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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Saturday, July 06, 2013

Small fields don’t have to be the new normal

Countless factors figure into the cause of four- and five-horse fields and shorter racing weeks. The dwindling foal crop is certainly at the top of the list. But another major contributor is the reluctance of trainers to enter their horses as frequently as they did in the past. Reasons for this are all over the board, including super trainers with 200-horse barns, the introduction of trainer statistics in the past performances and the influence of the sheets. Whatever the causes, the effect is killing racing.

MIAMI, July 5, 2013--The 1969 Miracle Mets changed baseball.The fuel that rocketed the Mets into baseball’s stratosphere was a youthful pitching staff with a couple of eventual Hall of Famers. Tom Seaver was the ace. Nolan Ryan was actually only the fourth or fifth option in the rotation. Jerry Koosman and Gary Gentry both ranked above Ryan.

Rube Walker, the team’s pitching coach, decided he was going to do things differently to preserve those young arms. The norm for decades was a four-man starting rotation. Pitchers worked on three days rest. In the World Series, some started on two days rest.

Walker decided his prodigies could be more effective and enduring if they had an extra day between starts. So the Mets went to a five-man rotation, with at least four days between starts.

Success begets copycats. Every team in baseball soon followed the Mets’ lead. Starters became incapable of pitching more often than every fifth day. Their anatomy didn’t change. Their way of throwing didn’t change. Only the frequency of their starts changed.

I would argue the same thing has happened in horse racing. Contemporary thoroughbreds aren’t built differently than those from the recent past, although permissive medication might have made them less hardy. Yet the modern horse makes far fewer starts.

As ubiquitous as race-day medication has become, recently developed therapeutic drugs and state-of-the-art treatments should provide some balance. Injuries, which used to be career-ending, now sideline horses for only a few months, if that. Jeff Siegel remarked on HRTV’s “First Call” that if Ruffian had suffered the same injury today that she did in her match race with Foolish Pleasure, chances are she could have been saved.

So why can’t contemporary horses ran as often as those from the not so distant past?

They can, says Hall of Famer H. Allen Jerkens. “Nothing has happened. They could do it if (their trainers) wanted to.”

He clarified that he wasn’t making a blanket statement. “If a horse loses weight in a race or comes back a little sore, you obviously don’t want to run him back. But if he’s feeling well, eating everything, looking good and jumping and squealing, he might as well be running. Now if you run them back and they lose, they tell you that’s the reason.”

Another old school trainer, the late Hall of Famer Woody Stephens, used to say, “If they’re doing good, run them,” according to his former assistant and now top trainer in his own right Phil Gleaves. Stephens famously captured the Met Mile with Conquistador Cielo then won the mile and a half Belmont with him five days later.

More recently, Willy Beamin, then trained by Rick Dutrow Jr., won the Albany Stakes for New York breds at Saratoga last summer on a Wednesday and came back to beat a Grade 1 field in the Kings Bishop on Saturday.

Ken McPeek, more from the new school of training, offered an intriguing theory for why horses run as infrequently as they do. The trainer statistics in the Racing Form, a relatively new addition to the past performance charts, are a factor. “Owners rate us by our winning percentage. I’ve lost horses to high winning percentage trainers. If you don’t run them, you have no risk.”

You might not be able to win a race standing in the barn but a trainer's winning percentage doesn't suffer from a loss. In football, this is put down as playing not to lose.

To his credit, McPeek doesn’t allow this to change his methods. “I believe that getting a race for a horse is better than four more workouts even if it means I’ll always be a 15-16% trainer.”

Jerkens, too, believes the published stats have had an impact and sometimes put a trainer between in a tough spot. “The racing secretary expects you to run your horses. But if you run them where you don’t have a real good chance, it’s a problem.”

Jerkens and McPeek aren’t in accord on the effects Lasix has had. “You can’t run a horse on Lasix back that quickly,” McPeek said. “They lose 25 to 30 pounds in a race, more in the summer.”

What about Willy Beamin?

“That was bizarre. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Jerkens doesn’t buy this thinking. “Horses get (lost weight) right back once they drink their water.”

Another unconventional theory deals with the emergence of super trainers. Some, such as Todd Pletcher and Steve Asmussen, have as many as 200 horses under their care. Inevitably, many fit the same condition. “They might have 15 horses in the same category and they can’t run them all at the same time,” Jerkens said.

If those horses were spread among several barns, you could get another two or three starters in races for that caliber horse. Pletcher might run five in the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes but you wouldn’t see that in an ordinary entry-level allowance.

McPeek doesn’t see this as a major issue. “Maybe Todd has that problem but not a lot of guys do. If I have two (in the same condition), I’ll run them as an entry.”

Something not to be overlooked or underestimated is the influence of “The Sheets.” Len Ragozin and his imitators have suggested it is counter-productive to run a horse too often. Many trainers have become disciples, because they and their owners are sheets players.

Unfortunately, it’s impossible to trace who was racing’s Rube Walker, the trainer who initiated the less is more theory of running horses. But there is no disputing that it has created a flipside to the kiddie tune about the little train that could.

In racing, it has become, “I don't think I can. I don't think I can. I don't think I really can.” So they don’t try. And the sport is being killed by four- and five-horse fields.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Friday, June 28, 2013

Halftime Report: Best Is Yet to Come in 2013

The first half of 2013 might have been a bit of a disappointment to some, with no Triple Crown possibility and most divisions lacking a standout. But this augurs well for the second half of the year, where wide-open categories, especially among the 3-year-old colts and fillies, will encourage multiple showdowns well before the Breeders' Cup.

MIAMI, June 28, 2013—Halftime. Six months down, six months to go.

The lack of a clear leader in most divisions inspires optimism that the best is yet to come. The only undisputed leader is Wise Dan as top older turf runner. With Point of Entry sidelined and Little Mike not having reestablished himself, the top challenger, if there is one, has yet to be identified. Maybe the Firecracker at Churchill on Saturday night will produce one. Keep an eye on Lea.

With three different winners of the Triple Crown races, the 3-year-old male category is wide open. If the vote were today, it would be a tossup between Oxbow and Orb. Those two and Belmont winner Palace Malice are ticketed for a showdown in the Travers. However, this far out, it’s never wise to anticipate a prospective field will be the one to show up on the day.

Suppose the Triple Crown trio does make it to the starting gate. Who’s to say a repeat of the 1982 Travers won’t reoccur. That year Runaway Groom upset Derby winner Gato del Sol, Preakness champion Aloma’s Ruler and Belmont hero Conquistador Cielo. A lot of people--myself not included-- remain high on Normandy Invasion.

This would open the door to Verrazano, who still has suffered his only loss in the Kentucky Derby and is being steered away from the three Classics winners. His major summer goal is the Haskell, where he figures to be odds-on.

A longshot possibility is the 3-year-old Rydilluc, who has crushed everything lined up against him on the grass. He could throw his hat into the ring if he keeps winning and perhaps gets over on Wise Dan at some point. A turf runner as 3-year-old champion is not out of the realm of possibility this year.

Dreaming of Julia’s dud in the Mother Goose bolsters Kentucky Oaks winner Princess of Sylmar’s claim to pro tem 3-year-old filly leadership but there will be plenty of opportunities for Beholder, Midnight Lucky, Unlimited Budget, Close Hatches and Dreaming of Julia to make their bids for supremacy.

Royal Delta’s disappointing comeback race after Dubai leaves a huge hole at the top of the older filly category. One race (two, if you count Dubai) doesn’t disqualify the reigning queen, especially with so many opportunities to make amends and no clear heiress-in-waiting.

Delaunay sits atop the sprint ranks but he still has challenges coming from the likes of Fast Bullet, Sahara Sky, Comma to the Top and Jimmy Creed. The latter two face off Saturday in Hollywood's Triple Bend.

Fort Larned’s turnaround in the Stephen Foster after a couple of clunkers sets the stage for an East-West battle with Game on Dude, which might not take place until the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Paynter’s exhilarating return adds dimension to this category.

At this point, it doesn’t appear any of the 2013 3-year-olds belong in the same starting gate as their accomplished elders. Someone I respect, who has been making solid figs for decades, says this year’s crop is weak even when measured against some of the ordinary bunches of recent years.

As long as we’re putting the first half behind us, there are other things, which have fallen through the cracks, I’d like to get off my chest:

It was infuriating to hear how union operatives hijacked NYRA’s Fan Forum in June. Despite their claims, the unions, which are a big part of NYRA's problem, have access to high ranking officials. Fans get to air their gripes and suggestions less often than there is a sweep of the Triple Crown.

Hopefully, the public will get a better hearing at Saratoga. If necessary, NYRA should follow the lead of political debates. Gather questions in advance, then invite the fans who posed the most universally interesting ones to go to the mike at the meeting.

Granted, this process could be used to weed out queries to which NYRA would rather not have to offer a response. The solution is to allow media to become involved in the winnowing process. It would lend credibility to the procedure. The racing media is far better attuned to the concerns of the betting public than the swells on the top floor.

How can anyone believe the state will actually privatize NYRA in three years? Thanks to political gamesmanship, it took 10 years after VLTs were approved to get them into Aqueduct, costing the state (read “taxpayers”) billions in lost revenue.

NYRA under state control is going to be OTB all over again, a sewer for political patronage that politicians will be reluctant to surrender.

Moreover, by the time Cuomo the Second finishes surrounding the tracks, which he clearly has no use for, with casinos, there will be little interest among potential investors in taking over what will surely be doomed to be a losing proposition. So the state will be able to argue that with no viable bidders, it has to continue to operate NYRA.

One final thing, only peripherally related to racing. I had a great pre-Derby week at South Point in Las Vegas. The racebook is clean and bright, Racing Forms are essentially free ($2 deposit refunded when you bring it back) and the people behind the counter are friendly and patient. For the money and the spacious rooms, there is no better housing value in town. Make that “was.”

South Point is the latest casino/hotel to jump on the “resort fee” scam. Theirs is $14 a day, which is about at the midpoint of the Sin City range, which goes from $6 to at least $25, depending on the property.

But when they pitch $35 rooms on racing websites and email, the $14 fee amounts to a 40% percent tariff. Tack on the unavoidable state taxes and $35 becomes almost double that. This is the resort industry’s version of OTB surcharges.

Any business, whether it be a casino/hotel or an airline, is entitled to charge whatever it feels is necessary to remain a profitable operation. What is unseemly is to bait customers with a low price, then pile on exorbitant hidden charges.

What do you get for this additional fee? Hotels actually have the nerve to include things like free parking (anyone know of a casino that charges for parking?), in-room local calls (which in the era of cell phones is as generous as a free Bible in the nightstand drawer) and the swimming pool (no comment needed).

So the next time you are planning a trip to Sin City and see an attractive rate, be sure to inquire if there is an additional resort fee. There are still some hotels that don't participate in this outrage. There are even billboards around town urging tourists to fight these fees, undoubtedly bankrolled by hotels that don’t charge them. This is probably a losing battle but it is one worth enlisting in the resistance to fight.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Friday, June 21, 2013

The Triple Crown should be tough, changes would diminish it

Animal Kingdom went out on a down note but it was good to see a Derby winner still in action after his 3-year-old season. Another year without a Triple Crown winner has ignited the usual cries that the series is too demanding and too compact. But this is what makes it special. Any change in the race distances would diminish the feat, if and when it happens. Meanwhile, on the southern front, the head-to-head weekend conflict between Calder and Gulfstream moves ever closer to happening starting July 6.

MIAMI, July 21, 2013--The listless performance by Animal Kingdom at Ascot in his final race has to be the biggest flop by a Kentucky Derby winner since Big Brown’s Belmont.

But plaudits to Barry Irwin for keeping Animal Kingdom in training long past the time most Derby winners have been retired. Irwin can be abrasive and rubs many the wrong way. However, the guiding force behind Team Valor is an old fashioned horsemen, who buys thoroughbreds to race. Too bad there aren’t more like him.

You have to go back to the gelding Funny Cide in 2004 to find another Derby champion who won a race after his 3-year-old campaign. Super Saver, Mine That Bird, Street Sense and Giacomo never won another race, period. Ill-fated Barbaro also falls into this category with an asterisk. So, half the Derby champions of the past decade never found the winner’s circle again.

The rush to breed isn’t the only factor. It’s a matter of conjecture how much of their shortened careers can be traced to the wear and tear of the Triple Crown campaign? This and another year without a Triple Crown winner has brought out the annual cries that the series is too demanding and too compact, that changes need to be made or we will never have another winner of the Triple Crown.

Nonsense. Racing has gone 35 years without a Triple Crown winner. Baseball went 45 years before Miguel Cabrera swept the batting average, home run and RBI titles. Three races in five weeks is grueling but 162 games within 180 calendar days isn’t summer camp.

The fact that the Triple Crown is so rare and difficult to achieve is what makes it special. If it happened every three or four years, it would become a ho-hum event.

A frequently suggested change would see the sequence altered to a mile-and-an-eighth Kentucky Derby, a mile-and-three-sixteenths Preakness and a mile-and-a-quarter Belmont. The way Palace Malice and his pursuers were going up and down the final quarter-mile of the Belmont, I understand how momentum could gather for this idea. But why would Churchill Downs entertain suggestions that it tinker with the nation’s most glamorous race. Speculation about which 3-year-old will handle 10 furlongs generates as much conversation as the outcome of any prep. The Derby will remain a mile and a quarter as long as three feet is a yard.

In light of this, what would be proven by a Belmont rerun at the Derby distance?

Moreover, a horse whose sweep included an abbreviated Belmont would never be recognized alongside the likes of Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed.

It’s not as if the Triple Crown under its current conditions has become impossible. Smarty Jones appeared to have the job done in 2004 until Birdstone unleashed a furious rally that saw him get up in the final strides. Victory Gallop needed every inch of the mile and a half to deny Real Quiet the Triple Crown in 1998. Who knows what would have happened if Charismatic hadn’t suffered an injury while leading in the stretch of the 1999 Belmont.

The Triple Crown is doable. It’s just not easily doable. Nor should it be.

If there is one change worthy of discussion, it is the spacing between the races. I’m a purist, who prefers things the way they are. However, I would go along with adding an extra week between the Derby and Preakness and even a fourth week between the Preakness and Belmont, because of the pampered way thoroughbreds are now trained. If you twisted my arm, I might say OK to a July 4 Belmont. (Derby as is, Preakness on Memorial Day weekend, Belmont on Independence Day has some appeal.) But this is as far as I would go.

Spreading the series over three or four months, as some have suggested, is almost as bad an idea as the inane one suggested in the New York Daily News that the Belmont and Kentucky Derby alternate being the first jewel of the Triple Crown. This is what happens when you fire your racing specialists and assign the Belmont advance to whoever on the staff has nothing else to do.

It’s worth noting that if the old Triple Crown bonus points system of 5-3-1 were in effect this past spring, the one-two finishers would have been Oxbow and Orb, both of whom raced in all three events over five weeks.

Palace Malice is the latest example of a horse who ran in the Derby then skipped the Preakness to point for and win the Belmont. But half the 2013 Belmont field fit this pattern. Palace Malice got the money but the others finished well behind Oxbow and Orb.

Gulfstream has the more widely recognized name. Calder has the horses. This is where the stalemate between the two tracks stands two weeks before they are scheduled to begin racing head-to-head on weekends starting July 6.

If the scorched earth war comes to pass there will be no winners and three losers: Calder, Gulfstream and Florida racing.

Gulfstream claims to have about 300 horses stabled at the track or at satellite facilities. On numbers, this is enough to run 16-20 races a week. But these horses are spread over numerous age, gender, distance and surface preferences as well as racing conditions. To make its year-round agenda go, Gulfstream needs to attract a sizable contingent of horsemen from Calder, which has more than a thousand horses at its disposal.

Gulfstream is doing all the right things to make this happen in the face of Calder warning horsemen it won’t allow back any horse who leaves for a race at the rival track about eight miles away. Purses in Gulfstream’s first condition book are about a thousand dollars higher for comparable races at Calder. Any horseman, who makes the switch, has been promised year-round stabling in more modern facilities.

Purses have been jacked up $4,000 a race for June 25, when Gulfstream will race for one day (on a dark Tuesday at Calder) to qualify as a host simulcast track year round. (Tampa is doing something similar on June 30-July 1.) Every horse who runs that day at Gulfstream will earn at least $1,000.

But even someone with the seemingly bottomless pockets and strong will of Frank Stronach can’t keep this up over an extended period. So it’s still a roll of the dice for a Calder horseman to risk his stalls on the gamble that the unprecedented Gulfstream meeting will succeed.

The only sensible resolution is a financial settlement, which will give Gulfstream its weekends and Calder enough weekdays to keep its casino license.

For the past couple of months, this has been the expectation. As July 6 looms ever closer, it has become only a hope.

Written by Tom Jicha

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