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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Friday, March 01, 2013

Common sense is one-for-two

(UPDATE: The Breeders Cup announced its new policies hours after this column was published. Updates within.) The Breeders' Cup appears on the verge of backing off its edict that Lasix will not be allowed in any race during the 2013 renewal. This is a sensible example of discretion being the better part of valor. Prohibiting Lasix in the juvenile races last fall resulted in more than a 20 percent drop in entries for those races. A similar decline throughout the card would jeopardize Breeders' Cup. Unfortunately, common sense is an also ran in South Florida, where Gulfstream and Calder remain on a collision course that will have the two tracks racing head-to-head on weekends year round.
March 1, 2013

Common sense apparently is going to rule at the Breeders’ Cup.

Alas, the same is not the case in South Florida.

The Breeders’ Cup, at a meeting on Feb. 22, gave indications that it is considering backing away from its edict that Lasix will be banned throughout the card at this year’s renewal. The catalyst was what happened last year when the anti-bleeding medication was not allowed in the 2-year-old races. Entries were down more than 20 percent from the previous year and handle dropped correspondingly. (Update: the ban in 2YO races remains in effect. Older horses can continue to race with Lasix. Try explaining the logic of that in 50 words or less.)

Similar declines in the non-juvenile races this coming November would be catastrophic to the bottom line, already hurting from diminished stallion and nomination fees. Lesser fields also would detract—or detract further--from the event’s status as a season-ending championship. When that goes, television’s interest in covering the event will go into a freefall, too.

The Breeders’ Cup intentions were noble, a pushback toward a return to the days of thoroughbreds racing on hay, oats and water, as they do in most of the racing world—at least theoretically. The thinking, or hope, was that If horses had to race “clean” in the championship events, this policy would filter down to the rest of the season.

With few exceptions, this hasn’t happened. Juveniles raced up to the Breeders’ Cup on medication, got off it for the one race, then immediately got on it again. Or they just skipped the Breeders’ Cup.

This figures to also be the case if the Breeders’ Cup stands firm and enforces the Lasix ban on all races. (Update: Which is why they haven't.) Horsemen’s organizations across the nation have argued vehemently against the Breeders’ Cup decree. Owners and trainers could make a solidarity statement by skipping this year’s Breeders’ Cup. So what’s the point of endangering one of the best things to happen in racing during the past century in pursuit of an unattainable goal?

This isn’t even an example of protecting the public. Lasix use is noted on the program and in past performance publications. Bettors learned to deal with it years ago. There were inexplicable form reversals when the medication first came into vogue but now that its use is commonplace, bordering on universal, it’s a minor handicapping factor.

In fact, having horses who have been racing with Lasix their entire career come off it for one race is actually a diservice to fans. Besides, as every player knows, it isn’t the medications on the program that produce form reversals.

Whether or not the Lasix ban is lifted there is likely going to be undeserving casualty, the Juvenile Sprint. (This has happened.) If so, it will be an over-reaction made in haste. The Breeders’ Cup is dismayed that the inaugural running last November produced only five starters. As a result, it generated the least handle of the 15 races. (Duh!)

To argue that this was a product of lack of interest on the part of horsemen is disingenuous. It can be traced almost entirely to the Lasix ban.

There is widespread consensus that there are too many “Breeders’ Cup” races, and that this cheapens the ones that matter. However, a sprint for 2-year-olds makes far more sense than the Marathon. For every race in America at extended distances (anything beyond 10 furlongs on dirt), there are hundreds, if not thousands, of sprints for young horses. The Juvenile Sprint deserves at least one more chance to establish itself without the ban.

LUNACY IN SOUTH FLORIDA: Getting back to South Florida, the deadline for amending dates requests for the year that starts July 1 came and went on Feb. 28 without Calder or Gulfstream blinking. As of now, this means the tracks will engage in a suicidal head-to-head confrontation on weekends starting in July.

Gulfstream initiated this conflict, its primary motivation being an attempt to save a dying mall on the racetrack grounds, which is a ghost town outside the racing season. This is a classic case of sending good money after bad. The mall is unsalvagable and South Florida racing has been put into jeopardy. There simply aren’t enough horses or fans to support two tracks racing simultaneously.

Phil Combest, president of the Florida HBPA, was quoted in the Blood Horse saying, “The idea of racing head to head is crazy and nobody will benefit…The future of Florida racing is at stake.”

Although the tracks are now legally committed to racing the dates they requested, there is still hope that sanity can be restored. Loopholes in the law allow Calder and Gulfstream to re-petition the state if an agreement is reached in the coming months. The drawback is Gulfstream owner Frank Stronach, who is behind the dates grab. People who tell him things he doesn’t want to hear have a tendency to get fired.

However, the Florida legislature meets in the spring and can come up with any remedy it so chooses to save the sport. To borrow a line from another business crisis, thoroughbred racing in Florida, a multi-billion dollar industry that employs tens of thousands, is too big to fail.

The idea that the state will allow it to fall into peril to save a doomed shopping mall is unthinkable.

An obvious solution is to have the state resume setting racing dates as it used to do until the 1980s. When the new way doesn’t work, it’s time to return to the old way.

Written by Tom Jicha

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