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, October 14, 2014

Tracks don’t know or care what bettors want

Racing has to be a great game to survive the people running it. Low minimum multi-race wagers are all the rage, so what do Belmont and Santa Anita do? They create the Coast to Coast double with a $2 minimum. It has received the frigid reception it deserves. Racing's leaders have identified drug abuse as the sport's biggest problem. But California and New York let serial drug offender Doug O'Neill off the hook with what amounts to less than a slap on the wrist. Also, the Racing Form, which should be serving its customers, repeatedly changes symbols for well known tracks to appease track operators while confusing bettors.

MIAMI, Oct. 14, 2014--Drugs are a scourge of racing but far from its biggest drawback. A bigger problem is race track management not knowing nor caring what their customers want

They still behave as if it’s the mid-20th century when tracks could afford to conduct themselves as if they were doing bettors a favor by giving them the lone legal gambling option. They totally ignored Bob Dylan’s warning that, “The times, they are a changin’.”

The Coast to Coast double introduced last week by NYRA and the Stronach Group at Santa Anita isn’t the most useless bet ever. NYRA’s Grand Slam retired that trophy years ago.

I don’t know a single player who invests in the Grand Slam, which isn’t even offered at any simulcast site I have ever visited. It handles only a little more than $20K a day, even on weekends. Players outside the NYRA sphere would likely have a hard time explaining what it entails (three in-the-money finishes with a winner in the finale.)

I don’t expect the reception to the Coast to Coast double to be much better. Who asked for this bet? Not customers. Early returns bear this out. Its high point was Friday when it handled more than $33K. The other three days, including Saturday and Sunday, betting was around $27K. To put this in perspective, NYRA's late double on those four days handled $93K, $115K, $109K and $130K. Santa Anita’s late double guarantees a $100K pool.

The lack of enthusiasm for the new bet is is only partially a product of the higher 20% takeout in California rather than the 18% in New York. Let’s be generous and allow a $30K average. The extra 2% takeout generates an additional $600 for the two jurisdictions to split before expenses and the state and horsemen get their cut. A busy table in the dining room generates more revenue.

The $2 minimum, which has otherwise been abandoned in New York except for the Pick 6, is another negative. If there is one thing that has been established beyond dispute, it is that players have gravitated toward lower minimum multi-race bets. Fifty-cent Pick 3’s, which New York, Florida and California stubbornly refuse to adopt, regularly outhandle $2 Pick 6’s.

This is players voting with their wallets. Yet track managements are oblivious to the obvious.

NYRA's genuflecting to its partner in takeout and minimum is a product of Santa Anita not wanting to take part in a bet that offers players a better deal than the California norm. Next thing you know, they’ll expect such things on a regular basis. Can’t have that.

Racing Form’s priorities misplaced

The Daily Racing Form also ignores the needs and preferences of its customers. Its mission should be to serve the people who shell out $8 a copy ($9 off track). Instead it is more concerned with servicing the whims of race track operators.

The latest example is adopting the Gulfstream Park West initials, GPW, in past performances for races and workouts over the Calder track. It’s understandable Gulfstream would prefer to be identified by its more popular brand as it operates what used to be part of the Calder meet.

Bettors couldn’t care less about that. The identification of the racing surface is what’s crucial to handicapping. Either that or the expression “horses for courses” is meaningless.

So the switch from Gulfstream’s oval to the unique Calder surface is significant. That the Stronach Group is running the operation now matters not at all to the player trying to come up with the winner of the next race.

This isn’t an isolated occurrence. I was in a Las Vegas race book betting the tail end of the Santa Anita season a few years ago when I saw a symbol that was strange to me—BHP. There were a lot of West Coasters around, so I wondered aloud what it signified. “That’s the new initials for Hollywood Park,” a neighbor informed. Indeed new owners had chosen to adopt Betfair Hollywood Park as the track’s identity.

What’s next? NYRAB, CDFG, SGSA?

An owner can call a track anything he wants. But the Racing Form owes it to its customers to make its information as useful and understandable as possible. Initials that made Hollywood Park, one of America’s best known tracks, look like a training center and Calder appear to be Gulfstream is abdicating this obligation.

O’Neill case an outrage

The sweetheart deals negotiated by Doug O’Neill are a kick in the gut to fans alienated by the rampant drug abuse in racing and show that the lip service paid to cleaning up the game is nothing more than a public relations ploy.

O’Neill’s 45-day suspension in New York for his 19th medication violation became a farce when he was allowed to cut a deal to serve it following the Breeders’ Cup, the deadest zone of the year on the racing calendar.

The California Horse Racing Board compounded the travesty when it waived what should have been another 135 days for a major drug violation during the 18-month period O’Neill was on probation from a prior offense out West. Instead, it let O’Neill off the hook with only a 45-day suspension. More infuriating, O’Neill will be allowed to serve the California penalty concurrently with New York’s. This translates to California effectively doing nothing.

Then you wonder why cheaters operate fearlessly.

Classic stakes increase as Wise Dan is sidelined

The stakes got higher for the Breeders’ Cup Classic on Monday. Two-time defending champion Wise Dan’s injured right ankle means there will be a new Horse of the Year and unless something totally unforeseeable occurs, it will be the winner of the Classic.

Shared Belief and California Chrome have the inside track. If either wins the Classic, he will be Horse of the Year. This was the case even before the injury to Wise Dan, the fallback choice if there was an upset in the Classic and he completed an undefeated season in the Mile.

Now there is no real fallback outside the Classic. The door is slightly ajar for Tonalist or Bayern. But it would take a super performance to turn the electorate. Winning a photo probably won’t be enough, although it would elevate anticipation of the outcome of the vote to more suspenseful than what is expected from the mid-term elections.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Wise Dan’s People Should Opt for Discretion Over Valor

Horse of the Year has essentially come down to Wise Dan vs. Shared Belief. Dan's usual array of detractors say he should go in the Breeders' Cup Classic against Shared Belief, et al, to settle the issue. But no one is asking Shared Belief to tackle Wise Dan on turf to prove himself worthy. It looks like Wise Dan's people will stick to their guns and keep their two-time Horse of the Year on turf in the Mile. It's the right call.

MIAMI, Oct. 7, 2014--Wise Dan’s heart of a champion win in Saturday’s Shadwell Turf Mile and Close Hatches’ disappointment in the Spinster has essentially brought the Horse of the Year contest down to Shared Belief and Wise Dan. (California Chrome could grab the gold with a Classic win but his clunker in the Pennsylvania Derby, his only race in four months, doesn’t encourage the thought this will happen.)

Nevertheless there is a strange dynamic coming into play. Wise Dan’s detractors--the same ones who have been diminishing his achievements for three years--want him to go in the Classic on dirt to earn the championship. Yet no one is suggesting Shared Belief needs to win a turf race to earn the title.

Wise Dan’s trainer Charlie Lopresti opened the door a crack after the Shadwell, saying if he and owner Morton Fink were ever to try the 7-year-old gelding in the mile-and-a-quarter Classic, this would be the year. Fink is not enamored with this move but he is not known as a meddling owner who often overrules his trainer. However, in this case, I would side with Fink.

That Lopresti would even consider a Classic run this year has to be partially an acknowledgement that age inevitably will take its toll on Wise Dan and that he would be the ranking older horse in this year’s Classic against 3-year-olds Shared Belief, California Chrome, Tonalist and perhaps Bayern. That Lopresti would like to shut up those who have been knocking his horse might figure in a little bit, too.

It’s not as if Wise Dan doesn’t have credentials on dirt. He won the 2011 Clark Handicap and was second in the 2012 Stephen Foster, both Grade 1 races.

It was also a tacit admission that Wise Dan’s chances for a third straight Horse of the Year are dependent on the outcome of the Classic. Wise Dan could cap an undefeated season with a triumph in the Breeders’ Cup Turf Mile but if Shared Belief wins the Classic, he’s Horse of the Year. Case closed.

This probably also would apply to California Chrome. The Classic would be the Kentucky Derby-Preakness winner’s fourth Grade 1 win, including three of the four most important races in America.

On the other hand, if someone other than Shared Belief or California Chrome wins the Classic and Wise Dan again scores in the Mile, Dan would be in line for a Triple Triple--Horse of the Year, Older Horse and Turf Horse for the third straight year.

The two-time reigning Horse of the Year taking on the 3-year-old hot shots would be great for racing and NBC’s ratings. But if I were Fink and Lopresti, I would take a discretion over valor approach and Wise Dan would stick to doing what he does best.

Only Goldikova has been able to win the BC Turf Mile three times. Wise Dan could equal that this year and, the way he’s going, it’s not inconceivable he could go for four next year. There’s a Horse of the Year every season but that would be a singular feat that might never be matched.

What took so long?

The posse finally has caught up to Doug O’Neill. A 45-day suspension issued by the New York Gambling Commission has set off a dominos effect that could banish O’Neill for a long time.

The NYGC suspension is for a major drug positive in an O’Neill horse who won at Belmont on June 2, 2013. It’s a travesty that it took more than a year for justice to be served. Worse, O’Neill was allowed to negotiate a deal in which he would serve the days starting Nov. 3, the day after Breeders’ Cup weekend. In other words, the slowest period on the racing calendar. That’s not punishment. It’s a vacation.

That any commission would allow this, especially after O’Neill dragged out his appeals for more than a year, is incomprehensible and unacceptable.

The Breeders’ Cup got wind of the deal and said no way. It has a “convicted trainers rule,” which stipulates that any trainer with a major drug conviction within the past year cannot enter his horses in a BC race.

Now O’Neill is facing tough sanctions in his home state of California. The guy with the nickname “Drug O’Neill” for his many violations—the New York violation is his 19th, according to the Racing Form--got a 180-day suspension in California in 2012 for a 2010 offense (another justice delayed is justice denied joke) but 135 days were waived if O’Neill had no further offenses for 18 months. The New York finding fits within that period.

California has not announced if it will enforce that stipulation, which should have been done the same day New York issued its ruling. More justice delayed.

But then, that’s California. Trainer A.C. Avila has yet to face the music for the Masochistic shenanigans last March in which the horse was found to have 40 times the recommended dose of a tranquilizer in his system and the stewards all but said Masochistic was stiffed by his rider when he finished off the board against Cal-breds. Next out, he beat open maidens by 14 on Derby Day at Churchill Downs, a betting coup for the ages.

The Jockey Club can wring its hands until they are raw about drugs fouling the sport but as long as trainers know they can drag out appeals, negotiate penalties downward and serve suspensions at their convenience, nothing is going to change.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Espinoza got off easy with only seven days

Santa Anita stewards wasted no time in slapping Victor Espinoza with a seven-day suspension for his ride on Sky Kingdom in the Awesome Again in which the regular rider of California Chrome's sole purpose seemed to be to get Shared Belief beaten. Espinoza's defenders say he was only race riding but the fact that he has chosen not to appeal is revealing.

MIAMI, Sept. 30, 2014--Justice was swift but not as severe as it might have been for Victor Espinoza’s ride in the Awesome Again. Within 24 hours, the Santa Anita stewards came down on Espinoza with a seven-day suspension. Considering the magnitude of the event, I would have made it more.

I’m flabbergasted reading comments on Horse Race Insider and other sites that there are those who think Espinoza did nothing wrong. The fact that Espinoza has chosen not to appeal says all you need to know.

The defense goes he was only race riding. My response is where does race riding end and irresponsibility and tampering with a race begin? Espinoza allowed Sky Kingdom to drift more than halfway out on the track in the first turn, then stayed out there down the backstretch. Would it have been race riding if he took Shared Belief to the outside fence?

Mike Smith, Shared Belief’s Hall of Fame jockey, who knows the difference between race riding and something more sinister, was so ticked at Espinoza that he was quoted as saying in the jockeys’ room as Espinoza walked by, “Keep going or I’ll take your head off.”

In my opinion, Espinoza made no attempt to help Sky Kingdom win. Indeed he finished last. Espinoza was all in toward one purpose, to get Shared Belief beaten. His possible motivations made his actions more deplorable. Foremost, Espinoza is the regular rider of California Chrome, whose lock on the 3-year-old championship has been unhinged by Shared Belief.

The power of wins in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness in addition to the Santa Anita Derby is such--as they should be--that the only way Shared Belief could overcome them was by running the table of the Awesome Again and Breeders’ Cup Classic to go with the Pacific Classic and Los Alamitos Derby.

If not for the brilliance and tenacity of Shared Belief, Espinoza’s ride could have clinched the title for California Chrome. I believe that even if Shared Belief finishes ahead of California Chrome in the Classic but doesn’t win the race, the 3-year-old Eclipse will go to California Chrome.

Jockey Club Gold Cup winner Tonalist could put in a claim with a win in the Classic but even under those circumstances I still feel that the streak of the last 16 Kentucky Derby-Preakness winners also wearing the divisional crown will remain intact.

Apparently Bob Baffert still harbors aspirations that Bayern could cop the Eclipse. There is no other rationale for pointing the speedster with distance limitations to a mile and a quarter in the Classic. He would have only one serious threat in the Dirt Mile, Goldencents, who might go in the Sprint.

Kelso winner Vyjack is staying in the East to await the Cigar Mile. Itsmyluckyday also will skip the Mile after his disappointing Kelso and prepare for either the Cigar or a winter campaign at Gulfstream.

Espinoza was riding for Baffert in the Awesome Again. A defeat by Shared Belief would have advanced Bayern’s standing, too.

On reflection, of all the suggested motivations for Espinoza’s ride, the one I put the least stock in is he was trying to help Baffert’s uncoupled stable mate Fed Biz. Espinoza gets up on a fair number of Baffert horses but he’s not the barn’s go-to guy. I don’t think Espinoza cared who won as long as Shared Belief didn’t.

Shared Belief, a gelding owned by sports talk star Jim Rome, could give racing such a boost for years to come it’s disheartening to think that anyone would go to the lengths Espinoza did to dim the luster of his star power.

Going all out to beat him on the square is one thing. That’s what jockeys are supposed to do. What Espinoza did is something else. He deserves the sanctions and scorn he is getting.

Racing as it was meant to be returns

After last weekend’s orgy of world class stakes action at Belmont and Santa Anita it’s hard to believe there are still championship caliber horses who haven’t had their final Breeders’ Cup preps. But Keeneland has five more Grade 1’s among nine graded stakes on opening weekend starting Friday.

Better yet, much better yet, real dirt is back after seven years in the synthetic wilderness. I have often pointed out how winners of major Keeneland stakes on kitty litter were non factors in races on mainstream dirt courses. This should no longer be the case.

If Beholder’s bid for a third straight Eclipse is to be thwarted, it likely will be by Close Hatches, the probable favorite in Sunday’s Grade 1 Spinster. Not to be overlooked is Don’t Tell Sophia, who is three-for-four in 2014, including Churchill’s recent Locust Grove. Her lone loss was a third behind Close Hatches in the Azeri but Don’t Tell Sophia was hindered by a quarter crack, which forced her to run with a bar shoe. That problem is history.

Juveniles also have their final Breeders’ Cup preps at Keeneland and Belmont. The opening day feature in Kentucky will bring out what is expected to be a full field of fillies in the Alcibiades. Colts will get their chance Saturday in the Breeders’ Futurity.

Back at Belmont, the Grade 1 open Champagne and Frizette for fillies are set for Saturday with 2-year-old sprinters of both genders getting their chances on Sunday in the Futurity and Matron.

American Pharoh’s dominant win in Santa Anita’s Frontrunner makes him the one to beat in the BC Juvenile but the filly division is still looking for a leader. Angela Renee’s win in the Chandelier was workmanlike but she was well beaten by Easterners in a couple of Saratoga stakes.

Keeneland’s five Saturday stakes also include the return of Wise Dan in the Shadwell Turf Mile. Dan suffered his only defeat of 2013 in this race last fall but it carried an asterisk. It became the Shadwell (fake dirt) Mile when a monsoon forced the race off the turf.

Horse of the Year is still Shared Belief’s to lose but if he comes up short in the Classic and Wise Dan takes the Shadwell and a third BC Turf Mile, another Horse of the Year laurel is a strong possibility.

Written by Tom Jicha

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