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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Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Arlington Million could be nearing the finish line

A million dollar purse no longer carries the cachet it once did. Saturday's Arlington Million, once an eagerly sought prize on both sides of the Atlantic, attracted only seven entrants. With bottom-line obsessed Churchill Downs Inc. calling the shots, this might be all the excuse needed to shut down what once was the biggest post-Triple Crown event of the year.

MIAMI, Aug. 12, 2014--A million dollars doesn’t buy what it used to in racing (or anywhere else). When the Arlington Million was introduced in 1981 the purse was the story. The first seven-figure pot in American racing made headlines on both sides of the Atlantic. (The Breeders’ Cup wouldn’t come along until three years later.)

The magic word “Million” led NBC to sign on for live coverage and promote the event heavily. This was a big deal in pre-cable days because once the Triple Crown was over TV didn’t have much interest in horse racing.

These days, million dollar purses are not quite commonplace (although if Martin Panza continues on his current pace at NYRA, they will be) but there are enough of them that they are not even much of a drawing card, per se, anymore.

If there was any doubt of this, the pre-entries for Saturday’s renewal of the Million dispelled them. Only seven horses signed on, four from the U.S. and three Euros. Thankfully for the event, one of the Euros is Breeders’ Cup Turf winner Magician.

In spite of $15,000 in fees to enter, there is no guarantee or even probability that all seven will start. Hardest Core was also pre-entered in the supporting American St. Leger and could skip both for the Sword Dancer at Saratoga on Sunday.

Six starters would be the fewest in the history of the Million. Arlington shares some of the blame. The eye-catching purse 33 years ago hasn’t been increased since.

The Million-Sword Dancer conflict underlines another problem plaguing racing. In spite of a shortage of horses and an even bigger shortage of top class horses, there is no inter-track cooperation of any kind in scheduling stakes. Monmouth’s centerpiece race, the Haskell, and Saratoga’s Jim Dandy have been running on back-to-back days for years.

Given Saratoga’s compact season, in the heart of the prime summer dates at most tracks, it’s impossible to avoid some conflicts. But races of the magnitude of the Haskell and Jim Dandy, the Arlington Million and Sword Dancer should have separation beyond 24 hours. This could be beneficial to horses, who might be “one work away” or need extra time from their last race or in advance of their next goal.

NYRA knew when the Million would be scheduled, yet it penciled in the Grade 1 $500,000 Sword Dancer for the same pool of horses the very next day. It will be the first important stakes of the meeting for older males on the turf so there is no reason it couldn’t have been run a couple of weeks earlier. Likewise, it wouldn’t kill Monmouth to run the Haskell in mid-July.

It’s not being overly alarmist to speculate we might be seeing the final days of the Million. Remember tight-fisted Churchill Downs owns Arlington. The Million might be staying alive solely on the strength of personality of 92-year-old Richard Duchossois, who rebuilt Arlingon into a palace and remains an influential stockholder in Churchill Downs Inc.

Even with Duchossois, who won’t be around forever, as its champion, a less than stellar field for the Million might be all the excuse CDI needs to pull the plug on what once was the most publicized race of the year outside the Triple Crown.

A new track for Breeders’ Cup

Horsemen and the Breeders’ Cup have to be breathing easy that it is still two years before Del Mar will be hosting the championship races. The newly installed turf course, expanded solely to satisfy BC requirements that it handle 14-horse fields, has been a nightmare this summer.

Four horses broke down and had to be euthanized in the first nine days of the season, which began July 17. As a result, races were taken off the grass course on Sunday, July 27, to allow an extra day to deal with the problem before racing resumed on Wednesday. The day after turf racing returned, July 31, another horse broke down. Turf racing was suspended until Aug. 9.

Five races were conducted on the grass course without incident this past weekend. But you have to think one more fatal breakdown and Del Mar might have to bag turf racing for the season.

Even if it doesn’t come to that, turf racing is being substantially reduced for the balance of the meeting. There will be no turf sprints, nor claiming races. Grass races will be curtailed by about one-third, according to officials.

With Los Alamitos, which has no turf course, in line to follow Del Mar before Santa Anita reopens on Sept. 26, scores of turf specialists will be confined to their stalls for almost two months. So expect as heavy an agenda of turf racing as the Great Race Place course can handle this fall. But with the Breeders’ Cup five weeks into the season, Santa Anita has to balance the needs of horsemen with grass horses against having the course in the best shape possible for the championship events.

Meanwhile, Santa Anita and the Breeders’ Cup might be playing with fire on the main track. The old track was ripped up after the marathon winter-spring meet ended. It has been replaced with a new kind of dirt, El Segundo sand, which is said to resemble that used years ago at Santa Anita and Hollywood.

The new surface is expected to be ready for workouts in early September but it won’t be seriously tested until racing resumes. Track officials are confident there won’t be any issues but you never know with a new surface. Del Mar didn’t expect the problems it has encountered on its new turf course.

You have to wonder if the Breeders’ Cup would have been awarded to Santa Anita for the third straight year if BC officials knew their races would be contested on a track barely more than a month old.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Inflated purses, joke weights and Guillot detract from banner Whitney Day

Whitney Day at the Spa was great as always. It would have been even better if Eric Guillot, who put a big stain on last year's Travers with his irresponsible accusations, didn't train the winner, the purses were more rational and the Whitney didn't try to pass itself off as a handicap. Meanwhile out west, California stewards continue to dither over what to do about a horse, who was drugged in his debut, then won by 14 at Churchill on Derby Day after opening odds-on.

MIAMI, Aug. 5, 2014--Whitney Handicap Day was another banner day of high quality racing but there are some things that still bug me a few days after the fact.

All hail Moreno, a gutsy horse who proved he belongs in the conversation of best older horses. This debate was reopened by the inexplicable dud thrown in by Palace Malace.
Four straight graded wins, including the Grade 1 Met Mile, is enough for Palace Malice to retain the top spot for now, in spite of the Whitney. However, like the other hopefuls, including Moreno, Palace Malice might have to win a prestigious race in the fall and the Breeders’ Cup Classic to seal the divisional and Horse of the Year deals.

Getting back to Moreno, I applaud the horse but abhor the fact that Eric Guillot was celebrated with him. I can neither believe nor accept there have been no sanctions after the trainer, in a fit of irresponsibility after last summer’s Travers, tried to take down the sport that provides his livelihood as well as that of tens of thousands of others. At the very least NYRA should have denied him Saratoga stalls.

By virtue of its total non-response, NYRA has forfeited the right to ever penalize any jockey for a frivolous claim of foul.

As for the Whitney, it provided the latest evidence that handicap racing is both a misnomer and an anachronism. Palace Malice went into the Whitney on a four-race winning streak, all graded stakes, and was assigned the same 124 pounds he carried in the Met Mile, one of the most coveted stakes in the game. Granted, he was going another eighth of a mile but this is a horse who as a 3-year-old won the Jim Dandy at nine furlong with 123 pounds and the mile-and-a-half Belmont with 126 pounds.

Even more absurd than Palace Malice’s impost was the 124 given to Will Take Charge, who had one win in five 2014 starts, carrying 123 pounds in each. I would love to hear an explanation for how four straight graded stakes wins, including a Grade 1, bring about not even a single pound increase but one win in five starts, a Grade 2, does.

That said I’ll join the chorus that no Grade 1 race should be a handicap. Moreover, in an era when tracks are hurting for star attractions, we should do nothing to discourage a big horse from running—not that the kind weights routinely assigned do that.

Also, the fact that the Whitney purse was elevated to $1.5 is an abomination. That’s $250,000 more than the Travers, which packs the joint every summer. The race would have gotten the same field for $1 million or even $750,000. Maybe half a million.

I applaud Martin Panza’s efforts to create new event days but every Saturday at the Spa is an event day. Just throwing money at a race won’t do it. How many extra fans do you think showed up because the Whitney had an inflated purse?

But it wasn’t just the Whitney. By goosing the purses of a couple of optional claimers to $105,000 and $100,000 and staging a trio of maiden races for $98,000 apiece, NYRA might as well have hung out a banner for legislators: “Hey, look at us. We have more money than we know what to do with.”

In case NYRA hasn’t noticed, New York State seems to be chronically on the verge of bankruptcy. Several other states that fortify racing with slots dollars have begun to chip away at those subsidies. It’s only a matter of time until schools or bridges or some influential politician’s pet project come up strapped for cash before they begin looking at the money the state pours into NYRA purses. (I know, it’s the law. Laws get changed every day.)

After Whitney Day, I wouldn’t want to be a NYRA executive asked to explain why racing can’t surrender some or all of those dollars for more pressing social needs.

More to the moment, if NYRA is so flush with cash, why did it jack up admission prices this season? Of course, we know the answer: “because it could.” Based on past attendance figures, the amount NYRA will garner from the increases at the gate could have been covered by more rational purses last Saturday.

For shame, California

As long as I’m on a rant, racing officials in California are more derelict in their duties concerning the connections of a horse named Masochistic than NYRA has been with Guillot.

I’ve touched on this before. To refresh memories, Masochistic made his career debut on March 15 in a maiden allowance for Cal breds at Santa Anita. He ran fifth of eight at 8-1. The Racing Form comment was, “Angled in, no rally.”

However, it appeared to the stewards and fans who pay attention that jockey Omar Berrio didn’t allow Masochistic to run to his best ability. The stewards called him in to talk about it but took no action. In their defense, it’s near impossible to prove a rider’s intent.

In Berrio’s defense, maybe he knew or could feel what he had under him. Post-race testing found the tranquilizer Acepromazine at nearly 40 times the normal dosage. The stewards ordered the $1,120 Masochistic earned forfeited and paid to the sixth place finisher.

Coming off that one dull maiden start against Cal breds, Masochistic was entered in an open maiden allowance on the Kentucky Derby undercard. The ship made no sense, even more so in retrospect since Masochistic returned to California after the race. The purse at Churchill Downs was $60,000. The same day, Santa Anita carded a $56,000 maiden special for Cal breds, a much less challenging race with zero shipping expenses.

Nevertheless, Masochistic opened at odds-on, which takes an incredible amount of money on Derby Day. But you can bet (and cash) an incredible amount on the day when more money is bet than any other.

The ship made a lot of sense when the gates opened and Masochistic ran to the betting action, crushing the field by 14 lengths. People in the know must have scored out more than anyone in Kentucky that day other than the owners of California Chrome.

This is when the California stewards should have called in Berrio, trainer A.C. Avila and Masochistic’s owners to explain what happened on March 15.

My new heroes area couple of owners I know nothing about, David Frankham and Brian Carmody. When they noticed Masochistic was entered in the same race on July 31 as their horse, Smogcutter, they ordered their trainer, Dan Blacker, not to bring him to the paddock. They weren’t going to run against what they perceived to be a cheater. (Masochistic won laughing again.)

In a letter published by the Paulick Report, they wrote, “It is unconscionable that a violation this egregious is left unresolved 4 ½ months later, while the trainer A.C. Avila is allowed to continue training without any ruling by the (California Horse Racing Board). As owners we believe wholeheartedly that we have an obligation of fairness to the betting public. If the governing bodies do not enforce and uphold that obligation and trust, then we will rightfully continue to lose the betting public and owners alike.”


The CHRB has finally scheduled a hearing for Avila on Aug. 12 and, according to the San Diego Tribune, the Berrio investigation is still open.
Almost five months after the fact, the CHRB has been shamed into doing its job—or at least giving the appearance of doing its job.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Bayern creates a wonderful dilemma for Baffert

The racing season doesn't end with the posting of the official at the Belmont Stakes. This past weekend set the stage for a scintillating fall, with the dazzling Bayern and workmanlike Wicked Strong throwing their hats into the 3-year-old-division ring, although any 3-year-old will have to do extraordinary work to overtake California Chrome. Also, in spite of not hitting the board in the Haskell, Untapable remains a formidable force looking ahead to the major distaff races.

MIAMI, July 29, 2014--So what does Bob Baffert do now? The Haskell was supposed to be a prep for the Kings Bishop, which was to be a stepping stone to the Breeders’ Cup Sprint and a potential Eclipse Award as the nation’s top sprinter. The conventional wisdom was running short was Bayern’s forte.

Baffert is looking at bigger game now. The seven furlong Kings Bishop appears out of the question. “I don’t think I’ll back him up now,” the trainer said. He has to be at least thinking about the Travers, although it comes up pretty quickly for the ultra conservative training methods that have come into vogue. Then again Baffert loves big stages and there’s none bigger between now and the Breeders’ Cup.

The Pennsylvania Derby, a few weeks later, would be another possibility. It’s a million dollars against 3-year-olds, one of the few remaining options to run against Bayern’s own generation for huge money. The Super Derby could be an easier alternative, although if Baffert is shooting for Eclipses, it doesn’t have the cachet of races north of the Mason Dixon line.

Will Take Charge, who bombed in all three Triple Crown races, nevertheless used a Travers-Pennsylvania Derby double as stepping stones to an Eclipse Award. A Haskell-Pennsylvania Derby double could be steps in the same direction for Bayern.

With California Chrome, the 3-year-old leader in the clubhouse, and the undefeated Eclipse champion Shared Belief pointing for California races as their Breeders’ Cup preps, the prudent move would be to point Bayern toward races in the East.

If Bayern is to challenge for a 3-year-old Eclipse and possibly even Horse of the Year, he has to beat California Chrome and Shared Belief in the Classic. Beating them once in the ultimate showdown would probably be sufficient, so there is little incentive to try to do it twice.

This assumes Bayern doesn’t trip up along the way. This is true of all the 3-year-old pretenders. The only way anyone dethrones California Chrome, who really doesn’t have to do anything more, is to run the table, including the Classic.

The notion that Bayern is not a mile-and-a-quarter horse is based on his failures in the Arkansas Derby and Preakness. But the Oaklawn race was only the third of his life and early trouble took him totally out of his game in Baltimore.

He dispelled a lot of the stamina doubts Sunday. His pedigree says 10 furlongs is within his scope. His sire, Offlee Wild, is by Wild Again, who outgamed Slew O Gold and Gate Dancer in the first Classic, and his dam is by Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew. Bayern’s dam sire is Kentucky Derby winner Thunder Gulch.

All this praise for Bayern isn’t meant to take anything away from Wicked Strong, who re-emerged as one of the leaders of his class in the Jim Dandy. But his win was workmanlike while Bayern’s was dazzling. Blinkers added a new dimension to Wicked Strong, helping to put the former dead closer right into the race. But if Bayern shows up at the Spa on Aug. 23, I don’t think Jimmy Jerkens will want Wicked Strong pushing him early, although Tonalist, who might not have been fully cranked for the Jim Dandy, would love that scenario.

No disgrace for Untapable

So Untapable couldn’t keep up with the boys in the Haskell. Ergo, fillies and mares are inferior to colts and geldings. You are sure to hear this nonsense in the coming days.

No one in the field could keep up with Bayern, including colts with impressive resumes. They included the winners of the Fountain of Youth, Pegasus, Long Branch and Spectacular Bid and the third-place finishers in the Preakness and Belmont.

Yet the only one being put down is Untapable. “She’s no Rachel Alexandra.” Yeah, so? This could be said of every filly since Rachel as well as most of the colts.

Untapable split the males, finishing in front of as many as finished in front of her. Bayern was in a class of his own but Untapable, who had legitimate trouble, was less than two lengths out of second. Social Inclusion, third in the Preakness and Wood Memorial, was about the same distance behind her. Medal Count, third in the Belmont, was more than 14 lengths in arrears of Untapable.

She probably won’t see colts again, at least not as a 3-year-old, but I wouldn’t diminish her chances against Close Hatches, Princess of Sylmar and Beholder in the BC Distaff. For the record, none of those stellar fillies have even dared to challenge the supposedly strong sex.

Del Mar does the right thing

There are racing rarities and there are things that never happen. One of the latter occurred Sunday at Del Mar. A couple of races were taken off the turf.

This happens at the seaside resort as often as…well, it just doesn’t.

The track is always fast and the turf always firm. Hardly a man is now alive who can remember when the conditions were different. Whoever wrote that song “It Never Rains in California,” could have been a Del Mar racing fan.

Weather didn’t force the shift in surfaces. Four tragic breakdowns, two during Saturday’s card, in less than two weeks on the newly installed grass course was the culprit. The widened course, seeded with a different strain of grass, was as hard as the I-5 freeway.

Kudos to Del Mar management for taking decisive action before further tragedies occurred. It would have been easy to wait one more day, with two darks days looming. Del Mar did the right thing.

There’s a bigger point. Track maintenance is more important than track composition when it comes to a safe surface. Statistically, turf is safer than even the synthetic surfaces California rushed to embrace after a rash of breakdowns. That haste led to a waste of tens of millions of dollars and a drastic transformation of the sport in converting to the artificial surfaces, which will be swept into the dustbin of history before next summer’s session.

But as long as there is racing, stuff will happen. Dance With Fate, whose multiple stakes wins included the Blue Grass, had to be euthanized last week after a rein broke during training hours and he threw his rider and broke away. Ultimately he ran into the outside rail, suffering irreparable injuries.

The only perfectly safe racing is no racing. The goal has to be to take steps to make it as safe as possible. Del Mar deserves a pat on the back for doing this.

Written by Tom Jicha

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