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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Thursday, July 28, 2016

Forget the Alabama, Songbird belongs in the Travers

Songbird's romp in the Coaching Club American Oaks, dominating the best fillies in the East, established beyond any argument that she is the best female of her generation. The only thing left for her to prove is she is the best of her generation of either gender by running in the Travers on Aug. 27 instead of the Alabama on Aug. 20.

MIAMI,July 28, 2016--Fox Hills Farm and Jerry Hollendorfer have guided super filly Songbird masterfully through nine consecutive victories. They’ve kept her out West, letting her beat up on outclassed, mostly short fields seven times.

They traveled east for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies at Keeneland to establish she’s not just a regional sensation—not to mention Beholder by name--and again this past Sunday to Saratoga for the Coaching Club American Oaks, where she swatted away Carina Mia as if the best in the East was a pesky fly in her stall.

It’s time to step up and allow Songbird to prove that her greatness transcends gender. There is nothing to be gained prestige-wise in winning the Alabama, her next target, where the competition might not be as tough as it was in the CCAO.

The Travers beckons.

Songbird’s connections have been steadfast in resisting the urge to run her against colts. They were adamant that she would not run in the Triple Crown races even though her winter and spring triumphs were superior to those of the colts.

Fox Hills owner Rick Porter had a defensible rationale. To run in the Kentucky Derby, she would have had to get qualifying points against colts in a race like the Santa Anita Derby. Then if she won the Run for the Roses, the pressure to go on to the Preakness would have been immense. After an encore in Baltimore, how could Songbird be denied a chance to become the first filly to sweep the Triple Crown?

The only way the pressure would have dissipated was if Songbird lost one along the way. Porter didn’t want to contemplate that. Why should he have?

The gauntlet of four straight gut-wrenching races against colts could have been so debilitating who knows what kind of a filly would have been left. As it turns out, a minor hiccup, which knocked her out of the Kentucky Oaks, would have put an end to her Triple Crown campaign anyway.

That was then. Now is different. There are no compelling reasons not to take a shot at the Travers. Songbird already is at the Spa and her first start over the tricky surface not every horse handles, which she bounced out of beautifully, should make her even tougher for her next one.

It’s laudable that Porter and Hollendorfer say they are trying to preserve Songbird for a campaign at 4 and maybe 5. But who’s to say she will be the brilliant filly she is now?

Woody Stephens’ mantra was, “Run them when they are good.” Fillies have a tendency to inexplicably go sour. The latest example is Grade 1 winner Rachel’s Valentina, who suffered her first defeat while running second to Songbird at the Breeders’ Cup. She began her sophomore season with a solid second in the Ashland but then ran sixth and fifth in the Kentucky Oaks and Acorn.
This past week she was retired “sound and injury free.” If you accept this, the only explanation is she has lost her will to compete.

The same thing happened with Untappable. Invincible against fillies as a 3-year-old, a campaign culminated with a victory in the BC Distaff, she had no spark as a 4-year-old and 5-year-old. She won one of nine starts. In many of her defeats, she would range up to the leader as if she was going to cruise on by just like old times. But she never did. She, too, was retired this season.

Perhaps the most disconcerting example was Lady’s Secret. The multiple Grade 1 winner and Horse of the Year, beat the boys in the ’86 Whitney on her way to winning that season’s BC Distaff. The following season, she just refused to run in a 1987 Saratoga allowance race she had at her mercy. That was enough for Eugene Klein and D. Wayne Lukas to recognize it was time to send her to the breeding shed.

Also not to be forgotten is the Life At Ten mystery. A multiple Grade 1 winner, she decided at the 2010 Breeders’ Cup that she didn’t want to run, igniting a minor scandal.

So you never know with fillies.

There are other reasons for Songbird to skip the Alabama for the Travers. She would get an extra week’s rest. The Alabama goes Aug. 20. The Travers is seven days later. The money is more than double, too. The Alabama purse is $600k. The Travers hangs $1.25 million on the wire.

Distance is not an issue. Songbird has never been a mile and a quarter but she handled her first attempt at nine furlongs as if another 220 yards will not be an issue. Besides, the Alabama is a mile and a quarter, too.

The myth of colts being superior has been disproven repeatedly. Rachel Alexandra vanquished males three times, the first of them in the Preakness. Zenyatta won a Breeders’ Cup Classic and came up one stride short of repeating. Beholder demolished the best males in the West in last summer’s Pacific Classic. Fox Hill Farm’s own Havre de Grace won the Woodward at the Spa.

On the turf, Tepin put down males in last season’s BC Turf Mile, a race won three times by Goldikova and twice by Miesque. Catch a Glimpse beat colts in this year’s Penn Mile.

Songbird has already done enough to earn her plaque in the Hall of Fame. From here on out, it’s all about her place among the all-timers. The Alabama would do little to bolster her legacy. The Travers, which hasn’t been won by a filly in 101 years, would.

A birthday to take note of

About 100 trainers will start a horse at Saratoga this summer. Some will do it on their birthday. None will get the attention Bill Mott will on Friday.

July 29 is Mott’s 63rd birthday and he has an extraordinary record of celebrating his big day by sending out winners. He ran his streak to seven years straight and 15-of-19 years in 2013.

His birthday fell on a dark Tuesday in 2014. Mott failed to win in 2015 but when I asked him about it, he genially pointed out that he had only one starter. He is very aware of the streak and the following it has generated.

So give a close look to Danny’s Rush in Friday’s sixth and Dancing Duchess in the eighth.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, July 21, 2016

Delaware ‘Cap is Bayern redux

Another big race has ended in controversy over an objection/claim of foul. I'm a Chatterbox did essentially the same thing in last Saturday's Delaware Handicap that Bayern did in the 2014 Breeders' Cup Classic. She took out three horses by breaking inward. The stewards left the result "as is." This was as wrong Saturday as it was in 2014. DQ's and non-DQ's continue to be a source of controversy, which harm trust in the integrity of the sport. Something has to be done.

MIAMI, July 21, 2016--Instant replay has destroyed the enjoyment of sports. Introduced by the NFL to “get it right” on potentially game-changing erroneous calls, it has devolved into a parody of itself. Interminable delays while deciding whether a receiver’s loose shoelace touched the white boundary on a three-yard pass in the middle of the field in the first quarter have become commonplace. Whatever became of the 90-second time limit?

Instant replay has now infected the NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball. Its use in the latter has become as abused as it is in football. Even announcers concede that managers sometimes take a shot because they have nothing to lose. Meanwhile a game, whose hierarchy acknowledges it runs too long, grinds to a halt.

The one sport in which replays have been not only useful but essential in making decisions is horse racing. But I’m beginning to have my doubts about that.

Perhaps the worst call ever made, given the magnitude of the event, was Bayern not being disqualified in the 2014 Breeders’ Cup. The Blood Horse, a superb source of racing information but not renowned for its hard-hitting commentaries, described what happened thusly: “Bayern mugged Shared Belief shortly after the start of the $5 million Longines Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. 1) and got away with it…”

Saturday’s Delaware Handicap was Bayern redux. I’m a Chatterbox, starting from post four, broke inward then continued heading left, “mugging” the three horses inside her and she got away with it, too.

These kinds of calls and no-calls happen all the time. Thankfully, they attract widespread notice only when a major race or a jackpot carryover is involved. But each time they do, the comments made by horse players suggest they broaden suspicions about the game.

One fan this week suggested the Delaware decision would have been different if I’m a Chatterbox wasn’t trained by Delaware stalwart Larry Jones. It was also noted in 2014 that Bayern was trained by Bob Baffert, the pride of Santa Anita. A questionable call at Gulfstream last year generated numerous complaints that the stewards--a majority of whom are Gulfstream employees--were protecting the Rainbow Six jackpot.

Racing has enough suspicion, a lot of it unfounded. It doesn’t need this.

A reasonable alternative is to adopt the strategy used in the professional sports leagues. Have a group of officials or former officials in a central location, not affiliated with any track or social buddies with the people they are ruling on, adjudicate possible fouls. At least there is a chance there would be more consistency in what is and isn’t an infraction.

If the Delaware stewards could look at replays of the track's showcase race and conclude that there was no interference, serious interference, then we might as well adopt the greyhound racing system that whoever crosses the finish line first is the winner. I exaggerate, of course, but only a little.

Crist will be missed

Racing is the poorer for the retirement of Steven Crist. In many ways, it will have a more enduring impact than the retirement of a star horse. Champions come and go. Steve has been one of the sport's and its fans' greatest champion for decades.

He is one of the most literate, insightful, analytical journalists ever to cover the game. His unique and highly successful way of attacking multiple race wagers earned him Harvey Pack’s acclamation as “The King of the Pick Six.”

He also is a really good guy, who despite his status as one of the best of the best, always had time to talk racing.

Steve belongs in the pantheon of other giants of his profession, such as Joe Hirsch and Red Smith. They both have major stakes named for them. NYRA should get busy immediately trying to identify a race worthy of Steve’s name. Ideally, it should be at Saratoga, which he made more interesting and entertaining for years with his daily blogs.

There would have to be a caveat. No matter how small the field, it could never be taken out of the Pick Six.

Human faces on the game

John Pricci pointed out in his recent column that the mano y mano between 12-time Saratoga training champion Todd Pletcher and Chad Brown, runnerup the past five seasons, will be an avidly followed story this summer. A win by Brown could go a long way toward propelling him to his first Eclipse Award, which he openly covets.

Racing is always looking for ways to put human faces on the game. The relatively compact Saratoga season is the perfect meeting to serve as a trend-setter. NYRA has taken a positive step in labeling this competition the H. Allen Jerkens championship. Now it should relentlessly publicize the competition,including updates by Larry Collmus every time either wins a race. If some other trainer pushes into the title race, include his stats and ranking, too. Releases should be dispensed to the media on a daily basis.

Hopefully, it wouldn’t take long before the public would catch on and begin to pick sides. Anything that could generate additional debate and conversation has to be good for the game.

None of this would cost a dime, so there’s no reason not to give it a shot.

Lighten dark Monday

Gulfstream is missing an opportunity, has been since it became a summer track.

During the Saratoga meeting, the Miami-area track should revise its weekly agenda to drop Thursday and replace it with Monday.

Saratoga is the only major track in the country that races six days a week, including usually dark Monday. The Spa attracts a huge simulcast handle. It also allows a half-hour to 35 minutes between races, so horse players nationwide look for something to bet during the lulls. Gulfstream would be a far more appealing option than Delaware and Parx, the major Monday tracks.

It seems beyond debate that Gulfstream would generate more simulcast handle on Saratoga Mondays than it does on Thursdays. It’s probably too late to revise the Gulfstream schedule this year but it is something that should be looked at for the coming years.

Where are DD will pays?

Something was missing from the Del Mar on-screen tote last Saturday. Daily double will pays were absent. The column where they had appeared was used for exacta reverse prices, which would have come up in the sequence in any case.

Knowing who is being bet is essential information, especially for races like last Saturday's sixth when six of the nine entrants were first-time starters. For a track that has rolling daily doubles, omitting it is inexcusable and unacceptable.

(I monitored Friday and Sunday on TVG, so I can’t speak of those days, although I have no reason to doubt it was different. If it was, let me and readers know in the comments section.)

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, July 14, 2016

Del Mar and Saratoga are racing’s most wonderful time of the year

Looking to find that longshot that will change your life with a longshot Kentucky Derby future books wager? Pay attention to the 2-year-old races at Del Mar and Saratoga. In spite of the theory that the most promising Classics hopefuls are beginning their careers later, the five most recent winners of the Derby have run in the summer of their juvenile seasons at either Del Mar or Saratoga. This is only one of many reasons why the upcoming glamour meetings are a highlight of every racing season.

MIAMI, July 14--Want a first look at next spring’s Kentucky Derby winner? Keep a close eye on the juvenile races at Del Mar, which opens Friday, and Saratoga, whose season launches one week later.

Conventional wisdom is the most highly regarded young horses are starting their careers later and later, some not until they are 3-year-olds. As often is the case, the conventional wisdom doesn’t hold up under scrutiny.

The five most recent winners of the Run for the Roses, six of the past seven and seven of the past nine have run at one of the two glamour summer meetings.

Del Mar is on a three-year roll. Nyquist won last season’s Best Pal Stakes then doubled down in the Del Mar Futurity. American Pharoah was fifth in his career debut but Bob Baffert had enough faith in his future Triple Crown winner to run him back as a maiden in the Futurity where he crushed the field. California Chrome won the Graduation Stakes then ran sixth in the Futurity.

Saratoga was the summer place to be for future Kentucky Derby winners the previous two years. Orb ran third in his debut in an MSW. I’ll Have Another ran at both Del Mar and Saratoga. After a second in the Best Pal out west he shipped east for the 2011 Hopeful, where he looked nothing like a future double Classic winner, running sixth.

Animal Kingdom interrupted the streak going backwards. He didn’t make his debut until September 2010 at Arlington, only a few weeks after the Del Mar and Saratoga meetings ended. This does little to bolster the argument that the good ones are starting much later. Animal Kingdom is the exception to another streak I pointed out during Triple Crown season. Every Kentucky Derby winner since Animal Kingdom has entered the Churchill Downs starting gate undefeated as a 3-year-old. Animal Kingdom ran second in a Gulfstream turf race.

Super Saver, who would win the 2010 Derby, ran second in a Spa MSW in 2009.

It’s mandatory to keep an eye on all juvenile races. Big Brown, the 2008 Derby winner broke his maiden in a juvenile turf race at the Spa.

The opportunities to catch the stars of tomorrow add to the allure of the premier summer meetings but there are myriad other reasons to anticipate Saratoga and Del Mar like a kid waits for Christmas.

The most exciting horses in training are expected to be in action. Songbird is coming East to put her unbeaten record on the line in the Coaching Club American Oaks on July 24 and perhaps the Alabama four weeks later. Waiting for her on at least the first of those occasions is the streaking Carina Mia, who devastated her opposition in the Acorn after doing the same in the Eight Belles on Derby Day.

The connections of super turf mare Tepin are targeting the flat mile Fourstardave on Aug. 13 for her return to U.S. racing after showing the Euros how its done at Royal Ascot. The Spa's turf course might be as much a challenge as her male opposition. She came up short in both starts at the Spa last summer. Elsewhere she has not lost in two years, winning 10 in a row on both sides of the Atlantic.

It would be great if Tepin wound up in the same starting gate as Flintshire but the French import, who is undefeated in two Grade 1 starts in the U.S., is pointing toward a defense of his title in the $1 million Sword Dancer on the Travers undercard. The mile and a half distance is more suited to the Euro.

Out west another extraordinary filly, three-times Eclipse winner Beholder, is probable for the Clement Hirsch on July 30. But the race everyone is anticipating is her potential faceoff against California Chrome in the Pacific Classic on Aug. 20. Beholder is the defending champion. She demolished the boys last year. This year she faces The Man.

The 2014 Kentucky Derby winner is expected to tune up in the San Diego Handicap on July 23. This is a strange decision given the mercenary proclivities of Team Chrome. NYRA reportedly offered to kick up the purse for the Whitney on Aug. 6 from $1.25 million to $1.5 million, more than the San Diego and Pacific combined, if California Chrome showed up.

If the Beholder-California Chrome showdown comes to pass, Del Mar could have its biggest day since Cigar brought his 16-race winning streak to town in 1996 (and was upset).

Del Mar might have gotten this year’s Derby winner Nyquist but for an enduring glaring hole in its stakes schedule. There isn’t a race of any significance for 3-year-olds on dirt. Almost all the sophomore stakes are on grass.

There’s no gender discrimination where the surf meets the turf. Major dirt stakes for 3-year-old fillies are also among the missing.These are inexplicable and inexcusable omissions for one of the two ranking tracks of summer.

California’s loss is the East Coast’s gain. Nyquist is scheduled to make his return from the Preakness, where he suffered his first career defeat, in Monmouth’s Haskell on July 31. The hope is if all goes well, he’ll encore in the Travers on Aug. 27.

The Travers is the focal point for Belmont Stakes champion Creator, who’ll prep in the Jim Dandy on July 30. Preakness winner and Derby runnerup Exaggerator is also a possibility, setting up the possibility of a rubber match among the winners of the Triple Crown races.

The only thing better would be if Songbird detoured into the Travers. But her owners seem adamant about not putting her in against colts this year.

Oh well, racing fans can’t get everything they want. But Saratoga and Del Mar come close.

Written by Tom Jicha

Comments (13)


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