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, December 20, 2013

BC Classic rematch will have to wait…but not for long

Racing fans are eagerly awaiting a rematch between Mucho Macho Man and Will Take Charge, who finished a nose apart in the Breeders' Cup Classic. For a brief period, it seemed like it could happen in the Donn Handicap at Gulfstream on Feb. 8. Now it is more likely to occur in the Big Cap at Santa Anita a month later.

MIAMI, Dec. 20, 2013—The Donn Handicap has traditionally been the premier race of the winter season east of the Rockies for older horses. For a while, it appeared there was a chance the 2014 renewal on Feb. 8 was going to be an early candidate for Race of the Year.

D. Wayne Lukas’ announcement that he is targeting the Donn for Will Take Charge’s seasonal debut raised a delicious possibility. The Donn also was a candidate for the return to the races of Mucho Macho Man, according to his trainer, Kathy Ritvo, spouse of Gulfstream president Tim Ritvo.

Not only would this be a Breeders’ Cup Classic rematch, it is potentially a confrontation between Eclipse Award winners. Will Take Charge’s victory over Game on Dude in the Clark Handicap makes him the solid favorite to be named outstanding 3-year-old.

Mucho Macho Man’s triumph in the BC Classic, with Will Take Charge and Game on Dude behind him, gives him a shot to overtake the Dude as top older horse.

The new Gulfstream, with its limited seating capacity, would have a difficult time containing all the fans who might turn out for an early season showdown of the horses who finished a nose apart in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. But Tim Ritvo would love the opportunity to try to squeeze them in.

Alas, the faceoff is still likely to take place in the first quarter of the year but it probably won’t be in the Donn. The Santa Anita Handicap is the likely spot, according to Ritvo, who trained Mucho Macho Man before he took the job running Gulfstream. He’s also got an inside line to Kathy as the last person to talk to her every night and the first person she sees every morning.

Tim is still in line to get the BC Classic’s first two but probably in separate stakes. Mucho Macho Man is now pointing toward the Sunshine Millions Classic on Jan. 18, a few hours before the Eclipse winners are announced at Gulfstream.

While it’s disappointing to the racing world, this is a sensible approach. Why wring out your horse in a potential gut-wrenching first race of the season for $500,000 when you can face Florida-breds only for $400,000.

Ritvo offered another prudent reason for using the Sunshine Millions, which Mucho Macho Man won in 2012, to ease him into his 2014 campaign. “It’s six weeks from there to the Santa Anita Handicap. The Donn is only four weeks. Kathy likes that spacing better. Both trainers, Kathy and Mr. Lukas, are going to do what’s best for their horse.”

The Sunshine Millions as a prep for the Big ‘Cap has successful precedent. Ron the Greek ran second to Mucho Macho Man in 2012, then went west to bury the Big Cap field.

This doesn’t mean Ritvo wouldn’t love to have the MMM-WTC showdown at his track. Suppose there was an indication that a significant bump to the Donn purse could lure both into the race? “That would have to come from the corporate side,” he said. “It would look self-serving (as Kathy’s spouse) if I suggested it.”

Frank Stronach has demonstrated a willingness to spend freely but this is an unlikely scenario for a simple reason. Stronach also owns Santa Anita.

Would Tim resort to pillow talk to try to get Kathy to change her mind. “She wouldn’t listen to me anyway,” he said with the smile of a long married man. “She never does.”

More means less racing reportage

Racing reportage continues to slide off the media map. The Miami Herald, for decades the dominant newspaper not only in the Miami area but the entire state of Florida, is the latest publication to downgrade racing coverage.

It has not staffed a major race (or minor one) since the Summit of Speed in July. Not even the opening day of the premier winter season at Gulfstream and the eight-stakes Claiming Crown were deemed worthy of dispatching a staffer or free-lancer.

(Disclosure: I cover stakes for the South Florida Sun Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale. But the one-time fierce rivalry between the two papers has dissolved to the extent that the papers have agreed to allow access to some of each other’s reporting to control expenses.)

The turn of events in Miami isn’t as distressing as in New York, where the Post and Daily News exiled scaled-down racing coverage to the internet. The Herald has used wire services and releases from the Gulfstream press department to report the results of Saturday stakes the past couple of weeks. But there have been no advances, which used to be featured regularly and arguably are more useful to racing, since it alerts fans of what’s coming up.

The lack of staff reporting on stakes could be considered collateral damage in the war between Calder and Gulfstream. The Herald continues to publish entries and charts of both tracks. With head-to-head conflicts every Friday, Saturday and Sunday, as well as Hialeah’s quarterhorse meeting, the agate takes up a full page, which has squeezed out column inches formerly devoted to racing stories.

I’m told this is a fluid situation, which could change at any time. The new year brings a new budget, which might provide resources for a free-lance reporter, which the Herald has utilized the past few years.

The presence of star horses with well recognizable names, such as Mucho Macho Man and Will Take Charge, wouldn’t hurt.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Shared Belief is a gift to racing

Shared Belief could be the best thing to happen to racing in decades. He established his brilliance in devastating the Cash Call Futurity. He is a gelding, so he'll be around for a while. Best of all, he's partially owned by Jim Rome, who connects with the toughest demographic to reach, young males. But there is a caveat, or two.

MIAMI, Dec. 18, 2013—Christmas arrived early for thoroughbred racing. Shared Belief’s other-worldly dominance of the Cash Call Futurity makes him potentially the best thing to happen to the sport since the decade of champions in the ‘70s.

I concede I might be getting carried away by a young horse, who has run only three times, never on a conventional dirt track. But isn’t racing, especially when it comes to Derby-age colts, about dreaming the dream? Isn’t this what keeps owners spending and trainers getting up in the dark every morning?

It wasn’t only the breath-taking way Jerry Hollendorfer’s horse accelerated away from a field arguably of the caliber of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, although that would be plenty to get excited about. His 106 Beyer was about 11 lengths better than the 88 hung up by New Year’s Day in the BC Juvenile and Honor Code in the Remsen. The previous high for a 2YO was 102 by Havana, sprinting 5 ½ furlongs at Saratoga.

Often huge Beyer figs are achieved racing on an uncontested lead. Shared Belief did it the professional way. He sat off the pace, then most impressive of all, allowed Gary Stevens and Candy Boy to surge past him in a bold middle move before picking that rival up with contemptuous ease en route to an almost six-length triumph. You rarely see that kind of adaptability in a such a young horse.

The gelding by Candy Ride—2003 winner of the mile-and-a-quarter Pacific Classic--impressed the overseas gang at Timeform, too, according to HRTV's Zoe Cadman.They rate him at 124, a figure just below some of the world’s finest older horses and the best for any 2-year-old in the world in 2013.

Jeff Siegel, whose opinion is as respected as any public analyst in the nation, gushed, “He’s the best 2-year-old in the country, no question about it.”

But there’s so much more that makes Shared Belief a gift to racing. Near the top of the list is the fact that he’s a gelding. If he does live up to his enormous promise—a monstrous “if”-- he could be around for years as a major drawing card.

Toward that end and perhaps most significant in the big picture, the majority owner of Shared Belief is Jim Rome. The nationally syndicated radio host is the man among the toughest demographic to reach, young males. He’s the unofficial arbiter of cool. If “Romey” thinks racing is something to get excited about, it is. You think Rome will be talking much about the spring classics the next few months?

Rome is on an extraordinary hot streak. He bought a piece of Mizdirection and she won a couple of Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprints. But it’s hard to spend a lot of time talking about an older filly racing abbreviated distances on grass. The Derby trail is another matter. Every major prep, no matter where it is contested, takes on importance as it relates to Shared Belief.

Rome is too savvy a pro not to appreciate football, basketball and baseball are where he has to live. But even a few minutes of Derby talk every now and then will be more valuable than all of the racing intensive networks, which are essentially preaching to the choir.

One caveat: As effusively as I have been praising Shared Belief, I’m not sure I can write his name down on my Eclipse ballot as outstanding juvenile. In a vacuum, his credentials are impeccable, three-for-three, including a Grade 1 and a Grade 3. The other serious contender, New Year’s Day, has a maiden win and the Grade 1 BC Juvenile. The latter is the race designed to settle the issue and Shared Belief wasn’t there.

But this isn’t what gives me pause. All three of Shared Belief’s wins have been on artificial surfaces. The word that keeps jumping into my head is Dullahan. He won three Grade 1’s—the Breeders’ Futurity, the Blue Grass and the Pacific Classic. By those standards, he should be considered one of the standouts of recent years. But all three were on synthetic tracks. On real dirt, he was just a horse, with the arguable exception of a someone-had-to-be-third in the 2012 Kentucky Derby.

The continued failure of winners of major Keeneland stakes to duplicate their championship form on mainstream tracks is another red flag.

Corey Nakatani says he has no doubt Shared Belief will handle dirt. But what would you expect him to say? You know the old expression about never counting on a horse to do something he has never done before.

It might be time for the Eclipse Awards to have a separate category for synthetic achievements, just as there is for turf. However, I don’t expect much momentum to gather for this idea. With Hollywood Park closing this weekend, Del Mar and the short Keeneland sessions will be the only venues where more than one or two significant races are contested on artificial surfaces.

I wish there was a future bet on the Blue Grass. I’d tap out on Shared Belief. But until he establishes that he is the same star on real dirt that he is on the waxed stuff, judgment has to be reserved. This includes the Eclipse vote.

I’m going to have to think hard on this one.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Friday, December 13, 2013

Grading Committee’s work is indefensible

The American Grading Committee treats Keeneland like a sacred cow while downgrading Calder's only Grade 1, the Princess Rooney, despite a stellar roster of competitors and winners. Its timing is also bad, doing this while elevating three Gulfstream stakes.

The American Graded Stakes Committee is the latest to kick Calder while it’s down.

The Princess Rooney, Calder’s only Grade 1 and the centerpiece of the Summit of Speed, has been downgraded to Grade 2. This arbitrary act is totally unjustifiable by traditional standards. The only conclusion is other considerations came into play. Draw your own conclusions.

Let’s look at the five most recent renewals of the Princess Rooney. Starship Truffles, winner of this past summer’s Princess Rooney, is the weakest of the bunch, a filly who got good at the perfect time. But runnerup Judy the Beauty came out of it to win the Turf Club of America and run second in the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint.

The Princess Rooney’s 2012 winner, Musical Romance, entered it as champion of the 2011 Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint. Prior to her win at Calder, Musical Romance ran second to Eclipse winner Groupie Doll in the Grade 1 Humana Distaff. Groupie Doll came out of that race to win three more stakes in a row, including the 2012 Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint.

Sassy Image, the 2011 Princess Rooney winner, came into it after taking the Winning Colors and Humana Distaff, in which Musical Romance was second. Also trailing Sassy Image home was Champagne D’Oro, who had Grade 1 wins in the Test and Acorn.

The 2010 winner, Jessica Is Back, rebounded with a third in the Grade 1 Ballerina. The show horse in that Princess Rooney, Dubai Majesty, won three of her next four, including the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint.

Game Face, who captured the 2009 Princess Rooney, next won the Honorable Miss at Saratoga. Prior to the Calder race, she had taken a couple of other graded stakes.

So in five years, the Princess Rooney has one less than stellar winner. If this necessitates a drop in grade, there would be scores of downgrades every year, not the 11 overall in the latest rankings, two from Grade 1.

Not one Hollywood Park stakes has been downgraded even though it is unknown which will even be contested in 2014.

Moreover, never let it be said that there are no sacred cows in racing. Not a single Keeneland race has been touched even though its roster of stakes winners is almost weightless since the track installed an artificial surface.

Nothing illustrates this better than the Blue Grass. Once a leading Kentucky Derby prep, its first three finishers over the past five years have been (2013) Java’s War, Palace Malice, Charming Kitten; (2012) Dullahan, Hansen, Gung Ho; (2011) Brilliant Speed, Twinspired, King Congie; (2010) Stately Victor, Paddy O’Prado, First Dude; (2009) General Quarters, Holdmeback, Massone.

Dullahan is the only winner to take another race of consequence, the Pacific Classic, also on a synthetic track, just as his only victory before the Blue Grass, the Breeders’ Futurity, was on fake dirt. Maybe it's time for a new category, Grade 1 Synthetic, just as we have Grade 1 Turf.

For the record, the Breeders’ Futurity and its filly counterpart, the Alcibiades, are two additional Grade 1 Keeneland stakes with a lackluster parade of winners, especially on dirt, since the track changed surfaces.

Palace Malice came out of this past spring’s Blue Grass to win the Belmont and Jim Dandy and finish second in the Jockey Club Gold Cup.

That’s pretty much it. Java’s War has not won another race. Brilliant Speed won a turf stakes. Stately Warrior won the Ontario Derby, also on kitty litter. General Quarters won the Woodford Reserve on turf.
The other Blue Grass in-the-money finishers have faded into obscurity. Yet nothing at Keeneland gets touched by the Graded Stakes Committee. Indefensible.

While the Graded Stakes Committee was giving the back of its hand to Calder, it was rewarding Gulfstream with the elevation of three stakes from Grade 3 to Grade 2—the Sabin, Holy Bull and Swale.
A cynic might interpret this as another segment of the racing industry picking sides in the ongoing conflict between the two South Florida tracks. However, two of the three Gulfstream stakes inarguably merited a kick upstairs. It's just the timing that raises eyebrows.

The last three Sabins have been won by Royal Delta and Awesome Maria twice. Enough said.

The Holy Bull went last winter to multiple stakes winner Itsmyluckyday, who went on to run second in the Florida Derby and Preakness. Algorithms, considered the leader of his generation until he was injured, got the money in 2012. Dialed In went on to win the Florida Derby in 2011.

The Swale is more of a borderline call. If it was going to be raised, it should have been last year, after Trinniberg went on to win the Breeders’ Cup Sprint, in addition to the Bay Shore and Woody Stephens.

This past spring’s winner, Clearly Now, has only a first in the Grade 3 Bold Ruler since, although he has been stakes-placed four other times.

The Swale’s case weakens when 2011 is included. Travelin Man’s subsequent credentials include only the ungraded Sir Shackleton twice and an allowance, all at Gulfstream.

Raising the Swale to Grade 2, now the same level as the Princess Rooney, gives ammunition to cynics who interpret it as another segment of the racing industry picking sides in the Battle of South Florida.

Written by Tom Jicha

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