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, May 21, 2014

Churchill getting what it deserves from HANA boycott

The Horseplayers Association of North America boycott of Churchill Downs and other CDI properties is an unqualified success. Handle is down substantially, so much so that Churchill could wind up with less revenue this season than it generated with a lower takeout last season. Meanwhile, a co-owner of California Chrome has joined the legion of people in and around the game to condemn CDI for the way it treats owners, trainers, jockeys, fans and the media.

MIAMI, April 21, 2014--Churchill Downs should be glad California Chrome isn’t Mr. Ed. If he was a talking horse, he could join the chorus complaining about the way Churchill Downs Inc. (CDI)--the casino-oriented corporation with the misleading racing name--treats owners, trainers, jockeys, legends of the game, fans and the media.

Steve Coburn, part owner of the Derby and Preakness winner, became the latest to register his disgust with CDI in the aftermath of the second jewel of the Triple Crown. Despite the exhilaration of capturing America’s biggest race, Coburn said his partner, Perry Martin, was so put off by the way he was treated at the Derby that he decided to not even attend the Preakness. “Even though we won (the Derby), it was a bad day for my partner and his family.”

The mind boggles at how shabbily Martin must have been treated to ruin a day that is the dream of everyone in horse racing. “The hospitality we received at Churchill Downs wasn’t very good and Perry decided he and his family were going to watch the (Preakness) somewhere else in the world,” Coburn said. Martin apparently couldn’t be convinced that every track doesn’t treat people as poorly as Churchill.

Saying he was as “serious as a heart attack,” Coburn went on. “We got to Churchill and not only did I complain but there were other trainers, owners and even jockeys complaining about the way they were treated.”

CDI issued a corporate-speak apology. “Our team wanted to satisfy the California Chrome team’s needs when they were communicated to us. We regret that their experience at Churchill Downs appears to have fallen short of expectations.“

Martin’s mother reportedly needs assistance to get around. Churchill did little to nothing to accommodate her, according to Coburn.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Churchill pulled the handicapped parking spot of Ron Turcotte, who rode Riva Ridge and Secretariat to back-to-back Derby triumphs. Churchill also told Turcotte, who is confined to a wheelchair as a result of a racing mishap, it had nowhere for him to watch the race.

Also during Derby week, Rick Porter, owner of Normandy Invasion, who would have been one of the favorites in the Alysheba Stakes, was informed there would be no seats set aside for him and his Fox Hill Farm partners.

“What is wrong with this management group?” Porter asked on the Fox Hill website, which was reprinted by the Paulick Report. “No wonder racing is on the decline. They don’t have any regard for the owners, in my opinion. They are for themselves and the race track, as I see it. Not only do I feel that owners are treated like second class citizens by Churchill Downs, so, too, are the handicappers and everyday bettors.”

This was right after the Louisiana legislature had to threaten to pull CDI’s license at the Fair Grounds unless long overdue repairs were made.

Then there’s the situation at Calder, which is doing as little racing as is required in order to keep its slots parlor. Expectations are an agreement will be announced any day now that will have Gulfstream take over Calder’s racing operation while CDI keeps the slots casino. Thankfully,this would end the debilitating head to head war for horses going on since last summer.

Responsibility for shutting down race tracks is nothing new to CDI, whose fingerprints are all over the demise of Hollywood Park. Why? Because it became clear that California was not going to approve slot machines at race tracks.

The only times CDI shows any attention to racing are the lucrative Oaks and Derby days.

The greatest pressure on CDI is coming from an unlikely source, a coalition of bettors, organized by the Horseplayers Association of North America. HANA has called for a wagering boycott of Churchill and other CDI tracks. The catalyst was a significant raise in takeout, announced just before Churchill’s spring meet opened. The rake on straight bets went from 16% to 17.5% and multi-horse bets jumped from 19% to 22%.

It’s not as if Churchill needed the additional revenue to stave off bankruptcy. The stock price increased by 35% last year and CDI’s top five executives were paid almost $28 million.

HANA launched a similar boycott when California instituted a takeout raise and it led to a low takeout Pick 5.

The Churchill boycott is succeeding beyond anyone’s most optimistic projections. Handle at Churchill through the first 14 programs is down $19.3 million for the first 14 days, according to HANA. Isolate the regular racing programs from the lucrative Derby and Oaks days and the decline is in the area of 23 percent. If these trends hold through the rest of the season, Churchill will take in less money than before the takeout was hiked.

HANA called for a boycott of all CDI properties and Arlington is also suffering severe declines in wagering. (Because of the direct competition with Gulfstream, year to year comparisons for Calder are meaningless.)

The success of the HANA boycott should send a message to tracks nationwide that they could become the next target if they jack up their takeout.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Wednesday, May 14, 2014

If Not California Chrome, Who?

In my view, California Chrome faces a lackluster group of challengers in the Preakness. Only two horses who chased him home in the Derby, Ride on Curlin and General a Rod, are coming back for more, one of the smallest numbers in years. What's more, there are holes in the resumes of the new shooters. But there is a creative way to make a good score if he wins.

MIAMI, May 14, 2014--“Looking for a danger, can’t find one” is a pet Trevor Denman phrase for a race with a runaway winner. This also sums up how I feel about Saturday’s Preakness.

Like most horse players, I’m always looking to beat the favorite, especially in a race with the ego satisfaction of the second jewel of the Triple Crown. Maybe I’ll have an inspiration as post-time draws closer. But a few days out, I can’t find a horse among those scheduled to run who can upset Derby champion California Chrome.

I would have loved to see Oaks winner Untapable take a shot but that isn’t going to happen.

(I wonder if Steve Asmussen is gun shy about the attention running his filly against colts would bring. This wasn’t a factor when he sent out Rachel Alexandra to beat Mine That Bird in 2009 but that was then and this is now. The uproar if anything happened to Untapable would be deafening, even though fillies routinely run against--and beat--the boys everywhere else in the world).

Actually, there will be a filly running against the males. Ria Antonia, one of the most mismanaged horse in years, is being thrown into the fray. Her problem is not that she is a filly. It’s that she’s a filly who has given no indication that she is good enough to have an impact on a race like the Preakness. She has gotten to the wire first only once in eight career starts, a maiden sprint at Woodbine last July. She got kissed into the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies winner’s circle when an exhausted She’s a Tiger bore out late.

Ria Antonia’s owners have been hell bent on challenging males since the Breeders’ Cup. Their first target this year was the Risen Star at the Fair Grounds. Her then-trainer Jeremiah Englehart chose a more prudent spot; the Rachel Alexandra against her own sex, and she finished fourth.

That was it for Englehart. Next stop was the California barn of Bob Baffert, who got her to finish second in the Santa Anita Oaks. But after Ria Antonia ran sixth in the Kentucky Oaks, she was moved from Baffert to Tom Amoss, who agreed to enter her in the Preakness.

To make matters worse, Ria Antonia, as the only girl against the boys, will be seriously over-bet by drunks trying to score points with their girlfriends and women supporting one of their own.

California Chrome even has history on his side. Only three horses who did not run in the Derby have won the Preakness in the past 30 years—Rachel Alexandra, Bernardini and Red Bullet. Taking nothing away from Bernardini, who went on to establish himself as a great horse, his victory was tarnished when Barbaro broke down shortly after the start.

Is there anyone who mistakes Ride on Curlin and General a Rod for Rachel Alexandra, Bernardini or Red Bullet? Between them, these Derby also-rans have accounted for one stakes this year, General a Rod’s win in the one-turn mile Gulfstream Park Derby on New Year’s Day.

I’ve been saying all winter and spring that General a Rod is a game animal but I could not see him getting a mile and a quarter. I feel the same way about a mile and three-sixteenths.

Ride On Curlin, who was given a highly questionable ride by Calvin Borel in the Derby, almost always gives you a late run. He could pick up some minor pieces in the Preakness but he’s zero-for-seven in stakes races.

I’d be tempted to take a shot with Bayern or Social Inclusion if one or the other wasn’t in the race. But since they each seem to have one-dimensional front-running styles, they could race each other into the ground, a perfect set-up for the stalking California Chrome.

There seems to be no doubt that Social Inclusion, who appears to have the sharpest early lick, is going to the lead after his final work on Monday, a half-mile in a bullet 47 seconds. Baffert indicated he’s going to a new strategy for Bayern, whose final work of 1:02 3/5 was atypically slow for Bullet Bob.

Baffert is taking off the blinkers, tipping his hand that he doesn’t want Bayern dueling on a hot pace. Still, there is only so much you can do to harness a horse's natural tendencies.

If Bayern can be successfully rated he could be double tough. He deserved to be taken down in the Derby Trial but, if you watch the race and the gallop-out, you will see that Embellishing Bob and Myositis Dan were not going to pass him.

Even if Bayern doesn’t go all out early, Social Inclusion should have company on the front end. Illinois Derby winner Dynamic Impact, Tampa Bay Derby winner Ring Weekend and Pablo Del Monte, who led the Blue Grass into the stretch, as well as General a Rod, are likely to be prominent early, although this could be suicidal for the lesser lights.

Every Preakness has at least one local shooter. This year, it’s Kid Cruz although he’s not exactly a native son, being based in New York. However, he did ship south to the Free State to win the Federico Tesio and Private Terms.

However, a Maryland spring-stakes winner who didn’t start in the Derby hasn’t upset Pimlico’s signature race since Deputed Testimony in 1983. But they do occasionally hit the board at generous odds and Kid Cruz’s late-running style could be the right way to go if the early fractions are as hot as they figure to be.

I’m looking for the danger to California Chrome but I can’t find it. He’s on top of my tickets with Bayern, Ride on Curlin and Kid Cruz in supporting positions.

The price on the Derby champ, even in exactas, is likely to be so short that there might be a better way to try to make a buck. Buy as many Belmont Stakes reserved seats before Saturday as your budget allows. If he wins, they will be like gold, shooting up in value because a Triple Crown will be on the line. If he doesn’t win, you weren’t going to collect anyway but the Belmont tickets, unlike losing pari-mutuel tickets, will still have some value.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Friday, May 09, 2014

Derby Handicapping 101 Reminder: Keep It Simple, Stupid

LAS VEGAS, May 9, 2014--The 140th Kentucky Derby taught many lessons, the most important being don't ignore the obvious when handicapping the race. California Chrome was a standout and ran like one. Also, if you have never been to Las Vegas for a Derby, it's something to put on your bucket list.

So what did we learn from Kentucky Derby 140?

Sometimes the best handicapping advice is, “Keep it simple, stupid.” California Chrome jumped off the past performance page as the most talented horse. Every prep seemed to be won by a different hopeful.

But California Chrome went into the Derby with a perfect 4-for-4 resume in 2014. The significance of Beyer Speed Figures are diminished or dismissed by some handicappers. This year, the Beyers were right on. California Chrome was what is known as a “double fig.” Each of his last two races produced numbers faster than anyone else in the field had ever run.

Toss horses who winter in New York. If their connections had legitimately high hopes for them, they would be in Florida, Louisiana, Arkansas or California. Even two-time stakes winner Samraat commuted to Florida between his Big Apple scores. You can’t properly train up to the Derby dodging blizzards. Gary Contessa, who trains Samraat’s rival Uncle Sigh, said if he had it to do over, he would have taken Uncle Sigh to Florida.

The curse of Apollo is not a coincidence. Every year a herd of late developers, who didn’t race as 2 year-olds, inject new excitement into Derby prep season. Last year, it was Verrazano. The year before it was Bodemeister. Going back a bit, Curlin and Pulpit couldn’t beat the jinx.

This year’s crop was exceptionally loaded: Constitution, winner of the Florida Derby; Rebel winner and Santa Anita Derby runnerup Hoppertunity; Bayern and Social Inclusion, each exciting multi-length winners of their maiden and entry level allowance heats.If the hex was to be broken, this seemed like the year. It wasn’t. It never is. The four outstanding colts didn’t even make the field for one reason or another.

Keep this in mind next winter, especially if you are foolhardy enough to bet Derby futures.

The search for the next Derby winner starts the day after the current year’s Derby. Don’t get sucked in. Enjoy the summer stakes at Belmont, Saratoga and Del Mar but don’t put any stock in how they project toward the following spring.

California Chrome did win a state-bred stakes at Del Mar last summer but it was at 5 ½ furlongs and he came out of it to run sixth twice as the distances extended. Orb didn’t break his maiden until Thanksgiving weekend. I’ll Have Another was sixth in the Hopeful and didn’t win his first stakes until the following February. Animal Kingdom had only a late October maiden win going into his 3-year-old season.

Street Sense in 2007 is the only winner in the history of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile to double in the Derby. This is no longer a small sample.

Humongous betting pools on Derby Day make it the ideal situation for a betting coup. The California connections of a maiden named Masochistic might have made life-changing scores in the third race last Saturday.

The California-bred colt by $2,000 sire Sought After had raced only once, a fifth-place finish in a state-bred maiden race in March. That he had been shipped cross-country for an open maiden race, which paid only pennies more than he could have run for in a restricted race at Santa Anita, was the first red flag.

I had totally dismissed him during my night-before handicapping but my head was lifted when he opened an overwhelming favorite. Then the money continued to pour in. Masochistic must have made many horseplayers feel that way when he ran off by 14 lengths as the 2-1 favorite.

Derby Day in Las Vegas

Derby Day beckons almost as early in Las Vegas as it does on the Churchill Downs backstretch. Damn that three-hour time difference.

The alarm in my hotel room sounded the call to the post at 5:45 a.m. I knew if I wasn’t downstairs by 6:30—an hour before the first race in Louisville--there would be no places available in South Point’s spacious race book. I might have to set the clock earlier next year. By 6:20 I was lucky to find a spot in a corner. Otherwise I would have had to wait in line for the 8 a.m. opening of the 800-seat Grand Ballroom and the showroom near the racebook, which is pressed into service for the spillover on Derby Day.

Only in Louisville is Derby Day bigger than Las Vegas. The difference is they don’t rip you off in Vegas. Seats are free. Drinks are free. Forms are free. If you bet a decent amount, your meals are free. Bet enouigh and your room is free, too.

Churchill Downs did its best to screw this up. When the meet opened on April 26, the Nevada race books had not settled on a new contract, so Churchill’s races were blacked out. In its customary greed, Churchill wanted to keep all or most of the new elevated takeout it inflicted on horse players. Nevada race books balked.

The only consolation is it was made clear the casinos planned to book Oaks and Derby Day, just like old times. This would have afforded me the double pleasure of betting the big days without contributing a dime to Churchill’s bottom line, which is my plan unless and until the takeout is rolled back.

But a deal was struck on Thursday afternoon, too late for that day’s races, but in time for business as usual on Friday and Saturday. I can’t tell you the satisfaction I got to read that all sources Churchill betting was down on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. You have to figure a lot of the shortfall was a result of the Las Vegas blackout.

I expect this was Part One of the lesson Churchill is going to learn this year: when you raise the takeout, you don’t make more money, you make less. But you do make more enemies.

Churchill’s cold-heartedness is boundless. Ron Turcotte won back-to-back Derbies with Riva Ridge and Secretariat before a 1978 racing mishap resulted in him being confined to a wheelchair. In the years since, Turcotte has been serving as an ambassador for the sport, signing autographs and chatting up Derby fans at the Racing Museum near the paddock.

A couple of years ago, Churchill pulled Turcotte’s access to a handicapped parking spot. A documentary film maker, doing a piece on Turcotte, reportedly came up with $500 to buy a spot for him. (Churchill has no qualms about ripping off even the significantly disabled). This year, Turcotte was told he had access only to the museum, not to any place where he could actually see the race for which he and Secretariat still hold the record for fastest Derby ever.

It’s the same with horsemen. Rick Porter, owner of Normandy Invasion, who was entered in the Alysheba, was informed there would be no seats for him or any of his partners. Coincidentally, Normandy Invasion suffered a minor injury on the eve of the race and scratched.

The only antidote is for jockeys and owners to band together and decree that unless they are treated like the essential element of the sport they are, they will find other places to race. And players will find other tracks to bet.

Written by Tom Jicha

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