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 Sentinels horse racing writer since 2007 as a staff member, and continues to this day as a free-lancer.

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Friday, January 31, 2014

You never know where next hot Derby horse will come from

A trio of stakes for 3-year-olds are on the Saturday agenda. None of the hot contenders are scheduled to go in the Hutcheson, Sam F. Davis or Withers but this time of year a major new shooter could come from anywhere.

MIAMI, Jan. 31, 2014--New Year’s Day, the high-weight in the Experimental Handicap released this week, didn’t make it to, well, New Year’s Day, before going to the sidelines.

Shared Belief, co-second high-weight, is dealing with hoof problems. He has had his planned season debut in the Robert B. Lewis on Feb. 8 delayed at least a month.

Havana, rated equal to Shared Belief, must have issues, too. The blueprint now is to launch his 3-year-old campaign in the seven furlong Swale on March 1 instead of the two-turn Fountain of Youth a week earlier.

Honor Code, fourth in the Experimental rankings, bruised his ankles. He also will skip the Fountain of Youth, which had been penciled in as his first step toward Louisville.

It’s hard to take the Experimental seriously when it ranks Cairo Prince six pounds below Honor Code on 2-year-old form. They were a nose apart in the Remsen, when Cairo Prince conceded six pounds to Honor Code, had a tougher trip and still might have won but for a poorly judged ride.

But the Experimental does identify the horses expected to be the major players as Derby season dawns.

The developments with the leaders illustrate how quickly the Derby picture can be scrambled. A week ago, Top Billing was just another promising colt still eligible for an entry level allowance. One eye-popping last-to-first win last Saturday has vaulted him onto most Top 10 (if not Top 5) lists. Poor Commissioner. He beat Top Billing in a Gulfstream allowance and nobody is talking about him.

So you never know at this time of year when the next would-be star is going to materialize. This needs to be kept in mind while assessing the three stakes for Derby-age horses on Saturday’s docket: the Hutcheson, the Sam F. Davis and the Withers.

It would appear unlikely a major new shooter for the spring classics will emerge. The seven furlong Hutcheson is composed mostly of horses whose future is around one turn. The Sam F. Davis, a mile and a sixteenth around two turns, has only one horse with more than a single win, and that was in a restricted Canadian stakes. The co-favorites in the Withers are New York-breds trying open company for the first time.

Probable Hutcheson favorite Wildcat Red is in the race only because a minor sickness knocked him out of last week’s Holy Bull. The way Cairo Prince ran, it might have been a fortuitous illness.

Wildcat Red crossed the finish line first in his first three starts (although he was disqualified in one), then ran second in the Gulfstream Derby. But the first three were sprints and he was passed in the stretch for the first time attempting a mile. Turning back to seven furlongs, he should be right in his comfort zone.

If there are to be horses to come out of the Hutcheson and go on to longer distances, they likely will be from the loaded (what’s new?) Todd Pletcher barn. Vinceremos broke his maiden at a mile, gamely overcoming an adventuresome trip. Todd thinks enough of him to have cross-entered him in the Sammy Davis.

The Todd Squad’s other contender, Trail Blaze, was the talk of New York when he broke his maiden. But he was off the board at 6-5 in the Spectacular Bid. It wasn’t an easy trip so he’s eligible to come back big.

The runnerup in the Bid, C. Zee, is attempting more than six furlongs for the first time in his fourth career start.

Mighty Brown won a small stakes at Tampa at the Hutcheson distance then misfired in a special event in Ocala. However, the sales company track in Central Florida can leg up horses for top efforts subsequently.

Wesley Ward’s Pablo Del Monte looked like a prospect when he won his first two starts going short. But he has been a non-factor in two attempts at a mile, one on turf. Perhaps significantly, his two wins were on synthetics.

If Todd opts for the Davis with Vinceremos, he will likely be an underlay solely because of his connections. Pletcher has another impressive maiden breaker, Harpoon, entered. He was second three times before breaking through and was within three lengths of Cairo Prince when the new leader of the division broke his maiden at Belmont.

Asserting Bear from the potent Reade Baker outfit has the strongest credentials outside of maiden breakers. He has been in the money in three restricted Canadian stakes, all at more than a mile. Baker must feel there is more to be gotten. He’s putting blinkers on. A caution: Asserting Bear tries real dirt for the first time.

Another Woodbine-based colt, Matador, was last behind Asserting Bear in his most recent start but he did win the restricted Cup & Saucer, albeit on grass. He, too, will be on conventional dirt for the first time.

New York-bred Noble Cornerstone could be the sleeper. He galloped first time out at Aqueduct then ran a fast closing second in a 12-horse , $250,000 stakes at Remington. Blinkers come off and a rejuvenated Kent Desormeaux comes in to ride.

New York-breds figure to dominate the open Withers at a mile and a sixteenth. Samratt, a son of Noble Causeway, looks like he could be any kind. He’s three-for-three, capped by an almost 17-length front-running laugher at a mile and 70 yards. He might not need an edge but he has been training at Palm Meadows, which often is an advantage over horses who have had to deal with New York’s winter, which has been especially brutal this year.

Uncle Sigh, also bred in the Empire State, is coming off a ridiculously easy win, too, a 14 ½- length maiden romp at a mile and 70. Gary Contessa said if no one else takes it to Samratt, his son of Indian Charlie will.

The stranger danger in the six-horse field is Honorable Judge, shipping in off an open allowance win at Parx.

The Withers is one of four stakes on the Saturday Aqueduct card. This might seem a bit much for the first day of February but battalions of sports fans will be in town for this big football game across the river on Sunday.

How could any racing fan not like a team called the Broncos?

Written by Tom Jicha

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Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Racing has a fickle partner in TV

The Jockey Club Tour on Fox Sports should be a boon to racing. Any TV exposure is. But racing's movers and shakers should be aware that history teaches that TV, especially fledgling networks, drops niche programming as soon as it has enough shows with mainstream appeal.

MIAMI, Jan. 29, 2014--Getting into bed with a TV network is like being George Clooney’s latest flame. Great while it lasts. Just don’t fantasize about happily ever after.

Racing should keep this in mind as it justifiably celebrates the launch of the Jockey Club Tour on Fox Sports. When you don’t have an abundance of suitors, you can’t fret over “Will you still love me tomorrow?”

A story from my 30 years as a TV critic illustrates what racing can expect. The best handicapping I ever did wasn’t at a racetrack. It was predicting the impact Miami Vice would have on South Florida.

The town fathers were apoplectic when NBC announced the new series starring Don Johnson and Phillip Michael Thomas. They were terrified the tourism industry would be irreparably harmed by ripped-from-the-headlines plots.

Drug wars had made the area resemble the Wild West, only with better weapons. Dadeland, an upscale showplace mall, had recently been the site of a ferocious gun battle waged with military assault rifles.

The Miami Vice pilot was screened for TV critics during a Los Angeles press tour. It was brilliant. The lead on my column for the Miami News was, “’Miami Vice’ will be the greatest thing ever to happen to Miami.” The paper put it on Page 1.

“Miami Vice” didn’t become an instant nationwide hit. It was scheduled against “Falcon Crest,” a popular prime-time soap bolstered by the extraordinary lead-in it inherited from still white hot “Dallas.”

But “Vice” was huge in Miami. There was no such thing as too much Miami Vice in the paper. I wrote about the episodes, the music, the fashions and profiled every actor in the ensemble. My stories were available on several wire services, so they were being seen beyond Miami.

I became as popular on the set as pastels. The night the pilot aired for America, there was a lavish screening party at a Miami Beach hotel. I got to sit behind the ropes with the cast. When I temporarily ran out of story ideas and didn’t show up on the set for more than a week, I got a call asking if I was mad about something.

Don Johnson sent me a message that I didn’t have to have a story in mind to come out to the set. He said it was OK to come over and just hang out. He also invited me to his Star Island mansion some Saturday night to watch movies with his friends.

America finally discovered “Miami Vice” during summer rerun season when the CBS soap operas went on hiatus. Millions of faithful fans, who had been hearing about “Miami Vice”—video recorders were still fairly rare—tuned in to see what they were missing. Miami Vice was on its way.

A frenzy erupted in the publishing business to get Johnson and company on the covers of national news and entertainment magazines.

As Season Two approached, my paper naturally wanted a major takeout on what to expect. I called over to the people who had treated me the previous year as if I were “The Bachelor” and they were in the harem hoping to gain favor.

Numerous calls went unreturned. Eventually I got aggressive, leaving Johnson and others a sharp message reminding them that I was there when nobody else was and how it was bad form on their part to not even return my calls.

I finally got a pithy message from Johnson’s rep. “That was last year. We’re hot now.”

To bring this full circle, Fox Sports 1 needs help now. It is the new kid on the national cable sports network block. The major broadcast networks, ESPN and the Turner empire cleverly tied up the professional sports leagues and major college conferences to long-term deals. So Fox Sports has to scramble to fill 168 hours a week without resorting to miniature golf and curling from Canada. Enter the relationship with racing.

However, the major sports deals will eventually expire and Fox, out of necessity, will probably overpay to grab some of them. As these sports begin to show up on the network, horse racing will be pushed aside. In effect, it will get the “That was then. We’re hot now” brush off. Pretty much what happened with ESPN.

This is not a phenomena restricted to sports, although it has manifested itself in a slightly different way on broadcast networks. When Fox arrived in the early ‘90s, it relied to a large extent on series geared toward African-American audiences: True Colors, Roc, Martin and In Living Color, to name a few.

Simple explanation: The black audience was being egregiously underserved by ABC, CBS and NBC. So Fox prudently went after that segment of America.

However, once the network created a few hits and was accepted by mainstream America on even footing with the then Big Three (snagging the NFL was a major coup), the shows with predominantly black casts began to diminish. Try finding one now.

The lesser UPN and WB networks, which came along in the mid-‘90s, adhered to an identical strategy. UPN got off the ground with black-targeted series such as Moesha, The Parkers, All of Us, Girlfriends and Everybody Hates Chris.

The first series on WB was The Wayans Brothers. Parent ‘Hood and Sister, Sister followed.

The two newbies eventually merged into the CW and the shows with African-American casts were jettisoned one by one until there were none, as the new entity discovered greater success targeting the 18-and-under crowd, also underserved in prime time.

TV critics get to meet with network executives in Los Angeles twice each year. At every one of these sessions while I was still on the beat, the CW executive in charge said the network’s primary goal was to break out beyond teens by creating series with appeal to a more general audience. Thus far, success in this area has been limited. If and when it happens, it will be adios teens.

So racing and its fans should enjoy the honeymoon with Fox Sports while it lasts. It is hoped that this time the future of niche programming will last, not disappear.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Two Series Enhance Racing’s TV Profile

Without TV, it's impossible for a sport to be taken seriously by the masses. The Jockey Club Tour on Fox and the new documentary-style series 'Horseplayers' are steps in the right direction even if they are works in progress.

MIAMI, Jan. 22-2014--First impressions might be lasting but they should be open to reconsideration and revision.

When Gulfstream announced it was relocating the Donn Handicap, the premier event of the winter season for older horses, to Sunday, Feb. 9, from its original position the day before in order to help launch a new racing series on the Fox Sports Network, the kneejerk reaction was, here we go again with a sport showing little regard for its fans in order to accommodate television.

Indeed, Gulfstream president Tim Ritvo acknowledges that he has heard from customers, who say they had made travel plans to attend the Donn, then get on a plane for home Sunday.

However, the more I thought about it, the more I came around to the old expression, “You can’t make an omelet without cracking some eggs.”

Baseball and football. with their resources, tradition and vast fan bases, can afford to alienate fans with customers-be-damned schedule changes. Racing isn’t in this position. It has to tread carefully and weigh risk against reward. This is why Gulfstream deserves a pat on the back for shuffling its deck to get the series off to a strong start.

The Donn would have done more for Gulfstream on Saturday than it will on Sunday. Nevertheless, Ritvo said, “We’re hoping the exposure on TV outweighs anything we might lose because of the change.” Oh that more racetrack executives had that attitude.

Sports—all entertainment, or that matter—is driven by star power. The series launch couldn’t ask for more. The Donn has the makings of a hum-dinger. New Eclipse winner Will Take Charge is definitely pointing to the race. The joke last weekend was, getting the race on TV cinched that D. Wayne Lukas would be there.

Revolutionary, third in last year’s Kentucky Derby and a smashing winner of his recent 2014 debut, is also probable. So is River Seven, who set a track record in winning the Haran’s Holiday. Word from the West Coast is Doug O’Neill is planning to ship in Private Zone.

What’s more, Groupie Doll’s people announced last week that she will make one final start in the Hurricane Bertie, which is now on the Donn undercard. Each telecast of the Jockey Club Tour will include at least two big races. The co-feature for the Feb. 9 launch is listed to be the Gulfstream Turf Handicap but rest assured Groupie Doll’s finale will find its way onto the show.

Most of the other telecasts have only the major attraction penciled in right now. The Dubai World Cup is on deck for March 29, followed by the Blue Grass on April 12, the Man O’War May 11, the United Nations July 6, the Eddie Read and Coaching Club American Oaks on July 20, the Saratoga Special (the most curious selection) on Aug. 10, the Sword Dancer on Aug. 17 and the Woodbine Mile on Sept. 14.

A glaring absence is the lack of any races from a Churchill Downs-owned track. (The Kentucky Derby and Oaks have separate TV deals).

'Horseplayers' too busy

“Horseplayers” is harder to find than the winner of a bottom level maiden claimer at Beulah. The new series on the characters who frequent handicapping contests is on the Esquire Network, which used to be called the Style Network. Look up in the hundreds on your cable dial.

The premiere was busier than a groom in the morning, to the detriment of the show. It’s a challenge to every TV pilot to introduce characters, explain relationships and lay the groundwork for what is to come while maintaining a compelling narrative. “Horseplayers” came up short in these areas.

The protagonists are people who have had success or are striving to achieve it in big money handicapping contests. New York based Team Rotondo—Peter Sr., his son Peter Jr. and their pal Lee Davis—dominated opening night. However, other than the fact that they like to play horses and think they are the best around we didn’t get to know them very well. They seem to have some interesting personal stories, not the least of which is how Peter Sr. met and married a 22-year-old. In the show’s defense, this is a series, so maybe that is to come.

Christian Helmers, the West Coast element, is more of a mystery. We found out he’s a young guy with a beautiful girlfriend but little more. It’s said some gamblers have ice water in their veins. Helmers appears to have Freon. He was seen making two huge scores at the 2012 Breeders’ Cup without even cracking a smile. Again, maybe we’ll learn more about him down the road, too.

The fact that the girlfriends of Rotondo and Helmers were the only women given prominent screen time and were treated as accessories won't endear "Horseplayers" to 52% of the population.

The frequent jumps from coast to coast also were jarring. If this is an attempt to bring in viewers who are not avid racing fans, which it obviously is, the documentary-style show could benefit greatly from a narrator to smooth over the many transitions.

A lesson I learned during my three decades as a TV critic is just as you don’t judge a book by its cover, you don’t judge a series by its pilot. I’ll reserve judgment until I get to see a few more episodes. But for now, I fear “Horseplayers” will have a difficult challenge sustaining an audience beyond avid fans of the sport.

Written by Tom Jicha

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