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, June 12, 2014

Coburn’s Rant Predicted Here

America was taken aback by the graceless rant of Steve Coburn, part-owner of California Chrome. But it shouldn't have come as a surprise to readers of Horse Race Insider. It was predicted last week in this column that Coburn would go off if his colt didn't win, because he set the stage months ago when California Chrome was just a leading candidate for the Triple Crown races.

MIAMI, June 11, 2014--Steve Coburn’s post-Belmont rant shouldn’t have come as a surprise to readers of

I led my Belmont preview column by referencing Coburn’s remarks from this spring that an owner, who joined the Triple Crown grind late or took off the Preakness, was “cheating.” In the immediate aftermath of a crushing defeat, the co-owner of California Chrome resurrected this theme and took it a step further, labeling owners who don’t run in all three Triple Crown events are “cowards.”

It’s easy to be affable when things are going as well as they were for Team California Chrome this spring. How someone handles adversity is a more revealing sign of character.

Admittedly, this is a bit harsh. Coburn is a 10-pound bug to the highest level of racing and even more of a newcomer to dealing with the media, who love to pretend they are your friend until an opportunity to play “gotcha” materializes. He doesn’t have publicists to advise and protect him by telling him to shut up. So under normal circumstances, he deserves to be cut some slack.

However, with a night to sleep on his intemperate remarks and given ample opportunity to walk back what he said, if not outright retract them, he exacerbated the situation on Sunday. He compared what happened to his horse to a child in a wheelchair being taken advantage of by an adult. It was one of those moments when you cringe and go, “He didn’t really say that, did he?”

Someone with PR savvy must have finally gotten to Coburn. He issued an apology on Monday’s “Good Morning America” that should have been done when he had the opportunity the day before. He said he was ashamed of himself and did not mean to take anything away from Tonalist or his connections. It was so late, it reeked more of damage control than sincerity.

Dumb Ass Partners certainly is an appropriate name for at least half of California Chrome’s ownership team.

Coburn also showed a lack of understanding of racing and what the Triple Crown is. This is not the World Series, NBA Finals or Stanley Cup playoffs, a winner-take-all, four-of-seven series. The Derby, Preakness and Belmont are separate classic races, each a prestigious and lucrative prize in its own right. Owners and trainers are entitled to prepare their horses, or not, as they see fit.

If Coburn’s viewpoint had been the rule, the Preakness and Belmont would have been three-horse races, shams that few would have paid attention to. The NBC contract would soon be history.

Speaking of which, the TV ratings for the Belmont were the highest since Smarty Jones’ Triple Crown attempt in 2004. Approximately 20.6 million viewers watched. This was more than three times the 6.4 million for the prime time Stanley Cup finals game between New York and Los Angeles, the nation’s two biggest markets.

The tune-in also was 50 percent higher than for the NBA Finals on Sunday in prime time--when more TV's are in use than any other night--featuring America’s love-them-or-hate-them Miami Heat. Not bad for a sport supposedly on its death bed.

California Chrome did not fall short of the Triple Crown because Tonalist was the fresher horse. He didn't come up short because there was an 11-horse field, more than any Triple Crown winner had to contend with. The Belmont now pays back to eighth place, so this is going to be the new normal.

He didn’t lose because Victor Espinoza gave him a questionable ride. You have to admire the nerve of Randy Moss to take this stand, especially after Jerry Bailey more or less told him he didn’t know what he was talking about. Bailey’s counter to Moss’ contention that Espinoza should have gone to the lead was that California Chrome already had a target on his back.

If California Chrome went to the front, he would have had several horses immediately taking shots at him, extending him sooner than would have been prudent. Isn’t this what they said about Stewart Elliott on Smarty Jones? But compared to Moss, what does Jerry Bailey, the greatest big race jockey of his generation, know about riding horses?

I can’t say for sure but I doubt grabbing a quarter shortly after the start was a significant factor. Maybe it was adrenaline kicking in but California Chrome showed no sign of distress and looked to be making a winning surge in mid-stretch, more than a mile after the incident. Alas, he couldn’t sustain it.

California Chrome became the 13th horse in 36 years to win the Derby and Preakness only to fall short in the Belmont for the same reason most of the others did. He was beaten by the Belmont distance and horses who could handle it better than he could.

He was right there after a mile and a quarter. He and Tonalist were almost side by side in mid-stretch. Tonalist went on. But with the race and the Triple Crown on the line, California Chrome started to hang, as horses whose tanks have been emptied do.

Tom Durkin, in his final Belmont, called it: “California Chrome is laboring late.”

Runnerup Commissioner is a nice horse but probably a cut below the very best. However, he has a Belmont winner top and bottom in his pedigree. He was particularly suited for the mile and a half. Show horse Medal Count hadn't hit the board on conventional dirt since his maiden win at Ellis Park. But being by Dynaformer, he, too, is bred better for 12 furlongs than California Chrome.

The distance is what beat him. Not three races in five weeks. I don’t think it’s going too far out on a limb to say that at a mile and an eighth or even a mile and a quarter, California Chrome would beat Commissioner and Medal Count almost every time.

California Chrome’s connections said repeatedly he was coming into the Belmont bigger and stronger than ever. His workouts had clockers gushing. So even though I know I’m spitting into the wind, could we please can the talk about changing the time frame of the Derby, Preakness and Belmont?

California Chrome wasn’t going to beat the horses who finished ahead of him at a mile and a half if the Belmont was run on July 4, Labor Day, Thanksgiving weekend or New Year’s Eve.

If something needs to be changed—I would argue vehemently against—it is asking 3-year-olds who have never run a mile and a half, and probably never will again, to handle such a grueling route. But if the distance is diminished, so is the Triple Crown.

With more than a hundred thousand fans at each of the three races, TV ratings near an all-time high in an era when there are more viewing options than ever, the Belmont getting attention all week on the morning shows, the late-night gabfests and everything in between, and now the continuing attention thanks to Coburn, why would anyone in his or her right mind want to change anything?

Written by Tom Jicha

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Wednesday, June 04, 2014

California Chrome with my heart, Tonalist with my head

California Chrome, No. 2 in the starting gate but No. 1 in the hearts of most of America, is the horse to beat and the one few want to see beaten in the Belmont Stakes.

However, the 3-5 morning line favorite will have to overcome breeding that says he will be in trouble when he reaches the top of the stretch at Big Sandy having run as far as he ever has and still has a quarter-mile to go.

He also will be challenged by fresh horses, a factor his supremely confident co-owner, Steve Coburn, said he feared as far back as April. One of those,Tonalist, who drew the outside No. 11, has everything you would look for to score the upset.

MIAMI, June 4, 2014--Steve Coburn has been Muhammad Ali-like throughout late winter and spring. The co-owner of California Chrome brazenly professed to have no doubts his colt would run away with the Santa Anita Derby, Kentucky Derby and Preakness. As Ali would say, “It isn’t bragging when you back it up,” and California Chrome has done that.

The Belmont was another matter, Coburn said during an NTRA conference call prior to the Santa Anita Derby. It wasn’t the mile and a half distance--California Chrome’s biggest obstacle--that Coburn fretted over. His concern was that his colt would be denied the Triple Crown in the Belmont by a fresh horse who had skipped the Derby and/or Preakness.

“To me, going in just the Preakness or Belmont is cheating,” Coburn said. “If you’ve got a horse you think can do it, put him in the first race and keep him in the second and third races.”

Coburn is obviously a student of the game. The past eight Belmont winners skipped the Derby or Preakness or both. Afleet Alex is the only colt in the past dozen years to win the Belmont after competing in the first two legs of the Triple Crown.

Afleet Alex is also the only Belmont winner during that period to even run in the Preakness. The second jewel of the Triple Crown almost always gets the Derby winner but, in recent years, the majority of Derby also-rans have tended not to show up in Baltimore two weeks later.

This explains why Pimlico president Tom Chuckas is pushing hard to change the spacing of the Triple Crown races. He isn’t thinking of what is good for racing. He’s all out for his own track, which, to be fair, is his job. With a month between races, Chuckas argues, more top Derby contenders would also show up in Baltimore.

A well researched piece by Natalie Voss, published by the Paulick Report, notes that the Triple Crown trail has taken many forms over the years, including a different order of the races. However, an accompanying chart shows that 10 of the previous Triple Crown winners did it within a 35-day time frame, same as now. Coincidentally, seven had exactly 35 days.

Three did it within an even more compact period. Assault accomplished his sweep within 28 days; Gallant Fox did it in 29; Sir Barton in 32. The exception is Citation, who had 42 days between his Derby and Belmont. This is still less than Chuckas and others, who advocate a month or more between the Classics, would prefer.

But I digress. To return to the point, if California Chrome is to fall short, it most likely will be a fresh horse, or a horse fresher than him, who spoils everything…and not one who also chased him home in the Preakness. This would eliminate General a Rod, who drew post 10, and No. 5 Ride on Curlin, whose 12-1 morning line seems generous in light of his second place in the Preakness.

I wouldn’t leave the latter off exotic tickets. He has hit the board in six of eight career stakes but has never reached the wire first in an added money event.

The only other starter likely to draw much support is Derby runnerup Commanding Curve, who's 15-1 from post 4. However, he still has only a maiden win on his resume.

Better places to settle for those who feel compelled to try to beat the favorite are Wood Memorial winner Wicked Strong, who'll start from post 9, and No. 11 Tonalist, coming off a win in the Peter Pan. Wicked Strong had a troubled trip in the Derby and was one of the few still running hard at the end. He’s also a New York-based horse, which has proven advantageous to recent upset winners Palace Malice, Da’ Tara and Birdstone.

Like most of the hundred thousand-plus who will be at Belmont and the tens of millions watching on TV, I’ll be rooting for California Chrome to end the Triple Crown drought. But as a player, the horse who interests me most is Tonalist, also New York-based. The Peter Pan was only the fourth race of his career, so he is fresh.

Tonalist’s breeding is a pole better than California Chrome, who is by a sprinter out of an $8,000 claimer. Tonalist is by the hot sire Tapit, out of a mare by Pleasant Colony, an outstanding dam sire, who missed his own Triple Crown in the Belmont when he was a tired horse, according to his trainer, the late John Campo.

Tonalist’s 3-year-old campaign has been stellar. He opened by breaking his maiden at nine furlongs at Gulfstream, then ran second in an entry level allowance at the same distance. The winner, Constitution, next won the Florida Derby. Tonalist bounced back to capture the Peter Pan over the Belmont strip without having to go all out, a perfect prep. So while he is fresh, he has ample foundation with three wins at a mile and an eighth.

Because of its infrequently contested distance, the Belmont is often a jockey’s race. Ronnie Franklin managed to get Spectacular Bid beat, Kent Desormeaux probably cost Real Quiet his Triple Crown, and Stewart Elliott made his move way too soon on Smarty Jones, to name just a few riding gaffes that denied racing a Triple Crown winner. None of those riders were Belmont regulars at the time.

Victor Espinoza, who is unbeaten aboard California Chrome, is an accomplished journeyman but, as a Southern California regular, has rarely ridden the only mile and a half track in America. Tonalist has Joel Rosario, who rides Belmont every day and is one of the strongest finishers in the sport.

I hope I’m wrong and California Chrome makes history but most of the key indicators make Tonalist the horse to beat.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Wednesday, May 28, 2014

California Chrome racing to maintain Triple Crown as we know it

The 12-most recent horses who have had a shot at the Triple Crown in the Belmont Stakes have fallen short. This has ignited cries that the tight five-week schedule needs to be changed to accommodate the way horses are trained in the 21st century. However, a review of history and statistics argues against the theory that the current time frame has anything to do with the 36-year drought since Affirmed beat Alydar (both ran in all three races) to capture the elusive prize.

MIAMI, May 28, 2014--California Chrome will be racing to make history in the Belmont Stakes. He also might be racing to affect the course of future racing history.

A sweep would silence those who say three demanding races within five weeks makes a Triple Crown unattainable to the modern thoroughbred. A feat can’t be labeled impossible when it has been done.

Should California Chrome fail, cries to scrap contemporary history and lengthen the time frame of the Triple Crown will become deafening, even though there is scant evidence the proximity of the races is responsible for the 36-year drought.

The Triple Crown has been won 11 times. The three most recent were achieved within the same five-week time frame. Since Affirmed in 1978, 12 horses have had the opportunity California Chrome has on June 7. Their failures can be traced to myriad reasons.

I’ll Have Another didn’t get his chance two years ago, suffering an injury on Belmont Eve. No one has figured out what happened to Big Brown in 2008.

Smarty Jones appeared to have the Triple Crown won in 2004, opening a four-length lead in the stretch only to have Birdstone nail him in the final few yards.

Funny Cide had the lead at the top of the stretch in 2003 before fading to third behind Empire Maker, who was arguably the superior horse, especially at 12 furlongs. War Emblem lost all chance in 2002 when he stumbled badly at the start.

The Triple Crown appeared conquered in three consecutive years, 1997-99. Silver Charm had a daylight lead in the stretch only to be run down in the final yards by Touch Gold. No horse will ever come closer to a Triple Crown without winning than Real Quiet. He got nosed out in a bob of heads the race caller labeled “too close to call.” Charismatic led into the stretch but faded to third, possibly the result of a debilitating injury.

Sunday Silence in 1989 fell victim to “New York’s Easy Goer,” a colt who was virtually unbeatable at a NYRA track.

Alysheba’s defeat in 1987 was blamed on him having to race without Lasix, then prohibited at New York tracks.

You have to go back to Pleasant Colony in 1981 to find an instance where Triple Crown fatigue was mentioned as the reason for a loss in the Belmont. Johnny Campo said his horse was tired but a shot at a Triple Crown was irresistible.

Spectacular Bid’s defeat in 1979 was attributed to a safety pin and/or Ronald Franklin’s amateurish ride.

With the exception of Pleasant Colony, what is the explanation for the Triple Crown candidates outrunning all but one or two horses in most cases, many of them fresh challengers. Even Pleasant Colony got home third.

During this same period, Risen Star, Hansel, Point Given and Afleet Alex won the Preakness and Belmont after coming up short in the Derby—running the same trio of demanding races within five weeks--with their second and third races stronger than the first.

California Chrome will be the 34th horse to vie for a Triple Crown after winning the first two legs. The 11 who turned the trick translates to 33%. Over decades, this is the same percentage of winning favorites in all races. To put it another way, about 67% of all favorites lose, so why does the same percentage by Triple Crown candidates ignite cries for drastic change?

Only three horses from this year’s Derby accepted the challenge to come back with “short rest” in the Preakness. They ran 1-2-4. Last year, Derby horses running back in two weeks finished 1-2-3-4. In 2012, it was 1-2-3. I could go on, but I think the point is made.

The horses are able, but most trainers are unwilling. It’s the uber-conservative management of horses now in vogue that is driving the movement to extend the time between the 3-year-old classics. It’s hard to find a modern trainer who would run stakes horses back within the two weeks between the Derby and Preakness or even the three weeks between the Preakness and Belmont. However, 15 horses in 35 years—a tad short of half—have run the entire Triple Crown gauntlet and won two of three.

If there’s a logical culprit for the 36-year gap, it’s the mile and a half distance. Had the Belmont been 100 yards shorter, Real Quiet and Smarty Jones, at least, would have swept the series. Silver Charm might have.

There are those--D. Wayne Lukas being the most prominent-- who have argued for shortening the distances of two of the three races—a nine-furlong Derby, a Preakness at its traditional 9 ½ furlongs and a mile-and-a-quarter Belmont. This would be like making tests easier so more students could get A’s. Future Triple Crowns would be deemed inferior in historical context.

California Chrome’s connections are reporting that the son of Lucky Pulpit—not exactly 12 furlong breeding, but it wasn’t 10-furlong breeding, either—are reporting he is training like “a monster” and appears stronger than he did going into the Derby or Preakness. This is little more than a week after his second grueling race within 14 days.

So if he gets beat, it won’t be because of Triple Crown fatigue, according to the people who know him best. But this won’t deter horsemen and the media from offering that as the reason.

I’m hoping California Chrome denies them the opportunity and shuts them up for at least a few years.

Belmont tickets skyrocketing

Some thought it was a flight of whimsy when I suggested the best way to make money on California Chrome in the Preakness was not to take the 1-2 odds but to invest in reserved seats for the Belmont. I wasn’t kidding.

Lo and behold, Forbes reports that since the Preakness, prices for Belmont Stakes tickets have skyrocketed. Two weeks out, the average price for a Belmont ticket on the secondary market was $407.94, according to Forbes. This is 48% higher than the price before the Preakness.

Granted, 48% is slightly less than the 50% return at the Preakness betting windows but the price of tickets is likely to get higher as the race approaches and excitement builds.
My far-out suggestion was just another form of astute money management.

Written by Tom Jicha

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