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, August 17, 2016

Lost: A Racetrack and Probably Some Fans

SARATOGA SPRINGS, Aug. 18--What a relief. In the midst of my 1600-mile drive to Saratoga, I began reading stories that said the track at Saratoga had been lost on Saturday. My immediate thought was, how could people be wasting time looking for Pokemon when the most famous race track in America is missing?

Thankfully, this turned out to be hyperbole. The lost track, as described by Johnny Velazquez, turned out to be justification for the jockeys to refuse to ride the last six races of the card.

I was on the road, so I have no idea how extreme conditions were at the Spa. But I do know I have been there many times when it was raining when I woke up in the morning, never stopped all day, yet a complete program was run.

I also know that no matter how hard it might have been raining, it likely didn't exceed the Biblical downpours at Gulfstream a couple of times a week during summer. Nevertheless there hasn't been a rain cancellation in my memory.

When it's really bad or lightning is in the area, horses are held in the paddock until conditions become more tolerable. Even on the gloomiest of days, there is sufficient natural light during to run until 7 p.m. and beyond. NYRA called it quits not much after 3 p.m.

NYRA certainly didn't want to lose a Saturday at Saratoga. However, you have to wonder how much effort was made to save the cancelled races. You also have to wonder how much consideration was given to the potential long term repercussions to Saratoga and the Adirondacks tourism industry.

Saratoga probably draws a greater percentage of fans from in excess of 100 miles away than any other racetrack in America, especially on a Saturday. Fans last Saturday are likely to think twice the next time they consider the marathon drive if there is even a hint of a storm.

Also, fans pay $200 or more a night in area hotels and motels to spend a day or two at the Spa. Speaking from first-hand knowledge, a lot of these reservations are made weeks or months in advance. There also is sure to be hesitation on the part of many to making this commitment next year.

Change for better but not bettor

Drugs are a scourge of the sport and a turnoff to fans. But so are shenanigans like the one in Wednesday's tenth race.

Jackie Davis was listed on the program as the rider of Greyjoy. Just before the seventh race, after Pick 6 betting had closed and Pick 4 betting was well in progress, Larry Collmus announced a late rider change. Irad Ortiz was taking over the mount.

Jackie Davis was 0-17 at the meeting and five percent for the year. Irad Ortiz is a multiple riding champion and is hitting at better than 20 percent, his norm.

It's a matter of conjecture how many fans, especially at simulcast venues where sound is turned off, were unaware of the switch. But Graybar, despite dropping from a second for $30K claiming to a $20K claimer paid $13.60.

With a winless Jackie Davis this would be understandable. With a champion rider, not so much.

It shouldn't be allowed to happen.

More games riders play

Florent Geroux drew a three-day suspension for a ride at Del Mar on July 23. Instead of doing his time, Geroux did what comes naturally for riders. He appealed.

After winning four stakes at Arlington, including the rich Beverly D and Secretariat, on Million Day, Geroux withdrew the appeal and will serve the penalty Saturday, Sunday and Wednesday, well ahead of the big Travers Stakes weekend.

When rules can be manipulated without consequences, there is no point in having them.

Stakes losing their grade

The American Graded Stakes Committee has come to a conclusion long obvious to everyone in racing: there are too many graded stakes. The clincher might have been all the four-, five- and six-horse stakes this summer at the premier Saratoga and Del Mar meetings.

Supposedly there will be a thorough review before the 2017 graded stakes roster is unveiled with the goal being a significant reduction in graded stakes.

I have a couple of suggestions. There should be no graded juvenile stakes until the Hopeful at Saratoga and Futurity at Del Mar. This was underlined last weekend when the Best Pal out West and the Saratoga Special each went to the post with six entrants in what were glorified one-other-thans, as most 2-year-old stakes are until the fall.

Both had Grade 2 status, a sham when you consider the quality and tradition of many other Grade 2 stakes for 3-year-olds and up, which are held to a higher standard by the committee.

Along these lines, another way to cull the graded stakes roster is to downgrade any stakes that goes to the post with fewer than six entrants for two consecutive seasons. What stronger argument is there than four and five-horse fields that there are too many graded stakes.

A Grade 1 would fall to Grade 2, a Grade 2 would become a Grade 3 and a Grade 3 would drop to listed. The higher grade could be regained after the stakes had two consecutive years of at least six entrants.

The two-year qualifier is so that a stakes wouldn't suffer from one monster, such as Songbird, scaring away the opposition. A fringe benefit would be this would probably cause a consolidation of stakes, which theoretically would increase field size while absolutely reducing the number of stakes.

This winnowing down of graded stakes will not come without protest. Breeders are likely to strenuously object. Grades are their marketing tools, however misleading they may be and they are unlikely to give them up without a fight.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, August 11, 2016

To get people into racing, turn fans into owners

Most racing fans dream of owning a horse. The cost puts this dream out of reach for all but the wealthy. Churchill Downs pioneered an idea this spring, the CD Racing Club, which allows fans to become part of an ownership syndicate for as little as $500. One of the two horses the Club owns has already won. Hundreds of members and their friends, some of whom probably never go to the track, were there to cheer her on. This mirrors a personal experience. A group of racetrack friends pooled our money and bought a $20,000 claimer, who won his first two races for us then got claimed for $40,000. We hope to get back into the game ASAP. Most importantly, each of us had an entourage of family and friends to root on our horse. They, too, can't wait for us to get back into the game. Racing has scores of new fans.

MIAMI, Aug. 11, 2016--The best way to get more people, especially young people, involved in racing is to get them really involved in racing.

This isn’t double talk. There’s nothing more involving than following a horse in which you have an ownership interest, even an extremely modest one. I speak from first-hand experience, which I will get into shortly.

Racing partnerships are nothing new. The late Cot Campbell was a pioneer with his Dogwood Stable. Outfits like West Point Thoroughbreds and Centennial Farms have enjoyed noteworthy success selling shares of horses, many of whom have developed into stakes winners, to multiple investors. However, those outfits cater primarily to high end investors for thoroughbreds with fancy pedigrees.

Churchill Downs has devised a way for people in the grandstand to feel like those in the Turf Club. The Churchill Downs Racing Club offered shares in a thoroughbred for $500 apiece with a goal to sell 2,000 for a total pool of $100,000. This would cover the cost of buying a 2-year-old and training expenses for several months.

Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas, who has always been great at promoting the game, agreed to train the horse.

Churchill made it clear that there were no expectations of a profit. Most horse owners lose money. Nevertheless, from the response, you would have thought Churchill was selling $5 bills for a buck apiece. The 2,000 shares sold out so quickly, a second offering was made.

This was just the start. When the first of the CDRC horses, Warrior’s Club, a son of Medaglia d’Oro offspring Warriors Reward, made his career debut on June 16, Club members showed up in force. They bet, too, knocking their horse down from a 15-1 morning line to 6-1 at post-time. Alas, after showing early speed, he faded to fifth.

Still, it was a promising debut with the prospect of better days ahead. Indeed, Warrior’s Club ran third in his second start, his only other appearance under silks to this point. I’ll bet there aren’t many Club members who are sorry they joined.

The second Club horse, Dial Me, did even better. After running fifth in her first start, she made it to the winner’s circle next time out at Ellis Park. “Was that a maiden race at Ellis or the Derby?” Lukas was quoted in the Paulick Report as asking. He could hear the wild cheering over the phone from Saratoga.

Actually, Dial Me, a daughter of young stallion Dialed In, didn’t exactly make it to the winner’s circle. There were so many Club members, family and friends wanting to get into the victory photo, it had to be moved out onto the track. How many of those folks do you suppose would have been at Ellis otherwise?

This is one good idea that is being embraced around the nation. Little Red Feather Racing on the West Coast announced the other day it plans to make low investment partnerships in horses available, details to come.

A Gulfstream official told me his track hopes to launch something along the lines of the Churchill Downs Racing Club by the time the prime winter meet opens.

The fun and excitement the Kentucky people are having mirrors my own experience. A group of racing writers and their friends put together a relatively small syndicate this spring to buy into the ownership game. Some were in for a couple of hundred dollars, some for a few thousand. I can’t tell you for sure how many people are in the group but I can say it’s more than a weekday crowd at Aqueduct.

Out of respect for the others, many of whom have a lot more invested than I do, I won’t get into names. The relevant point is we claimed a horse for $20,000. My share amounted to a few strands of hair in his tail. But the day he made his first start for us, my wife and I felt like the Zayats.

Call it beginner’s luck but our horse won. I’ve hit some good bets in my life. In fact, one of them financed my investment in the horse. But I was so excited that as the horses were being loaded, my wife asked how much I bet. It was only then that I realized I hadn’t bet a cent and, as friends will testify, I never pass a race. But when he surged to the front and drew out, I was shaking from excitement.

I hadn’t said anything to anyone because I was so worried about how well he would compete. This drew a chorus of “I can’t believe you didn’t tell me about the horse.” You would have thought I had been trying to keep the price down.

The next time, I had an entourage bigger than Justin Bieber—and the horse won again. The winner’s circle photo wasn’t as chaotic as that for Dial Me but we’re working in that direction. Every one of my friends and family members—a lot of whom had never been to a track--stayed for the full afternoon and made me promise I would tell them every time the horse raced, because they want to be there. They were hooked. One or two asked if they could get involved the next time we buy a horse. That was just me. Multiply that by the number of people in our syndicate.

Disaster of a sort struck in his third start for us. He ran fourth, missing third by a nose. But the sad story was our $20,000 claim got taken for $40,000. (I will hate the trainer who claimed him forever.) A sharp friend and former owner of a million dollar winner called to congratulate us on a home run. We had doubled what we paid for him and won a couple of races.

This might have been true in the big picture but my wife and I sure didn’t feel this way. It was like Family Services had snatched one of our kids.

As I write this, we’re packing for our annual trip to the Spa. Our syndicate’s bottom line is healthy so by the time we head home I’m hoping we have a new “child” to embrace. So does my battalion of family and friends.

If not, I’ll be first in line when Gulfstream rolls out its Racing Club.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, August 04, 2016

Frosted a short price to do something he’s never done

Frosted's breath-taking Met Mile has scared away all but five rivals from Saturday's Whitney in spite of its $1.25 million purse. But to capture the major share of the inflated payoff, Frosted will have to do something he has been unable to do in his three-year career: win back-to-back races. He also is winless in three starts at Saratoga.

Meanwhile, out West, Del Mar continues to struggle. Handle and attendance are down, extending a three-year pattern. The depressing part is Del Mar officials seem to have neither a plan nor the will to reverse the downward slide.

MIAMI, Aug. 4, 2016--Coming off an almost Secretariat-style romp in the Met Mile, Frosted has scared away all but five rivals for Saturday’s Whitney Stakes.

Don’t rival trainers know how to read past performances? If Frosted doubles down in the Whitney he will be doing something he has not been able to do before, win consecutive races.In fact, other than a second in the Remsen after breaking his maiden in 2014, Frosted has never finished in the money after a win.

He overcame a wide trip to rally from well off the pace to win the Wood Memorial in a manner you like to see heading into the Kentucky Derby. Alas, the best he could do in Louisville was run fourth behind American Pharoah, Firing Line and Dortmund.

Five months and five races after the Wood, Frosted ran off with the Pennsylvania Derby. But in his next start, the Breeders’ Cup Classic, he bombed out and ran seventh. Among those who got home before him was Effinex, who will be in the Whitney.

Upstart, another Whitney starter, who chased Frosted home in the Met Mile, finished in front of Frosted in the 2015 Holy Bull and Fountain of Youth. So it’s not as if he’s overmatched, either.

Shipped to the Middle East this past winter, Frosted looked like a world-beater in galloping off with the Al Maktoum Classic, Dubai’s major prep for the World Classic. However, in the planet’s richest race, the best he could do was fifth.

Another relevant point: Frosted is zero-for-three at Saratoga.

Frosted’s other-worldly Met Mile certainly earned him the mantle of favorite for the Whitney. However, those who back him will be taking a short price on a horse doing several things he has not been able to do before.

Dark Clouds at Del Mar

Del Mar needs another bad break like California needs another wildfire. Business is down where the turf meets the surf. On track handle is off more than 11 percent. Attendance is down almost 6 percent.

As Andy Asaro, activist West Coast conscience of racing, points out, this wouldn’t be that bad if comparisons weren’t to 2015, which was off from 2014, which was off from 2013.

The meeting opened with a 10 percent reduction in purses. With these numbers about a third of the way through the meeting, it isn’t a leap to fear there will be another cut before Labor Day.

The Hail Mary hope that a battle of the sexes showdown between defending champion Beholder and California’s beloved Horse of the World California Chrome would pack the joint for the Pacific Classic was dashed last Saturday when the three-time time Eclipse winning mare had her seven-race winning streak snapped as she was outgamed by Stellar Wind in the Clement Hirsch.

Richard Mandella, Beholder’s Hall of Fame trainer, hasn’t entirely ruled out another try at the Pacific Classic but his body language and curt comments in the post-race interviews suggested (in Brooklyn-ese) "fuhgeddaboudit."

Del Mar is its own worst enemy in some ways. Admission and parking prices are among the highest in the nation. The takeout, especially the almost 23 percent for exactas, drives off savvy big players and puts less money to churn in every player’s hands.

Del Mar’s stakes schedule also is devoid of creativity and common sense in the sport’s glamour divisions. The last three Kentucky Derby winners—Nyquist, American Pharoah and California Chrome—all came from Southern California-based barns to race in the East.

Not one brought the cachet of a Kentucky Derby champion to Del Mar in their 3-year-old season.

Nyquist and American Pharoah went to Monmouth for the Haskell. American Pharoah flew cross-country a second time for a Travers run. California Chrome opted for the Pennsylvania Derby.

Simple explanation: There are no stakes of consequence or alluring purse for 3-year-olds on dirt at Del Mar.

A similar absence of a major race for 3-year-old fillies contributed to Songbird, the most exciting horse in training, coming East this summer.

Why? Only the people letting Del Mar run into the ground can answer that.

7-1 on full sister to American Pharoah

Bob Baffert is renowned for winning with the longer half of uncoupled entries. He pulled another doozy Sunday at Del Mar.

Baffert sent out American Pharoah’s sister, American Cleopatra, along with stablemate Jeweled. Baffert must have cold-watered everyone in Southern California as American Cleopatra, whose debut merited a full scale advance and top of the page headline in the Racing Form, was allowed to get away at 7-1.

Meanwhile, Jeweled, on the basis of several characteristic Baffert blazing workouts, was the 4-5 favorite.

American Cleopatra did what her older brother couldn’t. After breaking on top, she rated comfortably on the pace then drew away. opening three lengths in the stretch before coasting under the wire to win by two.

Baffert said he was stunned at the price on the kin to a Triple Crown winner. As the field was warming up, he said to his wife Jill he couldn’t believe the lack of respect American Cleopatra was getting at the windows. Afterwards, in Baffert style, he quipped, “See, if you don’t brag on them, they go off at 7-1.”

Jeweled was never prominent. She checked in fourth of eight, about seven lengths in arrears of her stablemate. Under the circumstances, I’d make her a bet back next time.

Written by Tom Jicha

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