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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Friday, November 15, 2013

Stewards owe timely decisions to fans

Stewards often take much too long to render a call on inquiries, even when the outcome is inevitable. It happened in back-to-back races during Gulfstream's Sunshine Millions Preview. There was no excuse for either.

MIAMI, Nov. 15, 2013--The most agonizing moments for a horseplayer are waiting out a tight photo and sweating out an interminable inquiry. The former is a necessary evil. The latter, in many cases, is not.

Back-to-back races during Gulfstream’s Sunshine Millions Preview program provided examples of how stewards are regularly responsible for unnecessary delays in announcing a decision, which stretch out the card and cause heartburn for players.

My Pal Chrisy, the odds-on favorite in the Distaff Preview, powered past second choice Awesome Belle as the field straightened for home. For some mystifying reason, Jeffrey Sanchez aboard Awesome Belle claimed foul.

All it took was one look at the TV monitors to confirm what was seen during the actual running. My Pal Chrisy never came near Awesome Belle on the turn and was well clear when she moved over in front of her in the lane.

Fans all over the track were mocking Sanchez’s claim, crying out, “Where’s the foul?” As one wise guy put it, “What’s he claiming, that the other horse ran too fast?”

The stewards should have taken one courtesy look to make certain they didn’t miss something. Instead, they took six or seven minutes to look, relook, then look again at every conceivable angle before doing what they should have done in 30 seconds, let the result stand.

The very next race, the Juvenile Sprint, produced the opposite situation. Wildcat Red led into deep stretch, then began to drift out, two, three, four paths. Meanwhile, Bolita Boyz was rallying furiously down the middle of the track. Wildcat Red’s drift forced Paco Lopez aboard Bolita Boyz to hesitate, then, not knowing how much further Wildcat Red was going to come out, duck to the inside where his charge fell short.

The stewards were right on it, putting up the inquiry sign within seconds of the horses going under the wire. Once again, everyone at the track knew what the outcome was going to be. Wildcat Red had to come down. If there was any doubt, it was dispelled by a single look at the head-on.

Indeed, Wildcat Red was disqualified but not until the stewards took another five or six minutes to look repeatedly at the same incriminating footage. Remember, they saw enough live to put up the inquiry. This doesn’t always result in a DQ but when the video reinforces what the stewards had seen live, it should be an easy and quick call. Their lengthy delay was inexcusable.

These two calls were so clear cut--there are similar ones all the time at tracks everywhere--you have to wonder if the stewards come to a decision, then sit on it for a few minutes so that they appear to have been in deep deliberations.

There are, of course, situations when an inquiry is so borderline it is commendable that the stewards consider every possible angle and take as much time as necessary before coming to a decision. More often, this is not the case. On these occasions, the stewards should take one look at the pan, one at the head-on, do whatever is called for and make the result official as quickly as possible.

Mutual poll manipulation?

Later the same afternoon, there was a suspicious turn of events at Hollywood Park, which suggested the possibility of mutual pool manipulation.

A horse named Ekahi opened at 3-5 in the seventh race, an open $16,000-$14,000 claimer. Problem was Ekahi was 30-1 on the morning line in a race in which there were no 20-1 shots. The next highest was 12-1.

The morning line was supported by the past performances. Ekahi was one-for-nine lifetime, zero-for-four in 2013. He was coming out of a $20K starter race in which he finished last of seven, beaten 28 lengths. His previous start, for the same tag as last Saturday but for limited winners, he finished 10th of 12. He had finished in front of only four of 31 opponents this year.

Unlikely winners often open short, especially at tracks with relatively small pools. Less than $100 can do it. But this was Hollywood Park on a Saturday, where it takes a sizable punch to make the toteboard rock. But there was no obvious contender worthy of this kind of support. The morning line choice was 3-1 and he didn’t even wind up going off the favorite.

Another possible explanation was someone had made a mistake and hit the wrong number. Ekahi was No. 6. One of the well regarded horses was Cast a Doubt in No. 5, who did eventually become the betting choice at 5-2. This also is a fairly frequent occurrence and the board adjusts when the ticket is canceled and the money placed where it was meant to be.

But Ekahi lingered for most of the betting as the heavy favorite, drifting only slightly to even-money, then 6-5. It wasn’t until about three minutes to post that the odds on Ekahi began their retreat to where they should have been. In one click, he zoomed to 14-1. By post time, he was 27-1. He ran like a 27-1 shot, trailing the field from start to finish.

For many years, a bettor couldn’t change a wager once he stepped away from the window. It was a positive development when changes became permissable, theoretically because a wrong number had been purchased.

Computerized betting has changed the game. Now cancellations can be made with a simple click up to seconds before the field breaks.

I don’t know where the Ekahi shenanigans originated but Hollywood Park and the California Racing Board can find out. They owe it to fans to investigate the circumstances and take steps to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Friday, November 08, 2013

Separate dirt and turf Eclipses and other thoughts

Thoughts on the Breeders' Cup linger. One suggestion worth consideration is separate Eclipse Awards for best older dirt and turf horses. If nothing else, it would solve the Wise Dan controversy. Also, the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Sprint should be reinstated.

MIAMI, Nov. 8, 2013--All things Breeders’ Cup and their ramifications remain hot topics. So before we move on to pondering the Triple Crown, there are still thoughts to be shared.

A comment on my most recent column suggested separate Eclipse awards for outstanding older dirt horse and turf horse. On one hand, this would solve the Wise Dan conundrum. On the other, there would still be debates on who deserves each prize. This year the dirt prize would come down to five-for-six Game on Dude or two-for-five Mucho Macho Man.

Every year the candidates would be different but the arguments would be just as passionate.

I still like the idea. Turf and dirt are different worlds. Without getting into this season’s particulars, the floor is open for opposing views on the bigger picture.

Secret Circle showed up the Breeders’ Cup decision-making process when he added the Sprint championship to the 2011 Juvenile Sprint title on his resume. The Juvenile Sprint was axed after only five showed up last year. But that was as much a product of the first time Lasix ban as lack of interest.

Meanwhile, the long running joke (pun intended) Marathon, which has produced no one of merit and hasn’t encouraged a meaningful increase in long distance races during the year, remains a part of the program.

The Marathon does no harm as a program-opening novelty but the Juvenile Sprint should be given another chance. There are more juvenile sprint specialists in November than there are 2-year-olds ready for two turns. Also, Lasix is no longer an issue.

Mizdirection won the Turf Sprint for the second time. Another filly, Reneesgotzip, hit the board for the second time against colts. The great female Goldikova won the Turf Mile three straight years and Miesque won it twice. The Fugue just missed in the Turf, defeating all of the best American males. Let’s not forget Treve winning the Arc against the world’s best.

Isn’t it time North America rethinks its gender classifications. In Europe, top females are expected to race against males once they turn 4. In America, it’s such a rarity that we give Horse of the Year Awards to distaffers who beat males even once or, in the case of Zenyatta, come close.

I’m not arguing for an end to gender specific races on a day-in, day-out basis but there should be a severe reduction of Grade 1 races restricted to females. Such stakes, especially in the second half of the year, should be no more than Grade 2 and I wouldn’t object to dropping one grade lower.

Countless theories have been offered as to why Euros are so superior to North American horses on grass. The obvious one is this is the surface on which they race almost exclusively, so when they rise to the top, they have really accomplished something. On our side of the Atlantic (hasn’t “across the pond” become one of the most over-used clichés in all of sports?) a lot of horses aren’t tried on grass until they are proven wanting on dirt. Some of our best never set foot on the infield course.

It should not be discounted that we breed and buy for speed, they do it for stamina and most major turf races are contested at distances beyond a mile and an eighth, which seems to be the breaking point for all but a handful of our horses. Euro horses are not superior to ours, they are just superior at longer distances. Mizdirection and Wise Dan prove we are right there with them up to a mile.

Et tu Breeders Cup? Some things never change at Santa Anita, even when the Breeders’ Cup has taken over the facility. On Saturday, the standings of the BC handicapping contest, of interest to almost no one, were posted on TV monitors before the will-pays of multiple-race wagers, which were important to almost everyone.

Some things never change at any track. In the middle of the Dirt Mile Friday, as the horses went down the backstretch, TV monitors at Calder switched away from the channel the Breeders’ Cup had been on all day to the Golden Gate signal. It was marginally better Saturday at Gulfstream where the same situation occurred but with the Breeders’ Cup horses still in the paddock.

This has happened at every track or simulcast facility I have visited, including Las Vegas race books. I understand room has to be found for later in the day tracks, but those at the switch should be more sensitive to when they hit the button. A warning several minutes out isn’t asking too much, is it?

Dave Johnson sent a note about the lucky coup for the Sirius radio Breeders' Cup crew, which included Bill Finley and Peter Kleinhans. The latter is friendly with the connections of Ria Antonia, so they did a pre-race interview even though the filly was 32-1 and given little chance. The Racing Form had her at the bottom of its graded entries.

When Ria Antonia got into a photo with She’s a Tiger, they reconnected by cell phone. Finley astutely asked if they could get jockey Javier Castellano to the phone. While the stewards were deliberating, Castellano was offering his version of what happened. They still had the Ria Antonia people on the phone when She’s a Tiger was taken down.

This goes to show luck comes in many forms at the race track.

The New York Times is relentless. On racing’s most glorious occasion, the paper’s Breeders’ Cup advance was an extensive story on the drug violations of America’s top 20 trainers along with a rehash of its exposes of a year ago, most of which were at third tier and outlaw tracks.

Missing was context, such as how many of the violations were for relatively minor, legal pharmaceuticals lingering in a horse’s system beyond the time they were supposed to, whether they were trace samples so minute that they wouldn’t affect the performance of a gnat or were a product of a stablehand snorting coke and getting the residue on a horse’s bridle.

This would have interfered with The Times agenda to slime racing.

Racing's audience might be gray but I've got a couple of bucks that say the sport will be around long after The Gray Lady ceases to exist as a newspaper.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Breeders’ Cup settles little when it comes to rightful titles

As always, the Breeders' Cup provided a scintillating couple of days of racing but the "world championships" failed to clearly identify North American champions in many divisions. An exception is Wise Dan, who should be the unanimous winner of a repeat triple crown: Horse of the Year, Turf Horse and Older Horse.
MIAMI, Nov. 5, 2013--The Breeders’ Cup is a grand spectacle and a horse fan’s Christmas, something to count down toward for months. However, its self designation of “world championships” needs to be toned down lest it remain a source of ridicule. Typically, the 2013 renewal probably ignited more debates than it settled when it comes to even North American division championships.

One category that should be settled is Horse of the Year. Wise Dan deserves to be a lock to repeat. That there is even conversation otherwise is solely a product of contrarians, who resented him winning in 2012 and probably maintain the same opinions after his parallel campaign in 2013. Their oft-stated objection is that Wise Dan is too much of a specialist, racing almost exclusively at a mile on grass.

So what. Juveniles have won the title. Fillies and mares have won the title, usually on the basis of one win outside their division against males.

Game on Dude would have been an almost unanimous choice if he had won the Classic after racing all but once in California, where he routinely beat up on short fields with Clubhouse Ride his immediate victim three times and Kettle Corn twice. Either of these would have been 50-1 or better if they had made the Classic field.

A primary characteristic of champions is consistency. Wise Dan was almost perfect again this year. He won on the East Coast at Saratoga, in the Midwest at Churchill Downs and Keeneland, in Canada at Woodbine and on the West Coast at Santa Anita.

He won in April, May, June, August, September and November.

The Euros cleaned our clocks in every BC turf race but the Mile, where Wise Dan cleaned theirs. What more do the naysayers want?

More déjà vu. Wise Dan’s detractors might grudgingly concede him the big prize but rest assured there will be opinions written and spoken that he should not cop best older horse, also because he won only on turf.

If not him, who? To reiterate, Game on Dude’s entire campaign of beating up on the same creampuffs was exposed in the Classic. There were no excuses this time. He was ideally positioned throughout, right there at the top of the stretch on a track that favored this (although not as much as Friday) and backed up badly when he realized it wasn’t Clubhouse Ride and Kettle Corn breathing down on him.

Some will offer Mucho Macho Man. But if Wise Dan was a specialist, what can you say about a horse whose only two wins were at Santa Anita in a compact span of five weeks?

The Eclipse voters will risk their credibility if they do not vote Wise Dan the same triple as last season: Horse of the Year, Turf Horse and Older Horse.

Very few other categories were settled at the “world championships.” New Year’s Day is the pro tem leader of the juvenile division off his upset win but the only other first on his resume is a maiden race. What’s more, he ran slower than the fillies. With major 2-year-old races still to come at Churchill Downs, Aqueduct, Hollywood and even Delta Downs, this category is far from settled.

Same goes for the juvenile fillies. She’s a Tiger is being talked up after being taken down but even Gary Stevens acknowledged on TV that she deserved to be DQ’ed. She also failed to hold a clear lead in her previous start. My hunch is her connections won’t risk her reputation around two turns during Hollywood’s final season, leaving the door open for a late season star. If she gets the Eclipse, it will be by process of elimination, hardly the criteria of a champion.

I can’t believe Groupie Doll is being pushed by some as outstanding female sprinter. Let’s review: she ran third to undistinguished foes at Ellis Park, beat a $4k claimer at Presque Isle Downs, was third best again at Keeneland, then came through on the same track where she won the title last year. It is no more rational to award her an encore championship than it would be to give the 2-year-old filly title to Ria Antonia.

Anybody hear of Dance to Bristol? She might have thrown in a clunker at Santa Anita but unlike Game on Dude, her prior resume--7 wins, 2 seconds in 9 starts--can’t be faulted. She took on all comers and her only loss after winning 7 in a row was a second to undefeated Cluster of Stars.

The male sprint division is so bereft of outstanding players that Secret Circle could steal the title with similar, albeit lesser, credentials as Mucho Macho Man; a Breeders’ Cup win, preceded by an optional claimer score. The 2011 BC Juvenile Sprint winner has never been beaten around one turn. Let’s hope we get the opportunity before year’s end to see him attempt to wipe out any challenges to his superiority. He probably would be odds-on if Bob Baffert chose to have him tackle the Cigar Mile.

Speaking of the Cigar, TV commentators and some in the print media all but awarded the 3-year-old title to Will Take Charge after his gallant second in the Classic. Hold on. Shug McGaughey is pointing Kentucky Derby winner Orb to the Cigar.

Will Take Charge is still only 4-for-10 and he finished 8th, 7th and 10th in the Triple Crown races. His only Grade 1 win is the Travers. As disappointing as Orb has been since Derby Day, he is still 4-for-8, with two Grade 1’s, including the big one, and he finished ahead of WTC in each of the Triple Crown events. A bookend score in the Cigar, however improbable off his recent form, would move Orb to the top of the class again.

Update: After publication, it was announced that Orb has been retired. He is perfectly sound, so this is every bit as objectionable as Verrazano's retirement, which I railed against last week. Actually more so. There is no bigger drawing card in racing than a Kentucky Derby winner.)

The most spirited arguments from now until the Eclipse winners are revealed in January will be over 3-year-old filly honors. Beholder stated her case with a resounding triumph in the BC Distaff, her second Grade 1 against older rivals. Princess of Sylmar misfired badly Friday but has won the more prestigious races and defeated Beholder, a Santa Anita specialist, in their only previous meeting in the Kentucky Oaks.

No matter which one comes out on top, the division will have a stellar champion. This can’t be said about many of the other categories.

Written by Tom Jicha

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