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, May 05, 2015

Derby’s a brief antidote to all that ails racing

Racing has its problems but a dying sport? Hardly. The TV ratings for Saturday's Kentucky Derby were spectacular, substantially higher than TV's most popular shows. The interest is there. Racing's challenge is to find a way to sustain it beyond the Triple Crown.

MIAMI, May 5, 2015--The Kentucky Derby is a beautiful thing. No matter what else ails racing—there is plenty—but on the first Saturday in May, everything is beautiful.

It’s more beautiful when a potential superstar like American Pharoah lives up to the hype and comes through like a champion. He’s the kind of horse who can capture the attention and hearts of America, just what racing needs.

Apparently he’s well on his way to doing that. For those who dismiss racing as a dying sport, I would point to the TV ratings for this year’s Derby. The preliminary rating for Saturday’s telecast was 10.8, the highest in 23 years.

To put the 10.8 rating into perspective, the final day of the Masters, the “tradition unlike any other,” which CBS begins pumping as soon as Santa is back at the North Pole, pulled an 8.7 rating.

The Derby shines even brighter when compared to the most popular prime time shows. For the week of April 20-26, the most recent available, the only program that out-rated the Derby’s 10.8 was the “I am woman” Bruce Jenner interview by Diane Sawyer. It registered 11.1.

The second highest rated program was The Big Bang Theory, the most popular comedy on TV, at 8.9. 60 Minutes registered 6.7. Grey’s Anatomy, the episode in which Dr. Dreamy cashed it in, did 6.5.

So the Derby ratings were superior to everything but a once-in-a-decade sensationalistic special. Moreover, the Derby aired pre-prime time when the audience level is substantially lower, especially on a glorious day like it was in most of the country on Saturday.The amazing thing is it sustained this rating in spite of the show being much too long. Three and a half hours around one race--the Turf Classic was barely acknowledged--is too much. NBC tried hard and succeeded often but couldn't avoid long stretches of nothingness. A rundown of the major preps would have been useful, especially for casual racing fans, who make up the bulk of the audience.

The Derby has established it’s a ready-for-prime-time player. The only question is when this is going to happen. The Breeders’ Cup Classic is in prime time and it captures only about 20 percent of the Derby’s TV audience. NBC has to be salivating at the prospect of having the No. 1 show of the week in prime time during the May ratings sweeps month.

Churchill Down has lights, so darkness is not an issue and the rest of the terrific supporting card would still be run in daylight. Repositioning the Derby post from 6:40 to 8:40 would make the race more accessible to a wider TV audience and would eliminate the necessity to begin the marathon Derby card at 10:30 a.m.—7:30 on the West Coast.

Getting back to American Pharoah, I mentioned in my Derby preview that I was concerned about his longevity because of the leg injury, which took him out of action for six months. As I wrote, Bob Baffert has not been characteristically forthcoming about the injury.

Baffert also has been exceedingly low key about American Pharoah racing with a bar shoe, a fact that was under-emphasized in the racing media. As a member, I’ll share blame. Truth is, I was caught unaware until a few minutes before post-time on Saturday. Given the aggressiveness of those who comment on this site (God bless them), I have to think I wasn’t the only one. Not one commentator I read brought it up in assessing the race.

In any event, this is an indication that whatever was wrong hasn’t been completely alleviated. It would be a shame to have a superstar have his career cut short due to injury, or worse. Racing needs another big star. It doesn’t need another Barbaro.

Pletcher bashers are know-nothings

Three more out-of-the-money finishes in the Derby are sure to bring out the worst among the Todd Pletcher bashers. Pletcher’s Derby cumulative record is now 1-43, which is misleading and unfair. He has entered multiple starters on many occasions but he has taken part in only 15 Derbys and won with Super Saver in 2010.

This is still a dismal less than 7% but the Derby is arguably America’s toughest race to win even for some of the greatest trainers ever to walk a shedrow. Charlie Whittingham didn’t capture his first Derby until he was 73. Bobby Frankel never won one. Bill Mott is still looking for his first. Anyone want to knock them?

It’s a challenge to even get to the Derby, so the fact that Pletcher has been able to get so many 3-year-olds to Louisville on the first Saturday in May should be a badge of distinction.

But the people who put others on a pedestal solely for the opportunity to knock them off love to put down Pletcher for his Derby resume. All praise to Bob Baffert for winning the race--running one-three in fact-- that every horse person covets. But let’s take a look at the entire Derby weekend.

On Friday, Baffert started only two, Callback and Enchanting Lady, in the Eight Belles. Callback was second at 5-1. Enchanting Lady checked in ninth at 5-2. (Surprise! The longer Baffert ran better.)

The same afternoon, Pletcher took the third, an allowance, with Curalina. Three races later Feathered won the Grade 3 Edgewood. In the 8th, the Grade 2 Alysheba, Protonico outran 9-5 Honor Code.

Pletcher’s Sweet Whiskey ran off the board in the LaTroienne, as did Eskenformoney and Angela Renee, both 21-1 shots, in the Oaks. But three wins, two in graded stakes, on one of racing’s biggest afternoons is a career highlight for most trainers.

Saturday brought more of the same. Baffert’s day began with Cat Burglar running second at even-money in the fourth race. In the fifth, his Gimme De Lute and Lord Nelson were third and fourth, respectively. The winner? Pletcher’s Competitive Edge.

In the seventh, the Grade 1 Humana Distaff, Pletcher’s Dame Dorothy out-gamed Eclipse champion Judy the Beauty. He also got a third with Sandiva in the Grade 1 Distaff Turf Mile and a second with Jack Milton in the Grade 1 Turf Classic.

Baffert fired the weekend’s biggest dud, Bayern. The Breeders’ Cup Classic winner ran last of six at 4-5 in the Grade 2 Churchill Downs.

However, Baffert won the Big One, earning all the praise he is getting.

Anyone who uses only the Derby to knock Pletcher is one of those people you never want to get stuck sitting next to at a bar or simulcast site.

Uniformity? What a joke

Anyone hoping for nationwide uniform rules, especially as they relate to race day medication, is probably also waiting for Godot.

Racing can’t get it together even with minor things. Lovely Maria’s win in the Oaks kept me alive in the Oaks-Turf Classic-Derby Bet 3. Then Ken Ramsey got into a snit with Chad Brown and scratched all three of his entrants in the Turf Classic, including Stephanie’s Kitten, who I keyed.

Would I get a consolation or was I moved to the favorite (Finnegan’s Wake), who happened to win. No one in my party knew, because every track has its own rules. A similar situation occurred last year in Las Vegas. No one there, including the director of the race book, knew. In fact, he guessed wrong.

There was no on-screen announcement on the closed-circuit feed and no Pick 3 will pays involving the scratched horses.

It turned out I got a consolation, a pretty skimpy one, $19.60 for a buck. I didn’t find out the payoff on the screen. I had to run the ticket through the machine. It was almost like a scratch off lottery ticket waiting to see what I had coming.

Is it asking too much for all tracks to have one uniform rule, whether it be consolation or move to the favorite? Probably.

Written by Tom Jicha

Comments (37)


Wednesday, April 29, 2015

At the prices, ‘the other Baffert’ is the Derby bet

This is the deepest Kentucky Derby field in memory. I couldn't reduce it to less than nine who could win without shocking me. Ergo, it makes no sense to take a short price on American Pharoah. There's a saying that you should never bet a horse to do something he hasn't done before. Dortmund, "the other Baffert" has never lost. Neither has Materiality but there's that curse of Apollo to consider.

MIAMI, April 29, 2015--I can’t remember a Kentucky Derby I anticipated more than Saturday’s. It’s the most talent laden in memory. Every season there are two or three horses, who seem to stand out, and one or two others worth a saver at a price. I had trouble narrowing this group down to fewer than nine.

The romantic and fan in me would like to see American Pharoah live up to his billing as the second coming of Seattle Slew, one of my favorite thoroughbreds ever. Can anyone explain why the only horse ever to win the Triple Crown while still undefeated-- a New York based and developed star--has not been honored by NYRA with a major stakes named for him.

How about the Peter Pan, the major New York prep for the Belmont? If you stopped a hundred racing fans and asked who this race is named for, does anyone doubt a strong majority would respond Tinker Bell’s buddy?

But I digress.

I would love to see another dazzling great like Slew for what it would mean for the game. However, a couple of things concern me about American Pharoah. The leg injury that knocked him out of action for six months has never been fully explained. The usually loquacious Bob Baffert has been uncharacteristically evasive when the subject is raised.

Also, you can’t let the fact that this is the Derby knock your horse playing sense out of whack. Estimates are American Pharoah will be in the 2-1 range. It’s insanity to take that price against this bunch.

This is one of those occasions “the other Baffert” makes sense record- and price-wise. Dortmund has never been beaten and he showed grit the others haven’t had to call upon when he came back against Firing Line after being passed and seemingly put away. He’ll likely be twice or three times the price of American Pharoah, too.

Another sign of the depth of this field is there is another Grade 1 winning undefeated colt, Materiality, who’ll be no better than third choice and possibly less than that. Then again, there’s a reason it has been 133 years since a colt who didn’t race as a juvenile won the Derby. Most recently, subsequent two-time Horse of the Year Curlin couldn’t do it.

Carpe Diem has been managed this spring like the Florida Gators’ early non-conference football schedule. He’s looked great but so do the Gators when they’re playing Bemidji State. Now Carpe Diem steps back into the Southeast Conference of racing.

The colt we’re all guessing on is Mubtahhij. Anyone else but Michael deKock training him and he’s a toss. But anyone other than DeKock isn’t training him.

If you like Dortmund, and I do, you have to consider Firing Line. He has been in a couple of photos with Dortmund and a slight twist of racing luck could put him on top this time at a big price.

For most of the Gulfstream season I was in love with Upstart. I won’t say his DQ in the Fountain of Youth wasn’t justifiable but he was the best horse that day. Then Materiality looked him in the eye in the Florida Derby before bidding him a fond adieu. Materiality should benefit from that race more than Upstart will.

At the top of the stretch in the Fountain of Youth, Frosted looked like a cinch. But he gave it up faster than a fun prom date. If the Wood Memorial is any indication, whatever was bothering him has been alleviated by throat surgery. Still, I don’t think he beat much at Aqueduct. Tencendur? Really?

International Star rang up the most Derby qualifying points but he did it at the Fair Grounds. The last time a Kentucky Derby winner came out of the bayou was Grindstone in 1996. Moreover, I know International Star wasn’t beating much. Louisiana Derby runnerup Stanford was no match for Materiality in his prior start and War Story, who stretched International Star in the LeComte and Risen Star, is a nice horse who’s a cut below the best of his generation.

Only one horse, Keen Ice, made the Derby field with fewer than 30 qualifying points, another indication of the quality of this field. So I’m not going to denigrate any of them. They'll cumulatively win a lot of stakes this summer and fall. But if any of them win, I lose. It won't be a maiden breaker.

So the moment of truth is here. My Derby win play is Dortmund.

I’m going to use Dortmund, American Pharoah and Materiality (and Mubtahhij if he’s better than 15-1) in multi-race wagers and in the Oaks-Derby double with Stellar Wind, who made a good group of California distaffers look ordinary.

If Stellar Wind is anywhere close to her 7-2 morning line, she’s the play of the weekend.

The one thing I’m not going to do is get involved with exactas or tri’s in the Derby. Some hard-to-find longshot always seems to get up into the place or show spot.

There's one other personal reason. I don't want to diminish the experience of seeing a Derby winner go under the wire by concentrating on who's clunking up for the minor awards.

(Note: This had to be published before the post draw. If any of my selections land the one hole, all bets on him are off.)

Written by Tom Jicha

Comments (13)


Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Top of racing loaded again but there’s trouble below

The 3-year-old crop of 2014 was exceptional. This year's group has shown the potential to be as good or better. Below the surface things are not as rosy as they will seem next Saturday.New Jersey racing is in jeopardy because its breeding program has all but evaporated. With casino subsidies being threatened in other states, this could be a preview of things to come. Like America, racing is in danger of losing its middle class.

MIAMI, April 21, 2015--We could be in the midst of another decade of champions. Another Secretariat, Affirmed and Seattle Slew hasn’t emerged but the past couple of years has produced a depth of outstanding horses.

This doesn’t have the zing it would have had before Shared Belief’s injury Saturday but even with what happened in the West Virginia Classic, positive news can be found. Most importantly, Shared Belief’s injury isn’t life threatening. It probably isn’t career ending, according to the early prognosis. The fact that he’s a gelding means we still might get to see this superstar on the race track again.

In any event, Shared Belief is only part of what was an extraordinary group of 3-year-olds last season. Their exploits outside their own division included sweeps of all the marquee races against their elders: the Jockey Club Gold Cup (Tonalist), Pacific Classic (Shared Belief), Clark Handicap (Hoppertunity) and the big one, the Breeders’ Cup Classic (Bayern). If there is precedent for this, I’m not aware of it.

The best part is these prestigious stakes were won by different horses and doesn’t include California Chrome, underling the depth as much as the brilliance of the foals of 2011. Let’s not be sexist and overlook super filly Untapable.

Less than two weeks from the start of the Triple Crown grind, another grand group is percolating. Dortmund and Materiality have never lost and they probably won’t be favored in the Kentucky Derby. This distinction is expected to fall to Eclipse champion American Pharoah, whose overpowering brilliance has people speculating whether he is the second coming of Slew. This might be going overboard at this stage but grandiose dreams are what keep horse people getting up in the morning.

We’re not going to have to wait too much longer to find out.

There’s depth in this year’s crop, too, maybe as much as in 2014. Carpe Diem, Frosted, International Star, Firing Line and Upstart have already won major stakes with the promise of more to come.

What’s amazing is racing has gotten back-to-back crops of this caliber in spite of the foal count having dropped almost in half from peak years. There’s a good news/bad news element to this. The top of the game is still strong, verified by the strong performances of the premier auctions.

The decline comes primarily from the lesser part of the breeding game, the dream-bred-to-a-dream horses. This still can produce a California Chrome. However, most wind up filling the cards at second- and third-tier tracks. The question is which will disappear first, these tracks or horses to race at them.

It’s a matter of conjecture how much more the foal crop would plunge if not for the casino-supported state breeding funds. The bad news is, as has been widely predicted, many of these states—Pennsylvania, Indiana, West Virginia, et al--are taking second looks at the millions that go to thoroughbred racing in a period when state budgets have shortfalls in the billions. Racing is going to come up an also ran whenever it comes down to schools and medical care vs. purses and breeding funds. It’s a no-lose issue for demagogic politicians.

Without gaming support, a lot of states are going to become New Jersey. You won’t see many, if any, races for New Jersey-bred 2-year-olds and 3-year-olds this summer at Monmouth. Incredible as it may seem, only 142 foals were registered in 2013.

It’s impossible to track how many have died, been injured or just aren’t fast enough to race. Divide that in half for gender separation. Logic suggests it will be difficult, if not impossible, to put together more than a handful of maiden races and it will take almost all summer for enough horses to break through to stage an entry level allowance.

Races for New Jersey bred 3-year-olds could be even more difficult to fill. Only 170 foals were registered in 2012 and a season and a half of racing has culled that herd.

For sake of comparison, New York had more than 1,400 registered foals in each of these years.

Not many players will bemoan the loss of New Jersey bred races but a strong state bred program is essential for any track. With New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland fishing for open horses from the same pool, it’s not being alarmist to speculate that New Jersey racing is in dire jeopardy of fading away.

If the casino supplements start to be withdrawn, this could be the beginning of a trend. Make that an acceleration of a trend. The demise of Suffolk Downs marked the end of racing in New England, a region that used to be teeming with race courses (Narragansett, Lincoln Downs, Rockingham Park and the fair tracks).

Last week, the Stronach Group warned it can’t and won’t continue to race at Golden Gate, the lynchpin of Northern California, under current circumstances. Several issues are at play, including the disruptive allocation of dates to fair tracks. But the core problem is short fields of poor quality that attract neither fans nor handle. Like New Jersey, California gets no assistance from casinos.

We might be getting closer to predictions that the day will come when racing will be conducted for the most part only at major venues such as New York, Kentucky, Florida and Southern California with bettors elsewhere participating via simulcast.

Fortunately racing isn’t baseball, where the big leagues are dependent on minor leagues all over the map. Rarely do horses from the sticks have any impact on the big stages.

I’m not insensitive to the mom and pop breeding and racing operations but it’s the nature of all business that the whales eventually swallow the minnows. How many Main Street shops have been put of business by Walmart? I’m not endorsing this, just recognizing it as the way things are.

Racing will seem rosy next Saturday. At the top, it is. But like America, it might be losing its middle class.

Written by Tom Jicha

Comments (14)


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