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, March 07, 2014

Derby Top 10? I can’t find that many

The Kentucky Derby shakeout is in its final phase but only a few have stepped up to the extent that they strike me as legitimate prospects for the Run for the Roses

MIAMI, March 7, 2014--A somewhat depressing reality struck me as I was producing my roster of Kentucky Derby contenders for this week’s HRI poll. It was a challenge coming up with 10 I believe could win the Run for the Roses.

Finally having accepted that Shared Belief is not going to make the Derby, my list of leading prospects topped out at about six or seven and some of those were a reach. The list grew even slimmer with the revelation Thursday that Bob Baffert’s exciting prospect Bayern has a foot bruise. It’s late in the game for a setback, especially for a colt with only two races and zero Derby points.

Cairo Prince is a worthy No. 1 but this could change next weekend if Honor Code comes back big in the Rebel. To reiterate a point, I believe in results and Honor Code is one up on Cairo Prince. But we are into March and we still haven’t seen Honor Code, so he is a shaky proposition.

Candy Boy is the Cairo Prince of the West. When he and Shared Belief met in the Cash Call Futurity, Candy Boy made an Arazi-like middle move to the lead but couldn’t sustain it to the wire. Gary Stevens harnessed that turn of foot in the Robert Lewis, waiting until mid-stretch to give Candy Boy his signal. When he did, Candy Boy blew past a pair of Bafferts, Chitu and the heralded Midnight Hawk.

Unfortunately, Candy Boy will stay in the barn Saturday when the San Felipe is run. This was supposed to be the big test for Bayern, who has blown away a couple of fields. Now it doesn’t much matter in the big picture who wins the San Felipe, unless someone freaks.

Tapiture looks genuine off his dominant performance in the Southwest, his first start since a big win in the Kentucky Jockey Club as a stakes-placed maiden.

Strong Mandate also caught the eye closing on Tapiture after an eventful trip in which he might have lost more ground than his margin of defeat. But D. Wayne’s colt has a knack for running into trouble. Nevertheless, a kick like his has to be respected as the distances extend and maybe he’s due some racing luck.

That’s about it for genuine contenders from where I sit.

Samraat and Uncle Sigh have put on great shows in the Withers and Gotham but until they beat someone of note other than each other, the name Vyjack keeps ringing in my ears.

A similar situation exists in Florida. Wildcat Red and General a Rod have taken it to each other in the Gulfstream Derby and Fountain of Youth, leaving their opposition behind. But I am absolutely convinced that Wildcat Red has no shot at a mile and a quarter and I have doubts about General a Rod.

This is why I don’t share the enthusiasm for Top Billing that many others do. Sure, he had a tough post in the Fountain of Youth and he was racing against a fierce speed bias. But he really wasn’t making up significant ground late on two horses, who should have been vulnerable.

Because he is in the hands of Shug McGaughey, who remains high on him, I can’t dismiss him. If Surfing USA wins or runs close in the Tampa Bay Derby Saturday, Top Billing gets extra points for the ease with which he dispatched the Todd Pletcher charge in a Gulfstream allowance.

Intense Holiday did more in the Risen Star to expose the Louisiana contingent than to elevate his own status. Prior to his win at the Fair Grounds, he had been dusted repeatedly by a herd of other ranking 3-year-olds in Florida.

To me, the others are all Mine That Bird. If they win, I’ll just shake my head and start thinking about the Preakness.

Breeding on hold to racing's benefit

The marquee races for older horses this weekend are illustrative of how much more interesting the sport would be if talented 3-year-olds didn’t go to the breeding shed after their Triple Crown season. Injuries are part of the game but more burgeoning stars are sent to stud as a matter of choice than necessity and racing is poorer for it.

Fans on both coasts are looking forward to the Santa Anita Handicap, a rematch of the Breeders’ Cup Classic duel between Mucho Macho Man and Will Take Charge.

Mucho Macho Man was third in the 2011 Kentucky Derby. This would have been enough for some outfits to send him to the breeding shed. Kudos to Reeves Racing, which kept him on the track not only for his 4-year-old season, culminated by the Breeders’ Cup Classic, but now into his *6-year-old year.

Late developing Will Take Charge had a poor Triple Crown season but by the fall he had thrust himself into the Eclipse picture in two divisions with wins in the Travers, Pennsylvania Derby and Clark. Those were enough for the 3-year-old championship and if the BC Classic was one jump longer, he might have stolen Horse of the Year from Wise Dan.

Again, this was more than enough to earn a life of making love. But his part owner, Willis Horton, loves to see his horses run, so he is back for a 4-year-old campaign and his rivalry with MMM has generated enough buzz that Fox Sports 1 has added the Big Cap to its Jockey Club Tour agenda. There is no chance this would have happened if the Big Cap was headed by Blingo, Rousing Sermon and a suddenly off form Game on Dude.

Saturday’s Gulfstream Handicap has taken on unexpected luster of its own, all of it attributable to leading 3-year-olds of last season coming back as older horses. Belmont Stakes champion Palace Malice is the big name. Unlike some other one-hit wonders, who have won the demanding mile-and-a-half, Palace Malice dressed up his resume by adding the Jim Dandy and running second in the Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup. This is more than enough to get many horses retired.

Palace Malice might not even be favored given the local popularity and achievements of Itsmyluckyday. Last year at this time, he was one of the top Derby prospects off victories in the Gulfstream Derby and Holy Bull and a second to subsequent Kentucky Derby hero Orb in the Florida Derby.

The Run for the Roses was a debacle for both. But Itsmyluckyday bounced back two weeks later with a second to Oxbow in the Preakness. His career was put into jeopardy when he was pulled up with a pelvis fracture in Monmouth’s Pegasus. But Eddie Plesa nursed him back to health and he has been working this winter as if he will have something to say about the older horse division.

Not to be dismissed is the vastly improved Falling Sky. Winner of the Sam F. Davis as a 3-year-old, he has come into his own this winter. He extended Revolutionary (also back this season after running third in Louisville last May) to the limit before giving way by a half-length in a one-mile allowance then rebounded with a stakes record win in the Gulfstream Sprint Championship.

Normandy Invasion, second in the 2013 Wood and fourth in the Derby, launched his 4-year-old campaign recently with a track-record performance in a one-mile allowance. The Gulfstream Handicap came up too quickly for him but he also figures to be prominent in the handicap division.

I can’t remember a year when so many former top 3-year-olds returned. Let’s hope it’s the start of a trend.

*correction made 030814 at 1:36 p.m.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Gulfstream DQ furor a symptom of vast discontent

Only one bettor lost out when a DQ in the final race Saturday at Gulfstream negated a $1.6 million payoff. But hundreds have weighed in with their dissatisfaction. This is indicative of widespread frustration at the inconsistencies of stewards.

MIAMI, Feb. 26, 2014--The furor over a disqualification in the final race at Gulfstream Saturday, which cost one player more than $1.6 million, is a case of the inevitable finally coming to pass.

I was at Gulfstream Saturday. My opinion is that the DQ was justified. But if the stewards had left up Collinito, it wouldn’t have been the worst non-DQ in history. (Game on Dude’s first Big Cap has been the leader in the clubhouse since 2011.)

A point that has been overlooked and which should be a concern to all race tracks is that only one person suffered from the DQ. Yet hundreds, maybe thousands, have weighed in with their displeasure. The only way to interpret this is that the anger at Saturday’s DQ is a manifestation of vast frustration with the whole system.

A foul in one race is not in another. There is no standard and there should be.

Thus John Pricci’s call for total transparency in the stewards’ booth, including audio and video of their deliberations during inquiries, should not just be brushed away. At least players would know which offenses are going to result in a disqualification and which are not. This, of course, assumes there would be consistency once the stewards were put on record. This might be a leap too far.

However, I don’t totally agree with J.P., because, as I said in a comment on his piece, cameras change behavior. This is why trials are televised but jury deliberations are not.

Gulfstream’s 12th race Saturday was a close enough call that nobody would be talking about it if it had happened elsewhere on the card. Its impact on the monster jackpot is responsible for all the attention.

Race tracks should have seen this coming. The new priority nationwide has inarguably become building life-changing jackpots in bets such as the Pick Six and Rainbow Six. It’s the steps taken to create these situations that have invited skepticism.

Stakes races with long traditions, even Grade 1’s, have been shifted from their customary position toward the end of the program to the third or fourth race to take them out of the Pick 6 if the field is short or there is an outstanding favorite, which would reduce the numbers of combinations purchased. Formless races with huge fields of established losers have replaced them in the showcase positions on the card. (This wasn’t the case Saturday but it has been on many more days than not.)

It has become unmistakably clear that the new priority is to create carryovers at almost any cost. They generate media attention, a huge handle into that pool and a positive ripple effect to the rest of the card. With a unique bet like the Rainbow 6, whose jackpot is distributed only if there is a single winner, the windfall to a track’s bottom line could resonate for weeks, even months.

Ergo, bettors can’t be faulted for suspecting chicanery when a borderline call, such as Saturday’s, comes down in a way that benefits the track. Many fans consider stewards to be an extension of management.

Until the advent of rainbow-chasing bets, the beauty of the pari-mutuel system was tracks had no stake in who won and who lost. This has been perverted into a “we win when you lose” scenario. Long term, this cannot be good for the game.

The obvious remedy, eliminating bets with carryovers, is a non-starter. My guess is even those screaming the loudest would not want to see this happen.

The next best thing is to take steps to downplay how much the tracks covet carryovers. These include not pushing stakes out of the most lucrative multi-race wagers, not scheduling races loaded with first-time starters in the middle of the sequence, so tote board action can’t offer clues as to who is live, and refraining from almost gloating over the P.A. and closed-circuit TV systems that there will be a carryover even before the bet is finished.

None of this is likely to happen because tracks know bettors have short memories. Whatever hard feelings there might have been from Saturday, there was no carryover (I couldn’t resist). Bettors pumped another half-million-plus dollars into Sunday’s pool.

An unfortunate byproduct of the Gulfstream controversy is it has become the main topic of conversation from a day when preps for the Triple Crown should have been, especially with the third (next-to-last) Kentucky Derby Futures pool opening Thursday.

The Derby future is still a fool’s wager when anything resembling serious money is involved. Every year about half the eventual Derby field goes off at better odds on the first Saturday in May than in the futures. And you get your money back at Churchill Downs if your selection doesn’t run.

As best I can surmise, the whole purpose of making a futures bet is to be able to show off winning tickets to prove you picked the winner a few months out. If it substantially outpays the final toteboard odds, all the better.

Forget the field at 6-1 (and likely lower when the pools close). There are no bragging rights for taking that position.

Cairo Prince deservedly is the shortest price of the individuals at 8-1. He killed the Holy Bull field and has lost only once, by a nose, after a bad ride. He’s beaten Intense Holiday, who won the Risen Star, enough times to retire the trophy. But with the Derby favorite going to the post in the area of 4-1, 5-1 the past few years, there’s no value.

Top Billing is the underlay, sharing morning line favoritism with Cairo Prince. He ran a good but not great race from a tough post against a vicious track bias in the Fountain of Youth. Alas, everyone in the world knows it. So no value here, either.

Honor Code, the only horse to beat Cairo Prince and the individual favorite in the last futures pool, is next at 10-1. That he still has not run as a 3-year-old could goose his odds up a few points. If he wins the Rebel, he will be one of the favorites in Louisville, so he might be worth a flyer at double digit odds.

Shared Belief is the most confounding proposition. He’s listed at 12-1 but should drift higher since his participation in Louisville becomes more doubtful every day that he doesn’t work out. It’s not encouraging that Jerry Hollendorfer shipped the Eclipse champion, who has been troubled by foot issues, out of Santa Anita to Northern California.

I painted myself into a corner with last week’s column in which I questioned how poll voters could put him below horses he had dusted. Not to be hypocritical, I put him on top in the first Horse Race Insider poll. I still think he could prove to be the best of his crop, but if he hasn’t worked by this weekend, I’m cutting bait on him.

The morning line is too generous on a couple of colts listed at 15-1, Bayern and Tapiture. If you can get that price, which I doubt, they are worth a shot.

After a 15-length entry-level allowance romp, Bayern is being compared to Bodemeister, who might have broken the Apollo jinx (no horse who didn’t race at 2 has won the Derby in more than 125 years) if Trinniberg hadn’t gone on a pointless kamikaze mission in the 2012 Derby. If the Derby points system has accomplished anything, it is keeping pure sprinters like Trinniberg out of the starting gate.

Tapiture's Southwest was the most impressive prep last week. He demolished everyone but Strong Mandate, who once again had a troubled trip. Still, if I had to make one play, Strong Mandate, at anywhere near the 20-1 he is listed on the morning line, would be it.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Results don’t count in Derby polls

Kentucky Derby polls are ubiquitous this time of year. But the weekly rankings often make it seem that the results on the race track don't matter. (In late news, a spike has been driven through the heart of synthetic race tracks.)
MIAMI, Feb. 19, 2014--Polls are an American obsession. People love to be asked their opinions and avidly follow the results. Thoroughbred racing isn’t exempt. But sometimes you have to question their usefulness, to say nothing of their wisdom.

At this stage of the prep season, it’s pointless to attach any significance to Kentucky Derby polls for two big reasons: Shared Belief and Honor Code. Each has had minor physical issues, which have delayed their season debuts, although they are still on track to jump onto the Derby Trail. Until they do, or drop out, it’s impossible to gauge where the rest of the generation stands.

Shared Belief earned the Juvenile Eclipse with breath-taking performances in the Hollywood Prevue and Cash Call Futurity. Since then those races have gained luster.

In the Prevue, Shared Belief buried Kobe’s Back by almost eight lengths. This past Sunday, Kobe’s Back rejoined the Derby picture by winning the San Vicente by more than five.

In the Futurity, Shared Belief allowed Candy Boy to get first run on him, then reeled him in and ran away from him like a man competing against a boy. Candy Boy rebounded to capture the Robert B. Lewis so impressively that those with short memories are calling him the best in the West.

In fact, in the latest Courier-Journal poll, Candy Boy is ranked fourth, five places better than Shared Belief.

Honor Code came to Florida as the de facto leader of the New York-based crop off his re-rallying win over Cairo Prince in the nine furlong Remsen. Cairo Prince might not have gotten the best of rides but he took the lead in late stretch and allowed Honor Code to come back and beat him. Nevertheless, Cairo Prince’s romp in the Holy Bull has many rating him above Honor Code.

In the Courier-Journal poll, Cairo Prince is ranked ahead of everybody, No. 1. He has so impressed the voters that Conquest Titan, who ran a non-threatening second in the Holy Bull, is rated eighth, one spot ahead of Shared Belief. So a distant second is enough to put a horse ahead of an undefeated Eclipse champion.

It would not be a surprise to see Shared Belief and Honor Code fall even further down Top 10 lists after the results of this week. Tapiture is surely going to pick up supporters off his facile win in the Southwest, with highly regarded Strong Mandate, who has a knack of running himself into tough trips, chasing him home.

Saturday’s Fountain of Youth and Risen Star also are likely to produce winners who will move up in the eyes of many. Unfortunately, limit fields in both could compromise the chances of an untold number of Derby hopefuls.

Once again, in the Fountain of Youth, there is a “what have you done for me lately?” scenario. Commissioner out gamed Top Billing in a January 3 allowance at Gulfstream. But Top Billing became the talk of the track with an eye-catching win in a subsequent entry-level allowance. In the Courier-Journal poll he is up to second and Commissioner is No. 5.

Why? Because Top Billing won an allowance Commissioner wasn’t eligible for because he beat Top Billing. Go figure.

What’s more, in spite of drawing the 12 post for the 1 1/16th mile Fountain of Youth, with its short run to the first turn, the headline on the Blood Horse advance was “Top Billing Headlines Fountain of Youth.” So much for what happened on the race track. There are some who will say Top Billing had the tougher trip. The fact remains that in mid-stretch they were nose to nose and Commissioner came out best.

This isn’t to say Top Billing won’t turn the tables on Commissioner Saturday. Three-year-olds can improve dramatically from race to race this time of year and Top Billing’s allowance win was as impressive as has been seen this winter. But as of right now, the fact lost on poll participants is the score is Commissioner 1, Top Billing 0.

The FoY is not a two-horse race by any means. Gulfstream Derby winner General a Rod, who got the best of Wildcat Red by a head in the New Year's Day mile, meets that foe again. Since then Wildcat Red had a dominating win in the seven furlong Hutcheson Stakes. A mile and a sixteenth might be as far as he wants to go but sprinters can have success at this distance at Gulfstream.

Almost Famous, highly regarded in Kentucky last fall, had a tougher than looks trip in the Holy Bull, challenging the pace all the way and holding on to miss second by less than a length. He could move forward off his first race of the year.

We Miss Artie won the Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland last fall but, as I have pointed out repeatedly, results over Keeneland’s fake dirt track have proven to be meaningless when the winners show up elsewhere. We Miss Artie’s seventh in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile is just the latest example. (Very happy news on fake dirt tracks to come).

The Risen Star is a total crapshoot. Sixteen entered and though only 14 will be allowed to start, it would take a miracle for half the field not to have to endure troubled trips. Too bad, since this is the first Derby prep bringing together horses from the major winter racing venues. Bob Baffert and Doug O’Neill are sending in contenders from California and Todd Pletcher is shipping in a well regarded starter from Florida.

One of the locals, LeComte winner Vicar’s in Trouble, got the worst shafting, drawing post 14. This could advantage the LeComte’s second and third place finishers, Albano and Gold Hawk. The Louisiana contingent also includes Rise Up, winner of the Delta Jackpot.

Pletcher will go for his third Risen Star win in five years with Intense Holiday, third behind Cairo Prince in the Holy Bull.

Bond Holder brings the strongest credentials from the West, a win in the Grade 1 Front Runner and fourths in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and Cash Call Futurity. In the latter, he was no match for Shared Belief. But if he were to win Saturday, you could bet case money that he will be ranked higher than Shared Belief in next week’s polls.

Baffert’s hopeful, Hoppertunity, a half brother to Executive Privilege, comes in off a three-length maiden-breaker around two turns.

The logical move in pursuit of a more meaningful result would have been to split the Risen Star. It didn’t happen because of the Kentucky Derby points system. This is the first weekend of the 50-20-10-5 allotment but if the race had been split, those points would have been halved. The only way to avert this would have been to make both divisions worth the announced purse of $400,000, an onerous burden for any track.

If the goal is to get the best horses into the Churchill Downs starting gate on the first Saturday in May, this is a rule that needs to be re-examined.

Ding dong, kitty litter is dead

I am positively giddy at another long overdue logical move. Del Mar has caved. It will restore a real dirt surface to its main track in 2015.

This effectively ends the era of synthetics. When Del Mar gets real, Keeneland will be racing’s outlier, the only track that stages major races on kitty litter. So it should be only a matter of time until Keeneland rejoins racing’s mainstream.

Arlington still has a synthetic but its big races are on grass. Turfway runs a big race whenever it can scrape together a few dollars, which isn’t often. Besides, as a winter racing center, Turfway is one of the few places where a synthetic makes sense. Woodbine is in a world of its own up in Canada.

There are many ramifications to Del Mar’s decision, which came just before my publication deadline. I’ll have a lot more in future columns

Written by Tom Jicha

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