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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Thursday, September 03, 2015

Pharoah’s bad day was a great one for racing

The Travers result disappointed many, none more so than Team American Pharoah. However, it was a grand day for thoroughbred racing with record handle, huge TV ratings and conversation before and after the event that the sport doesn't get outside Triple Crown season. Thankfully Bob Baffert has convinced Ahmed Zayat to allow the Triple Crown champion the opportunity to redeem himself in the Breeders' Cup Classic.

LAS VEGAS, Sept. 3, 2015--Everything about American Pharoah coming to the Travers was great for racing. This includes the result, which tore off a little piece of my heart. It generated pre- and post-race conversation unheard outside the Triple Crown. People, some of whom ignore racing most of the time, are still talking.

More than 15,000 fans got up early to come to the Spa the day before the race to see the Triple Crown champion merely gallop. You have to wonder how many of them made the effort because Christopher Kay kept them from seeing the champ compete in the Travers.

To put this into perspective, it was more people than NYRA tracks downstate will see for an actual day’s races until next year’s Belmont. Bob Baffert, who has had more than a few big horses and champions, said he was overwhelmed by the turnout.

Handle went through the stratosphere with more than $50 million bet, up about 25% over 2014. Wondering aloud again, what might it have been without Kay’s cap?

TV ratings were the strongest in 20 years, more than double last year.

Ahmed Zayat appears to have gotten over his initial instinct to consider retiring American Pharoah inmediately. Baffert’s position was such thinking was premature. Thank goodness, the trainer's opinion seems to be the prevailing one. Unless something changes, racing fans will get one more chance to love American Pharoah at the Breeders’ Cup on Oct. 31.

What an interesting turnaround. Prior to the Travers, Zayat was the one more enthused about running the champ at Saratoga. Baffert had to be coaxed into it.

Nevertheless, Baffert refused to second guess the decision. “If I had to do it again, I would have brought him here,” Baffert said the morning after the disappointing outcome. “I think racing really needed something like this. It’s amazing what he has done for racing…it almost ended well.”

It didn’t end that badly. American Pharoah did all the dirty work. He was pushed every step by quality stakes winner Frosted. A middle half-mile in sub-47 seconds was particularly taxing. This left American Pharoah vulnerable to the late surge of Keen Ice, who got to run his own race. Without such a favorable race flow, Keen Ice got dusted decisively three straight times by American Pharoah. Still the final margin was less than a length as American Pharoah battled courageously to the wire while Frosted backed out of it.

Also, Keen Ice might be more suited to 10 furlongs. Remember, the Kentucky Derby was American Pharoah’s toughest previous race this year. (The Belmont, though a mile and a half, became a gallop in the park as American Pharoah didn’t have a challenger lapped on him at any time.)

Maybe the two cross-country plane trips on top of all the other traveling did take a toll. This isn’t second guessing, since I raised the issue in last week’s column. Other “excuses” don’t stand up to scrutiny.

If American Pharoah was fatigued from his demanding campaign, Keen Ice should have been no less tired. They were both contesting their seventh race of the year. Both had raced in the Belmont, then the Haskell prior to the Travers. So rest was not an issue.

American Pharoah didn’t have a race over the Saratoga strip Baffert had called tricky. Neither did Keen Ice.

Bottom line, the Travers might have been nothing more than a case of a horse with a more favorable trip overcoming in the final strides one who had done all the dirty work. It happens every day.

NYRA’s ego bruised

The self image NYRA has as the capital of horse racing got scuffed up on Travers’ day. All of the six stakes were won by horses who don’t call New York home.

Runhappy, who upset the Kings Bishop was four-for-four in Kentucky, Louisiana and Indiana. Flintshire came across the Atlantic to dominate the Sword Dancer. If he’s a decent price (5-1 or greater) in the Breeders’ Cup Turf, I’m going to have a piece. Dacita came from Chile to beat up on some of our best turf fillies in the Ballston Spa. And, of course, there’s Keen Ice, whose only other New York start this year was the Belmont.

The winners of the other two stakes have only loose ties to the Big Apple. Unbridled Forever, who upset the Ballerina, had won a previous start at the Spa this season. But she is trained by Churchill Downs-based Dallas Stewart.

Forego winner Private Zone is a frequent New York competitor but he doesn’t stable in the Big Apple. This summer he has been at Monmouth.

Quack, quack

The final week of Saratoga will be duck season. More than 100 trainers have won at least one race at the Spa this year. However, some of the prominent names, who still haven’t gotten off the schneid with one week to avoid the embarrassment of a winless season, are striking.

Two-time Kentucky Derby winner Nick Zito has sent out more than 30 horses, according to Racing Form statistics, without getting to the winner’s circle. Ken McPeek is also approaching 30 starters without a winner. Richard Dutrow protégé Michelle Nevin was stuck at 0-31 after her only scheduled starter on Wednesday scratched.

The numbers aren’t as grim for Ian Wilkes and Rusty Arnold, but they each have saddled more than a dozen horses without getting their pictures taken.

The Saratoga 2015 maidens can take heart, however. Dale Romans was on track for a duck, too, until Saturday.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Pharoah’s Travers great for racing but what about his future

Ahmed Zayat's and Bob Baffert's decision to bring American Pharoah to the Travers deserves praise. But in calling this audible from their Breeders' Cup Classic blueprint, they are taking a risk that another coast-to-coast trip could be one too many for the Triple Crown champion.

LAS VEGAS, August 25, 2015--Ahmed Zayat and Bob Baffert did a great thing for racing in deciding to bring American Pharoah to the Travers. The question is, did they do a great thing for the horse? The answer will come not only Saturday but further down the road to the Breeders’ Cup Classic when the wear and tear on American Pharoah becomes apparent…or not.

It isn’t the 27-day gap between the Haskell and the Travers. In spite of the overly conservative training techniques in vogue, this is more than enough for any horse to recover, especially one whose last race seemed so effortless.

The key rivals he has to beat will have had only 24 more hours rest since the Jim Dandy. Moreover, American Pharoah has handled Frosted and Texas Red with aplomb, the former in the Derby and Belmont, the latter in the race before Texas Red galloped in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. They’ll have the advantage of a race over the Saratoga track, which is often significant. Bayern crushed the Haskell last year but was dead by the half-mile pole in the Travers. Still, it requires imagination to see how track surface is going to close the talent gap between the champ and the pretenders.

If there is an issue for American Pharoah, it is the 27 days in addition to a couple of coast-to-coast flights, which have to take something out of him. American Pharoah has been a great traveler. He went Los Angeles to Arkansas twice in less than a month and his latest jaunt from Santa Anita to Monmouth certainly didn’t dull his edge. But you never know when another trans-continental trip is one too many.

The situation is reminiscent of the factors that led to Seattle Slew suffering his first defeat and finishing out of the money for the only time in his career. Slew stormed through the Triple Crown, still the only horse to do it while undefeated. Then Hollywood Park beckoned with an invitation to journey west for the Swaps.

Reports were rampant there was a sweetener. Slew’s owners, Mickey and Karen Taylor and Jim and Sally Hill, who weren’t wealthy people by racing standards, were supposedly guaranteed first money from the $400,000 pot—one of the biggest purses in racing at the time--no matter where Slew finished. They also were intoxicated by the opportunity to mix and mingle with the Tinseltown crowd.

Billy Turner, who guided Slew through the Triple Crown undefeated, didn’t think going New York to California for the Swaps, which he didn’t have on Slew’s training regimen, was a good idea. However, Slew’s headstrong owners, who wound up changing trainers when the trip became the debacle Turner feared it would be, overruled him.

This isn’t to suggest Zayat is behaving like Slew’s people but it’s no secret he wanted to come to the Travers more than Baffert did. For the past few weeks, it has seemed as if Baffert was looking for any reason not to make the trip. The Travers isn’t a race you decide to tackle six days out. But American Pharoah is such a superior race horse, he kept training like a bear, giving Baffert no reasonable out.

It also remains to be seen what the effect will be from wedging the Travers into American Pharoah’s preparation for the ultimate goal, the Breeders’ Cup Classic. If Baffert doesn’t find another race for him, which wasn’t in the original post-Belmont two-race blueprint, the 63-day gap between the Travers and Classic would be the biggest break for American Pharoah since he resumed his career in March.

American Pharoah might be such a superstar that he will shake off all the obstacles like the champion he is. We can only hope.

Slew slight is inexcusable

Speaking of Seattle Slew, I’d like to renew my campaign to have a major race named for him. It’s unfathomable that this hasn’t happened when you think of all the lesser stock honored with a stakes carrying their name.

Slew won divisional Eclipse awards as a 2 year-old, 3-year-old and 4-year-old and was Horse of the Year in 1977 when he swept the Triple Crown. He didn’t get the big prize in 1978, which went to Affirmed for his Triple Crown, even though Slew defeated him in the only clash of Triple Crown winners in racing history. Blood Horse magazine rated Slew the 9th greatest horse of the 20th century.

The only logical explanation is Slew’s people aren’t racing aristocracy. Is there any doubt that if Slew carried the black and cherry colors of the Phipps family or the blue and brown of the Whitneys, there would have been a rich and prestigious stakes named for him long ago. This is in no way intended as a slight to these distinguished racing families, who deserve every laurel afforded them. It is only to make a point.

Not only should there be a race named for Slew, it should be on the NYRA circuit, where he made 11 of his 17 career starts. This is where he launched his career in a maiden race, clinched the Juvenile Eclipse in the Champagne, of course won the Belmont and closed his career winning under 134 pounds in the Stuyvesant at Aqueduct.

Compare this to the achievements of Easy Goer, who has a stakes named for him on the Belmont undercard. There is no comparison.

I’m not advocating taking Easy Goer’s name off a major stakes. He earned that. A more logical candidate for renaming is the Peter Pan. It comes at a time the racing world has Triple Crown on its mind and it’s not as if a name change would be slighting a giant of the turf. Few fans realize that the race is named for a horse, not the fairy tale boy who vowed to never grow up.

But if it takes creating a new stakes to tardily honor Slew, so be it.

What a kid

The carnival of 10- and 11-race cards that have dominated the Spa season finally took their toll on Monday. In spite of only 9-races being scheduled, there was an acute shortage of horses. Six races had only six starters and another had seven. It had to be a blow to the bottom line with a $418,000 pick six carryover and much fewer combinations.

But it was still a great day to be at the Spa. Jess’s Dream, Rachel Alexandra’s first fioal by Curlin (but second to race),made his long delayed debut. There was a lot of skepticism because he didn’t make it to the races until he was 3 and it came in a nine-furlong race, a rarity for a horse of quality.

But what a memorable show Jess’s Dream put on.

Silky Sullivan probably never trailed his field by the amount of ground Jess’s Dream did early. Here are snippets from Larry Colmus’s call. “Jess’s Dream is away a step slow.” As they went around the first turn into the backstretch, Colmus said, “Jess’s Dream is slow to get going.” On the backstretch, “It’s a good 12 lengths back to Jess’s Dream.” That was 12 lengths from the next-to-last horse.

As the field turned for home, Jess’s Dream still had lost contact with the field. But then Colmus and the crowd had a reason to start getting excited. “Jess’ s Dream on the far outside is coming on.”
Finally as he swept by as if the others were standing still, Colmus exclaimed, “Jess’s Dream is a reality…Way to go Curlin and Rachel.”


Written by Tom Jicha

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Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Stewards play God, let them take it all the way

Last Saturday's Beverly D produced the same unfortunate result as the Sanford Stakes at Saratoga a couple of weeks ago. A horse, who had no shot to win and wasn't involved in an incident of interference, got put up to first while the victim wound up with the same placing he or she would have had absent the foul. There is no justice in this. Stewards have discretion to decide where to place a horse who has committed a foul. In obvious cases, why not use the same judgment to move a victimized horse up to where he or she would have finished if not for the interference?

MIAMI, Aug. 18, 2015--There has to be a better way.

For at least the second time in two weeks, a horse, who was going to be no better than third, got kissed into a graded stakes win.

Watsdachances was the latest beneficiary in Saturday’s Beverly D, one of the most prestigious turf races in the world for fillies and mares. She is now a Grade 1 winner, which is worth more long term than the winner’s share of the $700,000 purse.

In two previous attempts to break through into racing’s highest classification, Watsdachances failed to hit the board, running fourth twice. She was going to improve on that in the Beverly D with a third-place finish until Secret Gesture, who had taken the lead in mid-stretch and was on her way to an apparent victory, got goofy late. She veered sharply to the right, into the path of Stephanie’s Kitten, who seemingly had the place locked up but wasn’t going to catch the leader.

Irad Ortiz on Stephanie’s Kitten made the incident look worse than it was with an overly dramatic stand up and snatch up, a commonplace move for riders hoping they might convince stewards to do what their mounts couldn’t. Ortiz’s theatrics probably cost Stephanie’s Kitten the place more than Secret Gesture coming out did.

Meanwhile, Watsdachances was closing on the inside. She was clearly no threat to the first two but with Ortiz more intent on putting on his act than riding to the finish, Watsdachances got up in the last jump to grab second.

There really never was much doubt Secret Gesture was going to come down, even though Stephanie’s Kitten was not going to catch her. So the best horse got put back to third and the horse, who was going to finish third under any circumstances, wound up getting elevated to the win.

A similar situation occurred at Saratoga on July 25 in the Sanford Stakes. Magna Light had the race won when he began some broken field running. He went out about six paths, though arguably clear, then came back in and forced Percolator, running second at the time, to hesitate briefly. Uncle Vinny out in the middle of the track well away from the contretemps nailed Percolator on the line for the place.

Again, it was clear the winner had to come down. But the fouled horse got the same position he was going to get anyway and a horse, who happened to be in the right spot, got boosted to first.

In both cases, bettors got screwed. This was especially true at Arlington, where those who backed Stephanie’s Kitten, the victim, didn’t benefit at all from the DQ.

Everything stewards do involves judgment. There should be a way in instances such as these where they could exercise their discretion and place the fouled horse ahead of one who wasn’t involved in the incident. To be specific, Stephanie’s Kitten should have been given the win, since anyone who saw the race knew she was going to finish ahead of Watsdachances.

It would have been a closer call in the Sanford but Percolator arguably should have been placed ahead of Uncle Vinny.

Sure, this would be playing God. But isn’t that what the stewards do whenever there is a claim of foul? Some of the longest waits for a decision—is it just me or are these getting ridiculously long even when the outcome is obvious?—involve not whether there will be a DQ but how far back to place the offending horse. If stewards can do that, why not how far up they can place a victimized horse. This wouldn’t have to happen in every DQ, just the ones where it's obvious justice isn’t being served.

Better yet, in a case like the Beverly D, where the best horse finished first, let the result stand for betting purposes. Then take the purse difference between second and third money from the connections of Secret Garden and award it to the owners of Stephanie’s Kitten.

Euros are just better

A couple of other thoughts from Arlington Million Day.

I’m putting a line through American horses in Breeders’ Cup turf races this fall. Not that I don't do that most years. The one exception would be if Wise Dan, who is supposed to launch his comeback next month, returns to his old form.

It was reinforced again that Euro horses are pounds better than the best turfers on this side of the Atlantic. Euros finished first in three of the four major events and the invaders weren’t exactly superstars on their own terrain. European horsemen know they don't need their best to beat our best.

Let’s not forget that Main Sequence, who shipped to the United States and won four Grade 1 stakes in a row to clinch the Eclipse as America’s top turf horse last year was on a 10-race losing streak when he arrived on our shores. His strongest European credential was a Group 3 win.

The Pizza Man saved Uncle Sam’s squad from a shutout but the five Euros he ran past had a total of three Group wins among them. Two were in Germany, not exactly Europe’s major league.

Moreover, The Pizza Man is an ultimate horse for course. The Million was his 10th win in 13 starts over the Arlington turf course. Unless the Breeders’ Cup is shifted from Keeneland to Arlington, he won’t be on any of my tickets.

Since I try not to miss opportunities to note that overly conservative trainers are the bane of racing and a major reason for short fields, it needs to be pointed out that Secretariat winner Highland Reel was coming back in 17 days from a stakes win in England. He also had to overcome a trans-Atlantic flight and quarantine.

Highland Reel is conditioned by Aidan O’Brien. What does he know about training horses?

Written by Tom Jicha

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