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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Friday, March 21, 2014

Asmussen charges must be dealt with immediately

Racing has a tendency to bury its head in the sand when it comes to scandals, hoping that in time the issue will go away. This cannot happen in the latest allegations against Steve Asmussen. The stakes are just too high.

MIAMI, March 19, 2014--This week's column theme was going to be an update on the Kentucky Derby trail as it reaches the crucial stages. But sometimes events overtake intentions.The sensational allegations published in The New York Times, with the assistance of PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), against Steve Asmussen cannot pass without comment.

The charges against Asmussen are disgusting--if proven. This qualifier should not be taken lightly. Certainly there is what seems to be damning evidence, including video, but the source is agenda driven and so is The New York Times. That said, if proven, without mitigating circumstances, Asmussen should suffer penalties as severe as can be allowed. A lifetime ban should not be out of the question.

But before leading a torch light and pitchfork brigade, I want to hear everything.

We have to keep in mind that PETA is a bunch of lunatics not above terrorist tactics. It is dedicated to ending not only horse racing but rodeos,circuses and horse-driven carriages in Central Park. All horseback riding, too.

PETA wants everyone too become vegetarians. They want to outlaw leather shoes and the clothes that will keep us warm. It has engineered similar smears against every industry it wants to shut down, in short, every industry in which animals are involved.

Likewise, The New York Times has launched its holy war against horse racing, publishing scandal-mongering stories in proximity to major events (Triple Crown, Breeders’ Cup, etc.) It knows PETA’s tactics and goals, yet used it as a source.

Not only that, the paper granted anonymity to the accuser. What has happened to the basic tenet of justice that a person, in this case Asmussen, has a right to confront his accuser?

The story also potentially destroyed, or at least severely damaged, the career and reputation of young jockey Ricardo Santana by making it seem that his success is due to riding with a buzzer, even though absolutely no evidence was produced other than an off-handed comment.

But, certainly, the cavalier conversation on the subject between Hall of Famers Wayne Lukas and Gary Stevens does not cast a favorable light, even in jest.

Lest I seem naive, I want to point out I was one of the few to point out the problems with Asmussen's Hall of Fame candidacy (see HRI archives).

This is not the first time Asmussen has been accused of serious improprieties and he has served countless days on the sidelines because of them. He still deserves a chance to defend himself, the sooner the better.

I commend the Hall of Fame for tabling his nomination until this matter is adjudicated. But I also question the timing of the publication of the charges against him as Hall of Fame voting is taking place. It seems clear the intent is to hurt him and racing.

Most of the events described in the video took place seven or eight months ago. Why the delay? Why now? You can bet that if his nomination didn't come up when it did, the video would have been perfect Derby week fodder.

If this forces racing to step up and finally take meaningful action to clean up the game, it could be worth this latest embarrassment. The question is how.

First and foremost, no more slaps on the wrist. First offenses should carry stiff penalties, up to and including suspension of entry rights to owners of horses who come up positive. Make owners absolute insurers, just as trainers are. Many, if not most, owners have no idea what goes on in the barn, even with horses that cost millions of dollars.

This would force them to investigate a trainer's reputation that goes beyond win percentages and numbers of Grade 1s won.

A second offense should bring at least one year on the sidelines--and I wouldn't be reluctant to extend this to owners, too.

A third strike and you're out for good.

If racing doesn't take actions such as these, the movement to involve the federal government will gain unstoppable momentum. This would be a disaster. Activist groups such as PETA would apply enough political pressure to compel congressional investigations every other week.

The sport cannot ignore the reality that there are far more well intentioned animal lovers who could be swayed by tactics such as PETA's than there are racing fans. When push comes to shove, what politicians care about most is how many votes they can glean from any situation. Racing would finish a distant second.

Now on to our regularly scheduled column.

A variety of Derby prep winners

Gulfstream’s Holy Bull and Fountain of Youth; Santa Anita’s Sham, Robert B. Lewis and San Felipe; the Le Comte and Risen Star at the Fair Grounds; Oaklawn’s Smarty Jones, Southwest and Rebel; the Tampa Bay Derby and the El Camino Real at Golden Gate have something in common besides being points-awarding Kentucky Derby preps.
They’ve all been won by different 3-year-olds.

Throw in the Sam F. Davis at Tampa and the Gulfstream Park Derby, which should offer qualifying points, and you have two more distinct winners. The Sunland Derby and Spiral Stakes this weekend, the final two races of the 50-point phase two of Derby qualifying, could produce two new shooters.

To put it another way, no Derby hopeful has been able to win more than one stakes at the traditional proving grounds. To be fair, the ranking horses on both coasts, Candy Boy and Cairo Prince, have each only had one race in 2014. But this is not the case for most of the rest.

Samraat has wins in the Withers and Gotham. (Noble Moon won New York's other 3-year-old prep, the Jerome.) But it’s hard to get enthusiastic over Samraat in the light of history. Apollo won the Derby without racing as a 2-year-old, albeit more than a century and a quarter ago. There has never been a Derby winner who prepped exclusively over Aqueduct’s inner track against the lesser stock who winter in the Big Apple.

Every Derby season is a war of attrition as much as competition. This year is no exception. Many of those who are still in training have disappointed. Honor Code is the latest to stub his toe, going down by 10 lengths in a five-horse allowance race in his belated season debut at Gulfstream a week ago.

The winner, Social Inclusion, looks like he might be special. However, he did have things his own way as lone speed on a track that has favored this style all season. Also, other than Honor Code, who clearly wasn’t fully cranked and didn’t have the best of trips, the other three were over-matched sacrificial lambs.

Reportedly, there have been offers as high as $5 million for 75% for the colt. If his owners don’t jump at that, they ought to be committed.

Last Saturday brought more of the same. Tapiture, Strong Mandate and Kobe’s Back were the headliners in the Rebel but Bob Baffert’s Hoppertunity, with only a maiden win in three starts and coming off a seven-length defeat in the Risen Star, ran them all down.

Strong Mandate and especially Kobe’s Back might have been exposed as horses who won’t want any part of ten furlongs. Strong Mandate has distance breeding but Cigar had turf breeding. He has now lost ground or position between the stretch call and finish in his three two-turn races. He also backed up in the stretch of the one-mile, one-turn Champagne, which was his longest career race at the time.

D. Wayne has a knack for getting horses to fire their best shots on the first Saturday in May and you know he will be there but Strong Mandate is going to have to come up big in the Arkansas Derby to pique my interest in him in Louisville.

However, it’s too early to abandon the Tapiture ship. He showed a lot of guts blasting his way out of a trap on the rail--which might have gotten him DQ’ed if he had won--then rallying between horses to just miss while being pinballed between a wobbly Strong Mandate and Hoppertunity. Other than the winner, Tapiture was the only one doing any serious running at the end.

Meanwhile Cairo Prince has seen his status as Derby favorite soar without ever leaving the barn, even though his 2014 stakes resume isn’t any stronger than 17 or 18 others. His win in the Holy Bull was flattered when show horse Intense Holiday won the Risen Star but the second, fourth and fifth finishers have all been off the board in their next start. There probably will be two more by Sunday night.

This is something to keep in mind as you ponder jumping into the final Derby futures pool next weekend.

3 cheers (1 boo) for NYRA

A chill could be felt through the phone line when NYRA CEO Chris Kay said during a conference call to trumpet the super-sized Belmont Stakes Day that prices would be in line with the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.

Speculation has been rampant that a cheap seat would run three figures and the most coveted locations could approach four figures. A long-time race-going friend predicted grandstand admission would double from $10 to $20 and entrance to the clubhouse would be at least $50. I took the over.

What a pleasant surprise—shock would be more like it—that the price scale unveiled this week is far more reasonable. Most commendable is that the grandstand will remain $10. This is taking care of the little guy, something racing rarely does. Also praiseworthy is the modest increase for the clubhouse, from $20 to $30.

More good news: some grandstand reserved seats on the second floor have actually been reduced from $120 to $95. Third floor grandstand seats can be had for $20 to $65. According to NYRA, 30 percent of the seats will cost less than last year or remain the same.

The heaviest reserved seat tariff will be “only” $300, still quite a hit but a bargain by prime sports standards in New York.

In another piece of welcome news, NYRA has backed off its intention to raise admission at Belmont on mundane race days from $5 to $8 for the clubhouse and $3 to $5 for general admission.

Not all the news is good. That same increase for Saratoga will take effect with opening day in July.

Why the status quo at Belmont but an increase at the Spa? Simple, because NYRA can. Driving away even a handful of price-conscious fans from Belmont would make the cavernous facility even more depressing.

Saratoga remains the summer place to be. It probably has more once or twice-a-season fans than any track in America other than, perhaps, Keeneland or Del Mar, which also host short boutique seasons. So an increase isn’t likely to keep very many people away.

Still, it’s likely that there will be a noticeable drop in total attendance because there will be substantially less “spinning” on giveaway Sundays, unless NYRA steps up the caliber of the premium items to make them worth the effort at $5 apiece.

Written by Tom Jicha

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