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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Thursday, September 10, 2015

GOP has women problem, racing has women crisis

Simulcasting has become the backbone of racing but for women it's as if it doesn't exist, according to unscientific research during a summer of traveling the land visiting simulcasting venues and race books. No sport can afford to write off the majority of the population. This is one of many observations during a glorious summer of playing horses all over the map.

MIAMI, Sept. 10, 2015—If the future (and present) of horse racing is simulcasting, the sport is in big trouble with the majority of the population.

My summer was a joyful odyssey of visiting race tracks, simulcasting locations and Las Vegas race books. One reality struck me at the latter two. The ratio of women to men was worse than it will be next week at the Republican presidential debate.

From anecdotal perspective, women enjoy a day at the races, especially at a treasure like Saratoga. Maybe it’s the color and spectacle and feeling of being part of a happening. The exact opposite is true of race books and simulcasting venues.

I never thought about this until I went to Hialeah the first Saturday of the Saratoga season. The only woman in the place was an elderly Asian, who was there to keep her husband company. I say this because she spent the entire afternoon reading an Asian newspaper and never looking at a TV monitor.

For the rest of the summer, I made it a point to check out the number of women at simulcasting sites. It was the same story at Laurel, Melbourne (FL) greyhound track, the Meadowlands and the OTB in Lake George, N.Y. Women were nowhere to be seen or they were sitting next to a male companion, not paying much attention to the races.

It was a little better in Las Vegas, where I continued my sampling in the race books at Treasure Island, the Mirage, Caesar’s Palace, the Orleans and South Point. There were a handful of women in each of these locations but the ratio had to be one in 20 or 30 at best.

Meanwhile, women were the dominant gender at slot machines. Is it the mindlessness of slots or the difficulty of deciphering past performances without the opportunity to check out the horses up close?

The mantra from race tracks my entire life has been, “We have to attract younger blood or the sport is going to die.” It hasn’t happened because younger people are distracted by establishing their careers and raising kids while in their 20s, 30s and 40s but they finally have the time and disposable income to evolve from casual fans to regulars in their graying years.

Men might evolve but a woman will always be a woman. Any business that ignores more than 50 percent of the population isn’t one that’s going to prosper.

I don’t have the answer but racing needs to come up with one. One day a year when everyone wears pink is not a solution. Maybe the sport could promote the simulcasting sites as a great place for women of a certain age to have their pick of dozens of prospective mates.

OK, I’m half kidding. The floor is open to suggestions.

A dream summer

Other reflections and reminiscences from a summer of horse-playing all over the map:

That Doug O’Neill was able to ship Ralis, a 2-year-old who might be his third string, and crush the Hopeful is an indictment of what we’ve seen of the East’s juvenile colts and geldings this summer. This is the first season in memory the Spa hasn’t produced a 2-year-old male that has people talking.

I’m often critical of NYRA but to give credit where it’s due, it has the best simulcast presentation in the nation. There’s no better way to judge this than to sit in Las Vegas race books for several days viewing dozens of telecasts from hither and yon.

NYRA offers all the information players need on screen at almost all times—win odds, exacta and daily double might-pays, late changes—as well as visuals from the paddock, post parade and warm-ups. The paddock commentary is informed. When the horses come on to the track, there are graphics with their connections, breeding and a photo of the jockey.

NYRA really stands out in posting multi-race will-pays quickly and frequently, including during replays. There’s not even a close second among simulcasts.

Southern California tracks are the absolute worst. Del Mar is no better than Santa Anita in posting will pays, which are crucial in planning next race wagering. They put them up whenever the fit takes them, sometimes not until there are single digit minutes to post. Winner’s circle interviews, multiple replays, promotional pitches and even commercials, which have nothing to do with racing, all come first.

Another praise-worthy innovation at NYRA is the introduction of low-ball handicapping tournaments. For $40, a small player can get a taste and appreciation for what it’s like playing in the big-time events. This gives $2 bettors a sense of being appreciated and is a training ground for future major tournament players. Other tracks should take notice and develop their own variations.

American Pharoah is the most prominent champion to be buried in Saratoga’s “Graveyard” this summer but it was a tough season for Breeders’ Cup winners, too. Judy the Beauty, Untapable, Take Charge Brandi and Texas Red all went down to defeat, although the latter did win the Jim Dandy before trailing Keen Ice home in the Travers.

Drugs might be racing’s biggest problem but there are other things that cause horse players to wonder. On Aug. 21 at Saratoga, Surfspun, trained by Jeremiah Englehart, was 2-5 in the first race. Call Daddy, trained by Jeffrey Englehart, was 3-1. Call Daddy went wire to wire with Surfspun chasing in second all the way. After the race, the NYRA paddock guys noted how it was strange that Eric Cancel broke on top aboard a speed horse, Surfspun, but opted to take him back. I don’t know that they were suggesting chicanery, nor am I. But it sure did look bad. (For the record, this is not sour grapes. Thanks to the cynical side of me, I cashed.)

There is no diminishing the awesome performance of Beholder in the Pacific Classic. What is puzzling is why Americans go ga-ga over a female beating males. It’s commonplace in Europe, where horses have the same four legs and a tail. Treve has won back-to-back Arcs. It travels well, too. Royal Heroine won the first Breeders’ Cup Mile. Six Perfections and Ridgewood Pearl also won it. Miesque did it twice and Goldikova won it three times.

It’s not as if American fillies and mares haven’t outrun the boys in some of the nation’s premier events. Genuine Risk and Winning Colors were Kentucky Derby winners during my lifetime. More recently, Rachel Alexandra and Havre de Grace have captured the prestigious Woodward. A little further back Lady’s Secret took the Whitney.

Obviously, there is no physical competitive difference between the genders. The only reason girls beating boys attracts so much attention in the U.S. is it has become a man bites dog scenario because of the infrequency that it is even attempted. Quality fillies don’t have to face males thanks to all the big money available in stakes restricted to their own gender.

It isn't this way in Europe, especially for older distaffers, who are forced to face males in the biggest races.

Maybe it should be that way on this side of the Atlantic, too.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, September 03, 2015

Pharoah’s bad day was a great one for racing

The Travers result disappointed many, none more so than Team American Pharoah. However, it was a grand day for thoroughbred racing with record handle, huge TV ratings and conversation before and after the event that the sport doesn't get outside Triple Crown season. Thankfully Bob Baffert has convinced Ahmed Zayat to allow the Triple Crown champion the opportunity to redeem himself in the Breeders' Cup Classic.

LAS VEGAS, Sept. 3, 2015--Everything about American Pharoah coming to the Travers was great for racing. This includes the result, which tore off a little piece of my heart. It generated pre- and post-race conversation unheard outside the Triple Crown. People, some of whom ignore racing most of the time, are still talking.

More than 15,000 fans got up early to come to the Spa the day before the race to see the Triple Crown champion merely gallop. You have to wonder how many of them made the effort because Christopher Kay kept them from seeing the champ compete in the Travers.

To put this into perspective, it was more people than NYRA tracks downstate will see for an actual day’s races until next year’s Belmont. Bob Baffert, who has had more than a few big horses and champions, said he was overwhelmed by the turnout.

Handle went through the stratosphere with more than $50 million bet, up about 25% over 2014. Wondering aloud again, what might it have been without Kay’s cap?

TV ratings were the strongest in 20 years, more than double last year.

Ahmed Zayat appears to have gotten over his initial instinct to consider retiring American Pharoah inmediately. Baffert’s position was such thinking was premature. Thank goodness, the trainer's opinion seems to be the prevailing one. Unless something changes, racing fans will get one more chance to love American Pharoah at the Breeders’ Cup on Oct. 31.

What an interesting turnaround. Prior to the Travers, Zayat was the one more enthused about running the champ at Saratoga. Baffert had to be coaxed into it.

Nevertheless, Baffert refused to second guess the decision. “If I had to do it again, I would have brought him here,” Baffert said the morning after the disappointing outcome. “I think racing really needed something like this. It’s amazing what he has done for racing…it almost ended well.”

It didn’t end that badly. American Pharoah did all the dirty work. He was pushed every step by quality stakes winner Frosted. A middle half-mile in sub-47 seconds was particularly taxing. This left American Pharoah vulnerable to the late surge of Keen Ice, who got to run his own race. Without such a favorable race flow, Keen Ice got dusted decisively three straight times by American Pharoah. Still the final margin was less than a length as American Pharoah battled courageously to the wire while Frosted backed out of it.

Also, Keen Ice might be more suited to 10 furlongs. Remember, the Kentucky Derby was American Pharoah’s toughest previous race this year. (The Belmont, though a mile and a half, became a gallop in the park as American Pharoah didn’t have a challenger lapped on him at any time.)

Maybe the two cross-country plane trips on top of all the other traveling did take a toll. This isn’t second guessing, since I raised the issue in last week’s column. Other “excuses” don’t stand up to scrutiny.

If American Pharoah was fatigued from his demanding campaign, Keen Ice should have been no less tired. They were both contesting their seventh race of the year. Both had raced in the Belmont, then the Haskell prior to the Travers. So rest was not an issue.

American Pharoah didn’t have a race over the Saratoga strip Baffert had called tricky. Neither did Keen Ice.

Bottom line, the Travers might have been nothing more than a case of a horse with a more favorable trip overcoming in the final strides one who had done all the dirty work. It happens every day.

NYRA’s ego bruised

The self image NYRA has as the capital of horse racing got scuffed up on Travers’ day. All of the six stakes were won by horses who don’t call New York home.

Runhappy, who upset the Kings Bishop was four-for-four in Kentucky, Louisiana and Indiana. Flintshire came across the Atlantic to dominate the Sword Dancer. If he’s a decent price (5-1 or greater) in the Breeders’ Cup Turf, I’m going to have a piece. Dacita came from Chile to beat up on some of our best turf fillies in the Ballston Spa. And, of course, there’s Keen Ice, whose only other New York start this year was the Belmont.

The winners of the other two stakes have only loose ties to the Big Apple. Unbridled Forever, who upset the Ballerina, had won a previous start at the Spa this season. But she is trained by Churchill Downs-based Dallas Stewart.

Forego winner Private Zone is a frequent New York competitor but he doesn’t stable in the Big Apple. This summer he has been at Monmouth.

Quack, quack

The final week of Saratoga will be duck season. More than 100 trainers have won at least one race at the Spa this year. However, some of the prominent names, who still haven’t gotten off the schneid with one week to avoid the embarrassment of a winless season, are striking.

Two-time Kentucky Derby winner Nick Zito has sent out more than 30 horses, according to Racing Form statistics, without getting to the winner’s circle. Ken McPeek is also approaching 30 starters without a winner. Richard Dutrow protégé Michelle Nevin was stuck at 0-31 after her only scheduled starter on Wednesday scratched.

The numbers aren’t as grim for Ian Wilkes and Rusty Arnold, but they each have saddled more than a dozen horses without getting their pictures taken.

The Saratoga 2015 maidens can take heart, however. Dale Romans was on track for a duck, too, until Saturday.

Written by Tom Jicha

Comments (30)


Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Pharoah’s Travers great for racing but what about his future

Ahmed Zayat's and Bob Baffert's decision to bring American Pharoah to the Travers deserves praise. But in calling this audible from their Breeders' Cup Classic blueprint, they are taking a risk that another coast-to-coast trip could be one too many for the Triple Crown champion.

LAS VEGAS, August 25, 2015--Ahmed Zayat and Bob Baffert did a great thing for racing in deciding to bring American Pharoah to the Travers. The question is, did they do a great thing for the horse? The answer will come not only Saturday but further down the road to the Breeders’ Cup Classic when the wear and tear on American Pharoah becomes apparent…or not.

It isn’t the 27-day gap between the Haskell and the Travers. In spite of the overly conservative training techniques in vogue, this is more than enough for any horse to recover, especially one whose last race seemed so effortless.

The key rivals he has to beat will have had only 24 more hours rest since the Jim Dandy. Moreover, American Pharoah has handled Frosted and Texas Red with aplomb, the former in the Derby and Belmont, the latter in the race before Texas Red galloped in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. They’ll have the advantage of a race over the Saratoga track, which is often significant. Bayern crushed the Haskell last year but was dead by the half-mile pole in the Travers. Still, it requires imagination to see how track surface is going to close the talent gap between the champ and the pretenders.

If there is an issue for American Pharoah, it is the 27 days in addition to a couple of coast-to-coast flights, which have to take something out of him. American Pharoah has been a great traveler. He went Los Angeles to Arkansas twice in less than a month and his latest jaunt from Santa Anita to Monmouth certainly didn’t dull his edge. But you never know when another trans-continental trip is one too many.

The situation is reminiscent of the factors that led to Seattle Slew suffering his first defeat and finishing out of the money for the only time in his career. Slew stormed through the Triple Crown, still the only horse to do it while undefeated. Then Hollywood Park beckoned with an invitation to journey west for the Swaps.

Reports were rampant there was a sweetener. Slew’s owners, Mickey and Karen Taylor and Jim and Sally Hill, who weren’t wealthy people by racing standards, were supposedly guaranteed first money from the $400,000 pot—one of the biggest purses in racing at the time--no matter where Slew finished. They also were intoxicated by the opportunity to mix and mingle with the Tinseltown crowd.

Billy Turner, who guided Slew through the Triple Crown undefeated, didn’t think going New York to California for the Swaps, which he didn’t have on Slew’s training regimen, was a good idea. However, Slew’s headstrong owners, who wound up changing trainers when the trip became the debacle Turner feared it would be, overruled him.

This isn’t to suggest Zayat is behaving like Slew’s people but it’s no secret he wanted to come to the Travers more than Baffert did. For the past few weeks, it has seemed as if Baffert was looking for any reason not to make the trip. The Travers isn’t a race you decide to tackle six days out. But American Pharoah is such a superior race horse, he kept training like a bear, giving Baffert no reasonable out.

It also remains to be seen what the effect will be from wedging the Travers into American Pharoah’s preparation for the ultimate goal, the Breeders’ Cup Classic. If Baffert doesn’t find another race for him, which wasn’t in the original post-Belmont two-race blueprint, the 63-day gap between the Travers and Classic would be the biggest break for American Pharoah since he resumed his career in March.

American Pharoah might be such a superstar that he will shake off all the obstacles like the champion he is. We can only hope.

Slew slight is inexcusable

Speaking of Seattle Slew, I’d like to renew my campaign to have a major race named for him. It’s unfathomable that this hasn’t happened when you think of all the lesser stock honored with a stakes carrying their name.

Slew won divisional Eclipse awards as a 2 year-old, 3-year-old and 4-year-old and was Horse of the Year in 1977 when he swept the Triple Crown. He didn’t get the big prize in 1978, which went to Affirmed for his Triple Crown, even though Slew defeated him in the only clash of Triple Crown winners in racing history. Blood Horse magazine rated Slew the 9th greatest horse of the 20th century.

The only logical explanation is Slew’s people aren’t racing aristocracy. Is there any doubt that if Slew carried the black and cherry colors of the Phipps family or the blue and brown of the Whitneys, there would have been a rich and prestigious stakes named for him long ago. This is in no way intended as a slight to these distinguished racing families, who deserve every laurel afforded them. It is only to make a point.

Not only should there be a race named for Slew, it should be on the NYRA circuit, where he made 11 of his 17 career starts. This is where he launched his career in a maiden race, clinched the Juvenile Eclipse in the Champagne, of course won the Belmont and closed his career winning under 134 pounds in the Stuyvesant at Aqueduct.

Compare this to the achievements of Easy Goer, who has a stakes named for him on the Belmont undercard. There is no comparison.

I’m not advocating taking Easy Goer’s name off a major stakes. He earned that. A more logical candidate for renaming is the Peter Pan. It comes at a time the racing world has Triple Crown on its mind and it’s not as if a name change would be slighting a giant of the turf. Few fans realize that the race is named for a horse, not the fairy tale boy who vowed to never grow up.

But if it takes creating a new stakes to tardily honor Slew, so be it.

What a kid

The carnival of 10- and 11-race cards that have dominated the Spa season finally took their toll on Monday. In spite of only 9-races being scheduled, there was an acute shortage of horses. Six races had only six starters and another had seven. It had to be a blow to the bottom line with a $418,000 pick six carryover and much fewer combinations.

But it was still a great day to be at the Spa. Jess’s Dream, Rachel Alexandra’s first fioal by Curlin (but second to race),made his long delayed debut. There was a lot of skepticism because he didn’t make it to the races until he was 3 and it came in a nine-furlong race, a rarity for a horse of quality.

But what a memorable show Jess’s Dream put on.

Silky Sullivan probably never trailed his field by the amount of ground Jess’s Dream did early. Here are snippets from Larry Colmus’s call. “Jess’s Dream is away a step slow.” As they went around the first turn into the backstretch, Colmus said, “Jess’s Dream is slow to get going.” On the backstretch, “It’s a good 12 lengths back to Jess’s Dream.” That was 12 lengths from the next-to-last horse.

As the field turned for home, Jess’s Dream still had lost contact with the field. But then Colmus and the crowd had a reason to start getting excited. “Jess’ s Dream on the far outside is coming on.”
Finally as he swept by as if the others were standing still, Colmus exclaimed, “Jess’s Dream is a reality…Way to go Curlin and Rachel.”


Written by Tom Jicha

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