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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Tuesday, February 17, 2015

‘Super Saturdays’: Too much of a good thing one week, too little the next

Super Saturdays have become the wave of the present. Attendance and handle zoom into the stratosphere, so they are not going away. But the prestige of other major stakes, which used to be solo headliners, is disappearing. Also, other Saturdays are treated as if they don't matter.

MIAMI, Feb. 17, 2015--A multiplex of movies, some very good, played over President’s Day weekend. As far as the mainstream press was concerned, there was only one worth talking about, the one in which people had the most interest: Fifty Shades of Grey.

Horse racing’s version will occur Saturday at Gulfstream. Eight stakes, seven graded, are carded. But the headlines and bulk of the reporting will be devoted to only one, the Fountain of Youth. This time of year, Kentucky Derby prep season overwhelms any other races that don’t have Shared Belief and California Chrome facing off.

The FoY is Florida’s first 50-points to the winner qualifying race. The first four finishers in the Holy Bull—Upstart, who also was third in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile; Frosted, who was favored in the Holy Bull off his second in the Remsen; Mucho Macho Man winner Bluegrass Singer and Juan and Bina--are coming back. So is sixth-place finisher Frammento, a late-runner Nick Zito says is his main Classic hopeful.

Among the new shooters in the eight-horse field is It’s a Knockout from Todd Pletcher’s typically overloaded 3-year-old brigade. Unbeaten in two starts, including a more than five-length win going a mile in an optional claimer, It’s a Knockout will be trying two turns for the first time. As a son of Belmont Stakes winner Lemon Drop Kid, the mile and a sixteenth distance should not be an issue.

It might be a sign of the strength of the FoY field that several of the leading contenders in Saturday’s other major Derby prep, the Risen Star at the Fair Grounds, are shipping to New Orleans even though they are based in South Florida. This includes International Star, winner of the LeComte; Keen Ice, fifth in the Holy Bull; J.S. Bach, a galloping maiden winner around two turns at Gulfstream for Pletcher, and Imperia, the runnerup in the Kentucky Jockey Club, who is making his 2015 debut after being prepped at Palm Meadows by Kiaran McLaughlin. War Story and Tiznow R.J., second and third in the LeComte, also will try International Star again.

Not even the seasonal debut in the Mac Diamida of Main Sequence, unbeaten in four U.S. starts and a double Eclipse champion as outstanding turf runner and best older horse, will steal much attention from the FoY. The other six stakes will be lucky to get a sentence apiece in the media.

This is one of the downsides of Super Saturdays. Traditional events, such as the Davona Dale, Rampart, The Very One and Canadian Turf, which used to command a solo Saturday showcase, get lost in the shuffle. The most distressing example is NYRA burying the Met Mile on the Belmont Stakes undercard.

Meanwhile, non-Super Saturdays have become little more than a mundane day at the races. On Jan. 24, the Holy Bull was the headliner of a five-stakes program. The following Saturday, the ungraded $75,000 H. Allen Jerkens, essentially a novelty event at two miles, was the feature. On Feb. 7, the Donn topped a six-stakes card. This past Saturday, the Hurricane Bertie, a 6 ½ furlong sprint for fillies and mares that wound up with a field of five, anchored an otherwise uninspiring card.

It’s difficult to quarrel with the results of Super Saturdays. Attendance and handle soar. So they are here to stay.

But would this coming Saturday’s stakes bonanza have been any less special if one or two of the stakes had been shifted to dress up last Saturday’s card?

I couldn’t see any fan complaining, “They call this a Super Saturday? There are only seven stakes.”

Why NYRA, why?

The weather-related cancellations of racing at Aqueduct on Sunday and Monday were the 11th and 12th from 34 scheduled racing dates in January and February. If you were planning to go to the track during the past month and a half, there was better than a one-in-three chance there would be no racing. The negative ratio could increase. Racing is scheduled to resume Thursday but single-digit temperatures are forecast for Thursday and Friday.

Fans who bought $9 Racing Forms to handicap in advance already are out more than $100 for races that never took place.

Often overlooked in speculation about the reasons for the rash of breakdowns during winter racing is the fact that not only is racing frequently called off, training is also curtailed. Some of the worst, stormiest days this winter have been on Mondays and Tuesdays, so there has been little notice of lost training days.

Thus, horses don’t have the level of fitness they would under better conditions. The combination of lesser stock and limited conditioning is an invitation to bad things happening.

What is it going to take for NYRA to pull the plug on racing during the worst two months of winter? Does Mother Nature have to personally “unlike” it on Facebook for NYRA to get the message that it’s not a good idea.

To pre-empt a comment certain to come from contrarians, Oaklawn Park also lost racing Monday as well as a few other days at the start of its season. But there is a vast difference between Oaklawn and Aqueduct.

Winter is Oaklawn’s assigned season. Come April, the tents come down and the circus moves to other towns in the Southwest. NYRA has the whole year at its disposal, so going dark in January and February is no big deal, especially when Aqueduct can remain open for simulcasts from Gulfstream, the Fair Grounds and Santa Anita.

What’s more, brutal weather is the exception in Hot Springs. In the Big Apple, it is the expectation. Not even global warming is going to change that.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Tuesday, February 10, 2015

No question who’s No. 1 now

Shared Belief didn't win an Eclipse last month but he left no doubt who the best horse in America is with his scintillating performance in the San Antonio. Horse of the Year California Chrome ran a winning race, finishing well ahead of the rest of the field, including streaking Hoppertunity. But he was no match for Shared Belief. With California Chrome heading for Dubai and Donn Handicap winner Constitution also appearing to be headed to the Middle East, the question now is who's left to test Shared Belief?

MIAMI, Feb. 10, 2015--Vindication is sweet. I’ve been championing Shared Belief as the best horse in America since last summer. Even when I voted for California Chrome as outstanding 3YO and Horse of the Year, I wrote in my HRI column, “America’s best thoroughbred in 2014, in my opinion, Shared Belief, will not be Horse of the Year. He won’t even be named best of his generation. Ergo, I am taking my Eclipse ballot to the scoreboard.”

In the wake of Shared Belief’s dazzling triumph in the San Antonio, I don’t think there is anyone who would not acknowledge he is the true No. 1. Given a cleanly run race, which he didn’t have in the Breeders’ Cup Classic thanks to Bayern and Toast of New York, Shared Belief charged right by California Chrome, who had a perfect trip, got first run, had a length or two at the top of the stretch and beat the rest of the field by daylight.

Unfortunately, this might be the last time for a long while, perhaps ever, the two champions will meet. California Chrome is headed for the Dubai World Cup--also a possible next stop for Donn winner Constitution--and the long layoff that usually follows. Art Sherman also mentioned a turf campaign. California Chrome did win a Grade 1 on grass, albeit a weak one, in his only infield start. If your horse was beaten as decisively by Shared Belief as California Chrome was, how anxious would you be to try him again when there are other options?

Shared Belief will stay home for the Big Cap. Unless Bayern shows up, the concept of handicaps, will be made a mockery of, which they should be. They are a relic of another era. With no California Chrome and no Bayern, Shared Belief would have to be assigned a Kelso-type load to try to bring him back to those in for minor shares. Santa Anita isn’t going to do anything--and shouldn’t--to keep racing’s biggest crowd magnet back in the barn.

Other than the BC Classic, the only flaw on Shared Belief’s credit sheet is he has never raced outside California. If nothing goes wrong, this will be eradicated in the fall when the Breeders’ Cup is run at Keeneland. It would be great if it happened before then.

After the Big Cap, there is really nothing for him out West until the (formerly Hollywood) Gold Cup in June. The Alysheba, whose purse was just kicked up to $400,000, on Derby Day, and/or the $1.25 million Met Mile on the Belmont Stakes undercard could entice Jerry Hollendorfer to shed his stated reluctance to put his superstar gelding on a plane.

We can only hope.

Constitution emerged as a new top contender among older horses winning the Donn over Lea, who couldn’t run him down with the length of the stretch to do it. On the basis of the Beyer Figs, Constitution’s 113 was a stronger race than Shared Belief’s 106. I’m a big fan of the Beyers. They are one of my main handicapping tools. But is there anyone who believes Constitution ran a better race or that he is a better horse?

Jeff Siegel, one of the finest evaluators of horses in America, said on HRTV’s The Player on Sunday that he doesn’t buy the superior fig for Constitution. “Shared Belief may be as good a horse as we’ve seen this century…There is no way Constitution is beating Shared Belief.”

The greatest generation?

The beat goes on for foals of 2011, which is shaping up as one of the strongest crops ever.

Trailing home Shared Belief, who was beating older horses for the third straight time (fourth if you count the BC Classic) and California Chrome in the San Antonio was Hoppertunity, who had bested older horses in the Grade 1 Clark and Grade 2 San Pasqual in his two most recent starts.

Three-year-olds swept the first three positions in the Clark. One of those Hoppertunity beat in the Clark was then 3-year-old Constitution, who, as mentioned, vanquished now 5-year-old Lea, the defending champion who was on a three-stakes winning streak.

We’re still waiting for the 2015 debuts of BC Classic winner Bayern and Tonalist, who won the Jockey Club Gold Cup against older rivals as a 3-year-old.

And let’s not forget super filly Untapable, who made short work of older foes in the BC Distaff.

Here’s something to consider: It’s a relatively small sample of races but Shared Belief, California Chrome, Bayern, Tonalist and Untapable have never been beaten to the wire by an older rival.

What did it pay?

I was at Gulfstream so I didn’t have an opportunity to properly evaluate the Fox Sports telecast of the four stakes. The bits I did see and hear were well done.

But the most promoted aspect was the Cross-Country Pick 4. Thanks to the dragging of posts at Gulfstream and Santa Anita, as well as a lengthy inquiry in the San Marcos, which should have been decided in less than a minute, little time was left in the allotted two hours after the San Antonio “official” was posted.

The prices at Santa Anita were put on the screen but the one coast to coast players were waiting for, the Pick 4, didn’t make it onto the telecast. This shouldn’t have happened and everything possible must be done to make sure it doesn’t happen in future shows tied to a Pick 4.

Pick 4 “will pays” are posted before the final leg at every track that offers the bet. So the Fox crew should have known what they would be before the San Antonio gate was sprung. It should have been the first thing reported after the race was made official.

There was a wonderful mood-soother for those angry that it wasn’t. The 50-cent bet returned $68.25 (not including rebates offered for ADW wagers). It was an extraordinarily generous payoff, which projected to $273 for a $2 wager, for two favorites and two second choices, who went off at 7-5, 5-2, 9-5 and even-money.

You can’t do that in NY

David Jacobson announced shortly after Salutos Amigos surged from the back of the pack to win Saturday's Grade 3 Toboggan Stakes at Aqueduct that he intends to run the horse back in the Grade 2 General George on Feb. 16.

It’s a good thing the General George is at Laurel and not Jacobson’s home track. Under NYRA’s new short-sighted 14-day rule, the entry of Salutos Amigos would not be accepted.

As long as I’m on the subject, Dortmund and Firing Line, were so dominant in the Grade 3 Robert Lewis at Santa Anita it was 21 ½ lengths back to third-place finisher Rock Shandy.

Under another of NYRA’s not well thought out rules, the fourth- and fifth-place finishers, Hero Ten All and Tizcano, who were more than 25 lengths back, would have to work a half-mile for the stewards in less than 53 seconds before they could be entered in a race. So a couple of stakes caliber horses, who had the misfortune to run into arguably the two best 3-year-olds on the West Coast, would be treated the same as a talentless $12,500 maiden claimer.

This underlines the absurdity of hard and fast rules, which amount to the same thing as zero tolerance edicts, which treat a school kid, who chews his grilled cheese sandwich into the shape of a gun, the same way as a young thug who brings his parents’ Glock to school to intimidate class mates.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Cheating is a problem but it’s not what’s hindering racing’s growth

Every sport has its cheaters (so does Wall Street). But Deflate-Gate,the premature, injury-caused deaths of celebrated players and debilitating injuries didn’t discourage more people than ever from watching the Super Bowl. Likewise, cheating in racing is a problem but it is not what is keeping the sport from growing or even holding its own.

MIAMI, Feb. 3, 21015--Sunday’s Super Bowl delivered the highest overnight television ratings in history. The Patriots and Seahawks pulled a 49.7 Nielsen rating. This translates to almost one of every two homes in America tuned in to the game. That’s all homes, not those with a TV set turned on, a significant difference when you take into account how many folks watch in sports bars or in groups at a friend’s home. Thus their home is treated as if no one is watching the game.

When the final headcount comes in, Super Bowl 49, will probably have drawn an audience of about 115 million. That’s the game that took place in the midst of Deflate-Gate, the most overplayed faux scandal in recent sports history.

This was no surprise. A headline on the front page—1A, not the sports front—of the Sunday Miami Herald read, “Despite scandal, pro football is still the most popular sport in America.”

The same edition contained a story on Junior Seau’s selection to the pro football Hall of Fame. Seau won’t be in Canton this summer to accept his accolades. The hard hits the linebacker took did so much damage to his brain that he committed suicide at 42 years-old.

Seau’s is not an isolated story. On Dec. 1, 2012, Jovan Belcher of the Kansas City Chiefs shot and killed his 22-year-old girlfriend then went to the Chiefs training facility and shot himself fatally. He was 25. An autopsy showed Belcher suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy. In layman’s terms, it’s an affliction found in athletes with a history of repetitive brain injuries.

I could go on. The point is, in spite of these tragedies, which given the ever increasing speed and weight of contemporary NFL players are probably going to become more frequent, America loves the game. As the Miami Herald headline said, pro football is more popular than ever.

There is an inherent danger in almost all sports. Athletes, human and equine, are going to suffer severe injuries. Some will die. This doesn’t mean it has to be accepted. Everything possible should be done to prevent such tragedies. But it must be recognized, bad things are going to occasionally happen.

Jim Tressel, a national championship winning coach at Ohio State, was driven from his job. The NCAA put him on its equivalent of a no-fly list for cheating, lying about it and covering it up. Any school that hires him before December 2016 must show cause why it should not suffer sanctions. Last month, Tressel was named to the College Football Hall of Fame. He will be inducted into the game’s shrine while his sanctions are still in place.

There aren’t more than a handful of major college football programs in America that haven’t gotten caught cheating. Yet the popularity of college football hasn’t suffered an iota. More people watched the national championship game—coincidentally won by Ohio State—than any telecast in ESPN history.

In the interest of brevity, I won’t detail the well known facts of baseball’s steroids scandal. But I will note that the home run derby it created drove the game to new levels of popularity, which continue to grow even as players still are regularly identified as using performance enhancing drugs.

There is a message here. If the product is good, people will look past a few cheaters. They’ll even put death and debilitating injuries on an out-of-sight, out-of-mind back burner. This isn’t something to be proud of or to condone in any way but it’s a fact.

Irving Rudd was one of the greatest sports publicists ever. He worked for Yonkers Raceway in the pre-casino era. Harness racing was the red-headed stepchild of pari-mutuel sports back in the second half of the 20th century. It rarely got any publicity. Rudd’s signature success came when Yonkers was reopening with an all-new clubhouse.

The harness track is adjacent to the New York Thruway right over the New York City line. Millions drive past it every day. Rudd concocted an inspired way to get countless dollars of free publicity for the reopening. On the side of the clubhouse facing the Thruway is “Yonkers Raceway” in huge letters. The day before the opening, Rudd arranged to have it misspelled to Yonkers "Racewya.”

Every local TV station in the Big Apple showed footage and made fun of Rudd’s “mistake” on that night’s newscasts. And every viewer in the nation's most populated market was made aware of the Yonkers reopening. It didn't cost Rudd a dime.

Rudd used to say that his dream was to be able to run a spot whose tagline was “Nine fixed races tonight.” There wouldn’t be enough cops to control the people who would try to get in, he said with a knowing laugh.

The point is I think racing uses drug scandals and equine tragedies as a crutch for all the other issues that have reduced attendance and handle. The biggest single reason is the loss of the monopoly on the gambling dollar racing enjoyed for decades. With casinos everywhere, many of them at racetracks, it’s almost miraculous that racing is doing as well as it is. Greyhound racing is in its death throes. Jai alai is essentially dead. Look at what casino competition has done to Atlantic City.

For the first time, racing has had to learn to compete and it has not been an exemplary student. I won’t offer myself as a universal gauge but I have never met a player who said he is going to stop going to the races because of cheating. However, an unjustified hike in the takeout led horse players nationwide to successfully boycott Churchill Downs last year.

I have heard plenty of “I’m not coming back” gripes about poor customer service and accommodations and price gouging at concession stands. There is no excuse for $6 or $7 cups of beer and $5 hot dogs when the track is cutting 20 cents or more out of every dollar wagered. This is where customers feel cheated.

It should never be overlooked that a big reason Saratoga’s popularity is so enduring is that fans can bring in their own food and beverages. I would argue that most of the money they save winds up going through the betting windows.

Nine dollars for a Racing Form is another turnoff for fans old and new. Coming from the newspaper business, which has been forced to drastically cut back on the size of papers in a bid to survive, I understand why the Form has to be so expensive. Next to employee salaries, the actual paper it is printed on is the biggest expense for any publication. But the Form’s elevated price is still an obstacle to racing’s growth.

Most tracks have a less expensive past performance book but only for the local races. To enjoy the game the way it is played now with simulcast action at several tracks, at least a couple of these books are needed. This wipes out any savings from not buying a Racing Form.

Race books in Las Vegas have counters where players can peruse past performances without buying a paper. I realize the logistical problems this could create at a race track with many times more customers but it is something worth looking into. Maybe a two-minute rule to avoid people camping out all day in front of the free paper.

PETA’s allegations against Steve Asmussen—who has since been exonerated after a year-long investigation--were prominent in media that never bothers with racing last spring. It didn’t keep NBC from achieving blockbuster ratings for the Kentucky Derby. Two weeks later the usual 100,000-plus packed Pimlico for the Preakness. Three weeks after that the Belmont Stakes set attendance records despite charging inflated Broadway prices.

Give people an event that excites them and provides enjoyable entertainment and they’ll overlook a lot of what goes on behind the scenes. This should be racing's priority.

Written by Tom Jicha

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