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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Thursday, January 19, 2017

Cuomo’s re-privatization of NYRA proposal loaded with land mines

New York governor Andrew Cuomo has come up with another proposal to re-privatize NYRA. It would include night racing at Belmont and fewer winter dates at Aqueduct. Each of these is sure to stir opposition from horsemen and citizen activist groups. This might be Cuomo's intention. He could delay turning back NYRA and blame it on others.

MIAMI, Jan. 19, 2017--Racing after dark could be coming to Belmont and winter racing could be going at a re-privatized New York Racing Association.

These bombshells were first dropped on Tuesday in the midst of a hearing of the New York Senate Racing, Gaming and Wagering Sub-Committee. As he conducted the hearing, Sen. John Bonacic was handed a blog post from the Albany Times-Union reporting Cuomo was planning to turn back NYRA as part of his new state budget. The report was confirmed later in the day.

Evening racing at Belmont and an unspecified reduction in racing during the cold weather months is a part of the governor’s plan.

Sen Bonacic’s panel was essentially a gripe session. Others present are as unhappy as Bonacic is with Gov. Cuomo maintaining control of NYRA two years past the deadline for returning it to private hands. So Cuomo’s proposal, which came out of the blue, could be just blowing smoke by the politically savvy governor. Cuomo knew he was going to take a beating at the hearing and probably wanted to change the narrative in media coverage, which he did.

It is not cause for New York racing fans to begin kissing each other in Times Square. Cuomo had a plan last year to supposedly re-privatize NYRA but it was basically a sham in which Cuomo flunkies would still control NY racing. This one could be more of the same.

A new NYRA board would have 15 members, eight from the private sector, six appointed by the governor and NYRA’s CEO Christopher Kay. So Cuomo would start with seven votes in his pocket. All he would need to maintain control is to win over one of the private sector representatives. This wouldn’t be a daunting challenge considering the power the governor has over areas of commerce in which private sector representatives likely to be chosen participate.

The same citizen’s coalitions that kept slot machines out of Belmont could reorganize to oppose evening racing in their neighborhood. Even if this is avoided, thoroughbred racing after dark in the metropolitan area at the Meadowlands never proved to be the wild success it was forecast to be. In fact, the harness horses did better, probably a product of the trotters and pacers having a history and fan base after the sun went down. It’s easy to say, “Well, that was New Jersey,” but the Meadowlands is located closer to parts of the Bronx and Manhattan than Belmont Park on Long Island is.

How greatly winter racing will be curtailed would be a major issue with horsemen and their employees, who can’t afford to winter in Florida. Also, horsemen at every venue where night racing has been introduced have raised objections to their people having to cool out horses after midnight then be at the barn a few hours later for normal training procedures.

This proposal also represents the latest indication that the governor remains determined to shut down Aqueduct as a race track and use the land to expand the casino and surround it with a hotel and convention center.

So these reports might be nothing more than a tactic to get horsemen and others to raise objections, which would allow Cuomo to pass blame for another delay in surrendering control of NYRA.

Sunshine (not nearly) Millions

Anyone who doubts how difficult it is to get horsemen to agree on anything, even when it’s in their best interests, need not look any further than Gulfstream Park this Saturday. The annual Sunshine Millions will be renewed but this year the title is a misnomer.

In the past, there were six races with cumulative purses of more than a million dollars: the Classic for $250K, the Distaff for $200K and the Turf, Filly & Mare Turf, Sprint and the Turf Sprint for $150K apiece. This year, the Turf Sprint has been dropped, the Classic has had its purse reduced to $200K and the other four will go for $100K apiece.

It’s fair to ask how can this be when Gulfstream recently announced wagering on live races last year was up 13% to more than a billion and a half dollars?

Simple answer. The Florida Thoroughbred Breeders and Owners Association (FTBOA) and the Florida Horsemen ‘s Benevolent and Protective Association (FHBPA) are in a tinkling war, which essentially boils down to who is going to have the loudest voice in South Florida racing and control the vast amount of dollars gleaned from handle.

The sides are pointing blame at each other but the end result of their circular firing squad is everyone will compete for less than 60% of what they could have.

Keep in mind, both organizations have members who also race at the NYRA tracks and will have a voice in the re-privatization proposal.

Circus closing a warning to Greatest Show on Turf

Most folks probably felt a tinge of sadness at the announcement that the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus is shutting down after 146 years. It might be years since the last time you went to the “greatest show on Earth” but it’s disheartening to see a once cherished piece of Americana die.

The demise of the circus can be traced to several factors. Changing tastes is a big one. If the circus was turned into a video game, kids these days might take interest. Also, the cost of staging a traveling road show has exploded.

Another major factor--the reason I bring it up here--was years of battling animal rights groups, the same hassles horse racing is experiencing. Organizations like the Humane Society and PETA are relentless. It matters not if their allegations are unfounded or outright lies. Feld Entertainment, owner of RBB&B, won a $25 million settlement last May from activists for baseless charges that the circus mistreated its elephants.

Alas, it took 14 years and became a Pyrhhic victory. In the meantime, cities, most notably Los Angeles and Oakland, jumped on the bandwagon and banned elephants and other elements of the circus. To appease them, RBB&B eliminated the elephants, a concession not unlike California thinking it could get PETA off its back by instituting a whip rule. Feld Entertainment said the elimination of the elephants led to the loss of customers, the same effect the whip controls could have on horse racing.

Now, not only the elephants are gone. The entire circus is about to fade into nostalgia.

Over the past few years, animal rights crusaders also have gotten greyhound racing banned almost everywhere but Florida. With decoupling in Florida looking inevitable, they’ll probably soon be able to claim another victory. They still won’t stop. If anything, they will be emboldened. They need villains, real or invented, to keep fund raising going.

I was going to say horse racing could be the next big target but their campaigns have already started. In addition to the whip rule cave-in, there have been pickets at racing’s biggest events the past few years, which always get plenty of media coverage.

Appeasement won’t succeed any more than it does in politics. Situations like the whip rule are almost an admission of wrong-doing. Instead of the losing strategy of giving in incrementally, racing has to mount a vigorous campaign to answer, resist and discredit these organizations or the game could go the way of the circus.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, January 12, 2017

Masochistic BC ban should be the model for drug offenses

The Breeders' Cup has introduced a new penalty for drug violations. They are banning Masochistic from competing in next year's events. This is an idea that deserves wider consideration. If owners knew they would not only lost a purse but also the use of their horse, they would not be so tolerant of cheater trainers.

MIAMI, Jan. 12, 2016--The Breeders’ Cup dropped the anticipated hammer on Ron Ellis and Masochistic this week. For an overage of the steroid stanozolol, the purse for Masochistic’s second in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint has been redistributed and Ellis and Masochistic are both banned from competing at the 2017 Breeders’ Cup.

The punishment, in my opinion, doesn’t fit the crime for Ellis. He has a reputation for running a clean shop with hardly any violations in a long and distinguished career. Moreover, the overage in Masochistic’s system was so minuscule--something like a few trillioniths of a gram--it wouldn’t enhance the performance of an ant carrying a crumb across the floor.

By every indication, this was a case of a permitted out-of-training pharmaceutical not clearing a horse’s system in the time it was supposed to clear.

Also, the Santa Anita stewards—why do they always seem to be at the heart of every controversy?--were aware that Masochistic might not pass his post-race drug test. Nevertheless, they allowed Ellis, who was totally transparent about the situation, to enter him.

Being banished from next year’s Breeders’ Cup is a tough blow for Ellis. He is unlikely to be given any top stock with Breeders’ Cup potential and could lose some already in his barn. As I wrote last week, absolute rules with zero tolerance occasionally produce unjust results. This is another of those instances.

On the other hand, it’s almost karmic justice for Masochistic, who was used in my opinion and that of numerous others, in one of the greatest betting coups ever on Derby Day 2014. A non-competitive fifth in a Cal-bred MSW at Santa Anita at 7-1, he came back in an open MSW at Churchill Downs, was bet off the board on the day when more money is wagered than any other and crushed his rivals by 14.

In assessing this unprecedented penalty against Masochistic, the Breeders’ Cup might have created a paradigm for how to deal with medication violations. In addition to fining and/or suspending trainers, a horse found to have run juiced should be barred from the entries for 60 days. My original inclination was to say 30 days but in this era of overly conservative training, 30 days is coming back quickly for a lot of barns.

A second offense should increase the penalty to six months. Any additional violations should rule the horse off for life. It’s unlikely it would ever get to the latter. Owners who look the other way, wink and smile en route to the winner’s circle might have a different attitude toward their trainer if a positive meant they would not only lose the purse but also use of the horse.

Another mockery of the rules

Irad Ortiz has been spending the past week serving a five-day suspension for an infraction last October at Belmont. As is often the case, he used the appeals process to drag out serving his time until now.

How is there any equivalency between a week in frosty January, when few important races are being run, and what used to be called the Belmont fall championship meet, which is endowed with numerous stakes and huge purses?

Ortiz hit the gaming-the-system lottery when a winter storm knocked out racing both weekend days.

To alleviate exploitations of the appeals process, most of which are frivolous attempts to delay justice, appeals should be heard and ruled upon promptly, within a week or less, and the penalty enforced without delay.

Any rider who pursues his case beyond the stewards and loses should be subject to additional significant penalties. There is precedent for this in the legal system. If you get a traffic infraction and take it to court, the penalties are far more severe than if you plead guilty and pay the fine.

What’s an extra half-furlong?

Racing is a game where a quarter of an inch can be the difference between riches and despair. I recall a controversial circumstance from several years ago at old Gulfstream. It was clear the official timer was off by quite a bit race after race. Sharpies, who time the races themselves, provided ample evidence that it was a consistent problem.

Track officials—not the ones running the show now—felt compelled to call a press conference to deal with the subject. The person in charge of the timer hemmed and hawed about how this wasn’t that big a deal. Pressed on the absurdity of this stand, he finally blurted out. “What difference does 3/5ths of a second make?”

A media wise guy came up with the perfect retort. “It’s the difference between Alydar being a Triple Crown champion instead of Affirmed.”

Flash ahead to the present. The Dania Beach Stakes and its filly counterpart, the Ginger Brew, were each supposedly contested at 7 ½ furlongs on the Gulfstream turf course last Saturday. This is how they were listed. In fact they actually were much closer to one-mile races. So we’re talking about substantially more than 3/5ths of a second.

The run-up last Saturday was 296 feet. For non-math majors, this translates to almost 99 yards longer than the listed distance but only 11 yards short of a one-mile race. This is the case, give or take a few yards, with all 7 ½ furlong turf races at Gulfstream. It would be more accurate to list the distance as about one mile than 7 ½ furlongs.

I’ve asked why this is done and the answer is a head-scratcher. Essentially, some trainers don’t think their horses can handle a mile race. This might seen illogical but if the race was in the books at one mile, there also would be a run-up so horses would have to run further than a mile.

This discrepancy is a disservice to handicappers, especially simulcast players not familiar with the layout of Gulfstream and those who use comparative times.

Ironically, Gulfstream might be the only track in America where one-mile races on the main track are truly contested at a mile, because the eight furlong chute is almost flush with the back of the track. This is why, contrary to the norm for racing everywhere, the second quarter is usually run a second or two faster than the opening quarter.

Those who create their own figs as well as the better known commercial figs guys all compile the actual running time of a race from the moment the gate springs to the finish line and make note of the run-up.

To be fair, this is not a problem peculiar to Gulfstream or to grass courses. It’s one of those “this is how it’s done everywhere and how it always has been done.”

But the run-up varies so widely from day to day that it’s long overdue that either the gate be placed at the precise distance from the wire as listed or the Racing Form parenthetically report the run-up for each event, dirt and turf.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, January 05, 2017

Pegasus stuck on 7 but has only 2 who matter

The Pegasus missed out on a couple of attractive starters when the connections of Midnight Storm opted to keep him in California and Gun Runner became locked into the Fair Grounds by an EHV-1 quarantine. But the big two, California Chrome and Arrogate, are still on target for the Jan. 28 super race. The $12 million stakes might be leaving Gulfstream after one year for the greater capacity of Santa Anita, according to a Stronach Group executive.

MIAMI--A glass just a bit over half full is not almost half empty when it's the Pegasus Stakes. Three weeks out the prospective field is stuck at seven of the available dozen stalls in the starting gate.

The connections of Midnight Storm briefly considered the $12 million race after he dominated Sunday's San Pasqual, which was passed by Arrogate. On second thought, Midnight Storm's people opted for discretion over valor. He'll stay home on the West Coast for the rich races for older horses at Santa Anita.

Gun Runner, who finally got his Grade 1 in the Clark, had his participation in the Pegasus put into doubt when an EHV-1 outbreak at the Fair Grounds closed the New Orleans facility's backstretch to horses coming in and out. The quarantine could be lifted in time for Gun Runner to ship to Gulfstream for the Jan. 28 Pegasus but nothing is certain.

For now, this leaves the seven who have been probable all along, including the only two who matter, presumptive Horse of the Year California Chrome and even more certain 3-year-old champion Arrogate.

Some of the others are not without credentials. Woodward winner Shaman Ghost will represent Gulfstream owner and Pegasus creator Frank Stronach. Keen Ice will live forever on being the horse who upset American Pharoah in the 2015 Travers.

War Story, winner of the recent Queens County, is intriguing more for his connections than his achievements. He switched barns this week from Pennsylvania-based Mario Serey Jr., who has had four recent drug positives (all four horses won). War Story joins the barn of Jorge Navarro, who hit at a 30 percent clip last year and is currently second in the Gulfstream standings despite slumping to only 25 percent this season.

Entry level allowance winner Neolithic and Argentine import Eragon appear to be in the Pegasus because their owners had $1 million slots and there is a guaranteed $200,000 consolation prize.

Pegasus to Santa Anita

The Pegasus' run at Gulfstream might not be an extended one, according to Mike Rogers, president of racing for The Stronach Group. A Thoroughbred Daily News report quoted Rogers as saying Santa Anita, also owned by TSG, is under consideration for the 2018 renewal.

The relative capacity of the two tracks is a factor, according to Rogers. Gulfstream, whose main building is dominated by slots facilities on its first two floors, is strained by crowds approaching 20,000. Santa Anita has handled crowds in excess of 70,000.

The greater capacity on the West Coast might also alleviate the need to price the event as exorbitantly as it has been at Gulfstream. A tipoff to resistance to the $100 general admission and $50 parking fee, where otherwise both are free, is an unheralded drop to $20 for parking in recent ads.

Unless there is a corresponding drop in the cost of admission, the Pegasus might attract a lesser crowd than a normal Saturday and about half a typical Florida Derby Day. This would be too bad for an event of this magnitude.

Jerome gets points, MMM doesn't

Absolute rules can produce absolutely unfair results. The two-turn Jerome on Monday at Aqueduct was worth 10 Kentucky Derby qualifying points to El Areeb, who romped over a suspect field by more than 11 lengths.

In addition to putting the winner on the Derby trail, the result casts some doubt on the magnitude of Mo Town's victory in the Remsen. The late-season juvenile stakes has produced a succession of highly touted winners, including Mohaymen last year, who have been busts in the spring classics.

Mo Town can't be faulted for who he beat but Takaful, who pushed him in the Remsen, had nothing in the Jerome. He spit it out three furlongs from the wire.

Meanwhile this Saturday's Mucho Macho Man at Gulfstream, which generally attracts a more promising group of Derby hopefuls, is endowed with zero Derby points because it is a one-turn mile and one-turn races are not eligible for qualifying points.

This might as well be called the anti-Gulfstream rule, since the South Florida track is the only winter venue that offers one-turn miles.

New year, old issue

The debate over decoupling will be a major topic of conversation in Florida the first third of the year. (The Florida legislature meets in March and April.)

Dog tracks and jai alai frontons continue to push hard for permission to maintain poker and slots without pari-mutuels. Some form of decoupling seems inevitable. It's mandatory that horsemen and their representatives keep a close eye on any forthcoming legislation.

A plan almost got through last year, which would have excluded Gulfstream and Tampa Bay Downs from decoupling and paid horsemen and the two tracks millions in subsidies for operations and purses. This is a good starting point but there must be a perpetuity provision for the two thoroughbred tracks, so Gulfstream and/or Tampa can't go back to the legislature in a few years asking for equal treatment with the former dog tracks and jai alai frontons.

Beware Genting

Gulfstream horsemen also need to keep a wary eye on Genting's new association with the South Florida track's casino. This is the same outfit that is royally screwing horsemen at Aqueduct by moving the most lucrative slots off the books from which horsemen benefit and putting them on the Nassau County OTB account.

There is a connection to decoupling. Genting has proven itself to have no affection for horse racing. It's not hard to imagine Genting advising Gulfstream to renovate the building to open more slots space at the expense of the already limited space for racing fans. An opening created by decoupling would only increase the likelihood of this occurring, not immediately but eventually.

Written by Tom Jicha

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