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 Sentinels horse racing writer since 2007 as a staff member, and continues to this day as a free-lancer.

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Thursday, December 31, 2015

Clearing the decks for a new year

Wishes for 2016: Horses who run more often; another big horse for Jim Rome; a return to the races for Lady Eli; lower minimum bets; Breeders' Cup telling Churchill Downs no; NYRA being re-privatized--and those are just for starters.

MIAMI, Dec. 31, 2015--What better time than the last day of the year to clear my chest in order to start 2016 with a clean slate. The opinions expressed are mine and do not necessarily reflect those of John Pricci (who thinks some of them are nuts) or Horse Race Insider.

To develop a thread that began in the comments section of J.P.’s Tuesday column, I believe overly conservative trainers are almost as detrimental to the game as other more prominently debated issues.

The latest catalyst for a point-counterpart between J.P. and I was Best Behavior coming back in only two weeks to win last Saturday’s Sugar Swirl Stakes. Every time this happens I point it out to J.P. and he always counters it’s the exception that makes the rule.

I concede not every horse can do this but we’ll never know how many can because few are given the opportunity. It seems to me that a disproportionate number, who are given the chance, come up big.

The dwindling foal crop is a regularly discussed concern. A big reason there are fewer foals is there are fewer prospective owners to buy them.

Why isn’t a mystery. The joy of owning a thoroughbred is seeing your horse compete in your silks. There isn’t a lot of joy when horses race only six or seven times a year, while per diems pile up, which has become the new normal.

I understand injuries have something to do with this. However. trainers, who tend to be a monkey-see, monkey-do bunch bear much of the responsibility.

I contend if horses were put on a two-to-three week racing regimen, they would get used to it and most would respond well. More starts would mean more fun and purses for owners. This would encourage more people to get into the game. Inevitably, the supply of foals would rise up to meet the demand.

More final 2015 thoughts

American Pharoah has been retired for two months yet he still dominates sports news with the controversy over Sports Illustrated and the Associated Press’ Sports Person of the Year selections. It might be contrarian in racing circles but the wire service and Sports Illustrated got it right in passing over American Pharoah for their human awards while designating his Triple Crown sweep as the sports story of the year.

How about that? A story from “a dying sport” outranks everything else in the world of sports.

The sudden death of Shared Belief might be a bigger blow to racing than the retirement of American Pharoah, which everyone saw coming. As a gelding Shared Belief could have thrilled fans for years as, in my opinion, the best horse in the world. What’s more, having Jim Rome talking him up to young people not tuned in to racing could have provided an incalculable boost to the sport.

Let’s hope “Romey” gets another good one ASAP. The filly Stays in Vegas might be the one.

The feel good story of the year has to be Lady Eli’s recovery from often fatal laminitis. That one of the most talented female grass runners in years survived is heartening. The possibility that she could return to the races borders on miraculous.

Hong Kong doesn’t fool around. The racing association almost had to cancel races one day recently because so many jockeys were serving suspensions, they didn’t have enough riders for all the entrants. I guess that’s the other extreme from America’s often see-no-evil stewards. Is a happy medium possible?

Some people never learn. California Chrome went to the sidelines for nine months after shipping to Dubai off one prep last year. Oblivious to the definition of crazy, his connections are gearing him up for another jaunt to the Middle East after one Santa Anita prep.

Speaking of lessons unlearned, Santa Anita had to dig into its own pockets to make the $150K Pick 6 guarantee this past Sunday. The $2 minimum bet produced only $143,158. Meanwhile, the 50-cent minimum Pick 4 attracted a pool of $841,567. When will tracks realize that the future of the game as well as an entry point for newcomers is low minimum bets?

Trevor Denman’s sudden “retirement” from Santa Anita while expressing his intent to keep calling races at Del Mar indicates to me that there will be at least one juicy chapter when he gets around to writing his book.

How cold is it for Santa Anita to make veteran race-callers Frank Mirahmadi and Michael Wrona go through extended public auditions to replace Denman while letting it be known the track is looking hard for someone else?

On a more positive note, it was nice to see Pete Aiello, Gulfstream’s summer race-caller, get the Oaklawn job. Aiello, a good guy, is one of the young comers in the business.

Churchill Downs and Keeneland are both expected to bid for the 2018 Breeders’ Cup, the next one without a host site chosen. This should be as easy a decision as American Pharoah’s Triple Crown for NTRA Moment of the Year. Keeneland, by all accounts, did a magnificent job this past fall. Churchill Downs continues to undermine racing all but two days a year. To reward it for its bad behavior would be inexcusable.

An administrative law judge’s recommendation that Kirk Ziadie be barred for six years for countless drug violations is long overdue. Ziadie was barred from Calder from 2009-2011. Why he was allowed back is a mystery but he was soon winning again at a clip that defied belief. I gave up trying to beat him long ago. If he had a horse in a race, I either bet him or passed.

The Kentucky Attorney General's ruling that Keeneland cannot card races for horses competing without Lasix once again makes the point that those trying to get the anti-bleeding medication barred are engaged in an exercise of futility. It isn’t going to happen. You can have all the Barr-Tomko bills Congress can pass but as long as horsemen retain the right to control simulcasting, there never will be anything meaningful done about race day medications.

Anyone believe 2016 will be the year when NYRA is finally returned to private ownership?

Happy New Year!

Written by Tom Jicha

Comments (8)


Thursday, December 24, 2015

Big horses create little Eclipse suspense

Merry Christmas! A ritual for racing writers right around the holidays is the arrival of the Eclipse ballots. Thanks to American Pharoah and some other special horses, identifying the best of the best was a sprint rather than a marathon. Meanwhile, NYRA will wait until the day after Christmas to spring what likely will be the first of many unpleasant surprises on its fans.

MIAMI, Dec. 24, 2015--The Democratic Party presidential nominating process has more suspense than the top of the Eclipse Awards. Hillary Clinton might be a virtual certainty to represent the Dems but American Pharoah is an absolute lock to be Horse of the Year.

Team American Pharoah is going to be called to the Eclipse podium so often on Jan. 16 at Gulfstream Park that TVG ought to ask that their table be moved to the stage to save the walk-up time.

The Eclipse ballots arrived this week and if the Horse of the Year vote isn’t unanimous, those who don’t write down the first Triple Crown winner in 38 years ought to lose their vote. This would be such an act of irresponsibility, the Eclipse vote should no longer be entrusted to any such person.

The 3-year-old title is another formality.

Ahmed Zayat also is odds-on for the owner’s Eclipse for his decision to expose American Pharoah to his adoring fans as much as possible.

Bob Baffert is a short price, too, as outstanding trainer. It should not be overlooked that he had to nurse American Pharoah back from an injury, which prematurely ended his juvenile season. Baffert exhibited extreme patience in waiting until mid-March before putting American Pharoah on the Triple Crown trail.

Baffert didn’t really want to go to the Travers but he acceded to Zayat. Some felt American Pharoah was over the top when Keen Ice nailed him in the final strides. However, Baffert saved the best for last. American Pharoah’s Breeders’ Cup Classic, his first try against older horses, might have been his most impressive race of all. It was by far his fastest, according to the Beyer Figs.

I’ll jump off the American Pharoah bandwagon when it comes to outstanding jockey. Victor Espinoza did a superb job steering and not falling off American Pharoah. Otherwise, Espinoza wound up only sixth in purse money and unless he goes nuts the first week of Santa Anita, he won’t make 100 wins. “The Dancing With the Stars” sabbatical didn’t help.

Javier Castellano won almost four times as many races and twice as much money. He gets my vote.

Some other major categories also are cut and dried. If someone offered me a free $100 Kentucky Derby futures bet, I’d put the money on Remsen winner Mohaymen. However, there’s no denying Nyquist the Juvenile Eclipse. He is undefeated in five starts, three Grade 1’s, one of them the nominal championship race, the BC Juvenile.

Songbird is at one level and everyone else is several levels below in the Juvenile Fillies division. No one has been able to warm her up in four starts, three Grade 1’s, including the BC Juvenile Fillies. Her dominance and flair was such that if there was no American Pharoah, a case could be made for her as Horse of the Year.

The older filly or mare category is another slam dunk although it bothers me that Beholder will take home her third Eclipse without ever winning a race outside Southern California. With the Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita in 2016, she could make it a four-bagger without crossing the Rockies. Maybe she’ll stay healthy and, with home court advantage, take on the boys in the Classic.

The 3-year-old filly category is as tough as the previous ones mentioned are easy. Lovely Maria won the big one, the Kentucky Oaks, then failed to hit the board in three subsequent starts. I’m a Chatterbox was solid from January through September but went south at the Breeders’ Cup. Stellar Wind‘s only poor race was in the Oaks when she was stuck out in the 12 post. She fired big at the Breeders’ Cup, just missing against the crack older mare Stopchargingmaria. She gets my vote.

The new best Older Male Dirt Horse category is a closer call than many are making it out to be. It will probably be settled by a neck, the margin Honor Code had over Liam’s Map in the Whitney. Both won three times with a pair of Grade 1’s. Liam’s Map did it from four starts. It took Honor Code six. Liam’s Map also won a Breeders’ Cup race, the Dirt Mile, while Honor Code ran third in the Classic, a tougher assignment. I think Liam's Map was the better horse but if opinions were results, we'd all cash every race. I'll honor what took place on the track in the Whitney and go with Honor Code.

Tonalist is expected to be third on many ballots. Not mine. I’m backing the late Shared Belief, who I still believe was the best older horse in the nation, maybe the world. His San Antonio vanquishing of California Chrome then his demolishment of the field in the Big Cap are all the justification I need.

We’ve been spoiled the past few years in the Male Turf division with Wise Dan and Main Sequence. This is a year for settling for an accomplished horse, Big Blue Kitten, who always showed up, but didn’t set any pulses to racing. He won three, two Grade 1’s, and hit the board in all six starts.

The filly and mare counterpart comes down to two main contenders, Stephanie’s Kitten and Tepin. Both won Breeders’ Cup events but Tepin’s was against males and she was five-for-seven to the Kitten’s three-for-six. That’s enough for Tepin to merit the gold.

I absolutely refuse to vote for a one-start Euro in any category. This is why Found will not be found on my ballot and I also omitted Flintshire, whose Sword Dancer was arguably the year’s most impressive race by a male turfer. If we judged all categories on one big race, Keen Ice could be the 3-year-old champion.

The Eclipse Awards has asked voters to wait for the outcome of the Malibu and LaBrea this Saturday before casting ballots for Male and Female Sprinter. I’ll honor that request even though it would take something extraordinary happening to get me off Runhappy and Cavorting.

I wouldn’t raise my voice in protest if the Female Sprinter Eclipse was eliminated.

Ominous portents at NYRA

NYRA boss Christopher Kay, taking a victory lap for showing a profit in 2015, promised NYRA would be even more profitable in 2016. Early indications are he plans to accomplish this not off improved attendance and handle but on the backs of fans.

NYRA has already announced programs will be kicked up a dollar. Kay also said there will be further price increases for Belmont Stakes Day. (Someone should tell him there won’t be a Triple Crown possibility every year. Absent that, 90,000 becomes 60,000—if the weather is good.)

The latest soak-the-fans ploy is an avaricious disgrace that I would bet will be counter-productive.

For years, free racing calendars have been an enticement to fans to come to the races during the holidays. Santa Anita gives away calendars on Dec. 26, the start of its winter season. Gulfstream distributed the 2016 model on Dec. 5, opening day of its championship season.

This year, NYRA is charging $3 for the calendar on Saturday, $5 every day thereafter...while the supply lasts. So calendars should still be available on opening day at the Spa.

Written by Tom Jicha

Comments (4)


Thursday, December 17, 2015

Once upon a time, stewards looked out for fans

It's amazing racing survives the people running it. Last Saturday, a late change of riders, which never should have been allowed, was rubber-stamped by the stewards and not announced to the public until after some multi-race wagers had closed. At the annual racing convention last week in Arizona, racing's honchos thought the best idea presented to them was a game in which handicapping, the element that separates racing from lotteries and slots, is totally irrelevant.

MIAMI, Dec. 17-2015--This happened at Hialeah some years ago. Because of the passage of time, I can’t positively identify the people involved. However, as what’s left of my memory serves, it was Walter Blum, retired jockey turned steward, and Jose Santos, then as dominant a jockey as Javier Castellano is today.

It was just before the last race on a Saturday. There were no pick 3’s, 4’s or 6’s in those days, just a late daily double. In the few minutes between the feature, the first half of the double, and the horses being saddled for the finale, it was announced over the public address system that there would be a change of jockeys. A 10-pound bug boy on the program was being replaced by Santos.

Blum, in the media area of the press box between races, heard the announcement and exclaimed, “Like hell.”

Putting the fans first—this really used to happen--he went back to the stewards room, got the trainer on the phone and told him, “Either the kid rides the horse or I’ll scratch him.”

Blum was admirably fan-friendly in another way. Frustrated that Hialeah’s John Brunetti routinely had the start of races dragged ridiculously past the listed post, Blum sent a message. He ordered the betting windows locked. The problem didn’t go away completely but it got a lot better.

Fast forward to last Saturday at Gulfstream. One of the first things I learned as a cub reporter was you can never count on your reader having read yesterday’s paper. So I’ll briefly recap what JP detailed the other day. Matthew Rispoli was listed on the overnight and the program as the rider of Valid in the Harlan’s Holiday Stakes. Sometime before “riders up,” Rispoli--ready, willing and able to ride--was bumped off the horse for Castellano.

JP said he first heard the announcement just before the race. He quoted Caton Bredar saying the same thing on TVG. I was en route to the paddock, so I didn't hear it at all. In other words, the public was alerted to the change long after betting on the final pick 3, 4 and 5 and Rainbow Six had closed.

This wasn’t exactly the same as the long ago situation at Hialeah. Rispoli is not a 10-pound bug. He’s a competent young rider, who won a stakes the last time he rode Valid. But he’s no Castellano, who has dominated Gulfstream the past three or four seasons like no rider since maybe Pat Day in Kentucky.

I’m not suggesting there was any betting coup or anything untoward as it relates to the race. Valid was the deserved morning line favorite and might have won with any rider in the room. His connections can’t be blamed for getting the leading rider. If I owned the horse and had a choice between Rispoli and Castellano, I would have done the same thing. But they shouldn’t have been allowed to make the change so late in the game.

This was another reason for fans to feel screwed, that they have no chance against the insiders. No amount of promotion or marketing dollars can undo the damage of those feelings.

‘Swopstakes’? Really?

Tis the season to be jolly, so I apologize for being so cranky.

However, an avalanche of recent developments, including the Valid rider switch, makes those of us who champion racing want to throw up our hands and ask, “Why bother?”

Few things could convene a coalition of such disparate figures as Andy Asaro, JP, myself and resident curmudgeon WMC on the same side. One is that racing’s greatest asset and strongest marketing tool is a player can use his brain to control his success to some extent. This is what keeps me coming back.

This apparently is lost to the hierarchy of the sport. A $15,000 first prize was offered for new and innovative ideas at the annual Racing and Gaming Symposium in Arizona last week. Eighty-nine entries were submitted from around the world.

A concept dubbed “Swopstakes” from an Australian company—hence the strange spelling-- took home the prize. Swopstakes has nothing to do with handicapping. It is pure luck, in essence a different type of lottery game. To me, the description makes it sound like the old NBC show “Deal or No Deal.”

The way it was presented, Swopstakes involves selling millions of lottery-like tickets, with the outcome decided by the results of a series of horse races. This is the only connection it appears to have with racing, although picking numbers out of a hat could serve the same end.

Using round numbers for convenience sake, a six-race sequence of 10-horse fields would produce one million distinct combinations, if my math is correct. It’s essential that every ticket has to be sold, since there would be only one possible winning combination. I have seen reports that the takeout could be as high as 30 percent.

The twist that makes Swopstakes unique is players would have the ability to buy and sell live tickets as the sequence progressed. Someone who had a ticket with, say, the first three races correct could offer it for sale to the highest bidder. This would continue right through post-time for the final leg.

The logistics are not unprecedented. Back in the early days of the pick 4, then known at New York harness tracks as the Twin Double, a ticket with the winners of the first two legs had to be exchanged for a new ticket for the final two legs. There was bartering galore by the mutual bays—all of it illegal—as players sought to obtain the number of exchange tickets they felt they needed to hit the bet. The higher the payoffs on legs one and two, the more those exchange tickets were worth.

The critical difference between the Twin Double and Swopstakes is handicapping was the key element of nailing the harness race bet. Swopstakes is pure luck.

Another difference with Swopstakes is the marketplace would reopen after each race through post time for the final leg. Also, the sale of tickets would not only be legal, it would be encouraged.

Prices of the Swopstakes winners wouldn’t matter, since there would be only one grand prize winner whether six odds-on favorites or six 100-1 shots won. Handicapping, the element that separates racing from lotteries and slots, would be irrelevant.

What happens if not every combination is sold? Do we hold up post-times until a sellout is achieved? Granted, this wouldn’t be far removed from what tracks do when they don’t hit megabucks guarantees for multi-race wagers.

Time between races would almost surely have to be extended to allow for the buying and selling. To accommodate what amounts to lottery players, tracks would alienate horse players, who come to handicap, bet and watch the races.

Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of dollars, which might have gone through the pari-mutuel windows, will be tied up with no churn. Like the pick six, the jackpots would likely be scooped up by syndicates. The little guys would have to be content with whatever they could negotiate for live tickets along the way.

From all the ideas from all over the world, racing’s honchos thought this was the grand prize winner.

Why do we bother?

Written by Tom Jicha

Comments (31)


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