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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Thursday, March 03, 2016

The only breaks Florida racing gets are bad ones

South Florida racing should be riding high after last weekend's huge Fountain of Youth day, which produced a handle in excess of $24 million, and set up a showdown between undefeated Kentucky Derby hopefuls Mohaymen and Nyquist in the Florida Derby. However the good feelings are tempered by an outbreak of EHV-1 at Payson Park and the continued looming specter of decoupling as the last week of the Florida legislative session approaches.

MIAMI, March 3, 2016----Florida racing could be forgiven for assuming the racing gods have it in for it. Mohaymen's smashing win in the Fountain of Youth seemed to put the final piece in place for one of the most anticipated Kentucky Derby preps in memory, the Florida Derby showdown with undefeated Eclipse champion Nyquist.

However before there was a chance to savor the prospect, Florida racing got hit with a shot to the gut with the possibility of a follow-up haymaker to the chin.

The potentially devastating blow is the discovery at the Payson Park training center of a filly with equine herpesvirus-1. This necessitated an immediate 21-day quarantine of the facility and the approximately 500 horses housed there. This includes the potent strings of Bill Mott, Christophe Clement and Shug McGaughey
The impact on racing was minimal the first two days. Only one horse coming out of Payson was entered Thursday and Friday at Gulfstream. This weekend could be when the lock-in begins to take a toll. Clement had five horses nominated to The Very One, one of Saturday's tri-features, and reportedly planned to run two. He also had one for the Mac Diarmada. Mott had two eligible for this stakes, with one probable to run.

There are other stakes galore as the premier winter meeting winds down where horses from the Clement, Mott and McGaughey barns would be factors. Some of the upcoming Tampa Bay stakes also could lose star-power starters.

Also reports are Mott had penciled in the Honeybee at Oaklawn on March 12 for the 3-year-old debut of his outstanding filly Carina Mia. This will have to be delayed with the Oaks only nine weeks away.

Another downside is the reluctance of out-of-town barns to ship in for Florida stakes, fearful they could get marooned here if the quarantine spreads.

It's not just stakes horses coming out of the Payson barns. Clement, Mott and McGaughey runners fill the better class allowance races and MSW's, which fortify undercards. Moreover, these three are the big names. A lot of other top caliber horses winter at Payson. You won't find many $6,500 beaten claimers and $12,500 maidens.

The truly terrifying aspect of this situation, according to Mary Gallagher, general manager of Payson, is if another horse turns up positive for EHV-1, the 21-day quarantine clock starts again at zero.

In the best case scenario, this will be an isolated, single-horse occurrence and Payson horses will be eligible to race again in plenty of time for the stakes-studded Florida Derby card on April 2 as well as the plethora of big spring races at Keeneland, Aqueduct and Churchill Downs. The worst case scenario, a mass outbreak, is too catastrophic to even contemplate.

Then there's decoupling

The other prospective knockout blow is the continuing specter of decoupling, which would allow greyhound, harness and quarterhorse tracks and jai alai frontons to maintain their slots and poker operations without the obligation to continue their pari-mutuel sports. This would turn South Florida into a mini-Las Vegas. You could count on no hands how many race tracks have survived there.

Gulfstream and Tampa Bay Downs aren't included in the decoupling bill but Calder is. The end of the sham Gulfstream West meeting would be a good thing for racing even if it did reward Churchill Downs Inc. for bad behavior.

This ship hasn't sailed but the engines are fired up and the tug boats have pulled alongside. It's going to happen. It's just a matter of when.

The negative is it could also signal the end of racing at Hialeah forever. Not that many thoroughbred fans would mourn the departure of the quarterhorses, which are merely a gimmick to get slots and poker. However, as long as Hialeah was operating as a race track, hope sprang eternal for a thoroughbred renaissance.

An optimist might say that with the casino-sustaining Calder meet out of the way, Gulfstream could become amenable to a short fall boutique meeting at the world's most beautiful race track. The only good thing to come out of the Gulfstream West session is it served as a buffer between the summer and winter seasons and opening day of the winter meeting became an anticipated event. A short Hialeah session could do the same.
However, someone intimately familiar with the thinking at Hialeah said that John Brunetti's two sons are strongly opposed to spending the money it would take to spruce up the place for thoroughbreds.

There actually is more good news than bad on the decoupling front. A Florida Senate committee refused to take up the massive Seminole Indian Compact this past Tuesday. Decoupling has been attached to that bill as part of an omnibus gambling package. With the session due to end March 11, a consensus has emerged that nothing will be done this year
The hang-up is amendments that have been added to the Compact that would allow slots in six other Florida counties in addition to Miami-Dade, Broward and one new facility in Palm Beach, presumably at the dog track.

This is a deal-breaker for the Indians, who promised Florida a minimum of $3 billion over the next seven years if their monopoly on gambling in the state was guaranteed for 20 years. There also are provisions to allow the Seminoles to add table games, but the continued monopoly is driving the Compact.

The only thing more desirable for the thoroughbred industry than the status quo for another year is a status quo for many years. However, a well founded paranoia, justified by the many times horsemen have been screwed by lawmakers, has sprung up.
The fear is decoupling will be decoupled from the Seminole Compact and tacked onto some other non-related sure-thing bill at the eleventh hour next Friday. There is plenty of precedent for this, especially as it relates to pari-mutuel bills.

So while signs are more positive than negative right now, there is no relaxing until the hammer comes down on the 2016 legislative session and decoupling has been tabled until at least next year.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, February 25, 2016

Super over-used but it fits this Saturday

Gulfstream's Fountain of Youth Day is a rarity. It's worthy of the over-used superlative Super Saturday.The main event will feature undefeated Mohaymen's toughest test to date. But the card is loaded with other stars, including Cathryn Sophia, the East Coast's answer to Songbird; X Y Jet prepping for the Golden Shaheen; and the return of Divisidero,who looked like a budding turf star last season. On another front, the Kentucky Derby was included in a not-very-well-thought-out roster of 10 sporting events that have lost their luster.

MIAMI, Feb. 25, 2016--Super Saturday has become a ridiculously over-used superlative. A half-dozen state-bred races doesn’t make a Saturday super. Then there is this coming Saturday’s card at Gulfstream, the reason the term was coined.

The Fountain of Youth on its own would make any Saturday super. This year’s is especially strong. Mohaymen looks like the real deal, one of those horses people come out to see. But he’s not getting a layup in going for his fifth win in an undefeated career.

A couple of Awesome upset possibilities should test him like never before. Awesome Banner is three-for-three by a combined 19 lengths, all over the Gulfstream strip. The question is will he handle two turns the way he has handled one?

Awesome Speed had a hiccup in his debut at Laurel. Since, he has reeled off three straight, including the Mucho Macho Man.

Ignoring an unbeaten Todd Pletcher 3-year-old like Zulu is a ticket to Bust Out City. Pletcher has come to Gulfstream the past two winters with unraced maidens, who left in April as Florida Derby champions.

What Songbird is on the West Coast, Cathryn Sophia is to East Coast fillies. But she better be that good in the Davona Dale. Carina Mia was second to Stageplay in her debut then broke her maiden and won the Golden Rod. Lewis Bay has an almost identical pattern. Second first time out, then a maiden-breaker followed by a score in the Demoiselle.

The great racing doesn’t stop. Recently purchased X Y Jet, a winner of his last four, with the three in South Florida by more than 18 lengths, will tune up for the Golden Shaheen in Dubai in the Gulfstream Park Sprint.

Also Divisidero, who looked like a turf superstar in the making before going to the sidelines last summer, returns in the Canadian Turf Handicap. All he has to do is run down Heart to Heart, going for his fourth graded stakes in five starts.

(JP will handicap these races in depth on HRI Friday.)

Four other quality stakes will get completely lost. Not to belabor a point but this is a textbook example of overkill. Any of these races would have fortified last Saturday’s single ungraded stakes program or another in two weeks with a couple of ungraded turf sprints.

10 not always a magic number

America loves lists and there seems to be an unwritten rule that they have to have at least a field of 10.

This forced to go to tortured extremes to come up with a Top 10 of sporting events that have lost their luster.

Some of the inclusions are inarguable: the Davis Cup, non-Olympic track and field, the America’s Cup, the Tour de France, the heavyweight championship, the National Invitation Tournament and the Army-Navy football game.

The difficulty the writer had stretching to 10 is obvious in the final two, the World Series and the Kentucky Derby. Expanded playoffs and games that end after midnight in the East have contributed to the World Series slippage. But to suggest the Fall Classic is no longer one of America’s premier sports events falls between ignorant and insane.

The logic offered for the Kentucky Derby’s supposed loss of luster is another argument that the list should have ended with eight. The contention to support the loss of luster begins with the point that the Derby went into a television ratings decline in the late ‘70s.

Guess what? So did every show on television as cable expanded the viewing options in many homes from three channels to dozens and eventually hundreds. "Hill Street Blues," which I consider the finest broadcast network drama ever, wound up 87th of 96 prime time shows in its first season, 1981.

The rating--number of homes tuned in--today would make "Hill Street Blues" a Top 3 show, No.1 some weeks. By the way, the ratings for last May’s Kentucky Derby put it into the Top 3 among all programs that week, which fell during the important May ratings sweeps when every network trots out its glitziest product.

Live attendance at the Derby, 170,513. was the all-time record by more than 5,000 fans. Nevertheless the writer argues the Derby is not the institution it once was. What's not the institution it once was is thoughtful, responsible journalism.

Unconnected dots

As long as I’m on the subject of stories that begin with a conclusion then seek facts to support it, there was one in the Bradenton Herald and other Florida newspapers that said Florida pari-mutuels seeking slots might be late getting to the party.

Slots are on the decline was the premise of the piece. A key point to buttress this was a marketing survey among the cherished millenials, 21-to-34 year-olds, which showed 21 percent took a theme park vacation last year but only 9 percent took a vacation “primarily to gamble.”

Forgetting the fact that many in the 21-to-34 demographic are still paying off college loans and dealing with the expenses of establishing their own homes and families, which diminish disposable income, how many people are going to admit to a stranger that they take vacations “primarily to gamble.” It makes you look like a degenerate.

I go to Las Vegas for a couple of weeks every year. But if someone I didn’t know asked if I go primarily to gamble, I’d say, “No, I go for the restaurants and shows.” This is known as the socially acceptable response—AKA, a lie.

The lack of thinking things through really jumps out in the statistic that 21 percent of millienials took a theme park vacation. What do a lot of 21-to-34 year-olds have in common: children! Let’s see how often they take theme park vacations when the kids are grown.

This story reminded me of a classic in a Dallas newspaper several years ago. Some enterprising writer discovered what he felt was a revealing statistic and ran with it without thinking it through. The gist of that story was that Dallas was known as a Bible Belt city but more people went to Las Vegas from Dallas than any other market in the nation.

The dots the writer failed to connect were that Dallas is a hub for American Airlines. So Las Vegas-bound travelers from around the nation connected to their flights to Sin City through Dallas-Fort Worth airport.

This is why it's said there are lies, damn lies and statistics.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, February 18, 2016

Decoupling debate turning against thoroughbred industry

The Florida legislature appears hellbent to allow greyhound, harness and quarterhorse tracks to decouple their parimutuel activities from their slots and poker rooms. A powerful Florida legislator is proposing that Gulfstream and Tampa Bay Downs be given purse supplements as a consolation for allowing their competitors to become free-standing casinos. Gulfstream would be surrounded by 10 of them. As has been shown in Pennsylvania, Indiana and, only this past week, West Virginia, these supplements can be taken away as easily as they are awarded. The only hope for horsemen is to decouple the debate from approval of the Seminole Compact, the engine driving the bill.

MIAMI, Feb. 18, 2016--The war in Florida over decoupling seems to be slipping away from the thoroughbred side. Momentum is shifting toward greyhound, harness and quarterhorse tracks, who want to be relieved of their responsibility to operate pari-mutuels to keep their slots and poker licenses.

The latest indication came Wednesday. State Sen. Joe Negron championed an amendment that would give Gulfstream and Tampa Bay Downs $40-$45 million a year toward purses from the Seminoles and tracks that choose to decouple.

In an indication how settled the issue is in Negron's mind, he said he feels he has bent over backwards to satisfy thoroughbred interests. Negron isn’t just another state legislator. He is the Senate president-in-waiting. Next year, he will rise to a position that will make him the second or third most powerful political figure in the state, someone who can bottle up or advance a bill at his pleasure. So he is not someone other legislators are anxious to cross, especially over a bill for which most of them have no vested interest.

The best hope left, a Hail Mary pass of sorts, for the thoroughbred industry to slow the decoupling express might be with a different decoupling strategy. It should strive to decouple the issue from the monstrous Seminole compact bill, the engine driving the process.Approval of the Seminole compact, which promises Florida $3 billion over its first seven years, seems inevitable. It should be.

This is a dropped-from-Heaven windfall for the state for essentially extending the status quo. The compact guarantees that the Seminoles’ seven casinos around the state will face no new competition with the exception of one new slots operation in Miami and another in Palm Beach.

However, there is no reason pari-mutuel decoupling should have to be a part of the Seminole compact deal. Decoupling is just a tack-on to an already mammoth bill.

If it’s not too late, the thoroughbred industry should emphasize that decoupling is important enough and has sufficient nuances to Florida’s multi-billion dollar pari-mutuel industry that it deserves a full debate on its own, separate from the Seminole compact negotiations, the legislature’s priority.

Among the negative ramifications would be rewarding Churchill Downs Inc. for obnoxious behavior at Calder. It will be able to keep its casino license without the obligation to have Gulfstream conduct an eight-week race meeting.

Another indication that the tide is turning came last week after a House committee meeting. Marc Dunbar, attorney for Gulfstream Park, said The Stronach Group is open to a deal similar to the one proposed by Negron. To that moment, Gulfstream had been adamantly opposed, at least publicly, to decoupling.

It appears Gulfstream realizes all is lost and is trying to salvage the best deal it can cut. Otherwise it’s difficult to understand how the company as a whole would benefit. Its slots and poker room would be surrounded by five competitors (including the new one) in Miami-Dade County; three in its home county Broward and the new slots operation in Palm Beach County.

Flush with cash saved from not having to support racing, Gulfstream’s competitors would be able to upgrade their facilities and introduce perks Gulfstream’s casino would be unable to match.

This is to say nothing of the Seminole Hard Rock, which has sweetened its pitch to lawmakers by promising to build a landmark guitar-shaped 800-room hotel if the compact is approved. Thousands of temporary construction jobs and eventually permanent hotel jobs would be created.

This will put Gulfstream’s casino in the position of being like a 7-11 surrounded by ten Walmart Super Stores.

Florida’s horse industry should have felt a biting chill in the midst of the decoupling debate. A proposal was introduced in the West Virginia legislature to allow Charles Town and Mountaineer race tracks to decouple horse racing from their casinos. The state wants the money that goes to thoroughbred purses to be redirected to the general fund.

If this proposal proceeds successfully through the legislative process, thoroughbred racing is almost certain to cease to exist in West Virginia within the next year or two.

West Virginia is part of a national trend. Indiana and Pennsylvania have redirected money promised to horsemen when casinos were introduced. New Jersey racing is in its death throes since purse supplements Atlantic City was supposed to contribute were eliminated. There are rumblings out of New York that Resorts World, which runs the casino at Aqueduct, is looking for ways to limit its future contributions to horse racing.

If Gulfstream and Tampa Bay Downs have to swallow this deal, they had better make sure the length of the agreement is in perpetuity or as close to that as they can negotiate. Anything less and it’s just a matter of time before the decoupled tracks and/or the state start looking for an escape hatch.

The South Florida racinos had barely opened their doors when they began bellyaching that their tax rate was onerous and they needed relief. Another element of the Seminole compact package will reduce their tax bite. The horsemen might not have access to the right ears but the casino people apparently do.

How long into the purse fund contributions do you suppose it will be before they complain that they should not be compelled to support what amounts to a competitor. Something Negron said indicates they will find a sympathetic ear in Tallahassee. “We have generous purse pools that frankly are coming from people involved in another activity. We’re taking money from them to subsidize people that want to race and raise horses.”

Clearly, someone on the cusp of becoming one of the most powerful lawmakers in the state, doesn’t have a clue about how important thoroughbred racing and breeding is to Florida’s tourism and overall economy. This in itself is frightening.

The war isn't over. Decoupling is still rattling around committees and is far from the finish line. United Florida Horsemen, a coalition of thoroughbred, standardbred and quarterhorse interests, isn’t giving up the fight. It issued a statement on Wednesday saying it strongly opposes any form of decoupling whatsoever.

Separating the decoupling issue from the Seminole Compact negotiations appears to be the only hope to derail, or at least delay, what is increasingly appearing to be inevitable.

Written by Tom Jicha

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