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, May 10, 2013

Calder-Gulfstream conflict turns ugly early

Two months before Calder and Gulfstream are scheduled to begin racing head-to-head, the first shots were fired in what could turn into a scorched earth conflict with no winners. South Florida horsemen withdrew permission to export Calder's simulcast signal, which in only four days cost the track millions in revenue. It also cost horsemen a 20% purse reduction. A temporary settlement on May 9 kicked the can down the road. Meanwhile, Gulfstream got permission to open on June 25, which qualifies it as a year-round simulcast host. Calder, of course, is appealing.

MIAMI, May 10, 2013--The imminent head-to-head conflict between Gulfstream Park and Calder Race Course figured to turn ugly and it did, sooner than many expected.

Calder horsemen fired a shot across the bow of the Churchill Downs-owned track at the end of April. Their racing contract and a temporary extension with Calder having expired, the Florida HBPA withdrew permission for Calder to export its simulcast signal out of state.

(A veto right over where a simulcast signal can be transmitted and received was given horsemen when simulcasting across state lines was first approved. In my opinion, it needs to be revisited, since it has turned into what amounts to a tool of extortion. Perhaps mandatory arbitration would be an alternative.)

The anticipated result materialized. Calder all sources handle plunged more than 50%.

The track’s response also could have been anticipated. Since purses are a product of handle, Calder general manager John Marshall announced a 20% reduction.

The major hangup was the FHBPA’s insistence that a new contract allow horsemen to ship a horse to race at another track (Gulfstream is the only one within a thousand miles in the summer) and come back to his stall at Calder.

Marshall has been adamant this is not going to happen. Who can blame him? It costs a fortune to maintain a stable area the size of Calder’s--even one whose condition has drawn significant criticism. Horsemen pay no rent during the live racing season. Permitting a horse, which it is paying to house, to race at Gulfstream, which is trying to put Calder out of business, would be like an army allowing the enemy’s troops to sleep in its barracks.

Horsemen have a reasonable counter-argument. With Calder planning to run only three days a week (Friday through Sunday) and almost certainly carding fewer races each day, it will be difficult to find starts. Gulfstream’s Saturday-Sunday agenda of about 16 races per weekend will create additional opportunities.

The horsemen also are armed with precedent. They have always been allowed to ship back and forth.

Gulfstream turned up the heat by promising to allow horses on its grounds to race at Calder without penalty.

Nevertheless, the local horsemen have to know that under the circumstances Calder isn’t going to relent on such a crucial point. So why force the issue at the risk of substantial financial loss two months sooner than necessary?

One theory is Florida horsemen thought they could use the Kentucky Derby simulcast as a hostage.

In the past, horsemen’s organizations have tended to support each other by denying permission to have their races sent into a state where local horsemen are not letting their signal out. Florida horsemen might have been hoping that their Kentucky brethren would give them leverage by refusing to let Calder take the Derby signal.

For whatever reasons, including a contract Churchill Downs has with its horsemen to inoculate the Derby from this kind of action, the Calder blackout didn’t happen.

This theory gained credibility on May 9. Five days after Calder conducted business as usual on Derby Day, the FHBPA and Calder announced a new interim agreement had been achieved. The provisions in effect at the start of the season would be extended through the end of May. Calder immediately rescinded the 20% cutback.

In jargon currently in vogue in Washington, the two sides kicked the can down the road. Come June, there will be a clearer picture of where the situation stands. Could the Belmont Stakes simulcast, with the possibility of Orb bidding for a Triple Crown, be the new target? A lot of New York horsemen work side by side each winter with the Florida regulars.

In the midst of the dispute, Gulfstream announced that it had gained approval from the state to reopen for one day, June 25. Calder says it will appeal the ruling. This might seem like much ado about very little, a normally dark Tuesday. However, there are bigger stakes.

By making June 25 a part of the season that ended April 5, then re-opening July 1 (the day the new fiscal year starts in Florida) Gulfstream gained the right to be considered a host track for simulcasting year-round. Instead of having to buy simulcast signals from Calder from April through November, Gulfstream can negotiate directly with senders, then remarket the signals to other Florida pari-mutuels in competition with Calder. (Tampa Bay Downs is using the same tactics on June 30-July 1 to qualify as a year-round host.)

The ability to control lucrative simulcast signals is as much a factor in Gulfstream’s decision to race year-round as the attempt to buck up the struggling mall adjoining the track.

By all indications, Gulfstream is past the point of turning back. Head strong Frank Stronach seems determined to make his track a year-round operation, even if it means financial losses for an extended period.

Gulfstream president Tim Ritvo says more than a million dollars has been invested in building a new drainage system and a more sand based racing surface to deal with the biblical summer rains in South Florida. A new team in the racing office has been assembled. Gate crews have been hired. Snowbird trainers, who normally leave town with the end of the traditional Gulfstream season, have been cajoled into leaving behind some racing-ready stock.

Deteriorating relationships between Churchill Downs and Calder horsemen has a significant number of the latter just waiting for a cue that Gulfstream is a certain go to make a permanent change in their base of operations. Moreover, Ritvo was formerly one of them, a Calder-based trainer. They have a comfort and trust level with him.

This suggests that a financial settlement to Churchill Downs is the most viable avenue toward preventing the looming head-to-head showdown. Bottom-line oriented Churchill Downs Inc. was amenable to this a couple of years ago when Gulfstream made its incursion into December. It appears the only thing standing in the way this time is Stronach coming up with the right number.

Calder would still have to race 80 days annually to preserve its right to operate a casino, the company's priority. This could be readily accomplished by racing two or three weekdays during the months Gulfstream is not conducting its prime winter meet.

Marshall and Ritvo acknowledge that conversations above their pay grades are ongoing toward a settlement. Anyone with concern for Florida racing has to hope these talks will be fruitful.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Friday, May 03, 2013

Orb is the pick to win the Kentucky Derby

A strong case can be made for a half-dozen horses to win the Kentucky Derby. A credible case can be mounted for seven or eight more. From here, the winner looks to be Orb, who came into his own this winter in Florida, where most of the winners of the preps got ready. A four-race winning streak since the distances were extended, Joel Rosario, the hottest rider around, in the saddle and old pro Shug McGaughey going for the race that is his lifelong dream makes the son of Malibu Moon the most likely winner.

MIAMI, May 3, 2013--The magic number turned out to be 10. That is all it took to sneak into the Derby through the back door. We've been speculating since last fall. It’s finally put up or shut up time for Kentucky Derby prognostication. I've liked Orb since the Florida Derby. Everything that's happened since, including a breath-taking final work at Churchill Downs has solidified this opinion.

Nevertheless a case can be made, pro and con, for almost everyone in the field. So here is the way I see the plusses and minuses, in my order of their likelihood of winning.

ORB—Pro: Four-for-four at a mile or more. Beat Violence and Itsmyluckyday when they were the most accomplished 3-year-olds in Florida. Distance breeding, Shug McGaughey and Joel Rosario complete the whole package. The pick.

Con: Three-for-three at Gulfstream; one-for-four elsewhere. Has to prove his outstanding form travels.

VERRAZANO—Pro: The most exciting Derby prospect since Curlin. Undefeated and has won over three distinct surfaces, so handling a fourth doesn’t figure to be a problem.

Con: Curlin looked like a superstar going into the Derby and became one after the Derby. But he didn’t win on the first Saturday in May. People like to make fun of the Apollo jinx but when something doesn’t happen in 125 years, there has to be a reason.

REVOLUTIONARY—Pro: Like Orb, he seems to have figured it out as a 3-year-old. Overcame a seemingly hopeless situation in the Withers and dug in courageously in the Louisiana Derby. That race was flattered when Departing, who ran third, romped in the Illinois Derby. Who’s better on a Derby closer than Calvin Borel?

Con: He has caused a lot of his own problems, not an encouraging tendency going into a 20-horse rodeo. Javier Castellano risked the wrath of main man Todd Pletcher to jump to Normandy Invasion.

GOLDENCENTS—Pro: Demonstrated in the Santa Anita Derby that the San Felipe was an aberration. Take that race away and his form is stellar. Doug O’Neill showed last year he knows how to win the one race everyone wants.

Con: Ten furlongs is a question mark but that can be said of all of them. O’Neill got the roses with an unheralded jockey last year. He tries to do it again with Kevin Krieger.

ITSMYLUCKYDAY—Pro: Plenty of foundation off 10 races, the most in the field. Until he ran into Orb in the Florida Derby, coming off a two-month layoff, he looked like the king of Florida’s hill. Take a look at how Gulfstream-based horses have done in the major preps.

Con: Orb ran right past him in the Florida Derby.

JAVA’S WAR—Pro: His late-running score in the Blue Grass on Poly validated his stretch close at Verrazano on real dirt in the Tampa Bay Derby.

Con: Broke tardily in the Blue Grass and it wasn’t the first time. He can’t do that in a field with the quantity and quality he’ll encounter. Blue Grass on Poly has regressed as a Derby indicator.

NORMANDY INVASION—Pro: Closed against the bias in the Wood and looked like he might have won if the race had been at the Derby distance. Castellano picked him over Revolutionary. Chad Brown is the next superstar trainer, if he isn’t already.

Con: Still has only a maiden win. Looked like he was going to win the Remsen, too, but didn’t. Might be one of those horses who constantly encourages “next time” hopes.

WILL TAKE CHARGE—Pro: Looked good running down Oxbow in the Rebel. Has D. Wayne Lukas calling the shots.

Con: He goes into the Derby off a seven-week layoff and has never been beyond a mile and a sixteenth.

OVERANALYZE—Pro: Showed grit and courage in winning the nine-furlong Remsen as a 2-year-old and the Arkansas Derby as a 3-year-old. Not many have two wins at mile and an eighth.

Con: In between the Remsen and Arkansas Derby, he was lackluster in the Gotham, which wasn’t overloaded with stars.

LINES OF BATTLE—Pro: He’s won at a mile and three sixteenths. None of the others can say that. One of these years, a Dubai shipper is going to get the job done. Aidan O’Brien knows how to get them ready.

Con: Only one prep and his winning time in Dubai might not have been fast enough to win the 1 ÂĽ Derby, which is about 110 yards longer. Two stakes wins came on kitty litter. Other win was on turf. Dubai shippers are zero-for-forever.

VYJACK—Pro: Has won on the lead and from out of the clouds, which he might have to do again starting from the No. 20 post. Remember, Secretariat ran third in the Wood.

Con: This is his first race away from Aqueduct. Lung infection after the Wood necessitated a pit stop at Fair Hill. His trainer, Rudy Rodriguez, is being watched closer than Lindsay Lohan.

BLACK ONYX—Pro: Has won on grass, real dirt and the Spiral on fake dirt. Last two scores were around two turns. Kelly Breen is one of America’s most under-rated trainers.

Con: Spiral triumph over Uncaptured was more impressive before juvenile standout fizzled so badly in the Blue Grass that his connections took him off the Derby trail. No. 1 post is a killer.

PALACE MALICE –Pro: Five-for-six in the money, including a second in the Blue Grass and third in Risen Star.

Con: Still has only one win and couldn’t hold late stretch lead at 9 furlongs in the Blue Grass.

FRAC DADDY--Pro: Arkansas Derby placing could be a sign he’s returning to strong juvenile form. He's back on his favorite track.

Con: Buried twice at Gulfstream when facing division’s leaders.

MYLUTE—Pro: Solid second to Revolutionary in the Louisiana Derby. Rosie Napravnik rides. The last time they teamed, Mylute won, beating Lexington runnerup General Election.

Con: No excuse when out gamed at the Fair Grounds. Sire was only a sprinter, although Baffert said it was because of breathing issues, not pedigree.

OXBOW—Pro: D. Wayne says this is one of the gutsiest horses he has ever trained. He’s due for a good trip after a succession of nightmares.

Con: Lukas talks up all his horses. It keeps owners invested. Might be over the top. No. 2 is only slightly less detrimental than the rail.

FALLING SKY—Pro: Looked good winning Sam F. Davis.

Con: Beaten by four Kentucky Derby foes in last two without really menacing.

CHARMING KITTEN--Pro: Almost always fires. Squeaked into field with third in the Blue Grass.

Con: Has never run on dirt. Superior grass runner would probably be one of the favorites in American Turf but the Ramseys want a horse in the Derby.

GOLDEN SOUL—Pro: Mine That Bird won the Derby, so anything can happen.

Con: Has only maiden win.

Giant Finish: Pro:Second and third in Turfway stakes, which allowed him to be the last one to crash the party.

Con:This is all about serving the owners egos.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Friday, April 26, 2013

New Derby trend points to five potential winners

Verrazano will have to beat the jinx of Apollo--no horse has won the Kentucky Derby without racing as a juvenile in 125 years--but there is a more recent trend he will be bucking. The six most recent Derby winners have all gone into the Run for the Roses off only two preps as a 3-year-old. The most recent Derby winner with as many as the four starts Verrazano has made was Smarty Jones in 2004. If you're a believer, this narrows the list of potential winners to only five. (The Dubai shipper Lines of Battle, goes into the Derby with only one 2013 start.)

MIAMI, APRIL 26, 2013--Gary Mandella said something on HRTV last week that I found so shocking, it sent me immediately to my computer. Mandella has become as sharp an analyst as he is a trainer, so there was no reason to doubt him. But it was so surprising I had to see for myself.

Filling time during HRTV’s lead-up to the West Virginia Classic, Mandella was praising likely Kentucky Derby favorite Verrazano as “one of the most talented 3-year-olds in the country, no doubt about it.”

Then came the “but.” Mandella said he wasn’t as worried about the jinx of Apollo—no horse has won the Derby without racing as a 2-year-old in 125 years—as he was about Verrazano, who has made all four starts in 2013, bucking a more recent trend. “It has been six or seven years since a horse won the Derby off more than two preps (as a 3-year-old). I think that’s the most significant trend he’s bucking.”

Sure enough, the last horse to win the Derby off as many as three preps was Barbaro in 2006.

I’ll Have Another, Animal Kingdom, Super Saver, Mine That Bird, Big Brown and Street Sense were all making the third start of their 3-year-old campaigns when they captured the roses. The most recent Derby winner to have as many as four preps was Smarty Jones in 2004.

If you want to follow this trend, this year’s Derby came be narrowed down to five potential winners, with a case to be made for a sixth. Java’s War, Overanalyze, Revolutionary, Normandy Invasion and Mylute will each be making their third start of the year. Dubai shipper Lines of Battle will be making only his second start.

Upon reflection, this trend shouldn’t be shocking. Horses being handled extremely conservatively mirrors what is happening throughout the game as horses race fewer times each year. For the sake of the excitement Triple Crown prep season generates, I’m hoping one of the others wins, lest two preps become the new normal.

Pettiness denied Churchill Downs the opportunity to say, “In your face!” to the numerous detractors of the new Kentucky Derby qualifying points system (which included me).

One week from the Run for the Roses, the 20 who qualified for the May 4 running is pretty much the same group that would have faced the starter under the old earnings criteria.

Thanks to the exclusion of all races under a mile, there are no Trinnibergs to screw up the pace before throwing in the towel.

It might have been nice if there was a route to the Derby for an outstanding filly, such as Dreaming of Julia, Midnight Lucky or Eclipse champion Beholder. Then again, their connections knew the new rules and chose not to compete in any of the open preps with Derby points.

None of the likely starters have made the cut because of over-inflated earnings as a 2-year-old. Churchill Downs took a lot of heat for putting a race like the Delta Jackpot on a par with the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. I still don’t think this is fair or just. In my opinion, the BC Juvenile should count for at least twice as much as any other 2-year-old race. But you can’t argue with the results.

Three horses from the Delta Jackpot—winner Goldencents, show horse Mylute and Itsmyluckyday, who ran sixth—are in the 2013 Derby. Amazingly, this is three more than emerged from the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.

Everything was coming up roses (pun intended) for the new system until Departing demolished his foes in the Illinois Derby. The premier race of the Hawthorne season carried no Derby qualifying points because Churchill management doesn't get along with the owners of Hawthorne. Using the Derby qualification process as a club to settle extraneous scores is petty and vindictive.

Few objective observers could argue Departing is not deserving of one of the spots in the Derby starting gate. It’s not as if he jumped up from nowhere to win the Illinois Derby. In his prior start, he ran third in the Louisiana Derby behind Revolutionary, who will be one of the Kentucky Derby favorites, and Mylute, who also made the field. Prior to the Fair Grounds race, Departing won his first three career starts.

Departing is expected to jump on to the Triple Crown trail in the Preakness. It would be poetic justice if he embarrasses Churchill by outrunning all or most of the Derby horses, who go on to the second jewel.

Churchill should be embarrassed enough already to include the Illinois Derby in the qualifying process next year. But there is a chance that, instead, Churchill will double down.

If the South Florida confrontation between Gulfstream and Churchill-owned Calder comes to pass, Calder plans to move at least two of its major Derby age races—the Tropical Derby and Foolish Pleasure—into the heart of Triple Crown prep season.

Calder general manager John Marshall says the idea is these races will have Derby qualifying points attached to them. No problem there, unless it is at the expense of traditional Gulfstream preps such as the Florida Derby and Fountain of Youth.

The Illinois Derby is one thing. The Florida Derby, with its rich history of providing horses who distinguish themselves in the Triple Crown races, is an entirely different matter.

I doubt Churchill would risk tarnishing the Derby luster with an additional show of pettiness. Then again, I never thought I would hear Kentucky Derby attached to “Presented by Yum Brands.”

Written by Tom Jicha

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