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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Tuesday, July 15, 2014


Florida allows Churchill to keep Calder casino, fire 241 racing employees


Florida racing is better off with Gulfstream in command and Churchill Downs out of the picture. But it's not right that CDI can make believe it still is involved in racing to keep its casino. While it is raking in the slots cash, CDI is laying off 241 employees, who worked in Calder racing. The only potential bright spot is Hialeah might be closer to getting back into the game.

MIAMI, July 16, 2014--Florida has become infamous for barrel racing, flag racing, a quarterhorse “meeting” involving about a half dozen horses racing twice a day, all owned or connected in some way to the owner of a bush league operation, and a jai alai fronton in which a father and son played all the matches against only each other.

All of these were used as flimsy justifications—thankfully, not all of which have succeeded--for the introduction of poker rooms and simulcasting.

Then there’s Tampa Bay Downs running programs on June 30 and July 1, the final and first day of the state’s fiscal year, to establish itself as a year-round racing venue and qualify to be a host simulcasting site.

These creative contortions of law would be amusing if they were not so infuriating. Is anybody in charge in Florida? Nominally, yes. In reality, no, most of the time.

However, the low rent shams are put to shame by the travesty being allowed to be committed by Churchill Downs Inc. at Calder.

The latest abomination is the revelation that 241 employees, according to the Blood-Horse, will be laid off as a result of racing ending at Calder. While these people are heading for the unemployment line, CDI continues to rake in big bucks in its slots parlor.

How can the state let this happen?

When legalization of slots was being debated, the prime argument was gaming would save horse racing and the jobs the sport generates. Now CDI has its racino, but no longer has anything to do with racing and 241 people are out of work. All of this with the state’s blessing.

There will be a two-month meeting at Calder in October and November, solely to fulfill CDI’s obligation of running at least 40 dates to keep its slots license. You can bet case money that lobbyists will be working lawmakers hard to have even this obligation stricken. In any case, CDI will have nothing to do with the fall meet. It will be entirely under the control of Gulfstream.

Calder will not even open its building except to a few racing officials. Fans will be confined to tents. It’s still mighty hot in mid-autumn in Miami.

The widespread belief is that when the fall session ends, the Calder building will be demolished. But the racino will still be there. In fact, it will probably be expanded once the grandstand is out of the way. So much for saving racing.

Florida racing is better off with Gulfstream in control. With the head-to-head conflict with Calder eliminated, Gulfstream had the fullest fields in the nation this past weekend. Saturday’s 11-race card drew 126 entries. Sunday’s 10-race program had 122 entrants.

For the past few years, CDI has treated horse racing like skunk spray. To add insult, giant neon letters on the Calder grandstand, visible from the Florida Turnpike, read “Calder Casino.” Not a mention of horse racing. Even while it was still a full-time race track, Calder’s advertising was totally geared to the casino.

It’s not a stretch to suspect that CDI welcomed being put out of business by Gulfstream. Why is it this is obvious to everyone but the state, which has adopted a Sgt. Schultz stance: “I see nothing.”

I’m not a legal expert but I would think the 241 employees being laid off at Calder could make a case that without racing, CDI should not be allowed to operate a casino. At the very least, this could prove embarrassing in an election year to Gov. Rick Scott, whose political mantra has been putting Floridians to work.

For all his eccentricities, Frank Stronach is dedicated to racing. He’s an Eclipse winning owner and breeder, who loves the game and races his stock all over the U.S. and Canada. In spite of his schemes to surround Gulfstream with a mall, a water theme park, a giant horse head statue and goodness knows what else, racing has always been Stronach’s priority and the track the focal point of the property. Gulfstream has a casino but its advertising is heavily tilted toward horse racing.

The only potential positive that could emerge from the murder CDI is being allowed to get away with is it offers a glimmer of hope that Hialeah could get back into the game. Almost simultaneous to the announcement of the Gulfstream-Calder settlement, Hialeah announced a $60 million renovation of its facility, including a new high tech simulcasting center.

This is the second stage of improvements to bring the fabled track back to what it once was. Hialeah already had been spruced up for the opening of its racino and card room, which was made possible by a winter quarterhorse meet.

But Hialeah president John Brunetti has been unwavering in declaring his intention to restore top class thoroughbred racing, which has been absent for more than a decade.

An opening seems to be emerging. Gulfstream’s Tim Ritvo said his track is not about to give up any of the 190 dates it fought so hard to obtain. However, Ritvo said Gulfstream is willing to work with Brunetti to bring Hialeah back into the picture. The 40 Calder dates are the ones that would be in play.

A positive sign that Ritvo’s statements are more than public relations rhetoric is Gulfstream allowing Hialeah, about 14 miles away, to pick up its simulcast signals. Gulfstream does not have to do this.

Brunetti , whose track is located in a heavily Hispanic area, has powerful allies in Tallahassee among Miami’s Latin legislative caucus. He has made it clear he intends to call on them next spring when the legislature reconvenes. All they would have to do is work through a bill to free CDI from its obligation to conduct 40 days of racing and award the 40 days to Hialeah.

Don't under-estimate Brunetti. He got the legislature to pass a bill that allowed him to get a slots parlor even though the original amendment that opened the door to expanded gambling was written to specifically exclude Hialeah.

It would be galling to see CDI rewarded for bad behavior but that plane has left the gate.

Another alternative is for Hialeah to lease some or all of the Gulfstream-at-Calder dates.

Gulfstream-at-Calder-at Hialeah, anyone?

Stranger things are winked at all the time in Florida.


Written by Tom Jicha

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