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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Friday, November 29, 2013

Be thankful for another great weekend of racing

Thoroughbred racing is the never-ending season. Four weeks after the nominal championship at the Breeders' Cup, a terrific Thanksgiving weekend of racing all over the map could shake up the rankings in several divisions.

MIAMI, Nov. 29, 2013--Thoroughbred racing is unique in many ways. Not the least is it has a never-ending season. Viva la difference!

When the final official at the Breeders’ Cup was posted, media group think established several givens. Will Take Charge had overtaken Orb as top 3-year-old. Groupie Doll had defended her female sprint title. New Year’s Day and She’s a Tiger have the inside track to the juvenile championships. Mucho Macho Man might have surpassed Game on Dude as the leading contender for the Eclipse for older horses.

Only four weeks later, it’s, “Wait a minute. Not so fast.” There’s still a terrific Thanksgiving weekend of racing that could shake up the picture.

Game on Dude can move back to the head of the older class with a winning performance in the Clark at Churchill Downs. Why this is even necessary is an interesting argument. Not to take anything away from Mucho Macho Man but how a horse with two wins from five starts could be in the conversation with a winner of three Grade 1’s during a five-for-six season, is mystifying.

The Clark also gives Will Take Charge an opportunity to state his case as outstanding 3-year-old. Or weaken it. There’s no disputing D. Wayne Lukas has the “now” 3-year-old. But aren’t Eclipses supposed to be for a body of work over the entire year? A win in the Clark would give him his second Grade 1 to go with a pair of Grade 2’s as well as a near miss in the Breeders’ Cup Classic against older horses. The latter seems to be his strongest talking point.

Not to be overlooked is Goldencents, who is taking on the big boys (and girl) in the Cigar Mile. His credentials compare favorably to Will Take Charge. The Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (against older) was his second Grade 1. (He also won the Santa Anita Derby in the spring.) If he gets the job done at Aqueduct Saturday, he will be the only 3-year-old with three Grade 1’s on his resume. He also had a second in a Grade 1.

Anything less than wins or photo finish losses by Will Take Charge and Goldencents and the ball is back in Orb’s court.

Orb will not have won since May but neither did last season’s champion, I’ll Have Another. Orb still has the big kahuna, the Kentucky Derby, on his credit sheet as well as the Grade 1 Florida Derby and Grade 2 Fountain of Youth.

As disappointing as his Preakness and Belmont were, it should not be overlooked that Will Take Charge was well up the track behind him in all three Triple Crown races and Goldencents trailed him home in the Derby and Preakness.

If Mucho Macho Man is an outlier candidate as top older horse, it is totally baffling how Groupie Doll can be considered the leader for best female sprinter. Have we time-traveled back to 2012? In 2013, she had only a weak win at Presque Isle Downs before her encore in the BC Distaff Sprint. If she can back that up with a win over males in the Cigar Mile, I withdraw my objections. If not, I can’t understand how anyone could offer her for championship consideration.

Dance To Bristol won seven of 10 starts, including a Grade 1. She competed from January through November, the epitome of a season-long body of work.

For that matter, why not Mizdirection? Her repeat in the Turf Sprint (against males) was her fourth win in five starts. All were on grass but where does it say outstanding female MAIN TRACK sprinter? One of Groupie Doll’s two wins was on kitty litter, which more resembles turf than dirt.

Honor Code (my fix) might have run the most impressive race of the Saratoga meeting in breaking his maiden. He followed it up with a troubled second in the Champagne. He has every right to be considered for top juvenile colt if he can put in another big one in the Remsen.

I don’t like the idea of She’s a Tiger backing into the juvenile filly title off two non-winning races but I can’t see anything in the Demoiselle or Golden Rod to overtake her. But you never know.

College football is one year away from making horse racing a lone wolf. The first genuine NCAA playoff will isolate horse racing as the only major sport whose championships are decided at the ballot box rather than on the field of competition.

Maybe it’s time for racing to join the mainstream. Instead of subjective votes for the various categories, a point system-- say 10-7-5 for Grades 1, 2 and 3 with lesser awards for lesser placings—should be instituted to settle titles in the various categories. Horse of the Year could still be decided by a vote among the various champions; the best of both worlds.

If nothing else, this would encourage the stars to show up more often. What could be bad about that?

Written by Tom Jicha

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Saturday, November 23, 2013

Congress has more important things to do than hassle racing

Congress has launched its latest round of hearings into drug use in horse racing. Ironically, the first session came the day after a congressman pleaded guilty to buying cocaine from a narc. Don't hold your breath waiting for hearings into drug abuse by lawmakers.

MIAMI, Nov. 23, 2013--The irony should not be allowed to pass unnoticed that the day after Florida Rep. Trey Radel (R) pleaded guilty to scoring cocaine from an undercover narc, Congress opened its latest round of hearings into proposals to bring the drug problem under control. Not the drug problem in Congress; the drug problem in horse racing.

Radel isn’t an isolated case. He’s merely the latest elected representative to be caught. It’s a matter of conjecture how many members of Congress are shooting, smoking or snorting illegal substances as they ponder and pass laws that impact every American’s life.

What is beyond dispute is the number of Congressional hearings into the matter. It’s the same as the number of races Orb has won since the Kentucky Derby.

Meanwhile, the proposed legislation under consideration by the Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade to bring racing under federal scrutiny is the third in two years. Which do you consider more crucial to the nation’s future: whacked out lawmakers or juiced horses?

This in no way should be construed as a defense of illegal drug use in racing. The cheaters, when they are caught, should be severely punished. Richard Dutrow should not be the rule not the exception.

What’s more, fixing races is a criminal offense. Those caught committing serious violations, as opposed to miniscule drug overages, should face hard time.

Three trainers and a clocker at Penn National were charged Friday with race-fixing. The story said they could face from 20 to 45 years in prison and a half-million dollars in fines. History teaches there is a fat chance penalties so severe will be ordered even if they are convicted totally as charged.

If hard time was handed down more often for race fixing, it would go a long way toward discouraging chicanery.

It takes only a little common sense to identify likely outlaws. When a five percent trainer most of his life starts winning with 40 percent of his starters and routinely moves up claims from Hall of Fame caliber trainers, you know something is up. Fail to include this into your handicapping regimen at your own risk.

A catalyst for the latest round of grandstanding is the unchallenged exaggeration that drug usage is rampant and killing horse racing. “The perception is that drug use in racing has become pervasive,” said Rep. Lee Terry (R.-Neb.). The Jockey Club contributed to this hysteria with its study that most racing fans share the perception that trainers are using performance enhancing drugs.

So what? It's how people act on such perceptions that matter.

Many Americans also share the perception that their elected officials are “crooks.” This is how Congress gets a 9 percent approval rating. Yet incumbents have an extraordinary success rate when they run for re-election.

People always look for others to blame for their failings. They lose a race, the winner is juicing. Fans might bitch about drug abuse but this doesn’t turn them off to the sport. Handle keeps rising at many venues, including the Breeders' Cup and those that aren't up are down by insignificant margins.

Money spent at the blue chip horse auctions continues to go through the roof.

There are two full-time horse racing channels. It wasn’t that long ago that the only TV exposure racing got was the Triple Crown races.

These positive developments are taking place as racing is being challenged by new competition from casinos and other forms of legal gambling, which siphon untold amounts of discretionary income that used to find its way to race tracks.

Does this sound like a sport in its death throes?

Naysayers counter by pointing to declining attendance at race tracks. This is a specious argument in an era of widespread simulcast venues as well as the availability of live coverage morning through night via computer, smart phones and TV.

Truth be known, racing’s alleged drug problems are a pet issue of The New York Times, which has declared a jihad against the sport. When The Times makes an issue of anything, Washington jumps to attention. Hence the latest hearings.

Just as with its unwavering support of Obamacare despite daily revelations of its shortcomings, including from former champions such as President Clinton, The Times never lets facts get in the way as it practices advocacy journalism on its news pages.

Phil Hanrahan, chief executive of the NHBPA, was quoted in the Racing Form citing statistics from the Association of Racing Commissioners International that 99.97 of all post-race drug tests come back clean of serious performance-enhancing drugs.

Lest anyone think I’m a total naïf, I have no doubt that racing’s 99.97 figure is partially a product of the cheaters always being one step ahead of the tests. But the good guys are catching up.

Hanrahan contended the 99.97 percent figure proves that federal intervention is not needed. “The job is already being done.”

OK, that’s an overstatement but to no greater degree than those who allege that every horse is juiced and every race is fixed.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Rotation, real dirt have to be Breeders’ Cup priorities

Breeders' Cup hopes to set criteria for hosting future events. Two should be prime: there must be a rotation and no track without a real dirt main track should be considered.

MIAMI, Nov. 20, 2013--William Farish said during Breeders’ Cup week that a priority of the BC has to be setting parameters to be used in selecting host sites. Moreover, he said he wanted it done sooner rather than later, ideally by the end of 2013, certainly by early in the new year.

As Breeders’ Cup Chairman as well as one of the most respected people in the sport, Farish is in a position to make this happen.

I’d like to suggest two criteria that should be paramount. No track, except under extraordinary or emergency situations, should host the event three years in a row, as Santa Anita doing, and the BC should not be hosted by any track with an artificial surface.

No matter where the races are conducted, there will be home court advantages. These seem especially pronounced at Santa Anita.

The Turf Sprint has become an annuity for Santa Anita-based horses familiar with the most unique course in North America. It has been run four times in Arcadia and four times it has been won by a local, with Mizdirection coming out on top in 2012 and 2013.

What’s more, the first three finishers from last year filled three of the first four positions this year. You have to wonder why an owner and trainer of a contender from elsewhere in the country would even bother to show up next year.

In winning the Distaff, Beholder put in a strong bid for a second Eclipse to go along with the one she won last year after taking the Juvenile Fillies. As I pointed out in a previous column, it is conceivable that Beholder could capture three consecutive Eclipse Awards without winning a graded stakes anyplace but Santa Anita, which she has yet to do. That’s not right.

I understand the Breeders’ Cup has issues with Churchill Downs but there has to be a way to work these out so that the citadel of racing is again part of the Breeders’ Cup mix. Wars used to be put on hold for the Olympics.

Farish agrees. He was quoted in the Blood Horse saying, “If we can rotate the event—that’s a real possibility—Churchill Downs absolutely needs to be part of that rotation.”

It also would be nice if NYRA, home of more significant races than any other locale, could host the event every few years now that its franchise issues have been resolved.

There should be no “if” when it comes to a rotation. There is no other major sport that anchors its championship in one location, save for the U.S. Open tennis championships.

If the Breeders’ Cup makes Southern California its permanent home, it is only a matter of time until the rest of the racing nation grows weary of being dominated by home town heroes and goes its own way.

It’s always sad to see a racetrack close. In the case of tradition rich Hollywood Park, which is in its final season, it is a loss almost beyond words. The only positive is that another synthetic track will bite the dust next month.

Del Mar, in the midst of a multi-million dollar expansion of its turf course, expressly to be able to host a Breeders’ Cup, is thought to be the front-runner for 2015. If this is true, it is spending a fortune on the wrong problem. The Breeders’ Cup shouldn’t happen as long as its main track is toy dirt.

With Hollywood’s closing, the only remaining track in the United States other than Del Mar where major stakes are conducted on kitty litter is Keeneland, with its pair of three-week meetings.
Almost all of the races of consequence at Arlington are on grass. Same goes for Golden Gate. Turfway Park is struggling to hold on and has one day a year with significant stakes. Presque Isle has only one noteworthy race. This is all the more reason why a real dirt main course should be mandatory for the Breeders' Cup.

Del Mar is not only out of step with most of the rest of America, it now stands alone in Southern California. Santa Anita, Fairplex and soon to join the game Los Alamitos all have real dirt tracks.

I’ve been banging the drum that the Blue Grass Stakes should no longer be given first tier Kentucky Derby points or a Grade 1 designation because of the sorry history of its winners since waxed dirt was installed. Mike Watchmaker did the same in the Racing Form recently when he traced the dismal subsequent performances of the winners of the Alciabides and Breeders’ Futurity since Keeneland went artificial. For the record, this year’s winners, My Conquestadory and We Miss Artie, both failed to hit the board at the Breeders’ Cup.

My Conquestadory, who ran a breathtaking race in Kentucky, didn’t even attempt the Juvenile Fillies on dirt. Her connections opted instead for the turf counterpart. Doesn’t this tell you all you need to know?

There is now an indisputable body of evidence that fake dirt tracks are like Las Vegas. What happens on them stays on them. In light of this, the Breeders’ Cup should not even consider Del Mar unless and until it rejoins the mainstream of major North American tracks.

Written by Tom Jicha

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