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, May 17, 2013

There is Orb and there is everyone else in the Preakness

Orb stands so far above the rest of the 3-year-old class that it's difficult to single out which of his eight rivals represents the biggest threat to him in the Preakness. All Orb has to do is run his race without experiencing horrendous racing luck to head to Belmont Park with a big shot to end the Triple Crown draught.

MIAMI, May 17, 2013--The Preakness would be a hell of a race if Orb wasn’t in it.

This thought occurred to me Sunday morning when I was putting together my contribution to the weekly Inside Horse Racing Triple Crown Poll. Orb at No. 1 was easy. The Kentucky Derby winner has been atop my poll since the Florida Derby.

The challenge came when I pondered who to make Nos. 2, 3, 4, etc. A mischievous instinct tempted me to slot Orb at No. 1 and “Everyone Else” at No. 2. Alas, I knew this wasn’t going to fly with John Pricci, who encourages provocative thought and expression…to a point.

But this is how I assess the 3-year-old picture at this point.

Big favorites go down every day. A horrid trip, a poorly judged ride, a bad day physically could undermine Orb. But it will take something extraordinary to deny him the second jewel of the Triple Crown. If each of the nine Preakness entrants brings his “A” game, is there any doubt who wins? Not with me.

Apparently this is also true of several major players in the game. The three horses closest to Orb at the end of the Kentucky Derby want no more of him Saturday. Todd Pletcher started five in the Derby as well as at least one in just about every significant 3-year-old stakes in the East, South and Midwest this winter. He’s sending no one to the Preakness.

Orb beat every top 3-year-old in Florida this winter, either at Gulfstream or in Kentucky. He vanquished Violence in the Fountain of Youth when Violence was the most accomplished 3-year-old around. In the Florida Derby, Orb ran past Itsmyluckyday, who was coming off decisive scores in the Gulfstream Derby and Holy Bull. He didn’t get a shot at Verrazano until the Run for the Roses.

Look at how horses who spent the winter in Florida did when Orb wasn’t around: Revolutionary won the Louisiana Derby, Overanalyze took the Arkansas Derby, Verrazano extended his unbeaten streak in the Wood Memorial and Java’s War upset the Blue Grass. Combined with Orb's Florida Derby, this represents a clean sweep of the 100-point races east of the Mississippi and west of Dubai.

So the question becomes is there any reason to think Orb won’t bring his “A” game? Not off his final workout. Low key Shug McGaughey, who would describe Secretariat’s Belmont as a nice race, said Orb’s work took his breath away. Others said it was more impressive than his pre-Kentucky Derby workout at Churchill Downs, which was assessed by many as the work of Derby week.

So if you want to price shop and play against Orb, it will not be on the basis of any sound handicapping principle. A sobering thought for those of that mind is the Preakness is by far the most formful of the Triple Crown races.

Seven of the last dozen Preakness winners have been the betting favorite. One of the five who didn’t come through was the ill-fated Barbaro. Kentucky Derby winner I’ll Have Another went off second choice to Bodemeister last year. IHA became the eighth Derby winner in the past 16 years to repeat in Baltimore. Seventeen of the last 27 odds-on favorites in the Preakness have won. Those are winning percentages the late Oscar Barrera would admire.

Only two Preakness winners in the past 29 years have gone off at double digit odds. One was Bernardini in Barbaro’s Preakness. The other was Shackleford in 2011.
So those looking to score big while betting small are up against the odds in more ways than one.

On the other hand, you could come up with the horses to fill out the exacta, tri and super by pulling names out of a hat and feel good about your chances.

An indication of this came from Pimlico oddsmaker Frank Carulli, who said he made Mylute the 5-1 second choice because the Preakness crowd will heavily back his jockey Rosie Napravnik. No disrespect to Rosie or Mylute, who very well could be that good. But is this what handicapping the Triple Crown has been reduced to?

The more likely second choice will be Illinois Derby winner Departing, who sat out the Kentucky Derby pointing for this race. He’s from the people who thwarted history with Blame, denying Zenyatta an undefeated career in the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Classic.

But before getting carried away with the “now” horse, keep in mind that the two horses closest to Departing at Hawthorne were Fordubai and Siete de Oros. His other stakes win came in the Texas Heritage. When Departing tried classier company in the Louisiana Derby, he was a non-menacing third.

Four others command respect as much for their trainer as their accomplishments. D. Wayne Lukas has three—Will Take Charge, Oxbow and Titletown Five—with the first two each having run a race strong enough to hit the board at Pimlico. Bob Baffert jumps on the Triple Crown trail with Govenor Charlie, who was kept out of the Derby with a minor ailment. The misspelled Guv’s big credit is the Sunland Derby, where he had less behind him than Departing did in Chicago.

If there’s a sleeper, it’s Goldencents, whose 17th-place finish in the Derby was too bad to be true. Doug O’Neill’s charge rebounded from a dull San Felipe to run huge in the Santa Anita Derby. Maybe he can turn it around again and give O’Neill another Preakness triumph.

Itsmyluckyday also is a better horse than he showed in Louisville and has worked well since. Nothing wrong with Elvis Trujillo but he’s not Johnny Velazquez, who takes over in the saddle.

It comes down to this. Something good has to happen for one of the other eight to spring an upset. All Orb needs do is run his race.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Friday, May 10, 2013

Calder-Gulfstream conflict turns ugly early

Two months before Calder and Gulfstream are scheduled to begin racing head-to-head, the first shots were fired in what could turn into a scorched earth conflict with no winners. South Florida horsemen withdrew permission to export Calder's simulcast signal, which in only four days cost the track millions in revenue. It also cost horsemen a 20% purse reduction. A temporary settlement on May 9 kicked the can down the road. Meanwhile, Gulfstream got permission to open on June 25, which qualifies it as a year-round simulcast host. Calder, of course, is appealing.

MIAMI, May 10, 2013--The imminent head-to-head conflict between Gulfstream Park and Calder Race Course figured to turn ugly and it did, sooner than many expected.

Calder horsemen fired a shot across the bow of the Churchill Downs-owned track at the end of April. Their racing contract and a temporary extension with Calder having expired, the Florida HBPA withdrew permission for Calder to export its simulcast signal out of state.

(A veto right over where a simulcast signal can be transmitted and received was given horsemen when simulcasting across state lines was first approved. In my opinion, it needs to be revisited, since it has turned into what amounts to a tool of extortion. Perhaps mandatory arbitration would be an alternative.)

The anticipated result materialized. Calder all sources handle plunged more than 50%.

The track’s response also could have been anticipated. Since purses are a product of handle, Calder general manager John Marshall announced a 20% reduction.

The major hangup was the FHBPA’s insistence that a new contract allow horsemen to ship a horse to race at another track (Gulfstream is the only one within a thousand miles in the summer) and come back to his stall at Calder.

Marshall has been adamant this is not going to happen. Who can blame him? It costs a fortune to maintain a stable area the size of Calder’s--even one whose condition has drawn significant criticism. Horsemen pay no rent during the live racing season. Permitting a horse, which it is paying to house, to race at Gulfstream, which is trying to put Calder out of business, would be like an army allowing the enemy’s troops to sleep in its barracks.

Horsemen have a reasonable counter-argument. With Calder planning to run only three days a week (Friday through Sunday) and almost certainly carding fewer races each day, it will be difficult to find starts. Gulfstream’s Saturday-Sunday agenda of about 16 races per weekend will create additional opportunities.

The horsemen also are armed with precedent. They have always been allowed to ship back and forth.

Gulfstream turned up the heat by promising to allow horses on its grounds to race at Calder without penalty.

Nevertheless, the local horsemen have to know that under the circumstances Calder isn’t going to relent on such a crucial point. So why force the issue at the risk of substantial financial loss two months sooner than necessary?

One theory is Florida horsemen thought they could use the Kentucky Derby simulcast as a hostage.

In the past, horsemen’s organizations have tended to support each other by denying permission to have their races sent into a state where local horsemen are not letting their signal out. Florida horsemen might have been hoping that their Kentucky brethren would give them leverage by refusing to let Calder take the Derby signal.

For whatever reasons, including a contract Churchill Downs has with its horsemen to inoculate the Derby from this kind of action, the Calder blackout didn’t happen.

This theory gained credibility on May 9. Five days after Calder conducted business as usual on Derby Day, the FHBPA and Calder announced a new interim agreement had been achieved. The provisions in effect at the start of the season would be extended through the end of May. Calder immediately rescinded the 20% cutback.

In jargon currently in vogue in Washington, the two sides kicked the can down the road. Come June, there will be a clearer picture of where the situation stands. Could the Belmont Stakes simulcast, with the possibility of Orb bidding for a Triple Crown, be the new target? A lot of New York horsemen work side by side each winter with the Florida regulars.

In the midst of the dispute, Gulfstream announced that it had gained approval from the state to reopen for one day, June 25. Calder says it will appeal the ruling. This might seem like much ado about very little, a normally dark Tuesday. However, there are bigger stakes.

By making June 25 a part of the season that ended April 5, then re-opening July 1 (the day the new fiscal year starts in Florida) Gulfstream gained the right to be considered a host track for simulcasting year-round. Instead of having to buy simulcast signals from Calder from April through November, Gulfstream can negotiate directly with senders, then remarket the signals to other Florida pari-mutuels in competition with Calder. (Tampa Bay Downs is using the same tactics on June 30-July 1 to qualify as a year-round host.)

The ability to control lucrative simulcast signals is as much a factor in Gulfstream’s decision to race year-round as the attempt to buck up the struggling mall adjoining the track.

By all indications, Gulfstream is past the point of turning back. Head strong Frank Stronach seems determined to make his track a year-round operation, even if it means financial losses for an extended period.

Gulfstream president Tim Ritvo says more than a million dollars has been invested in building a new drainage system and a more sand based racing surface to deal with the biblical summer rains in South Florida. A new team in the racing office has been assembled. Gate crews have been hired. Snowbird trainers, who normally leave town with the end of the traditional Gulfstream season, have been cajoled into leaving behind some racing-ready stock.

Deteriorating relationships between Churchill Downs and Calder horsemen has a significant number of the latter just waiting for a cue that Gulfstream is a certain go to make a permanent change in their base of operations. Moreover, Ritvo was formerly one of them, a Calder-based trainer. They have a comfort and trust level with him.

This suggests that a financial settlement to Churchill Downs is the most viable avenue toward preventing the looming head-to-head showdown. Bottom-line oriented Churchill Downs Inc. was amenable to this a couple of years ago when Gulfstream made its incursion into December. It appears the only thing standing in the way this time is Stronach coming up with the right number.

Calder would still have to race 80 days annually to preserve its right to operate a casino, the company's priority. This could be readily accomplished by racing two or three weekdays during the months Gulfstream is not conducting its prime winter meet.

Marshall and Ritvo acknowledge that conversations above their pay grades are ongoing toward a settlement. Anyone with concern for Florida racing has to hope these talks will be fruitful.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Friday, May 03, 2013

Orb is the pick to win the Kentucky Derby

A strong case can be made for a half-dozen horses to win the Kentucky Derby. A credible case can be mounted for seven or eight more. From here, the winner looks to be Orb, who came into his own this winter in Florida, where most of the winners of the preps got ready. A four-race winning streak since the distances were extended, Joel Rosario, the hottest rider around, in the saddle and old pro Shug McGaughey going for the race that is his lifelong dream makes the son of Malibu Moon the most likely winner.

MIAMI, May 3, 2013--The magic number turned out to be 10. That is all it took to sneak into the Derby through the back door. We've been speculating since last fall. It’s finally put up or shut up time for Kentucky Derby prognostication. I've liked Orb since the Florida Derby. Everything that's happened since, including a breath-taking final work at Churchill Downs has solidified this opinion.

Nevertheless a case can be made, pro and con, for almost everyone in the field. So here is the way I see the plusses and minuses, in my order of their likelihood of winning.

ORB—Pro: Four-for-four at a mile or more. Beat Violence and Itsmyluckyday when they were the most accomplished 3-year-olds in Florida. Distance breeding, Shug McGaughey and Joel Rosario complete the whole package. The pick.

Con: Three-for-three at Gulfstream; one-for-four elsewhere. Has to prove his outstanding form travels.

VERRAZANO—Pro: The most exciting Derby prospect since Curlin. Undefeated and has won over three distinct surfaces, so handling a fourth doesn’t figure to be a problem.

Con: Curlin looked like a superstar going into the Derby and became one after the Derby. But he didn’t win on the first Saturday in May. People like to make fun of the Apollo jinx but when something doesn’t happen in 125 years, there has to be a reason.

REVOLUTIONARY—Pro: Like Orb, he seems to have figured it out as a 3-year-old. Overcame a seemingly hopeless situation in the Withers and dug in courageously in the Louisiana Derby. That race was flattered when Departing, who ran third, romped in the Illinois Derby. Who’s better on a Derby closer than Calvin Borel?

Con: He has caused a lot of his own problems, not an encouraging tendency going into a 20-horse rodeo. Javier Castellano risked the wrath of main man Todd Pletcher to jump to Normandy Invasion.

GOLDENCENTS—Pro: Demonstrated in the Santa Anita Derby that the San Felipe was an aberration. Take that race away and his form is stellar. Doug O’Neill showed last year he knows how to win the one race everyone wants.

Con: Ten furlongs is a question mark but that can be said of all of them. O’Neill got the roses with an unheralded jockey last year. He tries to do it again with Kevin Krieger.

ITSMYLUCKYDAY—Pro: Plenty of foundation off 10 races, the most in the field. Until he ran into Orb in the Florida Derby, coming off a two-month layoff, he looked like the king of Florida’s hill. Take a look at how Gulfstream-based horses have done in the major preps.

Con: Orb ran right past him in the Florida Derby.

JAVA’S WAR—Pro: His late-running score in the Blue Grass on Poly validated his stretch close at Verrazano on real dirt in the Tampa Bay Derby.

Con: Broke tardily in the Blue Grass and it wasn’t the first time. He can’t do that in a field with the quantity and quality he’ll encounter. Blue Grass on Poly has regressed as a Derby indicator.

NORMANDY INVASION—Pro: Closed against the bias in the Wood and looked like he might have won if the race had been at the Derby distance. Castellano picked him over Revolutionary. Chad Brown is the next superstar trainer, if he isn’t already.

Con: Still has only a maiden win. Looked like he was going to win the Remsen, too, but didn’t. Might be one of those horses who constantly encourages “next time” hopes.

WILL TAKE CHARGE—Pro: Looked good running down Oxbow in the Rebel. Has D. Wayne Lukas calling the shots.

Con: He goes into the Derby off a seven-week layoff and has never been beyond a mile and a sixteenth.

OVERANALYZE—Pro: Showed grit and courage in winning the nine-furlong Remsen as a 2-year-old and the Arkansas Derby as a 3-year-old. Not many have two wins at mile and an eighth.

Con: In between the Remsen and Arkansas Derby, he was lackluster in the Gotham, which wasn’t overloaded with stars.

LINES OF BATTLE—Pro: He’s won at a mile and three sixteenths. None of the others can say that. One of these years, a Dubai shipper is going to get the job done. Aidan O’Brien knows how to get them ready.

Con: Only one prep and his winning time in Dubai might not have been fast enough to win the 1 ÂĽ Derby, which is about 110 yards longer. Two stakes wins came on kitty litter. Other win was on turf. Dubai shippers are zero-for-forever.

VYJACK—Pro: Has won on the lead and from out of the clouds, which he might have to do again starting from the No. 20 post. Remember, Secretariat ran third in the Wood.

Con: This is his first race away from Aqueduct. Lung infection after the Wood necessitated a pit stop at Fair Hill. His trainer, Rudy Rodriguez, is being watched closer than Lindsay Lohan.

BLACK ONYX—Pro: Has won on grass, real dirt and the Spiral on fake dirt. Last two scores were around two turns. Kelly Breen is one of America’s most under-rated trainers.

Con: Spiral triumph over Uncaptured was more impressive before juvenile standout fizzled so badly in the Blue Grass that his connections took him off the Derby trail. No. 1 post is a killer.

PALACE MALICE –Pro: Five-for-six in the money, including a second in the Blue Grass and third in Risen Star.

Con: Still has only one win and couldn’t hold late stretch lead at 9 furlongs in the Blue Grass.

FRAC DADDY--Pro: Arkansas Derby placing could be a sign he’s returning to strong juvenile form. He's back on his favorite track.

Con: Buried twice at Gulfstream when facing division’s leaders.

MYLUTE—Pro: Solid second to Revolutionary in the Louisiana Derby. Rosie Napravnik rides. The last time they teamed, Mylute won, beating Lexington runnerup General Election.

Con: No excuse when out gamed at the Fair Grounds. Sire was only a sprinter, although Baffert said it was because of breathing issues, not pedigree.

OXBOW—Pro: D. Wayne says this is one of the gutsiest horses he has ever trained. He’s due for a good trip after a succession of nightmares.

Con: Lukas talks up all his horses. It keeps owners invested. Might be over the top. No. 2 is only slightly less detrimental than the rail.

FALLING SKY—Pro: Looked good winning Sam F. Davis.

Con: Beaten by four Kentucky Derby foes in last two without really menacing.

CHARMING KITTEN--Pro: Almost always fires. Squeaked into field with third in the Blue Grass.

Con: Has never run on dirt. Superior grass runner would probably be one of the favorites in American Turf but the Ramseys want a horse in the Derby.

GOLDEN SOUL—Pro: Mine That Bird won the Derby, so anything can happen.

Con: Has only maiden win.

Giant Finish: Pro:Second and third in Turfway stakes, which allowed him to be the last one to crash the party.

Con:This is all about serving the owners egos.

Written by Tom Jicha

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