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, September 22, 2015

Efforts to tighten medication rules are at the mercy of horsemen

The campaigns to ban race day medication and create a testing system overseen by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency are doomed to frustration unless a way is found to remove the ability of horsemen to shut down simulcasting, a hammer they have shown they are not averse to using. Also, Saturday opened my eyes to someone who, based on recent history, might be among the greatest trainers who ever lived.

MIAMI, Sept. 22, 2015--The Water, Hay, Oats alliance and others campaigning for the elimination of race day medications and the adoption of the Barr-Tonko Horse Racing Integrity Act of 2015, which would turn over drug testing to an organization created by the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), are wasting their time.

They have no shot at achieving their goals until they win a more important and probably more difficult battle. They must get the provision in the Interstate Horse Racing Act of 1978, which gives horsemen’s groups the ability to shut down simulcasting, overturned.

It was well intentioned when it was included in the bill. It protects horsemen from tracks relying on out of market signals to run roughshod over the people who put on the live show. Alas, it has been egregiously abused to the point where it has become almost government sanctioned extortion. “Give us our way or we will shut you down.”

In 1978, few foresaw this becoming an issue. Simulcasting was a novelty, a chance for fans to bet on horses beyond the perimeter of their local track. This was especially appealing to fans at minor circuits, who suddenly could bet on the big races from New York, Kentucky, Florida and California. It was also a tool to counter the argument that racing was boring because there is nothing to do during the half-hour between races.

Nevertheless, many tracks dragged their feet on implementation. New York offered an extremely limited menu of out of town tracks. So did Calder in South Florida. Some states put a cap on the number of out-of-state races that could be imported.

As often as has been the case in racing, it took the fans to lead the tracks. Bettors couldn’t get enough simulcasting. They demanded with their betting dollars as many signals as could be brought in. Simulcasting evolved into the backbone of the sport. Millennials, the prized demographic du jour, don’t know the racing world without it. If simulcasting suddenly disappeared, so would many tracks.

The simulcasting provision in the IHRA of 1978 gives horsemen’s groups the power to make it disappear. I can’t imagine this was the intention of the framers of the bill.

This is not an argument in the abstract. As recently as a week ago, the Ohio HBPA used its power to shut off simulcasting at Thistledown. It was the second time in three years this has happened. The dispute was over something I would argue is important but not dire enough to take such drastic action. The Ohio HBPA says it has a contract that calls for 1050 stalls. Only 1020 were available.

A shortfall of less than 3% was enough for the horsemen to attempt to cripple the track.

This isn’t an isolated incident. It has been used several times, including on racing’s biggest stage.

The Breeders’ Cup attempted to take the lead on the Lasix issue. It decreed the anti-bleeding medication would not be permitted in the 2-year-old stakes starting in 2013 and it would be banned in all Breeders’ Cup races in 2014, which were scheduled for Santa Anita.

California horsemen countered that if the Breeders Cup tried to enforce this edict, it would withhold permission for Santa Anita to simulcast the championship races. Breeders’ Cup understandably backed down. Even the 2014 juvenile races permitted Lasix. There has been no attempt, nor is there likely to be in the foreseeable issue, to resurrect the issue. What's the point as long as horsemen have the hammer they do.

The hope that horsemen in other jurisdictions might have different attitudes were dashed as recently as a week ago. Kent Stirling, a level-headed leader of the Florida HBPA , took a survey of his membership, more than a thousand horsemen, about their attitude toward race day Lasix. He said it was in response to allegations that HBPA leaders don’t always reflect the views of their members. The results were as one-sided as an Iranian election.

More than 90 percent of the respondents said they favor race day Lasix. Fewer than 10 percent are opposed. Not surprisingly, Stirling interpreted this as a clear mandate. He was quoted in the Blood Horse saying, “The vocal minority makes a lot noise with no surveys to back up their assumptions but now the silent majority has had an opportunity to speak and they have spoken loud and clearly.”

So unless and until the powers-that-be in racing devise a way to get Congress to repeal horsemen’s ability to knock out simulcasting, all efforts to eliminate race day medication are an exercise in futility.

The greatest ever

Parx is not a regular part of my betting agenda. So I wasn’t aware that one of the greatest trainers who ever lived plies his trade there.

I’m talking about Ramon Preciado, who’s winning at an other worldly 31% clip in 2015. For perspective, Todd Pletcher and Bob Baffert, with barns loaded with the finest horseflesh in the world, have a 24% strike rate. Bill Mott hits at 20%.

Preciado’s stats aren’t from a small sample. He has had about 400 starters this year.

The win rate stats don’t tell the entire story.Preciado is primarily a claiming horse guy. But he proved Saturday he can crank them up in stakes, too, sending out Trouble Kid to upset the Grade 3 Gallant Bob.

John Pricci touched on this in his Monday column. I’d like to add some depth. Trouble Kid broke in for $12.5K maiden at Calder and Gulfstream last fall, rock bottom. He managed a fifth and a second with 23 and 56 Beyers.

He changed barns for his next start in March and ran third for $25K maiden but his Beyer declined to 48. He didn’t resurface again until July 5 at Parx in a $15,000 maiden claimer. He ran second and delivered a 59 Beyer.

Preciado claimed him from that race. He ran him back on July 25 in a $25K maiden claimer. Trouble Kid freaked. He won by more than 16 and exploded to a 90 Beyer. He was even better a month later in a modest allowance. He won by 9 and his Beyer jumped again to 93. Act 3 was the Gallant Bob.

A reader commented that Trouble Kid was gelded after Preciado acquired him. According to the Racing Form, he was gelded on July 25. This is the same day he ran first time for Preciado so it’s probably the day he was reported as a gelding. If this “equipment” change is responsible for the turnaround, we might be looking at another Forego or Kelso.

Experience with other Preciado acquisitions suggest gelding might be only part of the explanation. Preciado’s Beach Hut, still a full horse, finished first in the fourth race Saturday, an optional two-other-than claimer, but was disqualified. Preciado took him out of a $16K claimer on May 28. He ran sixth of sixth that day and had a 44 Beyer for a 25% trainer.

Preciado ran him back on July 19 in a restricted $15K claimer. Beach Hut won by more than 6 and his Beyer jumped to an 81. In two subsequent starts, he improved each time, to 82 then 90, the last two in allowances. Then he outran the best field he has faced Saturday.

In Saturday’s final race, Preciado had Stevie’s Wonder, who broke his maiden in a $10K claimer for non-winners on July 21 with a 63 Beyer, his career high. First time back for Preciado on Aug. 8, he won a restricted $25K claimer by 5 with a 99 Beyer.

I have no idea how Preciado works such magic but Saturday showed me enough that I don’t want to get involved in races in which he has a starter. No matter who I like, leaving out a Preciado horse is risky business. I wonder how many others feel the same.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The wrong Derby is being called Super

Saturday's Super Derby marked a continuing decline in the caliber of fields attracted to the once premier late season race for 3-year-olds. It was basically a glorified Louisiana-bred allowance race. Yet the Super Derby continues to be a Grade 2, a mockery of the system. Meanwhile, this coming Saturday's Pennsylvania Derby is also a Grade 2 in spite of the fact it has drawn a Grade 1 field for the third consecutive year. Also, there was another horse players be damned incident at Churchill Downs last Saturday.

MIAMI, Sept. 15, 2015--The Super Derby, like many big stakes, has its own theme song. It was played Saturday as the horses came onto the track. I don’t recall what it was but I know what it should have been: “Is That All There Is?”

The participation and prestige of many stakes soar and wane, generally through no fault of their host tracks. This isn’t peculiar to racing. The National Invitation Tournament used to outrank what is now known as March Madness. The Army-Navy football game for years was the biggest rivalry in college football. The Indianapolis 500, once a behemoth on the sports calendar, has been eclipsed by NASCAR. Tennis’ Davis Cup used to be avidly followed.

No racing event has gone further back than the Super Derby. A less boastful name, more attuned to the caliber of fields in recent years, is definitely in order. The Louisiana Derby is taken so maybe the Remember When Derby or The Best We Could Get Derby.

The Super Derby has been won by some nice but not star caliber horses in recent years: Vicar’s in Trouble in 2014 and Departing the previous year. In both instances, the horses who filled out the trifectas—Declan’s Fast Cat and Victory Not Defeat last season, Ruler of Love and Cameo Appearance in 2013--were household names only in Bossier City.

Compare this to earlier winners of the showcase race of the Louisiana Downs season: Kentucky Derby winners Sunday Silence, Alysheba and Sonny’s Halo; Gate Dancer, who like Sunday Silence and Alysheba was a Preakness winner, and Belmont champions Crème Fraiche and Temperence Hill.

The Super Derby bottomed out last weekend. Seven entered. Six were regulars on the Louisiana summer circuit. The invader, Prime Engine, came in from Emerald Downs and ran last. $400,000 doesn’t buy what it used to.

Four, including the first two finishers, Mobile Bay and Chocopologie, were Louisiana breds, who had done most of their racing in state-bred races. None of the seven had won a graded stakes. Winning trainer Victor Arceneaux also was breaking his graded stakes maiden.

Nevertheless, the Super Derby remains a Grade 2. The Pennsylvania Derby, which will be renewed Saturday, is also a Grade 2. Why it has not been elevated to Grade 1 status is something known only to the committee that decides such things.

Last year’s renewal was won by Bayern, who came out of it to encore in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Among those Bayern led home was Derby and Preakness winner California Chrome, who was voted Eclipse champion 3-year-old.

The previous year, Will Take Charge and Moreno repeated the heart stopping finish they had staged in the Grade 1 Travers. Will Take Charge, who got the best of the photo, went on to lose a photo to Mucho Macho Man in the Classic then take the Grade 1 Clark against older horses. He also was named 3-year-old champion.

With American Pharoah missing, there isn’t a potential Eclipse champion in this year’s probable field but it is still laden with graded stakes winners. Wood Memorial (Gr. 1) winner Frosted, second in the Belmont and third in the Travers after softening up American Pharoah, is the likely favorite.

Bob Baffert ships in Gimme da Lute on a four-race winning streak with a perfect nine-for-nine in the money resume. Todd Pletcher has Madefromlucky, who took the Peter Pan and West Virginia Derby after having the misfortune to pick the same Kentucky Derby preps at Oaklawn as American Pharoah. Upstart, winner of the Holy Bull, first across the finish line in the Fountain of Youth and third to American Pharoah and Keen Ice in the Haskell, also will attempt to get back into the winner’s circle.

This is September’s real super derby.

Churchill strikes again

Veteran horse players probably remember the bad old days when during an inquiry you had to stare at a TV monitor mesmerized as numbers flashed on the tote board. Younger fans got a taste of what that was like Saturday at Churchill Downs.

It has gotten to the point where nothing at Churchill when it comes to ignoring the needs and desires of bettors should be surprising. But the way an inquiry after the Pocahontas Stakes was handled marked another new low for the casino-oriented company.

Dothraki Queen, who looks like quite a prospect, was the clear winner. Bold Quality was second across the line and Dream Dance was third. However, Bold Quality had shifted out in early stretch and blasted Dream Dance. The inquiry sign was posted and noted.

This is where fans are accustomed to and entitled to video of the incident under scrutiny. It didn’t happen. Dothraki Queen was followed coming back and going into the winner’s circle. Her trainer, Ken McPeek, was interviewed at length. All the while there was not a mention of the steward’s deliberations.

The order of second and third was reversed on the screen, again without a word over the speaker system. It was as if it didn’t matter to bettors.Finally, when all the extraneous crap was done, the DQ was announced.

CDI just doesn’t care about racing other than on the first Saturday in May and the day before. It has contempt for horse players. This is one more reason to continue the boycott of Churchill. However, it is becoming clear that management has decided it makes more from the extra 2% rake on Derby and Oaks days than it loses the rest of the year from horse players, who have stricken it from their play list.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, September 10, 2015

GOP has women problem, racing has women crisis

Simulcasting has become the backbone of racing but for women it's as if it doesn't exist, according to unscientific research during a summer of traveling the land visiting simulcasting venues and race books. No sport can afford to write off the majority of the population. This is one of many observations during a glorious summer of playing horses all over the map.

MIAMI, Sept. 10, 2015—If the future (and present) of horse racing is simulcasting, the sport is in big trouble with the majority of the population.

My summer was a joyful odyssey of visiting race tracks, simulcasting locations and Las Vegas race books. One reality struck me at the latter two. The ratio of women to men was worse than it will be next week at the Republican presidential debate.

From anecdotal perspective, women enjoy a day at the races, especially at a treasure like Saratoga. Maybe it’s the color and spectacle and feeling of being part of a happening. The exact opposite is true of race books and simulcasting venues.

I never thought about this until I went to Hialeah the first Saturday of the Saratoga season. The only woman in the place was an elderly Asian, who was there to keep her husband company. I say this because she spent the entire afternoon reading an Asian newspaper and never looking at a TV monitor.

For the rest of the summer, I made it a point to check out the number of women at simulcasting sites. It was the same story at Laurel, Melbourne (FL) greyhound track, the Meadowlands and the OTB in Lake George, N.Y. Women were nowhere to be seen or they were sitting next to a male companion, not paying much attention to the races.

It was a little better in Las Vegas, where I continued my sampling in the race books at Treasure Island, the Mirage, Caesar’s Palace, the Orleans and South Point. There were a handful of women in each of these locations but the ratio had to be one in 20 or 30 at best.

Meanwhile, women were the dominant gender at slot machines. Is it the mindlessness of slots or the difficulty of deciphering past performances without the opportunity to check out the horses up close?

The mantra from race tracks my entire life has been, “We have to attract younger blood or the sport is going to die.” It hasn’t happened because younger people are distracted by establishing their careers and raising kids while in their 20s, 30s and 40s but they finally have the time and disposable income to evolve from casual fans to regulars in their graying years.

Men might evolve but a woman will always be a woman. Any business that ignores more than 50 percent of the population isn’t one that’s going to prosper.

I don’t have the answer but racing needs to come up with one. One day a year when everyone wears pink is not a solution. Maybe the sport could promote the simulcasting sites as a great place for women of a certain age to have their pick of dozens of prospective mates.

OK, I’m half kidding. The floor is open to suggestions.

A dream summer

Other reflections and reminiscences from a summer of horse-playing all over the map:

That Doug O’Neill was able to ship Ralis, a 2-year-old who might be his third string, and crush the Hopeful is an indictment of what we’ve seen of the East’s juvenile colts and geldings this summer. This is the first season in memory the Spa hasn’t produced a 2-year-old male that has people talking.

I’m often critical of NYRA but to give credit where it’s due, it has the best simulcast presentation in the nation. There’s no better way to judge this than to sit in Las Vegas race books for several days viewing dozens of telecasts from hither and yon.

NYRA offers all the information players need on screen at almost all times—win odds, exacta and daily double might-pays, late changes—as well as visuals from the paddock, post parade and warm-ups. The paddock commentary is informed. When the horses come on to the track, there are graphics with their connections, breeding and a photo of the jockey.

NYRA really stands out in posting multi-race will-pays quickly and frequently, including during replays. There’s not even a close second among simulcasts.

Southern California tracks are the absolute worst. Del Mar is no better than Santa Anita in posting will pays, which are crucial in planning next race wagering. They put them up whenever the fit takes them, sometimes not until there are single digit minutes to post. Winner’s circle interviews, multiple replays, promotional pitches and even commercials, which have nothing to do with racing, all come first.

Another praise-worthy innovation at NYRA is the introduction of low-ball handicapping tournaments. For $40, a small player can get a taste and appreciation for what it’s like playing in the big-time events. This gives $2 bettors a sense of being appreciated and is a training ground for future major tournament players. Other tracks should take notice and develop their own variations.

American Pharoah is the most prominent champion to be buried in Saratoga’s “Graveyard” this summer but it was a tough season for Breeders’ Cup winners, too. Judy the Beauty, Untapable, Take Charge Brandi and Texas Red all went down to defeat, although the latter did win the Jim Dandy before trailing Keen Ice home in the Travers.

Drugs might be racing’s biggest problem but there are other things that cause horse players to wonder. On Aug. 21 at Saratoga, Surfspun, trained by Jeremiah Englehart, was 2-5 in the first race. Call Daddy, trained by Jeffrey Englehart, was 3-1. Call Daddy went wire to wire with Surfspun chasing in second all the way. After the race, the NYRA paddock guys noted how it was strange that Eric Cancel broke on top aboard a speed horse, Surfspun, but opted to take him back. I don’t know that they were suggesting chicanery, nor am I. But it sure did look bad. (For the record, this is not sour grapes. Thanks to the cynical side of me, I cashed.)

There is no diminishing the awesome performance of Beholder in the Pacific Classic. What is puzzling is why Americans go ga-ga over a female beating males. It’s commonplace in Europe, where horses have the same four legs and a tail. Treve has won back-to-back Arcs. It travels well, too. Royal Heroine won the first Breeders’ Cup Mile. Six Perfections and Ridgewood Pearl also won it. Miesque did it twice and Goldikova won it three times.

It’s not as if American fillies and mares haven’t outrun the boys in some of the nation’s premier events. Genuine Risk and Winning Colors were Kentucky Derby winners during my lifetime. More recently, Rachel Alexandra and Havre de Grace have captured the prestigious Woodward. A little further back Lady’s Secret took the Whitney.

Obviously, there is no physical competitive difference between the genders. The only reason girls beating boys attracts so much attention in the U.S. is it has become a man bites dog scenario because of the infrequency that it is even attempted. Quality fillies don’t have to face males thanks to all the big money available in stakes restricted to their own gender.

It isn't this way in Europe, especially for older distaffers, who are forced to face males in the biggest races.

Maybe it should be that way on this side of the Atlantic, too.

Written by Tom Jicha

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