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, February 08, 2013

For NYRA. No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

MIAMI, February 8, 2013--NYRA's attempt to deal with the perception that drugs are more influential than ability and horsemenship in the outcome of races by extending the pre-race cut-off date for certain medications resulted in a significant decrease in horses shipping in from neighboring states.

As a result, NYRA had to drop six racing days from its winter schedule. No big deal. But a reluctance by horsemen from more permissive states to participate in New York could have a serious impact on the showcase Saratoga meeting this summer. The solution, a uniform national medication policy, is nowhere on the horizon.

No good deed goes unpunished may be an exaggeration—but not by much.

NYRA took a step this year toward dealing with a perception that pharmaceuticals are more influential in the outcome of races than equine ability and horsemanship. The pre-race cutoff time for certain medications was extended by several days. The reward for doing the right thing: field size decreased by an average of one horse per race, leading to six racing days being dropped during February and March.

A decline from an average eight-horse field to seven might not seem to be a big deal, certainly not enough to start eliminating racing days. The math says otherwise. An eight-horse field produces 56 exacta combinations and 336 trifecta possibilities. A seven horse field drops these numbers to 42 and 210. The comparisons are starker in three- and four-race horizontal wagers. These declines translate to a substantial loss in handle for the track as well as payoffs to winning bettors.

The primary reason for the shorter fields is a 75 percent drop in ship-ins from neighboring states, which aren’t as stringent in their medication rules. If racing were serious about dealing with the drug issue, other Mid-Atlantic states would have fallen in line with NYRA’s new policies. At least they are thinking about it. A meeting of Mid-Atlantic states as well as Illinois and Massachusetts to discuss uniform medication policies was held Feb. 6. But all they did was talk.

The ideal would be uniform medication rules nationally but this will happen the day after Congress balances the budget and pays down the national debt.

Racing jurisdictions aren’t partners, they’re competitors. Every horse that doesn’t ship to New York might help fill a race at its home track. Besides, there is probably a little “who died and left you boss?” attitude toward following New York’s lead. So NYRA suffers for attempting to do the right thing.

Scratching a few days during the winter is hardly a cause for consternation. Four-day (or less) weeks should be the norm during winter. But what is there to lead anyone to believe this won’t be a continuing problem year-round? Shippers aren’t as important during the Belmont spring meet when snowbird horses return to swell the local population and 2-year-olds from local outfits hit the track. However, the situation could have a negative impact on the showcase meeting of the year at Saratoga.

A sizable contingent of Kentucky horses bring quantity and quality to stakes, allowance, high-class claiming races and maiden special weights at the Spa. Shippers from other Mid-Atlantic states also show up on Union Avenue in greater numbers than they do on Hempstead Turnpike.

If enough out-of-town outfits decide they don’t want to play by the tougher New York medication rules, race, there are two alternatives. One is awful, the other not so bad. To replace the higher class races under the current schedule, more bottom-level New York-bred beaten claimers will have to be carded. The other option is to cut back to five days a week. Saratoga has become the only major track in the country that still races six.

Del Mar bit the bullet and reduced its agenda to five days and still is able to card only eight, sometimes seven, races on weekdays.

The other Southern California tracks struggle to card four days a week, even during the prestigious Santa Anita winter meet. The horse shortage is so acute out West that a pair of Grade 2 races, the San Antonio and Robert B. Lewis went to the post with four-horse fields and the Strub had only six break from the starting gate the first week in February.

Imprudent scheduling was a contributing factor. It defies logic to schedule the Strub for 4-year-olds a day before the San Antonio for older horses. Combine the two fields and there would have been an attractive San Antonio.

The entire three-race Strub series, designed to attract the previous year’s top 3-year-olds and ease them into their new division as older horses, needs to be re-examined. At the very least, one of the two-turn races should be eliminated. A seven-furlong Malibu, the traditional opening day feature when the horses are still 3-year-olds, leading into a two-turn race in January for new 4-year-olds would maintain tradition while bowing to current reality. It would also steer 4-year-olds into races like the San Antonio, where they belong.

In fact, one of the foursome in the San Antonio, Basmati, is a four-year-old. In a race that turned out to be a farce, he was the only one to seriously take it to Game On Dude, who towered over the field to such an extent that he went off at the legal minimum of five cents on the dollar and still created a minus win pool.

Basmati attempted to push Game On Dude down the backstretch while Clubhouse Ride and Make Music for Me appeared to be content to vie for the best of the minor awards while getting undeserved black type. (Scenarios such as this are something the graded stakes committee should look into, just as they do when graded races are taken off the turf.)

Basmati wound up the only starter not to earn black type—another example of no good deed going unpunished.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Monday, February 04, 2013

Florida Racing’s Future: Same Old Politics?

MIAMI, February 3, 2013--Chicago Mayor and former Obama White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel has a cynical political credo: Never let a good crisis go to waste. In other words, exploit an unfortunate situation to get something you couldn’t get under normal circumstances.

The urgency to enact tighter gun control laws in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., tragedy is an example. The National Rifle Association and Second Amendment absolutists make meaningful gun control all but unattainable. However, public dismay with the horrendous mass slaughters in Connecticut and elsewhere has generated new momentum for the effort to try to outlaw at least military-style weapons.

Under normal circumstances, Hialeah Park is dead as a thoroughbred race track. Gulfstream and Calder have carved up the calendar to ensure there are no open dates and Hialeah president John Brunetti said he has learned his lesson and will never again attempt to run a meet in conflict with either of the other two tracks. However, a looming crisis in South Florida racing could provide the impetus to resuscitate Hialeah through the back door.

At the tailend of the 20th century, state regulators became disgusted by the annual acrimonious battles between Miami-area racetracks and deregulated the dates. Tell us when you plan to run and we’ll rubber stamp it became the new state policy.

Ownership of Gulfstream and Calder has changed since then and their alliance teeters on the brink of disintegration. Gulfstream has filed to run year-round starting with the opening of its traditional winter season in December 2013. Unless this request is amended by the deadline at the end of February, a scorched earth showdown between the two tracks seems inevitable.

It almost happened in 2011, when Gulfstream decided it wanted to open in December rather than the customary first week in January. Calder initially refused to budge. It warned its horsemen, who make up almost half the fields for Gulfstream races, that any horse who left the stable area to race at Gulfstream would not be welcomed back. Gulfstream countered that it would build new stalls to accommodate horsemen stuck in this predicament.

Bellicose threats raged right up to the 11th hour and 59th minute when, miraculously, an agreement was reached. Gulfstream would open in December and Calder would be compensated by getting a few weeks in April, which had made up the tail of the winter season.

For Calder, this was akin to a department store giving up the month before Christmas for a month at another time of year. Churchill Downs Inc., Calder’s parent, obviously got something, probably something substantial. If it didn’t, it owes stockholders an explanation. However, the quo for the quid has never been disclosed. All that matters is, when the moment of truth came, Churchill Downs Inc. caved.

This emboldened Gulfstream owner Frank Stronach. Less than two years later, he is not satisfied with a bigger piece of the pie. He wants the whole pie. Calder/CD I have two options. Dig in and take a stand or fold again.

This brings us back to Hialeah. If neither Calder nor Gulfstream blink, chaos will ensue. The two tracks are only eight miles apart and the national shortage of horses is especially acute in South Florida outside the winter months when barn areas are swollen with snowbird horses.

Calder has had to cut back from six days a week to five, then four. Even with the lesser regimen, races with five or six horses are the rule. Two tracks racing head to head will split this inventory. Even with Gulfstream running only on weekends during what are now its off months, there wouldn’t be close to enough horses to go around.

This is not to mention the necessity to maintain two staffs of racing officials, gate crews, mutual clerks and the scores of other employees behind the scenes of a day at the races. Many who now fill these roles move seamlessly from Calder to Gulfstream and back.

The billion dollar Florida thoroughbred industry, the hundreds of farms it supports and the thousands of jobs it creates will be put into jeopardy. The state could not allow this to happen. The only solution would be for the state to get back into the business of assigning non-conflicting dates.

This is where Hialeah and its president John Brunetti will be waiting to take advantage of the crisis. Brunetti has been running a short quarterhorse meeting the past three winters for the sole purpose of qualifying for a casino license. But he aches to get back into thoroughbred racing, his true love as an owner, breeder and fan. You can expect him to go the legislature with a plea that state needs to find a place for Hialeah in any new racing calendar.

Brunetti, whose race track is located in an overwhelmingly Hispanic area, will be well armed with the support he has built within the potent Latin caucus in the legislature. Their numbers aren’t sufficient to get bills passed independently but they have enough strength to be able to swap votes with legislators from elsewhere in the state with local pet projects of their own.

Another argument Brunetti has used in the past might resonate well with Florida lawmakers, who can be embarrassingly parochial. He’s the guy who lives in Florida and has worked tirelessly to preserve a treasured landmark. Meanwhile, Gulfstream is owned by an absentee Austrian and Calder is controlled by an out-of-state conglomerate, which, despite its revered name in racing, seems to have become more concerned with casinos. It’s a low road approach but this has always been the most trafficked avenue in battles over Florida racing dates.

Rahm Emmanuel would be proud.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Friday, February 01, 2013

Florida Racing on Verge of Chaos

Gulfstream's plan to race year-round starting in December 2013 is a futile attempt to save an ill-advised adjacent shopping mall. Unless Gulfstream backs off, the result is likely to be a scorched earth showdown with Calder and its parent, Churchill Downs, Inc., which will undermine the future of racing in Florida.

Frank Stronach is a visionary. He doesn’t think outside the box. He refuses to acknowledge there is a box. His visions are always on a grand scale. Alas, sometimes too grand.

Occasionally, he needs to be reined in. This happened at Santa Anita, where one of his schemes involved demolishing the downhill turf chute, one of the most unique and picturesque courses in the world. Thankfully, he allowed himself to be talked out of that.

The same needs to happen with parts of Stronach’s ambitious plans for Gulfstream, the key element of which is year-round racing. This could amount to shooting himself and South Florida racing in the foot.

Stronach’s long-held dream has been to morph race tracks into one-stop destinations for entertainment and commerce. It’s not far removed from the fabulously successful transition Las Vegas made from no frills hotel-casinos to mega resorts with world class restaurants and high end shopping malls.

Under the right circumstances, this might be the way of the future. However, not every brainstorm winds up a home run. New Coke, Facebook’s IPO and Tim Tebow as a New York Jet all struck extraordinarily successful people as potential grandslams.

Stronach has not sufficiently thought through the Gulfstream expansion plan. The Village, the mall surrounding the track, is the equivalent of a bounce house across the street from Disney World. Gulfstream and The Village are located down the block from the glamorous Aventura Mall. The Village is an outdoor, strip-style mall. Aventura is enclosed and air-conditioned. Ever been to South Florida during the endless summer?

Predictably, The Village is a lonely place outside racing season, when Gulfstream serves as a magnet. Two popular bars adjacent to the track’s walking ring went toes up during the break between the end of racing last April and the reopening in December.

Year-round racing is sending good money after bad, an attempt to rescue the mall, without consideration of the ramifications for racing.

Calder has been running the summer dates since it opened 40 years ago. If not for Calder, there would be no summer racing. Nevertheless, Stronach apparently feels Calder should step aside for him. To be fair, it’s not as if Stronach isn’t leaving anything for Calder. Gulfstream’s plan calls for summer racing only on Saturday and Sunday. Calder can have weekdays, if it likes.

It’s inconceivable that Calder’s parent, Churchill Downs, Inc., will lie down without a fight. (Then again, it was inconceivable that Calder would roll over for Gulfstream’s incursion into December.) The alternative is the two tracks going head to head for customers and horses. It’s debatable which is in shorter supply during the summer.

There is no chance either track can make a go of it under these circumstances. There is every chance both will have to throw in the towel. It’s a matter of conjecture what happens then to South Florida racing outside the winter tourist season?

Even the prime dates could suffer. Consider the most successful meets in America: Keeneland, Saratoga, Del Mar. Their common denominator is relatively short meetings that give them the aura of an event. Winter racing at Gulfstream isn’t far removed from this. Racing year-round, the event transforms into monotony.

Stronach also is addressing another repercussion of The Village in a grand manner without thinking things through. To make room for The Village, the old Gulfstream, one of the most comfortable, fan-friendly facilities in the sport, had to be bulldozed. In its place is a building designed to accommodate a casino, a massive simulcast room, several classy restaurants and a grand showroom, which recently hosted the Eclipse Awards.

The only thing it’s not ideal for is fans interested in actually watching races via binoculars, not flat screens. There are little more than 1,000 seats facing the race track. Among other things, this meant the Breeders’ Cup would never return.

Stronach’s solution is characteristically grandiose and typically short-sighted. He says he plans to flank the current building with extended grandstands and two luxurious hotels, which will afford a direct view of the race track to more than 50,000 fans. He must never have been to Belmont on any day a Triple Crown isn’t on the line.

Hialeah president John Brunetti, whose family fortune comes from the construction business, said he has seen Gulfstream’s plans and dismisses them as just big talk. “For Frank to do everything he wants, he’d have to build up to Dania (about five miles to the north).”

Caught in the middle, as usual, are the horsemen, who could be herded into one of those “What were we thinking?” decisions. Gulfstream is making the argument that it will handle more than Calder, and thus offer better purses during the summer, because it handles more now. Of course, it does. Put Calder in January and February and Gulfstream in July and August and the outcome could be vastly different.

Many South Florida horsemen have it in for Calder, especially under the Churchill Downs regime, for what they regard as a heavy-handed, take-it-or-leave-it attitude toward them, exemplified by charging backstretch personnel rent for subpar living quarters. Their yen to cut Calder down to size could cloud their thinking into throwing away a historically dependable racing home for what can fairly be described as an experiment at Gulfstream.

Gulfstream’s casino is open year-round now. It hasn’t helped The Village. It’s folly to think a couple of days a week of sub-par racing will turn things around for the mall. But Stronach seems hell bent to do it anyway.

Part II Monday: Brunetti, Waiting in the Wings

Written by Tom Jicha

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