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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Friday, March 08, 2013

Handicaps are a joke; it’s time for them to go

Handicap racing has become a farce. Breeders' Cup Classic champion Fort Larned makes his 2013 debut Saturday in the Gulfstream Park Handicap carrying 124 pounds. He carried 125 in winning Saratoga's Whitney, two races before he won the Classic under allowance conditions. Last Saturday, Game on Dude, who towers over everything on the West Coast, won the Big Cap with 125. Santa Anita has a new rule that highweights can't be assigned more than 126. With many jockeys unable to ride with less than 117 or 118, this makes it impossible to create a true handicap. Racing should stop the charade, retire the term handicap, and run all stakes, especially graded stakes, under allowance conditions.

MIAMI, March 8, 2013--When are we going to stop with the farce that contemporary “handicap” racing has become? This isn’t a novel thought but it is one that needs to be reiterated until something is done.

Fort Larned is making his 2013 debut Saturday in the Grade 2 Gulfstream Park “Handicap.” The reigning Breeders’ Cup Classic champion was assigned 124 pounds, one pound less than the last time he was in a Handicap, the Grade 1 Whitney at Saratoga, which he won.

An argument could be mounted that he is picking up two pounds off the BC Classic. But it would be hard to make this argument with a straight face measuring the 11 horses he beat in the Classic against his opposition this weekend.

One of his five rivals, Decaf Again, is on a 20-race losing streak. He hasn’t hit the board in his last eight starts and was seventh of eight in a $40,000 claimer less than a month ago. Is there anyone who thinks the 12-pound pull Decaf Again is getting is going to bring him together with Fort Larned?

If this truly were a handicap, Decaf Again’s trainer, Barry Rose, would have to go to a maternity ward to find someone who could make the weight.

Another starter, Discreet Dancer, offers a cautionary note for anyone thinking about sending it in on Verrazano in the Tampa Bay Derby. Discreet Dancer was last year’s Verrazano. He won his first two starts at Gulfstream for Todd Pletcher by more than 15 lengths. Then he tried two turns and his first stakes, the Fountain of Youth. He wound up a non-threatening third, beaten more than six lengths. He didn’t show up again under silks for a year.

Discreet Dancer has shown sufficient promise of brilliance to not be dismissed Saturday. His lone loss was to Juvenile Eclipse winner Union Rags, who would go on to win the Belmont. But Discreet Dancer is still a non-stakes winner, getting only nine pounds from a finalist for Older Horse of the Year.

A week previously, Game on Dude ran away with Santa Anita’s Big ‘Cap by more than seven lengths, the biggest winning margin in the 76-year history of the race. He was burdened with 125 pounds. Santa Anita has a relatively new rule that the high weight can’t be assigned more than 126 pounds.

Many top jocks, the caliber sought for big money races, can make no less than 117, 118 pounds. So if the top weight cannot get more than 126, where is the real handicap?

So why continue the charade of labeling stakes “handicaps.”

Weight used to be a measuring stick for a horse’s standing in the sport. The grading of stakes now serves this function.

Also working against the concept of handicaps is the competition among tracks for marquee horses. The heyday of handicaps was during an era almost all big money purses were offered either in New York or Southern California and air travel for horses was unheard of. So outstanding horses, such as Dr. Fager, Kelso, Forego, Affirmed and Spectacular Bid, had to accept 130 pounds or more and spot in excess of 20 pounds to some rivals or stay in the barn.

Today, tracks, many fueled by slots money, would be lining up to throw million dollar purses at superstars while promising friendly weighting. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing for a sport crying out for attention. Outstanding thoroughbreds don't generate publicity standing in their stall.

Handicaps also have outlived their usefulness for bettors. When there was only win, place and show betting, putting the grandstand on a standout was a way to create the illusion that the field was being leveled enough to encourage players to take a shot, rather than passing the race. Exactas, trifectas, superfectas and horizontal multi-race wagers now provide plenty of pari-mutuel lures.

Uniformity: Discussions of uniformity in medication rules is a hot topic. It will be great if it happens. Meantime, how about a consensus among tracks in another area: uniformity in late scratch rules in multiple race wagers?

The fourth race at Gulfstream on March 3 provided an example of why this is needed. Frank Calabrese entered a coupled entry in the $12,500 maiden claimer. One Tough Cowgirl had a single lifetime start, a second-place finish for $25K, beaten just over a length. Her entry mate, Trini Spice, was the only other horse in the field who had raced for more than $12.5K last out. She was fourth for $16K.

Normally a drop in half in claiming price off a solid race like One Tough Cowgirl’s is a red flag. But this is a move Calabrese routinely employs to win.

Midway through third race betting, well into rolling daily double wagering, with rolling pick threes and the early pick four in progress, it was announced One Tough Cowgirl had been scratched.

Anyone who had keyed One Tough Cowgirl, the day’s Best Bet for the Racing Form’s Mike Welsch, was out of luck. Trini Spice surely was competitive and wound up going off the betting favorite. But you have to think One Tough Cowgirl was the horse many had singled in horizontal bets. Nevertheless, they were stuck with Trini Spice, who finished third. Because they were an entry and one of them started, there wasn’t a consolation.

In New York, the entry would have been scratched for betting purposes. Trini Spice would have run for purse money only. Bet 3 players would have gotten a consolation payoff. Pick Four players would have been transferred to the post time favorite. In the absence of Trini Spice, this would have been Pure Treasure, who won.

For the sake of players, NYRA’s policy should be uniform nationwide.

Written by Tom Jicha

Written by Tom Jicha

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Saturday, March 02, 2013

Vyjack answers another question in Gotham; bad day for Pletcher

Saturday was another disappointing day for Team Pletcher's Kentucky Derby hopes. Overanalyze ran a dull fifth in the Gotham, putting him in jeopardy of missing the cut under the new Kentucky Derby points system. Vyjack has no such worries. He remained undefeated and showed a new dimension, racing from far back under Joel Rosario, to turn the Gotham into a tour de force. His 50 points is more than enough to earn a spot in the Derby starting gate. Meanwhile a new Derby hopeful might have emerged from the seven furlong Swale at Gulfstream. Clearly Now closed strongly to win stylishly enough to have his trainer, Brian Lynch, think about putting him back on the Derby Trial. A Pletcher colt disappointed here, too, as Forty Tales ran fifth as the even-money favorite.
March 2

By Tom Jicha

HALLANDALE, FL--The Swale used to be a significant stepping stone toward the Kentucky Derby, the co-feature on Florida Derby Day. That was in an era when trainers didn’t regard a three-race or more prep agenda as animal abuse. Triple Crown contenders would get their 3-year-old campaign started in the seven furlong Swale, then move on to a couple of two-turn stakes.

More significantly, the new Kentucky Derby points system, which dismisses races at less than a mile, hadn’t been created. All of this made this year’s Swale seem to be merely an early season gauge of outstanding sophomore sprinters.

The Swale still might turn out to be just that. But hold the phone. It took Clearly Now only 1:23.19 to perhaps vault himself back into Derby consideration. “There’s always that temptation, isn’t there?” jubilant trainer Brian Lynch said in the Gulfstream winner’s circle. “Especially the way he finished today.”

Clearly Now surged from mid-pack of the 11-horse field to take the lead in the lane, then draw away to a decisive length-and three-quarter margin, which was extending with every stride. In so doing, he remained perfect around one turn, winning for the third time in as many tries. But it’s not as if he is without two-turn credentials. He finished third in Woodbine’s Display, then came south to do the same in the Holy Bull. Granted, he was more than 13 lengths behind Itsmyluckyday and Shanghai Bobby. However, those two were breaking the course record and there were seven behind Clearly Now.

If Clearly Now does jump back on the Derby trail, it will almost certainly be in the Florida Derby on March 30, Lynch said. Itsmyluckyday and Shanghai Bobby and several other promising colts also are targeting Gulfstream’s premier event. “Wherever you go, it’s a gunfight,” Lynch said.

While Lynch allowed himself a few moments to dream the dream, he quickly came back to earth. “There’s the points system (Clearly Now has none). Also, there’s the question of whether he wants to run that far. This might be an ideal distance for him and he might be a lovely miler on the turf.”

About 1,200 miles up the coast in Aqueduct's Gotham, Vyjack continued to provide the correct answers to questions about his ability to handle a distance. Moreover, he showed a new dimension that encourages the notion that the son of Into Mischief will run as far as he has to and do it faster than those lined up against him.

In winning his first three starts at six furlongs, seven furlongs and a mile and 70 yards, Vyjack raced close to the pace. Joel Rosario, who replaced Cornelio Velazquez because of his ability to get horses to relax, did just that. Rosario allowed Vyjack to dawdle at the rear of the 11-horse field down the backstretch in the mile and a sixteenth stake. Going to the far turn Vyjack still had only three horses beaten but Rosario had put him into overdrive.

Rather than break their momentum, Rosario swung Vyjack five wide at the top of the stretch and he gobbled up foes like Pac Man. They hit the wire in 1:44.09 a drawing away 2 1/4 lengths in front.

West Hills Giant, a 33-1 shot whose only victories were in New York-bred races, held the place over maiden winner Elnaawi. However the margin and style of Vyjack’s triumph left the impression that in this bunch there was him and then everyone else.

The Todd Pletcher Derby bandwagon, which had been seemingly running downhill since late last season, hit another pothole as Overanalyze, game winner of the Remsen in November, could do no better than fifth in his season debut. The Remsen is moving toward negative key race status, as runnerup Normandy Invasion also disappointed last Saturday at the Fair Grounds.

Overanalyze's failure comes on the heels of a potential career-ending injury to Violence in last week’s Fountain of Youth and an also-ran performance by Palace Malice in the Risen Star. With points, not money, the new criteria, Pletcher’s once loaded barn of Derby contenders is in danger of running out of time and races to make the Derby cut.

With the cutoff estimated to be at about 40 points (no one knows since this is the first time), Team Pletcher is going to have to begin to step it up, starting next Saturday with Verrazano in the Tampa Bay Derby. As brilliant as he has been in two runaway wins, Verrazano has zero points. If he doesn’t grab the 50 for first in Tampa, he’ll be part of a mad scramble in the final phase of Derby preps, where circumstances might force Pletcher to run multiple entries, each in need of a win or second.

Saturday just wasn’t Pletcher’s day. His Forty Tales, sent away at even-money in the Swale, never really fired and wound up fifth, almost four lengths behind Clearly Now. The best that can be said of this from Pletcher’s standpoint is that Forty Tales was never considered a Triple Crown contender.

The 50 points earned by Vyjack effectively puts him into the Derby starting gate. This affords his connections the luxury of picking his next stop. In the aftermath of the Gotham, they indicated it would be the Wood, which could wind up loaded. However Vyjack’s people don’t have to worry about wringing him out to win, possibly compromising his chances in Louisville.
Though the way he won the Gotham, Vyjack might not have to overextend himself to go into the Derby undefeated.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Friday, March 01, 2013

Common sense is one-for-two

(UPDATE: The Breeders Cup announced its new policies hours after this column was published. Updates within.) The Breeders' Cup appears on the verge of backing off its edict that Lasix will not be allowed in any race during the 2013 renewal. This is a sensible example of discretion being the better part of valor. Prohibiting Lasix in the juvenile races last fall resulted in more than a 20 percent drop in entries for those races. A similar decline throughout the card would jeopardize Breeders' Cup. Unfortunately, common sense is an also ran in South Florida, where Gulfstream and Calder remain on a collision course that will have the two tracks racing head-to-head on weekends year round.
March 1, 2013

Common sense apparently is going to rule at the Breeders’ Cup.

Alas, the same is not the case in South Florida.

The Breeders’ Cup, at a meeting on Feb. 22, gave indications that it is considering backing away from its edict that Lasix will be banned throughout the card at this year’s renewal. The catalyst was what happened last year when the anti-bleeding medication was not allowed in the 2-year-old races. Entries were down more than 20 percent from the previous year and handle dropped correspondingly. (Update: the ban in 2YO races remains in effect. Older horses can continue to race with Lasix. Try explaining the logic of that in 50 words or less.)

Similar declines in the non-juvenile races this coming November would be catastrophic to the bottom line, already hurting from diminished stallion and nomination fees. Lesser fields also would detract—or detract further--from the event’s status as a season-ending championship. When that goes, television’s interest in covering the event will go into a freefall, too.

The Breeders’ Cup intentions were noble, a pushback toward a return to the days of thoroughbreds racing on hay, oats and water, as they do in most of the racing world—at least theoretically. The thinking, or hope, was that If horses had to race “clean” in the championship events, this policy would filter down to the rest of the season.

With few exceptions, this hasn’t happened. Juveniles raced up to the Breeders’ Cup on medication, got off it for the one race, then immediately got on it again. Or they just skipped the Breeders’ Cup.

This figures to also be the case if the Breeders’ Cup stands firm and enforces the Lasix ban on all races. (Update: Which is why they haven't.) Horsemen’s organizations across the nation have argued vehemently against the Breeders’ Cup decree. Owners and trainers could make a solidarity statement by skipping this year’s Breeders’ Cup. So what’s the point of endangering one of the best things to happen in racing during the past century in pursuit of an unattainable goal?

This isn’t even an example of protecting the public. Lasix use is noted on the program and in past performance publications. Bettors learned to deal with it years ago. There were inexplicable form reversals when the medication first came into vogue but now that its use is commonplace, bordering on universal, it’s a minor handicapping factor.

In fact, having horses who have been racing with Lasix their entire career come off it for one race is actually a diservice to fans. Besides, as every player knows, it isn’t the medications on the program that produce form reversals.

Whether or not the Lasix ban is lifted there is likely going to be undeserving casualty, the Juvenile Sprint. (This has happened.) If so, it will be an over-reaction made in haste. The Breeders’ Cup is dismayed that the inaugural running last November produced only five starters. As a result, it generated the least handle of the 15 races. (Duh!)

To argue that this was a product of lack of interest on the part of horsemen is disingenuous. It can be traced almost entirely to the Lasix ban.

There is widespread consensus that there are too many “Breeders’ Cup” races, and that this cheapens the ones that matter. However, a sprint for 2-year-olds makes far more sense than the Marathon. For every race in America at extended distances (anything beyond 10 furlongs on dirt), there are hundreds, if not thousands, of sprints for young horses. The Juvenile Sprint deserves at least one more chance to establish itself without the ban.

LUNACY IN SOUTH FLORIDA: Getting back to South Florida, the deadline for amending dates requests for the year that starts July 1 came and went on Feb. 28 without Calder or Gulfstream blinking. As of now, this means the tracks will engage in a suicidal head-to-head confrontation on weekends starting in July.

Gulfstream initiated this conflict, its primary motivation being an attempt to save a dying mall on the racetrack grounds, which is a ghost town outside the racing season. This is a classic case of sending good money after bad. The mall is unsalvagable and South Florida racing has been put into jeopardy. There simply aren’t enough horses or fans to support two tracks racing simultaneously.

Phil Combest, president of the Florida HBPA, was quoted in the Blood Horse saying, “The idea of racing head to head is crazy and nobody will benefit…The future of Florida racing is at stake.”

Although the tracks are now legally committed to racing the dates they requested, there is still hope that sanity can be restored. Loopholes in the law allow Calder and Gulfstream to re-petition the state if an agreement is reached in the coming months. The drawback is Gulfstream owner Frank Stronach, who is behind the dates grab. People who tell him things he doesn’t want to hear have a tendency to get fired.

However, the Florida legislature meets in the spring and can come up with any remedy it so chooses to save the sport. To borrow a line from another business crisis, thoroughbred racing in Florida, a multi-billion dollar industry that employs tens of thousands, is too big to fail.

The idea that the state will allow it to fall into peril to save a doomed shopping mall is unthinkable.

An obvious solution is to have the state resume setting racing dates as it used to do until the 1980s. When the new way doesn’t work, it’s time to return to the old way.

Written by Tom Jicha

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