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, June 02, 2015

American Pharoah can end Triple Crown drought fatigue

The thrill isn't gone from pursuit of a Triple Crown but it does seem that the excitement level for American Pharoah's bid has been muted in the lead-up to Saturday. Tickets are still not sold out even with NYRA's attempt to create artificial scarcity by announcing a 90,000 cap. It could be that some fans, who have helped pack Belmont for previous Triple Crown attempts, have given up on the possibility of it ever happening again.

MIAMI, June 2, 2015--Could racing fans be suffering from Triple Crown drought fatigue?

Shock and dismay describes my feelings last week when a NYRA email arrived, informing that there were still plenty of tickets available for American Pharoah’s pursuit of the Triple Crown Saturday. After the Preakness, they should have been snapped up faster than primo seats to a Bruce Springsteen concert.

That an ample supply was still available a week and a half later seems to bolster what I suggested when the 90,000 cap was announced just before the Preakness. It was an attempt to jumpstart ticket sales, which had been going slowly, by creating an artificial scarcity.

Adding insult, the recent NYRA ad was dominated by pictures and the names of the bands who will present post-races concerts on Friday and Saturday. There was an image of a horse in Zayat colors but he was not identified as American Pharoah, the star of the show.

The potential of witnessing racing history, not a concert, should be the magnet. That it isn’t should be troubling to everyone in racing. The Kentucky Derby is the Kentucky Derby, an annual spectacle of Americana. Otherwise, there is no bigger event in the sport than a bid for a Triple Crown. Yet it appears to be eliciting yawns.

It could be just me but it also seems there has been considerably less attention in the mainstream media to American Pharoah’s attempt to end the long drought between Triple Crown winners. Then again, most of the mainstream media no longer treats racing as worthy of a regular place in the sports section. Where there used to be stories almost every day between the Preakness and Belmont, it looks as if the best racing can hope for is an advance on Saturday and coverage of the race on Sunday.

Maybe many of those who have gone again and again to the Belmont Stakes with high hopes that this would be the year have given up and decided it isn’t worth enduring the hassles with such a high expectation of disappointment.

A more positive explanation is racing fans are not conditioned to purchase advance tickets but they will show up and fill the place on Saturday. Reserved seats for the Belmont have sold out. So to the casual racing fan, there was no urgency to buy general admission early. At every previous Belmont and even when the Breeders’ Cup was in New York, you could walk up the day of the event and pay your way in with no problems.

However, the possibility that a “been there, done that, don’t need to be disappointed again” mindset is taking hold is one more reason to root for American Pharoah to complete the sweep. A victory would make the next dozen attempts enticing because it will have been established that it can be done. Another failed effort will enhance the negative vibe that it has become an impossibility, so why get excited?

Return Met Mile to Memorial Day

The Met Mile will be a terrific race this Saturday as it always is.

Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Bayern will be there and I’ll be shocked if there is an attempt to rate him as there was in the Churchill Downs on Derby Day. A tardy start was a factor but this is a horse who went 44 1/5 for a half-mile then drew away to win by more than 7 in 1:20 3/5 in the Woody Stephens on Belmont Day 2014.

Belmont Stakes and Jockey Club Gold Cup champion Tonalist will be shooting for his fifth consecutive win at Belmont. Cigar Mile winner Private Zone, who also twice won the Vosburgh and outran Bayern in the Churchill Downs, will be trying to enhance his resume of Grade 1 wins. Honor Code, who beat Private Zone in the Gulfstream Park Handicap at the Met Mile distance, is back on his home grounds for Shug McGaughey. Wicked Strong could fire another big one at any time and the price will be more than right.

This is a traditional classic that deserves its own stage, not burial on an undercard of a stakes laden program that doesn’t need it. Adding such a prestigious event to the star packed Belmont program is overkill. I’ll keep reiterating this until the Met Mile goes back home to Memorial Day.

Meanwhile the Memorial Day card has been taken over by New York bred stakes, nice races but hardly an incentive for a fence-sitting fan to opt for Belmont over other events on the unofficial kickoff of summer.

There are rumblings that big changes are coming at NYRA. At the top of the list should be returning the Met Mile to Memorial Day.

$250K for 2YO’s in June outrageous

I was highly critical when it was announced that the run-up to the Belmont Stakes would include a pair of $250,000 stakes for juveniles at 5 ½ furlongs. I predicted they would be America’s richest non-winners of one other than. I feel vindicated.

The first of them, the Astoria Stakes, drew a field of only six, two of them maidens, one of those a first-time starter. It came up so soft, it is being run as the third race on the Thursday card. For this, NYRA is putting up a quarter-million dollars.

I know NYRA is awash in casino cash, which has to be put into purses, but there surely has to be a better way to spend it.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Tuesday, May 26, 2015

American Pharoah the latest star leaving the game too soon

The announcement that American Pharoah will almost certainly be retired at the end of his 3-year-old campaign has stripped some of the excitement from his pursuit of the Triple Crown. Instead of a new star for fans to get enthused about, he will soon be no more than a memory.

MIAMI, May 26, 2015--American racing desperately needs a star on the track, not another potential star in the breeding shed. Sports-- all forms of entertainment--has become star and big event driven. Racing has been lacking in both areas, especially star power.

This is why the announcement that American Pharoah will almost certainly be retired at the end of his 3-year-old season hit like a punch in the gut, knocking the wind out of the joyful anticipation that the Triple Crown finally might be completed after 37 years.

If American Pharoah were to finish the sweep a week from Saturday, he would become sports’ superstar du jour. The cover of Sports Illustrated would be almost a sure thing. Maybe even one of the news magazines, ala Secretariat. American Pharoah’s subsequent races would get national TV exposure. Newspapers that have abandoned racing coverage would find room for it again.

Alas, all of this might be only a dream unfulfilled. Instead of packing race tracks, American Pharoah will soon become just a memory like Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed.

It wouldn’t be shocking if next Saturday is the last time he is seen under silks. His owner Ahmad Zayat said this isn’t going to happen. He was quoted on saying, “He is not going to be retired after the (Belmont)… I am not depriving myself and racing fans from continuing to see him race.”

In fact, he is. Assuming good health, there is no sporting reason why American Pharoah could not race as a 4-year-old, as Seattle Slew and Affirmed, the most recent Triple Crown winners, did.

But Zayat has about 20 million financial reasons to send American Pharoah to the farm after this season. If he were to complete the Triple Crown, he could command $100,000 a pop in the breeding shed. His sire, Pioneer of the Nile, stands for a reported $60K and he didn’t win any of the Triple Crown races. In demand stallions now are bred to 200 or more mares a year. Do the math. In one season, American Pharoah could earn twice as much as racing’s leading all-time money earners did in their entire careers.

If American Pharoah wins the Belmont, he will have no more significant worlds to conquer. The Travers and Breeders’ Cup Classic would be the whipped cream and cherry atop his career but those races have a winner every year. The Triple Crown hasn’t been conquered since the Carter administration.

American Pharoah can only diminish his luster should he be defeated. It isn’t going very far out on a limb to predict that if American Pharoah does continue to race, he will lose only once before a reason will be found—injuries, real or phantom have a way of popping up to excuse a disappointing performance-- to bring his career to a premature end.

I have a suggestion that would keep racing’s stars on the track at least through their 4-year-old seasons. The Jockey Club should refuse to register foals sired by any stallion younger than 5-years-old. This would do more to strengthen the game than any of the hand wringing over medications.

However, this proposal has absolutely no chance of being adopted. It would require sacrifices by some for the good of all. When has that ever happened?

A rare Gulfstream misstep

Tim Ritvo has done a masterful job running the racing operations of The Stronach Group. So it was out of character for Gulfstream to do something last week that was short-sighted from a business perspective as well as fan unfriendly.

The Rainbow 6, which has been copied all over the map, is geared to be paid out only in the event one player has all six winners. However, when it has gone un-hit for a long period and built to an astronomical figure in the millions, Gulfstream has designated certain dates for it to be paid out to bettors with the most winners on that particular day.

Last Friday, May 22, was one of those days. Why is difficult to figure. The carryover was so slim that the track felt compelled to guarantee the pool would be at least $350,000. Moreover, Friday was the last work day before the start of the three-day Memorial Day weekend.

This made it difficult for weekend warriors, who put most of the money into the pool, to participate. This was true in South Florida and at simulcast sites across the country. Fans did pour more than $903,000 into the bet but logic dictates it would have been so much more if the mandatory payoff would have been reserved for Saturday, Sunday or Memorial Day. A guarantee would have been unnecessary.

Gulfstream doesn’t normally race on Monday and in spite of it being a national holiday, there was no major race to bring out fans. A huge Rainbow 6 jackpot would have provided plenty of incentive to spend the holiday at the track and for fans elsewhere to get involved. Thanks to NYRA’s ill-advised decision to relocate the Met Mile off Memorial Day, there wasn’t much to get excited about on the national scene.

Gulfstream has made few missteps under Ritvo’s leadership but the Friday mandatory payoff strikes me as one of them.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Tuesday, May 19, 2015

NYRA Making Its Own History

A decision by the New York Racing Association based on business considerations, with customer comfort as a guise, will make Belmont Park on June 6 the first racetrack in history to turn away customers. In an era where tracks try to attract a few more fans by concocting every promotion imaginable, almost all of which have little to do with racing, NYRA is willing to say you're not welcome to 20,000 to 30,000 fans, attracted by, of all things, racing. A crowd in excess of 100,000 will make things uncomfortable, but this is not what this is about. NYRA is trying to guarantee it can sell 90,000 tickets in advance for years when a Triple Crown is not at stake.

NEW YORK, May 19, 2015--History will be made at Belmont Park on June 6.

This isn’t a Joe Namath style guarantee that American Pharoah will complete the first sweep of the Triple Crown in 37 years. That’s where my heart is but the Triple Crown has been won 11 times. What’s going to happen at Belmont on June 6 will be a first. Never before has a racetrack anywhere turned away customers.

The insanity of NYRA’s decision to cap Belmont Stakes Day attendance at 90,000 is almost beyond words in stupidity and deserves condemnation from every facet of the racing industry. Tracks stage T-shirt days, food truck days, $1 beer days and every other manner of promotion in an effort to get people through the gate.

Thanks to American Pharoah, NYRA has the opportunity to draw more fans than have ever witnessed racing in New York—and the lure will be a horse in search of historical achievement, not gimmicks. More than 102,000 turned out last year hoping to see California Chrome break the Triple Crown drought.

To put into perspective how many more are within reach for American Pharoah’s bid, California Chrome drew 123,469 to last year’s Preakness. American Pharoah lured 131,680 this year. With the promise of the strongest field in recent memory, a record 170,000-plus showed up at Churchill Downs on Derby Day.

NYRA professes that its decision is based on customer comfort. Nonsense. People didn’t clear the parking lots in Louisville or Baltimore for hours after the last race. They knew this would be the case when they made the decision to attend. It didn’t discourage them.

To clarify, certainly an untold number opted against bucking the throngs and traffic. But a record number at both venues decided this was a special opportunity worth the aggravation. This is how it should be. Let people decide instead of making a paternalistic decision that you know what is better for them than they do.

With Belmont’s mammoth building and enormous backyard it is a failure of planning if NYRA can't devise ways to accomodate them. Granted NYRA doesn’t open the infield. This raises the question, why not? If Churchill and Pimlico can install temporary betting windows and portable toilets, why can’t Belmont?

Parking and public transportation would be nightmares but they are in Louisville and in the vicinity of Pimlico. This didn’t discourage record turnouts for the Derby and Preakness. Again, warn the fans then let them make their own decision. A post-race concert, which NYRA is staging, is one way to spread out the exit strategies of fans.

New York, “the Big Apple,” takes pride in doing things bigger and better than any place else. NYRA’s Belmont Stakes cap is a concession that in this instance it is content to be the Little Raisin.

Truth is, the 90,000 limit is not based on customer consideration. It is a business decision by the Toy Man. Belmont Stakes Day tickets have been on sale for months. The cap wasn’t announced until a few days before the Preakness. Maybe advance sales weren't matching expectations. Nothing drives demand more than scarcity. So an incentive to buy early, before the potential of a Triple Crown bid was sealed, was devised. Absent a Triple Crown possibility 90,000 is a pipe dream.

From strictly a business perspective, it is in NYRA’s interest to turn away tens of thousands of fans this year. It would incentivize fans to buy early in subsequent years, months before anyone knows who would even contest the Derby-Preakness-Belmont series. The idea is to guarantee 90,000 every year even at the expense of alienating fans this year.

I watched the Preakness at the Meadowlands simulcast facility. When American Pharoah crossed the wire, many were saying aloud that they were going to Belmont on June 6. When I burst their bubble with news of the cap, I was called a bleepin' idiot, who didn't know what I was talking about. Fortunately I had the proof on my i{Phone. The reaction of some of them--young guys who are racing's No.1 demographic target--wouldn't have been acceptable in Fifty Shades of Gray, let alone this column. NYRA has ticked off a lot of people, likely more when race day arrives.

Another indication that business comes before fans is NYRA’s announcement right after the Preakness that tickets for the Belmont would not be available at the Belmont Park box office. They must fear being overwhelmed by the 2,000-3,000 fans, who show up on normal race days.

For as long as they remain available, Belmont tickets can only be purchased through Ticketron, which should do business wearing a mask. I went to the site and the markup is $4.50 on a $15 general admission ticket. That’s 30%. Way to treat your fans, NYRA.

There is still time for NYRA to do the right thing and reverse itself while protecting its business in future years.. An easy face-saver is at hand. “In light of the fact that there is such overwhelming interest in American Pharoah’s attempt to capture racing’s most elusive prize and the fact that we didn’t announce the cap until late in the game, we are suspending the limit for this year only. However, for future Belmont Stakes, the 90,000 cap will be in place.”

It owes this to horsemen, fans and every track in America that knocks themselves out with promotions in the often futile hope that they can attract new fans.

I have a final question. Let’s be optimistic and assume American Pharoah completes the first Triple Crown sweep since 1978. In the winner’s circle Bob Baffert announces his champion is going to get a two-month break and be pointed toward the Travers. Does NYRA institute a cap at Saratoga, too? It would be odds-on that the biggest crowd ever to descend upon the Spa would want to be there.

If NYRA gets away with it on June 6, you can bet on it.

Written by Tom Jicha

Comments (40)


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