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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Friday, May 09, 2014

Derby Handicapping 101 Reminder: Keep It Simple, Stupid

LAS VEGAS, May 9, 2014--The 140th Kentucky Derby taught many lessons, the most important being don't ignore the obvious when handicapping the race. California Chrome was a standout and ran like one. Also, if you have never been to Las Vegas for a Derby, it's something to put on your bucket list.

So what did we learn from Kentucky Derby 140?

Sometimes the best handicapping advice is, “Keep it simple, stupid.” California Chrome jumped off the past performance page as the most talented horse. Every prep seemed to be won by a different hopeful.

But California Chrome went into the Derby with a perfect 4-for-4 resume in 2014. The significance of Beyer Speed Figures are diminished or dismissed by some handicappers. This year, the Beyers were right on. California Chrome was what is known as a “double fig.” Each of his last two races produced numbers faster than anyone else in the field had ever run.

Toss horses who winter in New York. If their connections had legitimately high hopes for them, they would be in Florida, Louisiana, Arkansas or California. Even two-time stakes winner Samraat commuted to Florida between his Big Apple scores. You can’t properly train up to the Derby dodging blizzards. Gary Contessa, who trains Samraat’s rival Uncle Sigh, said if he had it to do over, he would have taken Uncle Sigh to Florida.

The curse of Apollo is not a coincidence. Every year a herd of late developers, who didn’t race as 2 year-olds, inject new excitement into Derby prep season. Last year, it was Verrazano. The year before it was Bodemeister. Going back a bit, Curlin and Pulpit couldn’t beat the jinx.

This year’s crop was exceptionally loaded: Constitution, winner of the Florida Derby; Rebel winner and Santa Anita Derby runnerup Hoppertunity; Bayern and Social Inclusion, each exciting multi-length winners of their maiden and entry level allowance heats.If the hex was to be broken, this seemed like the year. It wasn’t. It never is. The four outstanding colts didn’t even make the field for one reason or another.

Keep this in mind next winter, especially if you are foolhardy enough to bet Derby futures.

The search for the next Derby winner starts the day after the current year’s Derby. Don’t get sucked in. Enjoy the summer stakes at Belmont, Saratoga and Del Mar but don’t put any stock in how they project toward the following spring.

California Chrome did win a state-bred stakes at Del Mar last summer but it was at 5 ½ furlongs and he came out of it to run sixth twice as the distances extended. Orb didn’t break his maiden until Thanksgiving weekend. I’ll Have Another was sixth in the Hopeful and didn’t win his first stakes until the following February. Animal Kingdom had only a late October maiden win going into his 3-year-old season.

Street Sense in 2007 is the only winner in the history of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile to double in the Derby. This is no longer a small sample.

Humongous betting pools on Derby Day make it the ideal situation for a betting coup. The California connections of a maiden named Masochistic might have made life-changing scores in the third race last Saturday.

The California-bred colt by $2,000 sire Sought After had raced only once, a fifth-place finish in a state-bred maiden race in March. That he had been shipped cross-country for an open maiden race, which paid only pennies more than he could have run for in a restricted race at Santa Anita, was the first red flag.

I had totally dismissed him during my night-before handicapping but my head was lifted when he opened an overwhelming favorite. Then the money continued to pour in. Masochistic must have made many horseplayers feel that way when he ran off by 14 lengths as the 2-1 favorite.

Derby Day in Las Vegas

Derby Day beckons almost as early in Las Vegas as it does on the Churchill Downs backstretch. Damn that three-hour time difference.

The alarm in my hotel room sounded the call to the post at 5:45 a.m. I knew if I wasn’t downstairs by 6:30—an hour before the first race in Louisville--there would be no places available in South Point’s spacious race book. I might have to set the clock earlier next year. By 6:20 I was lucky to find a spot in a corner. Otherwise I would have had to wait in line for the 8 a.m. opening of the 800-seat Grand Ballroom and the showroom near the racebook, which is pressed into service for the spillover on Derby Day.

Only in Louisville is Derby Day bigger than Las Vegas. The difference is they don’t rip you off in Vegas. Seats are free. Drinks are free. Forms are free. If you bet a decent amount, your meals are free. Bet enouigh and your room is free, too.

Churchill Downs did its best to screw this up. When the meet opened on April 26, the Nevada race books had not settled on a new contract, so Churchill’s races were blacked out. In its customary greed, Churchill wanted to keep all or most of the new elevated takeout it inflicted on horse players. Nevada race books balked.

The only consolation is it was made clear the casinos planned to book Oaks and Derby Day, just like old times. This would have afforded me the double pleasure of betting the big days without contributing a dime to Churchill’s bottom line, which is my plan unless and until the takeout is rolled back.

But a deal was struck on Thursday afternoon, too late for that day’s races, but in time for business as usual on Friday and Saturday. I can’t tell you the satisfaction I got to read that all sources Churchill betting was down on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. You have to figure a lot of the shortfall was a result of the Las Vegas blackout.

I expect this was Part One of the lesson Churchill is going to learn this year: when you raise the takeout, you don’t make more money, you make less. But you do make more enemies.

Churchill’s cold-heartedness is boundless. Ron Turcotte won back-to-back Derbies with Riva Ridge and Secretariat before a 1978 racing mishap resulted in him being confined to a wheelchair. In the years since, Turcotte has been serving as an ambassador for the sport, signing autographs and chatting up Derby fans at the Racing Museum near the paddock.

A couple of years ago, Churchill pulled Turcotte’s access to a handicapped parking spot. A documentary film maker, doing a piece on Turcotte, reportedly came up with $500 to buy a spot for him. (Churchill has no qualms about ripping off even the significantly disabled). This year, Turcotte was told he had access only to the museum, not to any place where he could actually see the race for which he and Secretariat still hold the record for fastest Derby ever.

It’s the same with horsemen. Rick Porter, owner of Normandy Invasion, who was entered in the Alysheba, was informed there would be no seats for him or any of his partners. Coincidentally, Normandy Invasion suffered a minor injury on the eve of the race and scratched.

The only antidote is for jockeys and owners to band together and decree that unless they are treated like the essential element of the sport they are, they will find other places to race. And players will find other tracks to bet.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Wednesday, April 30, 2014

‘California’ vs. Team Florida in Derby

MIAMI, April 29, 2014--California Chrome is the one to beat for the Roses but he'll have to outrun a strong contingent that wintered in South Florida.

The 2014 Kentucky Derby comes down to California Chrome and everyone else.

The California-bred comes into the Run for the Roses with only one knock. He’s a California bred. No Cal bred has won the Derby since Decidedly in 1962. This might not be the equal of the Apollo jinx but it is a fairly strong non-recommendation.

Otherwise, California Chrome offers everything you would want in a Derby horse. He’s at the top of his game, a winner of four straight. From a couple dozen major Derby preps, only three horses have won twice.

California Chrome is one of them. (Samraat, the terror of Aqueduct’s winter track, and Vicar’s in Trouble, who won the relatively minor LeComte before taking the Louisiana Derby, are the others.)

California Chrome’s romps in the San Felipe and Santa Anita Derby over superior competition outweighs those.

Although his breeding doesn’t scream distance, veteran trainer Art Sherman says California Chrome can run all day. “He has no wasted motion. A mile and a quarter should be no problem for him.” The way California Chrome drew away in the stretch as the distances extended lends credibility to Sherman’s faith.

California Chrome is tractable. He likes to race close to the pace but can take back a bit if Victor Espinoza decides this is the way to go. This could be crucial in a race in which the early fractions are expected to be hot and contested.

He’s also a great story, the first horse for an owner who bred him, with a trainer who has kicked around for more than a half-century. Racing could use a heart-warming antidote to the Steve Asmussen contretemps.

But most people like to try to beat the favorite so there are other places to look for a winner. I agree with something Mike Maker said during a Derby conference call. Maker, who will saddle Vicar’s in Trouble, General a Rod and Harry’s Holiday, acknowledged that California Chrome is a deserving favorite but added, “I’m not sure the Florida horses aren’t the strongest.”

Indeed, Gulfstream-based 3-year-olds were potent on the Derby trail. Vinceremos shipped over to Tampa to win the Sam F. David. Ring Weekend, who has opted out of the Derby, took the same cross-Florida route to capture the Tampa Derby.

Intense Holiday went to the Fair Grounds twice. He ran over the Louisiana contingent in the Risen Star, with eventual Rebel winner Hoppertunity, in his
wake, then chased home Vicar’s in Trouble, who fell into a dream trip on the lead in the Louisiana Derby.

Danza was still eligible for an entry level allowance when he shipped from Gulfstream to Oaklawn to upset the Arkansas Derby.

Wicked Strong was a disappointment in South Florida but shipped north to win the Wood Memorial and became the new darling of the beat-the-favorite crowd. This is based on the belief that all he needed was to get away from speed-favoring Gulfstream, where he had the only two out-of-the-money finishes on his resume. If the pace is as hot as expected, he will be running down a lot of horses in the long Churchill stretch.

Moreover, two of Gulfstream's best, Florida Derby winner Constitution and Holy Bull hero Cairo Prince, won't make the Derby but ultra game Wildcat Red and General a Rod will. There was no tougher place to win a stakes this winter.

I’ll use Wicked Strong in my pick 3’s and 4’s but I prefer Intense Holiday, who has gotten better with each race. He came south with a maiden win at
Monmouth, his only in-the-money finish from five starts as a 2-year-old. He immediately became Grade 2 placed with an OK third in the Holy Bull before
his two big races at the Fair Grounds.

All winter I’ve felt that Wildcat Red and General a Rod have distance limitations. I still feel that way but it wouldn’t shock me if either hit the board for a minor share.

Danza got a dream run up the rail in the Arkansas Derby. He doesn’t have Calvin Borel aboard, so how likely is that to happen again in a 20-horse field?

If the best horses were in Florida, those in California weren’t far behind. As noted, Hoppertunity shipped east to win the Rebel. Then he ran second to California Chrome in the Santa Anita Derby. Candy Boy’s poor effort in that race is a mystery but he was considered the best in the West until California Chrome emerged, so he has the talent to bounce back at a nice price.

I’ve discounted NYRA winter warriors Samraat and Uncle Sigh all season. I’ll either be vindicated or look foolish Saturday.

The same goes for synthetic specialists Dance With Fate, We Miss Artie, Medal Count and Harry’s Holiday.

Ride on Curlin has been close in several stakes but appears to lack the punch to get the job completely done.

For the good of racing, let’s hope that Steve Asmussen-trained Tapiture doesn’t repeat his Churchill Downs victory in the Kentucky Jockey Club. The negativity an Assmussen win would generate would turn racing’s grandest day into a dark one.

In multi-race wagers, I'll have a lot of California Chrome, a goodly share of Intense Holiday and Hoppertunity and a few small savers on Candy Boy and Wicked Strong. In exactas, I'll box California Chrome, Intense Holiday and Hoppertunity and put California Chrome on top and bottom of the other four I mentioned.

May the sun shine bright.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Churchill Downs and CDI are two different worlds

Churchill Downs is a treasure. However, its parent company, Churchill Downs Inc., has done more to undermine the sport than any PETA video could ever do.

MIAMI, April 23, 2014--Churchill Downs becomes a magical name again Saturday as the spring meet opens and the countdown to the Kentucky Derby gains intensity.

It’s a grand setting: the twin spires, the pageantry and color, the song, the fashions and hats, celebrities on Millionaires Row, the majesty and excitement of some of the world’s finest thoroughbreds in action.

This is as much a mirage as a Kim Jung Un birthday celebration. You have to look past the spectacle and focus on what goes on behind the scenes.

Those in and around the game appreciate the vast difference between Churchill Downs, the fabled home of the Derby, and Churchill Downs Inc. (CDI), the cold, bottom-line driven corporation, which has repeatedly demonstrated it has little regard for racing.

That CDI sold the most revered race name in the world to a second-tier fast food company is all you need to know. But there’s so much more.

CDI is now primarily a casino company. This is where its efforts and investments go. Racing is just something to be tolerated in states that demand a slots parlor be attached to a functioning race track.

The latest outrage is the raising of the takeout just before Derby week. Win-place-show goes from 16 to 17.5 percent. Multiple horse wagers jump from 19 to 22 percent. We can only hope bettor boycotts being organized to protest are successful. It might be hard to skip Derby Day but after that ignoring Churchill's races aren't much of a sacrifice.

The company has no shame that it had to resort to gimmickry to legally do it. Kentucky has a handle threshold, $1.2 million. Above it, the lower takeout is dictated. Below it, the takeout can be raised. Churchill got below it by including its first ever short fall meeting, which had no tradition or familiarity with fans and failed to approach the handle levels of the customary spring and late fall sessions.

CDI excused its money grab by saying part of the increased revenue—roughly half will go to CDI’s bottom line—will be put into purses, so that it can compete for horses with tracks in states with racinos.

This would include Louisiana and Florida. Let’s talk about those. Horsemen at the Fair Grounds have had to go to the state legislature to get a bill passed to force CDI to reinvest 10 percent of its racino profits into maintenance of the facility, which is deteriorating from neglect. The situation is so dire that the Louisiana State Racing Commission has delayed renewing CDI's operating license and will hold a special hearing on May 1 to review the matter.

In spite of having more than 600 slot machines at the track, the turf course has been unusable more often than not the past two seasons due to poor drainage. The infield video screen broke and wasn’t repaired. Rep. Helene Moreno, according to, the digital component of the New Orleans Times Picayune, toured the barn area and was critical of the sub-standard conditions. One stall had an eight-inch dip in the middle.

The responses of Austin Miller, CDI’s senior vice president of gaming operations, are revealing of the company attitude. Miller said if the turf course isn’t suitable for racing, horses and horsemen should adapt. “They all train on dirt. They should be able to run on dirt.”

A contributing factor to the troubled grass course, according to horsemen, is the annual Jazz Festival. Thousands of music fans are allowed to trample the course because it’s a big money-maker for CDI.

As for the video screen, Miller said hardly anyone watches it anyway, since most betting is done by customers inside the plant.

Miller said the barns cited by Rep. Moreno are the exception, that most are well maintained. Rep. Moreno countered that one of the barns Miller cited, Al Stall’s, is in exemplary condition because Stall goes into his own pocket to keep it that way.

The situation in Florida is even more distressing. CDI-owned Calder Race Course is under siege by Gulfstream’s aggressive move to race year-round, head to head. The situation is somewhat reminiscent of Russia’s incursion into Crimea. It was made easy for Gulfstream because so many welcomed the change.

Many of Calder’s top outfits—Marty Wolfson, David Fawkes, Eddie Plesa Jr., et al--have moved across town due to what they feel is years of mistreatment and sub-par conditions at Calder. One of the last straws was the introduction of per diem rent for grooms and hot-walkers.

Clearly Calder is continuing to race only to maintain its slots license. Field size is a joke. This past Sunday, eight races drew 48 starters. Two fields had four horses apiece.

Graded stakes have been canceled on short notice. The turf course is in pathetic shape even though there hasn’t been a race on it since January. The third, fourth and fifth floors of the building are closed.

What used to be the elegant Turf Club has been shut down. A replacement has been created in a corner of the first floor of the grandstand, where the poker room formerly was. Poker players have been relocated to the adjacent slots facility, which has all the most modern amenities and comforts. This is where CDI spends its money now.

CDI’s priorities also can be gleaned from its role in the shutting down of Hollywood Park. CDI bought the Southern California facility in the hope/belief that slots would be approved by the California legislature. When that didn’t happen, CDI sold the track to a land development company, indifferent to the fact that this doomed one of the most celebrated race tracks in America.

A big reason there has been so much speculation that the Breeders’ Cup might be anchored permanently in Southern California is the difficulty dealing with CDI. It’s not coincidental that Keeneland is making a major push to bring the Breeders’ Cup back to Kentucky. This might be the Commonwealth’s only hope.

Frank Stronach has made several offers without success to buy Calder. All of racing would be better off if the billionaire Stronach took it a step further and bought all of the CDI racetracks. No matter what else might be said about him, Stronach cares about racing. This hasn’t been able to be said about Churchill Downs Inc. since the current regime took over, a reality that even the first Saturday in May can’t camouflage.

Written by Tom Jicha

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