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, June 04, 2013

A fan-friendly platform for a would-be racing czar

The idea of a racing czar to rule the sport nationally is not going to happen. Tracks and local jurisdictions will never surrender their power. But as long as people like the ivory tower crowd at The New York Times want to daydream about a strong, central leader for racing, there are fan-friendly fixes that should be at the top of the czar's agenda. The best thing about this to-do list is almost all of them require nothing more than some common sense by racetrack management and could be put into place immediately.

MIAMI, June 4, 2013—Tears for Fears was a bit off with their hit “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.”

Response to my recent column on the likelihood of a racing czar, which was suggested in The New York Times, was as passionate and divided as some of the debates in Washington. A sizable segment of the racing community wants someone, anyone to rule their world.

It might be an appealing thought but it's as undoable as creating Utopia. Too many insurmountable obstacles are in the way to have it come to fruition. First and foremost is the plethora of individual racetracks and jurisdictions, which will never surrender their power.

With the comfort of knowing a racing czar is a pipedream, I have the ideal candidate—Me.

Fans would be my win, place and show considerations. Without them, racing is polo, a costly hobby for the rich ignored by the masses.

The best part of my candidacy is the edicts I would issue are actually easily accomplished. Well, maybe not the first one, but all the others.

A sport without stars is like an album without a hit single. Only the hardcore pay attention. Racing needs its stars to stay on the track at least through their 4-year-old campaigns. I would urge (or if I were really the czar, order) the Jockey Club not to register foals conceived by a stallion before he was 5.

Thoroughbreds generally live into their 20s, or close to it. Surrendering one breeding season for the good of the game isn’t asking too much in light of how it could enhance interest in the sport. The healthier racing is, the more everyone, including breeders, benefits.

NYRA’s rule on one part of a coupled entry being scratched after betting has begun would be adopted nationwide. That is, the other part of the entry is considered scratched, too, and runs for purse money only.

Florida bettors continue to be regularly screwed because Calder and Gulfstream refuse to bend on this issue. The latest example came in Calder’s 10th race on June 1. Trainer Stanley Gold had a coupled entry, Hand Picked and It’s a Done Deal. Hand Picked threw his rider and ran off as the field was being loaded. He was properly ordered scratched.

It’s impossible to know which of Gold’s horses fans had made the 2-1 favorite--maybe some just wanted strength in numbers--but they were stuck with It’s a Done Deal, who drifted up to 7-2. It would have taken Olympic speed to get to a window or SAM to cancel the ticket.

But there were also multi-race tickets involved. Those holding them had no opportunity to change and were SOL when It's a Done Deal was soundly thrashed.

A similar situation happened on a Sunday at Gulfstream this winter with a Frank Calabrese entry, in which what seemed to be the much stronger half was scratched. The one that did run finished up the track.

There is no excuse for the Florida tracks (and any others with the same policy) to not have adopted the NYRA rule yesterday.

Another NYRA practice, posting multi-race will-pays immediately after the just run race payoffs, also should be adopted anywhere it isn’t.

The Southern California tracks are the worst. Try to decide your options to “save” when you have to sit through post-race interviews, replays, promos for the next food truck day, commercials for area restaurants and all other manner of extraneous crap before the potential payoffs are posted. There were occasions at Santa Anita this winter when they weren’t up until inside five minutes to post.

NYRA has areas it can improve, too, starting with posting all payoffs based on $2 bets. Only a fool bets $2 Pick 4’s or Pick 3’s, because of the tax implications. In fact, there should be an advisory in track programs that as long as the confiscatory IRS tax grab persists bettors should buy the least expensive multi-race combinations allowed. Those who want to bet more per combination have the option of multiple tickets.

In harmony with this, payoffs should be posted according to what the minimum wager is (with the exception of win-place-show for tradition’s sake). If you can bet a 50-cent Pick 3 or Pick 4, the payoff based on that should be displayed. For bets with a $1 minimum, the single buck payoff should be the norm.

Multi-tasking is in vogue but it shouldn’t come into play when watching races. New York, Southern California and Florida in the winter/Kentucky in the spring and fall, should never spring the gate on a race until one in progress at another of the big three has been decided.

The number of tracks operating, especially in the warm weather months, makes it impossible to avoid all conflicts. But the big three are where most of the simulcast money is bet. Players shouldn’t have to go cross-eyed trying to follow two races at once.

At least three times on a Saturday last winter, Santa Anita’s first race of a Pick Six with a huge carryover was run simultaneous to a graded stakes at Gulfstream. The two tracks are owned by the same person, Frank Stronach.

This would be as much in the tracks’ interest as the fans. Research has shown substantially more is bet when there is spacing between simulcast races.

Only extreme provincialism and contempt for the bettors allow this to happen. The officials who can order a race held a minute or two have access to the same TV monitors as fans, so there is no excuse. If I were Stronach, who has shown zero hesitance to fire people, the first time would have brought a warning not to let this happen again. The second time would have brought a pink slip. I’ll bet there wouldn’t have been a third time.

Picking a winner is so challenging that even the sharpest handicappers are right only about a third of the time. Stewards would be instructed never to disqualify a horse, who committed an infraction that didn’t change the final placings. To anyone who says, “How would you know?” this is no more a judgment call than deciding if a disqualification is warranted.

The most disheartening situation for a player is to see his selection win easily, only to be taken down for crossing over too soon or bumping a rival en route to an easy win when the “fouled” horse holds on for second. Disheartened fans can easily become former fans.

A simple remedy exists. Fine the offending jockey the amount he made for riding the winner and strip the win from his record. This is what would have happened with a DQ anyway and you don’t have disgruntled fans.

This is only the start of my platform. I’m sure you have ideas, too. Fire away.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Friday, May 31, 2013

Calder-Gulfstream deal could be imminent

With a month to go before Gulfstream is scheduled to begin racing head-to-head against Calder, there is a strong belief, supported by recent history, that Churchill Downs, Inc., is on the verge of striking a deal to allow Frank Stronach's track to run unopposed. On another front, some of the security precautions NYRA has announced for the Belmont Stakes are way over the top. If some of the same restrictions are extended to the Saratoga meeting, they will kill the atmosphere that has made a day at the Spa one of sports biggest joys.

MIAMI, May 31, 2013--All is quiet on the Gulfstream-Calder front. But it’s one of those eerie news blackout quiets which frequently occur before something big is about to be announced. There was a meeting this week between high ranking executives of both sides and no one is talking publicly about what transpired, generally a sign progress is being made and a deal is imminent.

The expectation remains that before the head-to-head racing nightmare begins in July, Churchill Downs, Inc., will accept some kind of settlement, which will either turn Calder into a going-through-the-motions-to-keep-our-casino venue or end racing there entirely.

The imminent closure of Hollywood Park is an example why this belief is so prevalent. CDI sold Hollywood to its current owners without any regard for the future of racing. CDI knew and didn’t care when it sold the track to a development company that it was dooming Hollywood as a racetrack. The only thing that kept it operating as a track as long as it has was the crippling recession, which dried up the money supply to finance the ambitious commercial/residential project Hollywood’s new owners envisioned.

Churchill also negotiated a settlement a couple of years ago when it allowed Gulfstream to usurp December, one of the most profitable months of the year for Calder.

Faced with the reality that strong willed Frank Stronach is determined to run year-round, with or without competition, there is no reason to believe CDI will act differently this time.

The company’s behavior in New Orleans is another example of the diminishing regard it has for racing.

A recent Ray Paulick column ( decried the deterioration of the Fair Grounds turf course since CDI bought the facility.

Paulick quoted former Fair Grounds owner Louie Roussel, who said CDI has neglected the infield grass course since 2004.

The piece also quoted a letter sent by Stanley Seelig, president of the Louisiana HBPA, to the Louisiana Racing Commission. “This is not a new problem, and one that the Fair Grounds has done a poor job of addressing the last few years.”

Weeks went by this past season without the turf course being usable, even when there was minimal or no rain. Under the circumstances, a responsible, dedicated-to-racing owner would have made repairing the turf course after the meet closed in March a priority.

CDI added insult to injury, allowing tens of thousands of fans to trample all over it at the annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in late April, early May. The track—more precisely, CDI—is contractually committed to the festival but more effort could have been made to protect the troubled turf.

The net result, Paulick wrote, is “CDI makes money, horsemen lose money (from simulcasting and slots being shut down at times during the festival) and the turf course is severely damaged.” Insiders are saying that the damage is so extensive that it might negatively impact the 2013-14 meeting. For CDI, regrettably this has become business as usual.

So whether it’s Florida, California or Louisiana, CDI’s attitude has been to take the money and not worry about running a race track. This does not bode well for the future of Calder.

Start Spreading the News

The Belmont Stakes has a self-styled status as “The Test of Champions.” This might have been true in another time, back in the 20th century. It has not been the case during this millennium.

Only once since 2000 has the winner of the third jewel of the Triple Crown been voted the ultimate honor for a champion, the Eclipse Award as Horse of the Year. That was Point Given 12 years ago.

And only three times in the 21st century has the Belmont winner been named outstanding 3-year-old male—Point Given, Afleet Alex (2005) and Summer Bird (2009).

The filly Rags to Riches, who upset Curlin in 2007, was voted best 3-year-old female.

During this same period, the Belmont has been won by Ruler on Ice, with a only a maiden win in five starts going into the Belmont and one-for-12 since (an allowance win over Aqueduct’s winter track); DaTara, who subsequently went zero-for-nine before being retired; Jazil, who went into the Belmont with only a maiden win in eight starts and didn’t win in three post-Belmont starts, and Sarava, a 70-1 shot, who failed to hit the board in his two post-Belmont races.

The Belmont has become a victim of the mania to breed for win-early speed, stamina be damned. Modern thoroughbreds, who can handle the grueling mile and a half, don’t often fit that paradigm. Union Rags last year was an exception.

We'll take a more detailed look at the Belmont field after it's set at Wednesday's post draw.

One other Belmont thought: a kneejerk over-reaction is inevitable whenever there is an act of terrorism. Racing is not immune. In the wake of the Boston Marathon tragedy, the expanded security precautions put in place by NYRA threaten to reduce New York’s biggest day of racing downstate into as much fun as a trip through airport security.

Taking reasonable precautions is laudable but some measures are, pardon the expression, overkill.

I have no problem with prohibitions against laser pointers, mace, pepper spray and certainly weapons. It’s dumbfounding that these haven’t been on a forbidden list forever. But the reasoning behind no umbrellas, even in the backyard, where rain has been known to fall and there is no cover, will have to be explained to me.

Limiting the size of a woman's purse, which is going to be searched at the entrance gate anyway, also seems a bit much.

There has been a thwarted terrorist attempt at detonating an underwear bomb on a plane. I guess we should be grateful NYRA didn’t decree everyone has to come to the Belmont commando style.

With a new regime in place, we can only hope more reasonable voices will prevail before Saratoga. If the same prohibitions, especially those banning coolers and alcoholic beverages, are put into place at the Spa, they might as well start saddling horses under the trees again. There will be nobody else there.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Sunday, May 26, 2013

Calder Gates Closed On Memorial Day: Effects of Florida conflict already being felt

The ill effects of the looming conflict between Gulfstream and Calder are beginning to show. In what has to be a first, Calder decided not to race on Memorial Day, probably the first time a racetrack, whose season is in progress, has gone dark on the summer kickoff holiday. No racing is scheduled on the Fourth of July or Labor Day, either, as they, too, fall on days when the track is normally dark. It appears that with its future uncertain, Calder is doing as little as possible. Another sign of this: the press department has disappeared. Those who used to assist reporters have resigned and not been replaced. Whatever is going to happen, it needs to happen as quickly as possible so that the future of both tracks becomes clear.

MIAMI, May 26, 2013--Aaron Vercruysee introduced Sunday’s “First Call” program on HRTV with, “In horse racing, when there’s a holiday and it’s a Monday, we’ve got a lot of great stakes action around the country.”

Not in South Florida. No stakes action was scheduled at Calder on Memorial Day, because no racing was scheduled at Calder on Memorial Day. As best I can recall from 50 years of following thoroughbred racing, this is the first time a track, whose season is in progress, went dark on the holiday that kicks off the summer season.

No racing is scheduled at Calder on the Fourth of July or Labor Day, either. These, too, are firsts, as best I know.This assumes there will be any racing at Calder by the time these holidays roll around.

I’ve worked at a couple of newspapers that shut down. The situation at Calder now reminds me of the run-up to those sad occasions. People leave and they are not replaced. Things break and they are not fixed. Knowing there is no future, everyone does as little as possible (see no racing on the summer holidays).

This describes the spring of 2013 at Calder. The Damocles Sword hanging over the Miami track is the possibility (likelihood?) that Churchill Downs, Inc., will sell out to Gulfstream’s Frank Stronach in some form and racing, or at least racing as it has been at Calder, will cease to exist.

Calder presented the Memorial Handicap Saturday. The annual stakes had to have its title shortened to omit Day for obvious reasons. Journalists from both major area newspapers and, of course, the Daily Racing Form were there to cover the race. What wasn’t there was anyone who worked for Calder.

Michelle Blanco, one of the finest publicists ever to come around a race track, resigned a couple of months ago. She wasn’t replaced. Michael Costanzo, who was given many of Michelle’s duties, left for Gulfstream a few weeks ago. He hasn’t been replaced, either.

Little things, like distributing charts or gathering quotes from riders and trainers, many of whom require translation because they speak little or no English, went undone. If you had a technical problem, you were on your own. If you have a question, there is no one to call. The offices are still there but there is no one in them.

This isn’t a whine by a spoiled reporter. I’ve always gathered my own quotes, as have my colleagues. I know because we stand shoulder to shoulder in the winner’s circle. We're managing well under the new normal, too.

It is to point out the absurdity of a major race track having no press department , which is as unprecedented as not racing on Memorial Day. This is symptomatic of what is happening at Calder.

Reportedly, top executives of CDI and the Stronach Group have a meeting scheduled for Tuesday in an attempt to reach a resolution to the threat of the tracks engaging in a scorched earth conflict that threatens Florida racing. The point that there are not enough horses or fans to go around cannot be reiterated enough.

Gulfstream is going to start racing year-round in July (actually there will be a head start for one day in late June). Any change to this plan will be a bigger upset than Oxbow winning the Preakness. Stronach has his mind set on doing it and nothing is going to dissuade him.

There are many reasons why this can be good for racing. Gulfstream’s facility is more modern, including the backstretch. The shortage of seats facing the race track is not an issue during the non-prime months when crowds thin dramatically. Most fans prefer the comfort of air conditioning. Gulfstream is as well equipped as Calder to serve them.

Gulfstream’s name also carries more cachet around the country and simulcasting is the biggest part of what this conflict is about. (Gulfstream, Calder and Tampa Bay all want to serve as a host track year-round, the next big skirmish). If more money is bet on Gulfstream out of town, it will translate into bigger purses for horsemen.

Both facilities have casinos. The significant difference is CDI has made it the priority at Calder. On both sides of the Calder grandstand facing the Florida Turnpike, which is heavily trafficked by tourists, there are huge illuminated signs “Calder Casino.” No mention of racing. Almost all advertising is geared toward the slots.

Gulfstream pushes its slots in ads, too, but when racing is being conducted, it also is heavily promoted. This figures to be stepped up when summer racing is presented for the first time.

So the ball is in CDI’s court. It can go to war, racing on weekends directly against Gulfstream. It can back off and race only on weekdays to satisfy the state’s requirements to keep its casino license. Or it can sell the whole operation outright to Stronach. Supposedly, an offer was tendered a couple of months ago but the price wasn’t considered right.

Each of these possibilities does not bode well for Calder, as we have come to know it, or people who make their livelihoods there. Thus, the air of melancholy around the track.

This is not meant to be a pro-Gulfstream, anti-Calder screed. There would be no summer racing without Calder. That should count for something. Anyone with a sense of fair play can see it is not right for any entity to just move in and tell another, we’re taking over.

Also, I might eventually be proven wrong but I believe racing at any track 12 months a year is not a good thing for the sport or that track.

Whatever is decided, let’s hope it happens quickly. No one is benefitting from the uncertainty. South Florida deserves to know its racing future ASAP.

Written by Tom Jicha

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