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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Saturday, November 23, 2013

Congress has more important things to do than hassle racing

Congress has launched its latest round of hearings into drug use in horse racing. Ironically, the first session came the day after a congressman pleaded guilty to buying cocaine from a narc. Don't hold your breath waiting for hearings into drug abuse by lawmakers.

MIAMI, Nov. 23, 2013--The irony should not be allowed to pass unnoticed that the day after Florida Rep. Trey Radel (R) pleaded guilty to scoring cocaine from an undercover narc, Congress opened its latest round of hearings into proposals to bring the drug problem under control. Not the drug problem in Congress; the drug problem in horse racing.

Radel isn’t an isolated case. He’s merely the latest elected representative to be caught. It’s a matter of conjecture how many members of Congress are shooting, smoking or snorting illegal substances as they ponder and pass laws that impact every American’s life.

What is beyond dispute is the number of Congressional hearings into the matter. It’s the same as the number of races Orb has won since the Kentucky Derby.

Meanwhile, the proposed legislation under consideration by the Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade to bring racing under federal scrutiny is the third in two years. Which do you consider more crucial to the nation’s future: whacked out lawmakers or juiced horses?

This in no way should be construed as a defense of illegal drug use in racing. The cheaters, when they are caught, should be severely punished. Richard Dutrow should not be the rule not the exception.

What’s more, fixing races is a criminal offense. Those caught committing serious violations, as opposed to miniscule drug overages, should face hard time.

Three trainers and a clocker at Penn National were charged Friday with race-fixing. The story said they could face from 20 to 45 years in prison and a half-million dollars in fines. History teaches there is a fat chance penalties so severe will be ordered even if they are convicted totally as charged.

If hard time was handed down more often for race fixing, it would go a long way toward discouraging chicanery.

It takes only a little common sense to identify likely outlaws. When a five percent trainer most of his life starts winning with 40 percent of his starters and routinely moves up claims from Hall of Fame caliber trainers, you know something is up. Fail to include this into your handicapping regimen at your own risk.

A catalyst for the latest round of grandstanding is the unchallenged exaggeration that drug usage is rampant and killing horse racing. “The perception is that drug use in racing has become pervasive,” said Rep. Lee Terry (R.-Neb.). The Jockey Club contributed to this hysteria with its study that most racing fans share the perception that trainers are using performance enhancing drugs.

So what? It's how people act on such perceptions that matter.

Many Americans also share the perception that their elected officials are “crooks.” This is how Congress gets a 9 percent approval rating. Yet incumbents have an extraordinary success rate when they run for re-election.

People always look for others to blame for their failings. They lose a race, the winner is juicing. Fans might bitch about drug abuse but this doesn’t turn them off to the sport. Handle keeps rising at many venues, including the Breeders' Cup and those that aren't up are down by insignificant margins.

Money spent at the blue chip horse auctions continues to go through the roof.

There are two full-time horse racing channels. It wasn’t that long ago that the only TV exposure racing got was the Triple Crown races.

These positive developments are taking place as racing is being challenged by new competition from casinos and other forms of legal gambling, which siphon untold amounts of discretionary income that used to find its way to race tracks.

Does this sound like a sport in its death throes?

Naysayers counter by pointing to declining attendance at race tracks. This is a specious argument in an era of widespread simulcast venues as well as the availability of live coverage morning through night via computer, smart phones and TV.

Truth be known, racing’s alleged drug problems are a pet issue of The New York Times, which has declared a jihad against the sport. When The Times makes an issue of anything, Washington jumps to attention. Hence the latest hearings.

Just as with its unwavering support of Obamacare despite daily revelations of its shortcomings, including from former champions such as President Clinton, The Times never lets facts get in the way as it practices advocacy journalism on its news pages.

Phil Hanrahan, chief executive of the NHBPA, was quoted in the Racing Form citing statistics from the Association of Racing Commissioners International that 99.97 of all post-race drug tests come back clean of serious performance-enhancing drugs.

Lest anyone think I’m a total naïf, I have no doubt that racing’s 99.97 figure is partially a product of the cheaters always being one step ahead of the tests. But the good guys are catching up.

Hanrahan contended the 99.97 percent figure proves that federal intervention is not needed. “The job is already being done.”

OK, that’s an overstatement but to no greater degree than those who allege that every horse is juiced and every race is fixed.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Rotation, real dirt have to be Breeders’ Cup priorities

Breeders' Cup hopes to set criteria for hosting future events. Two should be prime: there must be a rotation and no track without a real dirt main track should be considered.

MIAMI, Nov. 20, 2013--William Farish said during Breeders’ Cup week that a priority of the BC has to be setting parameters to be used in selecting host sites. Moreover, he said he wanted it done sooner rather than later, ideally by the end of 2013, certainly by early in the new year.

As Breeders’ Cup Chairman as well as one of the most respected people in the sport, Farish is in a position to make this happen.

I’d like to suggest two criteria that should be paramount. No track, except under extraordinary or emergency situations, should host the event three years in a row, as Santa Anita doing, and the BC should not be hosted by any track with an artificial surface.

No matter where the races are conducted, there will be home court advantages. These seem especially pronounced at Santa Anita.

The Turf Sprint has become an annuity for Santa Anita-based horses familiar with the most unique course in North America. It has been run four times in Arcadia and four times it has been won by a local, with Mizdirection coming out on top in 2012 and 2013.

What’s more, the first three finishers from last year filled three of the first four positions this year. You have to wonder why an owner and trainer of a contender from elsewhere in the country would even bother to show up next year.

In winning the Distaff, Beholder put in a strong bid for a second Eclipse to go along with the one she won last year after taking the Juvenile Fillies. As I pointed out in a previous column, it is conceivable that Beholder could capture three consecutive Eclipse Awards without winning a graded stakes anyplace but Santa Anita, which she has yet to do. That’s not right.

I understand the Breeders’ Cup has issues with Churchill Downs but there has to be a way to work these out so that the citadel of racing is again part of the Breeders’ Cup mix. Wars used to be put on hold for the Olympics.

Farish agrees. He was quoted in the Blood Horse saying, “If we can rotate the event—that’s a real possibility—Churchill Downs absolutely needs to be part of that rotation.”

It also would be nice if NYRA, home of more significant races than any other locale, could host the event every few years now that its franchise issues have been resolved.

There should be no “if” when it comes to a rotation. There is no other major sport that anchors its championship in one location, save for the U.S. Open tennis championships.

If the Breeders’ Cup makes Southern California its permanent home, it is only a matter of time until the rest of the racing nation grows weary of being dominated by home town heroes and goes its own way.

It’s always sad to see a racetrack close. In the case of tradition rich Hollywood Park, which is in its final season, it is a loss almost beyond words. The only positive is that another synthetic track will bite the dust next month.

Del Mar, in the midst of a multi-million dollar expansion of its turf course, expressly to be able to host a Breeders’ Cup, is thought to be the front-runner for 2015. If this is true, it is spending a fortune on the wrong problem. The Breeders’ Cup shouldn’t happen as long as its main track is toy dirt.

With Hollywood’s closing, the only remaining track in the United States other than Del Mar where major stakes are conducted on kitty litter is Keeneland, with its pair of three-week meetings.
Almost all of the races of consequence at Arlington are on grass. Same goes for Golden Gate. Turfway Park is struggling to hold on and has one day a year with significant stakes. Presque Isle has only one noteworthy race. This is all the more reason why a real dirt main course should be mandatory for the Breeders' Cup.

Del Mar is not only out of step with most of the rest of America, it now stands alone in Southern California. Santa Anita, Fairplex and soon to join the game Los Alamitos all have real dirt tracks.

I’ve been banging the drum that the Blue Grass Stakes should no longer be given first tier Kentucky Derby points or a Grade 1 designation because of the sorry history of its winners since waxed dirt was installed. Mike Watchmaker did the same in the Racing Form recently when he traced the dismal subsequent performances of the winners of the Alciabides and Breeders’ Futurity since Keeneland went artificial. For the record, this year’s winners, My Conquestadory and We Miss Artie, both failed to hit the board at the Breeders’ Cup.

My Conquestadory, who ran a breathtaking race in Kentucky, didn’t even attempt the Juvenile Fillies on dirt. Her connections opted instead for the turf counterpart. Doesn’t this tell you all you need to know?

There is now an indisputable body of evidence that fake dirt tracks are like Las Vegas. What happens on them stays on them. In light of this, the Breeders’ Cup should not even consider Del Mar unless and until it rejoins the mainstream of major North American tracks.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Friday, November 15, 2013

Stewards owe timely decisions to fans

Stewards often take much too long to render a call on inquiries, even when the outcome is inevitable. It happened in back-to-back races during Gulfstream's Sunshine Millions Preview. There was no excuse for either.

MIAMI, Nov. 15, 2013--The most agonizing moments for a horseplayer are waiting out a tight photo and sweating out an interminable inquiry. The former is a necessary evil. The latter, in many cases, is not.

Back-to-back races during Gulfstream’s Sunshine Millions Preview program provided examples of how stewards are regularly responsible for unnecessary delays in announcing a decision, which stretch out the card and cause heartburn for players.

My Pal Chrisy, the odds-on favorite in the Distaff Preview, powered past second choice Awesome Belle as the field straightened for home. For some mystifying reason, Jeffrey Sanchez aboard Awesome Belle claimed foul.

All it took was one look at the TV monitors to confirm what was seen during the actual running. My Pal Chrisy never came near Awesome Belle on the turn and was well clear when she moved over in front of her in the lane.

Fans all over the track were mocking Sanchez’s claim, crying out, “Where’s the foul?” As one wise guy put it, “What’s he claiming, that the other horse ran too fast?”

The stewards should have taken one courtesy look to make certain they didn’t miss something. Instead, they took six or seven minutes to look, relook, then look again at every conceivable angle before doing what they should have done in 30 seconds, let the result stand.

The very next race, the Juvenile Sprint, produced the opposite situation. Wildcat Red led into deep stretch, then began to drift out, two, three, four paths. Meanwhile, Bolita Boyz was rallying furiously down the middle of the track. Wildcat Red’s drift forced Paco Lopez aboard Bolita Boyz to hesitate, then, not knowing how much further Wildcat Red was going to come out, duck to the inside where his charge fell short.

The stewards were right on it, putting up the inquiry sign within seconds of the horses going under the wire. Once again, everyone at the track knew what the outcome was going to be. Wildcat Red had to come down. If there was any doubt, it was dispelled by a single look at the head-on.

Indeed, Wildcat Red was disqualified but not until the stewards took another five or six minutes to look repeatedly at the same incriminating footage. Remember, they saw enough live to put up the inquiry. This doesn’t always result in a DQ but when the video reinforces what the stewards had seen live, it should be an easy and quick call. Their lengthy delay was inexcusable.

These two calls were so clear cut--there are similar ones all the time at tracks everywhere--you have to wonder if the stewards come to a decision, then sit on it for a few minutes so that they appear to have been in deep deliberations.

There are, of course, situations when an inquiry is so borderline it is commendable that the stewards consider every possible angle and take as much time as necessary before coming to a decision. More often, this is not the case. On these occasions, the stewards should take one look at the pan, one at the head-on, do whatever is called for and make the result official as quickly as possible.

Mutual poll manipulation?

Later the same afternoon, there was a suspicious turn of events at Hollywood Park, which suggested the possibility of mutual pool manipulation.

A horse named Ekahi opened at 3-5 in the seventh race, an open $16,000-$14,000 claimer. Problem was Ekahi was 30-1 on the morning line in a race in which there were no 20-1 shots. The next highest was 12-1.

The morning line was supported by the past performances. Ekahi was one-for-nine lifetime, zero-for-four in 2013. He was coming out of a $20K starter race in which he finished last of seven, beaten 28 lengths. His previous start, for the same tag as last Saturday but for limited winners, he finished 10th of 12. He had finished in front of only four of 31 opponents this year.

Unlikely winners often open short, especially at tracks with relatively small pools. Less than $100 can do it. But this was Hollywood Park on a Saturday, where it takes a sizable punch to make the toteboard rock. But there was no obvious contender worthy of this kind of support. The morning line choice was 3-1 and he didn’t even wind up going off the favorite.

Another possible explanation was someone had made a mistake and hit the wrong number. Ekahi was No. 6. One of the well regarded horses was Cast a Doubt in No. 5, who did eventually become the betting choice at 5-2. This also is a fairly frequent occurrence and the board adjusts when the ticket is canceled and the money placed where it was meant to be.

But Ekahi lingered for most of the betting as the heavy favorite, drifting only slightly to even-money, then 6-5. It wasn’t until about three minutes to post that the odds on Ekahi began their retreat to where they should have been. In one click, he zoomed to 14-1. By post time, he was 27-1. He ran like a 27-1 shot, trailing the field from start to finish.

For many years, a bettor couldn’t change a wager once he stepped away from the window. It was a positive development when changes became permissable, theoretically because a wrong number had been purchased.

Computerized betting has changed the game. Now cancellations can be made with a simple click up to seconds before the field breaks.

I don’t know where the Ekahi shenanigans originated but Hollywood Park and the California Racing Board can find out. They owe it to fans to investigate the circumstances and take steps to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Written by Tom Jicha

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