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, December 02, 2014

California Chrome is Horse of the Year, no ifs, ands or buts

California Chrome is the Horse of the Year. There are no counter arguments. The Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner clinched the title when he made the Hollywood Derby his fourth Grade 1 triumph of the year. No horse has more, although Main Sequence and the filly Untapable also have four. And if a tie-breaker is needed, which it isn't, California Chrome is the only contender with wins on dirt and turf. Case closed.

MIAMI, Dec. 2, 2014--The Horse of the Year debate didn’t begin when California Chrome flashed home the winner of the Hollywood Derby Saturday. It ended.

California Chrome was in the Horse of the Year conversation before his turf debut. It’s hard to exclude a horse who won the first two jewels of the Triple Crown and the most important race for 3-year-olds on the West Coast.

California Chrome’s workmanlike victory in his first start on grass, granted against modest competition, effectively trumps arguments on behalf of any of the other contenders. The 3-year-old championship is a foregone conclusion.

Three horses won four Grade 1 stakes apiece in 2014: California Chrome, Main Sequence and the filly Untapable. Main Sequence’s victories were all on turf, including the Breeders’ Cup Turf, a formidable resume enhancer. Until Saturday, his blemish-free four-for-four U.S. record made him the favorite for Horse of the Year.

Main Sequence now will have to settle for Turf Champion and probably Older Horse. However, I have become a convert and joined the choir of those singing out for this award to be given to the top older dirt horse. In this case, that would be four-time stakes winner Palace Malice. It makes no sense to have an Eclipse for top older turf horse but not one for dirt, North America’s primary surface.

Untapable’s wins were all against her own gender. The one time she tried the boys she got buried in Monmouth’s Haskell by Bayern, who is about to become the seventh straight winner of the Breeders’ Cup Classic to not win Horse of the Year. Bayern was probably not going to be Horse of the Year, not with all the controversy about how he won the Classic, but his supporters were building a case for the 3-year-old championship. California Chrome put that to rest this past weekend.

California Chrome’s resume includes the Kentucky Derby. Things being relatively equal, the one race that is part of Americana trumps all. California Chrome also is the only one to win on dirt and grass. Game, set, match.

How ironic is it that the Eclipse voters, who have been jonesing for a dirt horse to take racing’s top prize after a couple of years of Wise Dan, will get their wish because of California Chrome’s clinching win on turf.

Ironies abound with California Chrome. One of the dumb ass moves by his owners, Dumb Ass Partners, was to make outrageous demands of Del Mar to parade their Derby winner on the track on Pacific Classic Day. They came back Saturday with no guarantees and California Chrome’s presence pulled in the biggest crowd of the new Bing Crosby season.

Another Eclipse clinched

Racing life does go on after the Breeders’ Cup, thank goodness. Another title was clinched when Take Charge Brandi dominated the Delta Princess Stakes the week before Thanksgiving.

I’m guessing I was not the only Eclipse voter who was not enthused about giving the 2-year-old filly title to Take Charge Brandi, who stole the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies after a couple of fifths and an eighth. But when she did it again at Delta Downs, she put away any potential pretenders.

God bless Wayne Lukas. Even with the title in his pocket, The Coach said he might take a shot with her in the Hollywood Starlet at Los Alamitos on Dec. 13. D. Wayne has always been one to run them when they are good, not wait for a spot a couple of months down the road. Too bad there aren’t more like him.

Don’t Tell Sophia just missed thrusting herself more prominently into the older filly and mare discussion when she came up a half-length short of catching Frivolous in the Falls Handicap after a runnerup finish to Untapable in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff.

The championship still might have gone to Close Hatches, who won three straight Grade 1’s before tailing off.

But if Don’t Tell Sophia had been able to make the Grade 2 Falls City her fourth stakes win of the year to go with the Grade 1 Spinster and a pair of ungraded stakes at Oaklawn, her connections could have mounted an argument that she beat Close Hatches in two of their three meetings. Now it’s case closed.

Farewell synthetics

Another hot topic of conversation was also effectively put to rest this past weekend. Synthetic tracks, for all practical purposes, have joined the DeLorean, vinyl records and photo kiosks in history.

When Del Mar reopens for its summer meet in July, it will have a new conventional dirt main track, supposedly consisting of the same sand used at Santa Anita.

Keeneland went back to traditional dirt at its fall meeting. This leaves only Arlington, Woodbine, Turfway and Presque Isle as artificial dirt holdouts.

Turfway, a winter track, and Presque Isle, an excuse for a casino, are irrelevant in the big picture. Arlington is keeping its synthetic surface because Churchill Downs Inc. is no longer making major investments in race tracks. When the official is posted on the glorious life of Richard Duchossois, who made Arlington a palace of racing and is a major CDI share-holder, Churchill is likely to unload the track as fast as a buyer can be found. Moreover, the really important races at the Chicago-area track are on grass.

Woodbine officials acknowledged they are considering rejoining the mainstream of North American racing by reverting to conventional dirt. Recent history teaches that as soon as a track acknowledges it is “considering” a return to real dirt, it’s a sure thing to happen. It’s too late for Woodbine to make the conversion in time for the 2015 season but if there was a future book for 2016, real dirt would be a shorter price than the 3-5 on the field in last weekend’s first round of Kentucky Derby futures.

(Just wondering, what is the mentality of tying up betting capital for almost six months on a 3-5 shot?)

Synthetics were a well intentioned over-reaction to a rash of breakdowns but they changed the nature of racing while only marginally correcting the problem they were designed to alleviate. They will not be missed.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The sooner NY winter racing ends, the better

NYRA loses about a million dollars a week during the winter racing season. Yet there are those who would argue it must be continued. Why? To serve as a social welfare program for inferior horses? A spring-through-fall season also would facilitate closing Aqueduct, which is going to happen. Belmont wouldn't need such extensive winterizing if it didn't have to deal with the worst months of the year.

MIAMI, Nov. 25, 2014--What am I missing?

Winter racing at Aqueduct is said to be essential. Why? A couple of weeks ago, NYRA CEO Chris Kay said at the latest meeting of the NYRA Reorganization Board that winter racing lost $11.9 million in 2013-14. The subject came up again last week at a session on the future of NYRA.

So for whom is winter racing essential? Surely not NYRA. Kay said NYRA, which had been hemorrhaging cash for years, showed a $1.5 million surplus last year. I was not a finance major but simple math tells me that a $1.5 million surplus could become an eight-figure surplus without the winter losses. Kay might not even have to raise prices at Saratoga and gouge fans at Aqueduct concession stands.

Some expenses—electricity, water, heat, maintenance, etc.—go on even when there is no racing. But these costs wouldn’t come close to $11.9 million.

Horsemen, particularly those with lesser stock, understandably support winter racing. It’s when they earn most of what they make for the year. But NYRA is supposed to be a business, not a social welfare program.

If a barn can’t cut it during the spring, summer and fall, it might not belong on such a competitive circuit. There’s always winter racing at Parx and Laurel. Tampa Bay Downs is another alternative.

The New York breeding industry cherishes winter racing. Supposedly almost half the state-bred races all year are run at Aqueduct. But thanks to the VLT money, the breeding industry is making enormous strides quality wise. New York-breds are winning open races all over the nation. They shouldn’t need the crutch of grinding it out against short fields of inferior competition in dreadful weather.

Dayatthespa showed her heels to a world class field at the Breeders’ Cup. This past Saturday, Lubash shipped south to win the Tropical Turf Handicap as the 8-5 favorite. The lesser caliber of New York-breds, who need the winter to earn their keep, probably belongs at Finger Lakes anyway.

NYRA’s season used to end about the second week in December then resume around the middle of March. If a similar plan were adopted, with the gap shortened to say the Sunday before Christmas to the first week in March, the dark period would be about 10 weeks or about 40 scheduled racing days. Five to ten of these are typically lost to weather.

Are so few dates worth the expense and effort to maintain a track in frozen and muddy conditions for the worst three months of the year? We’re talking maybe 30-35 dates, hardly an earth-shattering loss for horsemen, some of whom take their main strings to Florida under any circumstances. This doesn’t take into account the many days when training has to be curtailed or canceled because of brutal conditions.

Rick Violette, the leader of New York horsemen, spends a portion of his winter at Gulfstream. When he had a legitimate Derby contender with Samraat last winter, he had the colt commute to South Florida to train between New York stakes engagements.

Gary Contessa, another NYRA staple who spends part of each winter in South Florida, said he wished he had done the same thing with his 3-year-old Uncle Sigh, who dropped close decisions to Samraat in the Withers and Gotham. “It was very hard to develop a horse in New York this winter,” he said last spring. “If I could do it over, I would have had Uncle Sigh in Florida on Dec. 1. I think Rick Violette should be applauded.”

In other words, Aqueduct in the dead of winter is not a place fit for man or beast.

The benefits of ending winter racing would well outweigh the negatives. NYRA would actually have a season again. The reopening in March would be a much anticipated special event, as it used to be. It is so long since this was the case, many New Yorkers don’t appreciate how valuable this is.

One of the few upsides to the eight-week Gulfstream West meeting, whose sole purpose is to enable Churchill Downs to keep its Calder casino license, is that it is creating a buffer between Gulfstream’s summer meeting and the traditional championship season, which opens a week from Saturday. It will probably draw one of the bigger crowds of the season. I don’t know this would be the case if summer racing segued seamlessly into the prime dates.

A revenue stream would still exist for NYRA, thanks to simulcasting. On frigid winter days with the wind howling off Jamaica Bay, there are sometimes more horses on the track than patrons outside watching. Almost everyone is in front of a TV monitor. If bettors are going to watch races on TV, they might as well watch and bet on larger fields of more talented horses from Florida. This would also keep some New Yorkers, who work the concession stands, bars and restaurants at Aqueduct, employed during the dark period.

Allow NYRA to establish off-track satellites in bars and restaurants around the city and the revenue shortfall would be minimal while expenses would decrease tremendously.

Aqueduct is going to be shut down eventually. State politicians are salivating about taking over the property. It’s only a matter of when. The biggest drawback is Belmont Park is not winterized.

Steven Crist wrote in a recent Racing Form column that when he was a NYRA executive two decades ago estimates were it would cost in excess of $600 million to winterize Belmont. Figure with inflation this would balloon to the rich neighborhood of a billion dollars now.

It would be lunacy to spend so much for the privilege of losing a million dollars a week. If the season didn’t open until early March and ended in December, this expenditure wouldn’t be necessary. Some modifications would still be needed at Belmont but nothing on the scale of a full winterization.

Shorter seasons with fewer races are becoming obligatory everywhere due to the scarcity of horses. Ending winter racing in New York is a relatively painless way to deal with this new normal.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Tuesday, November 18, 2014

State is never going to relinquish NYRA

The state of New York continues to persist in its charade of making it appear as if it is planning to return NYRA to private control by the end of 2015. But an influential legislator says re-privatization is unacceptable. In fact, he came out for more government control of the NYRA board.

MIAMI, Nov. 18, 2014—NYRA held the latest public hearing on the potential return of New York racing to private ownership on Nov. 12. It was theater for the naïve. The entire process of re-privatizing NYRA is and has been a huge charade.

As I have been predicting, there is no way New York politicians are ever going to relinquish control of such a rich vein of patronage and taxes. Forget future takeout reductions. Every time this is even suggested, it will be met by cries from grandstanding politicians, “We are giving money to gamblers while shortchanging our schools, hospitals, welfare programs, etc..” Pick your favorite.

Assembly member Gary Pretlow confirmed my darkest suspicions in a story published on “I don’t think they’re ready to go on their own yet,” Pretlow was quoted as saying.

Pretlow is not just another legislator. He is the chairman of the Assembly Racing Committee. For years he has been the legislature’s go-to expert for matters related to racing. When he makes a statement such as this, it carries extraordinary weight.

This was not an off-the-cuff remark. Pretlow elaborated on his feelings against turning back NYRA to the private sector, a process that is supposed to be at least in the planning stages by this coming spring. He came out firmly in opposition to any effort to re-privatize NYRA. “It remains a franchise under the state of New York and nothing else is really acceptable.”

Pretlow doesn’t even care what plan might materialize. Nothing like keeping an open mind.

He went on to say that NYRA is not trustworthy. “I think we have to continue the way we are now until such time as they can be trusted to run it on its own again.”

Better we should trust politicians.

Give him this. The guy doesn’t waffle. He doesn’t even make an effort to camouflage the motivation for his position. Not only would he like to keep NYRA in government hands, he wants to expand the influence politicians have. Twelve of the 17 seats on the NYRA board are appointed by the governor, the state senate and assembly. Mario Cuomo gets to appoint eight members himself.

NYRA is limited to the remaining five board members. This makes its representation essentially token, since the politicians can veto anything that the people truly involved in thoroughbred racing want to make happen.

Nevertheless, Pretlow feels 5 of 17 is too much. Politicians are more capable of deciding what is in the best interest for racing and its fans, according to Pretlow. Or is that in the politicians’ own best interests?

Look at the great job the politicians did in awarding the racino license at Aqueduct. That took only 10 years longer than it should have, at a revenue loss of billions to the state. It was so rife with corruption, even by the wretched standards of New York politics, it’s a miracle—and a sign of political cronyism—that no one went to jail.

A similar process could play out again in deliberations over what to do about Aqueduct. Cuomo’s preference is to close down the Big A race track and use the land for other purposes, all of which will reap political capital for the governor at the expense of racing.

Anyone who truly believes that the state of New York has any intention to step away from control of thoroughbred racing should be preparing their bids for the April 1 auction of the Brooklyn Bridge.

Fans indifferent to NYRA forum

NYRA executives held a forum with fans at Aqueduct last weekend. That’s the good news. The bad news is that hardly anyone showed up.

Maybe this is a sign that racing fans aren’t as gullible as the power structure likes to believe. They might realize that like the re-privatization hearings, these sessions are all for show. You know the old expression, “After all is said and done, more will be said than done.” In this instance, nothing will be done.

Or maybe it’s that fans can’t handle the confiscatory prices at Aqueduct. I haven’t been there yet but reliable sources tell me that beers are $12 ($13.50 if you want an import), sodas are $7 coffee is $4.50. You say you want coffee and a bagel? Here you are, sir, that will be $10.50.

This must be part of Kay’s plan to make a day at the races more enjoyable. Patrons don’t have to worry about long lines at the concession stands and bars.

Familiar issues were raised: the mess that was Belmont Day last June; the possibility of the Breeders’ Cup returning to New York and, of course, what is going to happen to Aqueduct?

No real answers were provided. In other words, it was business as usual.

No monopoly on hypocrisy

The major sports organizations lead the world in hypocrisy.

The NFL is the worst. While maintaining a strident stance against legalized sports betting, It promotes the hell out of fantasy football. It’s as if the league’s position is participants are playing for marbles. The other leagues also have begun to dip their toes into fantasy games but none promote it like the NFL does.

The NFL also has quietly ceased its objections to the TV networks, which carry its games, mentioning point spreads and having guest handicappers.

What do you suppose the ratings for games like this Thursday’s matchup of Kansas City and winless Oakland would be if millions weren’t bet on the game in some form?

There could be a break in the dam. Adam Silver, the new commissioner of the NBA, came out recently in an op-ed piece in the New York Times in favor of allowing betting on the NBA and sports in general, with the proper safeguards.

“There is an obvious appetite among sports fans for a safe and legal way to wager on sporting events,” Silver wrote.

“I believe that sports betting should be brought out of the underground and into the sunlight where it can be appropriately monitored and regulated.”

In spite of this, Silver’s league remains a party to the lawsuit seeking to thwart sports betting in New Jersey. No hypocrisy there, right?

Meanwhile, the once grand Trump Taj Mahal, has announced that it will become the fifth Atlantic City casino to close its doors by the end of the year.

Written by Tom Jicha

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