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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Tuesday, November 18, 2014

State is never going to relinquish NYRA

The state of New York continues to persist in its charade of making it appear as if it is planning to return NYRA to private control by the end of 2015. But an influential legislator says re-privatization is unacceptable. In fact, he came out for more government control of the NYRA board.

MIAMI, Nov. 18, 2014—NYRA held the latest public hearing on the potential return of New York racing to private ownership on Nov. 12. It was theater for the naïve. The entire process of re-privatizing NYRA is and has been a huge charade.

As I have been predicting, there is no way New York politicians are ever going to relinquish control of such a rich vein of patronage and taxes. Forget future takeout reductions. Every time this is even suggested, it will be met by cries from grandstanding politicians, “We are giving money to gamblers while shortchanging our schools, hospitals, welfare programs, etc..” Pick your favorite.

Assembly member Gary Pretlow confirmed my darkest suspicions in a story published on “I don’t think they’re ready to go on their own yet,” Pretlow was quoted as saying.

Pretlow is not just another legislator. He is the chairman of the Assembly Racing Committee. For years he has been the legislature’s go-to expert for matters related to racing. When he makes a statement such as this, it carries extraordinary weight.

This was not an off-the-cuff remark. Pretlow elaborated on his feelings against turning back NYRA to the private sector, a process that is supposed to be at least in the planning stages by this coming spring. He came out firmly in opposition to any effort to re-privatize NYRA. “It remains a franchise under the state of New York and nothing else is really acceptable.”

Pretlow doesn’t even care what plan might materialize. Nothing like keeping an open mind.

He went on to say that NYRA is not trustworthy. “I think we have to continue the way we are now until such time as they can be trusted to run it on its own again.”

Better we should trust politicians.

Give him this. The guy doesn’t waffle. He doesn’t even make an effort to camouflage the motivation for his position. Not only would he like to keep NYRA in government hands, he wants to expand the influence politicians have. Twelve of the 17 seats on the NYRA board are appointed by the governor, the state senate and assembly. Mario Cuomo gets to appoint eight members himself.

NYRA is limited to the remaining five board members. This makes its representation essentially token, since the politicians can veto anything that the people truly involved in thoroughbred racing want to make happen.

Nevertheless, Pretlow feels 5 of 17 is too much. Politicians are more capable of deciding what is in the best interest for racing and its fans, according to Pretlow. Or is that in the politicians’ own best interests?

Look at the great job the politicians did in awarding the racino license at Aqueduct. That took only 10 years longer than it should have, at a revenue loss of billions to the state. It was so rife with corruption, even by the wretched standards of New York politics, it’s a miracle—and a sign of political cronyism—that no one went to jail.

A similar process could play out again in deliberations over what to do about Aqueduct. Cuomo’s preference is to close down the Big A race track and use the land for other purposes, all of which will reap political capital for the governor at the expense of racing.

Anyone who truly believes that the state of New York has any intention to step away from control of thoroughbred racing should be preparing their bids for the April 1 auction of the Brooklyn Bridge.

Fans indifferent to NYRA forum

NYRA executives held a forum with fans at Aqueduct last weekend. That’s the good news. The bad news is that hardly anyone showed up.

Maybe this is a sign that racing fans aren’t as gullible as the power structure likes to believe. They might realize that like the re-privatization hearings, these sessions are all for show. You know the old expression, “After all is said and done, more will be said than done.” In this instance, nothing will be done.

Or maybe it’s that fans can’t handle the confiscatory prices at Aqueduct. I haven’t been there yet but reliable sources tell me that beers are $12 ($13.50 if you want an import), sodas are $7 coffee is $4.50. You say you want coffee and a bagel? Here you are, sir, that will be $10.50.

This must be part of Kay’s plan to make a day at the races more enjoyable. Patrons don’t have to worry about long lines at the concession stands and bars.

Familiar issues were raised: the mess that was Belmont Day last June; the possibility of the Breeders’ Cup returning to New York and, of course, what is going to happen to Aqueduct?

No real answers were provided. In other words, it was business as usual.

No monopoly on hypocrisy

The major sports organizations lead the world in hypocrisy.

The NFL is the worst. While maintaining a strident stance against legalized sports betting, It promotes the hell out of fantasy football. It’s as if the league’s position is participants are playing for marbles. The other leagues also have begun to dip their toes into fantasy games but none promote it like the NFL does.

The NFL also has quietly ceased its objections to the TV networks, which carry its games, mentioning point spreads and having guest handicappers.

What do you suppose the ratings for games like this Thursday’s matchup of Kansas City and winless Oakland would be if millions weren’t bet on the game in some form?

There could be a break in the dam. Adam Silver, the new commissioner of the NBA, came out recently in an op-ed piece in the New York Times in favor of allowing betting on the NBA and sports in general, with the proper safeguards.

“There is an obvious appetite among sports fans for a safe and legal way to wager on sporting events,” Silver wrote.

“I believe that sports betting should be brought out of the underground and into the sunlight where it can be appropriately monitored and regulated.”

In spite of this, Silver’s league remains a party to the lawsuit seeking to thwart sports betting in New Jersey. No hypocrisy there, right?

Meanwhile, the once grand Trump Taj Mahal, has announced that it will become the fifth Atlantic City casino to close its doors by the end of the year.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Racing’s only sure thing: Fans will get screwed

The Breeders' Cup Classic left a bad taste in many fans' mouths. But this is nothing new for racing. Fans get shafted regularly in all sorts of ways. The latest example is a race at Churchill Downs in which an ineligible horse won. The owners of the rightful winner got paid, the jockey and trainer got theirs but fans who bet on the horse who was eventually awarded the win got nothing. This need not be in the age of computer and account wagering. Also, fans who had 5 winners at the Breeders' Cup were shortchanged because there was a carryover to Sunday, which should not be allowed in this specific case.

MIAMI, Nov. 11, 2014--My favorite Saratoga promotional campaign was one about 15, 20 years ago. The tagline, as thoroughbreds thundered around the turn and into the Spa stretch was, “We’ve been doing this for 120 years (I don’t recall the exact number; it is irrelevant) and we still don’t know how it’s going to turn out.” This summarized everything that keeps fans coming back to the track.

Unfortunately, the same line can’t be adapted to an element of racing, which goes on every day at tracks everywhere. As long as there has been racing, the one predictable outcome has been that in the end, fans will get screwed. Whether it’s takeout, breakage, admission, parking, over-priced concessions or bad DQ’s, fans always take the worst of it.

A killer for any business is to have patrons leave feeling they have been shafted. It doesn’t matter if they are right. If this is their perception, this is their reality and it doesn’t bode well for customer loyalty. I would contend that these factors, more than suspicions of drugging, are the biggest drag on racing.

While the Breeders’ Cup Classic non-disqualification is a debatable point, there are myriad other inarguable situations that evoke justifiable patron disgust. The latest example derives from a race at Churchill Downs on Oct. 30. Proud Azteca crossed the wire first and bettors who had their money on him were paid.

It later turned out that Proud Azteca was ineligible for the race, which carried one of those complex conditions. It was for 3-year-olds, non-winners of two races other than maiden, claiming, starter or state bred allowance or non-winners of three races.

The problem arose from the “state bred allowance” stipulation. Proud Azteca had won a minor stakes for Indiana- breds on Aug. 6. It was contested under allowance conditions but it was a stakes. This made Proud Azteca ineligible for the Churchill race.

So those who bet on runnerup Hesinfront were beaten by a horse who shouldn’t have been allowed to run. But not everyone involved with Hesinfront got the dirty end of the pitch fork. When it was discovered that Proud Azteca was ineligible, the purse money was redistributed with Hesinfront’s connections getting the major share.

Coincidentally, Hesinfront would have been the 1,000th winner at Churchill for Robby Albarado. It might not have been the way he would have liked it to happen but Albarado was credited with the milestone victory after the fact.

So the owners and trainer of the new winner were made whole. The jockey was made whole. But people who bet on Hesinfront are SOL.

Kentucky rules make the trainer responsible for making certain a horse fits the race conditions. But Mike Maker, trainer of Proud Azteca, will not face any punishment, according to the Racing Form. The racing office is the backstop for horses’ eligibility. Proud Azteca got by it, too. But no heads will roll there, either.

So the only people to suffer are those who bet on Hesinfront. They got screwed. The official result is the official result for pari-mutuel purposes. Always has been.

It need not be this way. “This is the way we’ve always done it” is no longer an acceptable business plan, although race tracks have been maddeningly slow in realizing this.We’re in an age where a substantial amount of wagering is done through accounts, which retain records of bets. People who can establish they bet on Hesinfront through these records or even those who save their losing tickets should be able to get paid.

Racetracks would shudder at this possibility because it means they could wind up paying out to two sets of winners, resulting in a big net loss for the track. Too bad. Any other business that makes a big mistake, which shortchanges customers, has to pay the penalty in make goods.

The people who bet on Hesinfront suffered the consequences of the track’s error but those who made the mistake didn’t. I don’t know that this has ever been challenged in court but I would love to see someone take the case in front of a judge and jury.

BC Pick 6 carryover unfair

Fans who bet the Pick 6 at the Breeders’ Cup, especially anyone who picked five, also have a beef. No one picked six, not surprising given the cavalcade of longshot winners. Five winners paid $114,472, a handsome reward. But it should have been a lot more.

The Breeders’ Cup is its own meet. Wagers that generally carry over should be treated as if the Classic is the end of the meet. The entire pool should be distributed to those with the most winners, as used to be the case.

Fans travel from far and wide to the Breeders’ Cup. Many, if not most, make their travel plans to get out of Dodge as early as possible on Sunday. Everything is keyed toward Saturday and, to a lesser extent, Friday, where carryovers go into Saturday’s pool, as they should.

Saturday’s $1,335,505 carryover came out of their pockets. It was a windfall for Santa Anita, which had a monstrous Sunday thanks to the carryover. But this is no way to reward fans, who go to great expense to attend the Breeders’ Cup.

A perhaps revealing sidelight is betting on the BC Pick 6 was down about $800,000 this year. This goes against the theory that wide open races with full fields encourages more wagering. There could be too much of this good thing.

This year there was no Wise Dan, Groupie Doll or Mizdirection, horses you might feel confident singling to keep the cost of the ticket down. Each race seemed to have five or six legitimate contenders, some even more.

I suspect some players decided it would cost tens of thousands of dollars to feel comfortable with their Pick 6 selections, so they threw up their hands and opted for the less expensive Pick 4. Almost $4 million was bet into this pool, against $2.5 million (which suggests the guarantee wasn’t met) for the Pick 6.

The potential for a huge payoff was still there. Indeed, the Pick 4 ending with the Classic returned $18,335 for 50 cents.

There are two lessons here: Tracks might be short-sighted in taking big favorites out of the Pick 6. These “free spaces” might actually encourage players to jump into the pool—and, of course, the big favorites don’t always win. When they don’t, a carryover becomes more likely.

The other is that wagers with low minimums are the wave of the future. Check that. They are the wave of now.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Now the world knows how incompetent the Santa Anita stewards are

Southern California horse players have been aware for years how incompetent and inconsistent the stewards are. Now the whole world knows.If Bayern didn't deserve to be disqualified from his Breeders' Classic win, they might as well adopt the greyhound model and make each race official as soon as the horses cross the wire.

MIAMI, Nov. 4, 2014--Ron Nicoletti, who does the closed circuit handicapping at Gulfstream East and West, likes to joke that he’s going to write a book on his bad beats titled, “DQ’ed at the Dog Track.”

For those who have never been to the greyhound races, getting taken down would be the ultimate bad beat. Disqualifications are not part of the game. Greyhounds can bite, jump on and knock competitors over the rail with impunity. The order of finish is the official result.

Just like at Santa Anita.

The two worst non-disqualifications I have witnessed in a lifetime at the track both happened at The Great Race Place. Coincidentally, horses trained by Bob Baffert were the beneficiaries in both. (Lest anyone think this is sour grapes, I cashed in both instances.)

One was leaving up Game on Dude in the 2011 Big Cap after Chantal Sutherland allowed her horse to “shift out”—Trevor Denman’s words, not mine—and knock Twirling Candy sideways into Setsuko, who recovered to miss by only a nose.

That was the all-time worst in my experience until Saturday’s Breeders’ Cup Classic. There are incidents out of the starting gate, which are generally tolerated, and there is what Martin Garcia did aboard Bayern. Breaking from No. 7, Garcia let (encouraged) Bayern take a sharp left hand turn, which took out half the field. Garcia made no effort to straighten his mount as they made a diagonal beeline toward the rail. This is what separated it from a commonplace incident out of the gate.

Among the most compromised were undefeated Shared Belief and Moreno, who represented a serious pace threat to Bayern. Eric Guillot, the motor-mouth trainer of Moreno, is fond of saying that any horse in front of his colt early is going too fast. Without Moreno to prod him on the front end, Bayern didn’t need to worry about going too fast.

And with Shared Belief getting ping-ponged because of what Garcia and Bayern did and, to a lesser extent, eventual place horse Toast of New York blasting him a few strides later, Shared Belief’s chances were severely diminished. But the stewards determined none of this figured into the outcome.

Richard Migliore, who has developed into as much a talent analyzing and commenting on races as he was riding in them, was adamant on the Players feed that Bayern had to come down. Like many sweating out the decision, he was astonished when the stewards allowed the finish to stand.

There must be different rules for the fifth race on a Wednesday than there are for the Breeders’ Cup, The Mig said. He added the observation that the stewards’ non-action might encourage riders to take dangerous liberties out of the gate in the future.

The stewards’ explanation was a classic (no pun intended) cover your ass exercise. “When the contact occurred at the start, according to the rules, we thought (Shared Belief) was not cost a better placing,” Kim Sawyer said.

Not only was Shared Belief sawed off by Bayern as he was trying to get into stride, he was thwarted again when Toast of New York crossed over and forced him to check. But Sawyer and her cohorts ruled that neither incident cost Shared Belief, who had never had a horse finish in front of him in seven lifetime starts, a better placing.

In a statement released later through the California Horse Racing Board, Sawyer’s colleague Scott Chaney doubled down. “The incident occurred in a part of the race where the horses interfered with were not cost the opportunity to place where they were reasonably expected to finish.”

Amazing! Less than a furlong into a mile and a quarter race, the stewards knew exactly where every horse was reasonably expected to finish. Chaney stuck to this interpretation in a press conference Sunday.

The incompetence and inconsistency of the Santa Anita stewards has long been a burning issue on the West Coast. Now it has been exposed to the world.

The outcome of stewards’ inquiries at Southern California tracks has become the equine equivalent of Las Vegas boxing decisions. Favored sons are treated remarkably well despite what fans see with their own eyes. Is anyone more a favored son of California racing than Baffert?

This is one more reason why anchoring the Breeders’ Cup in Southern California should not even be seriously discussed. Inasmuch as the Breeders’ Cup will be back in Southern California for at least two more renewals after a detour to Keeneland next fall, it is time to consider a change in the stewards stand for future editions.

Like boxing has started to do, outside judges should be imported, maybe one from the East Coast and another from the South or Midwest to serve with a hometown representative. Divers perspectives might result in more equitable decisions.

As unacceptable as the call by the Santa Anita stewards was, it was even more infuriating that Chaney said the decision was unanimous. Of course it was. These three people spend all day every day with each other. No way are they going to publicly disagree on such a controversial issue.

It would have been close to impossible to randomly pluck any three people from the Santa Anita grandstand or the television audience and get a unanimous decision that Bayern deserved to be left up.

Bayern got the money but he might become collateral damage of the outrageous decision. There were headlines Sunday morning that Bayern had put himself into position to be voted the Eclipse Award as 3-year-old champion.

I doubt it. I’m not sure Bayern would be the favorite for the Eclipse even if he had won on the square. The Classic was his second Grade 1 triumph. California Chrome has three Grade 1’s and one of them is the Kentucky Derby, the only event that dwarfs the Classic in prestige and importance.

Throw in the backlash triggered by the way Bayern won and not even the Santa Anita stewards could find a way to put him on top.

Written by Tom Jicha

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