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, October 23, 2013

BC Distaff deserves Saturday stage

The Classic is the nominal headliner of the two-day Breeders' Cup festival. However, the most anticipated showdown this year is in the Distaff. Two-time champion Royal Delta, last season's juvenile champion Beholder and champion-in-waiting Princess of Sylmar will face off with even Horse of the Year possibly on the line. An extraordinary race such as this deserves to be on the big day, Saturday, not at the tail end of Friday's lesser card.

MIAMI, Oct. 25, 2013--Breeders’ Cup customarily doesn’t finalize the order of races until the quality and field sizes have been determined. By any reasonable standard, BC should jump out of the box and move the Distaff from Friday to Saturday.

Moreover, it should be the lead-in to the Classic. Less than two weeks out, it looms as the most anticipated race of the two days. At least two reigning Eclipse champions, Royal Delta and Beholder, and an almost certain third, Princess of Sylmar, are expected to run.

Beyond the big three, I have even seen opinions that Close Hatches could overcome Princess of Sylmar for 3-year-old honors with a victory. Not on my ballot, not if she wins by a pole.

They might have split two meetings so far but Close Hatches enjoyed an unchallenged stroll on the front in the Gazelle while Princess of Sylmar was three-wide almost all the way and still finished second. Without an easy lead, Close Hatches ran seventh in the Kentucky Oaks as Princess of Sylmar came from behind her to upset the best of her generation. She hasn’t lost and hasn't ducked anyone since.

I have the same attitude toward Beholder, runnerup in the Kentucky Oaks. A Distaff triumph would be her fourth Grade 1 of the season, equal to Princess of Sylmar, but all will have been at Santa Anita, where Beholder captured the BC Juvenile Fillies to end her 2-year-old campaign.

This is another argument against anchoring the Breeders’ Cup at one track. If she were to steal the title from Princess of Sylmar, Beholder will have captured back-to-back Eclipses, with a potential third next year, without ever winning a graded stakes outside Arcadia.

What’s more, all Grade 1’s are not created equal. The Las Virgenes, Santa Anita Oaks and Zenyatta (beating horses who shipped west to avoid facing Royal Delta and Princess of Sylmar in the Beldame) aren’t on the same planet in importance as the Kentucky Oaks, Coaching Club American Oaks, Alabama and Beldame.

No matter what happens in the Distaff, Princess of Sylmar should be the champion. You don’t win the three biggest races of your generation then run contemptuously past an older, two-time champion and not win at least divisional honors.

I say at least because if the Princess outshines the constellation of stars she will face and Game on Dude doesn’t win the Classic, she could--arguably should-- be Horse of the Year. Wise Dan, with an encore in the Turf Mile, would be the only other contender for whom a case could be made.

It’s too bad there isn’t an Eclipse Award for sportsmanship. Ed Stanco, owner of Princess of Sylmar, would be a lock. If he kept his filly in the barn, there would be no question she would win the 3-year-old filly Eclipse. He’s risking that title (although not by me) in shipping cross-country to face Beholder on her home course, which is generally kind to horses with her front-running style, especially on big days, and works against closers like Princess of Sylmar.

The Distaff’s quality stacked field deserves a better stage than the tail end of Friday, the less well attended and less watched on TV workday populated by recently invented stakes, some of which make a mockery of the term “world championships.” If the Breeders’ Cup doesn’t appreciate this, NBC should intercede and demand it.

TV routinely dictates changes in event times to suit its needs. This would be one time a network would deserve a pat on the back for pushing an event into a time slot where it can be seen by the maximum audience.

Question of the day

Which do you suppose has a higher enrollment rate, Obamacare or the new Racing Form Plus?

In spite of the well reported glitches, my money is on Obamacare. The content in Racing Form Plus is first rate but overpriced: a nickel less than $100 if you sign up at once for a full year; about $12 more for a quarterly subscription and $20 more if you buy by the month.

I’m one of those who became accustomed to reading every piece on the Racing Form website. Almost a month into the pay wall, I’ve gotten used to not having access and don’t miss it as much as I thought I would. A big reason is the amount of racing information on the web for free. This includes Horse Race Insider, of course, the Blood Horse, the Paulick Report and, horse racing’s version of the Drudge Report.

That so much information of all sorts is free on the web is the reason so few newspapers have made a success of pay walls. Many have had to revert and drop them and hope to recoup what they can from more hits on their site, which drives ad dollars.

At the same time, I understand the downsizing of the print edition but not its price. The two biggest expenses of any newspaper are the employees and the actual paper, called newsprint. Everyone I know who works for the Form multi-tasks, so it would be difficult to cut staff and maintain quality.

This left newsprint as the only area for meaningful savings. I don’t like the smaller version but I understand its necessity and expect to eventually get used to it. What I never could get used to is a day at the track without the Racing Form.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Friday, October 18, 2013

Fans in middle of Florida simulcast blackouts

A new fan-unfriendly tactic has emerged in the war between Gulfstream and Calder. Without any warning or notice, Gulfstream pulled the simulcast signals of all Stronach Group-controlled tracks on Calder's Festival of the Sun day. Calder has all but said it will do the same thing with Churchill Downs-controlled signals in the near future.

MIAMI, Oct. 18, 2013—The Calder-Gulfstream feud promised to get progressively uglier and it hasn’t disappointed. Now fans have become collateral damage.

The latest tit-for-tat came Oct. 12. Fans arriving at Calder for the Festival of the Sun program discovered they wouldn’t be allowed to wager on cross-town Gulfstream or any of the other simulcast signals under the control of The Stronach Group. This included Santa Anita, the prime reason to hang around after live racing, as well as Laurel, Monmouth and some lesser tracks.

Fans weren’t the only ones caught off guard. “Nobody sent a letter, e-mail or a phone call that we were not getting this content,” Calder general manager John Marshall said. Calder didn’t become aware of the blackout until it began to program its TV monitors and wagering system, according to Marshall. “Tote informed us that we were unable to wager on this list of race tracks.”

No communication was necessary for the Calder executive to deduce Gulfstream’s motivation. A week previously, Calder began supplying Mardi Gras Casino (nee Hollywood Greyhound Track) with its roster of racing signals. Mardi Gras is only a traffic light up the road from Gulfstream.

“Gulfstream disapproved of Calder sending content to Mardi Gras,” Marshall said. “To express that disapproval in a punitive nature, they decided to withhold content from Calder.” Gulfstream picked a juicy spot, Calder’s biggest day of the fall.

Calder’s accommodation of Mardi Gras can’t be for the money. It has to be negligible, since the dog track previously hasn’t been allowed to offer thoroughbred racing until 6 p.m. and hasn’t done much, if anything, to make the public aware of the new opportunity to bet thoroughbreds in the afternoon. Besides, anyone who wants to bet horses can just drive a mile down the road and do it under better circumstances at Gulfstream.

This was an in-your-face move by Calder, smarting that Gulfstream provides its thoroughbred signals to Hialeah Park and Magic City Casino (nee Flagler Dog Track).

The people most inconvenienced and ticked off were fans, especially those who had done some homework and formed opinions on the blacked out tracks. It’s a shorter price than Cluster of Stars will be in Saturday’s Iroquois Stakes that Gulfstream fans will endure the same blackout out of the blue of Churchill Downs signals in the near future.

Marshall all but confirmed this. “We’re thinking about giving them notice and withholding the Churchill content.”

Right now this wouldn’t be much of a jolt to Gulfstream and its patrons. Calder is the only Churchill track of note running. But in a couple of weeks Churchill Downs opens its traditional fall meeting. Fair Grounds follows shortly thereafter. That worm will turn in December when Gulfstream and Santa Anita move to center stage of winter racing. Long term, it’s advantage Churchill again for the biggest day of the year on the first Saturday in May. Hopefully, the war won’t continue to escalate to that point but these situations have a way of careening out of control. It would be in the interest of both tracks as well as the habitually overlooked fans to call off this tactic.

Fortunately, the Breeders' Cup at Santa Anita isn't in play. Separate contracts cover those simulcasts.

I’ve never understood why both tracks don’t give their signals to all the area dog tracks and jai alai frontons, especially since the introduction of racinos have brought about the elimination of admission and parking charges. Calder and Gulfstream have almost nothing to lose and at least something to gain.

Tracks get to keep a higher percentage of on-track wagering but more of nothing is nothing. Patrons at the other facilities are there because of convenience or some other reason that makes them unlikely live racing customers. Given the opportunity, they might bet a few bucks on the horses.

Then again you have to remember how many tracks dragged their heels on simulcasting, which became the backbone of the game. The same is true of lower minimum wagers, which also have proven to be a boon. If there is any industry other than horse racing more consistently unaware of the desires and needs of its customers, I’m not aware of it.

The latest Calder-Gulfstream contretemps is complicated by a serious faux pas by Calder. On Saturday, Oct. 5, the signals sent from Calder to Mardi Gras for the first time included Gulfstream’s live racing, a big no-no. Marshall acknowledged this. “That was wrong. It was communicated to Gulfstream that this was done in error. It was corrected and will not happen again.”

While apologetic over his track’s mistake, Marshall is militant in labeling Gulfstream’s back-at-you as a breach of contract. “We have a contract between Churchill Downs Inc. and The Stronach Group. It’s very specific that you have to give 10 days notice of withdrawing signals. The Stronach Group hasn’t given us any notice. It’s just more of Gulfstream’s behavior in thinking they’re not accountable to follow the rules, that they are above the rules, whether they are contractual or statutory.”

Gulfstream’s president Tim Ritvo chose not to respond. However, a Gulfstream spokesman said more than the Mardi Gras incident provoked the blackout. Calder also is in arrears of payments owed to Gulfstream from simulcasting, he said.

Meanwhile Calder is pushing the state to rule in favor of its position that Gulfstream’s Saturday-Sunday agenda does not qualify as an authentic race meet while Calder’s Friday-through-Sunday regimen does. “There is reference to three days being a live race meet,” Marshall said. “There is no reference in the statute declaring two days a week as a live meet.”

The definition of what constitutes a live meet is crucial to the dispute since it carries with it the lucrative right to be a hub for simulcasting throughout the state. Simulcast revenue is at the heart of this dispute. “This continues to be a circus with simulcast revenues and who is eligible to receive them among Calder, Gulfstream and Tampa,” Marshall said.

The law is vague and subject to liberal interpretation. Tampa Bay Downs ran programs on June 30, the final day of Florida’s fiscal year, and July 1, the start of the new year, and is claiming year-round simulcast rights even though its live season is December through the first week in May.

Marshall is hopeful new leadership at Florida’s Department of Pari-Mutuel Wagering will see things Calder’s way. Even if this happens, it could be a short-lived victory. Gulfstream has been talking about expanding to a third day of racing. If the statute is interpreted Calder’s way, the extra day would probably be added as soon as it could be included in the condition book.

Then Calder and Gulfstream could find something else to bicker over.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Friday, October 11, 2013

Titles should reward achievement, not lack of failure

Some opinion-makers are predicting that Wise Dan's second in the Grade 1 Shadwell Turf Mile, which was transferred to the main track, will cost him his chance at a second Horse of the Year title. There's something wrong with a system in which it can be more rewarding for the game's stars to play it safe and not run.
MIAMI, Oct. 11, 2013--Star power drives sports at the highest level. Thoroughbred racing analysts constantly decry the game’s lack of it. Injuries and premature retirement to breeding sheds are primary culprits.

Not to be overlooked is the counter-productive practice of punishing racing’s biggest names in year-end polls for showing up and losing while giving them a pass for not leaving their barn.

Point of Entry has raced twice this year, winning once in February at Gulfstream and once at Belmont in June. Nevertheless, he has been consistently in the top five in the weekly NTRA poll, ahead of several horses who have two or three times as many stakes victories.

Groupie Doll did not make her first start of the year until Aug. 10 at Ellis Park, where she ran third in an extremely moderate Grade 3. She didn’t win for the first time until Sept. 9 at Presque Isle Downs in an extremely generously endowed Grade 2, with a former $4,000 claimer in closest pursuit. Then she lost again at Keeneland in the Grade 2 Thoroughbred Club of America.

In spite of this, almost all year she has ranked ahead of Dance To Bristol, also an older female sprinter, who merely won seven races in a row from February through August, including the Grade 1 Ballerina. Obviously, if you have a reputation, protecting it by staying in the barn is a prudent policy.

Keep in mind many of the NTRA voters also participate in the Eclipse voting.

Then there’s Wise Dan. Few would have faulted the connections of the reigning Horse of the Year if they had scratched him last Saturday when a monsoon struck Keeneland just before the Shadwell Turf Mile, leading to the race being taken off the grass. (Why is the question? The Arc was run over a much heavier course on Sunday and no one thought anything of it.)

Conscious that a lot of folks would have been disappointed if the nominal biggest star in the game took a pass, owner Morton Fink and trainer Charles Lopresti opted to let Wise Dan run. It wasn’t the first time they had done this. A biblical rain fell on Churchill Downs on Derby Day. Nonetheless, Wise Dan stayed in the Woodford Reserve Turf Classic while Point of Entry scratched. Yet Fink and Lopresti have been unjustly criticized for cherry-picking their spots.

The decision to run last Saturday wasn’t entirely altruistic. Wise Dan had almost as splendid a record on fake dirt as he does on grass. Moreover, it was a Grade 1 (and stayed that way despite the surface switch), the purse was $750,000 and the field wasn’t nearly as formidable as some of those in other marquee races over the past couple of weeks.

The official sign had barely been posted on Silver Max’s upset win when racing’s opinion-makers began to predict that the second place finish would cost Wise Dan his chance at a Horse of the Year encore. His three Grade 1 and two Grade 2 wins this season apparently no longer matter, even if he rebounds to make it six-for-seven in the Breeders’ Cup Turf Mile.

It’s not an arguable point that many of these pundits, smarting all season that Wise Dan won the title in 2012 against their wishes, have been aching for an opportunity for payback.

If Game on Dude wins the Breeders’ Cup Classic to cap an undefeated season, he should be a unanimous choice for Horse of the Year. This would have been true even if Wise Dan had won last Saturday. A close defeat or a solid try despite a troubled trip also should be sufficient for Game on Dude to take 2013’s gold medal.

However, if he throws in a clunker like last year, the title should be up for grabs and Wise Dan should not be written off for running second under far from ideal circumstances when his undefeated record could have been preserved by keeping him in the barn.

The criteria should be what have you done, not what did you fail to do.

FTBOA an ungrateful bunch

The Florida Stallion Stakes, inaugurated in 1982 at Calder, will be run for the final time there Saturday. In an appalling display of lack of gratitude and loyalty, the Florida Thoroughbred Breeders and Owners Association are moving the six-race series to Gulfstream next year.

Gulfstream should not be faulted for aggressively pursuing the Stallion Stakes, which will be renamed the Sire Stakes. It was a coup for the Stronach Group and Gulfstream president Tim Ritvo to be able to land what has been one of the premier attractions of Florida summer racing for many years.

It didn’t hinder their effort that Calder, since it got its casino, has treated racing as a necessary evil.

However, without the nurturing of Calder over the years, the Stallion Stakes wouldn’t be the magnificent showcase for Florida horses and stallions that it has become. Most recently, FSS graduates Big Drama and Awesome Feather went on to win the 2010 Breeders' Cup Sprint and Juvenile Fillies, respectively.

This year's edition could produce a couple of Breeders' Cup hopefuls, the colt My Brown Eyed Guy and the filly Scandalous Act, each of whom dominated the first two stages of the series. How well they handle the stretchout from six and seven furlongs to a two-turn mile and a sixteenth will go a long way toward deciding whether they make the trip to Santa Anita. Both are owned by Gilbert Campbell and trained by Kathleen O'Connell.

Calder’s support of the state’s breeding industry has gone well beyond a handful of rich stakes races. It has provided a stage for tens of thousands of Florida-breds to launch their careers and establish themselves. These opportunities encouraged investment in Florida-breds, which reaped hundreds of millions of dollars for breeders.

This should count for something. Obviously it doesn’t to the FTBOA.

Written by Tom Jicha

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