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, December 23, 2014

The 10 Most Fascinating People in Racing in 2014

Barbara Walters ended each year with a special naming her 10 Most Fascinating People of the past 12 months. She says this December's show was her last. So we'll pick up the concept...with a twist. Here is the first year-end recognition of the 10 Most Fascinating People in Racing.

MIAMI, Dec. 23, 2014--Barbara Walters says she has done her last “10 Most Fascinating People of the Year” special. I’m going to pick up the torch…with a twist. Here is the first 10 Most Fascinating People in Racing.

Not everyone made it for positive or praiseworthy deeds. But they all captured attention and got people talking. (The roster is alphabetical except for The Most Fascinating Person of the Year.)

Ed Allred—The owner of Los Alamitos would be deserving merely for stepping up when Hollywood Park closed and refitting his quarterhorse track to create a new venue for thoroughbreds in Southern California.

He also did something everyone talks about but few address in a meaningful way. He took a decisive approach to clean up racing’s act. Allred suspected drugs were a factor in one trainer, with dubious connections, qualifying eight quarterhorses for the $1 Million Super Derby. So he ordered the race postponed until additional testing could be done.

Then he instituted a house rule to have more revealing hair testing done for illegal drugs. “If someone gets a temporary restraining order or some BS,” he warned, “I’ll close the track.”

Steve Asmussen—The second winningest trainer in thoroughbred history was painted as public enemy No. 1 by PETA when it released a video of Asmussen’s long-time right-hand man Scott Blasi talking crap about the way the barn treats horses and cuts corners to win races.

The severely edited video, compiled over months by an undercover operative of PETA, which often has been accused of employing terrorist tactics, led to such a firestorm that Asmussen was removed from the National Racing Hall of Fame ballot even though he was considered a lock to be selected.

Subsequent investigations in New York, Kentucky and other jurisdictions have failed to come up with any wrongdoing on Asmussen’s part. Meanwhile, he just went about his work and won the Kentucky Oaks and Breeders’ Cup Distaff with Untapable, a longshot candidate for Horse of the Year.

Larry Collmus—A career that has had more pinnacles than the Himalayas reached its zenith when Collmus was named to succeed Tom Durkin as the race caller for NYRA. This capped a meteoric rise that in just a few years saw him go from Suffolk Downs to Monmouth to Gulfstream to Churchill Downs to NYRA as well as becoming the voice of the Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup.

Dumb Ass Partners—Steve Coburn and Perry Martin charmed America with their rags to riches fairytale of breeding the $8,000 mare Love That Chase to $2,500 stallion Lucky Pulpit and coming up with California Chrome, the winner of the Santa Anita Derby, Kentucky Derby and Preakness. The stable got its nickname when someone remarked that only a dumb ass would pay $8,000 for a mare that had won only one cheap race.

It all started to go sour when Coburn unleashed a bitter, sore loser’s screed in the immediate aftermath of California Chrome failing to complete the Triple Crown. Given a chance to recant and apologize the following day he refused and doubled down. Obviously coached that he was in the process of descending from beloved to despised, he finally apologized on Good Morning America.

Alas, he hadn’t learned his lesson. When word leaked that he demanded $50,000 to have California Chrome parade at Del Mar on Pacific Classic Day, he accused racing writers of being in Del Mar’s pocket. Not only did this violate the rule of never picking a fight with someone who buys ink by the gallon, he might have alienated some of the people who vote for the Eclipse Awards.

Indian Charlie, Eddie Musselman—The man whose slogan is, “We never let the truth get in the way of a good story,” has been a bane of many in racing for years as he took shots, some of them vicious, at track management, owners, trainers, jockeys and anyone else not on his good side. On his behalf, he also made personalities out of people who had no personality and a lot of his stuff was pretty funny.

But he went over the line with a cruel, tasteless slur of immigrants on the backstretch. In the era of political correctness, it was all the excuse tracks, which probably were itching for a reason to bar him, needed.

To make matters worse, he got into a brawl with Dale Romans in the Churchill Downs barn area. He and his sheet were banished. Other tracks and sales companies quickly followed Churchill's lead.

Musselman filed suit against Churchill and a settlement was reached that will allow him back on the track in 2015. It will be interesting to see how much, if at all, he is chastened.

Rosie Napravnik—Talk about going out on top. After riding Untapable to victory in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff the No. 1 active female jockey used the winner’s circle interview to announce to a national TV audience that she and her husband, trainer Joe Sharp, are expecting their first child. As a result, she said, she is retiring. This got more attention in the mainstream media than all of the Breeders' Cup races.

Hey, it was a positive mention and you take what you can get.

Napravnik, only 26, left the door open to a comeback. “I can’t promise to stay off horses forever.”

Martin Panza—It didn’t take long for the veteran of West Coast racing to make his mark in the East. Named NYRA’s Senior Vice President of Racing Operations in October 2013, he shook up the racing agenda, creating an uber Super Saturday of 10 graded stakes, six Grade 1, on Belmont Stakes Day.

He also created the Stars and Stripes Festival of five stakes, including the new Belmont Derby and Belmont Oaks designed to attract an international field. The first edition resulted in more than double the attendance and handle of the Independence Day holiday of a year ago.

Tim Ritvo—Working for the mercurial Frank Stronach is like managing the Yankees for George Steinbrenner used to be. Ritvo is Stronach's Joe Torre, someone Stronach has finally put his trust in. The former jockey and trainer keeps rising in the ranks to the point where he is now the Chief Operating Officer of racing for The Stronach Group.

Ritvo presided over the agreement to end the debilitating war with Churchill Downs and Calder then supervised the first Gulfstream West meeting, which exceeded all expectations.

Perhaps most important, he never ducked fans and the media when issues, such as a refusal of Palm Beach Downs to allow in independent clockers and the inaccurate timing of Gulfstream races, cropped up. Ritvo dealt with both within 24 hours and, in the case of the latter, went on Roger Stein's radio show this past weekend to talk about it.That's transparency.

Jim Rome—The wildly popular and outspoken radio and TV personality used to knock racing as “not a sport but a bet.” Then he got involved and became one of the game’s biggest boosters. He won back to back Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprints with Mizdirection then hit the motherlode when he became the ranking owner of Eclipse champion Shared Belief.

Rome showed his class when Shared Belief was denied his shot at 3-year-old champion and Horse of the Year by the incident out of the starting gate in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. He went on his show and said, “Bob Baffert actually said it best before the race saying, 'the horse that brings it’s A game and gets the best trip is going to win.' And he’s right. His horse (Bayern) ran a big one and got the best trip.

“Now you could argue that the reason he got that trip was because he cleared out 3 or 4 horses when he smashed into Shared Belief. But I’m not going to. I’ll just say this. We just didn’t get the trip we were hoping for…That’s racing. The stewards actually called looking for me Saturday night to explain their decision. I didn’t even return the call. I didn’t need to. No one knows the concept of scoreboard better than I do…As for Shared Belief, plenty of you want to crack on him, saying he’s over-rated and over-hyped. You’re entitled to your opinion. But I think you’re wrong. He’s a great horse, who didn’t have a great day. And he’ll be great again.”

The most fascinating person of all

What Vin Scully is to baseball and Al Michaels and Jim Nantz are to the sports they cover Tom Durkin has been to racing, the benchmark of excellence. It's too bad everyone hasn't had the opportunity to learn up close what a great guy he is outside the announcer's booth.

His career of calling every major race in America and some of the biggest around the world were well documented in the run up to his retirement in August. He will be honored with an Eclipse Award of Merit on Jan. 17, the first race-caller to be so honored.

He outdid himself in his farewell address on a stormy afternoon at Saratoga. He was greeted by chants of his name and pats on his back all the way from the announcer’s booth to the winner’s circle.

“There is one person that is completely responsible for this wonderful life that I’ve had the privilege to live in horse racing,” he began. “That person is here at Saratoga today. Right now he’s in the backyard sitting at a picnic table under two pine trees looking at this image on television. She’s at the top of the stretch leaning over the rail and she’s in a box seat or at a simulcast center in Syracuse or at a track in Ohio or in front of a computer in California. The person I owe an inexpressible gratitude is you, the racing fan, the horse player. Thank you.”

Thank you Tom.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Churchill puts up its version of Berlin Wall at Calder

The hits keep coming from Churchill Downs Inc. The latest outrage is erection of a fence to separate the section of the Calder backstretch it controls from that leased to The Stronach Group, owners of Gulfstream. Also, horsemen on the wrong side of the fence have been put on notice that they likely will have to vacate within two weeks. With area barns packed, many have no place to go.

MIAMI, Dec. 16, 2014--Churchill Downs Inc. has no regard for horse racing--save for Oaks and Derby Days. OK, we get that. But do CDI executives lay awake at night thinking of new ways to show their contempt for the game and the hard-working people who make it go? It certainly appears so.

First it was stable rent.Then rent for the hovel-like living quarters for grooms and hot walkers.

The latest harrassment is the erection of a wire fence to separate the portion of the Calder stable area Churchill controls from that it has leased to The Stronach Group, owners of Gulfstream. Construction on what amounts to racing’s Berlin Wall began without warning within hours of the end of the Gulfstream West meeting. This season benefitted no one but CDI, which got to keep its casino. The fence is CDI’s way of showing appreciation to the horsemen who made this possible.

The barrier, first reported in the, serves no purpose other than to complicate life for horsemen. Churchill said through corporate mouthpieces that it wants to begin the process of developing the section of the backstretch it controls.

CDI owns the entirety of the Calder property but is leasing barns for 430 horses to The Stronach Group, which spent freely to upgrade them, something CDI hadn’t done in years. This is part of the six-year deal, which gave Calder enough dates to keep its slots license and afforded Gulfstream unopposed racing the other 10 months of the year.

I have always wondered, why six years? This might sound like a long time but it passes quickly. What then, another negotiation? My hunch is CDI felt it could get the state to liberate it from the responsibility of being even remotely involved in horse racing at Calder while allowing it to keep its slots license.

Why not? The state is letting Churchill get away with murder now. Slots were supposed to save racing. In the case of Calder, slots have essentially destroyed it, directly eliminating more than 200 jobs in the process with countless others in jeopardy because of the latest development.

Other than racing being conducted geographically on the Calder grounds, CDI has nothing to do with it. The Gulfstream West meeting was run entirely by Stronach Group employees, from the racing office to concession stands.

CDI didn’t even want to allow access to the building. A compromise was finally struck that allowed use of only the first floor and the media box. Under the circumstances, it’s disgraceful the state has allowed Churchill to keep its slots. So CDI can’t be blamed for thinking the state eventually will bend further for them.

Meanwhile horsemen are being asked to bend over and grab their ankles. Trainers on the wrong side of the fence, about three dozen of them, are suddenly under notice that they might have to leave by Jan. 1.

Oh, and have a Merry Christmas.

These horsemen, most of whom run small operations that scrape to make ends meet, have nowhere to go. They had been led to believe they would have stalls into the spring, when the prime winter meet at Gulfstream ends. The exodus of the snowbird horsemen would make more stalls available.

Gulfstream and its satellite training facilities are packed. Another 150 stalls are being built but they won’t be ready until mid-February.Tampa Bay Downs is 200 miles away. Most of the affected trainers and their help maintain year-round homes near Calder. It would be a financial hardship, insurmountable for some, to find a second home in Central Florida.

Hiding behind federal rules which prohibit publicly held corporations from prematurely revealing plans that could affect the company’s stock price, CDI declined to offer even a hint of what its development plans for Calder might entail.

This has triggered rampant speculation. There has long been talk that CDI might want to construct a glitzy hotel/casino to complement or replace the no frills one-story structure that now houses slot machines. This proposal doesn’t pass the smell test. What tourist would want to shell out big bucks for lodging and entertainment at a facility bordering mounds of fresh horse manure?

What’s more, Calder is about 10 miles from the beach through congested city streets. Public transportation ranges from difficult to impossible. Also, Calder is not in an alluring neighborhood, to say the least. Put it this way: The hotel bordering the far turn, which opened as a Holiday Inn, has a police sub-station in its lobby.

Owner/trainer Carlo Vaccarezza told Jim Freer, who reported the “Fence-Gate” piece for the Blood Horse, that he also has heard CDI might want to build a truck stop on the land, which borders the Florida Turnpike.

A luxury hotel or a truck stop? There’s an either/or you don’t often hear.

Another suggestion is Churchill is creating this harassment to get Frank Stronach to buy the land at an inflated price. Stronach has made several attempts to buy Calder but his price was never acceptable to CDI. It’s not beneath Churchill to make itself enough of a pain in the ass to goad Stronach into paying dearly just to make Churchill go away. (My fondest dream is the entire racing industry would chip in to make CDI go away entirely.)

Whatever Churchill is up to, it seemingly will need all kinds of permits and other time consuming bureaucratic hoop-jumping before it can happen. So the urgency to get horsemen out immediately is just a case of playing the Grinch at Christmas time.

What millions?

The strangest development of the winter is the announcement that the Sunshine Millions, just a month away, is now a misnomer. The five stakes on Jan. 17 have had a cumulative $350,000 taken from their purses. The total outlay now will be $700,000.

Also odd is the races will no longer be restricted to Florida breds. Horses bred in New York, Maryland and Pennsylvania will be eligible, a peculiar coalition even for a series of races that began as Florida breds vs. California breds. If you are going to open the races to three additional states, why not go all the way and open them to all comers?

Gulfstream and the Florida Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association have more than made up for the diminished Sunshine purses by bumping up the total value of the Florida Sire Stakes next summer and fall by $600,000. The first round of six furlong races for each gender double from $100K apiece to $200K. The seven furlong second stage jumps from $200K to $300K apiece. The finales at a mile and a sixteenth get the biggest increases, $350K to a half-million dollars each.

In another long overdue innovation, a new series of races for 3-year-olds has been created, six races, three for each gender, endowed with $150,000 purses. These will further strengthen Sire Stakes days and make them genuine events during what is considered the off-season.

The first pair will be at seven furlongs. One mile turf race will follow. Mile and a sixteenth dirt races will conclude the series.

Since owners and breeders contribute so heavily to the purses, it always seemed a bit unfair that only juveniles benefited and those who weren’t ready early in their 2-year-old season were out of luck. Now owners of later developing horses will have a shot at some rich purses, too.

This could be an inspired move in another way by Florida horsemen, who support the game in the state year-round. In January, horses from fashionable outfits such as Todd Pletcher’s, Chad Brown’s and Bill Mott’s, could be expected to scoop up some of the big money. This is less likely to happen in late summer and early fall.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Does Graded Stakes Committee pay attention?

This year's Pennsylvania Derby had the winners of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Breeders' Cup as well as the likely 3-year-old champion and Horse of the Year. Last year's renewal had the one-two finishers in the Grade 1 Travers, the winner of the Grade 1 Clark Handicap and the 3-year-old champion. Yet is is still a Grade 2. Saturday's Bayakoa was won by an odds-on filly, who had never won a stakes. Last year's was also won by a filly capturing the only graded stakes of her career. It, too, is a Grade 2. Something is wrong here.

MIAMI, Dec. 9, 2014--I have no idea what the pay scale is for the American Graded Stakes Committee. To an outsider, it resembles one of those mob positions, where if you are connected you get a paycheck for doing nothing.

It’s not fair to say the AGSC did nothing this year. But it is fair to say they did the next closest thing. Eight stakes were elevated to Grade 3 and six were dropped a notch from Grade 2 to Grade 3. This is out of 463 stakes. The committee met for two days last week in Kentucky to do what must have taken about as long as it does to place an order at the bar and wait for the drinks to arrive.

More significantly, no stakes were upgraded from Grade 2 to Grade 1. None went down a level in those divisions, either. Were they paying attention?

This season’s Pennsylvania Derby was a Grade 2.

Bayern, winner of the $1 million event, was one race removed from winning the Grade 1 Haskell. He came out of his victory at Parx and doubled down with his game, if controversial, triumph in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, America’s most prestigious race outside the Triple Crown.

California Chrome, the Kentucky Derby and Preakness champion, was among those who chased Bayern home. California Chrome bounced back to run third in a photo in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, then capture the Grade 1 Hollywood Derby, his fourth Grade 1 of the season, to put himself into position to be named 3-year-old champion and Horse of the Year.

Thus, this season’s Pennsylvania Derby boasted the winners of three of the four most important races in America, the win and show horses in the Breeders’ Cup Classic and the likely 3-year-old champion and Horse of the Year.

But this wasn’t enough for the Graded Stakes Committee to make it a Grade 1.

Any stakes can luck into one exceptionally strong field. So let’s go back a year. The one-two finishers in 2013 were Will Take Charge and Moreno. They entered after running one-two in the Travers, the Grade 1 Midsummer Derby.

The race prior to that, Will Take Charge finished a fast closing second in the Jim Dandy to Belmont Stakes champion Palace Malice. Moreno was third.

Will Take Charge came out of the Pennsylvania Derby to miss by a dirty nose to Mucho Macho Man in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. He closed his season by beating older horses in the Grade 1 Clark Handicap, which vaulted him to the Eclipse Award as outstanding 3-year-old.

So in its two most recent runnings the Pennsylvania Derby has had two champion 3-year-olds, a Breeders’ Cup Classic winner and a probable Horse of the Year. But it’s still a Grade 2.

Let’s put this into perspective. This past Saturday, the Bayakoa was run at Los Alamitos. The Grade 2 Bayakoa.

The odds-on favorite and winner was Tiz Midnight, who had never won a stakes. Indeed, she had finished in the money in a stakes only once, a second in a five-horse field. The runnerup was Warren’s Venda, who was zero-for-seven in 2014 and was coming out of three-state bred races with one third-place finish to show for it. The other four in the field had two ungraded stakes wins in the United States among them.

Last year’s winner of the Bayakoa was Broken Sword, the first stakes of her career and only graded stakes win so far.

The Bayakoa will be a Grade 2 again next year, same as the Pennsylvania Derby.

There are dozens of such inequities in the American grading system every year. The Pennsylvania Derby and Bayakoa are merely exceptionally egregious examples.

When Keeneland still had a synthetic track, I made it an annual crusade to point out the absurdity of its major Grade 1 dirt races maintaining their status in spite of their winners doing nothing on non-synthetics the rest of the year.

There has to be a better way. If not, let’s at least have more conscientious people in charge.

To everything a season

The value of a defined season was underlined Saturday, opening day of the 2014-15 prime winter season at Gulfstream.

With a two-month break from the summer season, thanks to the “Preserve Churchill Downs’ Calder Casino” meeting, fans turned out as if it were a gala holiday. Attendance figures with no admission charges or turnstiles are merely a guess. However, anecdotally I can tell you from being there, this was an unusually big crowd.

I co-host a racing/sports talk show with Hank Goldberg from Gulfstream on Saturdays from 11 a.m.-1 p.m. on 640 AM (shameless plug). So I get to the track not much after 10 a.m. There already was a goodly crowd on hand staking out choice positions near the walking ring. A steady wave of customers kept coming in well before first post.

The revealing figures were the handle. On-track handle was up 36 percent over last year when the summer season melted without a break into the prime dates. This translates to at least a couple thousand more customers. Overall handle was up 13.1 percent, despite the loss of about two dozen tracks in the Mid-Atlantic area, which were blacked out because of a stalemate over simulcasting rates. I can’t understand why any receiving track feels entitled to a bigger cut than the track putting on the show.

The focus that the intermission in Gulfstream’s agenda gave the opening of the winter season is the only good thing to come from the “Gulfstream West” season. Churchill officials made it clear that they want their casino but resented the necessity to open their door to horse players.

All but the first floor of the grandstand were shut down to customers. A scarcity of betting machines made getting shut out a constant threat. No restaurants were open, so it was concession stand fare or nothing.

Media were allowed access to the sixth floor press box but were denied conveniences like the single SAM machine, which had been there for years. It was promised but vetoed by a Churchill executive for apparently no reason but spite for the bad press Calder and Churchill have gotten.

Instead of the humorously misleading Autumn Turf Festival, as it was dubbed, the meeting should have been called the "Make the Best of a Bad Situation Meeting," which Gulfstream officials did. Field size was strong, thanks largely to allowing low level claimers access to the turf course.

The handle surpassed that of the combined Gulfstream-Calder total a year ago when the tracks raced head to head. (Even Calder seemed to benefit from having one clearly defined season.)

Former NYRA head Charles Hayward rightly pointed out in his Thoroughbred Commentary blog that Gulfstream did an admirable job of upgrading the barn area, which Churchill had neglected for years.

But Hayward went way off the rails in also lauding “significant improvements” to the grandstand and the upgrading and reconditioning of the turf course.

Other than Gulfstream using banners to cover any mention of Calder, there were no improvements to the building, which Churchill agreed to allow limited access to only at the 11th hour.

Also, there was more white sand visible on the turf course than at Frank’s Beach at Gulfstream.

I guess you had to be there.

Written by Tom Jicha

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