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 31, 2013

Calder-Gulfstream deal could be imminent

With a month to go before Gulfstream is scheduled to begin racing head-to-head against Calder, there is a strong belief, supported by recent history, that Churchill Downs, Inc., is on the verge of striking a deal to allow Frank Stronach's track to run unopposed. On another front, some of the security precautions NYRA has announced for the Belmont Stakes are way over the top. If some of the same restrictions are extended to the Saratoga meeting, they will kill the atmosphere that has made a day at the Spa one of sports biggest joys.

MIAMI, May 31, 2013--All is quiet on the Gulfstream-Calder front. But it’s one of those eerie news blackout quiets which frequently occur before something big is about to be announced. There was a meeting this week between high ranking executives of both sides and no one is talking publicly about what transpired, generally a sign progress is being made and a deal is imminent.

The expectation remains that before the head-to-head racing nightmare begins in July, Churchill Downs, Inc., will accept some kind of settlement, which will either turn Calder into a going-through-the-motions-to-keep-our-casino venue or end racing there entirely.

The imminent closure of Hollywood Park is an example why this belief is so prevalent. CDI sold Hollywood to its current owners without any regard for the future of racing. CDI knew and didn’t care when it sold the track to a development company that it was dooming Hollywood as a racetrack. The only thing that kept it operating as a track as long as it has was the crippling recession, which dried up the money supply to finance the ambitious commercial/residential project Hollywood’s new owners envisioned.

Churchill also negotiated a settlement a couple of years ago when it allowed Gulfstream to usurp December, one of the most profitable months of the year for Calder.

Faced with the reality that strong willed Frank Stronach is determined to run year-round, with or without competition, there is no reason to believe CDI will act differently this time.

The company’s behavior in New Orleans is another example of the diminishing regard it has for racing.

A recent Ray Paulick column ( decried the deterioration of the Fair Grounds turf course since CDI bought the facility.

Paulick quoted former Fair Grounds owner Louie Roussel, who said CDI has neglected the infield grass course since 2004.

The piece also quoted a letter sent by Stanley Seelig, president of the Louisiana HBPA, to the Louisiana Racing Commission. “This is not a new problem, and one that the Fair Grounds has done a poor job of addressing the last few years.”

Weeks went by this past season without the turf course being usable, even when there was minimal or no rain. Under the circumstances, a responsible, dedicated-to-racing owner would have made repairing the turf course after the meet closed in March a priority.

CDI added insult to injury, allowing tens of thousands of fans to trample all over it at the annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in late April, early May. The track—more precisely, CDI—is contractually committed to the festival but more effort could have been made to protect the troubled turf.

The net result, Paulick wrote, is “CDI makes money, horsemen lose money (from simulcasting and slots being shut down at times during the festival) and the turf course is severely damaged.” Insiders are saying that the damage is so extensive that it might negatively impact the 2013-14 meeting. For CDI, regrettably this has become business as usual.

So whether it’s Florida, California or Louisiana, CDI’s attitude has been to take the money and not worry about running a race track. This does not bode well for the future of Calder.

Start Spreading the News

The Belmont Stakes has a self-styled status as “The Test of Champions.” This might have been true in another time, back in the 20th century. It has not been the case during this millennium.

Only once since 2000 has the winner of the third jewel of the Triple Crown been voted the ultimate honor for a champion, the Eclipse Award as Horse of the Year. That was Point Given 12 years ago.

And only three times in the 21st century has the Belmont winner been named outstanding 3-year-old male—Point Given, Afleet Alex (2005) and Summer Bird (2009).

The filly Rags to Riches, who upset Curlin in 2007, was voted best 3-year-old female.

During this same period, the Belmont has been won by Ruler on Ice, with a only a maiden win in five starts going into the Belmont and one-for-12 since (an allowance win over Aqueduct’s winter track); DaTara, who subsequently went zero-for-nine before being retired; Jazil, who went into the Belmont with only a maiden win in eight starts and didn’t win in three post-Belmont starts, and Sarava, a 70-1 shot, who failed to hit the board in his two post-Belmont races.

The Belmont has become a victim of the mania to breed for win-early speed, stamina be damned. Modern thoroughbreds, who can handle the grueling mile and a half, don’t often fit that paradigm. Union Rags last year was an exception.

We'll take a more detailed look at the Belmont field after it's set at Wednesday's post draw.

One other Belmont thought: a kneejerk over-reaction is inevitable whenever there is an act of terrorism. Racing is not immune. In the wake of the Boston Marathon tragedy, the expanded security precautions put in place by NYRA threaten to reduce New York’s biggest day of racing downstate into as much fun as a trip through airport security.

Taking reasonable precautions is laudable but some measures are, pardon the expression, overkill.

I have no problem with prohibitions against laser pointers, mace, pepper spray and certainly weapons. It’s dumbfounding that these haven’t been on a forbidden list forever. But the reasoning behind no umbrellas, even in the backyard, where rain has been known to fall and there is no cover, will have to be explained to me.

Limiting the size of a woman's purse, which is going to be searched at the entrance gate anyway, also seems a bit much.

There has been a thwarted terrorist attempt at detonating an underwear bomb on a plane. I guess we should be grateful NYRA didn’t decree everyone has to come to the Belmont commando style.

With a new regime in place, we can only hope more reasonable voices will prevail before Saratoga. If the same prohibitions, especially those banning coolers and alcoholic beverages, are put into place at the Spa, they might as well start saddling horses under the trees again. There will be nobody else there.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Sunday, May 26, 2013

Calder Gates Closed On Memorial Day: Effects of Florida conflict already being felt

The ill effects of the looming conflict between Gulfstream and Calder are beginning to show. In what has to be a first, Calder decided not to race on Memorial Day, probably the first time a racetrack, whose season is in progress, has gone dark on the summer kickoff holiday. No racing is scheduled on the Fourth of July or Labor Day, either, as they, too, fall on days when the track is normally dark. It appears that with its future uncertain, Calder is doing as little as possible. Another sign of this: the press department has disappeared. Those who used to assist reporters have resigned and not been replaced. Whatever is going to happen, it needs to happen as quickly as possible so that the future of both tracks becomes clear.

MIAMI, May 26, 2013--Aaron Vercruysee introduced Sunday’s “First Call” program on HRTV with, “In horse racing, when there’s a holiday and it’s a Monday, we’ve got a lot of great stakes action around the country.”

Not in South Florida. No stakes action was scheduled at Calder on Memorial Day, because no racing was scheduled at Calder on Memorial Day. As best I can recall from 50 years of following thoroughbred racing, this is the first time a track, whose season is in progress, went dark on the holiday that kicks off the summer season.

No racing is scheduled at Calder on the Fourth of July or Labor Day, either. These, too, are firsts, as best I know.This assumes there will be any racing at Calder by the time these holidays roll around.

I’ve worked at a couple of newspapers that shut down. The situation at Calder now reminds me of the run-up to those sad occasions. People leave and they are not replaced. Things break and they are not fixed. Knowing there is no future, everyone does as little as possible (see no racing on the summer holidays).

This describes the spring of 2013 at Calder. The Damocles Sword hanging over the Miami track is the possibility (likelihood?) that Churchill Downs, Inc., will sell out to Gulfstream’s Frank Stronach in some form and racing, or at least racing as it has been at Calder, will cease to exist.

Calder presented the Memorial Handicap Saturday. The annual stakes had to have its title shortened to omit Day for obvious reasons. Journalists from both major area newspapers and, of course, the Daily Racing Form were there to cover the race. What wasn’t there was anyone who worked for Calder.

Michelle Blanco, one of the finest publicists ever to come around a race track, resigned a couple of months ago. She wasn’t replaced. Michael Costanzo, who was given many of Michelle’s duties, left for Gulfstream a few weeks ago. He hasn’t been replaced, either.

Little things, like distributing charts or gathering quotes from riders and trainers, many of whom require translation because they speak little or no English, went undone. If you had a technical problem, you were on your own. If you have a question, there is no one to call. The offices are still there but there is no one in them.

This isn’t a whine by a spoiled reporter. I’ve always gathered my own quotes, as have my colleagues. I know because we stand shoulder to shoulder in the winner’s circle. We're managing well under the new normal, too.

It is to point out the absurdity of a major race track having no press department , which is as unprecedented as not racing on Memorial Day. This is symptomatic of what is happening at Calder.

Reportedly, top executives of CDI and the Stronach Group have a meeting scheduled for Tuesday in an attempt to reach a resolution to the threat of the tracks engaging in a scorched earth conflict that threatens Florida racing. The point that there are not enough horses or fans to go around cannot be reiterated enough.

Gulfstream is going to start racing year-round in July (actually there will be a head start for one day in late June). Any change to this plan will be a bigger upset than Oxbow winning the Preakness. Stronach has his mind set on doing it and nothing is going to dissuade him.

There are many reasons why this can be good for racing. Gulfstream’s facility is more modern, including the backstretch. The shortage of seats facing the race track is not an issue during the non-prime months when crowds thin dramatically. Most fans prefer the comfort of air conditioning. Gulfstream is as well equipped as Calder to serve them.

Gulfstream’s name also carries more cachet around the country and simulcasting is the biggest part of what this conflict is about. (Gulfstream, Calder and Tampa Bay all want to serve as a host track year-round, the next big skirmish). If more money is bet on Gulfstream out of town, it will translate into bigger purses for horsemen.

Both facilities have casinos. The significant difference is CDI has made it the priority at Calder. On both sides of the Calder grandstand facing the Florida Turnpike, which is heavily trafficked by tourists, there are huge illuminated signs “Calder Casino.” No mention of racing. Almost all advertising is geared toward the slots.

Gulfstream pushes its slots in ads, too, but when racing is being conducted, it also is heavily promoted. This figures to be stepped up when summer racing is presented for the first time.

So the ball is in CDI’s court. It can go to war, racing on weekends directly against Gulfstream. It can back off and race only on weekdays to satisfy the state’s requirements to keep its casino license. Or it can sell the whole operation outright to Stronach. Supposedly, an offer was tendered a couple of months ago but the price wasn’t considered right.

Each of these possibilities does not bode well for Calder, as we have come to know it, or people who make their livelihoods there. Thus, the air of melancholy around the track.

This is not meant to be a pro-Gulfstream, anti-Calder screed. There would be no summer racing without Calder. That should count for something. Anyone with a sense of fair play can see it is not right for any entity to just move in and tell another, we’re taking over.

Also, I might eventually be proven wrong but I believe racing at any track 12 months a year is not a good thing for the sport or that track.

Whatever is decided, let’s hope it happens quickly. No one is benefitting from the uncertainty. South Florida deserves to know its racing future ASAP.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Friday, May 24, 2013

NY Times idea of a racing czar is a bad pipedream

The New York Times is up to its usual tricks, dumping on racing. Two days after the Preakness, The Times ran a piece suggesting that what racing needs is a strong, central leader. It's a warm, fuzzy idea until it is put under the microscope of how this has worked in other sports. Baseball and football have potent commissioners, yet have drug issues as scandalous as those in racing. Worse, neither of these commissioners demonstrate any regard for the people who make their sports go, the fans.

MIAMI, May 24, 2013--It didn’t take the New York Times long to resume its jihad against racing. Two days after Orb failed to win the Preakness, William C. Rhoden launched another broadside.

I don’t monitor Rhoden’s work. does keep a close eye on him and The Times, which has dredged up every piece of negative news it could uncover about racing, even if it had to travel to off-the-beaten-track bullrings in the Southwest to find it. The headline on Equidaily’s summary of the piece is telling: “NY Times’ # 2 racing gadfly Rhoden takes his annual shot at racing.”

Among other things, Rhoden opines, “The racing industry is trudging toward an uncertain future.” As opposed to what? The newspaper industry?

Given the thrust of the piece, it’s not surprising it would appear in The Times, a champion of large, centralized government. Rhoden writes, “The industry must appoint a single leadership figure to standardize rules and regulations covering every facet of the industry.”

From where would this messiah come? The Wizard of Oz and Merlin, who could magically wave a wand and make things happen, aren’t available.

Practically speaking, it would have to be someone from racetrack management. More significantly, he would have to be paid by racetracks directly or by gouging fans with another bite in the takeout. The latter would almost certainly require legislative approval from every racing jurisdiction. Good luck with that. Thank goodness.

In either case, this czar would be beholden to track owners.

Let’s take a look at how this approach has worked in other sports. The most frequently mentioned problem by racing’s detractors is performance enhancing drugs. Baseball has had an omnipotent commissioner for a century. The specter of Bud Selig's authority didn’t deter Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and a multitude of other steroid-fueled players from making a mockery of the sport-- just like some thoroughbred trainers are doing.

Selig looked the other way because he felt the barrage of drug assisted offense was good for the game; i.e., the owners.

The NFL has the most powerful commissioner in sports. Yet it looked the other way for years at steroid and amphetamine abuse. Same reason: Fans love those big hits by players with super-human physiques.

How many times did you hear commentators casually remark, “He got his bell rung.” Only recently has it been conceded that this translates to the likelihood of a concussion, which leads to premature dementia and death.

The lifespan of an NFL player is something like 12 years less than the average American. The NFL and its strong commissioner didn’t bother to deal with this reality until it was confronted by what could turn into a gazillion dollar lawsuit from former players.

What about concern for fans?

Selig has presided over the most fan-unfriendly developments in the history of baseball. You can buy tickets to take the family to a Sunday afternoon game only to be told it has been moved to Sunday night for TV. Instead of getting home for dinner, the final pitch will be thrown around midnight. This makes the ETA for arriving home before the start of a new school and work week an hour with a small number.

All that matters is, thanks to Selig, it’s ever onward and upward for the TV revenue owners cut up.

Football is only slightly better. Consider the ramifications of the celebrated Snow Bowl, the playoff game between Oakland and New England played in a blizzard on Jan. 19, 2002.

The calendar dictates that playoff games fall in the dead of winter. So the NFL can’t be blamed for what happened that Saturday night. But what has happened since is unconscionable.

Until then, the NFL did its best to schedule late season prime-time games in warmer weather cities or those with domed stadiums. Once the Snow Bowl racked up record TV ratings, this philosophy was spun 180 degrees.

Now the league goes out of its way to schedule December and January prime-time games in places like Green Bay, Chicago and New England, in the hope it can re-create the Snow Bowl ratings magic. So what if this puts the fans in the stands in danger of frostbite, pneumonia or a heart attack trying to shovel out their car after the final gun, then driving home in treacherous conditions.

The NFL doesn’t even respect its most important games enough to stage them under the most advantageous competitive conditions possible. The first round of the playoffs last season had a couple of wild card games on Saturday. One was in Houston, the other in Green Bay. The NFL designated the latter for prime time, all the better for the possibility of another winter wonderland. The higher the ratings, the more the NFL can demand when its TV contract comes up for renewal.

Two weeks later, the two conference championships were played the same day. One was in Atlanta with its domed stadium. That was made the early game. The other was after dark outdoors in New England.

This coming February, the Super Bowl will be played outdoors at the Meadowlands. The conditions could be so brutal, the league has made contingency plans to move to an alternate date in case the Metropolitan area is shut down by a major storm.

With enhanced security, fans will be asked to be in their seats as much as three hours before kickoff. Throw in the extended halftime show and they could be sitting in arctic conditions for as much as seven hours.

Is this being done to give fans in the nation’s largest market a chance to see sports biggest event? Of course not. The average person has no shot at a ticket. It’s a gift to the owners of the Jets and Giants for building a new billion dollar stadium. Those owners will be sitting in heated skyboxes, blissfully liberated from the pain and suffering of the freezing masses in the stands.

You can thank a powerful commissioner for that.

The Breeders Cup, one of the best things to happen to racing, tried to take a leadership position in cleaning up the drugs mess by issuing a phased-in edict that Lasix would not be permitted in the championship races.

This effort or the Breeders’ Cup will die after this year because horsemen’s organizations have indicated they will not grant simulcast rights if the ban on Lasix isn’t lifted.

A strong central figure to restore racing to prominence is a warm fuzzy thought but one that works only in the minds of those in the Ivory Tower of The New York Times.

Written by Tom Jicha

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