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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Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Spa still the greatest but anything can be made better

New NYRA CEO Christopher Kay says one of his priorities is to make the fan experience more enjoyable. It's hard to improve on a day at Saratoga but as long as Kay asked, here are a few suggestions.

MIAMI, Sept. 3, 2013--High among the priorities new NYRA CEO Christopher Kay set for his first season at Saratoga was to learn who his customers are and how he can make the racetrack experience more enjoyable. There are few more commendable goals.

How much Kay learned about his customers is a matter of conjecture. But racing fans certainly learned who Kay is. He was on TV in the winner’s circle more often than Todd Pletcher and was on microphone more than Tom Durkin.

To put a positive spin on this, you have to say Kay was involved.

I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt for his good intentions. Just in case his self assigned busy work denied him the chance to accomplish the fan experiences on his “to do” list, I made a list of minor fixes that would make a day at the races more enjoyable.

Most of the year, I’m one of those spoiled media types in the press boxes at the South Florida tracks. At Saratoga, I’m just another guy in the crowd—my choice--so I can speak to these matters first-hand.

Learning who NYRA’s customers are and making their day at the races more pleasant are in synch with my first issue. NYRA’s customers are horse players. The Spa is exhilarating, the reason I and tens of thousands of others travel hundreds of miles to be there. But primarily we’re there to play horses.

NYRA has already made a significant positive step in getting new SAM’s. I haven’t seen them yet but they have to better than the dinosaurs fans have had to put up with. Hopefully, the new ones will be able to accept cash, to eliminate the cumbersome extra step of having to go to a live teller to obtain a voucher. If fans are going to be forced to stand in line for tellers, they might as well make their bets there, eliminating the whole purpose of SAM’s.

More than anything, we want to know the odds and, when we’re astute enough to be alive in multi-race wagers, we want to know the will-pays, in order to make decisions about possible saver bets.

Almost all the time Kay spent on camera was at the expense of this. Whether it was cutting a celebratory 150th anniversary cake, glad-handing politicians, congratulating racing figures on noteworthy feats, etc. , etc., it delayed the posting of “will pays.”

There was at least one occasion when it was 12 minutes to post before potential doubles and pick threes appeared on TV screens. This was the worst example, but making players wait up to 15 minutes for “will pays” was commonplace. (To be fair, Southern California tracks are even worse and do it after every race.)

Is it asking too much that an extra minute be taken before the ceremonies commandeer the closed-circuit feed to provide this crucial information? How about a split screen?

As long as we’re on the subject of multi-race “will pays,” I’d like to reiterate a point John Pricci, myself and countless others have made. How about posting them the way most people play them. Few play $2 Pick 3’s and trifectas and no one (at least no one in their right mind) plays $2 Pick 4’s. As part of any bettor education program, players should be taught why the tax implications make this imprudent.

The $2 payoffs are posted for the same reason lotteries pump humongous jackpots on billboards, to entice people chasing the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. But it’s a disservice to real players.

Pick 3 payoffs should be posted on the basis of the common $1 wager and Pick 4’s and, when they are finally introduced, Pick 5’s, should be shown on the basis of a 50 cent bet. Handicapping requires a lot of math as it is. Long division to gauge the actual payoff to an individual bettor shouldn’t be an extra burden.

My other suggestions are geared toward casual fans, who make Saratoga the nation’s best attended track along with its summer rival Del Mar. The first parking lot fans encounter after exiting the Northway is more than a quarter-mile from the nearest entrance gate. To make matters worse, this is where a large handicapped parking area is situated. It’s almost a sick joke to give disabled fans preferred parking in an area that far from the track. A tram or bus is essential. Surely insurance issues come into play but there are trams and busses utilized elsewhere.

Saratoga might be the only track of any size in America where every seat facing the track is sold every day. NYRA has to make money where it can with the Cuomo regime looking over its shoulder. But there are days—mostly Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays—when the three sections way up the stretch are empty, occupied only by ushers making certain no one squats for free.

NYRA knows from its records when these days fall. It would be a customer friendly gesture to make these sections available free of charge on such occasions, or for a nominal fee of $1 or $2 to discourage those who tie up three seats with papers so that no one crowds them. This might even bring out a few more people, who don’t come now because there is no place to sit down and watch the races.

The giveaway distribution methods also need to be re-examined and tinkered with. The Top of the Stretch is my preferred location. This also is where the ($3) freebies are distributed.

On the Sunday when the T-shirts were given away, customers stood on lines that stretched to the grandstand only to discover that the only size left was medium. America has become a nation of large and extra large. Ask Michelle Obama.

If you wanted the most desired sizes, you were sent to another tent near the Big Red Spring. For those unfamiliar with the vast Saratoga grounds, this is as far as you can walk from one point to another and still be within the track. The lines there were even longer. I’m guessing there was a cause-effect relationship.

None of these steps are budget busters. Failure to act on them won’t diminish the irresistibility of Saratoga. One day after the meeting, I’m counting down to next season.

But as long as Kay says he is intent on improving the fans experience, they are a good place to start. Surely some of you must have ideas of your own.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Brunetti ‘guarantees’ racing will return to Hialeah

Tradition rich Hialeah Park has joined Gulfstream and Calder in having its own big revenue generating casino. Hialeah owner John Brunetti 'guarantees' that Hialeah will also join South Florida's other racetracks in having thoroughbred racing.

MIAMI, Aug. 27, 2013--The scorched earth conflict between Gulfstream and Calder seems to have settled into a war of attrition. More on that in a bit. Meanwhile, waiting and watching from the fringes is Hialeah and John Brunetti.

The new Hialeah casino, which should arm Brunetti with satchels of cash to do the mandatory rebuilding of the grandstand seating and barn areas--as well as influence legislators--was unveiled last week. It is one grand looking facility, first class in every way, the equal of the slot machine parlors at Gulfstream and Calder.

The slots room on the ground floor is spacious and well stocked with the latest armless bandits. (It’s all done with the push of a button these days.)

The poker room on the second floor is spacious with more flat screen TVs than Best Buy, tuned to ball games as well as race tracks, in case card players also want to bet horses. SAM machines are plentiful enough that it requires less time to make a horse bet than to visit the restrooms, which have also been updated to rival those in the toniest Las Vegas casinos.

For what it’s worth, a veteran poker player, who has to remain anonymous because of ties to another gambling establishment, pointed out that as a group, the female dealers are the prettiest he has ever seen.

Also looking good again is the Hialeah grandstand, at least from the back. Brunetti staged a coming out party for the casino and the place hasn’t looked so good since the NFL held a Super Bowl party in the backyard back in the ‘80s.

The main structure, if not the seating area, has been totally refurbished. The walls have been transformed to an attractive sand color. The signature bougainvillea vines had to be taken off but they will be back, someone, who seemed to know what he was talking about, said.

So will thoroughbred racing, Brunetti promised. Getting caught up in the spirit of Joe Namath, who made his famous boast not far from Hialeah, Brunetti said, “I guarantee it.”

The only logical way this can happen is for the state to get back into the regulation of racing dates. The mess that unfettered Calder and Gulfstream have made racing against each other might be just the catalyst to spur the lawmakers to mandate the tracks to go back to the old way.

Beyond his guarantee, Brunetti didn’t want to be drawn into saying anything that could get him on the wrong side of the lawmakers who hold Hialeah’s fate in their hands. “I’m just watching what’s going on.”

What’s going on resembles racing’s version of Muhammad Ali’s rope-a-dope tactics against George Foreman in the 1974 “Rumble in the Jungle.”

Gulfstream is pummeling Calder, which is doing little to fight back. Gulfstream’s handle on the days they go head to head is roughly twice Calder’s. A superior brand is a major factor.

Another came to my attention on my travels to Saratoga. I mentioned in a previous column that when I stopped at Laurel, the Racing Form had Gulfstream PPs but not Calder’s. The same situation prevailed when I got to New York. So Gulfstream has a big advantage all the way up the East Coast.

Enough horsemen have left Calder to fill Gulfstream’s barn area. Why not? Gulfstream purses are extraordinarily high for summer racing. There is a $100,000 stake every Saturday and many in the fields would be longshots in $50,000 claimers during a major meet. The term “hundred grander” doesn’t carry the cachet it once did.

On a recent Sunday, Gulfstream gave away $284,000 in purses without a stakes.

Calder, whose average purse distribution was under $200,000, announced a 12% cut in purses, starting Aug. 30 due to the loss of revenue as a result of the competition.

Gulfstream ads for its summer racing are ubiquitous on TV, radio, newspapers and on the internet. Calder’s advertising, what little there is, is geared primarily toward promoting its casino.

Gulfstream spent what had to be a small fortune to stage a free Flo Rida concert on Aug. 17.

Gulfstream will add a holiday race card on Labor Day, as it did on July 4. Calder will remain dark, as it did on Memorial Day and Independence Day. It appears Calder is doing only what it has to in order to keep its casino license.

Or maybe it is being crazy like Ali. The question everyone is asking is how long Gulfstream can continue to spend seemingly unsustainable amounts of money in its quest to knock Calder out of the box. This is a question only mercurial Frank Stronach can answer.

Calder’s parent, Churchill Downs Inc., seems intent on hanging in long enough to find out. The off-the-record explanation I’ve heard is CDI has dug in out of principle. It is determined not to allow itself to be run out of business by Stronach.

There are humorous vignettes in this otherwise serious situation. Gulfstream poked a stick in Calder’s eye on Aug. 24 when it named its Saturday stake the “Eight Miles East.” Don’t go looking for a famous horse of that name. It has been pointed out in many accounts of the dispute that Gulfstream is “eight miles east” of Calder.

That same day, Calder was staging one of its biggest events of the summer, the Stars of Tomorrow program, which featured six stakes races, including two divisions of the Florida Stallion Stakes. (Why Calder would schedule it on this day, when simulcast players were preoccupied by the stakes laden Travers card at Saratoga is unfathomable.)

For some inexplicable reason, jockey Antonio Gallardo booked himself to ride a stakes at Calder with a listed probable post of 4 p.m. and an optional claimer in the last at Gulfstream, listed for 4:45.

(The joke around the two tracks is that Calder horses and trainers can’t race at Gulfstream and come back but jockeys can.)

Under the best of circumstances, Gallardo was cutting it close. Those eight miles across town are incredibly heavily trafficked and through city streets, with a light on almost every corner.

As usually is the case in these situations, the best of circumstances didn’t prevail. Almost everything that could thwart Gallardo's ambitious agenda did. Eduardo Nunez was thrown from a mount and had to be taken to the hospital by ambulance. So everything stopped until the ambulance got back to Calder, pushing the races back about 15 minutes.

Then Gallardo had the pleasant inconvenience of winning the $75,000 stakes, which entailed the usual time consuming winner’s circle ceremony. By the time he dismounted, he had less than 15 minutes to make a trip that couldn’t be done that quickly in a presidential motorcade.

Nevertheless, he took off at a full gallop from the winner’s circle toward a waiting van. But before he could climb aboard, Kathleen O’Connell summoned him to replace Nunez on a couple of odds-on favorites in upcoming $125K stakes.

Gallardo did a quick about-face and picked up about $15,000 for two rocking chair rides. His scheduled mount at Gulfstream finished off the board.

“Racing luck” manifests itself in many ways.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Travers a great race and a great betting race

The anticipated Travers showdown of Triple Crown race winners--Orb, Oxbow and Palace Malice--will not take place because of a season and perhaps career-ending injury to the Preakness winner. However, the 2013 renewal of the Midsummer Derby is so deep in quality that Verrazano could go favored over the Derby and Belmont-Jim Dandy winners and a case could be made for two or three others.

SARATOGA SPRINGS, Aug. 20--I’d love to be Aaron Ditch. I’d hate to be Aaron Ditch.

Ditch is the winner of the opportunity to bet $15,000 of Marylou Whitney’s money to win on the Travers. I’d love to be him for obvious reasons, a shot at a super score without risking a dime. I’d hate to be him because I wouldn’t get a minute’s sleep the rest of the week agonizing over the possibility of blowing this once in a lifetime chance.

Two of the first three winners of the weekly Saratoga drawing had easy choices: Adam McNeil let it ride on Wise Dan in the Fourstardave. Deborah White put it down on Princess of Sylmar in the Alabama. The mutual payoffs were puny but the $15,000 kick made it a windfall anyway; $21,000 for McNeil, $22,500 for White.

A third weekly winner narrowed his selections in the Whitney to just two, Fort Larned and Cross Traffic and went the wrong way. How ironic that the only non-winner came in the race that carries Marylou’s family name.

There is no easy choice in the Travers, not even a chance to narrow it down to two. Ditch should get the money if he can merely name the post-time favorite among the big three of Palace Malice, Verrazano and Orb. This year's Travers is not only a great race, it is a great betting race.

The latter is the least likely to go favored but the magic of “Kentucky Derby winner” should never be under-estimated. Also, Shug McGaughey is telling anyone who will listen how, after a freshening at bucolic Fair Hill, Orb looks as good or better than he did before winning the Florida Derby, then the big one on the first Saturday in May—at the same 10 furlongs as the Travers.

I made a friendly man-to-man bet after the Jim Dandy and Haskell that Verrazano will be favored over Palace Malice. I didn’t say Verrazano would beat Palace Malice, just that he would break from the gate at lower odds. Bettors love horses who have crushing margins in their past performances. Verrazano has a boat load of those, most recently in the Haskell.

But he still has to prove he can get a mile and a quarter against Grade 1 opposition. The only stinker in his resume was in the Derby, although he was out of it by the midway point for myriad reasons beyond distance limitations. He wasn’t going to be threatened in the Haskell if they ran 2 ¼ miles. Moreover, that was a superior field to the Jim Dandy.

Palace Malice, of course, has gone the distance and then some in winning the Belmont. He also has the crucial race over the track.

If Ditch wants to reach for a real life-changer, he could take a look at Will Take Charge, who was closing on Palace Malice in the Jim Dandy. The price will be right, somewhere between 12-1 and 20-1 and possibly higher if the holiday crowd gets carried away with the big three. D. Wayne Lukas can never be overlooked in a big race. Remember Oxbow in the Preakness.

Let’s not forget War Dancer. The winner of the grassy Virginia Derby at the Travers distance gave Ken McPeek all kinds of turf options, including the Secretariat last Saturday at Arlington and the Hall of Fame last week at the Spa. But McPeek held him out of those races to take another shot at the Midsummer Derby on dirt, where his 33-1 Golden Ticket shocked everyone last year by dead-heating with 2-1 favorite Alpha.

There’s also Golden Soul, who rallied for the place in the Derby, well ahead of Verrazano and Palace Malice. Who’s to say it can’t happen again?

In all likelihood, I’ll go at least three deep in multi-race wagers—Orb, Verrazano and War Dancer for a price. If I can afford a fourth horse, I’ll throw in Palace Malice, who I don’t feel will be value. But I still won’t feel safe.

What would I do if I were Ditch and had to narrow it to one? At this point, I can’t say. But I can say what I wouldn’t do: sleep a wink all week pondering the question.

More than the $600,000 winner’s purse is at stake Saturday. If any of the big three win, he would be tough to overtake for 3-year-old Eclipse honors. Anything less than a win in the Breeders’ Cup Classic by one of the Travers runnersup probably wouldn’t do it.

The 3-year-old filly championship is already decided. Princess of Sylmar clinched it with her dominant victory in the Alabama, after scores in the Kentucky Oaks and Coaching Club American Oaks. There simply aren’t enough major races left on the calendar to top that triple.

Alas, Princess of Sylmar’s owner/breeder Ed Stanco indicated after the Alabama that he is thinking of putting her away until her 4-year-old campaign. A major factor is that the she is not Breeders’ Cup nominated.

Putting her on the shelf is disrespectful to the filly, who certainly has earned enough to be supplemented (which also would make her eligible to future Breeders’ Cup races), and to racing, which has experienced its highest of highs in recent years when outstanding distaffers Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra captured America’s fancy.

If Princess of Sylmar is finished for the year, it would not only deny her the opportunity to show how good she is in the Breeders’ Cup, it also would rule out a showdown with older champion Royal Delta, another match that would capture uncommon interest.

Todd Pletcher is as gifted a diplomat as he is a trainer. But see if you get the same between-the-lines interpretation that I did from Pletcher’s statement on Princess of Sylmar not racing again this year.
“There’s plenty of reasons to stop on a lot of these as you go along. So you hate to stop on one when there’s not a reason to.”

Pletcher could not have made his opinion more plain. Let’s hope Stanco pays heed.

Written by Tom Jicha

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