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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Friday, November 08, 2013

Separate dirt and turf Eclipses and other thoughts

Thoughts on the Breeders' Cup linger. One suggestion worth consideration is separate Eclipse Awards for best older dirt and turf horses. If nothing else, it would solve the Wise Dan controversy. Also, the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Sprint should be reinstated.

MIAMI, Nov. 8, 2013--All things Breeders’ Cup and their ramifications remain hot topics. So before we move on to pondering the Triple Crown, there are still thoughts to be shared.

A comment on my most recent column suggested separate Eclipse awards for outstanding older dirt horse and turf horse. On one hand, this would solve the Wise Dan conundrum. On the other, there would still be debates on who deserves each prize. This year the dirt prize would come down to five-for-six Game on Dude or two-for-five Mucho Macho Man.

Every year the candidates would be different but the arguments would be just as passionate.

I still like the idea. Turf and dirt are different worlds. Without getting into this season’s particulars, the floor is open for opposing views on the bigger picture.

Secret Circle showed up the Breeders’ Cup decision-making process when he added the Sprint championship to the 2011 Juvenile Sprint title on his resume. The Juvenile Sprint was axed after only five showed up last year. But that was as much a product of the first time Lasix ban as lack of interest.

Meanwhile, the long running joke (pun intended) Marathon, which has produced no one of merit and hasn’t encouraged a meaningful increase in long distance races during the year, remains a part of the program.

The Marathon does no harm as a program-opening novelty but the Juvenile Sprint should be given another chance. There are more juvenile sprint specialists in November than there are 2-year-olds ready for two turns. Also, Lasix is no longer an issue.

Mizdirection won the Turf Sprint for the second time. Another filly, Reneesgotzip, hit the board for the second time against colts. The great female Goldikova won the Turf Mile three straight years and Miesque won it twice. The Fugue just missed in the Turf, defeating all of the best American males. Let’s not forget Treve winning the Arc against the world’s best.

Isn’t it time North America rethinks its gender classifications. In Europe, top females are expected to race against males once they turn 4. In America, it’s such a rarity that we give Horse of the Year Awards to distaffers who beat males even once or, in the case of Zenyatta, come close.

I’m not arguing for an end to gender specific races on a day-in, day-out basis but there should be a severe reduction of Grade 1 races restricted to females. Such stakes, especially in the second half of the year, should be no more than Grade 2 and I wouldn’t object to dropping one grade lower.

Countless theories have been offered as to why Euros are so superior to North American horses on grass. The obvious one is this is the surface on which they race almost exclusively, so when they rise to the top, they have really accomplished something. On our side of the Atlantic (hasn’t “across the pond” become one of the most over-used clichés in all of sports?) a lot of horses aren’t tried on grass until they are proven wanting on dirt. Some of our best never set foot on the infield course.

It should not be discounted that we breed and buy for speed, they do it for stamina and most major turf races are contested at distances beyond a mile and an eighth, which seems to be the breaking point for all but a handful of our horses. Euro horses are not superior to ours, they are just superior at longer distances. Mizdirection and Wise Dan prove we are right there with them up to a mile.

Et tu Breeders Cup? Some things never change at Santa Anita, even when the Breeders’ Cup has taken over the facility. On Saturday, the standings of the BC handicapping contest, of interest to almost no one, were posted on TV monitors before the will-pays of multiple-race wagers, which were important to almost everyone.

Some things never change at any track. In the middle of the Dirt Mile Friday, as the horses went down the backstretch, TV monitors at Calder switched away from the channel the Breeders’ Cup had been on all day to the Golden Gate signal. It was marginally better Saturday at Gulfstream where the same situation occurred but with the Breeders’ Cup horses still in the paddock.

This has happened at every track or simulcast facility I have visited, including Las Vegas race books. I understand room has to be found for later in the day tracks, but those at the switch should be more sensitive to when they hit the button. A warning several minutes out isn’t asking too much, is it?

Dave Johnson sent a note about the lucky coup for the Sirius radio Breeders' Cup crew, which included Bill Finley and Peter Kleinhans. The latter is friendly with the connections of Ria Antonia, so they did a pre-race interview even though the filly was 32-1 and given little chance. The Racing Form had her at the bottom of its graded entries.

When Ria Antonia got into a photo with She’s a Tiger, they reconnected by cell phone. Finley astutely asked if they could get jockey Javier Castellano to the phone. While the stewards were deliberating, Castellano was offering his version of what happened. They still had the Ria Antonia people on the phone when She’s a Tiger was taken down.

This goes to show luck comes in many forms at the race track.

The New York Times is relentless. On racing’s most glorious occasion, the paper’s Breeders’ Cup advance was an extensive story on the drug violations of America’s top 20 trainers along with a rehash of its exposes of a year ago, most of which were at third tier and outlaw tracks.

Missing was context, such as how many of the violations were for relatively minor, legal pharmaceuticals lingering in a horse’s system beyond the time they were supposed to, whether they were trace samples so minute that they wouldn’t affect the performance of a gnat or were a product of a stablehand snorting coke and getting the residue on a horse’s bridle.

This would have interfered with The Times agenda to slime racing.

Racing's audience might be gray but I've got a couple of bucks that say the sport will be around long after The Gray Lady ceases to exist as a newspaper.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Breeders’ Cup settles little when it comes to rightful titles

As always, the Breeders' Cup provided a scintillating couple of days of racing but the "world championships" failed to clearly identify North American champions in many divisions. An exception is Wise Dan, who should be the unanimous winner of a repeat triple crown: Horse of the Year, Turf Horse and Older Horse.
MIAMI, Nov. 5, 2013--The Breeders’ Cup is a grand spectacle and a horse fan’s Christmas, something to count down toward for months. However, its self designation of “world championships” needs to be toned down lest it remain a source of ridicule. Typically, the 2013 renewal probably ignited more debates than it settled when it comes to even North American division championships.

One category that should be settled is Horse of the Year. Wise Dan deserves to be a lock to repeat. That there is even conversation otherwise is solely a product of contrarians, who resented him winning in 2012 and probably maintain the same opinions after his parallel campaign in 2013. Their oft-stated objection is that Wise Dan is too much of a specialist, racing almost exclusively at a mile on grass.

So what. Juveniles have won the title. Fillies and mares have won the title, usually on the basis of one win outside their division against males.

Game on Dude would have been an almost unanimous choice if he had won the Classic after racing all but once in California, where he routinely beat up on short fields with Clubhouse Ride his immediate victim three times and Kettle Corn twice. Either of these would have been 50-1 or better if they had made the Classic field.

A primary characteristic of champions is consistency. Wise Dan was almost perfect again this year. He won on the East Coast at Saratoga, in the Midwest at Churchill Downs and Keeneland, in Canada at Woodbine and on the West Coast at Santa Anita.

He won in April, May, June, August, September and November.

The Euros cleaned our clocks in every BC turf race but the Mile, where Wise Dan cleaned theirs. What more do the naysayers want?

More déjà vu. Wise Dan’s detractors might grudgingly concede him the big prize but rest assured there will be opinions written and spoken that he should not cop best older horse, also because he won only on turf.

If not him, who? To reiterate, Game on Dude’s entire campaign of beating up on the same creampuffs was exposed in the Classic. There were no excuses this time. He was ideally positioned throughout, right there at the top of the stretch on a track that favored this (although not as much as Friday) and backed up badly when he realized it wasn’t Clubhouse Ride and Kettle Corn breathing down on him.

Some will offer Mucho Macho Man. But if Wise Dan was a specialist, what can you say about a horse whose only two wins were at Santa Anita in a compact span of five weeks?

The Eclipse voters will risk their credibility if they do not vote Wise Dan the same triple as last season: Horse of the Year, Turf Horse and Older Horse.

Very few other categories were settled at the “world championships.” New Year’s Day is the pro tem leader of the juvenile division off his upset win but the only other first on his resume is a maiden race. What’s more, he ran slower than the fillies. With major 2-year-old races still to come at Churchill Downs, Aqueduct, Hollywood and even Delta Downs, this category is far from settled.

Same goes for the juvenile fillies. She’s a Tiger is being talked up after being taken down but even Gary Stevens acknowledged on TV that she deserved to be DQ’ed. She also failed to hold a clear lead in her previous start. My hunch is her connections won’t risk her reputation around two turns during Hollywood’s final season, leaving the door open for a late season star. If she gets the Eclipse, it will be by process of elimination, hardly the criteria of a champion.

I can’t believe Groupie Doll is being pushed by some as outstanding female sprinter. Let’s review: she ran third to undistinguished foes at Ellis Park, beat a $4k claimer at Presque Isle Downs, was third best again at Keeneland, then came through on the same track where she won the title last year. It is no more rational to award her an encore championship than it would be to give the 2-year-old filly title to Ria Antonia.

Anybody hear of Dance to Bristol? She might have thrown in a clunker at Santa Anita but unlike Game on Dude, her prior resume--7 wins, 2 seconds in 9 starts--can’t be faulted. She took on all comers and her only loss after winning 7 in a row was a second to undefeated Cluster of Stars.

The male sprint division is so bereft of outstanding players that Secret Circle could steal the title with similar, albeit lesser, credentials as Mucho Macho Man; a Breeders’ Cup win, preceded by an optional claimer score. The 2011 BC Juvenile Sprint winner has never been beaten around one turn. Let’s hope we get the opportunity before year’s end to see him attempt to wipe out any challenges to his superiority. He probably would be odds-on if Bob Baffert chose to have him tackle the Cigar Mile.

Speaking of the Cigar, TV commentators and some in the print media all but awarded the 3-year-old title to Will Take Charge after his gallant second in the Classic. Hold on. Shug McGaughey is pointing Kentucky Derby winner Orb to the Cigar.

Will Take Charge is still only 4-for-10 and he finished 8th, 7th and 10th in the Triple Crown races. His only Grade 1 win is the Travers. As disappointing as Orb has been since Derby Day, he is still 4-for-8, with two Grade 1’s, including the big one, and he finished ahead of WTC in each of the Triple Crown events. A bookend score in the Cigar, however improbable off his recent form, would move Orb to the top of the class again.

Update: After publication, it was announced that Orb has been retired. He is perfectly sound, so this is every bit as objectionable as Verrazano's retirement, which I railed against last week. Actually more so. There is no bigger drawing card in racing than a Kentucky Derby winner.)

The most spirited arguments from now until the Eclipse winners are revealed in January will be over 3-year-old filly honors. Beholder stated her case with a resounding triumph in the BC Distaff, her second Grade 1 against older rivals. Princess of Sylmar misfired badly Friday but has won the more prestigious races and defeated Beholder, a Santa Anita specialist, in their only previous meeting in the Kentucky Oaks.

No matter which one comes out on top, the division will have a stellar champion. This can’t be said about many of the other categories.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Friday, November 01, 2013

Verrazano with my head but not my heart

Verrazano looms like one of the most certain winners of the two-day Breeders' Cup carnival. Unfortunately, it will be the last time he'll be seen on the racetrack. His owners have opted to send the potential star of the 2014 season to the breeding shed prematurely. Shame on them.

MIAMI, Nov. 1, 2013--A quick way to go broke is to allow emotions to influence gambling decisions. I keep reminding myself of this as the Breeders Cup Dirt Mile approaches. I plan to make Verrazano one of my key plays; straight, in exactas and in multiple race wagers.

The only hesitance came when it was announced the also brilliant Graydar was pointing for the Mile. When he was pulled out, my confidence in Verrazano soared.

Then I read that Verrazano’s owners plan to retire him after the race. As a fan as much as a bettor, this made me furious. Verrazano is only 3 years-old, in perfect health (he wouldn’t be running otherwise) and his career will have been exactly 10 months (Jan. 1-Nov. 1). He has been so dazzling in many of his victories, he could have been a major attraction next year, especially if he puts up a big win in the Mile.

There is absolutely no reason to ship him off to the breeding shed so soon, other than greed, and Verrazano’s owners, Michael Tabor and company, are already filthy rich. This is another reason to renew a call for my admittedly quixotic mission to have the Jockey Club and its overseas counterparts refuse to register any foal by a stallion younger than 5 at the time of conception.

All of this had part of me rooting for him to run up the track to diminish, even if only slightly, his appeal at stud. Fortunately, my better judgment rationalized that he is still one of the most likely winners of the two-day Breeders’ Cup carnival. Whether or not I root for him isn’t going to have any impact and I would be even angrier if my emotions induced me to let a horse I have a big opinion on get away.

The most inane analysis I have heard in the run-up to the Breeders’ Cup is that Verrazano doesn’t show up on the big days. This is based on miserable performances in the Kentucky Derby and Travers. Those two races have something in common far more germane than being contested on the biggest day at their respective tracks? Both were a mile and a quarter.

Verrazano’s ability to handle 10 furlongs has been in question since he won his first two starts by 24 lengths. Sometimes horses more suited for a mile can get a mile and a quarter under the right circumstances. Verrazano apparently isn’t one of those. However he’s demonstratively unbeatable up to nine furlongs.

Verrazano will be facing older opponents for the first time but no real stars. The biggest threat is another 3-year-old, Goldencents. But Goldencents drew the 12 hole, even worse than Verrazano in No. 10 given the exceedingly short run to the first turn. However, I'm counting on Verrazano to have sufficient speed to avoid being pushed into the parking lot.

Moreover, I need a single somewhere on Friday. My betting preference is Pick Threes and the races sandwiching the Mile, the Juvenile Fillies Turf and Juvenile Turf, are impossible to narrow down.
I’m going to take the lazy way out and use the three Euros—Al Thakhira, Chriselliam and Vorda—with former Euros, who are perfect in the U.S.—Testa Rossi and Clenor—in the Fillies Turf.

Clenor exemplifies the superiority of Euros on grass. Clenor was an 0-for-3 maiden overseas. In the U.S., she is 3-for-3, two of them stakes.

I’m using similar strategy in the Juvenile Turf but including Bobby’s Kitten from the home team along with Euros Giovanni Boldini, Outstrip, Shamshon and Wilshire Boulevard.

I’d like to sharpshoot the Euros down to one or two per race but painful history has taught that when one of the invaders wins a Breeders’ Cup race, it’s often not the most heavily bet.

Emotion is going to be a factor in the Distaff but along with tested handicapping principles. Princess of Sylmar has been the best female in America since May. She proved that with the ease with which she ran past perfect-tripping, two-time Eclipse winner Royal Delta in the Beldame. If I save in horizontal bets, it will be with the home town favorite Beholder.

As if the Breeders’ Cup isn’t tough enough to figure, post positions have complicated several races. Artemis Agrotera got a big boost drawing the rail in the Juvenile Fillies while She’s a Tiger had a stake driven through her chances when she pulled No. 10.

I don’t want to be provincial but Calder standout Scandalous Act could be a big-ticket maker. She’s been devastating in South Florida. The ease with which she swept through the Stallion Stakes is reminiscent of Awesome Feather, who came out of that series to win this race.

Dank doesn't need any help off her crushing Beverly D triumph but she got it when she drew the rail in the Filly & Mare Turf. Kitten’s Dumpling, a winner of four of her last five, will be up against it breaking from No. 10 in a race that starts on a turn.

Why isn’t anyone talking about Laughing? She’s 4-for-4 this year. The horse she beat last time, Tannery, came back to win the E.P. Taylor. Her immediate victim two back, Pianist, rebounded to win the Athenia. Laughing’s beaten foes also include Stephanie’s Kitten and Dayathespa, both multiple stakes winners.

No race is as strongly influenced by the draw as the Juvenile. Havana and Strong Mandate, who might have been the first two choices in the wagering are buried outside in the 13 and 14, respectively.
I think I’m going to look elsewhere, maybe touted-over-the-moon Tap It Rich and “the other Baffert,” New Year’s Day.

Post isn’t as much a factor in the other races, although Justin Phillip didn’t get any favors drawing the rail in the Sprint and Mizdirection could hardly have drawn better, getting No. 12, in the Turf Sprint.

I’m against the defending Sprint champions, Groupie Doll and Trinniberg. Also, Little Mike in the Turf. Any of them win, I lose.

Euro filly The Fugue looks like the one to beat in the Turf but Big Blue Kitten also will be all over my tickets. Point of Entry will be one of the stories of the weekend if he can come back from a career-threatening injury and six-month layoff to win. He’ll have at least a small presence on my Pick 3 tickets.

I’m with Wise Dan, who has won his last nine on grass. If I save, it will be with Euros. Wise Dan’s last and only loss on the inner course? The 2011 Shadwell Turf Mile. Maybe it’s something about the race’s name.

Finally, I expect Game on Dude to win the Classic and Horse of the Year on his home track.

Written by Tom Jicha

Comments (6)


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