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, September 06, 2013

Saratoga Summer 2013 was a season of champions

Too many cheap races detracted from Saratoga 2013 but a perusal of all the champions and potential champions who filled the better races at the Spa more than made up for it.

MIAMI, Sept. 6, 2013--Sometimes it’s difficult to fully appreciate something when you are in the midst of it. The just concluded Saratoga meeting falls into this category.

The cavalcade of $20,000 claimers and cheap turf sprints was maddening. The horses who filled these races wouldn’t have been given stalls not that many years ago.

But in retrospect, when you take a glass half-full look at the quality of the meeting, this might have been the most star-studded assemblage in years. When the votes are counted for the 2013 Eclipse Awards, it’s possible that all but two or three winners will have competed at the Spa this summer.

In fact, if the vote were taken at the end of August rather than the end of December, the only slam dunk winner lacking Saratoga 2013 credentials would be Game on Dude.

Too much racing remains to make definitive judgments about the juveniles. However, the late-running manner in which Strong Mandate galloped in the Hopeful and Sweet Reason dispatched her rivals in the Spinaway puts them at the head of the class.

Several Eclipses were all but clinched at the Spa. It is inconceivable that Princess of Sylmar will not be named outstanding 3-year-old filly. Adding the Coaching Club American Oaks and Alabama to her Kentucky Oaks triumph makes for an unbeatable triple.

Will Take Charge’s upset in the Travers further muddled the 3-year-old male division. Nonetheless, it’s a near certainty the eventual champion, whether it be Orb, Palace Malice or Will Take Charge (Verrazano would have to win a big fall weight-for-age race and the Breeders’ Cup Classic to even get back into the conversation) will have been in the Midsummer Derby.

It appears Game on Dude will sit on his lead in the older horse and Horse of the Year categories until the Breeders’ Cup Classic. But if he fails there, as he has twice, the door is open for Whitney winner Cross Traffic, who probably would need a Jockey Club Gold Cup/BC Classic double to overtake the Dude. The same double would likely work for Flat Out, the Woodward runnerup.

Royal Delta’s 5-year-old season wasn’t stellar early but her dominant win in the Grade 1 Personal Ensign, after capturing the Grade 1 Delaware Handicap, puts her firmly atop the older distaff division again. A showdown of Royal Delta, last year’s juvenile filly champion Beholder, who came back from a physical setback with a big win at Del Mar, and Princess of Sylmar in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff would rival the Classic as the highlight of the two-day festival in November.

Dank probably vaulted to the top of many Eclipse voters' ballots in the female turf division with her dominant score in the Beverly D. Not mine. It’s a pet peeve that Euros can come over, win one race and be voted an Eclipse. If Dank does it again at the Breeders’ Cup, I'll be a convert. But for now, Laughing, who added the Diana and Ballston Spa to her track record performance in Monmouth’s Eatontown, is the one to beat on my ballot. Marketing Mix, who skipped the Spa this summer, can’t be counted out.

The male sprint division has as many contenders as there will be horses in the BC Sprint starting gate. With injuries sidelining many of the early season standouts, unless there’s an off-the-wall result, the winner the first weekend in November will probably take the title.

This isn’t the case in the female counterpart. Dance To Bristol has merely won seven straight this year, including the Honorable Miss and Grade 1 Ballerina. Groupie Doll would have to do something extraordinary during her abbreviated three-race fall campaign to overtake her.

I don’t pay much attention to the jump bunch but most of the good steeplechasers point to Saratoga. No reason to think this season was different.

The human awards don’t generate as much advance conversation as the equine prizes. However by setting a record for wins at Saratoga after doing the same at Keeneland’s spring session and dominating Churchill’s spring meeting, Ken and Sarah Ramsey are mortal locks to take home the outstanding owner gold on Eclipse night in January at Gulfstream.

The Ramseys did it with quality as well as quantity. The day they had on Aug. 17—three Grade 1 wins at two tracks-- hasn’t often, if ever, been equaled. Big Blue Kitten took Saratoga’s Sword Dancer and halfway across the country, Admiral Kitten and Real Solution scored upsets in the Secretariat and Arlington Million, respectively.

More amazing, all three were sired by the Ramseys’ superlative stallion Kitten’s Joy, whose offspring came up big on the sport’s biggest days. He also is the sire of Stephanie’s Kitten, who accounted for the Grade 1 Just a Game on the Belmont Stakes undercard and the Distaff Turf Mile on the Kentucky Derby undercard.

Thanks to Kitten’s Joy, the Ramseys are odds-on to also capture the outstanding breeder Eclipse.

The well managed reigning Horse of the Year Wise Dan put more distance between himself and the field for older turf honors by making his annual stop at Saratoga to win the Fourstardave. But if he stumbles down the road, Big Blue Kitten is in position to be the beneficiary.

Javier Castellano and Joel Rosario were duking it out for the Saratoga jockeys title when Rosario got hurt. The Eclipse competition will probably come down to the same pair, with Rosario the favorite if can pick up where he left off when he returns from the foot injury he suffered at the Spa.

Why not Jose Ortiz for apprentice jockey laurels? He rode with the bug for only a couple of months but the way I understand it, that’s enough to qualify. His first Grade 1 victory aboard Strong Mandate in the Hopeful shows he has had made the transition to journeyman, which has been the undoing of countless hotshot apprentices.

Saratoga champion trainer Todd Pletcher, as usual, is among the top contenders in his field, although out West Jerry Hollendorfer will have a lot to say about that as the year winds down.

The possibility of a dozen or more champions, horse and human, having competed at the Spa this summer is rich compensation for having to endure all those bottom level beaten claimers.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Spa still the greatest but anything can be made better

New NYRA CEO Christopher Kay says one of his priorities is to make the fan experience more enjoyable. It's hard to improve on a day at Saratoga but as long as Kay asked, here are a few suggestions.

MIAMI, Sept. 3, 2013--High among the priorities new NYRA CEO Christopher Kay set for his first season at Saratoga was to learn who his customers are and how he can make the racetrack experience more enjoyable. There are few more commendable goals.

How much Kay learned about his customers is a matter of conjecture. But racing fans certainly learned who Kay is. He was on TV in the winner’s circle more often than Todd Pletcher and was on microphone more than Tom Durkin.

To put a positive spin on this, you have to say Kay was involved.

I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt for his good intentions. Just in case his self assigned busy work denied him the chance to accomplish the fan experiences on his “to do” list, I made a list of minor fixes that would make a day at the races more enjoyable.

Most of the year, I’m one of those spoiled media types in the press boxes at the South Florida tracks. At Saratoga, I’m just another guy in the crowd—my choice--so I can speak to these matters first-hand.

Learning who NYRA’s customers are and making their day at the races more pleasant are in synch with my first issue. NYRA’s customers are horse players. The Spa is exhilarating, the reason I and tens of thousands of others travel hundreds of miles to be there. But primarily we’re there to play horses.

NYRA has already made a significant positive step in getting new SAM’s. I haven’t seen them yet but they have to better than the dinosaurs fans have had to put up with. Hopefully, the new ones will be able to accept cash, to eliminate the cumbersome extra step of having to go to a live teller to obtain a voucher. If fans are going to be forced to stand in line for tellers, they might as well make their bets there, eliminating the whole purpose of SAM’s.

More than anything, we want to know the odds and, when we’re astute enough to be alive in multi-race wagers, we want to know the will-pays, in order to make decisions about possible saver bets.

Almost all the time Kay spent on camera was at the expense of this. Whether it was cutting a celebratory 150th anniversary cake, glad-handing politicians, congratulating racing figures on noteworthy feats, etc. , etc., it delayed the posting of “will pays.”

There was at least one occasion when it was 12 minutes to post before potential doubles and pick threes appeared on TV screens. This was the worst example, but making players wait up to 15 minutes for “will pays” was commonplace. (To be fair, Southern California tracks are even worse and do it after every race.)

Is it asking too much that an extra minute be taken before the ceremonies commandeer the closed-circuit feed to provide this crucial information? How about a split screen?

As long as we’re on the subject of multi-race “will pays,” I’d like to reiterate a point John Pricci, myself and countless others have made. How about posting them the way most people play them. Few play $2 Pick 3’s and trifectas and no one (at least no one in their right mind) plays $2 Pick 4’s. As part of any bettor education program, players should be taught why the tax implications make this imprudent.

The $2 payoffs are posted for the same reason lotteries pump humongous jackpots on billboards, to entice people chasing the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. But it’s a disservice to real players.

Pick 3 payoffs should be posted on the basis of the common $1 wager and Pick 4’s and, when they are finally introduced, Pick 5’s, should be shown on the basis of a 50 cent bet. Handicapping requires a lot of math as it is. Long division to gauge the actual payoff to an individual bettor shouldn’t be an extra burden.

My other suggestions are geared toward casual fans, who make Saratoga the nation’s best attended track along with its summer rival Del Mar. The first parking lot fans encounter after exiting the Northway is more than a quarter-mile from the nearest entrance gate. To make matters worse, this is where a large handicapped parking area is situated. It’s almost a sick joke to give disabled fans preferred parking in an area that far from the track. A tram or bus is essential. Surely insurance issues come into play but there are trams and busses utilized elsewhere.

Saratoga might be the only track of any size in America where every seat facing the track is sold every day. NYRA has to make money where it can with the Cuomo regime looking over its shoulder. But there are days—mostly Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays—when the three sections way up the stretch are empty, occupied only by ushers making certain no one squats for free.

NYRA knows from its records when these days fall. It would be a customer friendly gesture to make these sections available free of charge on such occasions, or for a nominal fee of $1 or $2 to discourage those who tie up three seats with papers so that no one crowds them. This might even bring out a few more people, who don’t come now because there is no place to sit down and watch the races.

The giveaway distribution methods also need to be re-examined and tinkered with. The Top of the Stretch is my preferred location. This also is where the ($3) freebies are distributed.

On the Sunday when the T-shirts were given away, customers stood on lines that stretched to the grandstand only to discover that the only size left was medium. America has become a nation of large and extra large. Ask Michelle Obama.

If you wanted the most desired sizes, you were sent to another tent near the Big Red Spring. For those unfamiliar with the vast Saratoga grounds, this is as far as you can walk from one point to another and still be within the track. The lines there were even longer. I’m guessing there was a cause-effect relationship.

None of these steps are budget busters. Failure to act on them won’t diminish the irresistibility of Saratoga. One day after the meeting, I’m counting down to next season.

But as long as Kay says he is intent on improving the fans experience, they are a good place to start. Surely some of you must have ideas of your own.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Brunetti ‘guarantees’ racing will return to Hialeah

Tradition rich Hialeah Park has joined Gulfstream and Calder in having its own big revenue generating casino. Hialeah owner John Brunetti 'guarantees' that Hialeah will also join South Florida's other racetracks in having thoroughbred racing.

MIAMI, Aug. 27, 2013--The scorched earth conflict between Gulfstream and Calder seems to have settled into a war of attrition. More on that in a bit. Meanwhile, waiting and watching from the fringes is Hialeah and John Brunetti.

The new Hialeah casino, which should arm Brunetti with satchels of cash to do the mandatory rebuilding of the grandstand seating and barn areas--as well as influence legislators--was unveiled last week. It is one grand looking facility, first class in every way, the equal of the slot machine parlors at Gulfstream and Calder.

The slots room on the ground floor is spacious and well stocked with the latest armless bandits. (It’s all done with the push of a button these days.)

The poker room on the second floor is spacious with more flat screen TVs than Best Buy, tuned to ball games as well as race tracks, in case card players also want to bet horses. SAM machines are plentiful enough that it requires less time to make a horse bet than to visit the restrooms, which have also been updated to rival those in the toniest Las Vegas casinos.

For what it’s worth, a veteran poker player, who has to remain anonymous because of ties to another gambling establishment, pointed out that as a group, the female dealers are the prettiest he has ever seen.

Also looking good again is the Hialeah grandstand, at least from the back. Brunetti staged a coming out party for the casino and the place hasn’t looked so good since the NFL held a Super Bowl party in the backyard back in the ‘80s.

The main structure, if not the seating area, has been totally refurbished. The walls have been transformed to an attractive sand color. The signature bougainvillea vines had to be taken off but they will be back, someone, who seemed to know what he was talking about, said.

So will thoroughbred racing, Brunetti promised. Getting caught up in the spirit of Joe Namath, who made his famous boast not far from Hialeah, Brunetti said, “I guarantee it.”

The only logical way this can happen is for the state to get back into the regulation of racing dates. The mess that unfettered Calder and Gulfstream have made racing against each other might be just the catalyst to spur the lawmakers to mandate the tracks to go back to the old way.

Beyond his guarantee, Brunetti didn’t want to be drawn into saying anything that could get him on the wrong side of the lawmakers who hold Hialeah’s fate in their hands. “I’m just watching what’s going on.”

What’s going on resembles racing’s version of Muhammad Ali’s rope-a-dope tactics against George Foreman in the 1974 “Rumble in the Jungle.”

Gulfstream is pummeling Calder, which is doing little to fight back. Gulfstream’s handle on the days they go head to head is roughly twice Calder’s. A superior brand is a major factor.

Another came to my attention on my travels to Saratoga. I mentioned in a previous column that when I stopped at Laurel, the Racing Form had Gulfstream PPs but not Calder’s. The same situation prevailed when I got to New York. So Gulfstream has a big advantage all the way up the East Coast.

Enough horsemen have left Calder to fill Gulfstream’s barn area. Why not? Gulfstream purses are extraordinarily high for summer racing. There is a $100,000 stake every Saturday and many in the fields would be longshots in $50,000 claimers during a major meet. The term “hundred grander” doesn’t carry the cachet it once did.

On a recent Sunday, Gulfstream gave away $284,000 in purses without a stakes.

Calder, whose average purse distribution was under $200,000, announced a 12% cut in purses, starting Aug. 30 due to the loss of revenue as a result of the competition.

Gulfstream ads for its summer racing are ubiquitous on TV, radio, newspapers and on the internet. Calder’s advertising, what little there is, is geared primarily toward promoting its casino.

Gulfstream spent what had to be a small fortune to stage a free Flo Rida concert on Aug. 17.

Gulfstream will add a holiday race card on Labor Day, as it did on July 4. Calder will remain dark, as it did on Memorial Day and Independence Day. It appears Calder is doing only what it has to in order to keep its casino license.

Or maybe it is being crazy like Ali. The question everyone is asking is how long Gulfstream can continue to spend seemingly unsustainable amounts of money in its quest to knock Calder out of the box. This is a question only mercurial Frank Stronach can answer.

Calder’s parent, Churchill Downs Inc., seems intent on hanging in long enough to find out. The off-the-record explanation I’ve heard is CDI has dug in out of principle. It is determined not to allow itself to be run out of business by Stronach.

There are humorous vignettes in this otherwise serious situation. Gulfstream poked a stick in Calder’s eye on Aug. 24 when it named its Saturday stake the “Eight Miles East.” Don’t go looking for a famous horse of that name. It has been pointed out in many accounts of the dispute that Gulfstream is “eight miles east” of Calder.

That same day, Calder was staging one of its biggest events of the summer, the Stars of Tomorrow program, which featured six stakes races, including two divisions of the Florida Stallion Stakes. (Why Calder would schedule it on this day, when simulcast players were preoccupied by the stakes laden Travers card at Saratoga is unfathomable.)

For some inexplicable reason, jockey Antonio Gallardo booked himself to ride a stakes at Calder with a listed probable post of 4 p.m. and an optional claimer in the last at Gulfstream, listed for 4:45.

(The joke around the two tracks is that Calder horses and trainers can’t race at Gulfstream and come back but jockeys can.)

Under the best of circumstances, Gallardo was cutting it close. Those eight miles across town are incredibly heavily trafficked and through city streets, with a light on almost every corner.

As usually is the case in these situations, the best of circumstances didn’t prevail. Almost everything that could thwart Gallardo's ambitious agenda did. Eduardo Nunez was thrown from a mount and had to be taken to the hospital by ambulance. So everything stopped until the ambulance got back to Calder, pushing the races back about 15 minutes.

Then Gallardo had the pleasant inconvenience of winning the $75,000 stakes, which entailed the usual time consuming winner’s circle ceremony. By the time he dismounted, he had less than 15 minutes to make a trip that couldn’t be done that quickly in a presidential motorcade.

Nevertheless, he took off at a full gallop from the winner’s circle toward a waiting van. But before he could climb aboard, Kathleen O’Connell summoned him to replace Nunez on a couple of odds-on favorites in upcoming $125K stakes.

Gallardo did a quick about-face and picked up about $15,000 for two rocking chair rides. His scheduled mount at Gulfstream finished off the board.

“Racing luck” manifests itself in many ways.

Written by Tom Jicha

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