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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Thursday, November 22, 2018

America’s iron horse tries 8th straight Grade 1

In an era when top grade horses start fewer than a half-dozen times a year, Bravazo will race for the 11th time and eighth straight in a Grade 1, including all three Triple Crown races, when he goes to the post in today's Clark Handicap.. This weekend will also feature the first of the futures wagers for the 2019 Kentucky Derby, with a new suckers' play, "all fillies." As always, there is no excuse for the field being limited to 24 options.

Seeking the Soul will be a tough beat as he attempts to defend his Clark Handicap title, the centerpiece of a busy weekend of racing. But no matter who your figs come up with, you have to have a little sentimental root for Bravazo, a throwback iron horse to days of old.

A recent report in Blood Horse Daily noted out that the average number of annual starts for horses who competed in at least one Grade 1 race is 5.5. Bravazo will double that Friday. The Clark will be his 11th start of 2018. More impressive, it will be his eighth straight Grade 1.

His season-opening win in an optional claimer at Oaklawn is his only non-stakes effort. His next two starts, including a triumph in the Risen Star, were in Grade 2 events. Every one since has been in a Grade 1.

Other than Justify, he is the only horse to run in all three Triple Crown events. Justify has been gone since June. The Clark will be Bravazo’s fifth Grade 1 since then.

Bravazo has run in every month of the year but April and October, when he was prepping for the Derby and Breeders’ Cup. He will have run twice in the subsequent month both times.

He hasn’t gotten to the winner’s circle in a Grade 1 but he has run big on some of the sport’s grandest stages; seconds in the Preakness and Haskell, thirds in the Travers and Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile.

Not surprisingly, Bravazo is trained by old school D. Wayne Lukas. The Coach trains his horses the old fashioned way, by getting into the stall with them, monitoring their body language and his own gut feeling, not according to sheets of paper generated in a downtown office.

The Clark is the only Grade 1 of the holiday weekend, which serves as an epilogue to the Breeders’ Cup, but between the Fall Highweight on Thursday and the Native Diver on Sunday, there are 18 graded stakes spread across the landscape from New York to Kentucky to Canada to Del Mar. At least that many more ungraded events are carded.

So spare me the arguments that a Breeders’ Cup on Thanksgiving weekend, which includes the only Friday of the year when most of America is off work, would be unfair to owners, trainers and stable help.

Why not a true Derby futures bet?

The Churchill Downs tote system handled trifectas, most involving 14-horse fields, on Breeders’ Cup weekend. A 14-horse field generates 2,184 possible combinations.

Churchill’s tote had no problems with superfectas that weekend. Full fields allowed for 24,024 potential combinations. There were also High 5’s. Just short of a quarter-million possibilities, 240,240, were in play.

The first Kentucky Derby Futures wagering for the 2019 renewal is taking place this weekend. Once again, there are only 24 possibilities. The original explanation was the tote system couldn’t handle the 400 or so nominees as separate entities. I don’t think Churchill even tries to pass off that lie anymore.

So as always, No. 24 “all others” will go off at close to even-money, with the odds being better than even that it will win. Three of the five years of the November futures bet, this has been the outcome. California Chrome paid $3.20 in 2014. Always Dreaming and Justify each returned $4.40 the past two years.

So if you bet the “all others” in each of the first five years, you would have made a profit of $2 on $10 wagered, a 1-5 payoff, while waiting about six months to collect. This makes bridge-jumping seem enlightened.

Even in the two instances where bettors were able to get down on the eventual winner, American Pharoah ($27.60) and Nyquist ($21.80), the payoffs didn’t justify the risk. It’s not a stretch to suggest at this point it’s more than a 12-1 proposition that any individual horse will make the Derby, let alone win.

If there were 400 or so possibilities, there could be payoffs into four figures or more. That would be exciting and news worthy.

Of course, Derby nominees aren’t known until mid-February, so a November Futures wager, in only its sixth year, wouldn’t be possible. No loss.

If a November Futures has to be, every juvenile who broke maiden thus far could be a separate entry with an “all others” at the end. That should account for a few hundred possibilities and alluring odds on even some of the most backed contenders.

Way back when the Irish Sweepstakes was the only life-changing lottery, albeit an illegal one in the U.S., this was how it was done. Tickets were matched to scores of horses, most of whom wouldn’t make the race on which it was based. It was so popular even among those who rarely gambled that you were considered lucky if you knew someone who could get you a ticket.

Churchill has demonstrated this year that it is open to change, albeit a slight, sophomoric change. The new No. 23 is “all fillies.” This is close to three-card monte thievery. Only two fillies have run in the Derby in the 21st century, Devil May Care in 2010 and Eight Belles in 2008.

Moreover, there are no new provisions for fillies to qualify under the Derby points system. There should be, but there aren’t.

Las Vegas has all but taken itself out of the futures business so the opening is there. It’s up to Churchill Downs to take advantage.

Written by Tom Jicha

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