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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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Lessons to be learned from the Derby trail

History teaches many of the same lessons during each year's Kentucky Derby prep season. Alas, it seems few learn them.

MIAMI, April 16, 2014--We study history to learn from the past and hopefully not make the same mistakes. So what have we learned from this year’s Triple Crown prep season?

The foremost lesson is a reiteration. Getting involved in Kentucky Derby Futures betting is a fool’s venture. It got even more foolish this season when Churchill Downs moved the first pool into November 2013.

The smartest guy in the room is the one who makes one large preemptory bet on the field within minutes of the pool opening. (I assume it is one guy or one syndicate because the M.O. has been the same since Churchill introduced futures betting.)

By driving the price below even-money he discourages those making lesser plays from taking the only logical bet. Not many $2 or even $20 players want to tie up their money for six months on an odds-on proposition. Besides, this doesn’t provide ego satisfaction or bragging rights. Isn’t that what futures betting is all about?

The first pool field wager is especially golden this season. At most, only Cairo Prince and Ride on Curlin of the 23 individual horses in the November pool will make it to the starting gate.

But there are no sure things. I remember a dreary Tuesday January afternoon in Las Vegas in 1993. A new race book, the Sport of Kings, a free-standing building across from Convention Center, was trying to pull players from the big hotel books by promising to book any bet, no matter how large. There wasn’t much going on this day. Only a few minor tracks were in action.

To drum up business, an announcement came over the loud speaker that the book was offering an enticing prop, 6-1 on any horse from the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winning that spring’s Kentucky Derby. At the time, the winter book favorite, Gilded Time, was 7-1 around town. Getting him and a dozen others while giving up only one odds point seemed to be a grand bargain. There weren’t many people in the place but everyone there must have sent it in because betting was closed in a matter of minutes—while I was still in line looking to get my piece of the action.

Come May, the bet didn’t seem so golden. Only one of the Breeders’ Cup 13, Sea Hero, started in the Derby and he was 13-1. But he was all those who made the bet needed. I don’t remember the exact sequence but the Sport of Kings went bust either just before or after that Derby.

This segues nicely into another lesson reinforced this season. The Breeders’ Cup Juvenile is a super-sized negative key race when it comes to the Derby. Street Sense, who won the 2006 Juvenile and 2007 Derby, is the only horse to pull off this challenging double. Not a single horse from the 2012 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile even made it to the 2013 Derby starting gate.

This season's percentage is only slightly better. We Miss Artie, Dance With Fate and Medal Count, who finished 7th, 8th and 11th in the Juvenile, are among the Top 20 in Derby qualifying points. The latter two needed big races in their final chances last Saturday to make the cut. What’s more, Dance With Fate remains uncertain to run. Good for Peter Eurton, who recognizes that Polytrack form from the Blue Grass doesn’t transition well to the Derby on real dirt.

Kiaran McLaughlin hopefully learned a lesson that will be picked up by his colleagues. If you have one of the leading Derby hopefuls, don’t play brinksmanship by protecting them like a white heavyweight. McLaughlin, one of the sharpest trainers in the game, sat on Cairo Prince for nine weeks after a dominant win in the Holy Bull. He was super confident his colt, who he feels should have been undefeated at the time, would at least run third in what would be his final Derby prep, the Florida Derby.

Cairo Prince, perhaps showing his rust, managed only a fourth-place finish, so McLaughlin had to sweat whether his 24 points would be enough. It wasn’t until Run on Curlin outnodded Bayern for second in the Arkansas Derby, the last prep on the Derby trail, that Cairo Prince was locked into No. 20.

As it turns out, Cairo Prince would have gotten in anyway as No. 21 as Constitution has been sidelined with an ankle injury, which opens a spot for Uncle Sigh.

With Constitution out, it’s a crap shoot who will be the second choice behind California Chrome. Hoppertunity? Wildcat Red? Wicked Strong? It might even be Cairo Prince.

Maybe Churchill Downs, which created the points system to get the best “now” horses into the Derby, could learn something from the second season of the new system. Relegating prestigious 2-year-old stakes, including the BC Juvenile, to 10 points is defensible in light of recent history.But once the calendar turns, there needs to be a jump to an intermediate 20-points to the winner category for productive early-in-the-year races, such as the Holy Bull, Sham, Robert B. Lewis and Southwest, before the big leap to 50 and 100 point races. Cairo Prince wouldn’t have been on the fence if this had been in effect this season.

McLaughlin’s suggestion (made before the Florida Derby) that a couple or three spots be reserved for selection via committee, ala the Breeders’ Cup, merits consideration. McLaughlin’s concern that something unforeseeable, such as an untimely minor illness on the eve of a major prep, a horrid trip or losing a rider shouldn’t keep a genuine contender out of the Run for the Roses.

Of course, not putting all your Derby eggs into one prep basket could achieve the same end. It will be interesting to track in future seasons how well this lesson has been learned.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, April 03, 2014

Social Inclusion owner: No price on a dream

Social Inclusion, might be sold between the Wood and Derby. However, his owner, Ron Sanchez, said any deal will have him keeping a substantial interest.

MIAMI, April 3--Ron Sanchez is convinced Social Inclusion is a once in a lifetime horse. He’s putting his money, a boatload of money, where his mouth is in Saturday’s Wood Memorial.

Reports of him turning away $5 million for 75 percent of Social Inclusion are too low, he says. “The biggest offer, which came from outside the U.S. (Coolmore? the sheiks?) is $8 million for 75 percent of the horse. This places Social Inclusion’s value at more than $10.6 million. The biggest money winner in the history of thoroughbred racing is Curlin at just north of $10.5 million.

We are talking about a horse who has won only a maiden sprint and a five-horse entry-level allowance race at Gulfstream. Sanchez is confident that Saturday night we will be talking about racing’s newest Grade I winner and the favorite for the Kentucky Derby. He’s aware that if he’s wrong, the big money offers could disappear.

One of the reasons he can be so bold is that he is Rontos Racing. Sanchez, who has been in racing for almost a quarter-century—he started in 1991 in his native Venezuela and the last four years has raced in the U.S.--doesn’t have to answer to partners.

“I’m a risk taker. Not everything in life is about money. We’ve had a dream for 25 years (to have a horse in the Kentucky Derby). We are going to try to make that dream come true. If we win, we’re in the Derby. That’s a dream of everybody. I’m going to take the risk.”

Because of this, money has not been the major impediment to closing a deal. “I want to keep a piece of the horse and breeding rights.” The 25 percent figure being reported also is too low. “I want to keep at least half.”

He also wants to keep the horse under the care of veteran South Florida trainer Manny Azpurua. When Sanchez bought Social Inclusion for $60,000 at Keeneland, he said to Azpurua, “I think we have a Derby horse.”

Sanchez has been connected with Azpurua, a Venezuelan countryman, for the past three years. His first U.S. trainer was Jose Garoffalo, who also will be going to his first Derby with Wildcat Red.

“Manny is 85 and old school. I have a lot of respect for him. He is a legend in Venezuela,” Sanchez said in an NTRA conference call.

He has been telling potential buyers that it makes no sense to take the horse away from Azpurua. “If you change training methods, the horse will probably bounce.”

However, asked if keeping Azpurua as Social Inclusion’s trainer could be a deal-breaker, Sanchez hedged. “You never know.”

First things first, Sanchez said. “We are going to focus on the Wood to get the points. No points, no Derby.” He didn’t say it, but you could probably add, “No deal.”

Contessa seeks reversal of Gotham, Withers

Sanchez is not the only one who thinks the Derby favorite could come out of the Wood. This is also the opinion of Gary Contessa, who will saddle Uncle Sigh. “I think it’s the best field assembled for any of the preps.”

Contessa is, of course, hoping that Uncle Sigh, who has dropped a couple of tight decisions to Wood rival and fellow New York bred Samraat, is the one who emerges as New York’s big horse going to Louisville.

With a little better racing luck, Contessa feels, Uncle Sigh could have gotten his picture taken both times. In the Withers, the trainer said, Uncle Sigh was stuck outside. In the Gotham, he was between In Tune and Samraat in the crucial stages. “We were sandwiched. Corey Nakatani couldn’t use his whip. If he could have gone to the whip, we could have turned the tables on Samraat.”

Uncle Sigh also was at a hidden disadvantage in those two races. He stayed in New York and had his training interrupted by the brutal weather. “It was very hard to develop a horse in New York this winter,” Contessa said.

Samraat commuted to South Florida between starts and trained under ideal conditions during an extremely mild winter. Contessa, who also went back and forth between Aqueduct and Gulfstream, said he would have followed Samraat’s lead if he knew how ugly the Big Apple weather was going to be. “I didn’t think I was going to miss as many days of training as I did. If I could do it over, I would have had Uncle Sigh in Florida on Dec. 1. I think (Samraat’s trainer) Rick Violette should be applauded.”

Contessa appreciates that Uncle Sigh, who is named for a “Duck Dynasty” character, has more than Samraat to beat in the Wood. “I’ve been blown away by Social Inclusion. He could be any kind of horse.”

The key to the Wood, in Contessa’s estimation, is, “Somebody has to hook Social Inclusion.” Ideally for Uncle Sigh, that would be Samraat. “I would love to see that.”

‘Chrome’ owner thinking Triple Crown

Talk about counting your Triple Crown before even the Santa Anita Derby hatches, Steve Corbin, owner-breeder of California Chrome, considers Saturday’s signature Derby at the Great Race Place a forgone conclusion.

“When we win the Santa Derby, we’ll be on top of the points list. Notice I said ‘when.’ I have no doubts he’ll win the race.”

California Chrome is one of those feel good stories that racing needs more of. He is the first horse bred by Corbin, who already is having the time of his life and will celebrate his birthday on Kentucky Derby Day. California Chrome was born on Super Bowl Sunday. Corbin won a bet that would happen.

California Chrome, the 6-5 morning line favorite for the Santa Anita Derby, made a shambles of the San Felipe, crushing Midnight Hawk and others by more than seven lengths at a mile and a sixteenth. Now he goes nine furlongs en route to the mile and a quarter at Churchill Downs.

Corbin is super confident his Cal-bred will only get better as the distances increase. “I don’t think you’ve seen the top of this horse. He’s just a very special colt. Maybe at a mile and a quarter, he’ll win by 12 or 15.”

Corbin is not only looking past the Santa Anita Derby, he feels the Kentucky Derby is a mere steppingstone to the ultimate prize, the Triple Crown. His big concern, he says, is that his dream might be shattered in the Preakness or Belmont by a colt who hasn’t danced all the Triple Crown dances. “To me going to just the Preakness or Belmont is cheating. If you’ve got a horse you think can do it, put him in the first race and keep him in the second and third races.”

Too bad more owners and trainers don’t think like that.

If racing, reeling from the Steve Asmussen controversy, ever needed owners like Corbin and Sanchez, this is the year.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Conservative training tactics could bump top colts out of Derby

Cairo Prince belongs in the Kentucky Derby despite running fourth in the Florida Derby. Candy Boy also should be at Churchill Downs the first Saturday in May but might not be if he doesn't run at least third in the Santa Anita Derby. If either or both miss the cut, blame the trend to extremely conservative management by their trainers.

MIAMI, April 1, 2014--The Kentucky Derby could be run this year without two colts considered the best in the East and West most of the winter not because they are hurt or aren’t good enough but because of overly conservative training tactics. It was bound to happen sooner or later.

After his disappointing fourth in the Florida Derby, it is more likely than not that Cairo Prince, who didn’t race for nine weeks after dominating the Holy Bull, his only previous race this year, will be shut out. This also could happen to Candy Boy, who has been idle since winning the Robert B. Lewis almost two months ago, his only start in 2014.

It would be a shame if either or both fall short of the points necessary to get into the Run for the Roses. But in the big picture, it could be a good thing. Trainers in future years will be more inclined to race--the name of the game-- than nurse their 3-year-olds up to the Derby.

Candy Boy is in the better position. He controls his own destiny in Saturday’s Santa Anita Derby. If he finishes in the first three, he’s as good as in. Fourth would give him an outside shot but he would need help in the form of the usual late Derby attrition. Right now, the only horse in the top 20 who is improbable for the Derby, but not entirely ruled out, is United Arab Emirates Derby winner Toast of New York.

Cairo Prince is in a truly precarious position. Kiaran McLaughlin put all his eggs into the Florida Derby basket and the 10 points he earned gives him 24, enough for a tie for 16th and 17th now. But there are four big points races this weekend and next, and the fields will be loaded with more than a dozen hopefuls who need only the 20 points they would get for running third to vault over Cairo Prince. Another early favorite, Strong Mandate, with 11, is in this position going into the Arkansas Derby.

Some, such as Uncle Sigh in the Wood, who is tied with Cairo Prince, need only a fourth in the final round of preps. The same goes for Harry’s Holiday, second in the Spiral, and Sam. F. Davis winner and Tampa Bay Derby runnerup Vinceremos in the Blue Grass.

The much hyped Social Inclusion could crash the Derby field with a first or second in the Wood Memorial. His owner, Ron Sanchez, might be making the biggest bet in the history of the Wood. Reportedly, he has been offered as much as $5 million for 75% of the son of Pioneer of the Nile. Sanchez opted to wait until after the Wood to make a decision.

If Social Inclusion wins impressively, his value could double, thanks to Derby fever. If he’s up the track, he reverts to being just a winner of an entry level allowance against a short field over a speed favoring track. Five million dollars could turn into zilch in about a minute and 50 seconds.

California has its own second coming, Bayern, who could push his way into the Derby field with a win or second in the Arkansas Derby.

In other words, we are not talking about unlikely longshots knocking out bigger names. However, there could be a few of those, too, especially with the Blue Grass giving 100-40-20-10 to its customary field of turf and synthetic specialists, who would have little chance on dirt in the Derby. Unfortunately, this won’t keep owners from wanting to go. The lure of that walk from the barn in front of 150,000 fans and millions on TV is irresistible.

Bobby’s Kitten, for example, might be the best 3-year-old in America on turf. Grass form translates well to Keeneland’s kitty litter. If Bobby’s Kitten, who has never raced on dirt, wins or places, it’s 1-to-9 Ken Ramsey takes him to the Derby.

Turf races do not earn Derby qualifying points. There is enough of a body of evidence now that synthetic and conventional dirt are two different worlds to adopt the same policy for artificial tracks.
Any horse only a few points short of Derby qualification also has the April 19 Lexington on Keeneland’s fake dirt to steal a berth in the Derby starting gate, even though the race’s allotment is only 10-4-2-1.

McLaughlin said after the Florida Derby that none of this is an option for Cairo Prince, who currently ranks seventh among all 3-year-olds in earnings in unrestricted stakes. “If we get in, we’re going. If not, we’ll look for another race.”

McLaughlin, one of the class acts in racing, has been proposing that a couple or three Derby berths be determined by a panel of racing experts, ala the Breeders’ Cup, for instances in which a clearly deserving colt such as his (two Grade 2 wins and a Grade 2 place) is shut out by the points system.

Even "American Idol" has a “judges’ save” for when an extremely talented singer comes up short in fan voting.

This is not sour grapes. McLaughlin said this before Cairo Prince ran fourth in the Florida Derby.

There are arguments pro and con on this. How many spots? Would this be reserved for years only when an outstanding horse—a Cairo Prince or Candy Boy, for example—missed the cut? Or would it be extended to a couple or three horses, who are merely the best of the rest?

The best solution is not to let it come to this. I’m going to go out on a limb and predict that in future years, McLaughlin and John Sadler, who trains Candy Boy, will never put themselves in this position by babying an exceptional colt through Derby prep season.

This is the way it should be.

Written by Tom Jicha

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