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 Sentinels horse racing writer since 2007 as a staff member, and continues to this day as a free-lancer.

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Wednesday, August 28, 2013


Brunetti ‘guarantees’ racing will return to Hialeah


Tradition rich Hialeah Park has joined Gulfstream and Calder in having its own big revenue generating casino. Hialeah owner John Brunetti 'guarantees' that Hialeah will also join South Florida's other racetracks in having thoroughbred racing.

MIAMI, Aug. 27, 2013--The scorched earth conflict between Gulfstream and Calder seems to have settled into a war of attrition. More on that in a bit. Meanwhile, waiting and watching from the fringes is Hialeah and John Brunetti.

The new Hialeah casino, which should arm Brunetti with satchels of cash to do the mandatory rebuilding of the grandstand seating and barn areas--as well as influence legislators--was unveiled last week. It is one grand looking facility, first class in every way, the equal of the slot machine parlors at Gulfstream and Calder.

The slots room on the ground floor is spacious and well stocked with the latest armless bandits. (It’s all done with the push of a button these days.)

The poker room on the second floor is spacious with more flat screen TVs than Best Buy, tuned to ball games as well as race tracks, in case card players also want to bet horses. SAM machines are plentiful enough that it requires less time to make a horse bet than to visit the restrooms, which have also been updated to rival those in the toniest Las Vegas casinos.

For what it’s worth, a veteran poker player, who has to remain anonymous because of ties to another gambling establishment, pointed out that as a group, the female dealers are the prettiest he has ever seen.

Also looking good again is the Hialeah grandstand, at least from the back. Brunetti staged a coming out party for the casino and the place hasn’t looked so good since the NFL held a Super Bowl party in the backyard back in the ‘80s.

The main structure, if not the seating area, has been totally refurbished. The walls have been transformed to an attractive sand color. The signature bougainvillea vines had to be taken off but they will be back, someone, who seemed to know what he was talking about, said.

So will thoroughbred racing, Brunetti promised. Getting caught up in the spirit of Joe Namath, who made his famous boast not far from Hialeah, Brunetti said, “I guarantee it.”

The only logical way this can happen is for the state to get back into the regulation of racing dates. The mess that unfettered Calder and Gulfstream have made racing against each other might be just the catalyst to spur the lawmakers to mandate the tracks to go back to the old way.

Beyond his guarantee, Brunetti didn’t want to be drawn into saying anything that could get him on the wrong side of the lawmakers who hold Hialeah’s fate in their hands. “I’m just watching what’s going on.”

What’s going on resembles racing’s version of Muhammad Ali’s rope-a-dope tactics against George Foreman in the 1974 “Rumble in the Jungle.”

Gulfstream is pummeling Calder, which is doing little to fight back. Gulfstream’s handle on the days they go head to head is roughly twice Calder’s. A superior brand is a major factor.

Another came to my attention on my travels to Saratoga. I mentioned in a previous column that when I stopped at Laurel, the Racing Form had Gulfstream PPs but not Calder’s. The same situation prevailed when I got to New York. So Gulfstream has a big advantage all the way up the East Coast.

Enough horsemen have left Calder to fill Gulfstream’s barn area. Why not? Gulfstream purses are extraordinarily high for summer racing. There is a $100,000 stake every Saturday and many in the fields would be longshots in $50,000 claimers during a major meet. The term “hundred grander” doesn’t carry the cachet it once did.

On a recent Sunday, Gulfstream gave away $284,000 in purses without a stakes.

Calder, whose average purse distribution was under $200,000, announced a 12% cut in purses, starting Aug. 30 due to the loss of revenue as a result of the competition.

Gulfstream ads for its summer racing are ubiquitous on TV, radio, newspapers and on the internet. Calder’s advertising, what little there is, is geared primarily toward promoting its casino.

Gulfstream spent what had to be a small fortune to stage a free Flo Rida concert on Aug. 17.

Gulfstream will add a holiday race card on Labor Day, as it did on July 4. Calder will remain dark, as it did on Memorial Day and Independence Day. It appears Calder is doing only what it has to in order to keep its casino license.

Or maybe it is being crazy like Ali. The question everyone is asking is how long Gulfstream can continue to spend seemingly unsustainable amounts of money in its quest to knock Calder out of the box. This is a question only mercurial Frank Stronach can answer.

Calder’s parent, Churchill Downs Inc., seems intent on hanging in long enough to find out. The off-the-record explanation I’ve heard is CDI has dug in out of principle. It is determined not to allow itself to be run out of business by Stronach.

There are humorous vignettes in this otherwise serious situation. Gulfstream poked a stick in Calder’s eye on Aug. 24 when it named its Saturday stake the “Eight Miles East.” Don’t go looking for a famous horse of that name. It has been pointed out in many accounts of the dispute that Gulfstream is “eight miles east” of Calder.

That same day, Calder was staging one of its biggest events of the summer, the Stars of Tomorrow program, which featured six stakes races, including two divisions of the Florida Stallion Stakes. (Why Calder would schedule it on this day, when simulcast players were preoccupied by the stakes laden Travers card at Saratoga is unfathomable.)

For some inexplicable reason, jockey Antonio Gallardo booked himself to ride a stakes at Calder with a listed probable post of 4 p.m. and an optional claimer in the last at Gulfstream, listed for 4:45.

(The joke around the two tracks is that Calder horses and trainers can’t race at Gulfstream and come back but jockeys can.)

Under the best of circumstances, Gallardo was cutting it close. Those eight miles across town are incredibly heavily trafficked and through city streets, with a light on almost every corner.

As usually is the case in these situations, the best of circumstances didn’t prevail. Almost everything that could thwart Gallardo's ambitious agenda did. Eduardo Nunez was thrown from a mount and had to be taken to the hospital by ambulance. So everything stopped until the ambulance got back to Calder, pushing the races back about 15 minutes.

Then Gallardo had the pleasant inconvenience of winning the $75,000 stakes, which entailed the usual time consuming winner’s circle ceremony. By the time he dismounted, he had less than 15 minutes to make a trip that couldn’t be done that quickly in a presidential motorcade.

Nevertheless, he took off at a full gallop from the winner’s circle toward a waiting van. But before he could climb aboard, Kathleen O’Connell summoned him to replace Nunez on a couple of odds-on favorites in upcoming $125K stakes.

Gallardo did a quick about-face and picked up about $15,000 for two rocking chair rides. His scheduled mount at Gulfstream finished off the board.

“Racing luck” manifests itself in many ways.


Written by Tom Jicha

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