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, May 09, 2014

Derby Handicapping 101 Reminder: Keep It Simple, Stupid

LAS VEGAS, May 9, 2014--The 140th Kentucky Derby taught many lessons, the most important being don't ignore the obvious when handicapping the race. California Chrome was a standout and ran like one. Also, if you have never been to Las Vegas for a Derby, it's something to put on your bucket list.

So what did we learn from Kentucky Derby 140?

Sometimes the best handicapping advice is, “Keep it simple, stupid.” California Chrome jumped off the past performance page as the most talented horse. Every prep seemed to be won by a different hopeful.

But California Chrome went into the Derby with a perfect 4-for-4 resume in 2014. The significance of Beyer Speed Figures are diminished or dismissed by some handicappers. This year, the Beyers were right on. California Chrome was what is known as a “double fig.” Each of his last two races produced numbers faster than anyone else in the field had ever run.

Toss horses who winter in New York. If their connections had legitimately high hopes for them, they would be in Florida, Louisiana, Arkansas or California. Even two-time stakes winner Samraat commuted to Florida between his Big Apple scores. You can’t properly train up to the Derby dodging blizzards. Gary Contessa, who trains Samraat’s rival Uncle Sigh, said if he had it to do over, he would have taken Uncle Sigh to Florida.

The curse of Apollo is not a coincidence. Every year a herd of late developers, who didn’t race as 2 year-olds, inject new excitement into Derby prep season. Last year, it was Verrazano. The year before it was Bodemeister. Going back a bit, Curlin and Pulpit couldn’t beat the jinx.

This year’s crop was exceptionally loaded: Constitution, winner of the Florida Derby; Rebel winner and Santa Anita Derby runnerup Hoppertunity; Bayern and Social Inclusion, each exciting multi-length winners of their maiden and entry level allowance heats.If the hex was to be broken, this seemed like the year. It wasn’t. It never is. The four outstanding colts didn’t even make the field for one reason or another.

Keep this in mind next winter, especially if you are foolhardy enough to bet Derby futures.

The search for the next Derby winner starts the day after the current year’s Derby. Don’t get sucked in. Enjoy the summer stakes at Belmont, Saratoga and Del Mar but don’t put any stock in how they project toward the following spring.

California Chrome did win a state-bred stakes at Del Mar last summer but it was at 5 ½ furlongs and he came out of it to run sixth twice as the distances extended. Orb didn’t break his maiden until Thanksgiving weekend. I’ll Have Another was sixth in the Hopeful and didn’t win his first stakes until the following February. Animal Kingdom had only a late October maiden win going into his 3-year-old season.

Street Sense in 2007 is the only winner in the history of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile to double in the Derby. This is no longer a small sample.

Humongous betting pools on Derby Day make it the ideal situation for a betting coup. The California connections of a maiden named Masochistic might have made life-changing scores in the third race last Saturday.

The California-bred colt by $2,000 sire Sought After had raced only once, a fifth-place finish in a state-bred maiden race in March. That he had been shipped cross-country for an open maiden race, which paid only pennies more than he could have run for in a restricted race at Santa Anita, was the first red flag.

I had totally dismissed him during my night-before handicapping but my head was lifted when he opened an overwhelming favorite. Then the money continued to pour in. Masochistic must have made many horseplayers feel that way when he ran off by 14 lengths as the 2-1 favorite.

Derby Day in Las Vegas

Derby Day beckons almost as early in Las Vegas as it does on the Churchill Downs backstretch. Damn that three-hour time difference.

The alarm in my hotel room sounded the call to the post at 5:45 a.m. I knew if I wasn’t downstairs by 6:30—an hour before the first race in Louisville--there would be no places available in South Point’s spacious race book. I might have to set the clock earlier next year. By 6:20 I was lucky to find a spot in a corner. Otherwise I would have had to wait in line for the 8 a.m. opening of the 800-seat Grand Ballroom and the showroom near the racebook, which is pressed into service for the spillover on Derby Day.

Only in Louisville is Derby Day bigger than Las Vegas. The difference is they don’t rip you off in Vegas. Seats are free. Drinks are free. Forms are free. If you bet a decent amount, your meals are free. Bet enouigh and your room is free, too.

Churchill Downs did its best to screw this up. When the meet opened on April 26, the Nevada race books had not settled on a new contract, so Churchill’s races were blacked out. In its customary greed, Churchill wanted to keep all or most of the new elevated takeout it inflicted on horse players. Nevada race books balked.

The only consolation is it was made clear the casinos planned to book Oaks and Derby Day, just like old times. This would have afforded me the double pleasure of betting the big days without contributing a dime to Churchill’s bottom line, which is my plan unless and until the takeout is rolled back.

But a deal was struck on Thursday afternoon, too late for that day’s races, but in time for business as usual on Friday and Saturday. I can’t tell you the satisfaction I got to read that all sources Churchill betting was down on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. You have to figure a lot of the shortfall was a result of the Las Vegas blackout.

I expect this was Part One of the lesson Churchill is going to learn this year: when you raise the takeout, you don’t make more money, you make less. But you do make more enemies.

Churchill’s cold-heartedness is boundless. Ron Turcotte won back-to-back Derbies with Riva Ridge and Secretariat before a 1978 racing mishap resulted in him being confined to a wheelchair. In the years since, Turcotte has been serving as an ambassador for the sport, signing autographs and chatting up Derby fans at the Racing Museum near the paddock.

A couple of years ago, Churchill pulled Turcotte’s access to a handicapped parking spot. A documentary film maker, doing a piece on Turcotte, reportedly came up with $500 to buy a spot for him. (Churchill has no qualms about ripping off even the significantly disabled). This year, Turcotte was told he had access only to the museum, not to any place where he could actually see the race for which he and Secretariat still hold the record for fastest Derby ever.

It’s the same with horsemen. Rick Porter, owner of Normandy Invasion, who was entered in the Alysheba, was informed there would be no seats for him or any of his partners. Coincidentally, Normandy Invasion suffered a minor injury on the eve of the race and scratched.

The only antidote is for jockeys and owners to band together and decree that unless they are treated like the essential element of the sport they are, they will find other places to race. And players will find other tracks to bet.

Written by Tom Jicha

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