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 Sentinels horse racing writer since 2007 as a staff member, and continues to this day as a free-lancer.

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Friday, September 13, 2013

Unless Guillot is right, he has done racing wrong

Eric Guillot's allegation that Luis Saez used a battery to urge Will Take Charge to victory in the Travers was still under investigation as this was written. But outside Guillot's circle, there is not a lot of support that the charges, a potential black eye for racing, have merit.

MIAMI, Sept. 13, 2013--Question of the day: Is it a good or bad thing that the national media is more interested in whether Diana Nyad broke the rules during her marathon swim from Cuba to Key West or that Luis Saez cheated in his winning ride aboard Will Take Charge in the Travers?

After the initial flurry of stories in the immediate aftermath of allegations by Eric Guillot, trainer of second-place finisher Moreno, that Saez used an electrical device to urge Will Take Charge to victory in the Midsummer Derby, the story has disappeared from the mainstream media, which traditionally lusts for anything that can be turned into a scandal, especially if gambling is involved.

Hopefully, this is not an indication that the non-racing media doesn’t consider racing sufficiently important to commit resources to the story.

Then again, even the racing press has pretty much filed and forgotten Guillot’s charges. A perusal of, which is to racing what the Drudge Report is to current events, shows only one story among more than a couple dozen on the issue and that is the bottom half of a column by Bill Finley, which furthers the argument that Saez did nothing wrong.

Guillot’s allegations are the most serious since Jose Santos was falsely accused of using a battery on Funny Cide in the 2003 Kentucky Derby.

After extensive investigations established the allegation against Santos had no basis, The Miami Herald, the source of the story, reached a settlement with the Hall of Fame jockey. Reports are the Herald made a payment to Santos ranging from less than a million dollars to as high as $5 million. A confidentiality clause was part of the agreement.

Saez, through his agent, former jockey Richard DePass, has vehemently denied Guillot’s allegations and said he, too, intends to hire an attorney to pursue defamation charges.

A distinction between the Santos and Saez cases is that Guillot is a member of the racing community. If his charges don’t stand up, he has sullied the game that provides his livelihood.

The basis for his complaint, which he made to the New York State Gaming Commission, is something he says his brother noticed while watching the Travers telecast on NBC Sports. According to Guillot, his brother and others, who subsequently looked at a tape, said they saw Saez transfer something from one hand to another during the gallop out, then put it either under the saddle cloth or drop it to the track.

However, no device was found on the track nor under the saddle cloth. A search of Saez’s locker also found nothing amiss.

Guillot’s entourage might be supportive but I’ve looked at the tape numerous times in slow motion and he had better have more than this. Zooming in on Saez’s hands, there is a lot of motion back and forth, but no clear passing of anything.

Moreover, the mass of hands, whip, reins and Will Take Charge’s mane makes it impossible to draw a meaningful conclusion unless wishful thinking is involved. The Travers would have been the most significant victory of Guillot’s 20-years-plus career.

More significantly, Hall of Famer Jerry Bailey, now a racing analyst for NBC Sports, also scrutinized the tape and said he could see nothing to substantiate Guillot’s allegation. Bailey said from his vantage point the only things in Saez’s hands were his whip and the reins.

Others have pointed out that Saez rapidly switched his stick during the drive, an impossible feat if you are carrying a buzzer.

The video was turned over to New York State Police experts at video analysis. The outcome of their investigation is still pending. However, given the opinions of those with vast expertise in racing, it’s hard to imagine the cops will be able to mount a convincing case. This is not to say there even is a case.

Guillot, known as a loose cannon, also took a crude backhanded whack at D. Wayne Lukas, saying Will Take Charge’s trainer is past his prime. Of course, he is. The Coach is 78. But even in the homestretch of his life, Lukas won this year’s Preakness with Oxbow and the Hopeful with Strong Mandate, in addition to the Travers.

Guillot also was quoted as saying, “There’s a lot to leave to the imagination with Wayne’s organization.”

This would be the organization that has won 19 Breeders’ Cup races and 14 Triple Crown events as well as developing trainers such as Todd Pletcher, Kiaran McLaughlin, Dallas Stewart and Mark Hennig. Guillot’s organization has zero Breeders’ Cup and Triple Crown race winners.

If his charge against Saez proves to be as baseless as that against Santos, Guillot deserves to be punished almost as severely for bringing disrepute to the sport as Saez would be if he was to be found guilty. This is beyond any potential punitive monetary damages Guillot would face in a civil suit.

He also would owe all of racing an apology.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Friday, September 06, 2013

Saratoga Summer 2013 was a season of champions

Too many cheap races detracted from Saratoga 2013 but a perusal of all the champions and potential champions who filled the better races at the Spa more than made up for it.

MIAMI, Sept. 6, 2013--Sometimes it’s difficult to fully appreciate something when you are in the midst of it. The just concluded Saratoga meeting falls into this category.

The cavalcade of $20,000 claimers and cheap turf sprints was maddening. The horses who filled these races wouldn’t have been given stalls not that many years ago.

But in retrospect, when you take a glass half-full look at the quality of the meeting, this might have been the most star-studded assemblage in years. When the votes are counted for the 2013 Eclipse Awards, it’s possible that all but two or three winners will have competed at the Spa this summer.

In fact, if the vote were taken at the end of August rather than the end of December, the only slam dunk winner lacking Saratoga 2013 credentials would be Game on Dude.

Too much racing remains to make definitive judgments about the juveniles. However, the late-running manner in which Strong Mandate galloped in the Hopeful and Sweet Reason dispatched her rivals in the Spinaway puts them at the head of the class.

Several Eclipses were all but clinched at the Spa. It is inconceivable that Princess of Sylmar will not be named outstanding 3-year-old filly. Adding the Coaching Club American Oaks and Alabama to her Kentucky Oaks triumph makes for an unbeatable triple.

Will Take Charge’s upset in the Travers further muddled the 3-year-old male division. Nonetheless, it’s a near certainty the eventual champion, whether it be Orb, Palace Malice or Will Take Charge (Verrazano would have to win a big fall weight-for-age race and the Breeders’ Cup Classic to even get back into the conversation) will have been in the Midsummer Derby.

It appears Game on Dude will sit on his lead in the older horse and Horse of the Year categories until the Breeders’ Cup Classic. But if he fails there, as he has twice, the door is open for Whitney winner Cross Traffic, who probably would need a Jockey Club Gold Cup/BC Classic double to overtake the Dude. The same double would likely work for Flat Out, the Woodward runnerup.

Royal Delta’s 5-year-old season wasn’t stellar early but her dominant win in the Grade 1 Personal Ensign, after capturing the Grade 1 Delaware Handicap, puts her firmly atop the older distaff division again. A showdown of Royal Delta, last year’s juvenile filly champion Beholder, who came back from a physical setback with a big win at Del Mar, and Princess of Sylmar in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff would rival the Classic as the highlight of the two-day festival in November.

Dank probably vaulted to the top of many Eclipse voters' ballots in the female turf division with her dominant score in the Beverly D. Not mine. It’s a pet peeve that Euros can come over, win one race and be voted an Eclipse. If Dank does it again at the Breeders’ Cup, I'll be a convert. But for now, Laughing, who added the Diana and Ballston Spa to her track record performance in Monmouth’s Eatontown, is the one to beat on my ballot. Marketing Mix, who skipped the Spa this summer, can’t be counted out.

The male sprint division has as many contenders as there will be horses in the BC Sprint starting gate. With injuries sidelining many of the early season standouts, unless there’s an off-the-wall result, the winner the first weekend in November will probably take the title.

This isn’t the case in the female counterpart. Dance To Bristol has merely won seven straight this year, including the Honorable Miss and Grade 1 Ballerina. Groupie Doll would have to do something extraordinary during her abbreviated three-race fall campaign to overtake her.

I don’t pay much attention to the jump bunch but most of the good steeplechasers point to Saratoga. No reason to think this season was different.

The human awards don’t generate as much advance conversation as the equine prizes. However by setting a record for wins at Saratoga after doing the same at Keeneland’s spring session and dominating Churchill’s spring meeting, Ken and Sarah Ramsey are mortal locks to take home the outstanding owner gold on Eclipse night in January at Gulfstream.

The Ramseys did it with quality as well as quantity. The day they had on Aug. 17—three Grade 1 wins at two tracks-- hasn’t often, if ever, been equaled. Big Blue Kitten took Saratoga’s Sword Dancer and halfway across the country, Admiral Kitten and Real Solution scored upsets in the Secretariat and Arlington Million, respectively.

More amazing, all three were sired by the Ramseys’ superlative stallion Kitten’s Joy, whose offspring came up big on the sport’s biggest days. He also is the sire of Stephanie’s Kitten, who accounted for the Grade 1 Just a Game on the Belmont Stakes undercard and the Distaff Turf Mile on the Kentucky Derby undercard.

Thanks to Kitten’s Joy, the Ramseys are odds-on to also capture the outstanding breeder Eclipse.

The well managed reigning Horse of the Year Wise Dan put more distance between himself and the field for older turf honors by making his annual stop at Saratoga to win the Fourstardave. But if he stumbles down the road, Big Blue Kitten is in position to be the beneficiary.

Javier Castellano and Joel Rosario were duking it out for the Saratoga jockeys title when Rosario got hurt. The Eclipse competition will probably come down to the same pair, with Rosario the favorite if can pick up where he left off when he returns from the foot injury he suffered at the Spa.

Why not Jose Ortiz for apprentice jockey laurels? He rode with the bug for only a couple of months but the way I understand it, that’s enough to qualify. His first Grade 1 victory aboard Strong Mandate in the Hopeful shows he has had made the transition to journeyman, which has been the undoing of countless hotshot apprentices.

Saratoga champion trainer Todd Pletcher, as usual, is among the top contenders in his field, although out West Jerry Hollendorfer will have a lot to say about that as the year winds down.

The possibility of a dozen or more champions, horse and human, having competed at the Spa this summer is rich compensation for having to endure all those bottom level beaten claimers.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Spa still the greatest but anything can be made better

New NYRA CEO Christopher Kay says one of his priorities is to make the fan experience more enjoyable. It's hard to improve on a day at Saratoga but as long as Kay asked, here are a few suggestions.

MIAMI, Sept. 3, 2013--High among the priorities new NYRA CEO Christopher Kay set for his first season at Saratoga was to learn who his customers are and how he can make the racetrack experience more enjoyable. There are few more commendable goals.

How much Kay learned about his customers is a matter of conjecture. But racing fans certainly learned who Kay is. He was on TV in the winner’s circle more often than Todd Pletcher and was on microphone more than Tom Durkin.

To put a positive spin on this, you have to say Kay was involved.

I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt for his good intentions. Just in case his self assigned busy work denied him the chance to accomplish the fan experiences on his “to do” list, I made a list of minor fixes that would make a day at the races more enjoyable.

Most of the year, I’m one of those spoiled media types in the press boxes at the South Florida tracks. At Saratoga, I’m just another guy in the crowd—my choice--so I can speak to these matters first-hand.

Learning who NYRA’s customers are and making their day at the races more pleasant are in synch with my first issue. NYRA’s customers are horse players. The Spa is exhilarating, the reason I and tens of thousands of others travel hundreds of miles to be there. But primarily we’re there to play horses.

NYRA has already made a significant positive step in getting new SAM’s. I haven’t seen them yet but they have to better than the dinosaurs fans have had to put up with. Hopefully, the new ones will be able to accept cash, to eliminate the cumbersome extra step of having to go to a live teller to obtain a voucher. If fans are going to be forced to stand in line for tellers, they might as well make their bets there, eliminating the whole purpose of SAM’s.

More than anything, we want to know the odds and, when we’re astute enough to be alive in multi-race wagers, we want to know the will-pays, in order to make decisions about possible saver bets.

Almost all the time Kay spent on camera was at the expense of this. Whether it was cutting a celebratory 150th anniversary cake, glad-handing politicians, congratulating racing figures on noteworthy feats, etc. , etc., it delayed the posting of “will pays.”

There was at least one occasion when it was 12 minutes to post before potential doubles and pick threes appeared on TV screens. This was the worst example, but making players wait up to 15 minutes for “will pays” was commonplace. (To be fair, Southern California tracks are even worse and do it after every race.)

Is it asking too much that an extra minute be taken before the ceremonies commandeer the closed-circuit feed to provide this crucial information? How about a split screen?

As long as we’re on the subject of multi-race “will pays,” I’d like to reiterate a point John Pricci, myself and countless others have made. How about posting them the way most people play them. Few play $2 Pick 3’s and trifectas and no one (at least no one in their right mind) plays $2 Pick 4’s. As part of any bettor education program, players should be taught why the tax implications make this imprudent.

The $2 payoffs are posted for the same reason lotteries pump humongous jackpots on billboards, to entice people chasing the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. But it’s a disservice to real players.

Pick 3 payoffs should be posted on the basis of the common $1 wager and Pick 4’s and, when they are finally introduced, Pick 5’s, should be shown on the basis of a 50 cent bet. Handicapping requires a lot of math as it is. Long division to gauge the actual payoff to an individual bettor shouldn’t be an extra burden.

My other suggestions are geared toward casual fans, who make Saratoga the nation’s best attended track along with its summer rival Del Mar. The first parking lot fans encounter after exiting the Northway is more than a quarter-mile from the nearest entrance gate. To make matters worse, this is where a large handicapped parking area is situated. It’s almost a sick joke to give disabled fans preferred parking in an area that far from the track. A tram or bus is essential. Surely insurance issues come into play but there are trams and busses utilized elsewhere.

Saratoga might be the only track of any size in America where every seat facing the track is sold every day. NYRA has to make money where it can with the Cuomo regime looking over its shoulder. But there are days—mostly Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays—when the three sections way up the stretch are empty, occupied only by ushers making certain no one squats for free.

NYRA knows from its records when these days fall. It would be a customer friendly gesture to make these sections available free of charge on such occasions, or for a nominal fee of $1 or $2 to discourage those who tie up three seats with papers so that no one crowds them. This might even bring out a few more people, who don’t come now because there is no place to sit down and watch the races.

The giveaway distribution methods also need to be re-examined and tinkered with. The Top of the Stretch is my preferred location. This also is where the ($3) freebies are distributed.

On the Sunday when the T-shirts were given away, customers stood on lines that stretched to the grandstand only to discover that the only size left was medium. America has become a nation of large and extra large. Ask Michelle Obama.

If you wanted the most desired sizes, you were sent to another tent near the Big Red Spring. For those unfamiliar with the vast Saratoga grounds, this is as far as you can walk from one point to another and still be within the track. The lines there were even longer. I’m guessing there was a cause-effect relationship.

None of these steps are budget busters. Failure to act on them won’t diminish the irresistibility of Saratoga. One day after the meeting, I’m counting down to next season.

But as long as Kay says he is intent on improving the fans experience, they are a good place to start. Surely some of you must have ideas of your own.

Written by Tom Jicha

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