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, February 07, 2014

Loaded Donn pushes 3-year-olds into background for a week

The road to the Derby continues Saturday with the Robert B. Lewis at Santa Anita, where Midnight Hawk is expected to solidify his status as the best in the West not named Shared Belief. But the race of the weekend is the Donn at Gulfstream in which Eclipse champion Will Take Charge makes his seasonal debut against an extremely salty field.

MIAMI, Feb. 7,2014—Winter and spring belong to 3-year-olds but a short detour from the Derby trail is called for this weekend to focus on the race of the year so far, the Donn Handicap Sunday at Gulfstream.

Gulfstream’s grandest stage for older horses will kick off the “Jockey Club Tour on Fox” with an abundance of star power. The marquee name is Will Take Charge, who might have been a nose away from Horse of the Year—the distance he fell short of catching Mucho Macho Man in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

But he is far from a free bingo square in the Donn, which concludes a pick 3, pick 4, pick 5 and Rainbow 6. He hasn’t been out since running down Game on Dude in the Clark Handicap Thanksgiving weekend. What’s more, the Donn is the first step on the long journey back to the Breeders’ Cup. D Wayne Lukas obviously wants to win another Grade 1 but it’s doubtful the screws are fully tightened.

The weights surely will not be an excuse. Will Take Charge got a kindly package of 123 pounds. In an understatement, Lukas said, “I think probably at this time of year, they’re not going to load up too much on any of these horses.” The Coach didn’t need the qualifier “at this time of year.” Handicaps have become a joke as racing secretaries vie to get star horses to their track. Grade 1’s, which are supposed to identify the best of the breed, shouldn’t be handicaps anyway.

Unlike Game on Dude, who launches his 2014 season Saturday in the San Antonio Stakes--another of those California cakewalks in which he has built his reputation beating nobodies--Will Take Charge will be challenged by a deep, talented field of 10 rivals.

Revolutionary, second high weight at 119, was arguably a better horse than Will Take Charge during the time both were in training last year. They met twice. Revolutionary was third in the Kentucky Derby. Will Take Charge finished eighth. Revolutionary was fifth in the Belmont. Will Take Charge ran tenth.

Revolutionary didn’t get to prove conclusively that he was better because his connections put him away after the Belmont in order to have a top 4-year-old. He certainly looked that part in his Gulfstream return, which was more impressive than the half-length victory margin makes it look.

The Donn is far from a two-horse race. River Seven has done most of his racing in Canada but comes into Sunday’s race on a three-race winning streak, including a turf stakes at Churchill and a track record performance in the Harlan’s Holiday, his first experience on Gulfstream’s main track. In his only previous try on conventional dirt, he was a close second in the Prince of Wales, a leg of the Canadian Triple Crown.

Lea also might have better than a puncher’s chance against the champ. He’s been on the verge of becoming a serious horse throughout his career, which has been spent mostly on grass. Last summer he was second and third to Wise Dan in graded stakes. Bill Mott took over his training this winter and put him on dirt in the Hal’s Hope. Lea responded with a runaway win.

The Hall of Fame trainer once took another horse, who was not firing his best shots on turf, which seemed to be the surface he was bred for, and tried him on dirt. Cigar became the best horse in the world. It’s foolhardy to suggest Lea is the second coming of Cigar but he could be a major player in the older horse ranks this year.

The Jockey Club Tour got an unexpected bonus when Groupie Doll’s new owner, Mandy Pope, who bought her at auction for $3.1 million after the Breeders’ Cup, decided she didn’t want her new star mare to go out on an off-the-board finish in the Cigar Mile. So she was pointed to the Hurricane Bertie. Win or lose, Groupie Doll next goes to the breeding shed.

She might be a better bet against than Will Take Charge. After-thought races are never ideal situations. Moreover, her second Eclipse was awarded solely on the basis of a repeat victory in the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint. Maybe this was the race her whole season was pointed toward, because she certainly wasn’t the Groupie Doll of 2012 last year.

She opened her campaign hanging the length of the stretch to finish third against a couple of horses of moderate ability at Ellis Park. She redeemed herself somewhat with an encore win in the Presque Isle Masters but then ran third again in the TCA at Keeneland. She wound up the year fourth in the Cigar. She had some excuses, but don’t they all?

Wildcat Lily and Jamaican Smoke are both Grade 1-placed. But the one to pay most heed to might be Heart Stealer, two-for-two since joining the Marty Wolfson barn, which is lethal in local stakes.

The Fox telecast (5-6:30 p.m.) has a third stakes, the Grade 1 Gulfstream Turf Handicap, which marks the return of Amira’s Prince. Four-for-four in the U.S., he hasn’t been out since the Mervin Muniz at the Fair Grounds almost a year ago. But he is in the hands of Mott, who’s as good as it gets bringing quality horses back to the races off long layoffs.

The threats are Summer Front, who made the Fort Lauderdale last month his seventh career stakes win, and the current Shug, old Shug duo of Imagining and Boisterous. Six-year-old Imagining, in Shug McGaughey’s barn his entire career, will be gunning for his third straight win and first in a Grade 1. Boisterous, who became a millionaire under Shug’s tutelage, was sold at Keeneland last fall to Gary Barber and makes his first start for Todd Pletcher.

The weekend’s only 3-year-old race of note, the Grade 2 Robert B. Lewis, goes Saturday at Santa Anita. Midnight Hawk will be an overwhelming favorite in a field of seven and, as Trevor Denman likes to say, looking for a danger, can’t find one.

Everything out west is in a stagnant state until the status of Shared Belief is established.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Gulfstream Taking a Gamble by Putting Racing First with Donn on Sunday

Gulfstream Park is putting the sport ahead of its bottom line in moving the Donn Handicap from Saturday to Sunday, Donn coming up a terrific race headed by Will Take Charge, in order to help launch 'The Jockey Club Tour on Fox.' It is also kicking in another $50K to lure a representative field to take on Groupie Doll in her career finale, which will open the Fox telecast.

MIAMI, Feb. 5, 2014--Gulfstream is taking one for the team this weekend. The Donn Handicap is being moved from its original date on Saturday to Sunday to accommodate the launch of "The Jockey Club Tour on Fox."

This should not be dismissed as no big deal, especially in light of how other tracks have done nothing to support the latest initiative to get more racing on TV. (There is not a single race from a Churchill Downs-owned track on the schedule. Their bad, or Fox's?)

The Donn traditionally produces one of the biggest days of the winter season at Gulfstream, often behind only Florida Derby Day. In moving it to Sunday, Gulfstream is risking a major hit to its bottom line.
Gulfstream President Tim Ritvo is hopeful this won’t be the case, but it is a roll of the dice. “Saturday will not do as well (without the Donn) but Sunday will be better than usual. We’re hoping the combination will equal or be better than what we would do on a normal weekend.”

The only precedent came a few years ago when Gulfstream experimented with moving The Florida Derby to Sunday with another stakes loaded day, including the Gulfstream Oaks, on Saturday. The idea was to see if it could create a Kentucky Oaks-Kentucky Derby-like two-day event.

The weekend handle was about what a Saturday Florida Derby and normal Sunday would have generated, according to Ritvo. But it is perhaps revealing that it became a one-and-done trial. The Florida Derby went back to Saturday and has been anchored there since.

What’s more, the Florida Derby is long established as a major event, which transcends racing, on the South Florida social calendar. The Donn is eagerly anticipated by racing fans but not the general population.

This is why Gulfstream deserves accolades for taking the chance with the Donn for all the right reasons. “We’re hoping the exposure on TV outweighs what we might lose on the change.”

Sunday racing was touted as the panacea that would reverse the downward trend in Florida racing when it was being debated in the Florida legislature. I can’t recall if it was the panacea to usher in a new golden age before or after the minors bill was the panacea that would usher in a new era of prosperity. Both definitely preceded slots, the panacea du jour.

Thankfully, it’s not three panaceas and you’re out for racing.

For some reason, or many reasons, Sunday racing has never caught on in a big way in Florida—or anywhere else in the United States. This is why many big stakes are not on the "Jockey Club Tour" agenda. Many tracks have been unwilling to move their marquee events from Saturday to Sunday.

Theories for the disappointment Sundays have become are as myriad as handicapping techniques. King NFL is a prominent one for almost half the year. Every track shows the games on monitors throughout their plant—some even have contests linking football and racing-- but this is no match for the comfort of home with a big screen TV.

Besides--the NFL’s disingenuous protests notwithstanding--more money probably changes hands on Sunday in football game bets and fantasy leagues than at the nation’s racetracks. So gambling thirsts are sated without a trip to the track.

Ken Dunn, the only man to run Calder and Gulfstream, says a higher power than even the NFL should not be overlooked. “Sunday is a church day for an awful lot of people.” Many extend this to the commandment to keep holy the Lord’s day. A gambling and drinking establishment does not fit within this parameter. (Christianity is not the only religion, but it is the dominant one in numbers).

Dunn, who also was a top executive at Arlington and Atlantic City, said experience teaches him Sundays will never be as strong as Saturdays, no matter what inducements tracks offer to attract customers. “At Calder, we created a family picnic area. We had pony rides, face painting and games for kids. It boosted attendance for a while but it quickly became old hat. Racing is never going to make it with families. It’s great to expose it to them but they are not going to come to the track every week.”

Probably because Sunday is such a family oriented day, “The male of the household has a more difficult time getting away on a Sunday than on Saturday,” Dunn said.

Speaking from anecdotal experience, Dunn, an avid golfer, said it is the same at local courses. “It’s much easier to get a tee time on a Sunday than it is on a Saturday.”

Dunn and Ritvo are on the same page with another factor that’s especially peculiar to South Florida during the winter. “Sunday is a travel day here,” Ritvo said. Tourists who visit for a week or weekend tend to head home on Sunday.

Indeed, since changing the date of the Donn, Ritvo said he has heard from disappointed fans, who told him they had made plans to be in Florida for the Donn on Saturday then fly home the next day.

Those who can’t make it are going to miss a sensational race. Eclipse champion Will Take Charge tops an anticipated big field expected to include Revolutionary, River Seven and Lea. There will be more on the Donn on Friday.

As a bonus, two-time Eclipse winner Groupie Doll will make the final start of her career in the Hurricane Bertie. Gulfstream is biting another bullet by kicking in an extra $50K to the purse if Groupie Doll runs but it really isn’t to assure her presence. She has been set for a while. The track is hoping to entice a few more contenders to take on the champ so that the race is meaningful and competitive for TV.

Both races, in addition to the Gulfstream Turf Cup, will be part of the telecast on Fox Sports 1 from 5-6:30.

Dunn applauds Gulfstream’s selflessness in making this possible. “I can’t tell you how many meetings I sat through where we tried to get more races on TV but there was little willingness to make a short-term sacrifice for long-term gains.”

Written by Tom Jicha

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Friday, January 31, 2014

You never know where next hot Derby horse will come from

A trio of stakes for 3-year-olds are on the Saturday agenda. None of the hot contenders are scheduled to go in the Hutcheson, Sam F. Davis or Withers but this time of year a major new shooter could come from anywhere.

MIAMI, Jan. 31, 2014--New Year’s Day, the high-weight in the Experimental Handicap released this week, didn’t make it to, well, New Year’s Day, before going to the sidelines.

Shared Belief, co-second high-weight, is dealing with hoof problems. He has had his planned season debut in the Robert B. Lewis on Feb. 8 delayed at least a month.

Havana, rated equal to Shared Belief, must have issues, too. The blueprint now is to launch his 3-year-old campaign in the seven furlong Swale on March 1 instead of the two-turn Fountain of Youth a week earlier.

Honor Code, fourth in the Experimental rankings, bruised his ankles. He also will skip the Fountain of Youth, which had been penciled in as his first step toward Louisville.

It’s hard to take the Experimental seriously when it ranks Cairo Prince six pounds below Honor Code on 2-year-old form. They were a nose apart in the Remsen, when Cairo Prince conceded six pounds to Honor Code, had a tougher trip and still might have won but for a poorly judged ride.

But the Experimental does identify the horses expected to be the major players as Derby season dawns.

The developments with the leaders illustrate how quickly the Derby picture can be scrambled. A week ago, Top Billing was just another promising colt still eligible for an entry level allowance. One eye-popping last-to-first win last Saturday has vaulted him onto most Top 10 (if not Top 5) lists. Poor Commissioner. He beat Top Billing in a Gulfstream allowance and nobody is talking about him.

So you never know at this time of year when the next would-be star is going to materialize. This needs to be kept in mind while assessing the three stakes for Derby-age horses on Saturday’s docket: the Hutcheson, the Sam F. Davis and the Withers.

It would appear unlikely a major new shooter for the spring classics will emerge. The seven furlong Hutcheson is composed mostly of horses whose future is around one turn. The Sam F. Davis, a mile and a sixteenth around two turns, has only one horse with more than a single win, and that was in a restricted Canadian stakes. The co-favorites in the Withers are New York-breds trying open company for the first time.

Probable Hutcheson favorite Wildcat Red is in the race only because a minor sickness knocked him out of last week’s Holy Bull. The way Cairo Prince ran, it might have been a fortuitous illness.

Wildcat Red crossed the finish line first in his first three starts (although he was disqualified in one), then ran second in the Gulfstream Derby. But the first three were sprints and he was passed in the stretch for the first time attempting a mile. Turning back to seven furlongs, he should be right in his comfort zone.

If there are to be horses to come out of the Hutcheson and go on to longer distances, they likely will be from the loaded (what’s new?) Todd Pletcher barn. Vinceremos broke his maiden at a mile, gamely overcoming an adventuresome trip. Todd thinks enough of him to have cross-entered him in the Sammy Davis.

The Todd Squad’s other contender, Trail Blaze, was the talk of New York when he broke his maiden. But he was off the board at 6-5 in the Spectacular Bid. It wasn’t an easy trip so he’s eligible to come back big.

The runnerup in the Bid, C. Zee, is attempting more than six furlongs for the first time in his fourth career start.

Mighty Brown won a small stakes at Tampa at the Hutcheson distance then misfired in a special event in Ocala. However, the sales company track in Central Florida can leg up horses for top efforts subsequently.

Wesley Ward’s Pablo Del Monte looked like a prospect when he won his first two starts going short. But he has been a non-factor in two attempts at a mile, one on turf. Perhaps significantly, his two wins were on synthetics.

If Todd opts for the Davis with Vinceremos, he will likely be an underlay solely because of his connections. Pletcher has another impressive maiden breaker, Harpoon, entered. He was second three times before breaking through and was within three lengths of Cairo Prince when the new leader of the division broke his maiden at Belmont.

Asserting Bear from the potent Reade Baker outfit has the strongest credentials outside of maiden breakers. He has been in the money in three restricted Canadian stakes, all at more than a mile. Baker must feel there is more to be gotten. He’s putting blinkers on. A caution: Asserting Bear tries real dirt for the first time.

Another Woodbine-based colt, Matador, was last behind Asserting Bear in his most recent start but he did win the restricted Cup & Saucer, albeit on grass. He, too, will be on conventional dirt for the first time.

New York-bred Noble Cornerstone could be the sleeper. He galloped first time out at Aqueduct then ran a fast closing second in a 12-horse , $250,000 stakes at Remington. Blinkers come off and a rejuvenated Kent Desormeaux comes in to ride.

New York-breds figure to dominate the open Withers at a mile and a sixteenth. Samratt, a son of Noble Causeway, looks like he could be any kind. He’s three-for-three, capped by an almost 17-length front-running laugher at a mile and 70 yards. He might not need an edge but he has been training at Palm Meadows, which often is an advantage over horses who have had to deal with New York’s winter, which has been especially brutal this year.

Uncle Sigh, also bred in the Empire State, is coming off a ridiculously easy win, too, a 14 ½- length maiden romp at a mile and 70. Gary Contessa said if no one else takes it to Samratt, his son of Indian Charlie will.

The stranger danger in the six-horse field is Honorable Judge, shipping in off an open allowance win at Parx.

The Withers is one of four stakes on the Saturday Aqueduct card. This might seem a bit much for the first day of February but battalions of sports fans will be in town for this big football game across the river on Sunday.

How could any racing fan not like a team called the Broncos?

Written by Tom Jicha

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