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, April 05, 2018

Derby at the gain-some, lose-some stage

The Kentucky Derby lost its prospective favorite McKinzie this week. But it gained a brilliant star in Mendelssohn, who ran one of the races of the year in the UAE Derby. It lost Catholic Boy, a stakes winner on dirt and turf but Audible stepped forward in the same Florida Derby to establish himself as one of the horses to beat on the first Saturday in May. The field should be close to established after this weekend's Santa Anita Derby, Wood Memorial and Blue Grass. Only the Arkansas Derby, where Magnum Moon and Solomini are expected to dominate, will remain.

Qualifying season is winding down. Attrition season is setting in. The Derby fever epidemic has spread from America to Europe and the Middle East.

The potential Kentucky Derby field picked up three new qualifiers, including two who look special, and lost two last week, one of whom had shown to be special.

Audible established himself as arguably the best in the East with his convincing win in the Florida Derby. He could not have been more impressive. The New York bred inexplicably decided “Not yet,” early in the backstretch.

But when John Velazquez let him know, “It’s time,” Audible responded brilliantly, gobbling the field one by one. He drew away as if a mile and a quarter will be no problem. Johnny V said this is certainly his impression. Audible had only 10 Derby points going in but the 110 going away ensures his spot.

Half a world away, Mendelssohn left even conservative analysts searching for new superlatives after his devastation of his challengers in the UAE Derby. “He is the real deal and he is fast,” Bob Baffert, who was in Dubai, said. “He has a lot of speed, and I think he has a very huge chance at the Kentucky Derby.”

The half-brother to champion Beholder and, interestingly, Audible’s daddy Into Mischief was all the more impressive in that the UAE Derby was his first try on conventional dirt. How he would handle it was the last question he needed to answer. We already know the ship to Middle America won’t be an issue. He went all the way to California to win the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf. Having Aidan O’Brien calling the shots completes the package.

The most interesting aspect of the third new shooter, Gronkowski, is his name. He still hasn’t won on real dirt, hasn’t won beyond a mile and there are legitimate questions about what was behind him in Britain. Euros don’t run well regarded horses during the winter and they don’t run them on synthetics ever.

It’s a travesty that Gronkowski might push a legitimate American contender out of the starting gate in the supposed interest of international racing.

McKinzie, Catholic Boy out

On the Derby downside, a tentative favorite, McKinzie, is officially out of the Triple Crown races with a hock injury, Baffert confirmed. “He’ll be back for the summer,” said the man who sprung West Coast and Arrogate on America the past two summers.

Catholic Boy also is off the Derby trail after bleeding like Chuck Wepner in the Florida Derby. His future might be on the turf, where his became a stakes winner in his second start.

40 still the number

Heading into the crucial weekend of the Blue Grass, Wood Memorial and Santa Anita Derby, there are 14 horses with 40 or more points and three serious horses on the cusp of that; Good Magic and Solomini have 34, Flameaway has 30. Even a fourth in their final prep will get them to the magic number or beyond.

This leaves three open slots for horses further down the points list before what history has taught will be more attrition. So 40 should be enough.

Speaking of horses further down the points list, there are none further down than Justify, the colt who has generated more excitement than any other. He has zero, so he needs at least a second in the Santa Anita Derby.

This shouldn’t be a problem. Beyond Bolt d’Oro, there doesn’t appear to be anything in an otherwise lackluster bunch that could warm up the Justify we have seen in his first two starts.

The caveat is Justify and Bolt d’Oro going nuts and killing off each other as Promises Fulfilled and Strike Power did in the Florida Derby. This could set it up for Instilled Regard, the only other horse with a legitimate claim to belong in such a prestigious race.

With Money Mike Smith in his corner Baffert is confident this won’t happen. Justify has demonstrated in his two races that he can race on the lead or sit off it. “Mike knows the horse pretty well. He’ll keep him comfortable whatever his position. He’s not going to be too far off the lead. He’ll be up close, but I think the break is the key.”

Baffert would rather not be facing the top ranked 3-year-old in the country in Justify's final prep and stakes debut. It wasn’t part of the original plan, which was to run in the Arkansas Derby. McKinzie’s injury changed everything.

“That was the plan when I broke his maiden. When McKinzie wasn’t able to make this race, I thought we hate to run against Bolt d’Oro because we know it’s going to be a tough race, but it’s tough when you ship all the way to Arkansas. We don’t want to go to the Kentucky Derby unless we have a really legitimate chance with him. He runs against a horse like Bolt, we’ll know where we stand.”

Baffert probably has some idea where he stands with Justify using McKinzie’s San Felipe gut-buster against Bolt d’Oro as a measuring stick. The question is, how much did that race take out of Bolt d’Oro.

His owner/trainer Mick Ruis has changed his own mind about that. “He came out of the San Felipe incredible. They can fool you, they can come back and you think that it didn’t do much to him. I almost thought I was going to have to carry him to the winner’s circle. He was dead tired. He gave it his all. But to our surprise, he cleaned up all his dinner, he hasn’t missed a meal since and he’s training incredible.”

Bolt d’Oro was only about 80% cranked for the San Felipe, according to Ruis. He’ll be 90%-95% for the showdown with Justify, Ruis promises. He’s saving the last 5%-10% for Louisville.

Wood comes up soft

Poor NYRA. It can’t catch a break. In an effort to lure more horses north sooner, it announced participation bonuses for the Aqueduct spring meeting. Then a horse came down with a fatal case of EHV-1, necessitating a quarantine be put into place. It was cleared in the minimum period but it had to have cast some doubt in the minds of snowbird horsemen pondering an earlier return trip north.

Next NYRA promised an extra $250,000 for the Wood Memorial purse, bringing it back to $1 million, if a Grade 1 winner was entered. This was an effort to regain the race’s Grade 1 status.

The Wood drew its Grade 1 winner, Firenze Fire, as well as Gotham winner Enticed but not much else among seven other prospective starters, five with only a maiden win. The best of them appears to be Vino Rosso from the white hot Todd Pletcher barn. The past three weekends Pletcher sent out the winners of the Rebel (Magnum Moon), the Louisiana Derby (Noble Indy) and Florida Derby (Audible).

After the Florida Derby, Pletcher was asked how it felt to have three horses in the Derby. With a sly smile, he retorted, "I hope to have more after next weekend." That would be reference to Vino Rosso, who, unlike most Pletcher horses, will be a value play. It's where my money will be.

Good Magic a ?

The question of the weekend is which Good Magic shows up in the Blue Grass—the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner or the colt who straggled home third in the Fountain of Youth.

Bettors ignore at their own peril that Chad Brown said before the Gulfstream race that it was just a step along the way toward the ultimate prize on the first Saturday in May. Good Magic didn’t win his debut, improved greatly in his next start, running second in the Grade 1 Champagne, then exploded in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.

The draw did him no favors. He pulled the 11 pill in what is expected to be a 14-horse field, which is deeper than the Fountain of Youth. Among others, he’s up against the winners of Tampa Bay Downs’ two big races, Flameaway and Quip, and a couple of Grade 1 winners, Sporting Chance and Free Drop Billy. The latter earned his Grade 1 credential over the Keeneland strip in the Breeders’ Futurity.

If it’s any consolation to Good Magic’s connections, Free Drop Billy and Flameaway didn’t draw much better. They’ll be sandwiching Good Magic at the break with Free Drop Billy springing from the 10 and Flameaway coming out of the 12.

In light of the draw, with the likelihood the 10, 11 and 12 will be the top three betting selections, I'm going for a decent price on Quip.

It’s a great betting race and I urge everyone to send it in with both fists at Keeneland this season. The bettors’ boycott at the fall meeting led the track to roll back its takeout on some bets. Now it’s up to the people who took part in the boycott to show that it was the sole factor in Keeneland’s rare business downturn. Rest assured, tracks across the nation will be watching.

Written by Tom Jicha

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