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 Breedersí Cup at Gulfstream Park.

He's been the Sun Sentinelís horse racing writer since 2007 as a staff member, and continues to this day as a free-lancer.

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Thursday, July 13, 2017

Continuing problems demand radical, outside-the-box solutions

The thoroughbred foal crop is declining because racing is almost a guaranteed losing proposition. A major contributor is per diem fees of $100 a day and up. A new system in which trainers would get more of a horse's purse earnings but no per diem would help bring new blood into the game and almost certainly increase field sizes because horses standing in their stalls earn nothing.

Crucial, seemingly irreversible declines in any business demand creative, out-of-the-box solutions. Continuing to do things the way they've always been done is a slow road to disaster.

Thoroughbred racing's alarming drop in foal crops and its subsequent impact on race days and field sizes isn't a chicken-and-egg situation. There aren't fewer owners getting into the game because fewer horses are being bred. There are fewer horses being bred because there are fewer people willing to get into ownership.

There's a simple explanation. It's well nigh impossible to stay solvent under the current business model. Something dramatically different needs to be attempted. Something like a shift away from trainer per-diems. This could not only make owning horses more financially viable, it could trigger an increase in field size.

I've been marginally involved in two pari-mutuel sports. One didn't involve per diems. The other did. The former was far more preferable.

Per diems, which typically run about $100 a day for thoroughbred trainers in South Florida and more on the larger circuits, are a killer for owners and offer limited incentive for trainers to race horses more often than they do now. While owners are hit with a bill for a C-note every day, the trainers are getting paid whether a horse races or not.

Of course, trainers don't get to pocket the whole per diem. They have to pay hot walkers, grooms and exercise riders. But unless they are poor managers, there should be enough left to provide a comfortable living.

Several decades ago, I was a partner in a litter of racing greyhounds. The owner-trainer arrangement in greyhound racing was you offered your dogs to a kennel, which kept two-thirds of the purses won. I received small checks when the dogs finished in the money but never got a training bill.

Granted, greyhounds vs. thoroughbreds is apples vs. oranges. Dogs race far more frequently and cost substantially less to maintain. On the other hand, purses are a pittance in dog racing as compared to horse racing. So the formula would have to be different. But the principle is the same.

Maybe 50-50 or 60-40 one way or the other would work with thoroughbreds. The numbers could be fine tuned to make it equitable for both parties once the new paradigm became accepted. Also there would have to be allowances made for extraordinary expenses such as vet bills.

But one thing is inarguable. If a trainer's earnings were determined by what his horses won, you would see them going to the starting gate more frequently than they do now. The more a horse earned, the more a trainer would make. A horse languishing in its stall earns nothing.

This would inevitably knock some small trainers out of the business but if they can't make a go of it by winning races, maybe they don't belong in the business.

The argument that struggling trainers might be influenced to send out horses when they aren't fit doesn't hold up. A horse that doesn't finish in the money earns nothing.

This would be such a dramatic shift in the status quo that most current trainers would resist it as vigorously as they do the elimination of race day medications. Why would they want any change in a system that works so well for them?

This leads to Part B of the new paradigm. A new generation of trainers, willing to play under the revised arrangement, would have to be brought into the game. Since this could not happen without stalls being made available to them, the only way to achieve this would be to put a cap on the number of stalls any trainer could control.

This, too, could be beneficial to the sport. Outfits like Todd Pletcher's, Chad Brown's and Bob Baffert's are assets but they come with a downside. They tie up an untold number of stalls, many occupied by horses who won't run for months.

Stronach Group presidentTim Ritvo recently pointed out that there are more than 3,000 horses in Southern California, so Santa Anita should not have problems filling four or five days of racing per week. Yet the Great Race Place is pressed to fill three because of the number of stalls filled by horses not ready to race. This is what training centers are for.
Consider a couple of prominent examples. Arrogate has been tying up a stall most of the year but chances are, he will not race at Santa Anita this year. The three starts on his dance card are all at Del Mar--next Saturday's San Diego Handicap, the Pacific Classic and the Breeders' Cup Classic. So thanks Santa Anita but sorry about that.

The same goes for Jerry Hollendorfer and Songbird. She has been training at Santa Anita but she made her first start of the year at Belmont and will run this Saturday at Delaware. It's understandable that Rick Porter, a credit to the game, would want to win the most prestigious stakes at the track nearest his home but this does nothing for Santa Anita, which would have benefited greatly if she had shown up in a race there.

I use these examples not to criticize Baffert or Hollendorfer but only because these horses, the best of their gender, have crowd magnet star power.

Think of how many lesser known horses fall into the same category. This is not to mention juveniles months from the races yet tying up stalls that could be filled by ready-to-run lesser horses. Young horses should not be allocated stalls at a track currently racing until they are within weeks of a start, no matter how prominent their trainers are.

I don't expect these suggestions to be immediately embraced but it is time to start a conversation, since what is happening now is not working.

New pick 4 a good try

NYRA and Los Alamitos deserve plaudits for trying something different, the East-West pick 4--two races from each track--that will be introduced Saturday. But other than that and the opportunity to attempt another multiple-race proposition with a 50-cent buy-in, there is not a lot to get excited about.

The leadoff race from Belmont, the Forbidden Apple, features record-setting Disco Partner stretching out to a mile. The final leg, the Los Alamitos Derby, is headed by one-time Derby hopefuls Klimt and West Coast. However the middle two legs, a 2-year-old maiden race from Belmont and an optional claimer from Los Al aren't going to inspire many to hang around for three extra hours (which might be the purpose of the bet).

Couldn't each track have attempted to dress it up by creating an overnight stakes as part of the package?

The Forbidden Apple has a 5:18 post. The Los Al Derby isn't scheduled to go off until 7:58.

The bet wasn't announced until mid-week, leaving scant time for promotion, and it's essentially a one-off, since this is the final weekend at both tracks. Let's hope it's a trial balloon for a similar wager featuring races from Saratoga and Del Mar.

That would be something to get excited about.

Written by Tom Jicha

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