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, November 25, 2014

The sooner NY winter racing ends, the better

NYRA loses about a million dollars a week during the winter racing season. Yet there are those who would argue it must be continued. Why? To serve as a social welfare program for inferior horses? A spring-through-fall season also would facilitate closing Aqueduct, which is going to happen. Belmont wouldn't need such extensive winterizing if it didn't have to deal with the worst months of the year.

MIAMI, Nov. 25, 2014--What am I missing?

Winter racing at Aqueduct is said to be essential. Why? A couple of weeks ago, NYRA CEO Chris Kay said at the latest meeting of the NYRA Reorganization Board that winter racing lost $11.9 million in 2013-14. The subject came up again last week at a session on the future of NYRA.

So for whom is winter racing essential? Surely not NYRA. Kay said NYRA, which had been hemorrhaging cash for years, showed a $1.5 million surplus last year. I was not a finance major but simple math tells me that a $1.5 million surplus could become an eight-figure surplus without the winter losses. Kay might not even have to raise prices at Saratoga and gouge fans at Aqueduct concession stands.

Some expenses—electricity, water, heat, maintenance, etc.—go on even when there is no racing. But these costs wouldn’t come close to $11.9 million.

Horsemen, particularly those with lesser stock, understandably support winter racing. It’s when they earn most of what they make for the year. But NYRA is supposed to be a business, not a social welfare program.

If a barn can’t cut it during the spring, summer and fall, it might not belong on such a competitive circuit. There’s always winter racing at Parx and Laurel. Tampa Bay Downs is another alternative.

The New York breeding industry cherishes winter racing. Supposedly almost half the state-bred races all year are run at Aqueduct. But thanks to the VLT money, the breeding industry is making enormous strides quality wise. New York-breds are winning open races all over the nation. They shouldn’t need the crutch of grinding it out against short fields of inferior competition in dreadful weather.

Dayatthespa showed her heels to a world class field at the Breeders’ Cup. This past Saturday, Lubash shipped south to win the Tropical Turf Handicap as the 8-5 favorite. The lesser caliber of New York-breds, who need the winter to earn their keep, probably belongs at Finger Lakes anyway.

NYRA’s season used to end about the second week in December then resume around the middle of March. If a similar plan were adopted, with the gap shortened to say the Sunday before Christmas to the first week in March, the dark period would be about 10 weeks or about 40 scheduled racing days. Five to ten of these are typically lost to weather.

Are so few dates worth the expense and effort to maintain a track in frozen and muddy conditions for the worst three months of the year? We’re talking maybe 30-35 dates, hardly an earth-shattering loss for horsemen, some of whom take their main strings to Florida under any circumstances. This doesn’t take into account the many days when training has to be curtailed or canceled because of brutal conditions.

Rick Violette, the leader of New York horsemen, spends a portion of his winter at Gulfstream. When he had a legitimate Derby contender with Samraat last winter, he had the colt commute to South Florida to train between New York stakes engagements.

Gary Contessa, another NYRA staple who spends part of each winter in South Florida, said he wished he had done the same thing with his 3-year-old Uncle Sigh, who dropped close decisions to Samraat in the Withers and Gotham. “It was very hard to develop a horse in New York this winter,” he said last spring. “If I could do it over, I would have had Uncle Sigh in Florida on Dec. 1. I think Rick Violette should be applauded.”

In other words, Aqueduct in the dead of winter is not a place fit for man or beast.

The benefits of ending winter racing would well outweigh the negatives. NYRA would actually have a season again. The reopening in March would be a much anticipated special event, as it used to be. It is so long since this was the case, many New Yorkers don’t appreciate how valuable this is.

One of the few upsides to the eight-week Gulfstream West meeting, whose sole purpose is to enable Churchill Downs to keep its Calder casino license, is that it is creating a buffer between Gulfstream’s summer meeting and the traditional championship season, which opens a week from Saturday. It will probably draw one of the bigger crowds of the season. I don’t know this would be the case if summer racing segued seamlessly into the prime dates.

A revenue stream would still exist for NYRA, thanks to simulcasting. On frigid winter days with the wind howling off Jamaica Bay, there are sometimes more horses on the track than patrons outside watching. Almost everyone is in front of a TV monitor. If bettors are going to watch races on TV, they might as well watch and bet on larger fields of more talented horses from Florida. This would also keep some New Yorkers, who work the concession stands, bars and restaurants at Aqueduct, employed during the dark period.

Allow NYRA to establish off-track satellites in bars and restaurants around the city and the revenue shortfall would be minimal while expenses would decrease tremendously.

Aqueduct is going to be shut down eventually. State politicians are salivating about taking over the property. It’s only a matter of when. The biggest drawback is Belmont Park is not winterized.

Steven Crist wrote in a recent Racing Form column that when he was a NYRA executive two decades ago estimates were it would cost in excess of $600 million to winterize Belmont. Figure with inflation this would balloon to the rich neighborhood of a billion dollars now.

It would be lunacy to spend so much for the privilege of losing a million dollars a week. If the season didn’t open until early March and ended in December, this expenditure wouldn’t be necessary. Some modifications would still be needed at Belmont but nothing on the scale of a full winterization.

Shorter seasons with fewer races are becoming obligatory everywhere due to the scarcity of horses. Ending winter racing in New York is a relatively painless way to deal with this new normal.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Tuesday, November 18, 2014

State is never going to relinquish NYRA

The state of New York continues to persist in its charade of making it appear as if it is planning to return NYRA to private control by the end of 2015. But an influential legislator says re-privatization is unacceptable. In fact, he came out for more government control of the NYRA board.

MIAMI, Nov. 18, 2014—NYRA held the latest public hearing on the potential return of New York racing to private ownership on Nov. 12. It was theater for the naïve. The entire process of re-privatizing NYRA is and has been a huge charade.

As I have been predicting, there is no way New York politicians are ever going to relinquish control of such a rich vein of patronage and taxes. Forget future takeout reductions. Every time this is even suggested, it will be met by cries from grandstanding politicians, “We are giving money to gamblers while shortchanging our schools, hospitals, welfare programs, etc..” Pick your favorite.

Assembly member Gary Pretlow confirmed my darkest suspicions in a story published on “I don’t think they’re ready to go on their own yet,” Pretlow was quoted as saying.

Pretlow is not just another legislator. He is the chairman of the Assembly Racing Committee. For years he has been the legislature’s go-to expert for matters related to racing. When he makes a statement such as this, it carries extraordinary weight.

This was not an off-the-cuff remark. Pretlow elaborated on his feelings against turning back NYRA to the private sector, a process that is supposed to be at least in the planning stages by this coming spring. He came out firmly in opposition to any effort to re-privatize NYRA. “It remains a franchise under the state of New York and nothing else is really acceptable.”

Pretlow doesn’t even care what plan might materialize. Nothing like keeping an open mind.

He went on to say that NYRA is not trustworthy. “I think we have to continue the way we are now until such time as they can be trusted to run it on its own again.”

Better we should trust politicians.

Give him this. The guy doesn’t waffle. He doesn’t even make an effort to camouflage the motivation for his position. Not only would he like to keep NYRA in government hands, he wants to expand the influence politicians have. Twelve of the 17 seats on the NYRA board are appointed by the governor, the state senate and assembly. Mario Cuomo gets to appoint eight members himself.

NYRA is limited to the remaining five board members. This makes its representation essentially token, since the politicians can veto anything that the people truly involved in thoroughbred racing want to make happen.

Nevertheless, Pretlow feels 5 of 17 is too much. Politicians are more capable of deciding what is in the best interest for racing and its fans, according to Pretlow. Or is that in the politicians’ own best interests?

Look at the great job the politicians did in awarding the racino license at Aqueduct. That took only 10 years longer than it should have, at a revenue loss of billions to the state. It was so rife with corruption, even by the wretched standards of New York politics, it’s a miracle—and a sign of political cronyism—that no one went to jail.

A similar process could play out again in deliberations over what to do about Aqueduct. Cuomo’s preference is to close down the Big A race track and use the land for other purposes, all of which will reap political capital for the governor at the expense of racing.

Anyone who truly believes that the state of New York has any intention to step away from control of thoroughbred racing should be preparing their bids for the April 1 auction of the Brooklyn Bridge.

Fans indifferent to NYRA forum

NYRA executives held a forum with fans at Aqueduct last weekend. That’s the good news. The bad news is that hardly anyone showed up.

Maybe this is a sign that racing fans aren’t as gullible as the power structure likes to believe. They might realize that like the re-privatization hearings, these sessions are all for show. You know the old expression, “After all is said and done, more will be said than done.” In this instance, nothing will be done.

Or maybe it’s that fans can’t handle the confiscatory prices at Aqueduct. I haven’t been there yet but reliable sources tell me that beers are $12 ($13.50 if you want an import), sodas are $7 coffee is $4.50. You say you want coffee and a bagel? Here you are, sir, that will be $10.50.

This must be part of Kay’s plan to make a day at the races more enjoyable. Patrons don’t have to worry about long lines at the concession stands and bars.

Familiar issues were raised: the mess that was Belmont Day last June; the possibility of the Breeders’ Cup returning to New York and, of course, what is going to happen to Aqueduct?

No real answers were provided. In other words, it was business as usual.

No monopoly on hypocrisy

The major sports organizations lead the world in hypocrisy.

The NFL is the worst. While maintaining a strident stance against legalized sports betting, It promotes the hell out of fantasy football. It’s as if the league’s position is participants are playing for marbles. The other leagues also have begun to dip their toes into fantasy games but none promote it like the NFL does.

The NFL also has quietly ceased its objections to the TV networks, which carry its games, mentioning point spreads and having guest handicappers.

What do you suppose the ratings for games like this Thursday’s matchup of Kansas City and winless Oakland would be if millions weren’t bet on the game in some form?

There could be a break in the dam. Adam Silver, the new commissioner of the NBA, came out recently in an op-ed piece in the New York Times in favor of allowing betting on the NBA and sports in general, with the proper safeguards.

“There is an obvious appetite among sports fans for a safe and legal way to wager on sporting events,” Silver wrote.

“I believe that sports betting should be brought out of the underground and into the sunlight where it can be appropriately monitored and regulated.”

In spite of this, Silver’s league remains a party to the lawsuit seeking to thwart sports betting in New Jersey. No hypocrisy there, right?

Meanwhile, the once grand Trump Taj Mahal, has announced that it will become the fifth Atlantic City casino to close its doors by the end of the year.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Racing’s only sure thing: Fans will get screwed

The Breeders' Cup Classic left a bad taste in many fans' mouths. But this is nothing new for racing. Fans get shafted regularly in all sorts of ways. The latest example is a race at Churchill Downs in which an ineligible horse won. The owners of the rightful winner got paid, the jockey and trainer got theirs but fans who bet on the horse who was eventually awarded the win got nothing. This need not be in the age of computer and account wagering. Also, fans who had 5 winners at the Breeders' Cup were shortchanged because there was a carryover to Sunday, which should not be allowed in this specific case.

MIAMI, Nov. 11, 2014--My favorite Saratoga promotional campaign was one about 15, 20 years ago. The tagline, as thoroughbreds thundered around the turn and into the Spa stretch was, “We’ve been doing this for 120 years (I don’t recall the exact number; it is irrelevant) and we still don’t know how it’s going to turn out.” This summarized everything that keeps fans coming back to the track.

Unfortunately, the same line can’t be adapted to an element of racing, which goes on every day at tracks everywhere. As long as there has been racing, the one predictable outcome has been that in the end, fans will get screwed. Whether it’s takeout, breakage, admission, parking, over-priced concessions or bad DQ’s, fans always take the worst of it.

A killer for any business is to have patrons leave feeling they have been shafted. It doesn’t matter if they are right. If this is their perception, this is their reality and it doesn’t bode well for customer loyalty. I would contend that these factors, more than suspicions of drugging, are the biggest drag on racing.

While the Breeders’ Cup Classic non-disqualification is a debatable point, there are myriad other inarguable situations that evoke justifiable patron disgust. The latest example derives from a race at Churchill Downs on Oct. 30. Proud Azteca crossed the wire first and bettors who had their money on him were paid.

It later turned out that Proud Azteca was ineligible for the race, which carried one of those complex conditions. It was for 3-year-olds, non-winners of two races other than maiden, claiming, starter or state bred allowance or non-winners of three races.

The problem arose from the “state bred allowance” stipulation. Proud Azteca had won a minor stakes for Indiana- breds on Aug. 6. It was contested under allowance conditions but it was a stakes. This made Proud Azteca ineligible for the Churchill race.

So those who bet on runnerup Hesinfront were beaten by a horse who shouldn’t have been allowed to run. But not everyone involved with Hesinfront got the dirty end of the pitch fork. When it was discovered that Proud Azteca was ineligible, the purse money was redistributed with Hesinfront’s connections getting the major share.

Coincidentally, Hesinfront would have been the 1,000th winner at Churchill for Robby Albarado. It might not have been the way he would have liked it to happen but Albarado was credited with the milestone victory after the fact.

So the owners and trainer of the new winner were made whole. The jockey was made whole. But people who bet on Hesinfront are SOL.

Kentucky rules make the trainer responsible for making certain a horse fits the race conditions. But Mike Maker, trainer of Proud Azteca, will not face any punishment, according to the Racing Form. The racing office is the backstop for horses’ eligibility. Proud Azteca got by it, too. But no heads will roll there, either.

So the only people to suffer are those who bet on Hesinfront. They got screwed. The official result is the official result for pari-mutuel purposes. Always has been.

It need not be this way. “This is the way we’ve always done it” is no longer an acceptable business plan, although race tracks have been maddeningly slow in realizing this.We’re in an age where a substantial amount of wagering is done through accounts, which retain records of bets. People who can establish they bet on Hesinfront through these records or even those who save their losing tickets should be able to get paid.

Racetracks would shudder at this possibility because it means they could wind up paying out to two sets of winners, resulting in a big net loss for the track. Too bad. Any other business that makes a big mistake, which shortchanges customers, has to pay the penalty in make goods.

The people who bet on Hesinfront suffered the consequences of the track’s error but those who made the mistake didn’t. I don’t know that this has ever been challenged in court but I would love to see someone take the case in front of a judge and jury.

BC Pick 6 carryover unfair

Fans who bet the Pick 6 at the Breeders’ Cup, especially anyone who picked five, also have a beef. No one picked six, not surprising given the cavalcade of longshot winners. Five winners paid $114,472, a handsome reward. But it should have been a lot more.

The Breeders’ Cup is its own meet. Wagers that generally carry over should be treated as if the Classic is the end of the meet. The entire pool should be distributed to those with the most winners, as used to be the case.

Fans travel from far and wide to the Breeders’ Cup. Many, if not most, make their travel plans to get out of Dodge as early as possible on Sunday. Everything is keyed toward Saturday and, to a lesser extent, Friday, where carryovers go into Saturday’s pool, as they should.

Saturday’s $1,335,505 carryover came out of their pockets. It was a windfall for Santa Anita, which had a monstrous Sunday thanks to the carryover. But this is no way to reward fans, who go to great expense to attend the Breeders’ Cup.

A perhaps revealing sidelight is betting on the BC Pick 6 was down about $800,000 this year. This goes against the theory that wide open races with full fields encourages more wagering. There could be too much of this good thing.

This year there was no Wise Dan, Groupie Doll or Mizdirection, horses you might feel confident singling to keep the cost of the ticket down. Each race seemed to have five or six legitimate contenders, some even more.

I suspect some players decided it would cost tens of thousands of dollars to feel comfortable with their Pick 6 selections, so they threw up their hands and opted for the less expensive Pick 4. Almost $4 million was bet into this pool, against $2.5 million (which suggests the guarantee wasn’t met) for the Pick 6.

The potential for a huge payoff was still there. Indeed, the Pick 4 ending with the Classic returned $18,335 for 50 cents.

There are two lessons here: Tracks might be short-sighted in taking big favorites out of the Pick 6. These “free spaces” might actually encourage players to jump into the pool—and, of course, the big favorites don’t always win. When they don’t, a carryover becomes more likely.

The other is that wagers with low minimums are the wave of the future. Check that. They are the wave of now.

Written by Tom Jicha

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