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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Sunday, May 26, 2013


Calder Gates Closed On Memorial Day: Effects of Florida conflict already being felt


The ill effects of the looming conflict between Gulfstream and Calder are beginning to show. In what has to be a first, Calder decided not to race on Memorial Day, probably the first time a racetrack, whose season is in progress, has gone dark on the summer kickoff holiday. No racing is scheduled on the Fourth of July or Labor Day, either, as they, too, fall on days when the track is normally dark. It appears that with its future uncertain, Calder is doing as little as possible. Another sign of this: the press department has disappeared. Those who used to assist reporters have resigned and not been replaced. Whatever is going to happen, it needs to happen as quickly as possible so that the future of both tracks becomes clear.

MIAMI, May 26, 2013--Aaron Vercruysee introduced Sunday’s “First Call” program on HRTV with, “In horse racing, when there’s a holiday and it’s a Monday, we’ve got a lot of great stakes action around the country.”

Not in South Florida. No stakes action was scheduled at Calder on Memorial Day, because no racing was scheduled at Calder on Memorial Day. As best I can recall from 50 years of following thoroughbred racing, this is the first time a track, whose season is in progress, went dark on the holiday that kicks off the summer season.

No racing is scheduled at Calder on the Fourth of July or Labor Day, either. These, too, are firsts, as best I know.This assumes there will be any racing at Calder by the time these holidays roll around.

I’ve worked at a couple of newspapers that shut down. The situation at Calder now reminds me of the run-up to those sad occasions. People leave and they are not replaced. Things break and they are not fixed. Knowing there is no future, everyone does as little as possible (see no racing on the summer holidays).

This describes the spring of 2013 at Calder. The Damocles Sword hanging over the Miami track is the possibility (likelihood?) that Churchill Downs, Inc., will sell out to Gulfstream’s Frank Stronach in some form and racing, or at least racing as it has been at Calder, will cease to exist.

Calder presented the Memorial Handicap Saturday. The annual stakes had to have its title shortened to omit Day for obvious reasons. Journalists from both major area newspapers and, of course, the Daily Racing Form were there to cover the race. What wasn’t there was anyone who worked for Calder.

Michelle Blanco, one of the finest publicists ever to come around a race track, resigned a couple of months ago. She wasn’t replaced. Michael Costanzo, who was given many of Michelle’s duties, left for Gulfstream a few weeks ago. He hasn’t been replaced, either.

Little things, like distributing charts or gathering quotes from riders and trainers, many of whom require translation because they speak little or no English, went undone. If you had a technical problem, you were on your own. If you have a question, there is no one to call. The offices are still there but there is no one in them.

This isn’t a whine by a spoiled reporter. I’ve always gathered my own quotes, as have my colleagues. I know because we stand shoulder to shoulder in the winner’s circle. We're managing well under the new normal, too.

It is to point out the absurdity of a major race track having no press department , which is as unprecedented as not racing on Memorial Day. This is symptomatic of what is happening at Calder.

Reportedly, top executives of CDI and the Stronach Group have a meeting scheduled for Tuesday in an attempt to reach a resolution to the threat of the tracks engaging in a scorched earth conflict that threatens Florida racing. The point that there are not enough horses or fans to go around cannot be reiterated enough.

Gulfstream is going to start racing year-round in July (actually there will be a head start for one day in late June). Any change to this plan will be a bigger upset than Oxbow winning the Preakness. Stronach has his mind set on doing it and nothing is going to dissuade him.

There are many reasons why this can be good for racing. Gulfstream’s facility is more modern, including the backstretch. The shortage of seats facing the race track is not an issue during the non-prime months when crowds thin dramatically. Most fans prefer the comfort of air conditioning. Gulfstream is as well equipped as Calder to serve them.

Gulfstream’s name also carries more cachet around the country and simulcasting is the biggest part of what this conflict is about. (Gulfstream, Calder and Tampa Bay all want to serve as a host track year-round, the next big skirmish). If more money is bet on Gulfstream out of town, it will translate into bigger purses for horsemen.

Both facilities have casinos. The significant difference is CDI has made it the priority at Calder. On both sides of the Calder grandstand facing the Florida Turnpike, which is heavily trafficked by tourists, there are huge illuminated signs “Calder Casino.” No mention of racing. Almost all advertising is geared toward the slots.

Gulfstream pushes its slots in ads, too, but when racing is being conducted, it also is heavily promoted. This figures to be stepped up when summer racing is presented for the first time.

So the ball is in CDI’s court. It can go to war, racing on weekends directly against Gulfstream. It can back off and race only on weekdays to satisfy the state’s requirements to keep its casino license. Or it can sell the whole operation outright to Stronach. Supposedly, an offer was tendered a couple of months ago but the price wasn’t considered right.

Each of these possibilities does not bode well for Calder, as we have come to know it, or people who make their livelihoods there. Thus, the air of melancholy around the track.

This is not meant to be a pro-Gulfstream, anti-Calder screed. There would be no summer racing without Calder. That should count for something. Anyone with a sense of fair play can see it is not right for any entity to just move in and tell another, we’re taking over.

Also, I might eventually be proven wrong but I believe racing at any track 12 months a year is not a good thing for the sport or that track.

Whatever is decided, let’s hope it happens quickly. No one is benefitting from the uncertainty. South Florida deserves to know its racing future ASAP.

Written by Tom Jicha

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