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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Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Results don’t count in Derby polls

Kentucky Derby polls are ubiquitous this time of year. But the weekly rankings often make it seem that the results on the race track don't matter. (In late news, a spike has been driven through the heart of synthetic race tracks.)
MIAMI, Feb. 19, 2014--Polls are an American obsession. People love to be asked their opinions and avidly follow the results. Thoroughbred racing isn’t exempt. But sometimes you have to question their usefulness, to say nothing of their wisdom.

At this stage of the prep season, it’s pointless to attach any significance to Kentucky Derby polls for two big reasons: Shared Belief and Honor Code. Each has had minor physical issues, which have delayed their season debuts, although they are still on track to jump onto the Derby Trail. Until they do, or drop out, it’s impossible to gauge where the rest of the generation stands.

Shared Belief earned the Juvenile Eclipse with breath-taking performances in the Hollywood Prevue and Cash Call Futurity. Since then those races have gained luster.

In the Prevue, Shared Belief buried Kobe’s Back by almost eight lengths. This past Sunday, Kobe’s Back rejoined the Derby picture by winning the San Vicente by more than five.

In the Futurity, Shared Belief allowed Candy Boy to get first run on him, then reeled him in and ran away from him like a man competing against a boy. Candy Boy rebounded to capture the Robert B. Lewis so impressively that those with short memories are calling him the best in the West.

In fact, in the latest Courier-Journal poll, Candy Boy is ranked fourth, five places better than Shared Belief.

Honor Code came to Florida as the de facto leader of the New York-based crop off his re-rallying win over Cairo Prince in the nine furlong Remsen. Cairo Prince might not have gotten the best of rides but he took the lead in late stretch and allowed Honor Code to come back and beat him. Nevertheless, Cairo Prince’s romp in the Holy Bull has many rating him above Honor Code.

In the Courier-Journal poll, Cairo Prince is ranked ahead of everybody, No. 1. He has so impressed the voters that Conquest Titan, who ran a non-threatening second in the Holy Bull, is rated eighth, one spot ahead of Shared Belief. So a distant second is enough to put a horse ahead of an undefeated Eclipse champion.

It would not be a surprise to see Shared Belief and Honor Code fall even further down Top 10 lists after the results of this week. Tapiture is surely going to pick up supporters off his facile win in the Southwest, with highly regarded Strong Mandate, who has a knack of running himself into tough trips, chasing him home.

Saturday’s Fountain of Youth and Risen Star also are likely to produce winners who will move up in the eyes of many. Unfortunately, limit fields in both could compromise the chances of an untold number of Derby hopefuls.

Once again, in the Fountain of Youth, there is a “what have you done for me lately?” scenario. Commissioner out gamed Top Billing in a January 3 allowance at Gulfstream. But Top Billing became the talk of the track with an eye-catching win in a subsequent entry-level allowance. In the Courier-Journal poll he is up to second and Commissioner is No. 5.

Why? Because Top Billing won an allowance Commissioner wasn’t eligible for because he beat Top Billing. Go figure.

What’s more, in spite of drawing the 12 post for the 1 1/16th mile Fountain of Youth, with its short run to the first turn, the headline on the Blood Horse advance was “Top Billing Headlines Fountain of Youth.” So much for what happened on the race track. There are some who will say Top Billing had the tougher trip. The fact remains that in mid-stretch they were nose to nose and Commissioner came out best.

This isn’t to say Top Billing won’t turn the tables on Commissioner Saturday. Three-year-olds can improve dramatically from race to race this time of year and Top Billing’s allowance win was as impressive as has been seen this winter. But as of right now, the fact lost on poll participants is the score is Commissioner 1, Top Billing 0.

The FoY is not a two-horse race by any means. Gulfstream Derby winner General a Rod, who got the best of Wildcat Red by a head in the New Year's Day mile, meets that foe again. Since then Wildcat Red had a dominating win in the seven furlong Hutcheson Stakes. A mile and a sixteenth might be as far as he wants to go but sprinters can have success at this distance at Gulfstream.

Almost Famous, highly regarded in Kentucky last fall, had a tougher than looks trip in the Holy Bull, challenging the pace all the way and holding on to miss second by less than a length. He could move forward off his first race of the year.

We Miss Artie won the Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland last fall but, as I have pointed out repeatedly, results over Keeneland’s fake dirt track have proven to be meaningless when the winners show up elsewhere. We Miss Artie’s seventh in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile is just the latest example. (Very happy news on fake dirt tracks to come).

The Risen Star is a total crapshoot. Sixteen entered and though only 14 will be allowed to start, it would take a miracle for half the field not to have to endure troubled trips. Too bad, since this is the first Derby prep bringing together horses from the major winter racing venues. Bob Baffert and Doug O’Neill are sending in contenders from California and Todd Pletcher is shipping in a well regarded starter from Florida.

One of the locals, LeComte winner Vicar’s in Trouble, got the worst shafting, drawing post 14. This could advantage the LeComte’s second and third place finishers, Albano and Gold Hawk. The Louisiana contingent also includes Rise Up, winner of the Delta Jackpot.

Pletcher will go for his third Risen Star win in five years with Intense Holiday, third behind Cairo Prince in the Holy Bull.

Bond Holder brings the strongest credentials from the West, a win in the Grade 1 Front Runner and fourths in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and Cash Call Futurity. In the latter, he was no match for Shared Belief. But if he were to win Saturday, you could bet case money that he will be ranked higher than Shared Belief in next week’s polls.

Baffert’s hopeful, Hoppertunity, a half brother to Executive Privilege, comes in off a three-length maiden-breaker around two turns.

The logical move in pursuit of a more meaningful result would have been to split the Risen Star. It didn’t happen because of the Kentucky Derby points system. This is the first weekend of the 50-20-10-5 allotment but if the race had been split, those points would have been halved. The only way to avert this would have been to make both divisions worth the announced purse of $400,000, an onerous burden for any track.

If the goal is to get the best horses into the Churchill Downs starting gate on the first Saturday in May, this is a rule that needs to be re-examined.

Ding dong, kitty litter is dead

I am positively giddy at another long overdue logical move. Del Mar has caved. It will restore a real dirt surface to its main track in 2015.

This effectively ends the era of synthetics. When Del Mar gets real, Keeneland will be racing’s outlier, the only track that stages major races on kitty litter. So it should be only a matter of time until Keeneland rejoins racing’s mainstream.

Arlington still has a synthetic but its big races are on grass. Turfway runs a big race whenever it can scrape together a few dollars, which isn’t often. Besides, as a winter racing center, Turfway is one of the few places where a synthetic makes sense. Woodbine is in a world of its own up in Canada.

There are many ramifications to Del Mar’s decision, which came just before my publication deadline. I’ll have a lot more in future columns

Written by Tom Jicha

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Friday, February 14, 2014

NYRA’s New Belmont Stakes Day: Feast or Famine?

MIAMI, February 14--The Belmont Stakes Day lollapalooza is a bold gambit. This will be one of the greatest days, if not the greatest day in racing history not called the Breeders’ Cup. NYRA should be applauded.

But it could be too much of a good thing. Coupled with two additional races on July 5—the Belmont Derby (nee Jamaica) and Belmont Oaks (nee Garden City)—fortified with million dollar purses during Belmont’s spring meeting, it could turn into an orgy of unjustified excess.

Come Belmont Stakes day, all will have a better idea whether or not a million-dollar purse guarantees a million-dollar field. Stakes can’t be turned into instant classics just by throwing money at them.

A rubber match between Princess of Sylmar, who should have won the 3-year-old filly championship, and Beholder, who did, would justify jacking the purse of the Ogden Phipps to $1 million. The greatest East-West showdown since Easy Goer vs. Sunday Silence also would be deserving of a day of its own. However, if only one of these great fillies makes the race, it will become such a non-event it will probably be scheduled early in the card to keep it out of the Pick Six.

The otherworldly purses are fueled by slots money. But several states and Canada have already begun to question the social justice of tens of millions going to racing that could be going to schools and infrastructure.

It’s one thing to pump up the Belmont Stakes. For more than a century, it has been an eagerly anticipated component of the Big Apple social calendar. But creating million dollar races just because you can is inviting scrutiny. Gov. Andrew Cuomo is no friend of racing and the new mayor of New York City, Bill de Blasio, is an avowed socialist.

What’s more, de Blasio made outlawing horse drawn carriages in Central Park one of his earliest goals. He says it’s inhumane. So you know where his head is when it comes to horses.

It’s a matter of when, not if, these politicians start making eyes at the slots funds allotted to horse racing.

I get the explanation that this is money that must be spent on purses--for now. It won’t necessarily be there forever, especially when such an ostentatious distribution by NYRA hands political opportunists powerful ammunition to snatch it away.

This also is a shot across the Breeders’ Cup bow. It’s a not very subtle message that enough is enough. If Southern California is awarded the 2015 Breeders’ Cup after three years at Santa Anita, NYRA is demonstrating that it is ready, willing and able to stage a competing championship event for horsemen in the East and Midwest. This is especially true if Del Mar and its synthetic main track get the 2015 nod.

Also, packing so many traditional late spring and early summer stakes onto one program could degenerate into egregious overkill. If a Triple Crown is on the line in the Belmont Stakes, you could card 12 supporting races of maiden New York bred claimers going five furlongs on the turf and there will be in excess of 100,000 people on the grounds.

With no Triple Crown at stake, anything more than half that audience will be a good day. Given the likely cost of admission for fans, it will be an exceptionally good day.

NYRA CEO Christopher Kay said during a teleconference that the prices had not been set and would be announced shortly. You have to be pretty gullible to take this at face value. With all the planning it took to put this day together, it would be irresponsible for the NYRA hierarchy not to have solid projections of what they can anticipate coming back.

When Kay said admission and seats would be comparable to the tariffs at the Derby and Preakness, it became clear he didn’t want the prices to become the story that day, which they would have.

Using the first two jewels of the Triple Crown as a gauge, fans can expect to have to come up with several hundred dollars for decent seats, more for good ones. General admission is likely to be in the $35-$50 range with the clubhouse roughly double. (Last year, it was $10 and $20). This will be just to walk in the door.

Kay is either a cockeyed optimist or delusional. He also said he envisions Belmont weekend filling hotel rooms in New York. Are there that many owners, trainers and jockeys? With simulcasting, ADWs and OTB, players have no compelling reason to travel, especially into the teeth of New York prices.

He also says he hopes to have European representation in the stakes. Good luck with that. The Belmont coincides with Royal Ascot. If NYRA does attract any Euros, it will be third stringers (who often are good enough).

Historic events such as the Met Mile as well as the Princess of Sylmar-Beholder showdown will be reduced to afterthoughts, no matter how heavily increased their purses. The Belmont will be the sole focus in the media and among fans. This will be true to a great extent even in the absence of a Triple Crown possibility. Ardent fans might relish the great afternoon of racing but to sports editors in the print and electronic media, the Belmont Stakes will be the story.

With all the great horses who run at Churchill Downs during Derby week and the lure of the richly endowed Belmont supporting card an ideally spaced five weeks later, I’d hate to be the racing secretary at Pimlico trying to put together the Preakness festival.

The creation of a super-sized Belmont Day almost comes across as an exercise in reverse psychology. “You know the first year we do something like this, there will be a Triple Crown possibility.”

We can only hope.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Friday, February 07, 2014

Loaded Donn pushes 3-year-olds into background for a week

The road to the Derby continues Saturday with the Robert B. Lewis at Santa Anita, where Midnight Hawk is expected to solidify his status as the best in the West not named Shared Belief. But the race of the weekend is the Donn at Gulfstream in which Eclipse champion Will Take Charge makes his seasonal debut against an extremely salty field.

MIAMI, Feb. 7,2014—Winter and spring belong to 3-year-olds but a short detour from the Derby trail is called for this weekend to focus on the race of the year so far, the Donn Handicap Sunday at Gulfstream.

Gulfstream’s grandest stage for older horses will kick off the “Jockey Club Tour on Fox” with an abundance of star power. The marquee name is Will Take Charge, who might have been a nose away from Horse of the Year—the distance he fell short of catching Mucho Macho Man in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

But he is far from a free bingo square in the Donn, which concludes a pick 3, pick 4, pick 5 and Rainbow 6. He hasn’t been out since running down Game on Dude in the Clark Handicap Thanksgiving weekend. What’s more, the Donn is the first step on the long journey back to the Breeders’ Cup. D Wayne Lukas obviously wants to win another Grade 1 but it’s doubtful the screws are fully tightened.

The weights surely will not be an excuse. Will Take Charge got a kindly package of 123 pounds. In an understatement, Lukas said, “I think probably at this time of year, they’re not going to load up too much on any of these horses.” The Coach didn’t need the qualifier “at this time of year.” Handicaps have become a joke as racing secretaries vie to get star horses to their track. Grade 1’s, which are supposed to identify the best of the breed, shouldn’t be handicaps anyway.

Unlike Game on Dude, who launches his 2014 season Saturday in the San Antonio Stakes--another of those California cakewalks in which he has built his reputation beating nobodies--Will Take Charge will be challenged by a deep, talented field of 10 rivals.

Revolutionary, second high weight at 119, was arguably a better horse than Will Take Charge during the time both were in training last year. They met twice. Revolutionary was third in the Kentucky Derby. Will Take Charge finished eighth. Revolutionary was fifth in the Belmont. Will Take Charge ran tenth.

Revolutionary didn’t get to prove conclusively that he was better because his connections put him away after the Belmont in order to have a top 4-year-old. He certainly looked that part in his Gulfstream return, which was more impressive than the half-length victory margin makes it look.

The Donn is far from a two-horse race. River Seven has done most of his racing in Canada but comes into Sunday’s race on a three-race winning streak, including a turf stakes at Churchill and a track record performance in the Harlan’s Holiday, his first experience on Gulfstream’s main track. In his only previous try on conventional dirt, he was a close second in the Prince of Wales, a leg of the Canadian Triple Crown.

Lea also might have better than a puncher’s chance against the champ. He’s been on the verge of becoming a serious horse throughout his career, which has been spent mostly on grass. Last summer he was second and third to Wise Dan in graded stakes. Bill Mott took over his training this winter and put him on dirt in the Hal’s Hope. Lea responded with a runaway win.

The Hall of Fame trainer once took another horse, who was not firing his best shots on turf, which seemed to be the surface he was bred for, and tried him on dirt. Cigar became the best horse in the world. It’s foolhardy to suggest Lea is the second coming of Cigar but he could be a major player in the older horse ranks this year.

The Jockey Club Tour got an unexpected bonus when Groupie Doll’s new owner, Mandy Pope, who bought her at auction for $3.1 million after the Breeders’ Cup, decided she didn’t want her new star mare to go out on an off-the-board finish in the Cigar Mile. So she was pointed to the Hurricane Bertie. Win or lose, Groupie Doll next goes to the breeding shed.

She might be a better bet against than Will Take Charge. After-thought races are never ideal situations. Moreover, her second Eclipse was awarded solely on the basis of a repeat victory in the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint. Maybe this was the race her whole season was pointed toward, because she certainly wasn’t the Groupie Doll of 2012 last year.

She opened her campaign hanging the length of the stretch to finish third against a couple of horses of moderate ability at Ellis Park. She redeemed herself somewhat with an encore win in the Presque Isle Masters but then ran third again in the TCA at Keeneland. She wound up the year fourth in the Cigar. She had some excuses, but don’t they all?

Wildcat Lily and Jamaican Smoke are both Grade 1-placed. But the one to pay most heed to might be Heart Stealer, two-for-two since joining the Marty Wolfson barn, which is lethal in local stakes.

The Fox telecast (5-6:30 p.m.) has a third stakes, the Grade 1 Gulfstream Turf Handicap, which marks the return of Amira’s Prince. Four-for-four in the U.S., he hasn’t been out since the Mervin Muniz at the Fair Grounds almost a year ago. But he is in the hands of Mott, who’s as good as it gets bringing quality horses back to the races off long layoffs.

The threats are Summer Front, who made the Fort Lauderdale last month his seventh career stakes win, and the current Shug, old Shug duo of Imagining and Boisterous. Six-year-old Imagining, in Shug McGaughey’s barn his entire career, will be gunning for his third straight win and first in a Grade 1. Boisterous, who became a millionaire under Shug’s tutelage, was sold at Keeneland last fall to Gary Barber and makes his first start for Todd Pletcher.

The weekend’s only 3-year-old race of note, the Grade 2 Robert B. Lewis, goes Saturday at Santa Anita. Midnight Hawk will be an overwhelming favorite in a field of seven and, as Trevor Denman likes to say, looking for a danger, can’t find one.

Everything out west is in a stagnant state until the status of Shared Belief is established.

Written by Tom Jicha

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