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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Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Espinoza got off easy with only seven days

Santa Anita stewards wasted no time in slapping Victor Espinoza with a seven-day suspension for his ride on Sky Kingdom in the Awesome Again in which the regular rider of California Chrome's sole purpose seemed to be to get Shared Belief beaten. Espinoza's defenders say he was only race riding but the fact that he has chosen not to appeal is revealing.

MIAMI, Sept. 30, 2014--Justice was swift but not as severe as it might have been for Victor Espinoza’s ride in the Awesome Again. Within 24 hours, the Santa Anita stewards came down on Espinoza with a seven-day suspension. Considering the magnitude of the event, I would have made it more.

I’m flabbergasted reading comments on Horse Race Insider and other sites that there are those who think Espinoza did nothing wrong. The fact that Espinoza has chosen not to appeal says all you need to know.

The defense goes he was only race riding. My response is where does race riding end and irresponsibility and tampering with a race begin? Espinoza allowed Sky Kingdom to drift more than halfway out on the track in the first turn, then stayed out there down the backstretch. Would it have been race riding if he took Shared Belief to the outside fence?

Mike Smith, Shared Belief’s Hall of Fame jockey, who knows the difference between race riding and something more sinister, was so ticked at Espinoza that he was quoted as saying in the jockeys’ room as Espinoza walked by, “Keep going or I’ll take your head off.”

In my opinion, Espinoza made no attempt to help Sky Kingdom win. Indeed he finished last. Espinoza was all in toward one purpose, to get Shared Belief beaten. His possible motivations made his actions more deplorable. Foremost, Espinoza is the regular rider of California Chrome, whose lock on the 3-year-old championship has been unhinged by Shared Belief.

The power of wins in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness in addition to the Santa Anita Derby is such--as they should be--that the only way Shared Belief could overcome them was by running the table of the Awesome Again and Breeders’ Cup Classic to go with the Pacific Classic and Los Alamitos Derby.

If not for the brilliance and tenacity of Shared Belief, Espinoza’s ride could have clinched the title for California Chrome. I believe that even if Shared Belief finishes ahead of California Chrome in the Classic but doesn’t win the race, the 3-year-old Eclipse will go to California Chrome.

Jockey Club Gold Cup winner Tonalist could put in a claim with a win in the Classic but even under those circumstances I still feel that the streak of the last 16 Kentucky Derby-Preakness winners also wearing the divisional crown will remain intact.

Apparently Bob Baffert still harbors aspirations that Bayern could cop the Eclipse. There is no other rationale for pointing the speedster with distance limitations to a mile and a quarter in the Classic. He would have only one serious threat in the Dirt Mile, Goldencents, who might go in the Sprint.

Kelso winner Vyjack is staying in the East to await the Cigar Mile. Itsmyluckyday also will skip the Mile after his disappointing Kelso and prepare for either the Cigar or a winter campaign at Gulfstream.

Espinoza was riding for Baffert in the Awesome Again. A defeat by Shared Belief would have advanced Bayern’s standing, too.

On reflection, of all the suggested motivations for Espinoza’s ride, the one I put the least stock in is he was trying to help Baffert’s uncoupled stable mate Fed Biz. Espinoza gets up on a fair number of Baffert horses but he’s not the barn’s go-to guy. I don’t think Espinoza cared who won as long as Shared Belief didn’t.

Shared Belief, a gelding owned by sports talk star Jim Rome, could give racing such a boost for years to come it’s disheartening to think that anyone would go to the lengths Espinoza did to dim the luster of his star power.

Going all out to beat him on the square is one thing. That’s what jockeys are supposed to do. What Espinoza did is something else. He deserves the sanctions and scorn he is getting.

Racing as it was meant to be returns

After last weekend’s orgy of world class stakes action at Belmont and Santa Anita it’s hard to believe there are still championship caliber horses who haven’t had their final Breeders’ Cup preps. But Keeneland has five more Grade 1’s among nine graded stakes on opening weekend starting Friday.

Better yet, much better yet, real dirt is back after seven years in the synthetic wilderness. I have often pointed out how winners of major Keeneland stakes on kitty litter were non factors in races on mainstream dirt courses. This should no longer be the case.

If Beholder’s bid for a third straight Eclipse is to be thwarted, it likely will be by Close Hatches, the probable favorite in Sunday’s Grade 1 Spinster. Not to be overlooked is Don’t Tell Sophia, who is three-for-four in 2014, including Churchill’s recent Locust Grove. Her lone loss was a third behind Close Hatches in the Azeri but Don’t Tell Sophia was hindered by a quarter crack, which forced her to run with a bar shoe. That problem is history.

Juveniles also have their final Breeders’ Cup preps at Keeneland and Belmont. The opening day feature in Kentucky will bring out what is expected to be a full field of fillies in the Alcibiades. Colts will get their chance Saturday in the Breeders’ Futurity.

Back at Belmont, the Grade 1 open Champagne and Frizette for fillies are set for Saturday with 2-year-old sprinters of both genders getting their chances on Sunday in the Futurity and Matron.

American Pharoh’s dominant win in Santa Anita’s Frontrunner makes him the one to beat in the BC Juvenile but the filly division is still looking for a leader. Angela Renee’s win in the Chandelier was workmanlike but she was well beaten by Easterners in a couple of Saratoga stakes.

Keeneland’s five Saturday stakes also include the return of Wise Dan in the Shadwell Turf Mile. Dan suffered his only defeat of 2013 in this race last fall but it carried an asterisk. It became the Shadwell (fake dirt) Mile when a monsoon forced the race off the turf.

Horse of the Year is still Shared Belief’s to lose but if he comes up short in the Classic and Wise Dan takes the Shadwell and a third BC Turf Mile, another Horse of the Year laurel is a strong possibility.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Saturday, September 27, 2014

Shared Belief steals the show on a day of stars

Shared Belief was awesome again in the Awesome Again. Overcoming a nightmare trip, he was more awesome than ever in gutting out his seventh straight win. In spite of Tonalist 's facile score in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, Shared Belief heads toward the Breeders' Cup one of the biggest favorites on racing's biggest day.


If there were any doubts about the brilliance of Shared Belief, they were dispelled Saturday in a race whose title, Awesome Again, could not have been more appropriate. If anything Shared Belief was more awesome than ever.

His head margin over front-running Fed Biz was his closest call yet but it said more about him than any of his six previous daylight scores. You never really know what kind of heart a horse has until he has to gut it out in the final yards. Shared Heart has a heart bigger than California.

Shared Belief demonstrated in the Pacific Classic that he could overcome adversity. In the Awesome Again, he did things that are the stuff of legends.

Jockeys always ride to beat the favorite but what Victor Espinoza aboard Sky Kingdom did to get Shared Belief beat should be looked into by the stewards. Espinoza floated Shared Belief about eight wide into the first turn. According to Trakus, Shared Belief was pushed 24-plus feet off the rail. That’s almost a first down.

Espinoza continued to keep the undefeated favorite wide down the backside before he finally began his fade to last. This allowed the others to sneak through inside them and ensure Shared Belief would be almost as wide around the final turn.

“They tried some tactics on us,” winning rider Mike Smith said, being as charitable as possible.Smith estimated Sky Kingdom had Shared Belief stuck in the nine path.

Why would Espinoza ride as if his only goal was to get Shared Belief beaten? Here are a couple of things to consider. Espinoza was riding half of Bob Baffert’s uncoupled entry. Thanks to Espinoza, the other half, Fed Biz, was able to skim the rail on the lead and almost held on for the upset.

Then there’s the fact that Espinoza is the regular rider of California Chrome, the colt who’s trying to hold off Shared Belief for the 3-year-old title.

All of this does make you think.

How ironic it was only a week ago when Espinoza complained other jockeys in the Pennsylvania Derby were riding to thwart California Chrome.

There was an outstanding performance by a 3-year-old at Belmont, too. Tonalist moved to the head of the East’s 3-year-old class with a smart win in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. With blinkers off, he rallied from farther back than usual and split horses inside the eighth pole to get home ahead of Zivo and Long River.

The race was marred when Tonalist’s summer-long rival, Wicked Strong, was dropped by Moreno moving into the far turn. Wicked Strong was in a contending position when the mishap occurred, so there’s no telling what the outcome might have been if the Wood and Jim Dandy winner had been able to run his race. Moreno was disqualified from fourth and placed last.

This was Tonalist’s first win over older horses but it is a distinction that doesn’t have its usual cachet. With Palace Malice, Will Take Charge and Mucho Macho Man on the sidelines and Moreno and Itsmyluckyday misfiring, the older division is shallow in talent.

The attrition among older horses—Game on Dude, the pride of the West the past few years is also gone-- sets up a Breeders’ Cup Classic in which the three or four top betting choices could be 3-year-olds. Shared Belief will be a strong favorite. There’s no doubt about that.

Then there’s Tonalist and California Chrome, back home in the West. It could be four 3-year-olds heading the Classic if Baffert decides to try 10 furlongs again with Bayern. Maybe Shared Belief’s performance Saturday will coax Baffert to think better of that. The Dirt mile makes much more sense.

The potential travesty of Beholder capturing three straight Eclipses without ever winning a graded race anywhere but Santa Anita moved another step closer to fruition when she outran five foes in the Zenyatta. This race was effectively over when Iotapa, Beholder’s only serious competitor, missed her break.

Belle Gallantey won the East Coast equivalent, the Beldame, but it’s difficult to get too excited about her victory despite her more than eight length margin. John Velasquez aboard Stopchargingmaria opted to let Belle Gallantey gallop unchallenged on the lead in pedestrian fractions. The race was over by the halfway point.

If someone is to dethrone Beholder, it is more likely to be Close Hatches, who has her final Breeders’ Cup prep in the Spinster on real dirt at Keeneland on Saturday.

Saturday’s biggest disappointment had to be Itsmyluckyday in the Kelso. If Eddie Plesa was looking for an easy spot to get ready for the BC Classic, he picked the wrong race. River Rocks, going for his fourth straight, and Braedster sandwiched Itsmyluckyday most of the way, setting the race up for Vyjack, who sat a dream trip just behind the leaders and well ahead of the rest. Vyjack probably isn't going to Santa Anita. His connections are pointing for the Cigar Mile.

Stephanie’s Kitten didn’t disappoint for a change in the Flower Bowl. Johnny Velasquez kept her in the clear on the outside, but not too far outside, then pounced in the stretch to break a four-race winless streak for Ken Ramsey's filly. But you have to think there will be a couple or three Euros she might find too tough to handle at the Breeders’ Cup.

The same could be true of Turf Classic winner Main Sequence, who won his third straight Grade 1 since coming over from Great Britain. Give him and Graham Motion a lot of credit. All three wins have been in photo finishes. But he wasn’t the same terror on the other side of the Atlantic.

Private Zone is heading back to the BC Sprint after repeating in the Vosburgh. A year ago, he ran tenth at Santa Anita after winning Belmont’s premier sprint. The field he beat Saturday doesn’t suggest he’s the one to beat this year.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, September 18, 2014

Pa. Derby no walkover for California Chrome

Bob Baffert's decision to ship Bayern to the Pennsylvania Derby changes what loomed to be a richly paid workout for California Chrome into a real race. The Kentucky Derby winner will still be odds-on but the possibility of Bayern getting loose on an easy lead as he did in the Haskell adds intrigue to this weekend's most important race.

MIAMI, Sept. 18, 2014--The Pennsylvania Derby got a lot more interesting earlier this week when Bob Baffert decided to ship Bayern east for the showpiece race of the Parx season.

The race had ample aesthetic appeal with California Chrome using it as his comeback race after three months of R-and-R and his final prep for a potential Breeders’ Cup Classic showdown with Shared Belief. But it looked unbettable except as a free space in multi-race wagers. Even then, the upside figured to be minimal since everyone would have the same idea.

There was speculation Untapable might skip the Cotillion against fillies to take another shot at the colts. But that never made any sense. Untapable’s connections took the sensible option of being 1-5 against her own gender or 5-1 against California Chrome for the same purse. Moreover, the Cotillion is Grade 1, the Derby Grade 2.

This is probably the last year the Derby won’t be a Grade 1, which it should have been elevated to a couple of years ago. But the grading system is such a politically driven abomination, it is loaded with injustices. The Hopeful, a Grade 1, had three maidens in a field of seven. The first three finishers in its West Coast counterpart, the Del Mar Futurity, all went into the race maidens. I would argue that no 2-year-old race before the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile should be more than a Grade 3, if that high. But that’s a column for another day.

Meanwhile, the Pennsylvania Derby has the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner; Bayern, the Woody Stephens and Haskell winner; and Tapiture, who has won the West Virginia Derby and Matt Winn in his last two starts. Yet it’s only a Grade 2.

Even with Bayern crashing the party, California Chrome should be odds-on. However, the inevitability factor has diminished. We have seen in Monmouth’s Haskell what can happen when Bayern gets loose on an easy lead. We also have seen what happened to Wicked Strong and Tonalist in the Travers when they tried to push Bayern early.

The minor awards in the $1 million race are too lucrative for one of the lesser lights to serve as a sacrificial lamb pushing Baffert’s speedball. California Chrome, who has plenty of early lick and will be fresh, might have to do his own dirty work.

Suddenly what loomed an exhibition has the makings of a real race.

It’s always fun to try to beat the favorite but I’ll be rooting hard for California Chrome this week and Shared Belief in the Awesome Again at Santa Anita next week. This would set up the most eagerly anticipated Breeders’ Cup Classic showdown of top 3-year-olds since Sunday Silence and Easy Goer.

Goofy California is at is again

The people in California must lay awake at night pondering new ways to unnecessarily screw things up.

This is the state that banned paper grocery bags in favor of plastic and now has banned plastic. Racing had its own “paper or plastic” situation. Over-reacting (a California specialty) to an atypical spate of breakdowns in 2008, the state decreed that racetracks (save the short meeting fairs) had to go to the tremendous expense of converting their dirt main tracks to artificial surfaces. By next summer, all but Golden Gate will have reverted to real dirt.

The latest solution to a non-existent problem is a rule that decrees jockeys cannot use their whips more than three times without pausing to see if it is having the desired impact on their mount. This creates the possibility (likelihood) of jockeys driving to the wire putting their stick away to wait for a reaction while a rival surges past.

For now, this is only a house rule at Santa Anita but the Arcadia track is the host for the Breeders’ Cup in just over a month. This is when jockeys from all over the nation, many, if not most, unfamiliar with the rule, will convene for “the world championships.”

This regulation wasn’t spurred by any particular incident or public outcry. In fact, it’s difficult to surmise what is behind it. Darrell Haire, western regional representative for the Jockeys’ Guild (this means he is supposed to be working on riders’ behalf, not signing on to new ways to make their lives more difficult), was quoted in the Racing Form as saying, “We didn’t feel we have a problem. But we didn’t think hitting a horse repeatedly without waiting for a response is acceptable.”

We didn’t feel we have a problem but we’ll pass a new rule anyway. How California.

Haire was using the regal “we.” Martin Pedroza, one of the few jockeys quoted, called the new rule “ridiculous.”

Making the new rule more superfluous was the introduction a few years ago of new softer whips that are more sound than fury. The part that strikes the horse makes a popping sound, which theoretically spurs on a horse. But it doesn’t injure the animal or break skin as some of the old ones did.

To inject an issue of the day, it’s the difference between a parent’s open-handed whack on the rump to bring an out-of-control youngster into line and the disgusting thing Adrian Peterson did to his 4-year-old.

In an ideal world, jockeys wouldn’t carry whips. But when a 100-pound rider is trying to control a headstrong 1,200-pound horse, without the rider having anything to assert himself, bad things can happen. Whips can be lifesavers for both horse and rider. More to the current point, some horses refuse to exert themselves without coaxing.

There are already sensible rules that prohibit a jockey from abusing a horse. Riders must refrain from use of their whip when their horse is clearly out of the race or has obtained a maximum placing. Violations include steep fines or suspensions.

Underlining that the new regulations are more for show than reform, there are, at least at the outset, no meaningful penalties for infractions. A rider who continues to go to the whip in an all-out drive to the wire doesn’t face disqualification and fines will be light, less than the rider’s share of the difference between first and second.

Sorry, but these are the riders I want on the horses I bet.

Written by Tom Jicha

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