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, December 24, 2015

Big horses create little Eclipse suspense

Merry Christmas! A ritual for racing writers right around the holidays is the arrival of the Eclipse ballots. Thanks to American Pharoah and some other special horses, identifying the best of the best was a sprint rather than a marathon. Meanwhile, NYRA will wait until the day after Christmas to spring what likely will be the first of many unpleasant surprises on its fans.

MIAMI, Dec. 24, 2015--The Democratic Party presidential nominating process has more suspense than the top of the Eclipse Awards. Hillary Clinton might be a virtual certainty to represent the Dems but American Pharoah is an absolute lock to be Horse of the Year.

Team American Pharoah is going to be called to the Eclipse podium so often on Jan. 16 at Gulfstream Park that TVG ought to ask that their table be moved to the stage to save the walk-up time.

The Eclipse ballots arrived this week and if the Horse of the Year vote isn’t unanimous, those who don’t write down the first Triple Crown winner in 38 years ought to lose their vote. This would be such an act of irresponsibility, the Eclipse vote should no longer be entrusted to any such person.

The 3-year-old title is another formality.

Ahmed Zayat also is odds-on for the owner’s Eclipse for his decision to expose American Pharoah to his adoring fans as much as possible.

Bob Baffert is a short price, too, as outstanding trainer. It should not be overlooked that he had to nurse American Pharoah back from an injury, which prematurely ended his juvenile season. Baffert exhibited extreme patience in waiting until mid-March before putting American Pharoah on the Triple Crown trail.

Baffert didn’t really want to go to the Travers but he acceded to Zayat. Some felt American Pharoah was over the top when Keen Ice nailed him in the final strides. However, Baffert saved the best for last. American Pharoah’s Breeders’ Cup Classic, his first try against older horses, might have been his most impressive race of all. It was by far his fastest, according to the Beyer Figs.

I’ll jump off the American Pharoah bandwagon when it comes to outstanding jockey. Victor Espinoza did a superb job steering and not falling off American Pharoah. Otherwise, Espinoza wound up only sixth in purse money and unless he goes nuts the first week of Santa Anita, he won’t make 100 wins. “The Dancing With the Stars” sabbatical didn’t help.

Javier Castellano won almost four times as many races and twice as much money. He gets my vote.

Some other major categories also are cut and dried. If someone offered me a free $100 Kentucky Derby futures bet, I’d put the money on Remsen winner Mohaymen. However, there’s no denying Nyquist the Juvenile Eclipse. He is undefeated in five starts, three Grade 1’s, one of them the nominal championship race, the BC Juvenile.

Songbird is at one level and everyone else is several levels below in the Juvenile Fillies division. No one has been able to warm her up in four starts, three Grade 1’s, including the BC Juvenile Fillies. Her dominance and flair was such that if there was no American Pharoah, a case could be made for her as Horse of the Year.

The older filly or mare category is another slam dunk although it bothers me that Beholder will take home her third Eclipse without ever winning a race outside Southern California. With the Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita in 2016, she could make it a four-bagger without crossing the Rockies. Maybe she’ll stay healthy and, with home court advantage, take on the boys in the Classic.

The 3-year-old filly category is as tough as the previous ones mentioned are easy. Lovely Maria won the big one, the Kentucky Oaks, then failed to hit the board in three subsequent starts. I’m a Chatterbox was solid from January through September but went south at the Breeders’ Cup. Stellar Wind‘s only poor race was in the Oaks when she was stuck out in the 12 post. She fired big at the Breeders’ Cup, just missing against the crack older mare Stopchargingmaria. She gets my vote.

The new best Older Male Dirt Horse category is a closer call than many are making it out to be. It will probably be settled by a neck, the margin Honor Code had over Liam’s Map in the Whitney. Both won three times with a pair of Grade 1’s. Liam’s Map did it from four starts. It took Honor Code six. Liam’s Map also won a Breeders’ Cup race, the Dirt Mile, while Honor Code ran third in the Classic, a tougher assignment. I think Liam's Map was the better horse but if opinions were results, we'd all cash every race. I'll honor what took place on the track in the Whitney and go with Honor Code.

Tonalist is expected to be third on many ballots. Not mine. I’m backing the late Shared Belief, who I still believe was the best older horse in the nation, maybe the world. His San Antonio vanquishing of California Chrome then his demolishment of the field in the Big Cap are all the justification I need.

We’ve been spoiled the past few years in the Male Turf division with Wise Dan and Main Sequence. This is a year for settling for an accomplished horse, Big Blue Kitten, who always showed up, but didn’t set any pulses to racing. He won three, two Grade 1’s, and hit the board in all six starts.

The filly and mare counterpart comes down to two main contenders, Stephanie’s Kitten and Tepin. Both won Breeders’ Cup events but Tepin’s was against males and she was five-for-seven to the Kitten’s three-for-six. That’s enough for Tepin to merit the gold.

I absolutely refuse to vote for a one-start Euro in any category. This is why Found will not be found on my ballot and I also omitted Flintshire, whose Sword Dancer was arguably the year’s most impressive race by a male turfer. If we judged all categories on one big race, Keen Ice could be the 3-year-old champion.

The Eclipse Awards has asked voters to wait for the outcome of the Malibu and LaBrea this Saturday before casting ballots for Male and Female Sprinter. I’ll honor that request even though it would take something extraordinary happening to get me off Runhappy and Cavorting.

I wouldn’t raise my voice in protest if the Female Sprinter Eclipse was eliminated.

Ominous portents at NYRA

NYRA boss Christopher Kay, taking a victory lap for showing a profit in 2015, promised NYRA would be even more profitable in 2016. Early indications are he plans to accomplish this not off improved attendance and handle but on the backs of fans.

NYRA has already announced programs will be kicked up a dollar. Kay also said there will be further price increases for Belmont Stakes Day. (Someone should tell him there won’t be a Triple Crown possibility every year. Absent that, 90,000 becomes 60,000—if the weather is good.)

The latest soak-the-fans ploy is an avaricious disgrace that I would bet will be counter-productive.

For years, free racing calendars have been an enticement to fans to come to the races during the holidays. Santa Anita gives away calendars on Dec. 26, the start of its winter season. Gulfstream distributed the 2016 model on Dec. 5, opening day of its championship season.

This year, NYRA is charging $3 for the calendar on Saturday, $5 every day thereafter...while the supply lasts. So calendars should still be available on opening day at the Spa.

Written by Tom Jicha

Comments (4)


Thursday, December 17, 2015

Once upon a time, stewards looked out for fans

It's amazing racing survives the people running it. Last Saturday, a late change of riders, which never should have been allowed, was rubber-stamped by the stewards and not announced to the public until after some multi-race wagers had closed. At the annual racing convention last week in Arizona, racing's honchos thought the best idea presented to them was a game in which handicapping, the element that separates racing from lotteries and slots, is totally irrelevant.

MIAMI, Dec. 17-2015--This happened at Hialeah some years ago. Because of the passage of time, I can’t positively identify the people involved. However, as what’s left of my memory serves, it was Walter Blum, retired jockey turned steward, and Jose Santos, then as dominant a jockey as Javier Castellano is today.

It was just before the last race on a Saturday. There were no pick 3’s, 4’s or 6’s in those days, just a late daily double. In the few minutes between the feature, the first half of the double, and the horses being saddled for the finale, it was announced over the public address system that there would be a change of jockeys. A 10-pound bug boy on the program was being replaced by Santos.

Blum, in the media area of the press box between races, heard the announcement and exclaimed, “Like hell.”

Putting the fans first—this really used to happen--he went back to the stewards room, got the trainer on the phone and told him, “Either the kid rides the horse or I’ll scratch him.”

Blum was admirably fan-friendly in another way. Frustrated that Hialeah’s John Brunetti routinely had the start of races dragged ridiculously past the listed post, Blum sent a message. He ordered the betting windows locked. The problem didn’t go away completely but it got a lot better.

Fast forward to last Saturday at Gulfstream. One of the first things I learned as a cub reporter was you can never count on your reader having read yesterday’s paper. So I’ll briefly recap what JP detailed the other day. Matthew Rispoli was listed on the overnight and the program as the rider of Valid in the Harlan’s Holiday Stakes. Sometime before “riders up,” Rispoli--ready, willing and able to ride--was bumped off the horse for Castellano.

JP said he first heard the announcement just before the race. He quoted Caton Bredar saying the same thing on TVG. I was en route to the paddock, so I didn't hear it at all. In other words, the public was alerted to the change long after betting on the final pick 3, 4 and 5 and Rainbow Six had closed.

This wasn’t exactly the same as the long ago situation at Hialeah. Rispoli is not a 10-pound bug. He’s a competent young rider, who won a stakes the last time he rode Valid. But he’s no Castellano, who has dominated Gulfstream the past three or four seasons like no rider since maybe Pat Day in Kentucky.

I’m not suggesting there was any betting coup or anything untoward as it relates to the race. Valid was the deserved morning line favorite and might have won with any rider in the room. His connections can’t be blamed for getting the leading rider. If I owned the horse and had a choice between Rispoli and Castellano, I would have done the same thing. But they shouldn’t have been allowed to make the change so late in the game.

This was another reason for fans to feel screwed, that they have no chance against the insiders. No amount of promotion or marketing dollars can undo the damage of those feelings.

‘Swopstakes’? Really?

Tis the season to be jolly, so I apologize for being so cranky.

However, an avalanche of recent developments, including the Valid rider switch, makes those of us who champion racing want to throw up our hands and ask, “Why bother?”

Few things could convene a coalition of such disparate figures as Andy Asaro, JP, myself and resident curmudgeon WMC on the same side. One is that racing’s greatest asset and strongest marketing tool is a player can use his brain to control his success to some extent. This is what keeps me coming back.

This apparently is lost to the hierarchy of the sport. A $15,000 first prize was offered for new and innovative ideas at the annual Racing and Gaming Symposium in Arizona last week. Eighty-nine entries were submitted from around the world.

A concept dubbed “Swopstakes” from an Australian company—hence the strange spelling-- took home the prize. Swopstakes has nothing to do with handicapping. It is pure luck, in essence a different type of lottery game. To me, the description makes it sound like the old NBC show “Deal or No Deal.”

The way it was presented, Swopstakes involves selling millions of lottery-like tickets, with the outcome decided by the results of a series of horse races. This is the only connection it appears to have with racing, although picking numbers out of a hat could serve the same end.

Using round numbers for convenience sake, a six-race sequence of 10-horse fields would produce one million distinct combinations, if my math is correct. It’s essential that every ticket has to be sold, since there would be only one possible winning combination. I have seen reports that the takeout could be as high as 30 percent.

The twist that makes Swopstakes unique is players would have the ability to buy and sell live tickets as the sequence progressed. Someone who had a ticket with, say, the first three races correct could offer it for sale to the highest bidder. This would continue right through post-time for the final leg.

The logistics are not unprecedented. Back in the early days of the pick 4, then known at New York harness tracks as the Twin Double, a ticket with the winners of the first two legs had to be exchanged for a new ticket for the final two legs. There was bartering galore by the mutual bays—all of it illegal—as players sought to obtain the number of exchange tickets they felt they needed to hit the bet. The higher the payoffs on legs one and two, the more those exchange tickets were worth.

The critical difference between the Twin Double and Swopstakes is handicapping was the key element of nailing the harness race bet. Swopstakes is pure luck.

Another difference with Swopstakes is the marketplace would reopen after each race through post time for the final leg. Also, the sale of tickets would not only be legal, it would be encouraged.

Prices of the Swopstakes winners wouldn’t matter, since there would be only one grand prize winner whether six odds-on favorites or six 100-1 shots won. Handicapping, the element that separates racing from lotteries and slots, would be irrelevant.

What happens if not every combination is sold? Do we hold up post-times until a sellout is achieved? Granted, this wouldn’t be far removed from what tracks do when they don’t hit megabucks guarantees for multi-race wagers.

Time between races would almost surely have to be extended to allow for the buying and selling. To accommodate what amounts to lottery players, tracks would alienate horse players, who come to handicap, bet and watch the races.

Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of dollars, which might have gone through the pari-mutuel windows, will be tied up with no churn. Like the pick six, the jackpots would likely be scooped up by syndicates. The little guys would have to be content with whatever they could negotiate for live tickets along the way.

From all the ideas from all over the world, racing’s honchos thought this was the grand prize winner.

Why do we bother?

Written by Tom Jicha

Comments (31)


Thursday, December 10, 2015

Racing invites new ideas but probably will ignore them

A program at this year's racing convention in Arizona invited people involved in the game to contribute 45 ideas in 45 minutes. The limited time frame allotted is likely indicative of the attention the suggestions are likely to get from racing's powers-that-be. But suggestions were made that deserve serious scrutiny. The guess is HRI readers also have some of their own.

MIAMI, Dec. 10, 2015--The racing industry came up with a novel idea for its annual convention in Arlzona, a gathering notable for the lack of novel ideas it has produced over the years.

Five people from various facets of racing were challenged to come up with nine ideas apiece. The panel included Steve Byk of radio’s “At the Races”; Darryl Kaplan of “Trot” magazine; Steve Koch, executive director of the TRA Safety and Integrity Alliance; Peter Rotondo, vice president of media and entertainment for the Breeders’ Cup; and Amy Zimmerman, director of broadcasting for The Stronach Group.

Do you notice a glaring absence? None of these people primarily speaks for the fan. Where was a representative of HANA? How about Andy Asaro? Or John Pricci? My guess is the swells didn’t want to hear their ideas.

That this was primarily public relations theater, which based on past performance was going to be paid little heed, can be gleaned from the session’s title, “45 Ideas in 45 Minutes.”

If a panelist had, hypothetically speaking, come up with an idea so brilliant it would propel horse racing past the National Football League in popularity, it was still going to get 60 seconds, the same allotment as the suggestion that racing bid to be included in the Olympic Games.

Not all the ideas were new, which doesn’t mean they don’t warrant further discussion. Byk brought up uniform reporting of payoffs (50 cents, $1 and $2, depending on the wager). JP and I have been championing this for years.

When I heard about this exercise, I composed a list of some of my own ideas before I read the ones offered to see how my thinking coincides with those invited to speak. So there is some duplication.

Near the top of my roster is one that feeds off the uniform payoff reports. Fractional betting has proven its popularity beyond dispute. The $1 Pick 6 at the Breeders’ Cup substantially outhandled last year’s $2 minimum. Fifty-cent pick 4’s at NYRA tracks outhandle $2 Pick 6’s. With most betting now being done via self automated machines and computers, there is no reason to continue to enforce arbitrary minimums.There also is no longer a defense for breakage.

Uniformity among tracks is a must if for no other reason than to alleviate confusion among simulcast bettors. What explanation can there be for Frank Stronach’s Laurel to offer 50-cent pick 3’s but not to extend this to Stronach’s Gulfstream and Santa Anita, where $1 is the minimum. Also, $1 daily doubles can be made at Laurel and Gulfstream but not at Santa Anita. I'd love to hear the explanation.

I’m also in accord with a suggestion from Koch. He brought up the idea of a centralized group of officials, who would rule on inquiries and objections from around the nation. Hiring people with vast experience in racing would take it out of the hands of what are at many venues political hacks or friends of track management.

The NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball have such a system in place, but what do they know?

Despite the “let’s get it right” justification in team sports, those making the decisions still err on occasion. So bad calls would still occur but hopefully less frequently. If nothing else, this would remove cries that decisions at the local level are made to create or protect jackpot payoffs.

Zimmerman came out in favor of extending this to full transparency, allowing cameras into the stewards stand while potential disqualifications are being deliberated. This is another one that was on my list.

If I had been asked, I also would have suggested:

Curtailing (or ideally ending) rebates by raising the simulcasting rate for facilities with no connections to a race track, essentially internet sites, to a level where it is not fiscally viable to offer kickbacks. Lots of businesses offer better deals to big customers but these discounts do not directly come out of the pockets of the general public. When the rebate guys punch a horse down from 2-1 to even money, because their klckback compensates for the lower price, the $2 player gets screwed of half his profit.

This also would curtail the suspicion that computer players are able to bet after the gate has been sprung. Tracks are adamant this is not the case. They would have been just as adamant before the Breeders’ Cup Fix Six scandal.

You would have to be Social Security age—alas, many players are--to remember an old supermarket game in which people could win money or prizes matching tickets based on old races shown on TV once a week. Bring it back. Self interest is a great motivator to get people interested in racing.

Some might find the sport so exciting that they would visit a track for the real thing. Along these lines, tickets should be redeemable for admission, parking, a program or some other perk at the local track.

An innovation at Saratoga last summer, a low buy-in handicapping contest, should be widely imitated. This gives people with limited disposable income a chance to experience the thrill of the big money tournaments.

If attracting a younger demographic and newcomers to the game is a serious goal, a day at the races has to be made more affordable. Every time a track offers dollar sodas, hot dog and beers, attendance swells. Apparently nothing is learned.

A buck might be too low to generate satisfactory revenue but $3 beers and $2 sodas and hot dogs would still produce nice profits. Why is it tracks can’t understand that they will make more money selling a customer three beers at $3 apiece or two hot dogs at $2 than selling none of either at $6 each? Perceived value is crucial in marketing. (Gulfstream has $2 beers at certain bars and it must be doing well because it has endured season to season.)

In a related issue, something has to be done about the Racing Form now costing more than $10, depending on where and when it is purchased. I’ve unfortunately been involved in the closing of a couple of newspapers, so I understand the financial challenges print publications face. But $10 is a killer.

The less expensive Equibase program is a step in the right direction but the way the game is played now, with simulcasting from all over, a lot of players need two or even three of these. This wipes out any savings.

Las Vegas racebooks have a no-frills “Players Edition,” with only past performances, for a $5 cover price. I’m sure the race books subsidize this but if they can do it, so can tracks, especially those with casinos attached.

Another lesson to be learned from casinos is reduced takeout keeps people in the game longer. Except for the hardcore, racing fans are seeking entertainment and fun. The longer they get to play, the more likely they are to return. Unfortunately, this is probably a non-starter until rebates are ended.

Horse Race Insider readers regularly impress with their contributions in the comments section. Surely some of you have ideas of your own. The floor is open.

Written by Tom Jicha

Comments (18)


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