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, February 21, 2019

Get used to post drag, it isn’t going away

Tim Ritvo, who instituted Gulfstream's post drag, offered creative explanations for the frustrating practice on a recent Ron Flatter podcast. Gulfstream does it for the fans and horsemen, the COO of The Stronach Group said. His concern is fans getting shut out and giving horses enough time to properly warm up. Neither explanation stands up to scrutiny. The normally fan-friendly executive said he has heard the complaints but it is not going to change. In other areas, Ritvo said TSG is committed to moving the Preakness to Laurel, the Pegasus is here to stay and sports gambling is being looked at but there are many obstacles.

Tim Ritvo has had an amazing career. He morphed from jockey to trainer to one of the most successful executives in racing. The next step for the Chief Operating Officer of The Stronach Group should be politics. He has mastered the art of saying convincingly things that on logical analysis don't hold up.

Ritvo did a sitdown for Ron Flatter’s excellent racing podcast during Pegasus weekend, which aired this past week. Flatter shrewdly saved the biggest issue, post-dragging, for last. Ritvo handled the queries so adeptly there was a temptation to actually believe his race tracks are doing it for the fans and the horses.

He said he has seen and heard the complaints that are rampant among racing fans and media but TSG’s motivations are pure. Gulfstream began delaying posts--in the beginning two and three minutes, now five or six—Ritvo said, out of concern about fans getting shut out.

This triggered a drastic solution to a minor problem. Fans have been procrastinating about making their bets for as long as there has been racing. It’s the nature of the beast. Yet it has never been deemed necessary to make a farce of post time until Gulfstream did it. Some bettors still wait so long they get shut out even with the Gulfstream drag. If you can't get your bet in by five minutes after post time, shame on you. You have no right to expect the rest of us to wait for you.

Even tougher to take is the contention horses sometimes don’t get onto the track to warm up until four minutes to post, so they need extra time before being loaded. This is as close as you can get to the guy who murders his parents then pleads for mercy because he is an orphan. Horses get on the track at Gulfstream with four minutes to post because they are held in the walking ring until then.

I’ve been going to Gulfstream since before Ritvo was an apprentice jockey. Until the relatively new procedure, horses came from the barn to the paddock to the walking ring to the track to the gate in time for the listed post. The current delay is purposefully built in.

Post dragging is not new in the Miami area. It was standard operating procedure at jai alai and dog tracks when those games mattered. Next post would be listed as two minutes away the second the official on the previous race was posted. So nobody paid attention, just as they don’t now at Gulfstream. As a result, nobody knew when the next event would actually go and people got shut out.

Biscayne Greyhound Track tried to break with the pack with realistic next posts. It announced that henceforth strict post-times would be observed. It was printed boldly on each page of the program and announced throughout the card. Initially, a lot of folks were shut out but, faster than you might have thought, bettors got with the program and shutouts became a non-issue.

The same would happen if Gulfstream reverted to what had been the norm since the day the track opened. But Ritvo was definitive that this is not going to happen.

Forget Pimlico

Flatter got Ritvo to address a number of other issues. No matter how hard the state of Maryland and city of Baltimore push for a restoration of Pimlico to keep the Preakness there, TSG is not in favor. The company’s goal is to make Laurel, which it has poured tens of millions into, the center of Maryland racing.

The talking point that a refurbished Pimlico would benefit the neighborhood around it is not valid, Ritvo said, because the track has been there for a hundred years and conditions have deteriorated.

Moreover, Maryland racing gets little from the two or three weeks surrounding the Preakness because out-of-town horsemen who ship to the run-down facility don’t even become aware of how spruced up and welcoming Laurel has become, with more renovations on the drawing board. If they were exposed to Laurel, they might ship regular strings to race in Maryland, Ritvo contended.

Ideally, Ritvo would like to see the Preakness relocated by 2022, the year TSG has targeted to bring the Breeders’ Cup to Laurel.

TSG’s glamour event, the Pegasus, is here to stay, he said, although tinkering with the funding of the races still needs to be done. He all but confirmed the 2020 event will be shifted to the Saturday before the Super Bowl, which will be played at Dolphins Stadium, eight miles west of Gulfstream.

TSG, whose properties include Gulfstream and Santa Anita, is doing its due diligence about bringing sports gambling to its venues. However, given the legislative hurdles that have to be cleared in Florida and California, it could be a while before it happens.

He didn’t make it sound like a priority. Sports gambling would be more a customer service, he said, since the profit margin is thin and there is even a possibility of losses, which is not the case with pari-mutuels.

An important vote

Racing is its own worst enemy. It rarely misses an opportunity to dispel notions that the game is not on the level.

The National HBPA’s refusal to even experiment with a ban on race-day medications, as is the case everywhere else in the world, does not put the sport in a good light.

The latest potential problem area is on the ballot for the annual election of directors of the Florida HBPA. Two of the candidates among trainers are Patrick Biancone and Marcus Vitali. Biancone was run out of Hong Kong for drug violations and was suspended by Kentucky for a year in 2007 when vials of cobra venom were found in his barn.

Vitali tried to finesse allegations of drug violations in South Florida in 2015-16 by surrendering his state license, then moving his operation to Maryland, where he could argue on his license application he had no violations since the Florida cases were still only allegations. When officials at Laurel realized what he was up to, he was asked to leave the Maryland track.

Both trainers have paid their penalties and resumed their careers. This is as it should be. No one should be denied an opportunity to pursue their livelihood when they have paid the debt for their transgressions.

Being elected to an office where you become a public face and voice of your sport is another matter.

I take no position on who should be elected. The beauty of democracy is each voter has the right to make his or her choice based on any standards they choose. However, the FHBPA electorate should take into consideration the optics of having people with a history of serious violations in official positions as leaders of the backstretch. It is not a good one.

Written by Tom Jicha

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