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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Thursday, October 22, 2015

BC contenders who are tough to leave out but must be tossed

Call it Bayern Syndrome: horses who are champions one year and far less the next. What to do with them is a handicapping challenge at every Breeders' Cup. I'm going to toss a half-dozen of them from my win and multi-race tickets next weekend at Keeneland.

MIAMI, Oct. 22, 2015--I’m coining a new term: Bayern Syndrome.

It applies to situations in which you have a gut feeling a well-bet horse with a big reputation isn’t going to win for a variety of reasons. However, you’re reluctant to leave this horse off your ticket because you can’t rid your mind of the major accomplishments in their past, any one of which would be good enough to win today.

Bayern epitomized this in 2014. Few horses in recent years have been as brilliant as he was as a 3-year-old. He went 1:20 3/5 sprinting in the Woody Stephens, winning by more than 7. He stretched to nine furlongs around two turns in the Haskell and again won by more than 7. He buried Kentucky Derby winner California Chrome in the Pennsylvania Derby then capped his season wiring the mile-and-a- quarter Breeders’ Cup Classic.

That Bayern inexplicably never showed up in 2015. He was last twice then held on for third in a weak San Diego Handicap. This was just enough to give his fans reason to think he had turned the corner but he followed it by beating one horse in the Pacific Classic.

Nevertheless, even in what became the final start of his career, fans pounded him down to 6-5, anticipating an uncontested early lead in easy fractions. He got it but folded as soon as he was challenged and slid back to third.

Next week, after the final fields are set, this column will be devoted to searching for 2015 Breeders’ Cup winners. This week is going to be about identifying candidates for Bayern Syndrome.

I grew up in the era of one daily double and an exacta on the last race, so I’ve always been primarily a win bettor. Pick 3’s and 4’s are potentially lucrative extensions of this. Zeroing in on winners is still paramount.

Ergo, the following is steeped in that preference. I’m not trying to throw out horses from the vertical gimmicks (exactas, tri’s, etc.). In fact, some have strong in-the-money credentials, although, for my purposes, this is part of their problem. They get close but don’t get the job done.

Let’s start with three returning Breeders’ Cup champions. Bobby’s Kitten epitomizes Bayern Syndrome. Since winning the BC Turf Sprint last year, he has been out only twice, running 7th and 9th. I don’t think many players will have a problem eliminating him.

Two other defending champions are more problematic. Defending Distaff winner Untapable was unbeatable against her own gender in 2014. This year she seems to find ways to get beat. She has been first or second at the stretch call in all six of her races yet has managed to win only the Apple Blossom at Oaklawn in April.

Since then, she has been second or third in four starts. The horses who won those races—Got Lucky, Sheer Drama, Stopchargingmaria and Wedding Toast are all pre-entered in the Distaff. None of the fillies who trailed her home in the Apple Blossom have made it to the big dance.

My theory is Untapable has lost her will to win. An alternative is she misses Rosie Napravnik, her regular rider through the 2014 Distaff. I have this fantasy that Napravnik, who retired after the Breeders’ Cup but gets up on horses for her husband, trainer Joe Sharp, every day, comes back and the reunion produces another Distaff triumph. This is the stuff of Hollywood films; a Lifetime TV movie at worst.

Of all the Bayern Syndrome horses, Untapable is the toughest to leave off a multi-race ticket but great risk sometimes brings great reward.

Judy the Beauty, winner of last year’s Filly & Mare Sprint, also has been close in her three 2015 races but seems to have lost that final punch to the wire. She concluded a four-for-five season with her win last year. She goes into this year’s F&M Sprint zero-for-three.

Perhaps more revealingly, Judy has been a beauty at Keeneland. She was undefeated in four starts through last year but this year suffered her first defeat at the Breeders’ Cup site in her most recent start. She just doesn’t seem to be the same filly.

Another former BC champion, 2011 Juvenile Fillies Turf heroine Stephanie’s Kitten, is also a tough toss (and one who definitely should be on vertical tickets). Team Euro, headed by super filly Legatissimo, will take suitcases full of money in the F&M Turf, but Stephanie’s Kitten is likely to be the most heavily backed member of the home team coming off a big win in the Flower Bowl. She won the same prep in 2014 before running second in F&M Turf.

This gets to her inability to win back-to-back. In spite of an admirable in-the-money record, she’s won two in a row only once in the past four years, during the spring of 2013.

The Pizza Man will be well supported in the Turf because he has been a terror in the Midwest and has such a catchy name. However, almost all his success has been at Chicago tracks. Six of his last eight wins have been at Arlington and another was at Hawthorne, where the competition doesn’t run as deep as it will next Saturday. Even this summer's Arlington Million wasn’t a banner renewal.

The Pizza Man’s last five outside the Windy City have produced one win. He’s a gutsy, hard trier, the kind of horse you love to see win—unless you left him off your ticket, which I will.

Finally, there’s the Classic. I’ve been surprised to see handicappers I respect pick Tonalist to upset the weekend’s biggest race. All of this is based on his big win in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. But he won that race impressively last year then ran fifth in the Classic at only 4-1 against the likes of California Chrome, Shared Belief and Bayern, among others.

Since breaking his maiden at Gulfstream in January 2014, Tonalist has won five races, all at Belmont. Elsewhere, he’s nada-for-five.

If Tonalist had only American Pharoah to conquer, maybe. If he only had to beat Beholder, I might give him a chance. If Honor Code was the horse to beat, anything would be possible even though Honor Code is two-for-two against him this year.

But with all three in the field, as well as some other talented foes, and the Classic not being at Belmont, I’ll bet against Tonalist with more confidence than any of the Bayern Syndrome horses (save Bobby’s Kitten) I’ve mentioned.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, October 15, 2015

Fantasy sports not going away, racing should jump on bandwagon

Fantasy sports businesses, which laughably maintain they are not gambling sites, are not going away, so racing should find a way to piggyback on their popularity.Meanwhile, full-scale sports betting in New Jersey, which of course will spread quickly just as lotteries did, got a boost when a federal appeals court vacated a ruling against the state, the first time the sports leagues opposing it have suffered a significant setback.

MIAMI, Oct. 15, 2015--Fantasy sports are evil.

Their foundation is a lie. Their fallback position, supported by Congress, is they are not gambling.

This is so laughably absurd it brings to mind the classic scene in “Casablanca” in which Claude Rains, as the thoroughly corrupt Capt. Louis Renault, tells Humphrey Bogart’s Rick Blaine that he is shutting down his bar. “I’m shocked, shocked to find out that gambling is going on in here.”

Fantasy sports are totally unregulated. Horse players fret over takeout rates, rightly so. At least they know what they are bucking. In some jurisdictions, permission has to be gotten from the state or racing commission to adjust them even minimally.

Fantasy sports sites answer to no one. They won’t even reveal what their rake is. It has to be astronomical to support their tens of millions in advertising.

They are rife for chicancery. This isn’t a theory. The NFL season was only a few weeks old when it was reported that an employee of DraftKing used inside information from his site to win $350,000 on rival FanDuel. It wasn’t Fan Duel that got screwed. It was the players who thought they were competing on a level playing field.

Richard Eng opined in the Las Vegas Review-Journal that this was akin to the 2002 Fix Six scandal at the Breeders’ Cup. He’s shortchanging the guys who wound up going to jail for that caper. They had to have sophisticated technical expertise. All the guy who scored on DraftKing needed was the time to check out other people’s selections on his company’s site.

One thing the two scandals do have in common is the shenanigans could have gone on indefinitely if the perps hadn’t gotten too lucky, drawing attention to themselves.

As a result of the Fix Six, safeguards have been put in place to prevent an encore. The only safeguard fantasy sports operations have announced is their employees are now forbidden to play on their own or rival sites. Does this include members of their family? Even if it does, there is nothing to keep a wise guy from passing on what he knows to a girlfriend, co-worker or neighbor and share in the proceeds. Thanks to the lack of regulations, it's probably not even illegal.

Their advertising is beyond deceptive. The come-ons in commercials is you can bet a few bucks and win millions. But if you read the microscopic print at the bottom of the screen it's revealed that the average wager is $6.33 and the average payoff is $22.43. This is essentially a 3-1 shot.

Anyone with a brain should have been able to figure this out. It’s like the penny slots in Las Vegas. The big numbers on the screen tease enormous jackpots. You have to read the fine print to notice that in order to be eligible for the big payoffs, you have to bet maximum pennies, usually between $1.50 and $3.00 per spin.

Fantasy sports are not going away. Amazingly, the week after the employee scandal broke, both sites claimed they handled more money than ever before. To repeat an anecdote I have written before, the late Irving Rudd, peerless publicist for Yonkers Raceway, used to say if he could advertise “Nine fixed races tonight” he would need an enhanced police presence to control the crowds trying to get into the track.

DraftKing and FanDuel better enjoy their time as the leaders in the field. Both are estimated to be worth $1 billion already. With that kind of money to be made, the field is soon going to be as crowded as Saratoga ladies rooms on Travers Day.

If fantasy sports can’t be beaten, the only thing for racing to do is to try to join them. Since they are unregulated and Congress has decreed they are not gambling, there doesn’t appear to be anything to prevent race tracks from introducing their own fantasy games.

They would even have the advantage of immediacy. There would be no need to maintain an account online and wait to be paid. Players could go a betting window, submit their team and hopefully get paid as soon as the final whistle blows.

In the meantime, they might make a bet on the live races while monitoring their fantasy teams. Most tracks already have rooms set aside for horse players, who also want to keep track of the NFL.

If tracks don’t want to take it that far, they could run comparative advertising. As noted, the average payoff on the fantasy sites is 3-1. On a typical day at any track, the average win price on races is several times that and there is a “new game” every few minutes. For some unfathomable reason, race tracks are reluctant to engage in comparative advertising.

It also could be pointed out that you would have to be an exceptional football expert or extraordinarily lucky to cash in a fantasy game at least every third week. Anything less frequently, you lose.
The odds are much more in the player’s favor at the track.

Also, it is possible to bet as little as 20 cents, 50 cents or a dollar on races and come up with a life-changing score. As noted, this is not the case in fantasy sports, their deceptive advertising notwithstanding.

Racing is a better bet for players. Offering them side by side might be the best way to demonstrate this.

New Jersey wins big in court

Sports gambling in New Jersey isn't dead afterall. The entire Third Circuit Court of Appeals has vacated an Aug. 25 ruling against the state's efforts to become the only state outside Nevada to offer full single event gambling on sports. (Three other states have permission to offer parlay style betting.) No date was announced for the hearing. It could be months. The fact that it will take place represents the first victory in court for New Jersey against the major sports organizations, who are fighting against it.

It will be interesting to hear how the sports leagues justify their investments in fantasy businesses while maintaining that gambling would erode confidence in the integrity of their games.

State senator Raymond Lesniak, one of those leading New Jersey's campaign for sports betting, was quoted on ESPN. com saying, "Chances are they wouldn't have vacated the ruling if they were only going to confirm it later."

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, October 08, 2015

Last year’s BC winners an under-achieving group

It might be a good idea to draw a line through last year's winners when handicapping the 2015 Breeders' Cup. Lady Eli was 3-for-3 this season but none of the other nine who returned managed to win more than once. Three were shut out. On the good news front, Gulfstream ended its second unopposed summer meeting with handle up more than 11% then topped itself with an opening day at Gulfstream West (Calder) that was up 87% from a year ago.

MIAMI, Oct. 8, 2015--A handicapping theory that has come into vogue in the era of the Breeders’ Cup is to look past horses, especially the winners, in their first race after the Breeders’ Cup. They are almost always short prices and their success rate is so low, it’s a losing proposition to back them. Last year’s group has taken this to new extremes.

Ten of the 13 winners of 2014 Breeders’ Cup races returned to race in the United States this year. (Fillies and Mares Turf champion Dayatthespa and Dirt Mile winner Goldencents were retired and Mile upsetter Karakontie went back to Japan.)

Juvenile Fillies Turf winner Lady Eli was the valedictorian of the class, winning all three of her 2015 starts before going to the sidelines with an injury that became life-threatening when it was compounded by the onset of laminitis. The good news is she is making a remarkable recovery.

Not one of the other nine won more than once. Classic winner Bayern was a spectacular flop, turning in as many last-place performances (two) as he did third-place finishes, the best he could get from five starts. I continue to want to believe karma came into play.

Filly & Mare Sprint winner Judy the Beauty and Turf Sprint hero Bobby’s Kitten are also winless, the former from three starts, the latter from two, most recently last Saturday’s Shadwell Mile, in which he struggled home ninth.

Untapable has a superior record to Bayern but she also ranks as one of the biggest disappointments of the year. Unbeatable against her own gender as a 3-year-old, including a triumph in the BC Distaff, she can’t seem to get the job done this year.

The only time she got home first was in the Apple Blossom. It’s a bad sign that she has four seconds and a third since, inasmuch as she had every chance to win those races. Off all those close calls, she’s likely to take the most money of last year’s winners when she seeks a repeat in the Distaff. However, it’s hard to get excited about a filly who seems to have lost her will to win. Maybe she misses Rosie Napravnik.

Turf champion Main Sequence got his 2015 campaign off to a strong start with a score in Gulfstream’s Mac Diarmida last winter. Next he was shipped to Dubai. As often happens, he was never the same. After a seventh in the Sheema Classic he came back to Monmouth and ran seventh again in the United Nations, the stakes that launched his undefeated Eclipse winning year in 2014. He was retired after that race.

Juvenile Fillies winner Take Charge Brandi also looked like she was going to pick up where she left off. She started her 3-year-old season with a win in the Martha Washington at Oaklawn. It would be the last race she would win. Sidelined several months by injury, she returned in August to run tenth in the Test then 11th in the Cotillion, in what would be the last race of her career.

Take Charge Brandi’s male counterpart, Texas Red, had an injury plagued season and won only once in four starts. But it was a big one, the Jim Dandy. He couldn’t reproduce that effort in the Travers and also has been retired.

An overseas trip might also have had a negative effect on Juvenile Turf winner Hootenanny. After winning an allowance prep at Keeneland, he was shipped to England where he came home 11th in the Commonwealth Cup at Ascot. He hasn’t been seen since.

Sprint winner Work All Week has one win in four starts, the ungraded Sen. Robert C. Byrd Memorial at Mountaineer. But he might have the best chance of all to repeat off his better-than-looked third in Keeneland’s Phoenix last week.

Take away Lady Eli’s undefeated record and the Breeders’ Cup Class of 2014 has produced six wins from 32 starts, a decent resume for a claimer but not for horses who less than a year ago qualified as America’s best.

Gulfstream is magic

The Gulfstream brand continues to be magical. Savvy management, which is willing to try new things, is a big part of it.

On the heels of a summer meet in which handle increased more than 11 percent, opening day at the Gulfstream West (Calder) meeting was an even bigger success with wagering up 87% from last year’s opening.

Also, the introduction of three new bets—a rolling Super Hi 5, an additional Pick 5 on the first five races and a $5 quiniela on the last race--were well received. All are candidates to be added to the wagering menu when the prime Gulfstream meeting opens Dec. 5. (I might tackle the Pick 5 but the other two do little for me. I'm interested in hearing your thoughts in the comments section.)

The amazing aspect of this success is Gulfstream managed to do it despite the concerted efforts of Churchill Downs to sabotage the meeting.

Churchill ruled most of the grandstand off limits last year. This year, it went all the way and closed the entire building to the public for no good reason other than it could. Seeking to outdo itself every year, Churchill has announced plans to demolish the building after this season. So next year, the Calder site could be a construction zone. You get the feeling that if Churchill knew how to create sinkholes, it would do that, too.

Bettors were herded into a couple of large tents on the track apron. That’s non-air conditioned tents. It was a typical 90 degrees on opening day.

One small restroom building and one permanent concession stand, both near the paddock were available. Simulcasting was limited to tracks whose race cards ended proximate to the last race at Gulfstream West/Calder.

Gulfstream, which has almost no control over the situation, encouraged fans to come to the mother track only eight miles away where the building is air conditioned, restrooms and concession stands are plentiful and simulcasting from throughout the country is offered from noon through almost midnight.

The sham meeting is a product of the agreement between the Stronach Group and Churchill Downs Inc. to end head-to-head racing and give Gulfstream unopposed dates year-round. Gulfstream had to agree to run eight weeks a year at Calder to fulfill the state requirement for Churchill to keep its casino at Calder even though CDI has absolutely nothing to do with the meeting.

It’s infuriating that this makes a mockery of at least the spirit of the casino law. The only consolation is anything that separates Churchill Downs from racing is a good thing.

Written by Tom Jicha

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