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, July 29, 2014

Bayern creates a wonderful dilemma for Baffert

The racing season doesn't end with the posting of the official at the Belmont Stakes. This past weekend set the stage for a scintillating fall, with the dazzling Bayern and workmanlike Wicked Strong throwing their hats into the 3-year-old-division ring, although any 3-year-old will have to do extraordinary work to overtake California Chrome. Also, in spite of not hitting the board in the Haskell, Untapable remains a formidable force looking ahead to the major distaff races.

MIAMI, July 29, 2014--So what does Bob Baffert do now? The Haskell was supposed to be a prep for the Kings Bishop, which was to be a stepping stone to the Breeders’ Cup Sprint and a potential Eclipse Award as the nation’s top sprinter. The conventional wisdom was running short was Bayern’s forte.

Baffert is looking at bigger game now. The seven furlong Kings Bishop appears out of the question. “I don’t think I’ll back him up now,” the trainer said. He has to be at least thinking about the Travers, although it comes up pretty quickly for the ultra conservative training methods that have come into vogue. Then again Baffert loves big stages and there’s none bigger between now and the Breeders’ Cup.

The Pennsylvania Derby, a few weeks later, would be another possibility. It’s a million dollars against 3-year-olds, one of the few remaining options to run against Bayern’s own generation for huge money. The Super Derby could be an easier alternative, although if Baffert is shooting for Eclipses, it doesn’t have the cachet of races north of the Mason Dixon line.

Will Take Charge, who bombed in all three Triple Crown races, nevertheless used a Travers-Pennsylvania Derby double as stepping stones to an Eclipse Award. A Haskell-Pennsylvania Derby double could be steps in the same direction for Bayern.

With California Chrome, the 3-year-old leader in the clubhouse, and the undefeated Eclipse champion Shared Belief pointing for California races as their Breeders’ Cup preps, the prudent move would be to point Bayern toward races in the East.

If Bayern is to challenge for a 3-year-old Eclipse and possibly even Horse of the Year, he has to beat California Chrome and Shared Belief in the Classic. Beating them once in the ultimate showdown would probably be sufficient, so there is little incentive to try to do it twice.

This assumes Bayern doesn’t trip up along the way. This is true of all the 3-year-old pretenders. The only way anyone dethrones California Chrome, who really doesn’t have to do anything more, is to run the table, including the Classic.

The notion that Bayern is not a mile-and-a-quarter horse is based on his failures in the Arkansas Derby and Preakness. But the Oaklawn race was only the third of his life and early trouble took him totally out of his game in Baltimore.

He dispelled a lot of the stamina doubts Sunday. His pedigree says 10 furlongs is within his scope. His sire, Offlee Wild, is by Wild Again, who outgamed Slew O Gold and Gate Dancer in the first Classic, and his dam is by Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew. Bayern’s dam sire is Kentucky Derby winner Thunder Gulch.

All this praise for Bayern isn’t meant to take anything away from Wicked Strong, who re-emerged as one of the leaders of his class in the Jim Dandy. But his win was workmanlike while Bayern’s was dazzling. Blinkers added a new dimension to Wicked Strong, helping to put the former dead closer right into the race. But if Bayern shows up at the Spa on Aug. 23, I don’t think Jimmy Jerkens will want Wicked Strong pushing him early, although Tonalist, who might not have been fully cranked for the Jim Dandy, would love that scenario.

No disgrace for Untapable

So Untapable couldn’t keep up with the boys in the Haskell. Ergo, fillies and mares are inferior to colts and geldings. You are sure to hear this nonsense in the coming days.

No one in the field could keep up with Bayern, including colts with impressive resumes. They included the winners of the Fountain of Youth, Pegasus, Long Branch and Spectacular Bid and the third-place finishers in the Preakness and Belmont.

Yet the only one being put down is Untapable. “She’s no Rachel Alexandra.” Yeah, so? This could be said of every filly since Rachel as well as most of the colts.

Untapable split the males, finishing in front of as many as finished in front of her. Bayern was in a class of his own but Untapable, who had legitimate trouble, was less than two lengths out of second. Social Inclusion, third in the Preakness and Wood Memorial, was about the same distance behind her. Medal Count, third in the Belmont, was more than 14 lengths in arrears of Untapable.

She probably won’t see colts again, at least not as a 3-year-old, but I wouldn’t diminish her chances against Close Hatches, Princess of Sylmar and Beholder in the BC Distaff. For the record, none of those stellar fillies have even dared to challenge the supposedly strong sex.

Del Mar does the right thing

There are racing rarities and there are things that never happen. One of the latter occurred Sunday at Del Mar. A couple of races were taken off the turf.

This happens at the seaside resort as often as…well, it just doesn’t.

The track is always fast and the turf always firm. Hardly a man is now alive who can remember when the conditions were different. Whoever wrote that song “It Never Rains in California,” could have been a Del Mar racing fan.

Weather didn’t force the shift in surfaces. Four tragic breakdowns, two during Saturday’s card, in less than two weeks on the newly installed grass course was the culprit. The widened course, seeded with a different strain of grass, was as hard as the I-5 freeway.

Kudos to Del Mar management for taking decisive action before further tragedies occurred. It would have been easy to wait one more day, with two darks days looming. Del Mar did the right thing.

There’s a bigger point. Track maintenance is more important than track composition when it comes to a safe surface. Statistically, turf is safer than even the synthetic surfaces California rushed to embrace after a rash of breakdowns. That haste led to a waste of tens of millions of dollars and a drastic transformation of the sport in converting to the artificial surfaces, which will be swept into the dustbin of history before next summer’s session.

But as long as there is racing, stuff will happen. Dance With Fate, whose multiple stakes wins included the Blue Grass, had to be euthanized last week after a rein broke during training hours and he threw his rider and broke away. Ultimately he ran into the outside rail, suffering irreparable injuries.

The only perfectly safe racing is no racing. The goal has to be to take steps to make it as safe as possible. Del Mar deserves a pat on the back for doing this.

Written by Tom Jicha

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