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, March 28, 2014

Racing’s Worst Nightmare: Asmussen at the Derby

Unless and until Steve Asmussen clears himself of the PETA allegations, his presence at the Kentucky Derby would be the worst thing that could happen to racing. It would shift the focus from the race to Asmussen. If he were to win, headlines would read, "Disgraced Trainer Wins Derby."

MIAMI, March 27, 2014--Racing is staring at its worst nightmare: Steve Asmussen at the Kentucky Derby.

Make that its second worst nightmare. The worst would be if Asmussen were to win the Derby with Tapiture, who is a genuine contender.

Thanks to the PETA allegations, which allege the Asmussen barn is guilty of mistreatment and drugging of horses as well as encouraging a jockey to ride with a buzzer, the spring classics would become secondary to the Asmussen controversy.

Media will jump all over the story, knowing that any piece involving mistreatment of animals is a guaranteed ratings and reader magnet. Asmussen’s past drug suspensions will be dredged up...if there is enough time to discuss all of them. Before it’s over, Michael Vick would be more popular among animal lovers.

The damage to racing will be incalculable. In the wake of the Asmussen controversy, God forbid a horse breaks down in one of the televised races.

What will go largely unmentioned is the vile history of PETA, which disingenuously claims to be all about the welfare of animals. The Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services reports that PETA killed more than 29,000 animals during an 11-year period. In 2013 alone, 1,792 dogs and cats were put down, 82% of those who came under PETA control. That’s one state. What is 50 times 1,792?

The U.S. Department of Agriculture once branded PETA a terrorist threat.

PETA contributed at least $45,200 to the Rodney Coronado support committee in 1994-95. Coronado was convicted in federal court of arson for fire-bombing a Michigan State University research lab in 1992. A sentencing memorandum by U.S. attorney Michael Detmer expressed the opinion that Ingrid Newkirk, co-founder of PETA, was connected to the crime.

PETA has given financial support and has common members with the Animal Liberation Front and Environmental Liberation Front, which the FBI has labeled domestic terrorist threats.

PETA distributed reading material to the children of fishermen competing in a tournament that read, “Your dad is a blood-thirsty murderer and he loves killing animals.” PETA is as opposed to fishing and hunting as it is to horse racing, zoos, circuses, rodeos, eating meat and dairy products and wearing any clothing that comes from animal hides or fur. It is even opposed to guide dogs for the blind.

These are the people the New York Times unquestioningly jumped into bed with.

The Asmussen contretemps could be avoided with some common sense. The reason it won’t be is epitomized by the statement David Fiske, racing manager for Ron Winchell, owner of Tapiture and Oaks favorite Untapable, gave to the Racing Form. “I think it’s just too close to the second and third of May to take these horses away from the people, the routine, the feed and everything they’ve known for the last two years and put them someplace else. That’s not in the horses’ best interests.”

The best interests of the sport apparently aren't a consideration.
Fiske’s statement epitomizes why racing might never have uniform standards or produce any united action to move the sport forward. Whether it’s owners, trainers, tracks or state legislatures, the attitude is “It’s all about me. Nothing else matters.”

What’s more, Team Winchell isn’t thinking things through. What they haven't considered is if their horse wins, the story won't be Tapiture, it will be along the lines of “Disgraced Trainer Wins Derby.” They will be lucky if the horse’s name is mentioned in the headline.

The Fiske statement is nonsense. Horses move from barn to barn every day without negative ramifications. Bob Baffert didn’t get War Emblem until three weeks before he won the 2002 Kentucky Derby then encored in the Preakness.

Is Fiske saying a Baffert, Todd Pletcher or Kiaran McLaughlin, to name just a few world class trainers, couldn’t bring Winchell’s horses up the Derby and Oaks at the top of their game?

It might seem unfair, even un-American, to penalize Asmussen. We are supposed to have a presumption of innocence until convicted in a court of law. But this is due to a misinterpretation of the Constitution similar to the common one about free speech.

The First Amendment prohibits the government from prosecuting an individual for something he or she said or wrote (with the traditional "Fire!" in a theater exceptions). This freedom doesn’t extend to the workplace. Say or do something that embarrasses your employer or puts it into a bad light and you probably will be gone. Likewise, Asmussen has a presumption of innocence only as it pertains to criminal prosecution, which might be coming.

Asmussen didn’t extend any presumption of innocence to his top assistant Scott Blasi, who made most of the most outrageous comments on the PETA video. Let’s not overlook that the video contained more words than deeds and very little Asmussen. Within two days of the controversy erupting, Asmussen fired Blasi, who had worked for him for 18 years and, according to Blasi, was his friend as well as his boss.

Asmussen must not have realized how self-indicting this was. It’s inconceivable that the two worked side by side for almost two decades and the trainer was unaware of any of the outrages Blasi described. If Blasi deserved to have his career thrown into tatters, what about the man himself?

The only way this disaster in the making can be avoided is for Asmussen to be replaced as the trainer of Team Winchell's horses. The Hall of Fame did the right thing in tabling Asmussen’s nomination. The Zayats did the right thing in moving their horses out of his barn. Team Winchell needs to reconsider and follow suit.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Friday, March 21, 2014

Asmussen charges must be dealt with immediately

Racing has a tendency to bury its head in the sand when it comes to scandals, hoping that in time the issue will go away. This cannot happen in the latest allegations against Steve Asmussen. The stakes are just too high.

MIAMI, March 19, 2014--This week's column theme was going to be an update on the Kentucky Derby trail as it reaches the crucial stages. But sometimes events overtake intentions.The sensational allegations published in The New York Times, with the assistance of PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), against Steve Asmussen cannot pass without comment.

The charges against Asmussen are disgusting--if proven. This qualifier should not be taken lightly. Certainly there is what seems to be damning evidence, including video, but the source is agenda driven and so is The New York Times. That said, if proven, without mitigating circumstances, Asmussen should suffer penalties as severe as can be allowed. A lifetime ban should not be out of the question.

But before leading a torch light and pitchfork brigade, I want to hear everything.

We have to keep in mind that PETA is a bunch of lunatics not above terrorist tactics. It is dedicated to ending not only horse racing but rodeos,circuses and horse-driven carriages in Central Park. All horseback riding, too.

PETA wants everyone too become vegetarians. They want to outlaw leather shoes and the clothes that will keep us warm. It has engineered similar smears against every industry it wants to shut down, in short, every industry in which animals are involved.

Likewise, The New York Times has launched its holy war against horse racing, publishing scandal-mongering stories in proximity to major events (Triple Crown, Breeders’ Cup, etc.) It knows PETA’s tactics and goals, yet used it as a source.

Not only that, the paper granted anonymity to the accuser. What has happened to the basic tenet of justice that a person, in this case Asmussen, has a right to confront his accuser?

The story also potentially destroyed, or at least severely damaged, the career and reputation of young jockey Ricardo Santana by making it seem that his success is due to riding with a buzzer, even though absolutely no evidence was produced other than an off-handed comment.

But, certainly, the cavalier conversation on the subject between Hall of Famers Wayne Lukas and Gary Stevens does not cast a favorable light, even in jest.

Lest I seem naive, I want to point out I was one of the few to point out the problems with Asmussen's Hall of Fame candidacy (see HRI archives).

This is not the first time Asmussen has been accused of serious improprieties and he has served countless days on the sidelines because of them. He still deserves a chance to defend himself, the sooner the better.

I commend the Hall of Fame for tabling his nomination until this matter is adjudicated. But I also question the timing of the publication of the charges against him as Hall of Fame voting is taking place. It seems clear the intent is to hurt him and racing.

Most of the events described in the video took place seven or eight months ago. Why the delay? Why now? You can bet that if his nomination didn't come up when it did, the video would have been perfect Derby week fodder.

If this forces racing to step up and finally take meaningful action to clean up the game, it could be worth this latest embarrassment. The question is how.

First and foremost, no more slaps on the wrist. First offenses should carry stiff penalties, up to and including suspension of entry rights to owners of horses who come up positive. Make owners absolute insurers, just as trainers are. Many, if not most, owners have no idea what goes on in the barn, even with horses that cost millions of dollars.

This would force them to investigate a trainer's reputation that goes beyond win percentages and numbers of Grade 1s won.

A second offense should bring at least one year on the sidelines--and I wouldn't be reluctant to extend this to owners, too.

A third strike and you're out for good.

If racing doesn't take actions such as these, the movement to involve the federal government will gain unstoppable momentum. This would be a disaster. Activist groups such as PETA would apply enough political pressure to compel congressional investigations every other week.

The sport cannot ignore the reality that there are far more well intentioned animal lovers who could be swayed by tactics such as PETA's than there are racing fans. When push comes to shove, what politicians care about most is how many votes they can glean from any situation. Racing would finish a distant second.

Now on to our regularly scheduled column.

A variety of Derby prep winners

Gulfstream’s Holy Bull and Fountain of Youth; Santa Anita’s Sham, Robert B. Lewis and San Felipe; the Le Comte and Risen Star at the Fair Grounds; Oaklawn’s Smarty Jones, Southwest and Rebel; the Tampa Bay Derby and the El Camino Real at Golden Gate have something in common besides being points-awarding Kentucky Derby preps.
They’ve all been won by different 3-year-olds.

Throw in the Sam F. Davis at Tampa and the Gulfstream Park Derby, which should offer qualifying points, and you have two more distinct winners. The Sunland Derby and Spiral Stakes this weekend, the final two races of the 50-point phase two of Derby qualifying, could produce two new shooters.

To put it another way, no Derby hopeful has been able to win more than one stakes at the traditional proving grounds. To be fair, the ranking horses on both coasts, Candy Boy and Cairo Prince, have each only had one race in 2014. But this is not the case for most of the rest.

Samraat has wins in the Withers and Gotham. (Noble Moon won New York's other 3-year-old prep, the Jerome.) But it’s hard to get enthusiastic over Samraat in the light of history. Apollo won the Derby without racing as a 2-year-old, albeit more than a century and a quarter ago. There has never been a Derby winner who prepped exclusively over Aqueduct’s inner track against the lesser stock who winter in the Big Apple.

Every Derby season is a war of attrition as much as competition. This year is no exception. Many of those who are still in training have disappointed. Honor Code is the latest to stub his toe, going down by 10 lengths in a five-horse allowance race in his belated season debut at Gulfstream a week ago.

The winner, Social Inclusion, looks like he might be special. However, he did have things his own way as lone speed on a track that has favored this style all season. Also, other than Honor Code, who clearly wasn’t fully cranked and didn’t have the best of trips, the other three were over-matched sacrificial lambs.

Reportedly, there have been offers as high as $5 million for 75% for the colt. If his owners don’t jump at that, they ought to be committed.

Last Saturday brought more of the same. Tapiture, Strong Mandate and Kobe’s Back were the headliners in the Rebel but Bob Baffert’s Hoppertunity, with only a maiden win in three starts and coming off a seven-length defeat in the Risen Star, ran them all down.

Strong Mandate and especially Kobe’s Back might have been exposed as horses who won’t want any part of ten furlongs. Strong Mandate has distance breeding but Cigar had turf breeding. He has now lost ground or position between the stretch call and finish in his three two-turn races. He also backed up in the stretch of the one-mile, one-turn Champagne, which was his longest career race at the time.

D. Wayne has a knack for getting horses to fire their best shots on the first Saturday in May and you know he will be there but Strong Mandate is going to have to come up big in the Arkansas Derby to pique my interest in him in Louisville.

However, it’s too early to abandon the Tapiture ship. He showed a lot of guts blasting his way out of a trap on the rail--which might have gotten him DQ’ed if he had won--then rallying between horses to just miss while being pinballed between a wobbly Strong Mandate and Hoppertunity. Other than the winner, Tapiture was the only one doing any serious running at the end.

Meanwhile Cairo Prince has seen his status as Derby favorite soar without ever leaving the barn, even though his 2014 stakes resume isn’t any stronger than 17 or 18 others. His win in the Holy Bull was flattered when show horse Intense Holiday won the Risen Star but the second, fourth and fifth finishers have all been off the board in their next start. There probably will be two more by Sunday night.

This is something to keep in mind as you ponder jumping into the final Derby futures pool next weekend.

3 cheers (1 boo) for NYRA

A chill could be felt through the phone line when NYRA CEO Chris Kay said during a conference call to trumpet the super-sized Belmont Stakes Day that prices would be in line with the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.

Speculation has been rampant that a cheap seat would run three figures and the most coveted locations could approach four figures. A long-time race-going friend predicted grandstand admission would double from $10 to $20 and entrance to the clubhouse would be at least $50. I took the over.

What a pleasant surprise—shock would be more like it—that the price scale unveiled this week is far more reasonable. Most commendable is that the grandstand will remain $10. This is taking care of the little guy, something racing rarely does. Also praiseworthy is the modest increase for the clubhouse, from $20 to $30.

More good news: some grandstand reserved seats on the second floor have actually been reduced from $120 to $95. Third floor grandstand seats can be had for $20 to $65. According to NYRA, 30 percent of the seats will cost less than last year or remain the same.

The heaviest reserved seat tariff will be “only” $300, still quite a hit but a bargain by prime sports standards in New York.

In another piece of welcome news, NYRA has backed off its intention to raise admission at Belmont on mundane race days from $5 to $8 for the clubhouse and $3 to $5 for general admission.

Not all the news is good. That same increase for Saratoga will take effect with opening day in July.

Why the status quo at Belmont but an increase at the Spa? Simple, because NYRA can. Driving away even a handful of price-conscious fans from Belmont would make the cavernous facility even more depressing.

Saratoga remains the summer place to be. It probably has more once or twice-a-season fans than any track in America other than, perhaps, Keeneland or Del Mar, which also host short boutique seasons. So an increase isn’t likely to keep very many people away.

Still, it’s likely that there will be a noticeable drop in total attendance because there will be substantially less “spinning” on giveaway Sundays, unless NYRA steps up the caliber of the premium items to make them worth the effort at $5 apiece.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Asmussen for Hall of Fame a tricky call

Steve Asmussen's nomination for racing's Hall of Fame raises many of the same issues baseball's Hall of Fame electorate faced with Barry Bonds and other steroid cheaters. Are statistics enough for election or should other factors be considered.

MIAMI, March 12, 2014--The nomination of Steve Asmussen as one of the finalists for induction into racing’s Hall of Fame has put voters into the same position the Baseball Writers Association has dealt with when considering the candidacies for Cooperstown of Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Roger Clemmons, et al.

On the numbers, Asmussen belongs. He is the second winnigest trainer of all time with more than 6,700 victories and counting. Asmussen, 48, has averaged more than 300 winners for the past three years, so Dale Baird’s record of 9,445 is within reach.

Asmussen set a record with 555 wins in 2004, breaking Jack Van Berg’s mark that had stood for 28 years. Asmussen topped himself in 2008 with 621 wins then did it again the following year with 650. He has led America nine times.

He conditioned Curlin to a triumph in the Preakness and Horse of the Year titles in 2007 and 2008. He added a third Horse of the Year laurel with Rachel Alexander in 2009. He won Eclipse Awards as outstanding trainer in 2008 and 2009.

It’s hard to imagine a nominee with stronger credentials.

But then, it’s even more difficult to come up with stronger career baseball credentials than Bonds. But a Hall of Fame in any sport is about more than statistics, or should be. This is why Bonds and other steroid users haven’t come close to election to baseball’s Hall and probably never will.

They have been stigmatized as cheaters, just as Asmussen has been in racing. He has had scores of violations. Many are relatively minor, trace overages in an era of zero tolerance or failure to clear a horse’s system within the advertised time.

But he was suspended for six months by Louisiana in 2006 when one of his horses came back with 750 times the legal limit for the potent pain killer mepvicaine. He also drew a six-month suspension in Texas when one of his horses tested positive for lidocaine.

Asmussen has denied many of the allegations. In the Louisiana case, he made the sensible argument that no one in his right mind would administer a drug 750 times over the limit on race day. He suggested that someone jealous of his success might have sabotaged him in a stable area with lax security.

Lending credence to this defense is the fact he has so many strings all over the map, there is no way he could be on top of the situation in every venue. But racing holds trainers responsible for anything that goes on in their barns, even if they were thousands of miles away.

All of this has made him one of the poster children for media anxious to put down racing as drug-ravaged. The New York Times, in one of its regular cheap shots at racing, made him a focus for a pre-Breeders’ Cup hatchet job. HBO’s Real Sports did a piece on his numerous suspensions.

If Asmussen is elected to the Hall, these pieces will be dusted off, repeated and updated. Since other media use the Times as their compass, there will be enough bandwagon-jumping to start a parade.

Coincidentally, Asmussen is nominated for the Hall on the same ballot as the late Chris Antley. This would represent another ripe target for those out to disparage racing as a bottomless pit of pharmaceuticals.

Antley had a sparkling career as a rider. Included was an unmatched streak of winning at least once for 64 consecutive racing days in 1989 and Kentucky Derby wins aboard Strike the Gold and Charismatic. The photo of Antley, dismounted from Charismatic and giving aid and comfort to the horse, who broke down while pursuing the Triple Crown in the 1998 Belmont Stakes, put a lump in many throats.

But Antley’s life and career were marred by drug abuse. He had his license suspended several times for positive tests for cocaine and marijuana. He quit riding in 1997 to deal with his narcotics demons. He came back two years later but on March 19, 2000, he rode what would turn out to be his final race at Santa Anita. He asked the California stewards for time off to deal with personal issues.

The next time his name was heard was when he was found dead in his home on Dec. 2, 2000, at age 34. The cause of death was ruled an overdose of a cocktail of drugs. One was to deal with weight loss, a common malady among race riders, another juicy target for scandal mongers.

Is an admitted drug abuser and by extension a law-breaker someone you want in your Hall of Fame?

So Hall of Fame voters face a conundrum. Do they cast their votes for a couple of inarguably qualified individuals on the basis of their records or do they take into consideration the scandals that have sullied their careers.

The Baseball Writers Association has obviously decided that statistics aren’t the sole criteria to be considered when casting Hall of Fame ballots. It will be interesting to see how racing’s electors handle the situation.

The New York Times, HBO and others in the media will be watching.

Written by Tom Jicha

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