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.

Most recent entries

Monthly Archives


Friday, June 21, 2013

The Triple Crown should be tough, changes would diminish it

Animal Kingdom went out on a down note but it was good to see a Derby winner still in action after his 3-year-old season. Another year without a Triple Crown winner has ignited the usual cries that the series is too demanding and too compact. But this is what makes it special. Any change in the race distances would diminish the feat, if and when it happens. Meanwhile, on the southern front, the head-to-head weekend conflict between Calder and Gulfstream moves ever closer to happening starting July 6.

MIAMI, July 21, 2013--The listless performance by Animal Kingdom at Ascot in his final race has to be the biggest flop by a Kentucky Derby winner since Big Brown’s Belmont.

But plaudits to Barry Irwin for keeping Animal Kingdom in training long past the time most Derby winners have been retired. Irwin can be abrasive and rubs many the wrong way. However, the guiding force behind Team Valor is an old fashioned horsemen, who buys thoroughbreds to race. Too bad there aren’t more like him.

You have to go back to the gelding Funny Cide in 2004 to find another Derby champion who won a race after his 3-year-old campaign. Super Saver, Mine That Bird, Street Sense and Giacomo never won another race, period. Ill-fated Barbaro also falls into this category with an asterisk. So, half the Derby champions of the past decade never found the winner’s circle again.

The rush to breed isn’t the only factor. It’s a matter of conjecture how much of their shortened careers can be traced to the wear and tear of the Triple Crown campaign? This and another year without a Triple Crown winner has brought out the annual cries that the series is too demanding and too compact, that changes need to be made or we will never have another winner of the Triple Crown.

Nonsense. Racing has gone 35 years without a Triple Crown winner. Baseball went 45 years before Miguel Cabrera swept the batting average, home run and RBI titles. Three races in five weeks is grueling but 162 games within 180 calendar days isn’t summer camp.

The fact that the Triple Crown is so rare and difficult to achieve is what makes it special. If it happened every three or four years, it would become a ho-hum event.

A frequently suggested change would see the sequence altered to a mile-and-an-eighth Kentucky Derby, a mile-and-three-sixteenths Preakness and a mile-and-a-quarter Belmont. The way Palace Malice and his pursuers were going up and down the final quarter-mile of the Belmont, I understand how momentum could gather for this idea. But why would Churchill Downs entertain suggestions that it tinker with the nation’s most glamorous race. Speculation about which 3-year-old will handle 10 furlongs generates as much conversation as the outcome of any prep. The Derby will remain a mile and a quarter as long as three feet is a yard.

In light of this, what would be proven by a Belmont rerun at the Derby distance?

Moreover, a horse whose sweep included an abbreviated Belmont would never be recognized alongside the likes of Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed.

It’s not as if the Triple Crown under its current conditions has become impossible. Smarty Jones appeared to have the job done in 2004 until Birdstone unleashed a furious rally that saw him get up in the final strides. Victory Gallop needed every inch of the mile and a half to deny Real Quiet the Triple Crown in 1998. Who knows what would have happened if Charismatic hadn’t suffered an injury while leading in the stretch of the 1999 Belmont.

The Triple Crown is doable. It’s just not easily doable. Nor should it be.

If there is one change worthy of discussion, it is the spacing between the races. I’m a purist, who prefers things the way they are. However, I would go along with adding an extra week between the Derby and Preakness and even a fourth week between the Preakness and Belmont, because of the pampered way thoroughbreds are now trained. If you twisted my arm, I might say OK to a July 4 Belmont. (Derby as is, Preakness on Memorial Day weekend, Belmont on Independence Day has some appeal.) But this is as far as I would go.

Spreading the series over three or four months, as some have suggested, is almost as bad an idea as the inane one suggested in the New York Daily News that the Belmont and Kentucky Derby alternate being the first jewel of the Triple Crown. This is what happens when you fire your racing specialists and assign the Belmont advance to whoever on the staff has nothing else to do.

It’s worth noting that if the old Triple Crown bonus points system of 5-3-1 were in effect this past spring, the one-two finishers would have been Oxbow and Orb, both of whom raced in all three events over five weeks.

Palace Malice is the latest example of a horse who ran in the Derby then skipped the Preakness to point for and win the Belmont. But half the 2013 Belmont field fit this pattern. Palace Malice got the money but the others finished well behind Oxbow and Orb.

Gulfstream has the more widely recognized name. Calder has the horses. This is where the stalemate between the two tracks stands two weeks before they are scheduled to begin racing head-to-head on weekends starting July 6.

If the scorched earth war comes to pass there will be no winners and three losers: Calder, Gulfstream and Florida racing.

Gulfstream claims to have about 300 horses stabled at the track or at satellite facilities. On numbers, this is enough to run 16-20 races a week. But these horses are spread over numerous age, gender, distance and surface preferences as well as racing conditions. To make its year-round agenda go, Gulfstream needs to attract a sizable contingent of horsemen from Calder, which has more than a thousand horses at its disposal.

Gulfstream is doing all the right things to make this happen in the face of Calder warning horsemen it won’t allow back any horse who leaves for a race at the rival track about eight miles away. Purses in Gulfstream’s first condition book are about a thousand dollars higher for comparable races at Calder. Any horseman, who makes the switch, has been promised year-round stabling in more modern facilities.

Purses have been jacked up $4,000 a race for June 25, when Gulfstream will race for one day (on a dark Tuesday at Calder) to qualify as a host simulcast track year round. (Tampa is doing something similar on June 30-July 1.) Every horse who runs that day at Gulfstream will earn at least $1,000.

But even someone with the seemingly bottomless pockets and strong will of Frank Stronach can’t keep this up over an extended period. So it’s still a roll of the dice for a Calder horseman to risk his stalls on the gamble that the unprecedented Gulfstream meeting will succeed.

The only sensible resolution is a financial settlement, which will give Gulfstream its weekends and Calder enough weekdays to keep its casino license.

For the past couple of months, this has been the expectation. As July 6 looms ever closer, it has become only a hope.

Written by Tom Jicha

Comments (12)


Friday, June 14, 2013

Breeders’ Cup good intentions zero out in Triple Crown

Not a single horse from last fall's Breeders' Cup Juvenile made it to the starting gate of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness or Belmont this spring. It's probably not coincidental that this was the first BC in which Lasix was not allowed in 2-year-old races. The result was an atypically small field. Moreover, the BC Juvenile Sprint drew only 5, an embarrassment that led to the race being discontinued. The same rule will remain in effect this November. The BC is to be commended for trying to take a leadership position but it picked the wrong spot. It probably has made another misstep in awarding Santa Anita a third straight BC in 2014 with the strong possibility the BC will be back on the West Coast in 2015.

MIAMI, June 14, 2013—“The road to hell is paved with good intentions” is steeped in reality.

Breeders’ Cup had the best of intentions in attempting to show leadership when it comes to race day medications by banning Lasix in juvenile races. But those who should have had BC's back essentially said, “Go to hell.”

Moreover, the just concluded Triple Crown season turned out to be an embarrassment for the Breeders’ Cup.

It’s well known the BC Juvenile has produced only one winner who went on to double in the Kentucky Derby, Street Sense in 2006. Nevertheless, the climactic race of each 2-year-old season has a rich history of producing winners and in-the-money finishers in the following season’s Triple Crown events.

Union Rags, runnerup to Hansen in the 2011 BCJ, won the 2012 Belmont. Creative Cause and Dullahan, third in the Preakness and Belmont, respectively, also came out of that BCJ.

The 2010 BCJ produced Belmont runnerup Stay Thirsty.

The previous year’s second-place finisher, Luckin at Lucky, won the Preakness.

So on and so forth-- until this year.

Not only didn’t a single thoroughbred from the 2012 BCJ hit the board in a Triple Crown race, not one even made it to the starting gate of the Derby, Preakness or Belmont. This has to be a first.

What else made the 2012 BCJ unique? It was the first conducted under the new edict that 2-year-olds could not race on Lasix.

Coincidence? Perhaps. Maybe it’s also a coincidence that the BCJ, an event that often drew limit fields, had only nine entrants. The BC Juvenile Sprint had only five and was won by a maiden. This was such an embarrassment the race has been jettisoned. A number of no-shows can be traced directly to the Lasix prohibition.

This is germane because the same restriction will be in place this coming fall. Noticeably absent from the announcement that Santa Anita will host the two-day BC carnival in 2014 was any mention whether the Lasix ban will still be in effect. I’d take a short price on the negative.

The continuation of the edict for this fall’s 2-year-old events was a face-saving compromise. Breeders’ Cup's plan was to bar Lasix from all BC races this year. The threat of a mass boycott by horsemen, which could have reduced the rest of the card to what happened with the Juvenile Sprint, forced Breeders’ Cup to back off.

However, California horsemen, as well as those in other potential venues, indicated they would not grant simulcast permission in 2014 if the no-Lasix rule is still in effect. There has been no indication they are backing off this stand. Absent simulcasting revenue, there is no Breeders’ Cup.

Breeders’ Cup was trying to do the right thing, trying to begin to negate the perception that racing has degenerated into chemical warfare.

However, the entities that should have been BC’s allies turned out to be giving only lip service to dealing with this issue. Clearly, the people who make the game go on a daily basis don’t really want to deal with this.

With zero backing, Breeders’ Cup turned into a one-man army. Custer had a better shot.

It makes no sense to conduct races billed as championship events under conditions significantly different from all the races run the rest of the year. Most of the 2-year-olds in the BC stakes raced on Lasix before the BC, went off it for the one race, then went right back on it for subsequent races. Expect the same this November.

Breeders’ Cup might have made another ill-advised decision when it awarded the 2014 renewal to Santa Anita for the third straight year. There was a tipoff the fix was in when the California racing board awarded Santa Anita the weekend known to be the Breeders’ Cup preference.

Del Mar has been given similar dates for 2015. The San Diego area track also has announced that its turf course is being widened to accommodate 14-horse fields. The only impetus for the expensive renovation is to host the BC. BC President and CEO Craig Fravel came to his current position after serving as Del Mar President until June 2011.

Is the fix in again?

If so, it could be the end of the Breeders’ Cup as we know it. Reading between the lines of the official statement from Churchill Downs, the only other contender for 2014, as well as those from Kentucky politicians, the snub is not going down as smoothly as Black Jack in Blue Grass land.

Outspoken New York owner Mike Repole has been a loud voice in the Empire State objecting to the apparent West Coast bias, even suggesting an alternate event on the East Coast over the BC not being held at Belmont since 2005.

A concerted action by tracks and horsemen east of the Mississippi, which is not outside the realm of possibility, could transform the Breeders’ Cup into typical Southern California stakes, small fields of little betting appeal.

Santa Anita and Del Mar have much to offer as Breeders’ Cup venues. Fast and firm tracks are almost guaranteed. Hollywood star power spices the TV show. Speaking of which, the three-hour time difference from the East Coast allows for a prime-time Classic in daylight, something Kentucky and New York cannot match.

A formidable case can be made that Southern California should host the Breeders’ Cup more often than other venues. But not every year.

The NFL understands this. California, Florida, Arizona and New Orleans are the most desirable venues for the Super Bowl, not only for the game but for all that surrounds it. But the league appreciates the value of moving around sports’ biggest event, even to a ridiculous site like the open air stadium at the Meadowlands in the dead of winter.

But what does the NFL know?

Written by Tom Jicha

Comments (3)


Friday, June 07, 2013

One loss is no reason to jump off the Orb bandwagon

The Orb bandwagon emptied quickly after his dull Preakness but I'm staying aboard. All the factors that made the Derby winner look like a potential champion are still in place. He has the pedigree and style for the grueling mile and a half. Shug McGaughey is a master at getting horses good, then keeping them good. Joel Rosario is too fine a jockey to put in another ride like the one in Baltimore. What's more, there should be no walking on the lead in the third jewel of the Triple Crown. Orb's disappointing showing in the Preakness was a bummer for those yearning for a Triple Crown winner. But the upside is, he should be a generous 3-1 or so, rather than 1-2 or less had he won in Baltimore.

MIAMI, June 7, 2013--Every fan has a favorite horse. Mine is Riva Ridge.

I’m not saying he was the finest horse I’ve ever seen. That would be Seattle Slew, who might never have lost if the owners hadn’t shipped him anywhere for a buck, then change trainers when their misguided ventures blew up in their faces. Slew’s consistent brilliance gives him the edge in my eyes over Secretariat.

Riva Ridge was more a blue collar hero. I’m still convinced he would have been a year ahead of his more heralded stablemate in becoming the first Triple Crown winner since Citation in 1948 if it hadn’t rained on Preakness Day 1972.

I received an advance screener for the movie “Secretariat.” I have not watched it and probably never will because others have told me how it treated Riva Ridge as a non entity. Maybe it’s because three Triple Crown winners followed him onto the scene in the ‘70s, “The Decade of Champions.”

Riva Ridge might not have completed a Triple Crown but he was an Eclipse winner at 2 and 4, track record setter four times and still co-holder of the world record for a mile and three sixteenths. He was a millionaire when that was a mark of distinction.

He didn’t need to take his track with him, as long as it wasn’t wet. He won in New York, of course. But he also won the Laurel Futurity and Garden State Stakes, when those races were juvenile championship deciders, the Massachusetts Handicap at Suffolk Downs and Hollywood Derby in addition to the Kentucky Derby. He rebounded from the muddy debacle in Baltimore to win the Belmont by 7.

I see a similar thing happening, albeit under opposite circumstances Saturday. Orb won the Derby on a sloppy track, ran out of the money on a fast Pimlico surface, and is almost certain to be confronted by another off track Saturday.

Wet or dry, I’m convinced Orb will dominate the Belmont Stakes and I wouldn’t be surprised if he does it by daylight, just as Riva Ridge did.

My faith is based on several factors. The optimism after his Derby triumph that he was Triple Crown timber was steeped to a great degree in the fact that his pedigree and style screamed Belmont Stakes, the race that has tripped up so many would be Triple Crown winners. This hasn’t changed because of what happened at Pimlico.

Shug McGaughey brings horses along slowly, so when they get good, they stay good. Point of Entry, who will be odds-on to win the Manhattan one race before the Belmont, is a prime example.

There is no hotter rider in America than Joel Rosario. He might not have put in the ride of his life in the Preakness but those who blame him for Orb’s failure are way off base. While Oxbow was cruising along on a ridiculously easy lead, it seemed some of the other riders were as much determined to keep Orb pinned inside on a tiring track as they were to get the best of their mounts. Orb’s No. 1 post abetted this conspiracy. Great riders like Rosario don’t allow this to happen twice.

There should be no walking on the lead by Oxbow or anyone else this time. Ken McPeek has said publicly that he is telling Alan Garcia to go to the front from the rail with Frac Daddy. Freedom Child won the Peter Pan gate-to-wire on a sloppy track. Midnight Taboo, who has only a maiden win in three starts but was quick enough to run second at Saratoga in his 5 ½ furlong debut, seems to be in the race to assure an honest pace for Mike Repole’s more dangerous stablemates, Arkansas Derby winner Overanalyze and outstanding filly Unlimited Budget. On credentials, Midnight Taboo has no business in a Grade 1 classic at this stage of his career.

Most of all I like Orb because I still feel he is the best horse of his generation. I was on a crowded bandwagon three weeks ago. One defeat in a race with an unchallenged leader setting sundial fractions and almost everyone jumps off. Not me.

Orb’s Derby capped a remarkable five-race run, the final three wins in stakes that separate the best of the crop from the rest.

Revolutionary, third in the Derby, is the biggest threat on accomplishments. But three of the others I fear most come from among the new shooters. Freedom Child has that win in the prep over a sloppy track. Incognito's Peter Pan was better than it looks on paper and he is being sent out by Kiaran McLaughlin, who is hot enough lately to spontaneously combust. The son of Belmont winner A.P. Indy and Octave, who ran second to Rags to Riches in the 2007 Kentucky Oaks and third at 10 furlongs in the Alabama, should love the distance. Unlimited Budget is built like a colt.

Repole, a figs guy, says her numbers stand up to the colts. Females beat males so often in Europe it isn’t considered noteworthy when it happens. The big reason it doesn’t happen on this side of the Atlantic is it is more rarely attempted.

Todd Pletcher has already beaten a champion, Curlin, in the Belmont with the filly Rags to Riches. However, I would feel better about the chances of Unlimited Budget if I was convinced the decision to run her was Pletcher’s and not Repole’s. The ego-driven New Yorker said at the post position draw that he wants to win the Belmont more than the Kentucky Derby, which explains him throwing three horses at it.

Then again, as D. Wayne Lukas often says, you have to be in it to win it. No matter which horse earns the blanket of carnations, “The Coach” is the towering human figure of this Belmont. Nine of the 14 starters can be traced to him.

In addition to Oxbow and late-running Will Take Charge, a couple of former assistants, who honed their craft under Lukas, will start seven others: five for Pletcher (Repole’s three, Palace Malice and Revolutionary), Incognito for McLaughlin and Derby runnerup Golden Soul for Dallas Stewart.

I’ve never been a fan of uncoupled entries. But if Team Pletcher had been combined as one unit, as they would have been in days gone by, and Lukas’ pair also were coupled, there would be only nine betting interests and I wouldn’t collect as much as I expect to on Orb.

Written by Tom Jicha

Comments (11)


Page 34 of 42 pages « FirstP  <  32 33 34 35 36 >  Last »