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, April 26, 2013

New Derby trend points to five potential winners

Verrazano will have to beat the jinx of Apollo--no horse has won the Kentucky Derby without racing as a juvenile in 125 years--but there is a more recent trend he will be bucking. The six most recent Derby winners have all gone into the Run for the Roses off only two preps as a 3-year-old. The most recent Derby winner with as many as the four starts Verrazano has made was Smarty Jones in 2004. If you're a believer, this narrows the list of potential winners to only five. (The Dubai shipper Lines of Battle, goes into the Derby with only one 2013 start.)

MIAMI, APRIL 26, 2013--Gary Mandella said something on HRTV last week that I found so shocking, it sent me immediately to my computer. Mandella has become as sharp an analyst as he is a trainer, so there was no reason to doubt him. But it was so surprising I had to see for myself.

Filling time during HRTV’s lead-up to the West Virginia Classic, Mandella was praising likely Kentucky Derby favorite Verrazano as “one of the most talented 3-year-olds in the country, no doubt about it.”

Then came the “but.” Mandella said he wasn’t as worried about the jinx of Apollo—no horse has won the Derby without racing as a 2-year-old in 125 years—as he was about Verrazano, who has made all four starts in 2013, bucking a more recent trend. “It has been six or seven years since a horse won the Derby off more than two preps (as a 3-year-old). I think that’s the most significant trend he’s bucking.”

Sure enough, the last horse to win the Derby off as many as three preps was Barbaro in 2006.

I’ll Have Another, Animal Kingdom, Super Saver, Mine That Bird, Big Brown and Street Sense were all making the third start of their 3-year-old campaigns when they captured the roses. The most recent Derby winner to have as many as four preps was Smarty Jones in 2004.

If you want to follow this trend, this year’s Derby came be narrowed down to five potential winners, with a case to be made for a sixth. Java’s War, Overanalyze, Revolutionary, Normandy Invasion and Mylute will each be making their third start of the year. Dubai shipper Lines of Battle will be making only his second start.

Upon reflection, this trend shouldn’t be shocking. Horses being handled extremely conservatively mirrors what is happening throughout the game as horses race fewer times each year. For the sake of the excitement Triple Crown prep season generates, I’m hoping one of the others wins, lest two preps become the new normal.

Pettiness denied Churchill Downs the opportunity to say, “In your face!” to the numerous detractors of the new Kentucky Derby qualifying points system (which included me).

One week from the Run for the Roses, the 20 who qualified for the May 4 running is pretty much the same group that would have faced the starter under the old earnings criteria.

Thanks to the exclusion of all races under a mile, there are no Trinnibergs to screw up the pace before throwing in the towel.

It might have been nice if there was a route to the Derby for an outstanding filly, such as Dreaming of Julia, Midnight Lucky or Eclipse champion Beholder. Then again, their connections knew the new rules and chose not to compete in any of the open preps with Derby points.

None of the likely starters have made the cut because of over-inflated earnings as a 2-year-old. Churchill Downs took a lot of heat for putting a race like the Delta Jackpot on a par with the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. I still don’t think this is fair or just. In my opinion, the BC Juvenile should count for at least twice as much as any other 2-year-old race. But you can’t argue with the results.

Three horses from the Delta Jackpot—winner Goldencents, show horse Mylute and Itsmyluckyday, who ran sixth—are in the 2013 Derby. Amazingly, this is three more than emerged from the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.

Everything was coming up roses (pun intended) for the new system until Departing demolished his foes in the Illinois Derby. The premier race of the Hawthorne season carried no Derby qualifying points because Churchill management doesn't get along with the owners of Hawthorne. Using the Derby qualification process as a club to settle extraneous scores is petty and vindictive.

Few objective observers could argue Departing is not deserving of one of the spots in the Derby starting gate. It’s not as if he jumped up from nowhere to win the Illinois Derby. In his prior start, he ran third in the Louisiana Derby behind Revolutionary, who will be one of the Kentucky Derby favorites, and Mylute, who also made the field. Prior to the Fair Grounds race, Departing won his first three career starts.

Departing is expected to jump on to the Triple Crown trail in the Preakness. It would be poetic justice if he embarrasses Churchill by outrunning all or most of the Derby horses, who go on to the second jewel.

Churchill should be embarrassed enough already to include the Illinois Derby in the qualifying process next year. But there is a chance that, instead, Churchill will double down.

If the South Florida confrontation between Gulfstream and Churchill-owned Calder comes to pass, Calder plans to move at least two of its major Derby age races—the Tropical Derby and Foolish Pleasure—into the heart of Triple Crown prep season.

Calder general manager John Marshall says the idea is these races will have Derby qualifying points attached to them. No problem there, unless it is at the expense of traditional Gulfstream preps such as the Florida Derby and Fountain of Youth.

The Illinois Derby is one thing. The Florida Derby, with its rich history of providing horses who distinguish themselves in the Triple Crown races, is an entirely different matter.

I doubt Churchill would risk tarnishing the Derby luster with an additional show of pettiness. Then again, I never thought I would hear Kentucky Derby attached to “Presented by Yum Brands.”

Written by Tom Jicha

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Friday, April 19, 2013

Derby trainer has cyber winner in Horse Races Now

Kenny McPeek, who has Blue Grass winner Java's War and Frac Daddy qualified for the Kentucky Derby, has created a website, Horse Races Now, which is a dream come true for racing fans. Everything to make every day a day at the races is available with a click on iPhones, iPads and other devices: entries, results and replays, as well as horse, trainer and jockey watches. Those are just some of the features accessible via a simple click. There are also links to advanced deposit wagering sites. The best part? Access to Horse Races Now is free now and McPeek says the business plan calls for it to always remain free.

MIAMI, April 19, 2013--The internet put the knowledge of the world at our fingertips. Kenny McPeek is using the technology to do the same for the world of horse racing.

McPeek, the veteran trainer whose Java’s War upset the Blue Grass last week and will join barn mate Frac Daddy in the Kentucky Derby on May 4, has created a website, Horse Races Now, which offers everything a racing fan might want except guaranteed winners. But all the tools are there to find more winners.

Horse Races Now makes every day a day at the races: workout reports; entries; live race video; results; video replays; even the winner’s circle ceremonies. All you have to do is activate the computer ap Horse at 84700. (Check out a demonstration video, hosted by McPeek, at

There are even horsey sound effects. If you’re tracking the activities of a horse, trainer or jockey, you’ll hear hooves striking the track when they work out or appear in the entries.

Fifteen minutes from post time at any track you designate, the call to the post sounds off.

As the start of a race in which you have indicated an interest approaches, Keeneland race caller Kurt Becker’s voice can be heard saying, “The horses are approaching the starting gate. They’re at the post.”

Official results produce the optimistic clang of a cash register.

When a video replay is posted, along with the chart, a horse’s whinny can be heard. Horse Races Now maintains an archive that allows previous starts to be reviewed for up to two years, according to McPeek.

If all you want is a workout report, they are accompanied by the click of a stopwatch.

Not everyone wants to walk around sounding like a character from “Guys and Dolls,” so all it takes is a click to kill the sound track, which can be reactivated with another click.

Nothing has been overlooked. There are even links to the most popular advanced deposit wagering sites. So if you learn a horse you have been following is running, you can click right over and make a bet.

The best part for players is it’s all free. (One exception is paid handicapping sites, such as the Ragozin Sheets. There is a link for those, too.)

Skeptics might scoff and figure this is a bait-then-pay lure to get you hooked before a regular fee is imposed. Not so, McPeek promises. He’s not a philanthropist. He does have a business plan to eventually generate revenue, which he is keeping under wraps for competitive reasons. But, he reiterated, it does not involve user fees. “Our goal is Horse Races Now will always be free to download and watch.”

Whatever profits McPeek eventually makes, he deserves. “We have been the Lewis & Clark of this expedition,” he said. “I have financed this on my own.”

The idea struck McPeek about three years ago. “I had some time to kill so I was channel surfing. I came upon something titled ‘Planet of the Aps.’ I Googled to see if there was an ap for horse racing. There weren’t any,” he said. “There were a massive number for other sports but nothing for horse racing.”

His reaction? “This is terrible.” “Someone needs to do something.”

You know the expression, “If you want something done, do it yourself.” McPeek is a subscriber.

He approached tech experts and inquired how much it might cost to develop what has become Horse Races Now. The initial quote was about $45,000. “My payroll is more than that,” he reasoned.

Alas, he quickly relearned the lesson that few things cost as little as the first estimate. “It turned into more than 20 times that,” he says. This isn’t a complaint. “It has been worth every dime.”

You would think the racing industry would be cheering him on. Check that. If you don’t know the racing industry, you would think it would be cheering him on.

“They put up repeated roadblocks. A lot of industry factions were opposed,” McPeek said. “They like things the way they are. They are absolutely dug in.”

McPeek persevered anyway. He got the site off the ground and now gets some form of cooperation from much of the industry. More than 90 tracks make their information and video available to Horse Races Now. McPeek is optimistic the day will come when Horse Races Now has so many followers that tracks will not be able to ignore it.

As if the fact that he will have two colts in the Kentucky Derby isn’t endorsement enough, McPeek says creating and establishing Horse Races Now has not detracted from his training. “I’ve been doing this for 28 years. I never forget that that is what’s really important. But I don’t play golf and I multi-task really well.”

He’s even got the cyber lingo down.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Friday, April 12, 2013

Equinegate at Derby Time: So, What’s New?

About three dozen horses stabled in Southern California have died suddenly over the past couple of years. Initial reports have tried to sensationalize the tragedies, reporting two of the horses had traces of rat poison in their system. However, the rat poison was found to be at trace levels unlikely to cause death and investigations of all the deaths have turned up no evidence of foul play thus far. This, of course, hasn't deterred racing's detractors, including The New York Times, to turn this into a potential Equinegate scandal, which unfortunately will probably fester throughout the Triple Crown season.

MIAMI, April 12, 2013--Triple Crown season is supposed to be the time of year for a celebration of all that is exhilarating about thoroughbred racing. Apparently this is not going to be the case this year.

On the eve of the final major Kentucky Derby preps, three weeks out from the Run for the Roses, a story has broken about the tragic, sudden, inexplicable deaths of thoroughbred racehorses in California.

About three dozen horses have died suddenly over the past two years. They just dropped dead without warning or symptoms. Reportedly, seven were in the Bob Baffert barn. The Daily Racing Form reported that horses in the barns of Myung Kwon Cho, Kathy Walsh, Sean McCarthy, Mike Mitchell and Jack Van Berg have also fallen to the mysterious killer.

The DRF also reported in an online story Friday that Baffert has had as many as seven instances of horses suffering sudden death in the last 16 months. "During that time, there was at least one prominent instance of sudden death in a Baffert-trained runner when the 5-year-old Irrefutable collapsed after finishing second in the Vernon Underwood Stakes at Hollywood Park in November 2011," the DRF reported.

The headline-making line in many of the reports is that rat poison was found in some of the deceased animals. But based on early reports, there’s a whole lot more smoke than fire despite the best efforts of racing’s detractors, led by the New York Times, to turn this into Equinegate.

Extensive tests ordered by the California Horse Racing Board reported that rat poison was found in only two horses and in trace levels too low to be responsible for the deaths.

The crucial finding is there is no evidence of foul play. What’s more, the number of these type deaths isn’t far out of line with recent history. The Daily Racing Form reported that at a meeting of the California Horse Racing Board commissioner Bo Derek quoted California equine medical director Dr. Rick Arthur as saying the “number of sudden deaths has been consistent in the past 20 years in the neighborhood of 20 per year.”

Nevertheless, the New York Times has gone into its customary bash racing mode. A lengthy story on the deaths included lines like, ”The inquiry into sudden deaths comes as horse racing is trying to reform a drug culture that its officials concede is diminishing the sport” and “a New York Times investigation…showed a pervasive drug culture put horses and riders at risk.”

What does any of this have to do with the deaths in question? The Times attitude toward racing seems to be before there is any evidence let’s just assume the worst.

The pity is the TV networks’ news departments and other newspapers take their cues from The Times, so expect this to become a simmering controversy as racing’s finest hours approach.

Of course, more sunlight on the issue would have helped had Mr. Baffert made himself available for comment. Thus far, this has not happened.

Javier Castellano has made a tough call that could make him this year’s jockeys’ handicapping champion or haunt him for years. Castellano opted for Normandy Invasion over Revolutionary as his Kentucky Derby mount.

Castellano won the Withers and Louisiana Derby on Revolutionary. He drove Normandy Invasion, who has only one win in five starts, to a fast-closing second to Verrazano in the Wood Memorial.

Revolutionary is trained by Todd Pletcher. Long range, how wise is it to risk doing anything that might get you on the wrong side of a trainer who has put you on hundreds of winners with the promise of hundreds more.

John Velazquez, in a similar quandary involving Orb and Pletcher’s Verrazano, stuck with Pletcher.

It’s not as if Castellano is jumping off a longshot for the favorite. Revolutionary, who also has a late-running style that figures to translate well to 10 furlongs at Churchill Downs, could go off a shorter price than Normandy Invasion on May 4.

Jeff Siegel, one of the nation's sharpest evaluators of horse talent, said on HRTV’s “Pursuit of the Crown” that he feels Revolutionary has as much or more upside than any of the potential Derby starters.

Granted, Velazquez is Todd’s main man. However, even riding second call for Pletcher helped the talented Castellano break out of the pack of NYRA’s many gifted jockeys.

On the other hand, it’s hard to go wrong hitching your wagon to the rising star of Chad Brown, trainer of Normandy Invasion and numerous other stakes horses.

Castellano has ridden both horses, so maybe he knows something that isn’t obvious to the rest of us.

Still the words of Eddie Arcaro (if memory serves) ring loud and clear: “You could get rich booking the action in the jockeys’ room.”

Lots of big winners last weekend but none bigger than Gulfstream Park’s recently concluded season.

Both Grade 1 races at Aqueduct, the Carter and Wood Memorial, were taken by horses, Swagger Jack and Verrazano, who spent the winter in South Florida. One of the Grade 2’s, the Gazelle, went to Close Hatches, who began her career this winter at Gulfstream. The Grade 3 Bay Shore was upset by Declan’s Warrior, coming off a win and a second at Gulfstream.

Full disclosure: the Grade 2 Ruffian did not go to a Gulfstream ship-in. There were none in the race.

It was the same story at Keeneland. Friday’s customary opening day feature, the Transylvania, went to Jack Milton, who also spent the winter at Gulfstream.

Nothing changed Saturday. Emollient, beaten 30 lengths only a week earlier in the Gulfstream Oaks, did a complete about face and made a shambles of the Grade 1 Ashland, drawing off to win by 9 lengths despite starting from the often lethal 13 post going two turns.

This is not provincial gloating. There’s another stakes festival weekend coming up with the Arkansas Derby the main event at Oaklawn and the Blue Grass as the headliner at Keeneland. There will be Gulfstream shippers in almost all of the major stakes. Ignore them at your own peril.

Written by Tom Jicha

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