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, December 21, 2017

California racing needs Stronach more than he needs California racing

The Stronach Group is heavily invested in California racing and Frank Stronach told horsemen he is prepared to spend millions more to build new barns to replace those lost at San Luis Rey. All he asks in return is for the omnipotent TOC to work with him in areas such as reduced takeout experiments. But with Mike Pegram leading the way, they have dug in their heels and refused to budge. It's a short-sighted strategy. Stronach could throw up his hands and sell Santa Anita's property for development ala Hollywood Park, leaving horsemen with nowhere to race.

December 26 is a big day in many places. It's Kwanza in the U.S. In Canada and the UK, it’s Boxing Day. And in Southern California, it’s opening day of the prime winter racing season at Santa Anita.

The traditional joy and enthusiasm for the latter is mitigated this year by the tragic San Luis Rey fire. The only good to come out of it is the demonstration of the love and affection people in the game have for horses, so much so that they were willing to put themselves in harm's way to save the equine athletes.

If the Eclipse Awards had a Person of the Year--and it should--there is no question who the first recipient would be. Martine Bellocq suffered second and third degree burns over 50 percent of her body as she repeatedly dashed into burning barns to save as many horses as she could. She couldn't have been more determined and dedicated if these were her own children.

If Bellocq is up to traveling, the Eclipse people should bring her to Gulfstream for the annual awards on Jan. 25 so she can get the standing ovation she deserves from everyone in the sport.

This is not meant to diminish all the other heroes and heroines, who put their lives at risk to save horses, and the thousands who have donated money and equipment to help the recovery of the horsemen and horsewomen, who suffered devastating losses.

The deaths of at least 47 horses and potential lung issues facing an untold number of others couldn’t come at a worse time for Southern California racing, which already is at a crisis point due to the shortage of ready to race horses.

Prior to the fire, Tim Ritvo and The Stronach Group had taken creative steps to help alleviate the problem. One measure, Ship and Stay, offers a bonus to horses, who come in from other jurisdictions to race. Alas, in light of the fire, Santa Anita will be lucky to achieve a wash between new horses and those lost.

“We’re trying to find a way to get more horses here rather than guys taking them out of town,” Ritvo said.

The circuit suffered a noteworthy loss when classy Glen Hill Farm and its trainer, Tom Proctor, decided it was pulling up stakes and heading back East. The problem for Glen Hill was an inability to get its horses into races, which shouldn’t be an issue in the crowded Northeast corridor. If you can’t find a race at one track, there are two or three others within reasonable vanning distance. This is not the case in California.

In an attempt to rebuild racing's middle class, Ritvo announced plans to card races for barns with fewer than 20 horses and for home bred maidens and those who sold at auction for less than $100,000. This way, modest stables can make a living without having to take on the big ticket stock from Bob Baffert, Doug O’Neill, John Sadler and other elite outfits.

I’d like to suggest another novel condition, claiming races for horses who have run with the past 21 days. Not only would this level the playing field for those who chose to enter, it would show everyone that horses don’t need two or three months between starts.

Santa Anita also has cut more than a half-million dollars from its stakes program, so that daily purses could be kept at last year’s level. The biggest casualty is the Santa Anita Derby, a former million dollar event, which fell to $750,000 last year and will go for $600,000 in 2018. The cut is merited because of how the Pegasus and Dubai World Cup have strip-mined the top-of-the-line horses from the no longer such a Big 'Cap.

Ritvo also would like to try new betting options but he is being obstructed by the powerful Thoroughbred Owners of California, which cares only about those at the top. Ritvo wanted to initiate a second Pick 5 at the end of the card with the same 14% rake as the early Pick 5, which has proven so popular.

Unfortunately, Mike Pegram, who thinks TOC stands for Teamsters of California and he is the new Jimmy Hoffa, told Ritvo that if the takeout is going to be reduced, it will have to come out of the track's share. He won't budge a dollar.

Pegram was the driving force in jacking up the takeout on exotic bets to more than 23 percent, a move that threw Southern California racing into a tailspin from which it has not recovered.

Pegram made his fortune with a chain of McDonald’s. I wonder if he allows the help to tell him how he should run those businesses. Of course, I don’t wonder; I know the answer.

It was encouraging to see Frank Stronach play a little hardball back with the TOC. At a meeting with horsemen he reminded them that without Santa Anita there is no racing in Southern California.

Stronach indicated a willingness to build new barns on the Santa Anita backside to replace those lost at San Luis Rey at a cost of millions. But he wants the horsemen to make concessions, too, rather than act like the Resistance in D.C.

If Santa Anita goes the way of Hollywood Park and Bay Meadows, Stronach, who could pocket hundreds of millions of dollars, will still have his Florida and Maryland tracks as well as his breeding and racing operations. California horsemen will be left with nothing. They should keep this in mind.

No Battle of Sexes

The Pegasus suffered a key defection this week when Charles Fipke announced that he intends to run only Clark winner Seeking The Soul in the $17 million race on Jan. 27.

The Pegasus won't have a California Chrome-Arrogate showdown this year but it looked as if there would be a highly promotable Battle of the Sexes between Horse of the Year cinch Gun Runner and certain-to-be filly and mare champion Forever Unbridled, also owned by Fipke.

Now the race looms to be a stroll around the park for Gun Runner. Collected and West Coast, if Baffert sends both, are quality horses but Gun Runner dusted them in the Breeders’ Cup Classic and there was nothing about that race to suggest the next time will be any different.

Fipke hasn’t totally closed the door on entering Forever Unbridled. For the sake of the race, and racing in general, here’s hoping he reconsiders.

Written by Tom Jicha

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