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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Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Pharoah’s Travers great for racing but what about his future

Ahmed Zayat's and Bob Baffert's decision to bring American Pharoah to the Travers deserves praise. But in calling this audible from their Breeders' Cup Classic blueprint, they are taking a risk that another coast-to-coast trip could be one too many for the Triple Crown champion.

LAS VEGAS, August 25, 2015--Ahmed Zayat and Bob Baffert did a great thing for racing in deciding to bring American Pharoah to the Travers. The question is, did they do a great thing for the horse? The answer will come not only Saturday but further down the road to the Breeders’ Cup Classic when the wear and tear on American Pharoah becomes apparent…or not.

It isn’t the 27-day gap between the Haskell and the Travers. In spite of the overly conservative training techniques in vogue, this is more than enough for any horse to recover, especially one whose last race seemed so effortless.

The key rivals he has to beat will have had only 24 more hours rest since the Jim Dandy. Moreover, American Pharoah has handled Frosted and Texas Red with aplomb, the former in the Derby and Belmont, the latter in the race before Texas Red galloped in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. They’ll have the advantage of a race over the Saratoga track, which is often significant. Bayern crushed the Haskell last year but was dead by the half-mile pole in the Travers. Still, it requires imagination to see how track surface is going to close the talent gap between the champ and the pretenders.

If there is an issue for American Pharoah, it is the 27 days in addition to a couple of coast-to-coast flights, which have to take something out of him. American Pharoah has been a great traveler. He went Los Angeles to Arkansas twice in less than a month and his latest jaunt from Santa Anita to Monmouth certainly didn’t dull his edge. But you never know when another trans-continental trip is one too many.

The situation is reminiscent of the factors that led to Seattle Slew suffering his first defeat and finishing out of the money for the only time in his career. Slew stormed through the Triple Crown, still the only horse to do it while undefeated. Then Hollywood Park beckoned with an invitation to journey west for the Swaps.

Reports were rampant there was a sweetener. Slew’s owners, Mickey and Karen Taylor and Jim and Sally Hill, who weren’t wealthy people by racing standards, were supposedly guaranteed first money from the $400,000 pot—one of the biggest purses in racing at the time--no matter where Slew finished. They also were intoxicated by the opportunity to mix and mingle with the Tinseltown crowd.

Billy Turner, who guided Slew through the Triple Crown undefeated, didn’t think going New York to California for the Swaps, which he didn’t have on Slew’s training regimen, was a good idea. However, Slew’s headstrong owners, who wound up changing trainers when the trip became the debacle Turner feared it would be, overruled him.

This isn’t to suggest Zayat is behaving like Slew’s people but it’s no secret he wanted to come to the Travers more than Baffert did. For the past few weeks, it has seemed as if Baffert was looking for any reason not to make the trip. The Travers isn’t a race you decide to tackle six days out. But American Pharoah is such a superior race horse, he kept training like a bear, giving Baffert no reasonable out.

It also remains to be seen what the effect will be from wedging the Travers into American Pharoah’s preparation for the ultimate goal, the Breeders’ Cup Classic. If Baffert doesn’t find another race for him, which wasn’t in the original post-Belmont two-race blueprint, the 63-day gap between the Travers and Classic would be the biggest break for American Pharoah since he resumed his career in March.

American Pharoah might be such a superstar that he will shake off all the obstacles like the champion he is. We can only hope.

Slew slight is inexcusable

Speaking of Seattle Slew, I’d like to renew my campaign to have a major race named for him. It’s unfathomable that this hasn’t happened when you think of all the lesser stock honored with a stakes carrying their name.

Slew won divisional Eclipse awards as a 2 year-old, 3-year-old and 4-year-old and was Horse of the Year in 1977 when he swept the Triple Crown. He didn’t get the big prize in 1978, which went to Affirmed for his Triple Crown, even though Slew defeated him in the only clash of Triple Crown winners in racing history. Blood Horse magazine rated Slew the 9th greatest horse of the 20th century.

The only logical explanation is Slew’s people aren’t racing aristocracy. Is there any doubt that if Slew carried the black and cherry colors of the Phipps family or the blue and brown of the Whitneys, there would have been a rich and prestigious stakes named for him long ago. This is in no way intended as a slight to these distinguished racing families, who deserve every laurel afforded them. It is only to make a point.

Not only should there be a race named for Slew, it should be on the NYRA circuit, where he made 11 of his 17 career starts. This is where he launched his career in a maiden race, clinched the Juvenile Eclipse in the Champagne, of course won the Belmont and closed his career winning under 134 pounds in the Stuyvesant at Aqueduct.

Compare this to the achievements of Easy Goer, who has a stakes named for him on the Belmont undercard. There is no comparison.

I’m not advocating taking Easy Goer’s name off a major stakes. He earned that. A more logical candidate for renaming is the Peter Pan. It comes at a time the racing world has Triple Crown on its mind and it’s not as if a name change would be slighting a giant of the turf. Few fans realize that the race is named for a horse, not the fairy tale boy who vowed to never grow up.

But if it takes creating a new stakes to tardily honor Slew, so be it.

What a kid

The carnival of 10- and 11-race cards that have dominated the Spa season finally took their toll on Monday. In spite of only 9-races being scheduled, there was an acute shortage of horses. Six races had only six starters and another had seven. It had to be a blow to the bottom line with a $418,000 pick six carryover and much fewer combinations.

But it was still a great day to be at the Spa. Jess’s Dream, Rachel Alexandra’s first fioal by Curlin (but second to race),made his long delayed debut. There was a lot of skepticism because he didn’t make it to the races until he was 3 and it came in a nine-furlong race, a rarity for a horse of quality.

But what a memorable show Jess’s Dream put on.

Silky Sullivan probably never trailed his field by the amount of ground Jess’s Dream did early. Here are snippets from Larry Colmus’s call. “Jess’s Dream is away a step slow.” As they went around the first turn into the backstretch, Colmus said, “Jess’s Dream is slow to get going.” On the backstretch, “It’s a good 12 lengths back to Jess’s Dream.” That was 12 lengths from the next-to-last horse.

As the field turned for home, Jess’s Dream still had lost contact with the field. But then Colmus and the crowd had a reason to start getting excited. “Jess’ s Dream on the far outside is coming on.”
Finally as he swept by as if the others were standing still, Colmus exclaimed, “Jess’s Dream is a reality…Way to go Curlin and Rachel.”


Written by Tom Jicha

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Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Stewards play God, let them take it all the way

Last Saturday's Beverly D produced the same unfortunate result as the Sanford Stakes at Saratoga a couple of weeks ago. A horse, who had no shot to win and wasn't involved in an incident of interference, got put up to first while the victim wound up with the same placing he or she would have had absent the foul. There is no justice in this. Stewards have discretion to decide where to place a horse who has committed a foul. In obvious cases, why not use the same judgment to move a victimized horse up to where he or she would have finished if not for the interference?

MIAMI, Aug. 18, 2015--There has to be a better way.

For at least the second time in two weeks, a horse, who was going to be no better than third, got kissed into a graded stakes win.

Watsdachances was the latest beneficiary in Saturday’s Beverly D, one of the most prestigious turf races in the world for fillies and mares. She is now a Grade 1 winner, which is worth more long term than the winner’s share of the $700,000 purse.

In two previous attempts to break through into racing’s highest classification, Watsdachances failed to hit the board, running fourth twice. She was going to improve on that in the Beverly D with a third-place finish until Secret Gesture, who had taken the lead in mid-stretch and was on her way to an apparent victory, got goofy late. She veered sharply to the right, into the path of Stephanie’s Kitten, who seemingly had the place locked up but wasn’t going to catch the leader.

Irad Ortiz on Stephanie’s Kitten made the incident look worse than it was with an overly dramatic stand up and snatch up, a commonplace move for riders hoping they might convince stewards to do what their mounts couldn’t. Ortiz’s theatrics probably cost Stephanie’s Kitten the place more than Secret Gesture coming out did.

Meanwhile, Watsdachances was closing on the inside. She was clearly no threat to the first two but with Ortiz more intent on putting on his act than riding to the finish, Watsdachances got up in the last jump to grab second.

There really never was much doubt Secret Gesture was going to come down, even though Stephanie’s Kitten was not going to catch her. So the best horse got put back to third and the horse, who was going to finish third under any circumstances, wound up getting elevated to the win.

A similar situation occurred at Saratoga on July 25 in the Sanford Stakes. Magna Light had the race won when he began some broken field running. He went out about six paths, though arguably clear, then came back in and forced Percolator, running second at the time, to hesitate briefly. Uncle Vinny out in the middle of the track well away from the contretemps nailed Percolator on the line for the place.

Again, it was clear the winner had to come down. But the fouled horse got the same position he was going to get anyway and a horse, who happened to be in the right spot, got boosted to first.

In both cases, bettors got screwed. This was especially true at Arlington, where those who backed Stephanie’s Kitten, the victim, didn’t benefit at all from the DQ.

Everything stewards do involves judgment. There should be a way in instances such as these where they could exercise their discretion and place the fouled horse ahead of one who wasn’t involved in the incident. To be specific, Stephanie’s Kitten should have been given the win, since anyone who saw the race knew she was going to finish ahead of Watsdachances.

It would have been a closer call in the Sanford but Percolator arguably should have been placed ahead of Uncle Vinny.

Sure, this would be playing God. But isn’t that what the stewards do whenever there is a claim of foul? Some of the longest waits for a decision—is it just me or are these getting ridiculously long even when the outcome is obvious?—involve not whether there will be a DQ but how far back to place the offending horse. If stewards can do that, why not how far up they can place a victimized horse. This wouldn’t have to happen in every DQ, just the ones where it's obvious justice isn’t being served.

Better yet, in a case like the Beverly D, where the best horse finished first, let the result stand for betting purposes. Then take the purse difference between second and third money from the connections of Secret Garden and award it to the owners of Stephanie’s Kitten.

Euros are just better

A couple of other thoughts from Arlington Million Day.

I’m putting a line through American horses in Breeders’ Cup turf races this fall. Not that I don't do that most years. The one exception would be if Wise Dan, who is supposed to launch his comeback next month, returns to his old form.

It was reinforced again that Euro horses are pounds better than the best turfers on this side of the Atlantic. Euros finished first in three of the four major events and the invaders weren’t exactly superstars on their own terrain. European horsemen know they don't need their best to beat our best.

Let’s not forget that Main Sequence, who shipped to the United States and won four Grade 1 stakes in a row to clinch the Eclipse as America’s top turf horse last year was on a 10-race losing streak when he arrived on our shores. His strongest European credential was a Group 3 win.

The Pizza Man saved Uncle Sam’s squad from a shutout but the five Euros he ran past had a total of three Group wins among them. Two were in Germany, not exactly Europe’s major league.

Moreover, The Pizza Man is an ultimate horse for course. The Million was his 10th win in 13 starts over the Arlington turf course. Unless the Breeders’ Cup is shifted from Keeneland to Arlington, he won’t be on any of my tickets.

Since I try not to miss opportunities to note that overly conservative trainers are the bane of racing and a major reason for short fields, it needs to be pointed out that Secretariat winner Highland Reel was coming back in 17 days from a stakes win in England. He also had to overcome a trans-Atlantic flight and quarantine.

Highland Reel is conditioned by Aidan O’Brien. What does he know about training horses?

Written by Tom Jicha

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Tuesday, August 11, 2015

NYRA wants guarantee but fans don’t get one

It remains uncertain whether American Pharoah will run in the Aug. 29 Travers at Saratoga. Bob Baffert has been sending mixed feelings. However, by instituting a crowd cap of 50,000, NYRA is assuring the biggest Travers crowd in a dozen years whether or not the Triple Crown winner shows up. Meanwhile, fans are being essentially forced to buy tickets in advance not knowing whether they will get to see the champion.

MIAMI, Aug. 11, 2015--NYRA is up to a new old trick with its attendance cap of 50,000 for the Travers. There is no guarantee American Pharoah is going to show up but Christopher Kay wants a guarantee that he’ll get an American Pharoah turnout.

The NYRA CEO did the same thing with the Belmont Stakes. The 90,000 cap for the Belmont wasn’t put into place after American Pharoah won the first two jewels of the Triple Crown. It was announced only a few days after the Kentucky Derby, when the possibility of a Triple Crown bid was still only a fond hope.

The limit was disingenuously billed as a service to fans, a move to avoid the nightmarish experience more than 100,000 fans experienced at the 2014 Belmont. If this was true, it was an indictment of management being unable to come up with a crowd control plan despite having a full year to do so.

It’s not as if more than 100,000 hadn’t attended previous Belmonts. It happened three straight times between 2002 and 2004 as War Emblem, Funny Cide and Smarty Jones tried to complete the elusive sweep. More than 120,000 supposedly were on hand for Smarty Jones’ bid. But Kay's NYRA admitted it was incapable of handling a crowd bigger than three-quarters as large.

In fact, the cap was an attempt to guarantee paid attendance of at least 90,000 just in case there was no Triple Crown on the line. “Buy your tickets now or you could be shut out of an historic event.”

There has never been a crowd of 90,000 in years without a Triple Crown possibility. The closest was 85,811 in 2012 and comes with an asterisk. I’ll Have Another scratched the day before the race, so many big event race-goers showed up unaware there was no chance history would be made.

Attendance for previous Belmonts without a Triple Crown on the line averaged just a bit more than 50,000. So the business built on gambling decided it didn’t want to gamble on the crowd.

The same tactic is being utilized for the Travers. Ahmed Zayat’s hope that American Pharoah would run in the Travers was barely out of his mouth when NYRA announced the 50,000 cap, urging fans to buy tickets immediately to avoid being shut out.

Although the 60,000 barrier was exceeded for the Travers in 2001 and 2003, there hasn’t been a crowd of 50,000 since. Last year it was 46,557, down from 47,597 in 2013. The latter was the biggest attendance since 48,899 showed up in 2004.

Just as a Triple Crown bid was uncertain when the Belmont cap was announced, it is far from a certainty that American Pharoah will run on Aug. 29. Zayat made it clear the decision is entirely up to Bob Baffert.

The trainer has been sending mixed signals. “We’re trying to make it but he’s going to have to really convince me,” Baffert told the NYRA publicity department Monday . “I have to be all in and feel really confident, because if he comes here I know he’s going to have to run hard. It’s a tough demanding racetrack. But he’s handled everything thrown at him so far. He’s been such a special horse and has this following now. I want to make sure I do the right thing.”

Unsaid was how the Travers fits into having American Pharoah ready for his ultimate goal, the Breeders Cup Classic on Oct. 31. There is a nine-week gap between the two races, not the ideal scenario. It would likely necessitate another race in the interim, probably the Awesome Again at Santa Anita, his home base, on Sept. 26, since Zayat has said he has no interest in the Pennsylvania Derby. After the Belmont, Zayat and Baffert said they wanted only two races before the Breeders Cup.

With the cap in place, NYRA doesn’t care whether American Pharoah comes. The tickets will be sold. Situations such as this inspired the phrase caveat emptor (let the buyer beware).

Mixed emotions about Calder's demolition

The old saying goes, “Mixed emotions is watching your mother-in-law drive your Cadillac off a cliff.”

I experienced a similar feeling during the past week with news that Churchill Downs Inc. plans to demolish the Calder grandstand after the casino-saving Gulfstream West meeting this fall.

Calder was much too antiseptic and charmless to be beloved. But because of its eight-month season, I spent more time there than at any other track and I made some great friends.

Marketing director Mike Cronin invented the Summit of Speed to keep Calder on the map during the summer. His savvy and personable boss, Ken Dunn, is sorely missed running racetracks. Publicity director Michele Blanco was as deservedly treasured by Churchill Downs Inc. as she was disgusted with it. It got to the stage that Michelle left the only business she had known from growing up on the backside in a racing family. The late linemaker/chart caller Chuck Streva, one of the truly good guys, worked all the tracks but fondly called Calder "home." He was taken much too early from us. Publicist Jack Will knows more about racing and racing people than anyone I have ever known. Also not to be forgotten is Damon Runyon track handicapper Dirk “Dr. Doom” Ackerman, who hung the nickname (affectionately I think) Tiny Terror on me. After Dirk passed away, I adopted it as my fantasy stable name in tribute to his memory.

Those were just a few of the people who brought warmth to the cold Calder building.

On the other hand, it feels good to be rid of the remnants of CDI, as miserable a bunch of people as you would expect from this company. However, it’s infuriating that CDI is being allowed by the state to retain its casino even though it is out of the racing business in Florida.

Also, Gulfstream is doing such a better job serving the sport and its fans. This was driven home again Saturday. The first stage of the annual Florida Sire Stakes (nee Stallion Stakes) showed a 35% increase in total handle and almost a 26% increase on track over its last renewal.

It has been this way since Gulfstream went to an almost year-round schedule. The brand is better known and valued nationwide by fans, and horsemen have responded enthusiastically to being treated as if they are valued, not tolerated.

Given the problems confronting summer tracks elsewhere, most notably Chicago and, to a lesser extent New Jersey, racing is only going to get better during the warm weather months and the premier winter season is second to none.

I’m still not a fan of year-round racing at one venue (the Gulfstream West meeting will endure only until the state decouples racing from casinos). But under Tim Ritvo's team, Gulfstream is doing it as well as it can be done.

So whatever warm feelings I have for Calder, they are mitigated by being rid of Churchill Downs as well as the knowledge that South Florida racing is in so much a better place.

Written by Tom Jicha

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