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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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Churchill Downs and CDI are two different worlds

Churchill Downs is a treasure. However, its parent company, Churchill Downs Inc., has done more to undermine the sport than any PETA video could ever do.

MIAMI, April 23, 2014--Churchill Downs becomes a magical name again Saturday as the spring meet opens and the countdown to the Kentucky Derby gains intensity.

It’s a grand setting: the twin spires, the pageantry and color, the song, the fashions and hats, celebrities on Millionaires Row, the majesty and excitement of some of the world’s finest thoroughbreds in action.

This is as much a mirage as a Kim Jung Un birthday celebration. You have to look past the spectacle and focus on what goes on behind the scenes.

Those in and around the game appreciate the vast difference between Churchill Downs, the fabled home of the Derby, and Churchill Downs Inc. (CDI), the cold, bottom-line driven corporation, which has repeatedly demonstrated it has little regard for racing.

That CDI sold the most revered race name in the world to a second-tier fast food company is all you need to know. But there’s so much more.

CDI is now primarily a casino company. This is where its efforts and investments go. Racing is just something to be tolerated in states that demand a slots parlor be attached to a functioning race track.

The latest outrage is the raising of the takeout just before Derby week. Win-place-show goes from 16 to 17.5 percent. Multiple horse wagers jump from 19 to 22 percent. We can only hope bettor boycotts being organized to protest are successful. It might be hard to skip Derby Day but after that ignoring Churchill's races aren't much of a sacrifice.

The company has no shame that it had to resort to gimmickry to legally do it. Kentucky has a handle threshold, $1.2 million. Above it, the lower takeout is dictated. Below it, the takeout can be raised. Churchill got below it by including its first ever short fall meeting, which had no tradition or familiarity with fans and failed to approach the handle levels of the customary spring and late fall sessions.

CDI excused its money grab by saying part of the increased revenue—roughly half will go to CDI’s bottom line—will be put into purses, so that it can compete for horses with tracks in states with racinos.

This would include Louisiana and Florida. Let’s talk about those. Horsemen at the Fair Grounds have had to go to the state legislature to get a bill passed to force CDI to reinvest 10 percent of its racino profits into maintenance of the facility, which is deteriorating from neglect. The situation is so dire that the Louisiana State Racing Commission has delayed renewing CDI's operating license and will hold a special hearing on May 1 to review the matter.

In spite of having more than 600 slot machines at the track, the turf course has been unusable more often than not the past two seasons due to poor drainage. The infield video screen broke and wasn’t repaired. Rep. Helene Moreno, according to, the digital component of the New Orleans Times Picayune, toured the barn area and was critical of the sub-standard conditions. One stall had an eight-inch dip in the middle.

The responses of Austin Miller, CDI’s senior vice president of gaming operations, are revealing of the company attitude. Miller said if the turf course isn’t suitable for racing, horses and horsemen should adapt. “They all train on dirt. They should be able to run on dirt.”

A contributing factor to the troubled grass course, according to horsemen, is the annual Jazz Festival. Thousands of music fans are allowed to trample the course because it’s a big money-maker for CDI.

As for the video screen, Miller said hardly anyone watches it anyway, since most betting is done by customers inside the plant.

Miller said the barns cited by Rep. Moreno are the exception, that most are well maintained. Rep. Moreno countered that one of the barns Miller cited, Al Stall’s, is in exemplary condition because Stall goes into his own pocket to keep it that way.

The situation in Florida is even more distressing. CDI-owned Calder Race Course is under siege by Gulfstream’s aggressive move to race year-round, head to head. The situation is somewhat reminiscent of Russia’s incursion into Crimea. It was made easy for Gulfstream because so many welcomed the change.

Many of Calder’s top outfits—Marty Wolfson, David Fawkes, Eddie Plesa Jr., et al--have moved across town due to what they feel is years of mistreatment and sub-par conditions at Calder. One of the last straws was the introduction of per diem rent for grooms and hot-walkers.

Clearly Calder is continuing to race only to maintain its slots license. Field size is a joke. This past Sunday, eight races drew 48 starters. Two fields had four horses apiece.

Graded stakes have been canceled on short notice. The turf course is in pathetic shape even though there hasn’t been a race on it since January. The third, fourth and fifth floors of the building are closed.

What used to be the elegant Turf Club has been shut down. A replacement has been created in a corner of the first floor of the grandstand, where the poker room formerly was. Poker players have been relocated to the adjacent slots facility, which has all the most modern amenities and comforts. This is where CDI spends its money now.

CDI’s priorities also can be gleaned from its role in the shutting down of Hollywood Park. CDI bought the Southern California facility in the hope/belief that slots would be approved by the California legislature. When that didn’t happen, CDI sold the track to a land development company, indifferent to the fact that this doomed one of the most celebrated race tracks in America.

A big reason there has been so much speculation that the Breeders’ Cup might be anchored permanently in Southern California is the difficulty dealing with CDI. It’s not coincidental that Keeneland is making a major push to bring the Breeders’ Cup back to Kentucky. This might be the Commonwealth’s only hope.

Frank Stronach has made several offers without success to buy Calder. All of racing would be better off if the billionaire Stronach took it a step further and bought all of the CDI racetracks. No matter what else might be said about him, Stronach cares about racing. This hasn’t been able to be said about Churchill Downs Inc. since the current regime took over, a reality that even the first Saturday in May can’t camouflage.

Written by Tom Jicha

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