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, May 21, 2014

Churchill getting what it deserves from HANA boycott

The Horseplayers Association of North America boycott of Churchill Downs and other CDI properties is an unqualified success. Handle is down substantially, so much so that Churchill could wind up with less revenue this season than it generated with a lower takeout last season. Meanwhile, a co-owner of California Chrome has joined the legion of people in and around the game to condemn CDI for the way it treats owners, trainers, jockeys, fans and the media.

MIAMI, April 21, 2014--Churchill Downs should be glad California Chrome isn’t Mr. Ed. If he was a talking horse, he could join the chorus complaining about the way Churchill Downs Inc. (CDI)--the casino-oriented corporation with the misleading racing name--treats owners, trainers, jockeys, legends of the game, fans and the media.

Steve Coburn, part owner of the Derby and Preakness winner, became the latest to register his disgust with CDI in the aftermath of the second jewel of the Triple Crown. Despite the exhilaration of capturing America’s biggest race, Coburn said his partner, Perry Martin, was so put off by the way he was treated at the Derby that he decided to not even attend the Preakness. “Even though we won (the Derby), it was a bad day for my partner and his family.”

The mind boggles at how shabbily Martin must have been treated to ruin a day that is the dream of everyone in horse racing. “The hospitality we received at Churchill Downs wasn’t very good and Perry decided he and his family were going to watch the (Preakness) somewhere else in the world,” Coburn said. Martin apparently couldn’t be convinced that every track doesn’t treat people as poorly as Churchill.

Saying he was as “serious as a heart attack,” Coburn went on. “We got to Churchill and not only did I complain but there were other trainers, owners and even jockeys complaining about the way they were treated.”

CDI issued a corporate-speak apology. “Our team wanted to satisfy the California Chrome team’s needs when they were communicated to us. We regret that their experience at Churchill Downs appears to have fallen short of expectations.“

Martin’s mother reportedly needs assistance to get around. Churchill did little to nothing to accommodate her, according to Coburn.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Churchill pulled the handicapped parking spot of Ron Turcotte, who rode Riva Ridge and Secretariat to back-to-back Derby triumphs. Churchill also told Turcotte, who is confined to a wheelchair as a result of a racing mishap, it had nowhere for him to watch the race.

Also during Derby week, Rick Porter, owner of Normandy Invasion, who would have been one of the favorites in the Alysheba Stakes, was informed there would be no seats set aside for him and his Fox Hill Farm partners.

“What is wrong with this management group?” Porter asked on the Fox Hill website, which was reprinted by the Paulick Report. “No wonder racing is on the decline. They don’t have any regard for the owners, in my opinion. They are for themselves and the race track, as I see it. Not only do I feel that owners are treated like second class citizens by Churchill Downs, so, too, are the handicappers and everyday bettors.”

This was right after the Louisiana legislature had to threaten to pull CDI’s license at the Fair Grounds unless long overdue repairs were made.

Then there’s the situation at Calder, which is doing as little racing as is required in order to keep its slots parlor. Expectations are an agreement will be announced any day now that will have Gulfstream take over Calder’s racing operation while CDI keeps the slots casino. Thankfully,this would end the debilitating head to head war for horses going on since last summer.

Responsibility for shutting down race tracks is nothing new to CDI, whose fingerprints are all over the demise of Hollywood Park. Why? Because it became clear that California was not going to approve slot machines at race tracks.

The only times CDI shows any attention to racing are the lucrative Oaks and Derby days.

The greatest pressure on CDI is coming from an unlikely source, a coalition of bettors, organized by the Horseplayers Association of North America. HANA has called for a wagering boycott of Churchill and other CDI tracks. The catalyst was a significant raise in takeout, announced just before Churchill’s spring meet opened. The rake on straight bets went from 16% to 17.5% and multi-horse bets jumped from 19% to 22%.

It’s not as if Churchill needed the additional revenue to stave off bankruptcy. The stock price increased by 35% last year and CDI’s top five executives were paid almost $28 million.

HANA launched a similar boycott when California instituted a takeout raise and it led to a low takeout Pick 5.

The Churchill boycott is succeeding beyond anyone’s most optimistic projections. Handle at Churchill through the first 14 programs is down $19.3 million for the first 14 days, according to HANA. Isolate the regular racing programs from the lucrative Derby and Oaks days and the decline is in the area of 23 percent. If these trends hold through the rest of the season, Churchill will take in less money than before the takeout was hiked.

HANA called for a boycott of all CDI properties and Arlington is also suffering severe declines in wagering. (Because of the direct competition with Gulfstream, year to year comparisons for Calder are meaningless.)

The success of the HANA boycott should send a message to tracks nationwide that they could become the next target if they jack up their takeout.

Written by Tom Jicha

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