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, December 27, 2013

Eclipse selections and the reasons why

With all due respect to the Breeders' Cup, it is not a one race season to determine championships, especially this year.

MIAMI, Dec. 27, 2013--I respect the Breeders’ Cup. I anticipate it for weeks. I love the spectacle. I applaud its intentions to identify the best of the best.

All things being equal, the winners of Breeders’ Cup races should wear the crown of at least a divisional championship. However, all things are not always equal or even fairly equal, especially this year.

This struck me as I was filling out my Eclipse Awards ballot. The majority of horses I voted on top did not win on Breeders’ Cup weekend. One of those that did was an agonizing decision I wavered on until I hit the button to submit my choices.

Here’s the way my ballot looked and the reasons I came to the conclusions I did.

2-year-old male—New Year’s Day. This was the category in which I changed my mind repeatedly right up to the moment of truth. No horse excited me more than Shared Belief. However, I couldn’t get past the fact that all three of his wins came on synthetic tracks. If he had even one win on conventional dirt, my decision would have been different. Arguments that Hollywood’s Cushion Track plays more like conventional dirt than any of the synthetics almost convinced me to ignore my own prejudice, based on the history of synthetic stars becoming busts on conventional dirt. But Hollywood was still a synthetic. Taking this into consideration, the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner is the obvious choice.

2-year-old female—She’s a Tiger. I’m not overly excited by any of them and had to settle for a filly who lost her last two starts, albeit the BC Juvenile Fillies by DQ. Two of her stakes wins were on synthetics but she did cross the wire first on Santa Anita’s main track and broke her maiden on conventional dirt. Streaming impressed in the Hollywood Starlet but again, it was on a fake dirt track.

3-year-old male--Will Take Charge. Until he ran down Game on Dude in the Clark I was prepared to vote for Orb. The Kentucky Derby is still America’s race. The Triple Crown is what 3-year-old racing is all about and WTC ran 8th, 7th and 10th, all three times behind Orb. But Orb did nothing after the Classics while Will Take Charge closed with a flourish.

3-year-old female—Princess of Sylmar. I’m not going to punish the filly who won all the big races for her generation because her owners had the courage to ship west and take on Beholder on her home course, which was a paved highway, ideally suited to her style, on Nov. 1.

Older male—Wise Dan. I’ll get into the reasons when I discuss my Horse of the Year vote. Basically, I don’t believe you can be HoY without being best in class.

Older female—Royal Delta. She wasn’t the horse she was last year but she won a pair of Grade 1’s and was second to Princess of Sylmar in another. No challenger won more than one Grade 1.

Male sprinter—Points Offthebench. The ill-fated gelding won four straight, the last two Grade 1’s. His only serious challenger, Sahara Sky, won only one Grade 1 and didn’t race after May.

Female sprinter—Cluster of Stars. I was leaning toward Dance to Bristol for her season-long body of work, seven wins, including a Grade 1, in 10 starts. But even though she didn’t win a Grade 1, I couldn’t get past the fact that Cluster of Stars was 7-for-7, including a crushing victory the only time they met. In spite of her Breeders’ Cup victory, I’m mystified anyone could seriously suggest Groupie Doll is worthy of a second Eclipse. Her only win in four other starts was at Presque Isle Downs with a former $4K sprinter closest to her at the wire.

Male turf—Wise Dan. Do we even need to discuss this?

Female turf—Dank. I have an aversion to voting for Euros, who start only once or twice in North America, but I couldn't ignore what she did. She came, she saw and she conquered the best America had to offer twice.

Horse of the Year—Wise Dan. This shouldn’t be debatable.

The most laughable knock on him is that he is only a miler and ducked tough competition.

Really? His connections announced where he was going months in advance. He went everywhere they said he would, including the Turf Classic at Churchill Downs. Point of Entry was also pointing for the Derby Day stakes, run at a mile and an eighth, supposedly a more advantageous distance for Point of Entry. When a monsoon turned the course into a swamp, Wise Dan stayed in but Point of Entry came out. Who ducked who?

Wise Dan also stayed in the Firecracker when that was contested in horrid conditions. No one could have blamed his connections if they scratched out of the Shadwell Turf Mile when it was moved to a soaked main course at the last minute. But he ran and suffered his only loss of the year when a quality wet track specialist at the top of his game, Silver Max, got loose on the lead.

Wise Dan won graded races in April, May, June, August, September and November. He won at Keeneland, Churchill Downs, Saratoga, Woodbine and Santa Anita.

The anti-Wise Dan crowd seems to have settled on Mucho Macho Man as the alternative. Mucho Macho Man was two for five, both wins at Santa Anita, within a five-week period.

I’d love to see Mucho Macho Man win an Eclipse in 2014 because of his South Florida connections and the inspiring story of Kathy Ritvo. But there is no case to be made for 2013.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Friday, December 20, 2013

BC Classic rematch will have to wait…but not for long

Racing fans are eagerly awaiting a rematch between Mucho Macho Man and Will Take Charge, who finished a nose apart in the Breeders' Cup Classic. For a brief period, it seemed like it could happen in the Donn Handicap at Gulfstream on Feb. 8. Now it is more likely to occur in the Big Cap at Santa Anita a month later.

MIAMI, Dec. 20, 2013—The Donn Handicap has traditionally been the premier race of the winter season east of the Rockies for older horses. For a while, it appeared there was a chance the 2014 renewal on Feb. 8 was going to be an early candidate for Race of the Year.

D. Wayne Lukas’ announcement that he is targeting the Donn for Will Take Charge’s seasonal debut raised a delicious possibility. The Donn also was a candidate for the return to the races of Mucho Macho Man, according to his trainer, Kathy Ritvo, spouse of Gulfstream president Tim Ritvo.

Not only would this be a Breeders’ Cup Classic rematch, it is potentially a confrontation between Eclipse Award winners. Will Take Charge’s victory over Game on Dude in the Clark Handicap makes him the solid favorite to be named outstanding 3-year-old.

Mucho Macho Man’s triumph in the BC Classic, with Will Take Charge and Game on Dude behind him, gives him a shot to overtake the Dude as top older horse.

The new Gulfstream, with its limited seating capacity, would have a difficult time containing all the fans who might turn out for an early season showdown of the horses who finished a nose apart in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. But Tim Ritvo would love the opportunity to try to squeeze them in.

Alas, the faceoff is still likely to take place in the first quarter of the year but it probably won’t be in the Donn. The Santa Anita Handicap is the likely spot, according to Ritvo, who trained Mucho Macho Man before he took the job running Gulfstream. He’s also got an inside line to Kathy as the last person to talk to her every night and the first person she sees every morning.

Tim is still in line to get the BC Classic’s first two but probably in separate stakes. Mucho Macho Man is now pointing toward the Sunshine Millions Classic on Jan. 18, a few hours before the Eclipse winners are announced at Gulfstream.

While it’s disappointing to the racing world, this is a sensible approach. Why wring out your horse in a potential gut-wrenching first race of the season for $500,000 when you can face Florida-breds only for $400,000.

Ritvo offered another prudent reason for using the Sunshine Millions, which Mucho Macho Man won in 2012, to ease him into his 2014 campaign. “It’s six weeks from there to the Santa Anita Handicap. The Donn is only four weeks. Kathy likes that spacing better. Both trainers, Kathy and Mr. Lukas, are going to do what’s best for their horse.”

The Sunshine Millions as a prep for the Big ‘Cap has successful precedent. Ron the Greek ran second to Mucho Macho Man in 2012, then went west to bury the Big Cap field.

This doesn’t mean Ritvo wouldn’t love to have the MMM-WTC showdown at his track. Suppose there was an indication that a significant bump to the Donn purse could lure both into the race? “That would have to come from the corporate side,” he said. “It would look self-serving (as Kathy’s spouse) if I suggested it.”

Frank Stronach has demonstrated a willingness to spend freely but this is an unlikely scenario for a simple reason. Stronach also owns Santa Anita.

Would Tim resort to pillow talk to try to get Kathy to change her mind. “She wouldn’t listen to me anyway,” he said with the smile of a long married man. “She never does.”

More means less racing reportage

Racing reportage continues to slide off the media map. The Miami Herald, for decades the dominant newspaper not only in the Miami area but the entire state of Florida, is the latest publication to downgrade racing coverage.

It has not staffed a major race (or minor one) since the Summit of Speed in July. Not even the opening day of the premier winter season at Gulfstream and the eight-stakes Claiming Crown were deemed worthy of dispatching a staffer or free-lancer.

(Disclosure: I cover stakes for the South Florida Sun Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale. But the one-time fierce rivalry between the two papers has dissolved to the extent that the papers have agreed to allow access to some of each other’s reporting to control expenses.)

The turn of events in Miami isn’t as distressing as in New York, where the Post and Daily News exiled scaled-down racing coverage to the internet. The Herald has used wire services and releases from the Gulfstream press department to report the results of Saturday stakes the past couple of weeks. But there have been no advances, which used to be featured regularly and arguably are more useful to racing, since it alerts fans of what’s coming up.

The lack of staff reporting on stakes could be considered collateral damage in the war between Calder and Gulfstream. The Herald continues to publish entries and charts of both tracks. With head-to-head conflicts every Friday, Saturday and Sunday, as well as Hialeah’s quarterhorse meeting, the agate takes up a full page, which has squeezed out column inches formerly devoted to racing stories.

I’m told this is a fluid situation, which could change at any time. The new year brings a new budget, which might provide resources for a free-lance reporter, which the Herald has utilized the past few years.

The presence of star horses with well recognizable names, such as Mucho Macho Man and Will Take Charge, wouldn’t hurt.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Shared Belief is a gift to racing

Shared Belief could be the best thing to happen to racing in decades. He established his brilliance in devastating the Cash Call Futurity. He is a gelding, so he'll be around for a while. Best of all, he's partially owned by Jim Rome, who connects with the toughest demographic to reach, young males. But there is a caveat, or two.

MIAMI, Dec. 18, 2013—Christmas arrived early for thoroughbred racing. Shared Belief’s other-worldly dominance of the Cash Call Futurity makes him potentially the best thing to happen to the sport since the decade of champions in the ‘70s.

I concede I might be getting carried away by a young horse, who has run only three times, never on a conventional dirt track. But isn’t racing, especially when it comes to Derby-age colts, about dreaming the dream? Isn’t this what keeps owners spending and trainers getting up in the dark every morning?

It wasn’t only the breath-taking way Jerry Hollendorfer’s horse accelerated away from a field arguably of the caliber of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, although that would be plenty to get excited about. His 106 Beyer was about 11 lengths better than the 88 hung up by New Year’s Day in the BC Juvenile and Honor Code in the Remsen. The previous high for a 2YO was 102 by Havana, sprinting 5 ½ furlongs at Saratoga.

Often huge Beyer figs are achieved racing on an uncontested lead. Shared Belief did it the professional way. He sat off the pace, then most impressive of all, allowed Gary Stevens and Candy Boy to surge past him in a bold middle move before picking that rival up with contemptuous ease en route to an almost six-length triumph. You rarely see that kind of adaptability in a such a young horse.

The gelding by Candy Ride—2003 winner of the mile-and-a-quarter Pacific Classic--impressed the overseas gang at Timeform, too, according to HRTV's Zoe Cadman.They rate him at 124, a figure just below some of the world’s finest older horses and the best for any 2-year-old in the world in 2013.

Jeff Siegel, whose opinion is as respected as any public analyst in the nation, gushed, “He’s the best 2-year-old in the country, no question about it.”

But there’s so much more that makes Shared Belief a gift to racing. Near the top of the list is the fact that he’s a gelding. If he does live up to his enormous promise—a monstrous “if”-- he could be around for years as a major drawing card.

Toward that end and perhaps most significant in the big picture, the majority owner of Shared Belief is Jim Rome. The nationally syndicated radio host is the man among the toughest demographic to reach, young males. He’s the unofficial arbiter of cool. If “Romey” thinks racing is something to get excited about, it is. You think Rome will be talking much about the spring classics the next few months?

Rome is on an extraordinary hot streak. He bought a piece of Mizdirection and she won a couple of Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprints. But it’s hard to spend a lot of time talking about an older filly racing abbreviated distances on grass. The Derby trail is another matter. Every major prep, no matter where it is contested, takes on importance as it relates to Shared Belief.

Rome is too savvy a pro not to appreciate football, basketball and baseball are where he has to live. But even a few minutes of Derby talk every now and then will be more valuable than all of the racing intensive networks, which are essentially preaching to the choir.

One caveat: As effusively as I have been praising Shared Belief, I’m not sure I can write his name down on my Eclipse ballot as outstanding juvenile. In a vacuum, his credentials are impeccable, three-for-three, including a Grade 1 and a Grade 3. The other serious contender, New Year’s Day, has a maiden win and the Grade 1 BC Juvenile. The latter is the race designed to settle the issue and Shared Belief wasn’t there.

But this isn’t what gives me pause. All three of Shared Belief’s wins have been on artificial surfaces. The word that keeps jumping into my head is Dullahan. He won three Grade 1’s—the Breeders’ Futurity, the Blue Grass and the Pacific Classic. By those standards, he should be considered one of the standouts of recent years. But all three were on synthetic tracks. On real dirt, he was just a horse, with the arguable exception of a someone-had-to-be-third in the 2012 Kentucky Derby.

The continued failure of winners of major Keeneland stakes to duplicate their championship form on mainstream tracks is another red flag.

Corey Nakatani says he has no doubt Shared Belief will handle dirt. But what would you expect him to say? You know the old expression about never counting on a horse to do something he has never done before.

It might be time for the Eclipse Awards to have a separate category for synthetic achievements, just as there is for turf. However, I don’t expect much momentum to gather for this idea. With Hollywood Park closing this weekend, Del Mar and the short Keeneland sessions will be the only venues where more than one or two significant races are contested on artificial surfaces.

I wish there was a future bet on the Blue Grass. I’d tap out on Shared Belief. But until he establishes that he is the same star on real dirt that he is on the waxed stuff, judgment has to be reserved. This includes the Eclipse vote.

I’m going to have to think hard on this one.

Written by Tom Jicha

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