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, January 13, 2015

More nails in winter racing’s coffin

Eleven horses have died since this year's winter racing began at Aqueduct. Four of the first eight racing days in January were lost to brutal weather. Two races were run last Friday before the card had to be scrapped. Two horses broke down in those races. One was put down immediately, the other's fate is uncertain. Yet NYRA and some horsemen continue to defend the indefensible. Winter racing needs to go.

MIAMI, Jan. 13, 2015--It was the epitome of denial. NYRA executives and prominent New York horsemen held a meeting last Saturday to discuss steps to be taken to make winter racing safer for thoroughbreds and jockeys. Less than a month into the bad weather season, there have been 11 thoroughbred fatalities. This is ahead of the pace of 2011-12 when 21 fatalities threw the state and animal rights groups into a frenzy.

How ironic that this meeting was called in the midst of a weather-caused four-day break (two races were run Friday before the rest of the card was canceled). This is Mother Nature’s reminder that winter racing is not a good idea. It’s a matter of conjecture how many more days will be lost before the spring thaw.

Everyone at the meeting knows the solution but no one wanted to say it. Winter racing, at least during January and February, should end.

More horses suffer fatal injuries at Aqueduct than at Belmont and Saratoga combined. Do you think the fact that lower caliber horses--almost by definition those with problems—dominate the Aqueduct programs has anything to do with this?

The rest of the industry knows. There are only three graded stakes during January and February.Two of them, the Withers and Jerome, made their grade when they were run during the spring and summer and the do-nothing graded stakes committee hasn't adjusted.

What’s never discussed is that not only are racing dates lost, horses can’t be trained properly or at all during the worst of winter. Rick Violette, a fierce advocate for his constituents as president of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, takes his better horses to Gulfstream during the winter.

So trainers and owners, especially lesser outfits trying to eke out a living when they have a shot at purse money, sometimes wind up running questionably fit horses. Surely this contributes to the injury and fatality numbers.

Martin Panza, senior VP of racing operations, fell back on the state mandate to race 120 days total at Aqueduct but acknowledged that it might take only a meeting with legislators to lower this number. With the fatality crisis reaching critical mass, no legislator wants to be attached to voting against a rule intended to preserve horses’ lives, not to mention serious injury to jockeys, or worse.

All sorts of band aid remedies are being offered. Jockeys are being urged to tell vets if they feel anything is amiss with their mounts. Trainers are being asked to be more conscientious about entering horses with questionable fitness and health issues.

Twenty horses were said to have been ruled off because they are not competitive. Considering some of the horses that still find their way into the entries, it would be interesting to hear what the standards for banishment are. But at least NYRA has standards to start with.

Winter racing is going to end in the next few years anyway. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has been ogling Aqueduct since he got into office. Winter racing stands in his way.

Belmont is not winterized and it would cost a fortune to renovate it for racing in the cold. A March-December schedule at Belmont is doable. There would be some unbearable days at the beginning and end of the season but not so many as to scuttle the idea.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel had a pet philosophy when he was President Obama’s Chief of Staff: “Never let a good crisis go to waste.”

The fatality rate this winter has created a crisis atmosphere. It should not be allowed to go to waste.

On second thought…

There are no mulligans in Eclipse Award balloting. If there were I would have to give a lot of thought to changing my vote in the Juvenile Male category.

I put Texas Red in the first position, the only one that matters. Place and show ballots are only to dress up the nomination announcements.

I was influenced by two factors. Texas Red won the big one at the end of the season, the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Moreover, he did it with an electrifying move not seen in this race since Arazi.

My other consideration was American Pharoah, who I put second. Texas Red’s main competition ran the final race of his three-race season in September before he went to the sidelines with an injury.

In my Horse of the Year ballot, I gave the nod to California Chrome on the basis of his four Grade 1 wins, equaled only by Main Sequence and Untapable, neither of whom won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.

Thus it would seem contradictory that I would pass over American Pharoah, who won two Grade 1 stakes, twice as many as Texas Red. But Grade 1 status isn’t as indicative of quality in 2-year-old events as it is in other divisions. Sometimes half the field is eligible for entry level allowances and there’s almost always a maiden or three.

This is why I have argued in vain for years that there should be no Grade 1 races for 2-year-olds other than the Breeders’ Cup events, whose fields are dominated by stakes winners.

Indeed, American Pharoah was a maiden when he won the Del Mar Futurity. The horse who ran second as well as in American Pharoah’s Grade 1 Front Runner was Calculator, also a maiden. Beating a maiden twice is not Eclipse worthy in my estimation.

But it is Calculator who has me second-guessing my Eclipse vote. His dominant win in the Sham on Saturday underlines the quality of American Pharoah. If American Pharoah is open lengths better than Calculator and Calculator is open lengths better than those who lined up against him in Southern California’s first Derby steppingstone, maybe American Pharoah is something special, which I really don’t believe Texas Red is.

I appreciate that a race in 2015 doesn’t count in 2014 Eclipse balloting but it did open my eyes to the thought that I might have underestimated American Pharoah, who buried Texas Red by almost five lengths in the Front Runner, in which my Eclipse choice also finished behind Calculator.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Tuesday, January 06, 2015

NYRA seems to be trying to kill the Arlington Million

For no good reason, other than it can, NYRA has raised the purse of the Sword Dancer at Saratoga to $1 million. This will give it purse equity with the Arlington Million, a reason for horsemen in the East and Europe to skip the event that was racing's first million dollar race and a magnet for international competition. This underlines how hope of inter-track cooperation in any meaningful ways is a fantasy.

MIAMI, Jan. 6, 2015--The 2015 Saratoga stakes schedule released last week is Exhibit A in why there will never be meaningful cooperation between racing jurisdictions.

Continuing to spend casino money like an NFL star in a Las Vegas stripper bar NYRA Senior Vice President of Racing Operations Martin Panza has kicked up purses to astronomical levels for a number of stakes. The one that jumps off the page is $1 million for the Sword Dancer, which will become part of an even more super than usual (or need be) Travers Day on Aug. 29.

This is wrong on several levels. The Travers is such a special day that you could run ten 5 ½ furlong turf races for New York bred maidens to support it and the Spa would still be packed. OK, ten is an exaggeration. However, only a few years ago, quantity overtook quality as the NYRA priority and the Travers card began to feature to an alarming degree low level beaten claimers and NY-breds sprinting on the turf.

Panza at least has reversed this practice. However, he has gone way overboard. The Travers card not only doesn’t need another million dollar race, the fact that there is one detracts from the Midsummer Derby.

As long as we are on the topic, could NYRA please return the Met Mile to Memorial Day, its long-time traditional date. I know tradition means little these days but the Met Mile isn't needed on Belmont Day, where one of the most important stakes of the year gets lost in the festival of added-money events.

Million connotes something special in racing or at least It used to. The Sword Dancer is not such a fixture of the American turf that it deserves such status. If NYRA wanted to pump up another stakes, it should have been the Alabama, the history laden filly counterpart to the Travers. If the Alabama had been a million dollar race last summer, it might not have lost Untapable to the Haskell.

Even with Panza making it rain cash, the Alabama will offer only $600,000 this coming August--and it will anchor a Saturday program. If it were on the Travers card, it would be only the fifth most lucrative race, behind the $1.25 Travers, the Sword Dancer, the $750,000 Personal Ensign and $700,000 Forego. Proportionality is going by the wayside.

There’s a more sinister angle to making the Sword Dancer a millionaire. The stated purpose is to attract international participation. This brings me back to my original point. There’s another big grass event in mid- to late-August, which was created for exactly the same reason and became a worldwide player. The Arlington Million was a seven-figure race, the nation’s first, three years before the Breeders’ Cup broke from the gate.

Why is NYRA seemingly intent on killing a race that has done so much to promote the sport? Last summer, the Sword Dancer was run a day after the Million. This summer, they will probably be a week apart. Competing million dollar turf stakes served the purpose only of diluting the fields in both.

The Sword Dancer now has purse equality with the Million. A wise guy in the media box asked out loud, “Why doesn’t NYRA be honest about what it is up to and rename the Sword Dancer “The Saratoga Million”?

It doesn’t have to be this way. The first Saturday of the Saratoga meeting, July 25 in 2015, is headed by the Diana, a prestigious turf event for fillies and mares with a $500,000 purse, lower than three supporting stakes on Travers Day. The new million-dollar Sword Dancer would be a stronger way to get the meeting off to a rousing start. What would be wrong with the best turf females and the best turf males each seeing action for a million apiece on the first Saturday of the season?

This would give horsemen three to four weeks to come back in the Arlington Million and Beverly D. That’s what would happen if there was any kind of cooperation between tracks for the good of the sport.

Dream on.

$250K baby races in June? Really?

As long as we’re critiquing the NYRA stakes agenda, two other races, ridiculously endowed proportionate to their importance, also jump off the page.

In a bid to make Belmont week a true festival, rich stakes will be run every afternoon starting Wednesday. Great idea.

But once again, NYRA has gone too far overboard. The Astoria for 2-year-old fillies and the Tremont open to all juveniles, will be run on Thursday and Friday of Belmont week, respectively,each with a $250,000 purse.

This will make them the richest “non-winners of two” events in racing. Horsemen are starting their young horses later, so expect a representation of first-time starters and other maidens in both. The Tremont wasn't even contested between 2008 and 2014. When it returned last season, it attracted four starters--Bessie's Boy, Chocolate Wildcat, King Rontos and Shrewd Mover, who finished in that order. Heard much of them lately?

The Astoria attracted six. Fashion Alert, who turned into a nice filly, won but not much has been heard from Liatris and Lindy, who ran second and third, respectively.

Is this any reason to more than double the purse?

To put this into perspective, the Schuylerville and Sanford on opening weekend at the Spa, almost two months later, will offer only $150,000 apiece. The Adirondack and Saratoga Special on Aug. 15, when hundreds more juveniles will have begun their careers, go for $200,000 each. It isn’t until the $350K Spinaway and Hopeful on closing weekend at the Spa, three months later, that 2-year-olds will shoot for bigger purses than will be offered in the Astoria and Tremont.

“We are building our 2-year-old program out in a different direction, Panza said in a statement released with the schedule. “With the increase in purses, these are the two strongest juvenile races in the country in this time frame.”

There used to be, and still might be, minor tracks that offer the first 2-year-old races of the year on New Year’s Day. They could make the same boast. And it would make just as much sense.

Written by Tom Jicha

Comments (30)


Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The best won’t be Horse of the Year, so…

The best horse doesn't win every race. The same goes for the Eclipse Awards. I have a strong subjective opinion on who the best horse in America was in 2014. However, results are results, so I couldn't in good conscience vote for him. I cast my ballot using the most objective standards I could.

MIAMI, Dec. 30, 2014--America’s best thoroughbred in 2014, in my opinion, Shared Belief will not be Horse of the Year. He won’t even be named best of his generation. Ergo, I am taking my Eclipse ballot to the scoreboard.

California Chrome put up the most points. He was one of only three horses to win four Grade 1 stakes this year. The other two, turf specialist Main Sequence and the filly Untapable, have worthy credentials. But their resumes don’t stand up to California Chrome’s.

Main Sequence won only on turf. I voted for Wise Dan, also a grass specialist, the past two years. All things being equal, which they weren’t in 2012 and 2013, I would give my vote to a dirt standout. That is America’s way of racing. Once again this year, although the number of Grade 1 wins is the same, all things aren’t equal.

Main Sequence’s biggest triumph came in the Breeders’ Cup Turf. California Chrome’s was the Kentucky Derby. Did you ever hear an owner, trainer or jockey say the first thing people ask when they find out what they do is, “Did you ever win the Breeders’ Cup Turf?”

In the hierarchy of American racing, California Chrome’s Preakness also outranks whatever might be offered as Main Sequence’s second biggest win.

Also, California Chrome is the only one of the serious candidates to win on dirt and turf. Granted, the Hollywood Derby was a Grade 1 in name only but it isn't as if it was the only Grade 1 that didn't merit such a prestigious ranking. This happens in all sports. A one-yard touchdown pass counts as much in a quarterback's stats as an 80-yard bomb.

I’m voting Main Sequence the consolation prizes of best turf horse and, reluctantly, best older male, even though I have joined the ranks of those calling for the latter to be re-designated as best older male dirt horse, since there is already an award for best turf horse.

I’d rather vote for Palace Malice but the critera are what they are. Palace Malice won the same number of stakes as Main Sequence but only one was a Grade 1.

All of Untapable’s wins were against her own gender. The one time she tried colts, she got crushed, although there were extenuating circumstances. However, if excuses are allowed, I could give my vote to Shared Belief, since he was mugged by Bayern and Toast of New York in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, the only defeat of his career. He beat older horses twice—three times if you consider that all his elders in the BC Classic finished behind him--and won Grade 1’s at a mile and a quarter and seven furlongs.

Some might say Shared Belief's Malibu wasn’t impressive, with a 70-1 shot second, but as Mike Smith said post-race, it isn't easy turning back from a mile and a quarter to seven furlongs. Nevertheless, he ran the elongated sprint in 1:20 69 and there were some crack sprinters in his wake. On the other hand, he never left his home state of California.

Bob Baffert has been campaigning for a split ticket, suggesting California Chrome should be 3-year-old champion and Bayern should be Horse of the Year. This is illogical. A baseball or football player can't be the Most Valuable Player in his sport but not the most valuable player in his division. The same goes for horses. I’m voting for California Chrome as Horse of the Year so, of course, he is also my 3-year-old champion.

Bayern doesn’t make my Horse of the Year ballot and, having been beaten 21 lengths in the Preakness and 20 lengths in the Travers, he’s only third among my 3-year-olds.

Not that the second and third positions on ballots matter. Voters are asked to list the top three so that there will be suspense at the Breeders’ Cup ceremonies. Otherwise, in a category such as 3-year-old filly champion, in which Untapable should be a unanimous choice, the winner would be known when the nominations are announced.

The juvenile categories also have obvious choices although there will almost certainly be a dissenting opinion here and there. Take Charge Brandi might have been a shaky leader after upsetting the BC Juvenile Fillies but she clinched the championship by adding the Delta Princess and Hollywood Starlet. Still, it wouldn’t be surprising if BC Juvenile Fillies Turf winner Lady Eli, undefeated in three starts, garners some support.

Texas Red’s Arazi-like win in the BC Juvenile probably is enough to grab the 2-year-old-male title, although American Pharoah and Dortmund will have their backers.

Close Hatches did enough in the earlier part of the season, winning four straight, three of them Grade 1, to be awarded the older female Eclipse.

Work All Week came from out of the clouds to establish himself as America’s top sprinter in the BC Sprint, his fifth win in six starts with a second. Horseplayers are probably still wondering how they let him go at 19-1 with such sparkling credentials.

Judy the Beauty won four of five, including the BC Filly & Mare Sprint, more than enough to wear the female sprint crown.

Dayatthespa won back-to-back Grade 1’s to close her campaign and make her the most likely filly & mare turf queen. But a case, albeit an unconvincing one, could be made for Coffee Clique, Crown Queen, Euro Charlene and maybe a couple of others.

The Steeplechase Eclipse should be decided by people with some familiarity to the contenders, so I abstained rather than have my vote cancel out someone with expertise in the category.

Todd Pletcher has more world class horses than any two barns but he did not win a Triple Crown race nor a Breeders’ Cup race and likely will not have trained an Eclipse winner. This mitigates his No. 1 standing in money earned, graded wins and Grade 1 wins. Chad Brown was near the top of these categories with not as much stock and far fewer starts, so he gets my vote. But I wouldn't quarrel with those who feel Pletcher deserves a seventh Eclipse.

Javier Castellano should once again take home the top jockey Eclipse.

Drayden Van Dyke won the most races by an apprentice and most came against crack Southern California competition. He should be a unanimous choice in his field.

Ken and Sarah Ramsey once again stood out among owners. As usual, they will again vie for the Breeders Eclipse with Adena Springs. The Ramseys, who got my vote in both categories, don't owe it all to Kitten’s Joy. Just most of it.

Written by Tom Jicha

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