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, March 25, 2015

Derby starting gate shouldn’t have a back door

Dubai Sky and Firing Line both came up big last weekend to clinch Kentucky Derby starting berths. But Dubai Sky did it on an artificial surface and Firing Line went to the middle of nowhere to crush a field of nobodies. Meanwhile others will be slugging it out in races like the Florida Derby, Santa Anita Derby and Wood Memorial to win their right to run for the roses.This isn't right. Also, Kentucky horsemen are objecting to the reasonable proposal that tracks be allowed to write races for horses whose connections are willing to compete without Lasix. What is it the naysayers fear?

MIAMI, March 25, 2015--Dubai Sky and Firing Line each came up huge in this past weekend’s final phase of 85-point Kentucky Derby preps and clinched berths in the starting gate for the Run for the Roses. The question is should they have?

Turf races get no Derby qualifying points. The simple reason is grass and dirt are different games. So are, dirt and artificial surfaces, such as the one at Turfway over which Dubai Sky romped in the Spiral.

It cannot be overlooked that the connections of Dubai Sky chose the Spiral for his bid to win a spot in the Derby because it is run over an artificial surface, which tends to play more like grass than dirt. Dubai Sky went into the Spiral on a three-race winning streak, all on turf.

Dubai Sky has never run on a conventional dirt surface. He finally will in America’s biggest race—possibly at the expense of another horse omitted because Dubai Sky earned his Derby points on kitty litter.

I know about Animal Kingdom, who completed the Spiral-Derby double. But a single exception shouldn’t be the justification for a policy. As long as turf races get no Derby points, artificial surface races shouldn’t, either. This is especially true now that most of the major tracks that went to synthetics have gone back to the real thing.

Worse than Dubai Sky punching his Derby ticket on fake dirt is Conquest Typhoon also picking up 20 points, to go with the 6 he had on real dirt. This should be enough to get him into the Derby, too—again at the possible expense of a horse who earned his points on the same surface over which the Derby will be run.

Firing Line also was brilliant winning the Sunland Derby. However, this is a race that should count for no more than 10 points to the winner, if that. It defies logic that a race in New Mexico is on the same tier as Gulfstream’s Fountain of Youth, the Gotham in New York, the Risen Star at the Fair Grounds and the San Felipe at Santa Anita solely because of where it falls on the calendar. The Lexington on April 11 at Keeneland is only a 10-point race.

Firing Line used the Sunland Derby to beat up on lightweights as a means to get his Derby points without having to face the heavyweights in Southern California. His connections had seen enough of Dortmund. But Firing Line wasn’t shipped to New Orleans to take on International Star or Gulfstream to oppose Upstart and Itsaknockout or Keeneland where Carpe Diem awaits and certainly not to Oaklawn for a showdown with Dortmund’s Eclipse-winning stablemate American Pharoah. He was shipped to the middle of nowhere to thrash nobodies.

This is becoming a trend. Firing Line is the fourth straight Californian to ship in for the easy pickings in New Mexico. Chitu, Governor Charlie and Daddy Nose Best preceded him. You couldn’t find any of them in the Kentucky Derby. Governor Charlie didn’t even go to Louisville and was subsequently eighth in the Preakness.

I don’t mean to diminish either Dubai Sky or Firing Line. Both appear to be exceptional colts. In the case of Dubai Sky, it could be that the only reason he hasn’t duplicated his grass form on conventional dirt is that he hasn’t been given the opportunity. For all we know, he might be even better on dirt. He’s by Candy Ride, whose offspring run on anything.

As for Firing Line, it should be a badge of honor that he pushed Dortmund so hard twice. No one else has.

However, as long as there is a system to qualify for the Kentucky Derby, it should be a fair system without back doors.

No Lasix proposal passes despite protests

The Kentucky Horse Racing Commission took a small step on Monday to bringing American racing into line with the rest of the world. In spite of vehement protests by some horsemen, the commission voted 8-4 to allow tracks in the state to card races for horses whose connections opt for them to compete without Lasix.

This seems reasonable enough. A lot of horsemen say they use Lasix on some horses solely because their owners feel not using it gives the competition an edge.

Alas, there doesn’t seem to be a place for reason in this debate. The Kentucky HBPA is marshalling opposition even though no horseman would be forced to run in these races and, if the races didn’t fill, they wouldn’t be carded.

The opposition contends that the ultimate aim of the proposal is to work toward an all-out ban on race day Lasix by writing nothing but no-Lasix races. This is so ridiculous in an era when tracks are struggling to fill fields that it doesn’t merit vigorous rebuttal.

It also has been said by the opposition that Keeneland would use the new rule to institute a no-Lasix condition for this fall’s Breeders’ Cup. This is also absurd. Keeneland, which pushed for the right to card no-Lasix races, is not planning to experiment with them until at least the spring 2016 meeting, according to its CEO Bill Thomason.

Moreover, there are still so many legal hurdles to clear before the proposal becomes operative that, practically speaking, Kentucky tracks couldn’t implement the new rules before 2016 if they wanted to.

Even if this were not the case, the Breeders’ Cup is unlikely to fight this battle again any time soon. It tried this in 2012 and 2013 in juvenile races and ran into a horsemen’s revolt. There were threats that if the Breeders’ Cup banned race day Lasix in 2014, horsemen’s groups would withhold simulcasting permission. Without simulcasting, the Breeders’ Cup would go out of business. So the no-Lasix proposal was dropped.

The only thing naysayers have to fear is that superior trainers will demonstrate it isn’t necessary to juice horses to get them to run to the maximum of their ability. This has to be scary to some horsemen.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Upstart draws outside No. 9 for Florida Derby

Rick Violette wasn't thrilled when Upstart drew the outside post 9 for Saturday's Florida Derby. But the colt who has finished first in a couple of Gulfstream stakes this winter will make his final Derby prep in the $1 million stakes. Todd Pletcher has the early second and third choices in Itsaknockout, who was put up to first on the DQ of Upstart in the Fountain of Youth, and Materiality, who is two-for-two in his brief career.

HALLANDALE--It’s a good thing Saturday’s Florida Derby drew only nine entrants. Upstart drew the outside post for the mile-and-an-eighth $1 million stakes and his trainer, Rick Violette, said if it had been the 11 or 12, he might have been getting on a plane.

This was a light-hearted reference to Violette wavering for weeks about whether to make Upstart’s final Kentucky Derby prep in the Florida Derby at Gulfstream or the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct a week later.

A couple of undefeated Todd Pletcher colts are next in line. Itsaknockout, who was put up to first when Upstart was disqualified in the Fountain of Youth, is the 2-1 second choice from post 4. He had won his previous two starts at Gulfstream.

Materiality, who’s 2-for-2 at Gulfstream this winter, is listed at 7-2 from the 7 hole. Pletcher won last year’s Florida Derby with Constitution, who was making his third career start.

Ami’s Flatter, second in the Tampa Bay Derby and the Mucho Macho Man, is the only other horse in single digits, listed at 8-1. He’ll start on the fence.

The others are Indianaughty (No. 3), Jack Tripp (No. 2) and Quimet (No. 5) at 20-1. Dekabrist (No. 8) and My Point Exactly (No. 6) are each 30-1.

(Coming Wednesday: Should Derby Starting Gate Have a Back Door)?

Written by Tom Jicha

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Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Final Derby preps keep getting further out

Imagine trainers scheduling their horses' final Kentucky Derby preps in February? It's not that far fetched given the way the game is now played. Five weeks used to be thought of as much too far out for a final Derby prep. Many of the key preps were two weeks before Louisville. Now five weeks has become the ideal. If the winner of this weekend's Spiral or Sunland Derby goes on to take the Run for the Roses, maybe six weeks will be the new norm--until someone wins off a seven- or eight-week layoff.

ALSO: New York Keeps NYRA Franchise Another Year

MIAMI, March 18, 2015--It was about a decade ago that Gulfstream moved the Florida Derby to five weeks before the Kentucky Derby. There were dire predictions that the Florida Derby’s days as a major Kentucky Derby prep were over. Trainers would balk at getting stuck in a no-man’s land of going into the Run for the Roses off such a long layoff or having to squeeze in another prep in the interim.

Barbaro put that theory to rest. Now five weeks is considered ideal, so much so that Rick Violette, in spite of all his New York connections, is keeping Upstart in South Florida for the March 28 Florida Derby rather than going home for the Wood Memorial a week later. I’m not a fan of the strategy but kudos to Violette for doing what he feels is best for his horse.

It’s becoming ridiculous. There’s a good chance that the winners of this weekend’s Spiral Stakes and Sunland Derby will go straight to Louisville. If one of them should take the Run for the Roses, six weeks could become the new normal.

In the imitative world of horse training we appear to be heading down a slippery slope toward races in February becoming final Derby preps. Then we wonder why horses can’t handle the Triple Crown regimen of three races within five weeks.

Athletes, human and equine, tend to be able to do what they are trained to do. Train a horse to run every month and a half and that’s what you will get. It’s not coincidental that the last three Triple Crown winners ran in an era when the final preps were two weeks or less from the Derby and came two weeks after another round of preps. Horses then were primed for the Triple Crown grind.

IMO, the big four in the Horse Race Insider poll are on one level and the rest are a cut below. I could see any one of American Pharoah, Dortmund, Upstart and Carpe Diem becoming a really special horse. Maybe more than one. We had two—Shared Belief and California Chrome—last year.

I’ll be pulling for American Pharoah for a couple of reasons. That the Arkansas Derby--American Pharoah’s likely final Derby prep--is only three weeks out from the big one is a major factor. Something has to happen to get the pendulum swinging back.

I’m also a little ticked at the way his smashing Rebel triumph is being diminished. I don’t dispute the fact that he got away with slow fractions and that there wasn’t a genuine Derby contender chasing him around the Oaklawn oval.

This is more than counter-balanced by several factors that made his effort extraordinary. He hadn’t been out since September, he shipped cross country to race over an unfamiliar surface and, to exacerbate the situation, the track came up sloppy. It hasn't rained in California since San Andreas was a no-fault. Let’s also not forget American Pharoah had a problem with one of his shoes a step or two out of the gate. He shook them off and came up giant.

Who did he beat? It didn’t matter. He has nothing left to prove in that area. He beat Texas Red by five in the Front Runner and Texas Red came back to win the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile by 6 1/2. Among those eating Texas Red's dust that day were Carpe Diem and Upstart.

American Pharoah beat Calculator in the Front Runner and Del Mar Futurity. In Calculator’s next start, he galloped in the Sham. So, could we please stop with “Who did American Pharoah beat?”

It looks like none of the Big Four are going to be facing anything special in their final prep. Dortmund will be meeting the same bunch in the Santa Anita Derby that he put away in the San Felipe.

Upstart will be confronted in the Florida Derby by horses he has already outrun this winter, some more than once. The only ones to beat Upstart as a 3-year-old are the Gulfstream stewards. One possible new shooter is Todd Pletcher's late developing Materiality but the Florida Derby is not a definite for him.

Carpe Diem is heading back to Keeneland for the Blue Grass, where he romped in the Breeders’ Futurity last fall. No horse in the Horse Race Insider or NTRA Top 10 is listed as following him there.

Except for the fact that it’s a million dollar race with generous minor shares, who would want to take on American Pharoah in the Arkansas Derby after what he did last Saturday?

International Star will meet most of the same horses he beat in the LeComte and Risen Star in the Louisiana Derby.

The Wood Memorial is shaping up as the best of the Derby preps from a competition and betting standpoint. El Kabeir, impressive winner of the Jerome and Gotham, will get a rematch with Far From Over, who ran him down in the Withers. Frosted, who looked like the winner of the Fountain of Youth at the top of the stretch, also might return to Aqueduct, where he was second in the nine-furlong Remsen. Wicked Strong came to Florida last winter off a third in the Remsen, had a dismal winter at Gulfstream then returned to New York to win the Wood.

Cuomo hanging on to NYRA

We saw this coming. Buried in Andrew Cuomo’s budget for next year are a couple of lines that indicate the state of New York intends to continue control of NYRA for at least another year. NYRA was supposed to return to private hands by the end of 2015.

The budget process is still in its early stages but there has been no blowback to the NYRA proposal so it’s probably a fait accompli. No surprise. Anyone who thinks Cuomo, who appoints the majority of the NYRA board, is going to surrender those plums is naive.

This is the state whose long time speaker of the house, Sheldon Silver, is under indictment for corruption. Cuomo might be in trouble, too, if he hadn’t disbanded a commission investigating corruption at the highest state levels when it appeared the posse might be closing in.

More to the point, it took 10 years to get VLTs into Aqueduct even though the delay cost the state billions in revenue.

Who is going to make a serious bid to buy NYRA when it’s not known what the state intends to do about maintaining Aqueduct as a race track, winterizing Belmont and the future of casinos in the Big Apple. Without bids, the state has to maintain control. And this is just how Cuomo wants it.

Written by Tom Jicha

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