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 Breedersí Cup at Gulfstream Park.

He's been the Sun Sentinelís horse racing writer since 2007 as a staff member, and continues to this day as a free-lancer.

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Thursday, January 04, 2018

An Eclipse Award doesn’t make a horse a star

A new bevy of champions will be crowned at the Eclipse Awards on Jan. 25. But it's overly optimistic to think any stars will be born. Mainstream sports fans hardly know them. Likely Horse of the Year Gun Runner ran only six times in 2017. Two, possibly three, of the winners made just three starts. On average, each of them started less frequently than once every 10 weeks. Out of sight, they were out of mind. Meanwhile, in California, the CHRB has held itself up to scorn for an out-of-proportion penalty meted out to Ron Ellis, a trainer with an almost spotless record over 35 years.

The Eclipse Awards celebrate all that's great about American racing. Slightly beneath the surface they also reveal something eating away at the sport. Only two of the dozen likely champions raced more than six times in 2017. West Coast made nine starts and Abel Tasman had seven.

The outstanding distaffer, Forever Unbridled raced just three times. So did likely 2-year-old filly champion Caledonia Road. The male juvenile champion will be either Good Magic or Bolt d'Oro. The former raced three times, the latter four.

Horse of the Year in waiting Gun Runner did not have a health or injury issue and was in training from January through December. Nevertheless, he made only six starts, one on the other side of the world in Dubai.

The 11 probable champions (Gun Runner will be a double winner) made 53 or 54 starts, depending on who wins the 2-year-old male category. This averages out to fewer than five apiece, less than one every 10 weeks.

Compare this to Secretariat, recently crowned the No. 1 thoroughbred of the past 50 years. Secretariat didn't begin his career until July 4 of his juvenile season yet still made nine starts as a 2-year-old. He made a dozen more during his Triple Crown winning season, including one at Arlington only three weeks after his breathtaking Belmont. Contemporary trainers would pass out at the thought.

When Secretariat raced, network television and major newspapers took notice. He made the covers of Time and Newsweek; not just Sports Illustrated but the ones whose prime space was generally devoted to world leaders and events.

It cannot be stated often enough that sports and entertainment, essentially the same thing, have become almost totally star driven. It's difficult to achieve star power when you are out of sight and thus out of mind, as today's best horses are.

Without stars, racing is a roulette wheel with saddle cloths. This is where the game is headed and nobody seems to care. Major stakes and what passes for star horses are relegated to early races on racing cards so as not to get in the way of feeding rainbow chasing jackpot pools which, no matter how huge, can't compete with the gargantuan payoffs on progressive slot machines.

The Eclipse Awards have become just another vehicle to service breeders. Why should casual sports fans, who showed up by the thousands to see American Pharoah work out and jammed race tracks to witness the likes of Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Spectacular Bid, Buckpasser and Dr. Fager get excited about horses who made only three starts all year?

The only time racing insinuates itself into the mainstream of sports is during the five weeks of the Triple Crown. This is when casual fans become familiar with the major players and follow them. Once the Triple Crown ends, most of these horses disappear. So does the interest of less than hardcore fans.

The Eclipse Awards will barely get a line or two, if that, in most newspapers this month. The reason; outside the industry nobody cares. Several hundred people will be in Gulfstream's Sport of Kings Theater on Jan. 25 for the Eclipse ceremonies. There will probably be double that number in the slots parlors on the other side of the building.

Selfish breeders and trainers more concerned with their winning percentage than the good of the sport can blame themselves for this.

CHRB an embarrassment again

The California Horse Racing Board, the worst, most pig-headed, regulatory body in racing, has demonstrated again it's lack of common sense and fair-mindedness.

The Board has issued a draconian penalty--60 days and a $10,000 fine-- against Ron Ellis for a minuscule positive in Masochistic, second under the wire in the 2016 Breeders' Cup Sprint.

Ellis is one of the good guys. In a sport heavily populated by cynics and knockers, it would be difficult to find anyone to say a negative word about him.

A trainer more than 35 years, he has a near spotless record. You won't find his name near the top of the trainers' standings because he is devoted to his horses to a fault. If they are not absolutely fit and healthy, he doesn't run them. When he does enter, his horses are invariably well backed. Fans know they will get a good run for their money.

Nevertheless, the CHRB is treating him as if were the late Oscar Barrera. The significance of 60 days is it is the threshold for dire ramifications, which threaten to put him out of business. Most significantly, he has to disband his stable. So not only is he being punished far beyond what his ffense merits but 15 employees are suffering with him. They are out of a job. This is not justice.

It is not as if Ellis hasn't already suffered. Beyond the harm to his reputation, he was forbidden to enter a horse in the 2017 Breeders' Cup. You have to wonder how many top class horses this cost him.

His daughter Elizabeth, who is married to jockey Joe Talamo, penned a heartfelt defense of her dad that would make any parent proud and makes more sense than anything you get from the CHRB. Her epistle convincingly points out the circumstances that make the penalties against Ellis so outrageously out of proportion.

The overage of a legal steroid, stanozolol, found in Masochistic are so minute, they had to be measured in picograms. A picogram is a trillionith of a gram. You would need the Mount Palomar telescope to see it. It is beyond absurd to think this amount would be performance enhancing.

Moreover, Ellis made no effort to hide or deny that he treated Masochistic with stanozolol, which he used to keep weight on the horse. Stanozolol is said to pass through a horse's system within 60 days. Masochistic's last treatment was 68 days out.

Ellis had Masochistic tested three times, with the CHRB's knowledge, before the Breeders' Cup. The last test was eight days prior to the race. Traces of the steroid were still in Masochistic's system but in such small amounts, it was believed it would be gone by race day.

Fully armed with this knowledge, the CHRB, which is supposed to protect the bettors, allowed Ellis to enter and run the horse. It eventually disqualified him but bettors who had the exacta with Mind Your Biscuits, who was elevated to second well after the fact, were SOL. So who screwed the betting public more: Ellis or the CHRB?

Under the circumstances, shouldn't each of the CHRB's members be subject to the same or additional sanctions?

Written by Tom Jicha

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