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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Wednesday, July 08, 2015

Spa Fans Getting Nickeled and Dimed to Death

NYRA CEO Christopher Kay keeps finding new ways to squeeze money from Saratoga racing fans. Admission went up last year. Now 100 picnic tables will carry a charge every day instead of just Travers Day.Watch that number increase. It will cost this season to sit at formerly free seats in the Carousel area. Most disturbing is plans for a multi-million-dollar expansion of the clubhouse are going ahead even though the current regime is supposed to be gone next year. This is an ominous sign that Gov. Cuomo and his puppet Kay are confident they aren't going away any time soon.

MIAMI, July 7, 2015--Saratoga is starting to remind us of Las Vegas. The philosophy of Sin City in the not too distant past was, “We’re going to get your money at the tables and slots, so we’ll stay out of your pocket as much as possible in our lodging, bars, restaurants and shows.”

Then the corporate guys took over. The first thing they did was decree that just getting your gambling money wasn’t enough. The hotel, bars and restaurants had to show a profit, too. Drinks were measured shots, no doubles. In some race books, you had to ask for drink tickets when you made a bet, then turn them in to the cocktail waitresses. If you wanted a premium beer or umbrella drink, they commanded extra tickets. Entertainment in the main show rooms became as expensive as it was back home.

More recently, some numbers-crunchers came up with the concept of “resort fees,” Las Vegas equivalent of airline baggage charges. These fees run as high as $25 a day. This, of course, is nothing more than a way to jack up the price of rooms, which are no longer bargains at face value.

Las Vegas is still doing OK but nothing like it once did. Unemployment, once unheard of, is soaring. Building has come to a halt, with some major projects abandoned unfinished. Homes are selling for half what they once cost. The economy is a factor but Las Vegas has survived previous recessions without the downturn it is suffering.

This brings us to Saratoga, which handles more money per day than any other racetrack in America. Under Christopher Kay, another bottom line corporate suit, a similar nickel and dime philosophy has taken hold. Admission, which was $2 grandstand and $5 clubhouse for what seemed like forever, jumped to $5 and $8 last season. Parking went up, too.

But it doesn’t stop at the entry gate. Previously hard to get reserved seats also were jacked up in price. The result: thousands go unsold on many days.

Picnic tables, ALL picnic tables, were free. A few years ago, Kay put a $100 charge on some for Travers Day. The money was going to racetrack charities, he promised. It did…for one year. Now there will be 100 on sale every day and all the money is going to NYRA’s bottom line.

Kay says there will still be 850 free tables. Anyone want to make an over-under on how long this will stand?

The Carousel area, with scores of seats, has been free throughout its existence. Kay has redubbed it a sports bar and will charge to sit there this season.

Has anyone clued in the Toy Man that there are few sports on TV during the hours races are run at Saratoga? NFL season doesn’t start until the week after Saratoga closes. The NBA and NHL are in their off-seasons. People don’t watch mundane regular season baseball games, most of which are at night anyway, at home. The Carousel “sports bar” is nothing but a way to grab another few bucks out of racing fans accustomed to sitting there for free.

The Top of the Stretch area, my personal favorite, is getting squeezed more each season. First it was pricey catered picnic areas along the rail. Even when they weren’t being utilized, security guards made sure common fans didn’t get to have the up close view they used to have.

A huge tent also has been added against the back fence. So far, fans are allowed to hang out when it is not being rented. By I hold my breath each season that this will change, too. I’m hesitant to call it to Kay’s attention. In any case, an area which used to accommodate a thousand or more fans comfortably is now elbow to elbow with a couple of hundred.

The Saratoga Hall of Fame building Kay is constructing near the Carousel is not only resulting in the eradication of shade trees, it is also is going to cut into the space fans used to have at their disposal.This is where families, which make Saratoga so special, congregate. Keep charging them more and pushing them further from the horses and soon they decide, “This isn’t fun anymore,” and will find other things to do.

Saratoga locals are outraged that the Open House on a Sunday before the meeting opened, a tradition for more than three decades, was canceled by Kay. He said he did it because it wasn’t well attended, which was widely disputed. He also said local charities, which were allowed to fund-raise on Open House Sunday, weren’t as successful as they should be. Kay didn’t quote one local charity to back this claim.

John Hendrickson, who has the title of being Gov. Cuomo’s advisor to the NYRA board on Saratoga issues, was livid that he wasn’t told of the cancellation until it was a done deal. “How can I advise when I’m not in the process?”

Kay let the true reason out when he said the Open House could be revived if a sponsor is found. In other words, as long as it doesn’t cost NYRA a dime. Good will in the local community doesn’t show up on balance sheets.

The most ominous development of all is the planning for a new building, which is being called an extension of the clubhouse. Essentially the plan is to build permanent skyboxes. They will be situated on the other side of the walking path from the paddock to the track, where temporary facilities have been the past several years.

That these are being built for a handful of the super wealthy is bad enough. How about spending some money to substantially increase the number of restrooms for women. It’s a disgrace that they have to wait in endless lines on weekend days.

But the big issue is what business plans a significant, multi-million dollar expansion knowing it will not be there when the work is finished and the bills come due?

Political appointee Kay and company were supposed to be gone this fall, replaced by a return of NYRA to private ownership. Without warning or fanfare, Gov Cuomo extended this by a year. There is nothing to stop him for doing this ad infinitum, especially since there appears to be little to no effort to find a new operator.

That Kay, with the governor’s approval, is moving ahead with this expansion suggests that the current regime plans to be around for a while.

This is not good news for Saratoga in particular and New York racing in general.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Stars are out for the big holiday weekend

Three Breeders' Cup champions--Main Sequence, Texas Red and Work All Week--are expected to get back on the road to this year's renewal, hoping to reverse disappointing showings last time out in major stakes over the holiday weekend. Also, Lady Eli tries to stretch her unbeaten streak to six in the Belmont Oaks.

MIAMI, June 30, 2015--The Triple Crown and its long run-up dominate the first half of the racing season. After that, focus turns to the Breeders’ Cup. This process picks up momentum all over the map during the Independence Day weekend.

For three of last year’s Breeders’ Cup champions, Fourth of July weekend represents a chance for redemption after less than stellar performances. Main Sequence, who started his four-for-four U.S. campaign in 2014 in Monmouth’s United Nations, is expected back to defend his title on Sunday.

A Horse of the Year finalist in 2014, he extended his unbeaten streak to five in Gulfstream’s Mac Diarmida, his 2015 debut. However, he didn’t look like the star, who beat some of the world’s best in the BC Turf last November, in the Dubai Sheema Classic, checking in a non-competitive seventh. Maybe he’s just a horse for U.S. courses.

Texas Red became the de facto Kentucky Derby favorite off an eye-catching, late-running 6 ½ length score in the BC Juvenile. However, he didn’t get very far down the Derby trail. He ran second in the San Vicente in February then went to the sidelines with a foot abscess. He’ll make his first start on the comeback trail in the Dwyer, one of six stakes on Belmont’s July 4th Stars and Stripes mega Saturday.

It’s not an easy spot. Among those also pointing to the Dwyer is Blofeld from Todd Pletcher’s armada of talented 3-year-olds.

Blofeld rattled off convincing wins in the Futurity and Nashua to cap a three-for-three juvenile campaign. He suffered his first defeat when he ran third in the William Walker--the stakes that replaced the Derby Trial--at Churchill Downs. He had a tough trip on an off track that night and still missed by less than two lengths. He could be double tough back home at Belmont.

Work All Week completed a five-for-six 2014 with his game half-length triumph in the BC Sprint. Like Texas Red, he wound up running second against less heralded company in his 2015 debut, the Aristides, during Derby week at Churchill.

He has been working bullets preparing for his return in the Smile, one of nine stakes on Sunday’s Summit of Speed card at Gulfstream. Restoring the Summit, which was AWOL last summer due to the conflict with Calder, which wasn’t resolved soon enough to schedule it, is another of the praise-worthy moves Gulfstream has made since the dispute was worked out.

The Summit, which offers purses in excess of a million dollars, was created by Calder to give South Florida summer racing a focal point. It succeeded beyond the most optimistic hopes, enticing a number of Eclipse and Breeders’ Cup-caliber horses to return at a time of year when serious horses had long departed the area.

Alsvid, who outran Work All Week in the Aristides, also is coming in for the Smile hoping to show that last time wasn’t a fluke and grab the BC Win and You’re In Award attached to the Smile. The Princess Rooney for fillies and mares also carries a Win and You’re In award.

Also not intimidated by the prospect of facing the Eclipse winning sprinter, Wildcat Red, who won the 2014 Fountain of Youth and was second in the Florida Derby, is being pointed to the Smile. It’s a challenging assignment for a horse who hasn’t been out since the Sunshine Millions in January.

Not only top horses are lured to South Florida for the rich Summit card. Two-time Eclipse jockey champion Javier Castellano is scheduled to fly in to ride Wildcat Red. Last weekend, he ventured out to Prairie Meadows and won two big races, the Iowa Derby and Cornhusker.

A bigger attraction for local fans might be the presence of Triple Crown winning jockey Victor Espinoza. Castellano is a winter regular at Gulfstream. South Florida fans don’t get to see the West Coast-based Espinoza, who is scheduled to ride City of Weston in the Smile and is sure to pick up other mounts on the card.

Back at Belmont, Lady Eli, the BC Juvenile Fillies Turf champion, will try to run her record to a perfect six-for-six in the Belmont Oaks. She already has won both 2015 starts, the Appalachian at Keeneland and the Wonder Again at Belmont. She looks like a free space in multiple race wagers. It will be interesting to see if NYRA takes the Oaks out of the Pick 6 sequence.

Lady Eli’s trainer, Chad Brown, is also loaded for the companion Belmont Derby with Takeover Target and Startup Nation, who ran two-three in the Penine Ridge, the prep for this Derby. However, they will have to find a way to hold off Divisidero, the winner of that race.

Divisidero, who’s three-for-four, with his only loss the result of a horrific trip at Gulfstream, is a fun horse to watch. He has a breath-taking turn of foot, reminiscent of really top Euros. But a horse with his style is always vulnerable to pace and racing luck.

Getting back to the super Belmont card, it also includes the return of Tonalist, who suffered his first defeat at Belmont in the Met Mile when he ran second to Honor Code. He is back at a more favorable distance in the mile-and-a-quarter Suburban.

Out West, highly touted Laz Barrera winner Kentuckian could be tested by Dortmund, who was six-for-six until running third in the Kentucky Derby and fourth in the Preakness. If Bob Baffert’s “other” outstanding 3-year-old gets back on track, he could be headed East for the Haskell or Travers, depending on what Baffert decides to do with American Pharoah.

The Triple Crown champion will continue to be racing’s biggest story wherever he shows up. However, judging from this coming weekend, he will be far from the only story.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Sunday, June 28, 2015

Advice to Baffert: Stay West with American Pharoah

Bob Baffert's options for American Pharoah's next start include Del Mar's Pacific Classic. Given the sorry state of the older horse division in Southern California, which was underlined by Saturday's lackluster Gold Cup, Baffert should stay home for what amounts to easy pickings in a $1 million race, whose pot could grow considerably if bonuses being put together become reality.

MIAMI, June 28,2015--If Bob Baffert is looking for the least challenging path to the Breeders’ Cup for American Pharoah, he would be crazy to venture far from home.

The Pacific Classic on Aug 22 at Del Mar is on the short list of potential next starts for the Triple Crown champion. With the typically lackluster group of West Coast older horses he would have to beat, a fact underlined by Saturday’s Gold Cup, American Pharoah wouldn’t have to work up a good sweat to take home the winner’s share of the $1 million purse, which could become more lucrative if a $5 million bonus being assembled is added as a sweetener.

As American Pharoah was paraded on the track at Santa Anita between Saturday’s seventh and eighth races, “New York, New York” blared on the track’s speakers. For the Gold Cup field, Santa Anita should have played “Is That All There Is?”

As has been the case in most Grade 1 races in recent years for older horses in Southern California, the race was beneath the dignity of the grade. Hard Aces, who had never won a graded race of any level, broke through by nosing out Baffert’s Hoppertunity in a head-bobbing finish, thanks to a ground saving ride by Victor Espinoza. Less than an hour earlier Espinoza had joined Baffert for a celebration of American Pharoah’s Triple Crown. This had to drive conspiracy theorists nuts.

The only stakes on Hard Ace’s resume was a $75K unlisted race at the Fair Grounds in January when the better older horses aren’t cranked. But John Sadler worked his characteristic Southern California magic, which for some reason doesn’t seem to travel well.

Baffert lost the race but might have gained valuable insight. He knows how Hoppertunity stands in regard to American Pharoah--not in the same universe. If Hoppertunity, who appeared to have the Gold Cup won one jump from the wire and one jump after it, could perform so well against the best that could be lined up on the West Coast, why put American Pharoah on a plane?

By the way, Hoppertunity was running back in only two weeks after a third in the Stephen Foster. In spite of the “short” rest and cross-country plane trip, he performed even better than he did in Louisville. Just saying.

The Triple Crown is the gift that keeps on giving. After a huge throng showed up at Churchill Downs a couple of weeks ago to see American Pharoah parade on the track, the Gold Cup crowd was also up substantially; 21,528 Saturday compared to 12,386 a year ago.

We can only speculate how many might show up to see American Pharoah actually compete. Del Mar and Santa Anita, which has the Awesome Again as a final prep for the Breeders’ Cup Classic, surely have taken note and will do everything they can to get Baffert to stay home.

Grade inflation was also apparent at Belmont. Saturday’s Grade 1 race for 3-year-old fillies fell well short of being “The Mother of All Gooses,” the accolade Leroy Jolley attached to the 1991 East-West showdown between Eclipse champion Meadow Star and Kentucky Oaks winner Lite Light.

There was nothing that breathes the same air as those two Hall of Famers did in this year’s renewal. Include Betty was impressive in coming from off the pace to win going away by more than three lengths. However, it has to be noted that the division’s heavyweights—Kentucky Oaks winner Lovely Maria; her multiple stakes-winning stablemate I’m a Chatterbox; late developing Acorn winner Curalina and West Coast star Stellar Wind—sat it out.

Include Betty is a classy filly, who might yet prove herself worthy of being ranked with the best of her generation, but she still has a lot to prove. She was the only graded stakes winner in the Mother Goose and that was the Grade 3 Fantasy at Oaklawn. In fact, the only other stakes winner of any kind was Money’soncharlotte, who won an overnight event at Gulfstream West (Calder), which was a stakes in name only. She went off at 42-1 Saturday and beat only two of the ten.

Wonder Gal, who outfinished Chide for the place, continues to be the most accomplished non-winner of an open race in America. She now has finished on the board in four Grade 1’s and has earnings in excess of a half-million dollars. But her only win was in a New York-bred stakes in her career debut.

Arguably the most impressive performance in a Grade 1 on Saturday was Masochistic’s devastation of the West’s best sprinters in the Triple Bend. Tyler Baze was standing almost straight up trying to restrain Masochistic down the backstretch as San Onofre tried to get away on the lead. When Baze gave Masochistic his cue, he went by with arrogant ease. Without any urging from Baze, Masochistic drew away to win by 3 ½ lengths in 1:20 1/5, three-fifths off the track record. “All I can say is awesome, unbelievable,” Baze said.

Alas, if Masochistic gets to the Breeders’ Cup, there will be some who will use other words, such as scandalous. He’s everything casual fans don’t need to hear about the unsavory aspects of racing.

Masochistic was apparently stiffed in his debut in a California bred maiden race, setting up what appears to have been a betting coup. His former trainer, A.C. Avila, is serving a 60-day suspension for his part in it. Masochistic next showed up at Churchill Downs in an open maiden race on Derby Day, opened odds-on (it takes a ton of money to do this on the first Saturday in May) and romped by 14.

His debut is the only time Masochistic, who added the Triple Bend to his Grade 2 win in the Kona Gold, has finished worse than second. He’s two-for-two under new trainer Ron Ellis, who seems to have improved an already supremely talented colt.

But his story is not one racing needs to have told on a major stage.

Written by Tom Jicha

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