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, October 07, 2014

Wise Dan’s People Should Opt for Discretion Over Valor

Horse of the Year has essentially come down to Wise Dan vs. Shared Belief. Dan's usual array of detractors say he should go in the Breeders' Cup Classic against Shared Belief, et al, to settle the issue. But no one is asking Shared Belief to tackle Wise Dan on turf to prove himself worthy. It looks like Wise Dan's people will stick to their guns and keep their two-time Horse of the Year on turf in the Mile. It's the right call.

MIAMI, Oct. 7, 2014--Wise Dan’s heart of a champion win in Saturday’s Shadwell Turf Mile and Close Hatches’ disappointment in the Spinster has essentially brought the Horse of the Year contest down to Shared Belief and Wise Dan. (California Chrome could grab the gold with a Classic win but his clunker in the Pennsylvania Derby, his only race in four months, doesn’t encourage the thought this will happen.)

Nevertheless there is a strange dynamic coming into play. Wise Dan’s detractors--the same ones who have been diminishing his achievements for three years--want him to go in the Classic on dirt to earn the championship. Yet no one is suggesting Shared Belief needs to win a turf race to earn the title.

Wise Dan’s trainer Charlie Lopresti opened the door a crack after the Shadwell, saying if he and owner Morton Fink were ever to try the 7-year-old gelding in the mile-and-a-quarter Classic, this would be the year. Fink is not enamored with this move but he is not known as a meddling owner who often overrules his trainer. However, in this case, I would side with Fink.

That Lopresti would even consider a Classic run this year has to be partially an acknowledgement that age inevitably will take its toll on Wise Dan and that he would be the ranking older horse in this year’s Classic against 3-year-olds Shared Belief, California Chrome, Tonalist and perhaps Bayern. That Lopresti would like to shut up those who have been knocking his horse might figure in a little bit, too.

It’s not as if Wise Dan doesn’t have credentials on dirt. He won the 2011 Clark Handicap and was second in the 2012 Stephen Foster, both Grade 1 races.

It was also a tacit admission that Wise Dan’s chances for a third straight Horse of the Year are dependent on the outcome of the Classic. Wise Dan could cap an undefeated season with a triumph in the Breeders’ Cup Turf Mile but if Shared Belief wins the Classic, he’s Horse of the Year. Case closed.

This probably also would apply to California Chrome. The Classic would be the Kentucky Derby-Preakness winner’s fourth Grade 1 win, including three of the four most important races in America.

On the other hand, if someone other than Shared Belief or California Chrome wins the Classic and Wise Dan again scores in the Mile, Dan would be in line for a Triple Triple--Horse of the Year, Older Horse and Turf Horse for the third straight year.

The two-time reigning Horse of the Year taking on the 3-year-old hot shots would be great for racing and NBC’s ratings. But if I were Fink and Lopresti, I would take a discretion over valor approach and Wise Dan would stick to doing what he does best.

Only Goldikova has been able to win the BC Turf Mile three times. Wise Dan could equal that this year and, the way he’s going, it’s not inconceivable he could go for four next year. There’s a Horse of the Year every season but that would be a singular feat that might never be matched.

What took so long?

The posse finally has caught up to Doug O’Neill. A 45-day suspension issued by the New York Gambling Commission has set off a dominos effect that could banish O’Neill for a long time.

The NYGC suspension is for a major drug positive in an O’Neill horse who won at Belmont on June 2, 2013. It’s a travesty that it took more than a year for justice to be served. Worse, O’Neill was allowed to negotiate a deal in which he would serve the days starting Nov. 3, the day after Breeders’ Cup weekend. In other words, the slowest period on the racing calendar. That’s not punishment. It’s a vacation.

That any commission would allow this, especially after O’Neill dragged out his appeals for more than a year, is incomprehensible and unacceptable.

The Breeders’ Cup got wind of the deal and said no way. It has a “convicted trainers rule,” which stipulates that any trainer with a major drug conviction within the past year cannot enter his horses in a BC race.

Now O’Neill is facing tough sanctions in his home state of California. The guy with the nickname “Drug O’Neill” for his many violations—the New York violation is his 19th, according to the Racing Form--got a 180-day suspension in California in 2012 for a 2010 offense (another justice delayed is justice denied joke) but 135 days were waived if O’Neill had no further offenses for 18 months. The New York finding fits within that period.

California has not announced if it will enforce that stipulation, which should have been done the same day New York issued its ruling. More justice delayed.

But then, that’s California. Trainer A.C. Avila has yet to face the music for the Masochistic shenanigans last March in which the horse was found to have 40 times the recommended dose of a tranquilizer in his system and the stewards all but said Masochistic was stiffed by his rider when he finished off the board against Cal-breds. Next out, he beat open maidens by 14 on Derby Day at Churchill Downs, a betting coup for the ages.

The Jockey Club can wring its hands until they are raw about drugs fouling the sport but as long as trainers know they can drag out appeals, negotiate penalties downward and serve suspensions at their convenience, nothing is going to change.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Espinoza got off easy with only seven days

Santa Anita stewards wasted no time in slapping Victor Espinoza with a seven-day suspension for his ride on Sky Kingdom in the Awesome Again in which the regular rider of California Chrome's sole purpose seemed to be to get Shared Belief beaten. Espinoza's defenders say he was only race riding but the fact that he has chosen not to appeal is revealing.

MIAMI, Sept. 30, 2014--Justice was swift but not as severe as it might have been for Victor Espinoza’s ride in the Awesome Again. Within 24 hours, the Santa Anita stewards came down on Espinoza with a seven-day suspension. Considering the magnitude of the event, I would have made it more.

I’m flabbergasted reading comments on Horse Race Insider and other sites that there are those who think Espinoza did nothing wrong. The fact that Espinoza has chosen not to appeal says all you need to know.

The defense goes he was only race riding. My response is where does race riding end and irresponsibility and tampering with a race begin? Espinoza allowed Sky Kingdom to drift more than halfway out on the track in the first turn, then stayed out there down the backstretch. Would it have been race riding if he took Shared Belief to the outside fence?

Mike Smith, Shared Belief’s Hall of Fame jockey, who knows the difference between race riding and something more sinister, was so ticked at Espinoza that he was quoted as saying in the jockeys’ room as Espinoza walked by, “Keep going or I’ll take your head off.”

In my opinion, Espinoza made no attempt to help Sky Kingdom win. Indeed he finished last. Espinoza was all in toward one purpose, to get Shared Belief beaten. His possible motivations made his actions more deplorable. Foremost, Espinoza is the regular rider of California Chrome, whose lock on the 3-year-old championship has been unhinged by Shared Belief.

The power of wins in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness in addition to the Santa Anita Derby is such--as they should be--that the only way Shared Belief could overcome them was by running the table of the Awesome Again and Breeders’ Cup Classic to go with the Pacific Classic and Los Alamitos Derby.

If not for the brilliance and tenacity of Shared Belief, Espinoza’s ride could have clinched the title for California Chrome. I believe that even if Shared Belief finishes ahead of California Chrome in the Classic but doesn’t win the race, the 3-year-old Eclipse will go to California Chrome.

Jockey Club Gold Cup winner Tonalist could put in a claim with a win in the Classic but even under those circumstances I still feel that the streak of the last 16 Kentucky Derby-Preakness winners also wearing the divisional crown will remain intact.

Apparently Bob Baffert still harbors aspirations that Bayern could cop the Eclipse. There is no other rationale for pointing the speedster with distance limitations to a mile and a quarter in the Classic. He would have only one serious threat in the Dirt Mile, Goldencents, who might go in the Sprint.

Kelso winner Vyjack is staying in the East to await the Cigar Mile. Itsmyluckyday also will skip the Mile after his disappointing Kelso and prepare for either the Cigar or a winter campaign at Gulfstream.

Espinoza was riding for Baffert in the Awesome Again. A defeat by Shared Belief would have advanced Bayern’s standing, too.

On reflection, of all the suggested motivations for Espinoza’s ride, the one I put the least stock in is he was trying to help Baffert’s uncoupled stable mate Fed Biz. Espinoza gets up on a fair number of Baffert horses but he’s not the barn’s go-to guy. I don’t think Espinoza cared who won as long as Shared Belief didn’t.

Shared Belief, a gelding owned by sports talk star Jim Rome, could give racing such a boost for years to come it’s disheartening to think that anyone would go to the lengths Espinoza did to dim the luster of his star power.

Going all out to beat him on the square is one thing. That’s what jockeys are supposed to do. What Espinoza did is something else. He deserves the sanctions and scorn he is getting.

Racing as it was meant to be returns

After last weekend’s orgy of world class stakes action at Belmont and Santa Anita it’s hard to believe there are still championship caliber horses who haven’t had their final Breeders’ Cup preps. But Keeneland has five more Grade 1’s among nine graded stakes on opening weekend starting Friday.

Better yet, much better yet, real dirt is back after seven years in the synthetic wilderness. I have often pointed out how winners of major Keeneland stakes on kitty litter were non factors in races on mainstream dirt courses. This should no longer be the case.

If Beholder’s bid for a third straight Eclipse is to be thwarted, it likely will be by Close Hatches, the probable favorite in Sunday’s Grade 1 Spinster. Not to be overlooked is Don’t Tell Sophia, who is three-for-four in 2014, including Churchill’s recent Locust Grove. Her lone loss was a third behind Close Hatches in the Azeri but Don’t Tell Sophia was hindered by a quarter crack, which forced her to run with a bar shoe. That problem is history.

Juveniles also have their final Breeders’ Cup preps at Keeneland and Belmont. The opening day feature in Kentucky will bring out what is expected to be a full field of fillies in the Alcibiades. Colts will get their chance Saturday in the Breeders’ Futurity.

Back at Belmont, the Grade 1 open Champagne and Frizette for fillies are set for Saturday with 2-year-old sprinters of both genders getting their chances on Sunday in the Futurity and Matron.

American Pharoh’s dominant win in Santa Anita’s Frontrunner makes him the one to beat in the BC Juvenile but the filly division is still looking for a leader. Angela Renee’s win in the Chandelier was workmanlike but she was well beaten by Easterners in a couple of Saratoga stakes.

Keeneland’s five Saturday stakes also include the return of Wise Dan in the Shadwell Turf Mile. Dan suffered his only defeat of 2013 in this race last fall but it carried an asterisk. It became the Shadwell (fake dirt) Mile when a monsoon forced the race off the turf.

Horse of the Year is still Shared Belief’s to lose but if he comes up short in the Classic and Wise Dan takes the Shadwell and a third BC Turf Mile, another Horse of the Year laurel is a strong possibility.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Saturday, September 27, 2014

Shared Belief steals the show on a day of stars

Shared Belief was awesome again in the Awesome Again. Overcoming a nightmare trip, he was more awesome than ever in gutting out his seventh straight win. In spite of Tonalist 's facile score in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, Shared Belief heads toward the Breeders' Cup one of the biggest favorites on racing's biggest day.


If there were any doubts about the brilliance of Shared Belief, they were dispelled Saturday in a race whose title, Awesome Again, could not have been more appropriate. If anything Shared Belief was more awesome than ever.

His head margin over front-running Fed Biz was his closest call yet but it said more about him than any of his six previous daylight scores. You never really know what kind of heart a horse has until he has to gut it out in the final yards. Shared Heart has a heart bigger than California.

Shared Belief demonstrated in the Pacific Classic that he could overcome adversity. In the Awesome Again, he did things that are the stuff of legends.

Jockeys always ride to beat the favorite but what Victor Espinoza aboard Sky Kingdom did to get Shared Belief beat should be looked into by the stewards. Espinoza floated Shared Belief about eight wide into the first turn. According to Trakus, Shared Belief was pushed 24-plus feet off the rail. That’s almost a first down.

Espinoza continued to keep the undefeated favorite wide down the backside before he finally began his fade to last. This allowed the others to sneak through inside them and ensure Shared Belief would be almost as wide around the final turn.

“They tried some tactics on us,” winning rider Mike Smith said, being as charitable as possible.Smith estimated Sky Kingdom had Shared Belief stuck in the nine path.

Why would Espinoza ride as if his only goal was to get Shared Belief beaten? Here are a couple of things to consider. Espinoza was riding half of Bob Baffert’s uncoupled entry. Thanks to Espinoza, the other half, Fed Biz, was able to skim the rail on the lead and almost held on for the upset.

Then there’s the fact that Espinoza is the regular rider of California Chrome, the colt who’s trying to hold off Shared Belief for the 3-year-old title.

All of this does make you think.

How ironic it was only a week ago when Espinoza complained other jockeys in the Pennsylvania Derby were riding to thwart California Chrome.

There was an outstanding performance by a 3-year-old at Belmont, too. Tonalist moved to the head of the East’s 3-year-old class with a smart win in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. With blinkers off, he rallied from farther back than usual and split horses inside the eighth pole to get home ahead of Zivo and Long River.

The race was marred when Tonalist’s summer-long rival, Wicked Strong, was dropped by Moreno moving into the far turn. Wicked Strong was in a contending position when the mishap occurred, so there’s no telling what the outcome might have been if the Wood and Jim Dandy winner had been able to run his race. Moreno was disqualified from fourth and placed last.

This was Tonalist’s first win over older horses but it is a distinction that doesn’t have its usual cachet. With Palace Malice, Will Take Charge and Mucho Macho Man on the sidelines and Moreno and Itsmyluckyday misfiring, the older division is shallow in talent.

The attrition among older horses—Game on Dude, the pride of the West the past few years is also gone-- sets up a Breeders’ Cup Classic in which the three or four top betting choices could be 3-year-olds. Shared Belief will be a strong favorite. There’s no doubt about that.

Then there’s Tonalist and California Chrome, back home in the West. It could be four 3-year-olds heading the Classic if Baffert decides to try 10 furlongs again with Bayern. Maybe Shared Belief’s performance Saturday will coax Baffert to think better of that. The Dirt mile makes much more sense.

The potential travesty of Beholder capturing three straight Eclipses without ever winning a graded race anywhere but Santa Anita moved another step closer to fruition when she outran five foes in the Zenyatta. This race was effectively over when Iotapa, Beholder’s only serious competitor, missed her break.

Belle Gallantey won the East Coast equivalent, the Beldame, but it’s difficult to get too excited about her victory despite her more than eight length margin. John Velasquez aboard Stopchargingmaria opted to let Belle Gallantey gallop unchallenged on the lead in pedestrian fractions. The race was over by the halfway point.

If someone is to dethrone Beholder, it is more likely to be Close Hatches, who has her final Breeders’ Cup prep in the Spinster on real dirt at Keeneland on Saturday.

Saturday’s biggest disappointment had to be Itsmyluckyday in the Kelso. If Eddie Plesa was looking for an easy spot to get ready for the BC Classic, he picked the wrong race. River Rocks, going for his fourth straight, and Braedster sandwiched Itsmyluckyday most of the way, setting the race up for Vyjack, who sat a dream trip just behind the leaders and well ahead of the rest. Vyjack probably isn't going to Santa Anita. His connections are pointing for the Cigar Mile.

Stephanie’s Kitten didn’t disappoint for a change in the Flower Bowl. Johnny Velasquez kept her in the clear on the outside, but not too far outside, then pounced in the stretch to break a four-race winless streak for Ken Ramsey's filly. But you have to think there will be a couple or three Euros she might find too tough to handle at the Breeders’ Cup.

The same could be true of Turf Classic winner Main Sequence, who won his third straight Grade 1 since coming over from Great Britain. Give him and Graham Motion a lot of credit. All three wins have been in photo finishes. But he wasn’t the same terror on the other side of the Atlantic.

Private Zone is heading back to the BC Sprint after repeating in the Vosburgh. A year ago, he ran tenth at Santa Anita after winning Belmont’s premier sprint. The field he beat Saturday doesn’t suggest he’s the one to beat this year.

Written by Tom Jicha

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