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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Thursday, February 18, 2016

Decoupling debate turning against thoroughbred industry

The Florida legislature appears hellbent to allow greyhound, harness and quarterhorse tracks to decouple their parimutuel activities from their slots and poker rooms. A powerful Florida legislator is proposing that Gulfstream and Tampa Bay Downs be given purse supplements as a consolation for allowing their competitors to become free-standing casinos. Gulfstream would be surrounded by 10 of them. As has been shown in Pennsylvania, Indiana and, only this past week, West Virginia, these supplements can be taken away as easily as they are awarded. The only hope for horsemen is to decouple the debate from approval of the Seminole Compact, the engine driving the bill.

MIAMI, Feb. 18, 2016--The war in Florida over decoupling seems to be slipping away from the thoroughbred side. Momentum is shifting toward greyhound, harness and quarterhorse tracks, who want to be relieved of their responsibility to operate pari-mutuels to keep their slots and poker licenses.

The latest indication came Wednesday. State Sen. Joe Negron championed an amendment that would give Gulfstream and Tampa Bay Downs $40-$45 million a year toward purses from the Seminoles and tracks that choose to decouple.

In an indication how settled the issue is in Negron's mind, he said he feels he has bent over backwards to satisfy thoroughbred interests. Negron isn’t just another state legislator. He is the Senate president-in-waiting. Next year, he will rise to a position that will make him the second or third most powerful political figure in the state, someone who can bottle up or advance a bill at his pleasure. So he is not someone other legislators are anxious to cross, especially over a bill for which most of them have no vested interest.

The best hope left, a Hail Mary pass of sorts, for the thoroughbred industry to slow the decoupling express might be with a different decoupling strategy. It should strive to decouple the issue from the monstrous Seminole compact bill, the engine driving the process.Approval of the Seminole compact, which promises Florida $3 billion over its first seven years, seems inevitable. It should be.

This is a dropped-from-Heaven windfall for the state for essentially extending the status quo. The compact guarantees that the Seminoles’ seven casinos around the state will face no new competition with the exception of one new slots operation in Miami and another in Palm Beach.

However, there is no reason pari-mutuel decoupling should have to be a part of the Seminole compact deal. Decoupling is just a tack-on to an already mammoth bill.

If it’s not too late, the thoroughbred industry should emphasize that decoupling is important enough and has sufficient nuances to Florida’s multi-billion dollar pari-mutuel industry that it deserves a full debate on its own, separate from the Seminole compact negotiations, the legislature’s priority.

Among the negative ramifications would be rewarding Churchill Downs Inc. for obnoxious behavior at Calder. It will be able to keep its casino license without the obligation to have Gulfstream conduct an eight-week race meeting.

Another indication that the tide is turning came last week after a House committee meeting. Marc Dunbar, attorney for Gulfstream Park, said The Stronach Group is open to a deal similar to the one proposed by Negron. To that moment, Gulfstream had been adamantly opposed, at least publicly, to decoupling.

It appears Gulfstream realizes all is lost and is trying to salvage the best deal it can cut. Otherwise it’s difficult to understand how the company as a whole would benefit. Its slots and poker room would be surrounded by five competitors (including the new one) in Miami-Dade County; three in its home county Broward and the new slots operation in Palm Beach County.

Flush with cash saved from not having to support racing, Gulfstream’s competitors would be able to upgrade their facilities and introduce perks Gulfstream’s casino would be unable to match.

This is to say nothing of the Seminole Hard Rock, which has sweetened its pitch to lawmakers by promising to build a landmark guitar-shaped 800-room hotel if the compact is approved. Thousands of temporary construction jobs and eventually permanent hotel jobs would be created.

This will put Gulfstream’s casino in the position of being like a 7-11 surrounded by ten Walmart Super Stores.

Florida’s horse industry should have felt a biting chill in the midst of the decoupling debate. A proposal was introduced in the West Virginia legislature to allow Charles Town and Mountaineer race tracks to decouple horse racing from their casinos. The state wants the money that goes to thoroughbred purses to be redirected to the general fund.

If this proposal proceeds successfully through the legislative process, thoroughbred racing is almost certain to cease to exist in West Virginia within the next year or two.

West Virginia is part of a national trend. Indiana and Pennsylvania have redirected money promised to horsemen when casinos were introduced. New Jersey racing is in its death throes since purse supplements Atlantic City was supposed to contribute were eliminated. There are rumblings out of New York that Resorts World, which runs the casino at Aqueduct, is looking for ways to limit its future contributions to horse racing.

If Gulfstream and Tampa Bay Downs have to swallow this deal, they had better make sure the length of the agreement is in perpetuity or as close to that as they can negotiate. Anything less and it’s just a matter of time before the decoupled tracks and/or the state start looking for an escape hatch.

The South Florida racinos had barely opened their doors when they began bellyaching that their tax rate was onerous and they needed relief. Another element of the Seminole compact package will reduce their tax bite. The horsemen might not have access to the right ears but the casino people apparently do.

How long into the purse fund contributions do you suppose it will be before they complain that they should not be compelled to support what amounts to a competitor. Something Negron said indicates they will find a sympathetic ear in Tallahassee. “We have generous purse pools that frankly are coming from people involved in another activity. We’re taking money from them to subsidize people that want to race and raise horses.”

Clearly, someone on the cusp of becoming one of the most powerful lawmakers in the state, doesn’t have a clue about how important thoroughbred racing and breeding is to Florida’s tourism and overall economy. This in itself is frightening.

The war isn't over. Decoupling is still rattling around committees and is far from the finish line. United Florida Horsemen, a coalition of thoroughbred, standardbred and quarterhorse interests, isn’t giving up the fight. It issued a statement on Wednesday saying it strongly opposes any form of decoupling whatsoever.

Separating the decoupling issue from the Seminole Compact negotiations appears to be the only hope to derail, or at least delay, what is increasingly appearing to be inevitable.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, February 11, 2016

Super Saturdays wouldn’t be hurt if some stakes were spread out

Super Saturdays are becoming regular occurrences at Gulfstream. They're great. But in packing these cards with stakes, non-Super Saturdays are suffering. The next two weekends feature a six-horse stakes for older females and a five-furlong turf sprint for 3-year-old fillies. This is not what racing fans have come to expect from the prime winter meeting. In an unrelated matter, some of the sports biggest stars are pointing to the March 26 World Cup program in Dubai. They all race on Lasix in the U.S. but will race without it in the Middle East. So much for the argument that Lasix is essential.

MIAMI, Feb. 11, 2016--There can be too much of a good thing in racing.

Gulfstream has had Super Saturdays on three of the past four weekends—two six-stakes cards and a five-stakes card. They're great. But fans, who enjoy serious stakes action every weekend, will pay the price the next two weeks as they did on the one Saturday that wasn’t Super in the past month when there was only a single non-graded stakes.

There is only one stakes apiece on the next two Saturdays. This coming Saturday’s Grade 2 Royal Delta has come up light with only six entrants. Next weekend’s solo stakes, the ungraded Melody of Colors, is a five furlong turf sprint for 3-year-old fillies.

It borders on foolhardy to argue with success and Gulfstream is having a dynamite season. This past Saturday’s Donn Handicap program handled $20 million. So Gulfstream has the figures on its side. But couldn’t we make these Super Saturdays just a little less Super and spread out the stakes throughout the season?

Would Super Saturdays be that much less Super if they had four stakes with an extra one or two reserved for weekends like the next two? Saratoga has Super Saturdays but there are still multi-stakes cards on the other Saturdays.This is Presidents Day weekend coming up, the busiest three-day tourist period of the winter in the Miami area. It cries out for an alluring Saturday card.

To give credit where it’s due, Gulfstream is trying to dress up its holiday card on Monday with 12 starter allowances. Despite a lack of advance fanfare, the dandy dozen drew an astounding 270 nominations, including several horses with stakes credentials.

With this kind of interest and support, let’s hope this isn’t a one-shot deal. A couple or three starter allowances on Saturdays would be way preferable to the bottom level maiden claimers and beaten claimers, which have shown up with far too much frequency.

The scheduling of the Fred W. Hooper this past Saturday is the strongest example of over-scheduling stakes on Super Saturdays. Why stage a race for older horses on the same day as the Donn? The argument that the Hooper is a one-turn mile and the Donn is a two-turn mile and an eighth wouldn’t score points in any debate.

These two races were essentially drawing from the same pool. Indeed, the Hooper winner, Tommy Macho, was coming out of four straight nine-furlong stakes. Runner-up Stanford had raced a mile and an eighth in three of his five most recent starts and a mile and a sixteenth in the other two. The Hooper surely would have bolstered the Royal Delta or Melody of Colors programs.

The Holy Bull card two weeks ago included turf stakes for 3-year-olds of both genders, the Sweetest Chant and Kitten’s Joy. They got lost that day but also would have added luster to the cards the next two weekends.

A little bit less on Super Saturdays could be so much more on Saturdays that are not quite Super.

No Lasix; no problem

Frosted set a track record the other night in Dubai. California Chrome is scheduled to have his World Cup prep at Meydan in a couple of weeks. Mshawish, who took the Donn, will soon be leaving for the Middle East. Keen Ice, who got what his connections wanted from his practice run in the Donn, is ticketed for Dubai, too. Lady Shipman, who ran away with the Ladies Turf Sprint on the Donn undercard, is also heading to Dubai for a $1 million grass sprint. Crack sprinter X Y Jet’s connections are still hoping for an invitation to a rich sprint on the World Cup undercard. Hoppertunity and Donworth are going from the West Coast to Dubai.

These stars all have something in common besides being pointed to the mega-rich World Cup program on March 26. They all race on Lasix in the U.S. but they will race without it in one of the biggest races of their careers next month.

Keep this in mind the next time you hear a horseman argue that Lasix is essential.

A different kind of bad beat

Bad beats come in all shapes and sizes. I’ve been suffering through one with my cable TV for almost a year.

I switched to AT&T U-verse about five years ago because it offered both TVG and HRTV. A couple of years ago, TVG was suddenly dropped. I was annoyed but I assumed this was one of those contract disputes I used to have to cover all the time when I was a TV writer. The one thing I stressed to readers was complaining is futile. Big business does what it wants, the public be damned. (AT&T U-Verse customers in the Miami area have been blacked out of the local Fox affiliate for about a month now.)

HRTV still had most of the major tracks, especially NYRA and the Southern California circuits, so I learned to live with the new normal because of the hassle that comes with switching cable providers.

Then TVG purchased HRTV. My worst fear was racing was about to disappear from my lineup, which has almost 500 channels.This fear didn’t materialize but another disappointment has. Where HRTV used to be, I now get TVG again. But not the main TVG channel with the major tracks. I get TVG2, which is primarily devoted to lesser thoroughbred tracks and a lot of harness racing.

The races from Laurel, Tampa Bay Downs and Oaklawn are fine but not at the expense of being blacked out of Aqueduct, Gulfstream and Santa Anita. When Santa Anita is running on TVG, I get Flamboro Downs on TVG2.

So on behalf of racing fans nationwide, who have AT&T U-verse, I want to make a plea to TVG. As long as you are back on our system, is it too much to ask that you give us the main TVG feed? You would make a lot of friends among racing fans.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, February 04, 2016

Let’s not drape the roses on Mohaymen just yet

Mohaymen looked like one of the ones in the Holy Bull. But let's not lose sight of the fact that there is an undefeated Eclipse champion, Nyquist, on the West Coast. Thanks to a $1 million bonus, the showdown of the undefeated colts could come in April, not May.

MIAMI, Feb. 4, 2016--We interrupt the coronation of Mohaymen as the 13th Triple Crown winner in order to inject some perspective. I was as blown away as everyone else by the grey son of Tapit’s arrogant dismissal of an accomplished group of challengers in Saturday’s Holy Bull. Christopher Kay is probably polishing his Belmont crowd cap press release as you read this.

I would embrace another conquest of America’s most coveted prize as enthusiastically and emotionally as I did American Pharoah’s. (I shed tears and I’m not ashamed to admit it.) I’m rooting for Mohaymen as hard as I did for American Pharoah. Affirmed’s Triple Crown was no less exhilarating even though it came the year after Seattle Slew’s.

However the calendar had not turned into February when Mohaymen flashed under the wire to remain undefeated in his four-race career. It’s still more than three months, an eternity in racing, to the first Saturday in May.

I was equally awestruck when Algorithms—Holy Bull runnerup Greenpointcrusader’s half-brother--buried Juvenile champion Hansel in the 2012 Holy Bull to go three-for-three. Two years earlier, Eskenderya looked any price for the Spring Classics when he ran away with the Fountain of Youth. Between them they would make one more start, Eskenderya’s romp in the Wood Memorial.

I hate to bring up these things but stuff happens in racing. Thankfully, some of it is positive, so let’s accentuate that.

Has everyone forgotten that there is an undefeated Eclipse champion named Nyquist on the West Coast getting ready for his 3-year-old debut in the San Vicente on Feb. 15? Before anyone resurrects my own words to throw in my face, yes I did say in my Eclipse column that while I was voting for Nyquist, if someone gave me a free Derby futures bet, I would place it on Mohaymen. I still feel this way. This doesn't mean I would tear up a ticket on Nyquist.

Being out of sight since Halloween has taken Nyquist out of mind for many. To remedy this I suggest going back and taking another look at the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. (Just Google “Breeders’ Cup Juvenile”.) It’s an eye-opener.

Nyquist was hung out in post 13, got bumped coming out of the gate and wound up about six or seven wide around the first turn. He didn’t get in going down the backstretch so he was four or five wide around the far turn into the stretch. The race might have been a mile and a sixteenth but he ran damn close to a mile and an eighth. Nevertheless, he was able to draw away from everyone but Swipe, who has run second to him four straight times but keeps getting closer.

Swipe looks like the Triple Crown distances were drawn up with him in mind. His 3-year-old debut has been delayed by an ankle chip but he is on the road to recovery and should get going about the same time American Pharoah did last year.

Also in Nyquist’s wake were some nice horses people in the East are still excited about. Brody’s Cause, the Breeders’ Futurity winner, was third. Exaggerator, the Saratoga Special winner, who was second to Brody’s Cause at Keeneland, then won the Delta Jackpot after the Juvenile, is also looking at the San Vicente.

Champagne champion Greenpointcrusader, second to Mohaymen Saturday, checked in 7th behind Nyquist in the Juvenile. Conquest Big E, non competitive in the Holy Bull, was eighth in the Juvenile.
So anybody who dismisses Nyquist at this point does so at their own peril.

Thanks to an extraordinary circumstance, racing fans might not have to wait until Louisville to see the showdown of the two undefeated colts. Doug O’Neill announced some time ago that Nyquist’s Kentucky Derby trail could run through the Florida Derby, the race Mohaymen is also tentatively being pointed toward.

There are a million reasons for this unconventional plotting. Last spring, Fasig-Tipton and Gulfstream Park collaborated on a $1 million bonus available to any horse bought out of the March 2015 Fasig-Tipton sale, who went on to win the Florida Derby. Nyquist was a $400,000 purchase out of that auction. So he would be racing for the winner’s share of the regular $1 million purse plus an extra $1 million if he were to triumph—about $1.6 million, more than the winner’s share of any of the Triple Crown events.

This is a tempting lure to travel cross country to take on Mohaymen without any roses at stake. Then again Kiaran McLaughlin also would have options. He isn’t one to duck any man’s horse under normal circumstances but the final prep before the Derby is not a normal circumstance.

McLaughlin could return to his home base in New York with Mohaymen, where the Wood Memorial on April 9 offers the same $1 million pot as the April 2 Florida Derby without having to take on an Eclipse champion.

Besides, McLaughlin would love to win one of the most tradition rich races on his home circuit. He might opt for this route no matter what O’Neill decides for Nyquist.

This should make for interesting speculation and conversation over the next couple of months, which can only be good for racing.

Written by Tom Jicha

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