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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Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Asmussen for Hall of Fame a tricky call

Steve Asmussen's nomination for racing's Hall of Fame raises many of the same issues baseball's Hall of Fame electorate faced with Barry Bonds and other steroid cheaters. Are statistics enough for election or should other factors be considered.

MIAMI, March 12, 2014--The nomination of Steve Asmussen as one of the finalists for induction into racing’s Hall of Fame has put voters into the same position the Baseball Writers Association has dealt with when considering the candidacies for Cooperstown of Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Roger Clemmons, et al.

On the numbers, Asmussen belongs. He is the second winnigest trainer of all time with more than 6,700 victories and counting. Asmussen, 48, has averaged more than 300 winners for the past three years, so Dale Baird’s record of 9,445 is within reach.

Asmussen set a record with 555 wins in 2004, breaking Jack Van Berg’s mark that had stood for 28 years. Asmussen topped himself in 2008 with 621 wins then did it again the following year with 650. He has led America nine times.

He conditioned Curlin to a triumph in the Preakness and Horse of the Year titles in 2007 and 2008. He added a third Horse of the Year laurel with Rachel Alexander in 2009. He won Eclipse Awards as outstanding trainer in 2008 and 2009.

It’s hard to imagine a nominee with stronger credentials.

But then, it’s even more difficult to come up with stronger career baseball credentials than Bonds. But a Hall of Fame in any sport is about more than statistics, or should be. This is why Bonds and other steroid users haven’t come close to election to baseball’s Hall and probably never will.

They have been stigmatized as cheaters, just as Asmussen has been in racing. He has had scores of violations. Many are relatively minor, trace overages in an era of zero tolerance or failure to clear a horse’s system within the advertised time.

But he was suspended for six months by Louisiana in 2006 when one of his horses came back with 750 times the legal limit for the potent pain killer mepvicaine. He also drew a six-month suspension in Texas when one of his horses tested positive for lidocaine.

Asmussen has denied many of the allegations. In the Louisiana case, he made the sensible argument that no one in his right mind would administer a drug 750 times over the limit on race day. He suggested that someone jealous of his success might have sabotaged him in a stable area with lax security.

Lending credence to this defense is the fact he has so many strings all over the map, there is no way he could be on top of the situation in every venue. But racing holds trainers responsible for anything that goes on in their barns, even if they were thousands of miles away.

All of this has made him one of the poster children for media anxious to put down racing as drug-ravaged. The New York Times, in one of its regular cheap shots at racing, made him a focus for a pre-Breeders’ Cup hatchet job. HBO’s Real Sports did a piece on his numerous suspensions.

If Asmussen is elected to the Hall, these pieces will be dusted off, repeated and updated. Since other media use the Times as their compass, there will be enough bandwagon-jumping to start a parade.

Coincidentally, Asmussen is nominated for the Hall on the same ballot as the late Chris Antley. This would represent another ripe target for those out to disparage racing as a bottomless pit of pharmaceuticals.

Antley had a sparkling career as a rider. Included was an unmatched streak of winning at least once for 64 consecutive racing days in 1989 and Kentucky Derby wins aboard Strike the Gold and Charismatic. The photo of Antley, dismounted from Charismatic and giving aid and comfort to the horse, who broke down while pursuing the Triple Crown in the 1998 Belmont Stakes, put a lump in many throats.

But Antley’s life and career were marred by drug abuse. He had his license suspended several times for positive tests for cocaine and marijuana. He quit riding in 1997 to deal with his narcotics demons. He came back two years later but on March 19, 2000, he rode what would turn out to be his final race at Santa Anita. He asked the California stewards for time off to deal with personal issues.

The next time his name was heard was when he was found dead in his home on Dec. 2, 2000, at age 34. The cause of death was ruled an overdose of a cocktail of drugs. One was to deal with weight loss, a common malady among race riders, another juicy target for scandal mongers.

Is an admitted drug abuser and by extension a law-breaker someone you want in your Hall of Fame?

So Hall of Fame voters face a conundrum. Do they cast their votes for a couple of inarguably qualified individuals on the basis of their records or do they take into consideration the scandals that have sullied their careers.

The Baseball Writers Association has obviously decided that statistics aren’t the sole criteria to be considered when casting Hall of Fame ballots. It will be interesting to see how racing’s electors handle the situation.

The New York Times, HBO and others in the media will be watching.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Friday, March 07, 2014

Derby Top 10? I can’t find that many

The Kentucky Derby shakeout is in its final phase but only a few have stepped up to the extent that they strike me as legitimate prospects for the Run for the Roses

MIAMI, March 7, 2014--A somewhat depressing reality struck me as I was producing my roster of Kentucky Derby contenders for this week’s HRI poll. It was a challenge coming up with 10 I believe could win the Run for the Roses.

Finally having accepted that Shared Belief is not going to make the Derby, my list of leading prospects topped out at about six or seven and some of those were a reach. The list grew even slimmer with the revelation Thursday that Bob Baffert’s exciting prospect Bayern has a foot bruise. It’s late in the game for a setback, especially for a colt with only two races and zero Derby points.

Cairo Prince is a worthy No. 1 but this could change next weekend if Honor Code comes back big in the Rebel. To reiterate a point, I believe in results and Honor Code is one up on Cairo Prince. But we are into March and we still haven’t seen Honor Code, so he is a shaky proposition.

Candy Boy is the Cairo Prince of the West. When he and Shared Belief met in the Cash Call Futurity, Candy Boy made an Arazi-like middle move to the lead but couldn’t sustain it to the wire. Gary Stevens harnessed that turn of foot in the Robert Lewis, waiting until mid-stretch to give Candy Boy his signal. When he did, Candy Boy blew past a pair of Bafferts, Chitu and the heralded Midnight Hawk.

Unfortunately, Candy Boy will stay in the barn Saturday when the San Felipe is run. This was supposed to be the big test for Bayern, who has blown away a couple of fields. Now it doesn’t much matter in the big picture who wins the San Felipe, unless someone freaks.

Tapiture looks genuine off his dominant performance in the Southwest, his first start since a big win in the Kentucky Jockey Club as a stakes-placed maiden.

Strong Mandate also caught the eye closing on Tapiture after an eventful trip in which he might have lost more ground than his margin of defeat. But D. Wayne’s colt has a knack for running into trouble. Nevertheless, a kick like his has to be respected as the distances extend and maybe he’s due some racing luck.

That’s about it for genuine contenders from where I sit.

Samraat and Uncle Sigh have put on great shows in the Withers and Gotham but until they beat someone of note other than each other, the name Vyjack keeps ringing in my ears.

A similar situation exists in Florida. Wildcat Red and General a Rod have taken it to each other in the Gulfstream Derby and Fountain of Youth, leaving their opposition behind. But I am absolutely convinced that Wildcat Red has no shot at a mile and a quarter and I have doubts about General a Rod.

This is why I don’t share the enthusiasm for Top Billing that many others do. Sure, he had a tough post in the Fountain of Youth and he was racing against a fierce speed bias. But he really wasn’t making up significant ground late on two horses, who should have been vulnerable.

Because he is in the hands of Shug McGaughey, who remains high on him, I can’t dismiss him. If Surfing USA wins or runs close in the Tampa Bay Derby Saturday, Top Billing gets extra points for the ease with which he dispatched the Todd Pletcher charge in a Gulfstream allowance.

Intense Holiday did more in the Risen Star to expose the Louisiana contingent than to elevate his own status. Prior to his win at the Fair Grounds, he had been dusted repeatedly by a herd of other ranking 3-year-olds in Florida.

To me, the others are all Mine That Bird. If they win, I’ll just shake my head and start thinking about the Preakness.

Breeding on hold to racing's benefit

The marquee races for older horses this weekend are illustrative of how much more interesting the sport would be if talented 3-year-olds didn’t go to the breeding shed after their Triple Crown season. Injuries are part of the game but more burgeoning stars are sent to stud as a matter of choice than necessity and racing is poorer for it.

Fans on both coasts are looking forward to the Santa Anita Handicap, a rematch of the Breeders’ Cup Classic duel between Mucho Macho Man and Will Take Charge.

Mucho Macho Man was third in the 2011 Kentucky Derby. This would have been enough for some outfits to send him to the breeding shed. Kudos to Reeves Racing, which kept him on the track not only for his 4-year-old season, culminated by the Breeders’ Cup Classic, but now into his *6-year-old year.

Late developing Will Take Charge had a poor Triple Crown season but by the fall he had thrust himself into the Eclipse picture in two divisions with wins in the Travers, Pennsylvania Derby and Clark. Those were enough for the 3-year-old championship and if the BC Classic was one jump longer, he might have stolen Horse of the Year from Wise Dan.

Again, this was more than enough to earn a life of making love. But his part owner, Willis Horton, loves to see his horses run, so he is back for a 4-year-old campaign and his rivalry with MMM has generated enough buzz that Fox Sports 1 has added the Big Cap to its Jockey Club Tour agenda. There is no chance this would have happened if the Big Cap was headed by Blingo, Rousing Sermon and a suddenly off form Game on Dude.

Saturday’s Gulfstream Handicap has taken on unexpected luster of its own, all of it attributable to leading 3-year-olds of last season coming back as older horses. Belmont Stakes champion Palace Malice is the big name. Unlike some other one-hit wonders, who have won the demanding mile-and-a-half, Palace Malice dressed up his resume by adding the Jim Dandy and running second in the Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup. This is more than enough to get many horses retired.

Palace Malice might not even be favored given the local popularity and achievements of Itsmyluckyday. Last year at this time, he was one of the top Derby prospects off victories in the Gulfstream Derby and Holy Bull and a second to subsequent Kentucky Derby hero Orb in the Florida Derby.

The Run for the Roses was a debacle for both. But Itsmyluckyday bounced back two weeks later with a second to Oxbow in the Preakness. His career was put into jeopardy when he was pulled up with a pelvis fracture in Monmouth’s Pegasus. But Eddie Plesa nursed him back to health and he has been working this winter as if he will have something to say about the older horse division.

Not to be dismissed is the vastly improved Falling Sky. Winner of the Sam F. Davis as a 3-year-old, he has come into his own this winter. He extended Revolutionary (also back this season after running third in Louisville last May) to the limit before giving way by a half-length in a one-mile allowance then rebounded with a stakes record win in the Gulfstream Sprint Championship.

Normandy Invasion, second in the 2013 Wood and fourth in the Derby, launched his 4-year-old campaign recently with a track-record performance in a one-mile allowance. The Gulfstream Handicap came up too quickly for him but he also figures to be prominent in the handicap division.

I can’t remember a year when so many former top 3-year-olds returned. Let’s hope it’s the start of a trend.

*correction made 030814 at 1:36 p.m.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Gulfstream DQ furor a symptom of vast discontent

Only one bettor lost out when a DQ in the final race Saturday at Gulfstream negated a $1.6 million payoff. But hundreds have weighed in with their dissatisfaction. This is indicative of widespread frustration at the inconsistencies of stewards.

MIAMI, Feb. 26, 2014--The furor over a disqualification in the final race at Gulfstream Saturday, which cost one player more than $1.6 million, is a case of the inevitable finally coming to pass.

I was at Gulfstream Saturday. My opinion is that the DQ was justified. But if the stewards had left up Collinito, it wouldn’t have been the worst non-DQ in history. (Game on Dude’s first Big Cap has been the leader in the clubhouse since 2011.)

A point that has been overlooked and which should be a concern to all race tracks is that only one person suffered from the DQ. Yet hundreds, maybe thousands, have weighed in with their displeasure. The only way to interpret this is that the anger at Saturday’s DQ is a manifestation of vast frustration with the whole system.

A foul in one race is not in another. There is no standard and there should be.

Thus John Pricci’s call for total transparency in the stewards’ booth, including audio and video of their deliberations during inquiries, should not just be brushed away. At least players would know which offenses are going to result in a disqualification and which are not. This, of course, assumes there would be consistency once the stewards were put on record. This might be a leap too far.

However, I don’t totally agree with J.P., because, as I said in a comment on his piece, cameras change behavior. This is why trials are televised but jury deliberations are not.

Gulfstream’s 12th race Saturday was a close enough call that nobody would be talking about it if it had happened elsewhere on the card. Its impact on the monster jackpot is responsible for all the attention.

Race tracks should have seen this coming. The new priority nationwide has inarguably become building life-changing jackpots in bets such as the Pick Six and Rainbow Six. It’s the steps taken to create these situations that have invited skepticism.

Stakes races with long traditions, even Grade 1’s, have been shifted from their customary position toward the end of the program to the third or fourth race to take them out of the Pick 6 if the field is short or there is an outstanding favorite, which would reduce the numbers of combinations purchased. Formless races with huge fields of established losers have replaced them in the showcase positions on the card. (This wasn’t the case Saturday but it has been on many more days than not.)

It has become unmistakably clear that the new priority is to create carryovers at almost any cost. They generate media attention, a huge handle into that pool and a positive ripple effect to the rest of the card. With a unique bet like the Rainbow 6, whose jackpot is distributed only if there is a single winner, the windfall to a track’s bottom line could resonate for weeks, even months.

Ergo, bettors can’t be faulted for suspecting chicanery when a borderline call, such as Saturday’s, comes down in a way that benefits the track. Many fans consider stewards to be an extension of management.

Until the advent of rainbow-chasing bets, the beauty of the pari-mutuel system was tracks had no stake in who won and who lost. This has been perverted into a “we win when you lose” scenario. Long term, this cannot be good for the game.

The obvious remedy, eliminating bets with carryovers, is a non-starter. My guess is even those screaming the loudest would not want to see this happen.

The next best thing is to take steps to downplay how much the tracks covet carryovers. These include not pushing stakes out of the most lucrative multi-race wagers, not scheduling races loaded with first-time starters in the middle of the sequence, so tote board action can’t offer clues as to who is live, and refraining from almost gloating over the P.A. and closed-circuit TV systems that there will be a carryover even before the bet is finished.

None of this is likely to happen because tracks know bettors have short memories. Whatever hard feelings there might have been from Saturday, there was no carryover (I couldn’t resist). Bettors pumped another half-million-plus dollars into Sunday’s pool.

An unfortunate byproduct of the Gulfstream controversy is it has become the main topic of conversation from a day when preps for the Triple Crown should have been, especially with the third (next-to-last) Kentucky Derby Futures pool opening Thursday.

The Derby future is still a fool’s wager when anything resembling serious money is involved. Every year about half the eventual Derby field goes off at better odds on the first Saturday in May than in the futures. And you get your money back at Churchill Downs if your selection doesn’t run.

As best I can surmise, the whole purpose of making a futures bet is to be able to show off winning tickets to prove you picked the winner a few months out. If it substantially outpays the final toteboard odds, all the better.

Forget the field at 6-1 (and likely lower when the pools close). There are no bragging rights for taking that position.

Cairo Prince deservedly is the shortest price of the individuals at 8-1. He killed the Holy Bull field and has lost only once, by a nose, after a bad ride. He’s beaten Intense Holiday, who won the Risen Star, enough times to retire the trophy. But with the Derby favorite going to the post in the area of 4-1, 5-1 the past few years, there’s no value.

Top Billing is the underlay, sharing morning line favoritism with Cairo Prince. He ran a good but not great race from a tough post against a vicious track bias in the Fountain of Youth. Alas, everyone in the world knows it. So no value here, either.

Honor Code, the only horse to beat Cairo Prince and the individual favorite in the last futures pool, is next at 10-1. That he still has not run as a 3-year-old could goose his odds up a few points. If he wins the Rebel, he will be one of the favorites in Louisville, so he might be worth a flyer at double digit odds.

Shared Belief is the most confounding proposition. He’s listed at 12-1 but should drift higher since his participation in Louisville becomes more doubtful every day that he doesn’t work out. It’s not encouraging that Jerry Hollendorfer shipped the Eclipse champion, who has been troubled by foot issues, out of Santa Anita to Northern California.

I painted myself into a corner with last week’s column in which I questioned how poll voters could put him below horses he had dusted. Not to be hypocritical, I put him on top in the first Horse Race Insider poll. I still think he could prove to be the best of his crop, but if he hasn’t worked by this weekend, I’m cutting bait on him.

The morning line is too generous on a couple of colts listed at 15-1, Bayern and Tapiture. If you can get that price, which I doubt, they are worth a shot.

After a 15-length entry-level allowance romp, Bayern is being compared to Bodemeister, who might have broken the Apollo jinx (no horse who didn’t race at 2 has won the Derby in more than 125 years) if Trinniberg hadn’t gone on a pointless kamikaze mission in the 2012 Derby. If the Derby points system has accomplished anything, it is keeping pure sprinters like Trinniberg out of the starting gate.

Tapiture's Southwest was the most impressive prep last week. He demolished everyone but Strong Mandate, who once again had a troubled trip. Still, if I had to make one play, Strong Mandate, at anywhere near the 20-1 he is listed on the morning line, would be it.

Written by Tom Jicha

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