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, May 26, 2016

NYRA needed Nyquist but the vanquished champ didn’t need the Belmont

Whether Nyquist's elevated white cell count was genuine or phantom, not running the champ in the grueling Belmont Stakes is the right call. NYRA will be hurt but Nyquist's reputation won't be. There's plenty of season left to get even with Exaggerator. Meanwhile, some Las Vegas casinos are acting like racing jurisdictions that try to squeeze every cent out of players with increased takeout. Free parking will end on June 6. The response should be the same as it is to high takeout states. Boycott the money grabbers.

LAS VEGAS, May 26, 2016—Well, Christopher Kay and NYRA won’t have to worry about enforcing a 90,000 attendance cap at the Belmont Stakes this year.

Absent a Triple Crown possibility, which NYRA has been lucky enough to have three of the past four years (I’ll Have Another’s scratch wasn’t announced until the day before the race, when plans had been made) Belmont should consider it a great day if more than 60,000 people show up. (Not tickets sold, actual behinds in the seats and grass.)

It was bad enough for NYRA seeing Nyquist’s bid for a Triple Crown disappear in the Pimlico mud. A second punch to the gut came Tuesday when Nyquist was withdrawn from the third jewel of the Triple Crown with an elevated white cell count. Or so Doug O’Neill said.

This eliminated the one marketing tool left for NYRA: a showdown of the Derby and Preakness winners.

Once Nyquist lost his chance to emulate American Pharoah it didn’t make a lot of sense to subject him to the grueling mile and a half of the Belmont Stakes. The distance didn’t seem suitable to his pedigree or the way he was getting late in the Derby and managed to blow the place in the Preakness (albeit with help from Mario Gutierrez’s 10-pound bug boy ride). There will be plenty of opportunities later in the season for the juvenile champion to avenge the first defeat of his career by Exaggerator at more advantageous distances.

It was reassuring to see Nyquist still on top of the weekly NTRA poll of 3-year-olds. Getting beaten for the first time under conditions favorable to your conqueror should not be enough to outweigh a body of work as strong as Nyquist’s.

Along with the mud Exaggerator loves, these conditions include Gutierrez’s judgment, getting Nyquist embroiled in a speed duel that produced a 22 4/5 first quarter, the fastest in the history of the Preakness history, which was being run for only the 141st time.

To put this into perspective, the opening quarter of the six furlong Chick Lang Stakes earlier in the day went in 23 seconds. Ditto, a six furlong N2X won by undefeated speedball Chief Istan.

To his credit, O’Neill attempted to take the heat off his jockey by saying it was his idea to seize control of the race early. Even if this is true, it was incumbent on Gutierrez to use common sense and adapt to circumstances. Nyquist had no problem sitting just off the pace then running past the early speed in the Derby. Jockeys should have to do more than hold on to earn their 10 percent.

Goodbye, free parking

Las Vegas has its own version of raising the cost of playing (ala, racing takeouts), which end up turning off customers.

On June 6, the MGM Resorts International chain will institute the parking charges it announced to overwhelming negative public and media reaction earlier this year. Free parking is as much a Las Vegas tradition as it is a corner landing spot on a Monopoly playing board.

Las Vegas isn’t Atlantic City (thank goodness). In spite of new casino competitors all over the nation, business remains strong. Las Vegas’s philosophy used to be it would get your money at the tables and slots, so it could afford to be generous with pricing for rooms, meals and entertainment. No one can question how well it worked for decades. Dare I say, bring back the mob.

But corporate blood-suckers, who behave like mobsters, decided billions in gambling revenue isn’t enough. They demanded every department—lodging, food, entertainment, etc.—also show big profits. Now parking is being included. It will cost $10 at its inception. But this is deceptive. One afternoon I visited the Strip, then came back later for dinner at another resort and finally went to a show at still another place. Goodbye $30 starting June 6.

MGM Resorts CEO Jim Murren was quoted in the Las Vegas Review Journal asking, “The question was, do we continue to have parking be a loss leader?” It’s a loss leader that gets people into your joint, the primary essential for any business.

Toilet paper in restrooms must be a loss leader, too. Maybe charging by the sheet will be next.

There’s a potential sinkhole in this thinking. MGM properties include New York-New York, Bellagio, Aria, Vdara, Monte Carlo, Excalibur, Circus Circus, MGM Grand, Mirage, Mandalay Bay and the Delano. This leaves more than a dozen major casinos on The Strip that will not have a parking charge. Where do you suppose any driver with a brain will take his car and his patronage?

The way I see this playing out is the casinos that have not instituted a parking charge will monitor if additional traffic in their casinos outweighs what they could glean from a parking charge. If traffic doesn’t get heavier, you can count on them jumping on the paid parking bandwagon.

So just as it is incumbent on horseplayers to support the reduced takeout at Canterbury Park, where business boomed opening weekend, Las Vegas visitors should boycott the casinos with parking charges and patronize those that continue to offer free parking.

This has relevance closer to home for horse players. Tracks with casinos, such as Gulfstream, don’t charge for parking. If they see that Vegas casinos can charge for parking without harming business, it’s goodbye free parking everywhere.

You try to help…

A couple of years ago, I suggested to the people at the South Point Hotel and Casino race book that on Kentucky Derby Day they should designate one window for advance Derby wagers. I’ve become a Derby weekend regular at South Point because for the most part it does things right and treats players really well.

They have even come up with a way to maintain free past performances; booklets with one or two tracks apiece (e.g., Belmont and Monmouth, Santa Anita and Golden Gate). Racetracks should take note. Ten dollar Racing Forms do more to discourage the involvement of new fans than probably anything else. Tracks wouldn’t have to give away similar PP books but they could sell them for a buck or two each to help reduce the cost of playing the game.

Alas, South Point doesn’t see the merit in my Derby Day suggestion. Ergo, this year, like all the others I have attended, dozens of customers were shut out of betting the supporting card races as well as those at other tracks because once-a-year players, many of them locals, tied up the windows with long laundry lists of Derby bets from everyone in their neighborhood.

Many of them don’t know the drill and called out the names of horses rather than their numbers. One guy—I am not exaggerating—was at a window for 12 minutes.

A couple of days later at the adjoining sports book, one window was designated “football bets only.” There won’t be a football game for three and a half months.

I give up.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, May 19, 2016

Saturday’s Preakness a great show but a poor bet

Nyquist figures to dominate the Preakness just as he has his previous eight races and head to Belmont vying to become the second Triple Crown winner in 38 years. It will be difficult to find betting value even in the exotics. But it's still one of racing's biggest spectacles, so watch and enjoy. Also don't forget to support Canterbury, which opens its 2016 seasonon Friday, with its new low takeout, which will be monitored nationwide.

LAS VEGAS, May 19, 2016--The Preakness is the week's big story but there's not much story to be told that hasn't already been said. The Belmont's mile and a half could bring some intriguing new storylines to Nyquist's pursuit of the Triple Crown but there's no logical reason the mile and three-sixteenths second jewel of the Triple Crown to his baubles.

Suppose the Preakness was a race in the middle of a midweek card. The favorite had won all eight of his career races from a short juvenile sprint to the classic mile and a quarter. In the process, he had defeated his main rival four straight times. The connections of the horse who finished third to him most recently have cried "uncle" and are looking for an easier spot.

The only prudent way to approach such a race would be to have a beer and a hot dog and just watch or, if you couldn't resist the urge to bet, use the favorite in exotics as a free space on a bingo card. Turn a pick four into a pick three or a pick three into a daily double, a superfecta into a trifecta or a trifecta into an exacta and hope you can get a couple of longshots home with and around him.

The downside is you'll have plenty of company, so there won't even be true value. A Nyquist-Exaggerator exacta won't pay for a beer and a hot dog.

There are some outstanding races on the Preakness undercard. Use them as your gambling vehicles and just enjoy watching an extraordinary horse perform in the big race.

Pegasus won't fly

HRI colleague Indulto wrapped his column this week on the $12 million race Frank Stronach says he will stage at Gulfstream next January with a question: "Do you think the Pegasus will take flight?"

My response, is "I can't see how."

Kudos to Stronach, who never fails to think big and always has the best interests of racing at heart. Some of his ideas work, others don't.

He fought to have year-round racing at Gulfstream despite many naysayers and Florida racing is prospering as never before. To be fair, the mall he built around Gulfstream is still struggling and the on-site hotels he promised don't look like they will ever be built. The gargantuan statue of Pegasus at the north end of the Gulfstream property is more an embarrassment than an asset.

The self destructive horsemen in California prevented Stronach from launching a similar entertainment world project around Santa Anita. Nevertheless, Stronach put millions into sprucing up The Great Race Place.

Why he tolerates an inept management team, which ignores what has worked fabulously elsewhere--fractional bets, lower takeout--is baffling, especially since Stronach is renowned for going through executives with the same frequency George Steinbrenner went through Yankees managers.

Maryland racing was in its death throes until The Stronach Group went to work. They refurbished Laurel and have done what they could at ancient Pimlico with further renovations promised. As a result, the future of Maryland racing has never been brighter.

It would be even brighter if Stronach hadn't balked at playing by the state-created rules to get a casino at Laurel.

Indulto outlined the many obstacles the $12 million Pegasus must overcome to come to fruition. But the biggest, the structuring of the purse, cannot be overstated. Where is Stronach going to find 12 individuals or businesses to put up a million dollars apiece for the mere opportunity to control a spot in the starting gate.

The two biggest potential attractions for the Pegasus are California Chrome and Nyquist, especially if the latter emulates American Pharoah as a Triple Crown winner. Given the entitlement mentality of California Chrome's people, it's the height of optimism to expect them to put up eight figures to get into the Pegasus. They're more likely to demand an appearance fee.

If Nyquist sweeps the Triple Crown, he would likely follow American Pharoah to the breeding shed right after the Breeders' Cup. Keeping him in training a month into the new year, then having to wind him down before launching his life-after-racing career could cost more in lost stud fees than the Pegasus offers to its inaugural winner.

Without these two, the Pegasus would be just another nondescript rich stakes, not unlike last winter's Santa Anita Handicap.

Stronach is trying to sweeten the pot for potential investors by giving participants the right to use their starting berth for their own horse or to lease or sell it. The prospect of someone shelling out eight figures to take on a California Chrome, Nyquist or some other late developing star seems remote. By traditional purse distribution figures, a horse would have to finish at least second to show a profit. Third would get you approximately even.

Stronach is also dangling participation in some of the proceeds from television rights, sponsorships and a piece of the handle. The problem with this is outside the Triple Crown, TV doesn't pay rights fees to racing. Racing pays to get on TV, in the form of sponsors underwriting the telecast in return for commercials. So there's no money there for the million-dollar participants.

As for the handle, even if the race handled an unlikely $10 milllion, most of it would have to come from simulcasting. After the receiving tracks took their cut, the original participants would be lucky to cut up a million dollars 12 ways.

As conceived, the Pegasus would be a worse bet for owners than playing exotics at Parx.

Don't forget Canterbury

Canterbury Park opens its 2016 season Friday with the lowest takeouts of a long-meet track in North America--15 percent win, place and show, 18 percent for exotics for a blended 16.5 percent takeout.

This experiment will be monitored nationwide, so it's imperative for horseplayers everywhere to support it. If it fails to exceed what was produced by higher takeouts, racing executives will use it as a justification for not reducing their own rake.

If you care about your own long term bottom line, find a Canterbury race or two each time you're at a simulcast facility and bet $10 or $20. Even if the return isn't immediate, you could come up a winner for years down the road.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, May 12, 2016

Nothing in Preakness will thwart Triple Crown bid

Christopher Kay and the New York Racing Assn. are odds-on to be able to again enforce their crowd cap for the Belmont Stakes--the only track ever to turn away fans. Nyquist has nothing to fear from the herd lining up to scrimmage for the minor awards at the Preakness. The mile and a half of the Belmont looks to be the only obstacle to back-to-back Triple Crown winners.

LAS VEGAS, May 12, 2016--The happiest people in racing outside Team Nyquist has to be Chris Kay and NYRA. Nyquist might not become a back-to-back Triple Crown winner but he'll almost certainly be running for it on June 11 at Belmont. So Kay can reinforce his distinction of being smarter than anyone else who has ever run a racetrack by continuing to be the only executive in history to turn people away with his ridiculous 90,000 cap.

If the Kentucky Derby winner is to be thwarted from his bid to emulate American Pharoah, it won't be in the Preakness. The field lining up for the second jewel of the Triple Crown contains no plausible threat to the still undefeated champion of his generation.

Only three times this millennium has a horse who didn't start in the Kentucky Derby won the Preakness: Rachel Alexandra, one of the greatest fillies ever, outran Mine That Bird, one of the Derby's least distinguished winners, in 2009; Bernadini, a worthy champion, got the money in 2006 after the catastrophic breakdown of Barbaro; highly regarded Red Bullet upset Fusaichi Pegasus in 2000.

Anyone see a Rachel Alexandra, Bernadini or Red Bullet among this year's prospective new shooters: Awesome Speed, Cherry Wine, Dazzling Gem, Stradivari, Fellowship, the maiden Laoban, Sharp Azteca, Collected or Uncle Lino?

Sharp Azteca ran a giant race in a Derby undercard stakes and Collected and Uncle Lino also are last-out 3-year-old stakes winners. However these scores did nothing to suggest they have elevated their games to Nyquist's level.

As for the Derby returnees, the strangest is Lani, the Japanese head case, who never contended in Louisville. Why his ownership would want to risk embarrassment again is a puzzler.

Exaggerator has tried Nyquist four times, from five furlongs to a mile and a quarter, and hasn't been able to get the job done. Gun Runner didn't look fast enough going into the Derby and that's how it turned out. He tried hard but wasn't good enough. Suddenbreakingnews put in his characteristic late run in the Derby after encountering trouble but horses with his style run into trouble far more often than not. You don't overcome a trouble call and beat Nyquist. Moreover, whirlwind finishes are always part optical illusion. Closers need the leaders to come back to them. Nyquist doesn't come back.

The mile and a half of the Belmont looks like Nyquist's biggest obstacle. But the same was said of the 10 furlongs of the Derby.

Past Posting

It's disgraceful how racing allows itself to get bitten in the behind by technology, going all the way back to the Fix Six Breeders' Cup. More recently late computer-driven betting has a legion of horse players suspecting some late-betting shenanigans are going on. Doesn't it always seem that the horse who gets out fastest has the biggest drop in odds after the field leaves the gate?

Derby weekend brought an orgy of technological gaffes. My visit to the South Point got off to an ominous start when the computers went down before the first race on Oaks Day. A lot of fans like myself, who had gotten up before dawn in Las Vegas to bet the card, which started at 7:30 a.m. PDT were left grousing and cursing.

I heard the same thing happened at other Sin City hotels on Derby morning. On Sunday it happened again at the South Point, shutting players out of two of the final three races on the Santa Anita card.

The worst was TVG's computers going down an the hour before the Derby. How many millions of dollars in wagers were lost is a matter of conjecture. If you were wondering why the horses were still in the walking ring with zero minutes to post, this was the reason.

If airline technology operated like racing's, planes would be falling out of the sky. Getting technology up to 21st century standards must be just as big a priority for racing and its satellite partners as bringing drug issues under control.

The slight drop in TV ratings for his year's Derby is nothing to fret about. The 9.0 rating (the percentage of all homes with TV) was off slightly from last year's 9.6. However, variations this small happen all the time even to the most popular prime-time series.

The meaningful number is that15.5 million people tuned in to the Run for the Roses. This made it the most watched show of any kind in all of TV last week, during a ratings sweeps period when the networks load their schedules with series season-ending episodes and alluring specials. The top prime-time series, "NCIS," averaged just under 15 million. The much anticipated series finale of "The Good Wife" drew under 11 million.

It also should not be overlooked that millions of uncounted race fans watched at tracks, simulcast facilities and bars. This can't be said of "NCIS" and "The Good Wife." Moreover, the available audience is much higher in the evening--this is why it's called prime time--than in late afternoon when the Derby is aired.

The most impressive long-range Derby prognostication I have ever seen was made by the late Art Grace, turf writer for The Miami News. In the spring of 1973, Grace wrote after a five-furlong maiden race for 2-year-olds at Hialeah that he had seen the following season's Kentucky Derby winner, a colt named Foolish Pleasure.

Art, one of the most low key guys you would ever meet, wasn't given to this kind of hyperbole. Foolish Pleasure made him a prophet the following May.

I'm not going to say I saw the 2017 Derby winner last week but in a weekend of tremendous performances, the one that caught my eye most was by a 2-year-old at Belmont named Tale of Two.

He wasn't a secret. The son of Tale of the Cat was bet down to 3-5 for his debut against some other highly regarded juveniles. When he broke sluggishly and trailed the field by daylight down the backstretch on a muddy track, he looked hopeless. He still had no rivals beaten at the top of the lane. Then he kicked in with a breath-taking turn of foot, swooping past the field to win going away while still being hand ridden. The final eighth went in 13 seconds. Tale of Two probably ran his in about 11.

To repeat, I'm not saying the Mark Casse trained youngster is next spring's Derby winner but I would bet my binoculars that he will win some 2-year-old stakes this spring and summer.

Written by Tom Jicha

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