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, July 21, 2015

Clearing the boards for Saratoga

It appears American Pharoah is heading for double duty as a stud next year, with a possible trip to Australia on his agenda. So much for him racing as a 4-year-old. Meanwhile, Lasix-free races and winter racing at Aqueduct got boosts during the past week, proponents of synthetic tracks got a chance to say, "I told you so," and another serial jockey cheater was busted again.

MIAMI, July 21, 2015--The dream of American Pharoah racing as a 4-year-old has apparently been dashed. In a story picked up by, The Daily Telegraph in Australia reports there are secret plans to ship the Triple Crown champion down under next year for Australia’s breeding season, which begins in the Southern Hemisphere almost as soon as our breeding season ends.

Financially, it makes sense to double down in two hemispheres. Our most recent Triple Crown winners had spotty records as sires. So Coolmore, which takes control of American Pharoah at the end of this year, could bank a big part of its investment before any of American Pharoah's foals hit the ground. It also doubles the chances that he will produce some offspring as brilliant as he is.

As for the boost his continued presence would give American racing, when has that ever mattered to breeders?

Issues that need addressing

This column is going to be almost all about Saratoga for the next six weeks, so let me get some other things off my chest while awaiting Friday the way a kid counts down to Christmas.

Del Mar had off-tracks over the weekend for the first time since Noah. Ironically, the deluge that caused them came in the midst of one of the worst droughts California has ever endured.

Let’s hope this doesn’t trigger a chorus of “they should have kept the synthetic track.” It’s great to have Del Mar back in the mainstream of racing. A couple of off-tracks every millennium is a small price to pay.

Who needs Lasix?

Gulfstream carded races for 2-year-olds running without Lasix on Saturday and Sunday. They oversubscribed, leading to splits. This would seem to verify that there are a significant number of horsemen willing to run without juice but hesitant to do so because they fear they are giving away an edge.

Better yet, the Lasix-free races outhandled most of the other races. Let’s hope other tracks take note.

Anti-doping bill has long way to go

Along the same lines, it’s encouraging that the optimistically titled Horse Racing Integrity Act of 2015, which would put all drug testing in the hands of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, has been introduced in Congress by Rep. Andy Barr (R, KY) and Rep. Paul Tonko (D, NY).

However, it’s a long way to the finish line. Predictably it was greeted almost immediately by a negative reaction from the National HBPA. “We are opposed to any form of legislation that interferes with the Interstate Horse Racing Act of 1978,” Eric Hamelback, the organization’s chief executive officer, was quoted as saying.

It’s not clear that the proposed bill would do that but the HBPA doesn’t want to risk losing the extortionate hammer it never should have been given to deny a track’s right to simulcast--in other words, put it out of business--if it doesn’t get everything it wants. It used this power to keep the Breeders’ Cup from implementing Lasix-free races at its championship event.

Buzzers should be one-and-done

Drugs aren’t the only scourge challenging racing’s integrity, maybe not even the worst. Jockey Billy Patin and his brother, Joe Patin Jr., are under investigation in Louisiana for allegedly using “buzzers” in recent races at Evangeline Downs.

If the name Billy Patin rings a bell, he was suspended for five years for allegedly using a battery in riding 30-1 Valhol to victory in the 1999 Arkansas Derby. How and why he was ever re-licensed is unfathomable.

But it’s not unprecedented. Roman Chapa has been suspended for five years for the second time for the same alleged offense in a race in Texas last January. Chapa also got nine months in 2007 for allegedly using a nail on a horse.

These should be one-and-done offenses. A horse is more likely to put his life in jeopardy by doing something erratic when being hit by a machine or a nail than he is for a drug overage.

CDI up to its usual tricks

The Arlington Million’s days appear numbered, likely in low single digits. Churchill Downs Inc. failed in its attempt to get fewer than eight-race cards approved at Arlington but it’s revealing that it even tried.

The only thing keeping the Chicago area jewel from suffering the same fate as Hollywood Park and Calder at the hands of CDI is the presence of Richard Duchossois, father of the track and the Million and a major CDI stock holder, who will be 94 in October.

Parx break a boon to Aqueduct

Any chances winter racing at Aqueduct will be curtailed or discontinued in the near future probably ended with the announcement that starting in the upcoming winter, Parx will institute a break--Dec. 22 to Feb. 13 in 2015-16—as part of a scaling back of its racing calendar from 210 dates to 156.

With the only other racing north of Florida at Laurel in Maryland, NYRA should have plenty of horses to fill its cold weather cards. It might even be able to return to five days a week.

The DQ debate continues

California held a hearing on creating new guidelines for disqualifications last week. Surprise! They couldn’t agree. The same old debate arose. Is a foul a foul or should the impact it had on the race be the deciding factor.

I’m in the corner of those who go with the latter. The counter-argument is this forces the stewards to play God. But isn’t this what they are doing in any case?

One area where there seems to be a consensus is a horse should not be taken down unless the vote of the stewards is unanimous. Let's hope this comes to fruition and is adopted everywhere.

A third pre-BC race for Pharoah?

Getting back to American Pharoah, Ahmed Zayat says he would like to take him to Saratoga for the Travers on Aug. 29 if all goes well in the Haskell on Aug. 2. I don’t doubt his sincerity but I can’t see it happening unless the game plan for only two races before the Breeders’ Cup Classic is abandoned. The Travers is nine weeks from the Breeders’ Cup, so Bob Baffert would probably want to find another race in the interim.

If this happens, Zayat and Baffert get my Eclipse votes for Owner and Trainer of the Year in addition to the 3-year-old and Horse of the Year titles. Not that they won’t get them anyway.

How many hours until Saratoga?

Written by Tom Jicha

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Tuesday, July 14, 2015

A big horse outweighs big races

Monmouth is preparing for the biggest crowd in its history (including the 2007 Breeders' Cup) when American Pharoah goes in the Haskell on Aug. 2. Huge throngs showed up to see him merely parade at Churchill Downs and Santa Anita. This extraordinary star power is more important than ever to racing with California Chrome, Lady Eli and Main Sequence bowing out with injuries over the past few days. If there is a way to keep the Triple Crown winner on the track as a 4-year-old, it must be explored.

MIAMI, July 14, 2015--A great horse trumps great racing…and it’s not a close call. The American Pharoah experience establishes this beyond debate. Huge crowds have shown up at Churchill Downs and Santa Anita just to see him paraded.

Now Monmouth Park is preparing for the biggest day in its history on Aug 2 when American Pharoah returns to the races in the Haskell. As many as 60,000 fans are expected, dwarfing even the 2007 Breeders’ Cup. (Note to NYRA’s Christopher Kay: There will be no cap on attendance, no matter what.)

In fact, Monmouth’s biggest crowd was not for either of the Breeders’ Cup days but for the 2003 Haskell when another people’s horse, Derby and Preakness winner Funny Cide, made his first post-Triple Crown appearance. (Alas, he ran third to Peace Rules and Sky Mesa).

To the credit of Ahmed Zayat and Bob Baffert, they have not held up Monmouth for any enhancements to the $1 million Haskell purse. They will get $75,000 apiece in bonus money because American Pharoah won three Triple Crown races but this is available every year to owners and trainers of the winners of the Derby, Preakness and Belmont.

The same can’t be said of Monmouth management, which is jacking up every price it can. Admission is normally $3 grandstand, $5 clubhouse. On Aug. 2, it will be $6 and $9. This isn’t awful for the biggest day of the year. Almost every track does it.

However, what Monmouth is doing with parking is unforgivable. General parking is normally $6, according to the Monmouth website. Valet is $10. On Haskell Day, it will be $20 general, $40 valet.

The disingenuous justification by Robert Kulina, president of the company that runs the joint, is insulting. Stealing a page from Kay, who says he is charging for Saratoga picnic tables, which have always been free, as a service to fans, Kulina said the steep hike in parking is for the fans' sake, to encourage people to car pool or take mass transportation to the track.

“Horse-pucky,” as Col. Potter used to say on M*A*S*H. Kulina knows many, if not most fans can’t convene a crowd of fellow race-goers to car pool. If this was truly the goal, every car with four or more fans would get a break in price.

Mass transportation is even less of an option for many. We’re talking the Jersey Shore, not the west side of Manhattan. If an atypically large number did take mass transit, the Long Island Railroad nightmare at the 2014 Belmont would be a day at the beach by comparison.

Kulina knows every spot will be filled in his lots and he’s going to gouge fans for as many dollars as he can.

Getting back to the reason for the anticipated record crowd, American Pharoah, it underlines the value of star power to racing. Loyalists are attracted by great races. The masses are drawn by great horses.

Unfortunately, racing’s biggest stars keep dropping.

Shared Belief was a superstar in the making. We’ve lost him for at least the rest of this year. Even if he returns, it will take time to rebuild his reputation.

California Chrome was another crowd magnet. It was announced Monday that he’s gone, too, for at least this year. The only upside to this downer is that he is so unfashionably bred, he might come back as a 5-year-old in a bid to strengthen his allure to breeders.

It also was revealed Monday that undefeated Lady Eli’s racing career is probably over and she is fighting for her life because of laminitis. Fans don’t get as excited by great fillies not named Rachel Alexandra or Zenyatta but Lady Eli is still a dispiriting loss to the sport.

Fans awoke Tuesday to learn that double Eclipse winner Main Sequence has a tendon injury and has been retired. That’s two Breeders’ Cup champions and a Kentucky Derby winner lost within a couple of days.

Thankfully, racing’s biggest star is still on the track. If there is a way, any way, to get the people who will take control of American Pharoah to race him as a 4-year-old, every effort should be made.

He could generate $10 million or more in the breeding shed next year but with a $10 million race in Dubai (the sheiks might go for a couple of million just to get him there) and a $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic sandwiching numerous other seven-figure purses that would be thrown at him, it might be possible to match his 2016 earning potential as a stud.

Even Canterbury Downs is willing to put up a $2 million pot to get him to Minnesota.

I’ll bet Frank Stronach would considerably sweeten the purse of the Donn to get American Pharoah to South Florida next winter. How about a Stronach-owned tracks Triple Crown—the Donn, Santa Anita’s Big Cap and Pimlico Special—with a seven-figure bonus for a sweep that would move the total haul close to $5 million.

NYRA throws around casino-driven purse money as if it’s trying to launder cash. If it can come up with $2 million for a couple of turf races for 3-year-olds on July 4th weekend, surely it could come up with just as much for a real spectacular featuring a Triple Crown winner. Which do you suppose would bring more people to Long Island, the Belmont Derby and Oaks or American Pharoah?

Then there’s TV money, a relative pittance for even the most prestigious races outside the Triple Crown. But put American Pharoah in the field and the telecast moves from second tier cable channels to the major broadcast networks, with a corresponding hike in license fees.

Of course any chance to keep American Pharoah racing for another season would be dependent on a surrender of selfishness and prioritizing the good of the game by his ownership group.

“You may say I’m a dreamer but (I hope) I’m not the only one.”

Written by Tom Jicha

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Wednesday, July 08, 2015

Spa Fans Getting Nickeled and Dimed to Death

NYRA CEO Christopher Kay keeps finding new ways to squeeze money from Saratoga racing fans. Admission went up last year. Now 100 picnic tables will carry a charge every day instead of just Travers Day.Watch that number increase. It will cost this season to sit at formerly free seats in the Carousel area. Most disturbing is plans for a multi-million-dollar expansion of the clubhouse are going ahead even though the current regime is supposed to be gone next year. This is an ominous sign that Gov. Cuomo and his puppet Kay are confident they aren't going away any time soon.

MIAMI, July 7, 2015--Saratoga is starting to remind us of Las Vegas. The philosophy of Sin City in the not too distant past was, “We’re going to get your money at the tables and slots, so we’ll stay out of your pocket as much as possible in our lodging, bars, restaurants and shows.”

Then the corporate guys took over. The first thing they did was decree that just getting your gambling money wasn’t enough. The hotel, bars and restaurants had to show a profit, too. Drinks were measured shots, no doubles. In some race books, you had to ask for drink tickets when you made a bet, then turn them in to the cocktail waitresses. If you wanted a premium beer or umbrella drink, they commanded extra tickets. Entertainment in the main show rooms became as expensive as it was back home.

More recently, some numbers-crunchers came up with the concept of “resort fees,” Las Vegas equivalent of airline baggage charges. These fees run as high as $25 a day. This, of course, is nothing more than a way to jack up the price of rooms, which are no longer bargains at face value.

Las Vegas is still doing OK but nothing like it once did. Unemployment, once unheard of, is soaring. Building has come to a halt, with some major projects abandoned unfinished. Homes are selling for half what they once cost. The economy is a factor but Las Vegas has survived previous recessions without the downturn it is suffering.

This brings us to Saratoga, which handles more money per day than any other racetrack in America. Under Christopher Kay, another bottom line corporate suit, a similar nickel and dime philosophy has taken hold. Admission, which was $2 grandstand and $5 clubhouse for what seemed like forever, jumped to $5 and $8 last season. Parking went up, too.

But it doesn’t stop at the entry gate. Previously hard to get reserved seats also were jacked up in price. The result: thousands go unsold on many days.

Picnic tables, ALL picnic tables, were free. A few years ago, Kay put a $100 charge on some for Travers Day. The money was going to racetrack charities, he promised. It did…for one year. Now there will be 100 on sale every day and all the money is going to NYRA’s bottom line.

Kay says there will still be 850 free tables. Anyone want to make an over-under on how long this will stand?

The Carousel area, with scores of seats, has been free throughout its existence. Kay has redubbed it a sports bar and will charge to sit there this season.

Has anyone clued in the Toy Man that there are few sports on TV during the hours races are run at Saratoga? NFL season doesn’t start until the week after Saratoga closes. The NBA and NHL are in their off-seasons. People don’t watch mundane regular season baseball games, most of which are at night anyway, at home. The Carousel “sports bar” is nothing but a way to grab another few bucks out of racing fans accustomed to sitting there for free.

The Top of the Stretch area, my personal favorite, is getting squeezed more each season. First it was pricey catered picnic areas along the rail. Even when they weren’t being utilized, security guards made sure common fans didn’t get to have the up close view they used to have.

A huge tent also has been added against the back fence. So far, fans are allowed to hang out when it is not being rented. By I hold my breath each season that this will change, too. I’m hesitant to call it to Kay’s attention. In any case, an area which used to accommodate a thousand or more fans comfortably is now elbow to elbow with a couple of hundred.

The Saratoga Hall of Fame building Kay is constructing near the Carousel is not only resulting in the eradication of shade trees, it is also is going to cut into the space fans used to have at their disposal.This is where families, which make Saratoga so special, congregate. Keep charging them more and pushing them further from the horses and soon they decide, “This isn’t fun anymore,” and will find other things to do.

Saratoga locals are outraged that the Open House on a Sunday before the meeting opened, a tradition for more than three decades, was canceled by Kay. He said he did it because it wasn’t well attended, which was widely disputed. He also said local charities, which were allowed to fund-raise on Open House Sunday, weren’t as successful as they should be. Kay didn’t quote one local charity to back this claim.

John Hendrickson, who has the title of being Gov. Cuomo’s advisor to the NYRA board on Saratoga issues, was livid that he wasn’t told of the cancellation until it was a done deal. “How can I advise when I’m not in the process?”

Kay let the true reason out when he said the Open House could be revived if a sponsor is found. In other words, as long as it doesn’t cost NYRA a dime. Good will in the local community doesn’t show up on balance sheets.

The most ominous development of all is the planning for a new building, which is being called an extension of the clubhouse. Essentially the plan is to build permanent skyboxes. They will be situated on the other side of the walking path from the paddock to the track, where temporary facilities have been the past several years.

That these are being built for a handful of the super wealthy is bad enough. How about spending some money to substantially increase the number of restrooms for women. It’s a disgrace that they have to wait in endless lines on weekend days.

But the big issue is what business plans a significant, multi-million dollar expansion knowing it will not be there when the work is finished and the bills come due?

Political appointee Kay and company were supposed to be gone this fall, replaced by a return of NYRA to private ownership. Without warning or fanfare, Gov Cuomo extended this by a year. There is nothing to stop him for doing this ad infinitum, especially since there appears to be little to no effort to find a new operator.

That Kay, with the governor’s approval, is moving ahead with this expansion suggests that the current regime plans to be around for a while.

This is not good news for Saratoga in particular and New York racing in general.

Written by Tom Jicha

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