans. TVG commentators talk down to the audience, as if they were taking a novice to the track and feel compelled to explain the most basic fundamentals. The hope is channel surfers might happen upon TVG and stay.

The goal to expand the audience beyond the hardcore is praise worthy. Alas, it is delusional as well as insulting to real horse players, the core audience. I’m a casual fan of golf and tennis. The grand slam events of both sports get my attention. But I don’t watch a minute of the mundane coverage on The Golf Channel or Tennis Channel. I’d bet this makes me fairly typical. Likewise, viewers who aren't racing fans are not going to sit watching races just because they are there.

To construct a network business plan on getting and holding non-horseplayers because they happened upon a horse racing channel is like hoping to hit a Pick 6 with a single combination.

HRTV’s commentators recognize they are talking to dedicated players, betting serious money. They conduct themselves as if they are old friends swapping informed opinions.

Also, many of HRTV’s peripheral shows surrounding the races are valuable tools. There isn’t a better show to set up a day’s racing than The Player, hosted by Siegel and Aaron Vercruysse, who personify treating viewers as knowledgeable friends rather than rubes. Weekend table-setters Against the Odds and The Edge are must-see TV for me. Pursuit of the Crown and Pursuit of the Cup put the relevant seasons into sharp focus.

TVG’s strongest talking points are the workout shows during the run-up to the Derby and Breeders’ Cup. It is also more conscientious about displaying potential exotic payoffs and will-pays. Minor tracks get more attention during the non-prime racing hours, too.

Not using the merger to mine the best of both worlds and rethink the way TVG presents itself will be an opportunity missed and a disservice to racing fans.

All we ask is consistency

The Fountain of Youth was another big race whose aftermath was not dominated by a discussion of brilliant and disappointing performances but controversy over a stewards’ call.

The disqualification of Upstart was not a terrible takedown. He did come out in the stretch and bump Itsaknockout.

The problem is the maddening inconsistency of the Gulfstream stewards—all stewards, for that matter. Earlier in the card, House Rules blatantly came over and took away the path of Sheer Drama in the Rampart Handicap. Fortunately for House Rules, Sheer Drama got herself together again to come on and nose out Wedding Toast for the place.

The inquiry sign went up but the stewards ruled there would be no change because, it was explained, the incident did not cost Sheer Drama a placing. The stewards decided she was going to finish no better than second. Under this logic, if Wedding Toast had won the place photo, House Rules would have had to come down.

After the incident in the Fountain of Youth, Upstart found another gear and wound up crossing the wire almost three lengths in front of Itsaknockout. That there was contact is indisputable. Whether it cost Itsaknockout a placing is a matter for debate and conjecture. Luis Saez on Itsaknockout did a fine acting job making it look as bad as possible.

Watch the replay and you’ll see Upstart and Itsaknockout were on even terms in the final turn. Upstart was the quicker of the two. In only a few strides he put a couple of lengths between them. Although Itsaknockout was coming on again when the stretch contact occurred, he never got closer than Upstart’s saddle cloth. As soon as Upstart felt him there, he rebroke and drew away, just as he had on the turn.

So an argument could be mounted that Itsaknockout was not going to finish better than second anyway. By the Rampart precedent, Upstart should have been left up.

Moreover, there were extenuating circumstances. Just as Upstart was seizing the lead from the fatigued Frosted, who looked like the winner at the top of the lane, Frosted came out and bumped Upstart, pushing him toward the center of the track, where Itsaknockout was coming hard. But Upstart didn’t get the benefit of the doubt that House Rules, who had no excuse, did, even though Upstart went under the wire almost twice as far ahead as House Rules.
The Rampart and Fountain of Youth were close calls, jump balls as Todd Pletcher put it after the FoY. The final race on the card, a maiden event on the turf, was not.

The stretch run was so similar, it was eerie. At almost the exact same point, Danish Dynaformer, who finished first, came out and, according to the chart, “bumped repeatedly” with Dreaming of Gold, who finished second. The inquiry sign went right up again.

Racing writers in the press box were marveling about the improbable similarity of the two races. One (not me) said, “If this race was on dirt and the silks were the same colors, you could have easily thought it was another replay of the Fountain of Youth.”

There was one significant difference. Danish Dynaformer, who won by only a neck, was left up.

Two races, with almost the exact circumstances, produced different outcomes. To be precise, the stewards produced two different results. The last race non-DQ was as bad a call as I have seen in years. To have it happen a half-hour after a takedown in a much more significant race is intolerable.

It's not as if Gulfstream's stewards don't have a history of making baffling decisions with standards that change from day to day and, in the case of this past Saturday, from race to race. A controversial decision almost exactly one year ago, which thwarted a $1.66 million Rainbow Six jackpot, was the talk of racing for weeks. In the aftermath, a lot was said but nothing was done.

When jockeys screw up, the stewards have them in to explain what happened and why.Gulfstream's Tim Ritvo and P.J. Campo owe it to their customers to invite the stewards to explain themselves.

All players ask is consistency. Is that too much?

Written by Tom Jicha

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Tuesday, February 17, 2015

‘Super Saturdays’: Too much of a good thing one week, too little the next

Super Saturdays have become the wave of the present. Attendance and handle zoom into the stratosphere, so they are not going away. But the prestige of other major stakes, which used to be solo headliners, is disappearing. Also, other Saturdays are treated as if they don't matter.

MIAMI, Feb. 17, 2015--A multiplex of movies, some very good, played over President’s Day weekend. As far as the mainstream press was concerned, there was only one worth talking about, the one in which people had the most interest: Fifty Shades of Grey.

Horse racing’s version will occur Saturday at Gulfstream. Eight stakes, seven graded, are carded. But the headlines and bulk of the reporting will be devoted to only one, the Fountain of Youth. This time of year, Kentucky Derby prep season overwhelms any other races that don’t have Shared Belief and California Chrome facing off.

The FoY is Florida’s first 50-points to the winner qualifying race. The first four finishers in the Holy Bull—Upstart, who also was third in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile; Frosted, who was favored in the Holy Bull off his second in the Remsen; Mucho Macho Man winner Bluegrass Singer and Juan and Bina--are coming back. So is sixth-place finisher Frammento, a late-runner Nick Zito says is his main Classic hopeful.

Among the new shooters in the eight-horse field is It’s a Knockout from Todd Pletcher’s typically overloaded 3-year-old brigade. Unbeaten in two starts, including a more than five-length win going a mile in an optional claimer, It’s a Knockout will be trying two turns for the first time. As a son of Belmont Stakes winner Lemon Drop Kid, the mile and a sixteenth distance should not be an issue.

It might be a sign of the strength of the FoY field that several of the leading contenders in Saturday’s other major Derby prep, the Risen Star at the Fair Grounds, are shipping to New Orleans even though they are based in South Florida. This includes International Star, winner of the LeComte; Keen Ice, fifth in the Holy Bull; J.S. Bach, a galloping maiden winner around two turns at Gulfstream for Pletcher, and Imperia, the runnerup in the Kentucky Jockey Club, who is making his 2015 debut after being prepped at Palm Meadows by Kiaran McLaughlin. War Story and Tiznow R.J., second and third in the LeComte, also will try International Star again.

Not even the seasonal debut in the Mac Diamida of Main Sequence, unbeaten in four U.S. starts and a double Eclipse champion as outstanding turf runner and best older horse, will steal much attention from the FoY. The other six stakes will be lucky to get a sentence apiece in the media.

This is one of the downsides of Super Saturdays. Traditional events, such as the Davona Dale, Rampart, The Very One and Canadian Turf, which used to command a solo Saturday showcase, get lost in the shuffle. The most distressing example is NYRA burying the Met Mile on the Belmont Stakes undercard.

Meanwhile, non-Super Saturdays have become little more than a mundane day at the races. On Jan. 24, the Holy Bull was the headliner of a five-stakes program. The following Saturday, the ungraded $75,000 H. Allen Jerkens, essentially a novelty event at two miles, was the feature. On Feb. 7, the Donn topped a six-stakes card. This past Saturday, the Hurricane Bertie, a 6 ½ furlong sprint for fillies and mares that wound up with a field of five, anchored an otherwise uninspiring card.

It’s difficult to quarrel with the results of Super Saturdays. Attendance and handle soar. So they are here to stay.

But would this coming Saturday’s stakes bonanza have been any less special if one or two of the stakes had been shifted to dress up last Saturday’s card?

I couldn’t see any fan complaining, “They call this a Super Saturday? There are only seven stakes.”

Why NYRA, why?

The weather-related cancellations of racing at Aqueduct on Sunday and Monday were the 11th and 12th from 34 scheduled racing dates in January and February. If you were planning to go to the track during the past month and a half, there was better than a one-in-three chance there would be no racing. The negative ratio could increase. Racing is scheduled to resume Thursday but single-digit temperatures are forecast for Thursday and Friday.

Fans who bought $9 Racing Forms to handicap in advance already are out more than $100 for races that never took place.

Often overlooked in speculation about the reasons for the rash of breakdowns during winter racing is the fact that not only is racing frequently called off, training is also curtailed. Some of the worst, stormiest days this winter have been on Mondays and Tuesdays, so there has been little notice of lost training days.

Thus, horses don’t have the level of fitness they would under better conditions. The combination of lesser stock and limited conditioning is an invitation to bad things happening.

What is it going to take for NYRA to pull the plug on racing during the worst two months of winter? Does Mother Nature have to personally “unlike” it on Facebook for NYRA to get the message that it’s not a good idea.

To pre-empt a comment certain to come from contrarians, Oaklawn Park also lost racing Monday as well as a few other days at the start of its season. But there is a vast difference between Oaklawn and Aqueduct.

Winter is Oaklawn’s assigned season. Come April, the tents come down and the circus moves to other towns in the Southwest. NYRA has the whole year at its disposal, so going dark in January and February is no big deal, especially when Aqueduct can remain open for simulcasts from Gulfstream, the Fair Grounds and Santa Anita.

What’s more, brutal weather is the exception in Hot Springs. In the Big Apple, it is the expectation. Not even global warming is going to change that.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Tuesday, February 10, 2015

No question who’s No. 1 now

Shared Belief didn't win an Eclipse last month but he left no doubt who the best horse in America is with his scintillating performance in the San Antonio. Horse of the Year California Chrome ran a winning race, finishing well ahead of the rest of the field, including streaking Hoppertunity. But he was no match for Shared Belief. With California Chrome heading for Dubai and Donn Handicap winner Constitution also appearing to be headed to the Middle East, the question now is who's left to test Shared Belief?

MIAMI, Feb. 10, 2015--Vindication is sweet. I’ve been championing Shared Belief as the best horse in America since last summer. Even when I voted for California Chrome as outstanding 3YO and Horse of the Year, I wrote in my HRI column, “America’s best thoroughbred in 2014, in my opinion, Shared Belief, will not be Horse of the Year. He won’t even be named best of his generation. Ergo, I am taking my Eclipse ballot to the scoreboard.”

In the wake of Shared Belief’s dazzling triumph in the San Antonio, I don’t think there is anyone who would not acknowledge he is the true No. 1. Given a cleanly run race, which he didn’t have in the Breeders’ Cup Classic thanks to Bayern and Toast of New York, Shared Belief charged right by California Chrome, who had a perfect trip, got first run, had a length or two at the top of the stretch and beat the rest of the field by daylight.

Unfortunately, this might be the last time for a long while, perhaps ever, the two champions will meet. California Chrome is headed for the Dubai World Cup--also a possible next stop for Donn winner Constitution--and the long layoff that usually follows. Art Sherman also mentioned a turf campaign. California Chrome did win a Grade 1 on grass, albeit a weak one, in his only infield start. If your horse was beaten as decisively by Shared Belief as California Chrome was, how anxious would you be to try him again when there are other options?

Shared Belief will stay home for the Big Cap. Unless Bayern shows up, the concept of handicaps, will be made a mockery of, which they should be. They are a relic of another era. With no California Chrome and no Bayern, Shared Belief would have to be assigned a Kelso-type load to try to bring him back to those in for minor shares. Santa Anita isn’t going to do anything--and shouldn’t--to keep racing’s biggest crowd magnet back in the barn.

Other than the BC Classic, the only flaw on Shared Belief’s credit sheet is he has never raced outside California. If nothing goes wrong, this will be eradicated in the fall when the Breeders’ Cup is run at Keeneland. It would be great if it happened before then.

After the Big Cap, there is really nothing for him out West until the (formerly Hollywood) Gold Cup in June. The Alysheba, whose purse was just kicked up to $400,000, on Derby Day, and/or the $1.25 million Met Mile on the Belmont Stakes undercard could entice Jerry Hollendorfer to shed his stated reluctance to put his superstar gelding on a plane.

We can only hope.

Constitution emerged as a new top contender among older horses winning the Donn over Lea, who couldn’t run him down with the length of the stretch to do it. On the basis of the Beyer Figs, Constitution’s 113 was a stronger race than Shared Belief’s 106. I’m a big fan of the Beyers. They are one of my main handicapping tools. But is there anyone who believes Constitution ran a better race or that he is a better horse?

Jeff Siegel, one of the finest evaluators of horses in America, said on HRTV’s The Player on Sunday that he doesn’t buy the superior fig for Constitution. “Shared Belief may be as good a horse as we’ve seen this century…There is no way Constitution is beating Shared Belief.”

The greatest generation?

The beat goes on for foals of 2011, which is shaping up as one of the strongest crops ever.

Trailing home Shared Belief, who was beating older horses for the third straight time (fourth if you count the BC Classic) and California Chrome in the San Antonio was Hoppertunity, who had bested older horses in the Grade 1 Clark and Grade 2 San Pasqual in his two most recent starts.

Three-year-olds swept the first three positions in the Clark. One of those Hoppertunity beat in the Clark was then 3-year-old Constitution, who, as mentioned, vanquished now 5-year-old Lea, the defending champion who was on a three-stakes winning streak.

We’re still waiting for the 2015 debuts of BC Classic winner Bayern and Tonalist, who won the Jockey Club Gold Cup against older rivals as a 3-year-old.

And let’s not forget super filly Untapable, who made short work of older foes in the BC Distaff.

Here’s something to consider: It’s a relatively small sample of races but Shared Belief, California Chrome, Bayern, Tonalist and Untapable have never been beaten to the wire by an older rival.

What did it pay?

I was at Gulfstream so I didn’t have an opportunity to properly evaluate the Fox Sports telecast of the four stakes. The bits I did see and hear were well done.

But the most promoted aspect was the Cross-Country Pick 4. Thanks to the dragging of posts at Gulfstream and Santa Anita, as well as a lengthy inquiry in the San Marcos, which should have been decided in less than a minute, little time was left in the allotted two hours after the San Antonio “official” was posted.

The prices at Santa Anita were put on the screen but the one coast to coast players were waiting for, the Pick 4, didn’t make it onto the telecast. This shouldn’t have happened and everything possible must be done to make sure it doesn’t happen in future shows tied to a Pick 4.

Pick 4 “will pays” are posted before the final leg at every track that offers the bet. So the Fox crew should have known what they would be before the San Antonio gate was sprung. It should have been the first thing reported after the race was made official.

There was a wonderful mood-soother for those angry that it wasn’t. The 50-cent bet returned $68.25 (not including rebates offered for ADW wagers). It was an extraordinarily generous payoff, which projected to $273 for a $2 wager, for two favorites and two second choices, who went off at 7-5, 5-2, 9-5 and even-money.

You can’t do that in NY

David Jacobson announced shortly after Salutos Amigos surged from the back of the pack to win Saturday's Grade 3 Toboggan Stakes at Aqueduct that he intends to run the horse back in the Grade 2 General George on Feb. 16.

It’s a good thing the General George is at Laurel and not Jacobson’s home track. Under NYRA’s new short-sighted 14-day rule, the entry of Salutos Amigos would not be accepted.

As long as I’m on the subject, Dortmund and Firing Line, were so dominant in the Grade 3 Robert Lewis at Santa Anita it was 21 ½ lengths back to third-place finisher Rock Shandy.

Under another of NYRA’s not well thought out rules, the fourth- and fifth-place finishers, Hero Ten All and Tizcano, who were more than 25 lengths back, would have to work a half-mile for the stewards in less than 53 seconds before they could be entered in a race. So a couple of stakes caliber horses, who had the misfortune to run into arguably the two best 3-year-olds on the West Coast, would be treated the same as a talentless $12,500 maiden claimer.

This underlines the absurdity of hard and fast rules, which amount to the same thing as zero tolerance edicts, which treat a school kid, who chews his grilled cheese sandwich into the shape of a gun, the same way as a young thug who brings his parents’ Glock to school to intimidate class mates.

Written by Tom Jicha

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