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, September 29, 2016

Super Saturday under-rates this week’s racing

The best dirt horse, the most talented grass runner, the reigning sprint champion and a three-time Eclipse winner are among the superstars who will be in action Saturday, a day which features more Grade 1 races than the original Breeders' Cup agenda.In addition to eight Grade 1 events there are more than a dozen additional stakes scheduled, including the finales of the rich Florida Sire Stakes series at Gulfstream, each of which boasts an undefeated juvenile.

MIAMI, Sept. 29, 2016--Racing does get better than this Saturday—but only once, Breeders’ Cup Day.

Before the sun goes down in the West, at least five horses, who could be favored in Breeders’ Cup races, will have had their final preps in New York, Kentucky and California. Eight Grade 1 races (one more than the original Breeders’ Cup agenda) and a slew of other graded stakes are on the menu. Most will be featured live during a 2 ½ telecast starting at 5:30 p.m. on the NBC cable Sports Network.

The best dirt horse on the planet, California Chrome, will have what amounts to a public workout in advance of the BC Classic in the Awesome Again at Santa Anita. It cost Santa Anita to get him. Frank Stronach created a $1 million bonus for any horse who wins the Pacific Classic, Awesome Again and BC Classic. Of course, California Chrome is the only one eligible as the Pacific Classic champion.

Trainer Art Sherman said on an NTRA phone conference this week, “a million dollars is a million dollars,” but Chrome wouldn’t be in the race if he wasn’t at the top of his game. Scary news for his rivals. Sherman said his 5-year-old is bigger and stronger than ever. His recent works bear this out.

Stronach might get an unexpected chance to put up big money again to lure California Chrome to one of his tracks. The general thinking was the 2015 Kentucky Derby winner would race three more times—the Awesome Again, the BC Classic and the $12 million Pegasus at Gulfstream on Jan. 28. Sherman said he might want to give Chrome a race over the Gulfstream strip prior to the world’s richest race if it could be arranged. If he’s serious, rest assured it will be arranged.

Mandella: Beholder ready this time

Earlier on the same card, three-time Eclipse winner Beholder will renew her rivalry with Stellar Wind, who has split a pair of decisions with her after running second in last year’s Distaff, in the Zenyatta. The winner is likely to vie for favoritism in the BC Distaff with sensational 3-year-old Songbird.

First things first, Beholder’s trainer Richard Mandella said on the NTRA call. He expects his 6-year-old mare to turn the tables on Stellar Wind, since he went a little easy on her prior to the Clement Hirsch where Stellar Wind ran down Beholder late. This time the screws are tightened, Mandella said.

A pair of Grade 1 events for 2-year-olds, the Front Runner and the Chandelier for fillies, also could produce a Breeders’ Cup favorite or two in light of the success California-based horses have had and the fact they will be racing on their home track Nov. 4-5. Nyquist and eventual Triple Crown winner American Pharoah have taken the two most recent runnings of the Front Runner and Songbird captured the 2015 Chandelier.

Bob Baffert could have the horse to beat in both; Klimt in the Front Runner, American Cleopatra in the Chandelier.

Runhappy returns with new goals

Last year’s BC Sprint winner Runhappy returns to the races for the first time since winning the Grade 1 Malibu on the day after Christmas in the Ack Ack, one of three stakes at Churchill Downs. Runhappy has never lost around one turn in seven career starts and ran dismally in his only two-turn race. Nevertheless, he is being pointed to the BC Dirt Mile, a stepping stone toward the nine-furlong Pegasus. If the 2016 Runhappy comes back as sharp as the 2015 model, he’s the probable Mile favorite in spite of the lone blemish on his record.

Assuming Runhappy’s connections stick to their plan, the BC Sprint favorite could come from the Vosburgh, one of three Grade 1’s on a five-stakes card at Belmont. A.P. Indian will try to stretch his 2016 record to six-for-six with X Y Jet, who had a five-race winning streak of his own snapped in the Golden Shaheen in March. He suffered a knee chip in the Dubai race and hasn’t been out since, so it’s a tough assignment to take on a super sharp foe like AP Indian. But he’s trained by Jorge Navarro, who seems capable of producing miracles when he lays his hands on a horse.

Flintshire shorter price than Chrome?

Also at Belmont, Flintshire will put his four-for-four U.S. record on the line in the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic.Last year, Flintshire’s connections opted for the Arc de Triomphe, where he finished second, over the BC Turf. This season the plan is to go from the Joe Hirsch to the Turf.

An interesting side bet would be who will go off at a lower price, California Chrome or Flintshire? I make it pick-‘em. Unless there is a monumental upset Saturday, Flintshire is the likely BC Turf favorite.

Big day at Gulfstream, too

There will be no graded stakes but eight added-money heats overall at Gulfstream, which stages the finale of its Florida Sire Stakes series. The two headliners, each worth $500K, the In Reality for colts and My Dear Girl for fillies, are headed by undefeated 2-year-olds trying two turns for the first time.

Three Rules has been devastating in winning his first four starts by 21 lengths. More impressive, he had issues in his last two, an abcess in a hoof prior to the Dr. Fager and a slight temperature during his preparations for the Affirmed. He's supposedly 100 percent now. If he handles the In Reality’s mile and a sixteenth the way he has sprints, he will be worth a long look on Breeders’ Cup Day.

The filly Cajun Delta Dawn, also four-for-four, has had to work harder. Her first three victories were by less than a combined length. She finally got an easier score last time out, winning the seven furlong Susan’s Girl by five.

An interesting factoid about her is in spite of her record, she has never gone to the post as the favorite. She might not Saturday, either, after drawing the outside 13 hole with an insanely short run to the first turn for such a bloated field.

With all the quality action Saturday, it will take enough stamina to run for president to get through it all.

California nutty as ever

The latest lunacy in California cannot go unmentioned. It’s as if the people running the game are determined to sabotage it.

Venues elsewhere—Belmont, Kentucky Downs, Laurel and Gulfstream to mention the major ones—are enjoying a renaissance, largely attributable to fractional wagers (bets for 20 cents, 50 cents and a dollar) and reasonable, if still not acceptable, takeouts.

Meanwhile, the sport in Southern California continues to slide into the ocean thanks to unyielding stubbornness. August handle was down 11 percent.

The Pick 6, once the glamour bet in Southern California (if almost nowhere else), has been in a freefall. Meanwhile a relatively new Pick 5 and a Pick 4, both with a 50-cent minimum, are handling three or four times the Pick 6 on a non-carryover day.

All you have to know is Santa Anita guarantees a $500,000 pool for its 50-cent Pick 4 on Saturdays but only promises $100,000 for its $2 Pick 6.

So what do the geniuses running Del Mar do? If they had half a brain, even cumulatively, they would add a late Pick 5, as NYRA has done as its Pick 6 pool has plunged.

But no. They are doubling down on the failing Pick 6, in the process thumbing their nose at most of the fans in the grandstand. For the fall Del Mar season—another really bad idea, which has diminished the appeal of the traditional summer session—they are keeping the $2 Pick 6 and making it an even worse proposition.

Seventy percent of the pool used to go to those who picked 6 winners with 30 percent set aside for the consolation payoff. It was still a bad bet for those on a limited budget but the consolation gave them a shot for a decent score. In November, those with five winners will get only 15 percent with another 15 percent being set aside for a jackpot for a day when there is a single winning ticket.

The goal is to set up a monster day for the end of the meeting when there will be a mandatory payout. In the meantime, all the money in the jackpot will be dollars that won’t be churned. Brilliant.

Blatant conflict leads to fight

Del Mar's decision might not be the looniest thing to happen in the past week or so. Alex Solis and trainer Steve Miyadi got into a beef in which Miyadi pushed Solis, who was pursuing mounts from Miyadi. The trainer said the jockey had a lot of gall to come to him after the CHRB, of which Solis is a member, suspended him for 30 days for a drug overage.

Miyadi is wrong for getting physical with the much tinier Solis and blaming him for a failed test Solis had nothing to do with. At the same time, the jockey, who had Miyadi arrested for battery, comes off as the kid who runs to the teacher complaining, “Steve pushed me.”

The police don’t have enough to do and the courts aren’t cluttered enough and now they have to deal with this kind of childish nonsense.

Worst of all, what is a still active jockey doing on a state regulatory board? Aren’t there any recently retired riders, who could offer their unique perspective, without such a blatant conflict of interest?

Only in California.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Wednesday, September 21, 2016

PARX in National Spotlight: No Males for Songbird; Nyquist Seeks Title

Songbird, who goes for 11 in a row Saturday in the Cotillion, won't risk her undefeated record against colts this year, according to her trainer Jerry Hollendorfer. Meanwhile, Nyquist's trainer, Doug O'Neill, said the Pennsylvania Derby might be the Kentucky Derby winner's last shot to regain his status atop the 3-year-old male division. Both camps say the two outstanding sophomores have the $12 million Pegasus on Jan., 28 at Gulfstream in their long range plans.

MIAMI, Sept. 21, 2016--Songbird goes into Saturday’s $1 million Cotillion with 10 straight wins. Her average victory margin is more than five lengths. She’s won on her home court, on a neutral court and on the home courts of her biggest rivals.

Nevertheless, her trainer, Jerry Hollendorfer feels she still has things to prove. Unfortunately, it might be a while, if ever, before she gets to answer the biggest question: How does she shape up against the best male horses of her generation?

The Cotillion figures to be a stroll in the Parx for Songbird. She has never raced at the Philadelphia area track but Hollendorfer is not the least bit concerned. She travels better than Marco Polo. She shipped to Kentucky for the Breeders’ Cup and put on a show. Hollendorfer sent her cross country to Saratoga and he says she blossomed there.

Not that he had to brag on her. The results of the Coaching Club American Oaks and Alabama say all that needs to be said.

The former was nine furlongs, the latter a mile and a quarter. So she’ll be turning back in the mile and a sixteenth Cotillion with the speedy Kentucky Oaks winner Cathryn Sophia with a big win over the track a prime challenger.

No sweat, Hollendorfer says. “I’m not a believer that it’s going to make a difference, especially with this horse. She has natural speed.”

Even if Songbird wins by a pole, there is no chance she will try the boys in Breeders’ Cup Classic, Hollendorfer said emphatically. “That is out of the question. We’re looking at the Distaff.”

This could entail a showdown with Beholder, who has dominated the West Coast female division for the past four years, and Stellar Wind, who turned the tables on Beholder in the Clement L. Hirsch and was a close and troubled second in the Distaff as a 3-year-old last year. It will be one of the most eagerly anticipated races of Breeders’ Cup weekend but not nearly so much as a Songbird incursion against males would be.

It’s not that Hollendorfer is philosophically opposed to running a filly against colts. “I’ve done it before. I won the California Derby with a filly (Pikes Place Dancer in 1996).”

He’s just not in any hurry.The first time Hollendorfer will consider Songbird stepping out of her gender is the $12 million Pegasus at Gulfstream on Jan. 28, early in Songbird’s 4-year-old season. “It’s in the back of our minds but we’re not pointing to it.”

Songbird’s owner, Rick Porter, is not one of the original dozen who anted up the $1 million entry fee but this won’t be an issue in Hollendorfer’s estimation. “There will be some slots on the table.”

Indeed, a Pegasus starting gate berth changed hands for the first time this week when NYRA board member Earle Mack bought out a group headed by Sol Kumin and James Covello for a price said to be very close to $1 million.

According to the Daily Racing Form, Mack, who doesn’t appear to own a Pegasus caliber horse, said he has a partner but wouldn’t disclose whether this person has a solid contender.

Hollendorfer said the decision whether to go in the Pegasus or any other stakes against colts will depend upon the circumstances. “If California Chrome and those other monsters continue to run the way they have, we wouldn’t be so anxious.”

3YO title on line

Songbird is such a dynamic racehorse that her appearance in the Cotillion has stolen a good deal of the luster from the nominal feature, the $1.25 million Pennsylvania Derby, even though it carries potential season-ending championship implications.

The Pennsylvania Derby and the 3-year-old Eclipse contest appear to come down to Exaggerator and Nyquist, who is coming back off a brief freshening for a growth spurt. Nyquist has the big one, the Kentucky Derby, along with the Florida Derby and San Vicente on his credit sheet. Exaggerator turned the tables in the Preakness and also has the Santa Anita Derby and Haskell on his resume.

Nyquist’s trainer, Doug O’Neill, said the Pennsylvania Derby might be Nyquist’s last shot to vault to the top of his division. “I can’t see how we could win the Eclipse without winning this one...unless we win the Classic.”

He dismisses the chances of Arrogate, who ran a race for the ages in the Travers. ”I think he came along too late.”

History supports this opinion. The Travers was Arrogate’s first stakes, so even doubling down in the Classic might not be enough. It was only two years ago that Bayern won the Haskell, the Pennsylvania Derby and the Classic yet finished third behind California Chrome and Shared Belief in year-end balloting.

O’Neill is confident he has Nyquist back to where he was when he went undefeated through the Kentucky Derby. A respite at San Luis Rey training center away from the stress at a race track has done wonders. “We’re looking at a better version of Nyquist.”

The Derby winner has grown about two hands, according to O’Neill. He also has filled out into his bigger body. “He was getting a little light on us.”

O’Neill volunteered to take the rap for Nyquist’s disappointments in the Preakness and Haskell. “The Preakness was all me.” He told Mario Gutierrez to go to the front, not Nyquist’s preferred style, because he feared other horses would come over in front of him and trap him down inside. Monmouth’s reputation for having a golden rail led O’Neill to give Gutierrez the same instructions in the Haskell,

There will be no encore in the Pennsylvania Derby, O’Neill said. “The only way we’ll find ourselves on the lead is if they hand it to us. There are some fast horses in there, so that’s not going to happen. We’re going to let the race unfold, have a target and go get them late.”

The goal is to go from Pennsylvania to the Breeders’ Cup Classic and eventually the Pegasus. “When Paul (Reddam, Nyquist’s owner and a $1 million Pegasus subscriber) wrote that check, the thinking was we would have a stall in the gate.”

The media event for the Pegasus scheduled for this week has been postponed with a new date still not announced. But the race is still a go.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, September 15, 2016

Lots of questions still surround $12 million race

To the surprise of many, it appears the $12 million Pegasus will actually happen on Jan. 28 at Gulfstream. A media event is scheduled for next week to promote what will be the world's richest race. It should be a lively session with many questions still to be answered, including whether this is a good thing for racing, inasmuch as owners are being asked to put up the entire purse. But Frank Stronach deserves credit for characteristically thinking big for the benefit of racing

MIAMI, Sept. 15, 2016--Frank Stronach wants to make racing great again. You have to like him for that.

Some of his ideas are better than others but they have one thing in common. He swings for tape measure home runs. He doesn’t bunt. And promoting racing is always his priority.

His latest grandiose scheme, the world’s richest horse race, the $12 million Pegasus scheduled for Jan. 28 at Gulfstream, has generated widespread attention and publicity.That’s a positive. However, much of the early conversation centered around whether the Pegasus would actually happen. A poll in the BloodHorse last spring asked if the race would come to reality. Sixty-nine percent of respondents weighed in on the negative side.

The hang-up for many is the way the Pegasus is being funded—a dozen owners anteing up a million dollars apiece for a berth in the starting gate. This is a worse investment than diamond mines in the Aqueduct infield.

The winner will earn a world record $7 million. Only one of the others will show a profit. Second is worth $1.75 million. The remaining 10 will suffer substantial six-figure losses. Third pays $1 million. When you subtract the customary 10 percent apiece for the trainer and jockey, it’s a losing proposition. All the other starters, no matter their final position, will get $250,000.

This doesn’t take into account the cost of keeping a horse in training for three months after the Breeders’ Cup and shipping to Florida.

These expenses might be covered by Stronach’s promise of a cut of the mutual handle as well as a share in media and sponsorship revenue. The problem is the latter two will produce nothing. Only the Triple Crown races get meaningful TV rights fees. The norm is to use whatever sponsorships can be sold to pay to get the race on TV.

As for the handle, if it approaches the level of the Breeders Cup Classic, somewhere between $25-$30 million, each of the shareholders would be lucky to net $100K after Stronach's expenses are deducted. They also get an option to buy into future Pegasus stakes.

The naysayers apparently were wrong. A media event tied to the Pegasus has been scheduled for next week. It’s doubtful a press conference would be called to announce the idea had cratered. That would be done via press release on a Friday night before a holiday weekend.

The press conference comes about a week after the deadline for the original subscribers, who reportedly put up $250,000 last spring, to come up with the final $750K—four months before post time. That the $12 million goal has been reached is likely to be the big announcement.

Many questions still need to be raised at the presser. Is Stronach committed to a second Pegasus if the first isn’t as successful as hoped? Remember, there were oceans of empty seats for the first Super Bowl—and a ticket cost only $12.

Gulfstream doesn’t charge admission, even on Florida Derby Day, because of its casino but reports are there will be a hefty entrance fee for Pegasus Day. What will be done to accommodate casino players? Shutting them out on a weekend day in the height of tourist season could cost more than admissions will generate. It also encourages slots players to sample one of the other half-dozen casinos in South Florida, not a prudent marketing strategy.

Suppose a dozen horses can’t be coaxed into the starting gate. Will the holders of unused shares lose their future rights? In a related area, will there be safeguards to ensure that hopeless candidates don’t enter just to get back at least $250,000 of their ante?

Why has the distance been set at a mile and an eighth? Gulfstream is a nine-furlong oval, so horses in the outside four posts will be severely compromised by the short run into the first turn.The most important race at any Stronach-owned track, the Preakness, is contested over a mile and three-sixteenths. Why not the same for a race Stronach hopes to grow into one of the most important on the globe. The extra 110 yards before the first turn would mitigate the impact of drawing an outside post.

Not to impugn or challenge the integrity or competence of the Gulfstream stewards but the track employs two of the three. Stronach could have one of the top contenders in Woodward winner Shaman’s Ghost. Shouldn’t a trio of outside judges be brought in just in case there is a foul claim involving the house horse?

Finally, is the concept of the Pegasus good for racing? Mike Repole has already been quoted as saying he won’t participate because he doesn’t like the idea of horsemen putting up the entire purse. This sets an incredibly bad precedent.

Some of these questions could and should be dealt with at the press conference. The only way to answer the others is to take a shot and run the race. Stronach deserves plaudits for doing that.

Gender equality

Believe it or not, Kentucky Derby prep season starts Saturday with the Iroquois at Churchill Downs. This is the first of the 10-4-2-1 points stakes through the end of this year. The only exception is the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, where the points double.

It’s a little early to take the points seriously. Last year’s Iroquois winner, Cocked and Loaded, didn’t win again until Aug. 4 of this year when he took a $40K claimer sprint at Saratoga.

Churchill released the roster of 35 Derby qualifying races this week. There’s one addition and one deletion. The Sam F. Davis at Tampa Bay Downs is in as a 10-pointer to the winner and Woodbine’s Grey stakes is out.

It’s difficult to quarrel with either decision. The Sam F. Davis, the prep for the Tampa Bay Derby, has sent 12 starters to the Derby in the past decade, including Belmont Stakes runnerup Destin this year.
The Grey Stakes has had six or fewer starters in three of its four most recent renewals.

It’s heartening that field size is becoming a consideration. It’s something I wish the Graded Stakes Committee would use in its deliberations. I recently advocated reducing the grade by one classification for any stakes that has fewer than six entrants and five starters for two consecutive years.

Churchill also has set aside a berth in the Derby for the high point-earner in a pair of stakes in Japan. As long as this has been done, I would like to see the same opportunity afforded to the top point-getting filly—but only one—in the corresponding Kentucky Oaks points rankings.

This filly would almost certainly come from one of the big six races that carry 100-40-20-10 windfalls—the Fair Grounds Oaks, Gulfstream Oaks, Santa Anita Oaks, Ashland, Gazelle and Fantasy. It usually takes an exceptional filly to win one of those. If more than one filly wants to try the boys, points earned in earlier Oaks qualifiers could be used as a tie-breaker.

Great fillies such as Rachel Alexandra, Zenyatta, Havre de Grace and Tepin have eviscerated the notion that females are the weaker sex in racing. I'm confident Songbird will do the same as soon as she gets the chance. There should be a road to the roses for those who want to try it. Chances are they wouldn’t take advantage, just as Songbird’s connections vowed not to do this past spring, but the mere possibility would generate conversation.

By next spring, there might be a female in the White House. Shouldn’t there be at least one filly in the Derby?

Written by Tom Jicha

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