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, December 06, 2018

Grading committee nothing but a tool for breeders

With its latest decisions, the American Graded Stakes Committee has exposed itself as nothing more than a tool for breeders. Quality of a stakes and its history are irrelevant to the committee. Five major distance stakes, with a roster of distinguished winners, have been downgraded while three sprints of no great distinction nor historical impact have been elevated to the highest level. This does nothing to serve racing and its fans but everything to drive up stud fees and sales prices of horses with stamina limitations.

Silly me. I used to think thoroughbred racing’s grading system was a way to identify the quality of stakes. No more.

The latest decisions by the American Graded Stakes Committee demonstrate the committee is nothing more than a tool for breeders. Grades assigned to stakes are only coincidental to the talent and depth of a race.

Six races have been downgraded from Grade 1 to Grade 2 in 2019. Five are at a mile and a sixteenth or further: the Stephen Foster, Beldame, Santa Margarita, Zenyatta (nee Lady’s Secret) and Cash Call Futurity. (The other is the seven furlong Triple Bend.)

Three stakes were elevated from Grade 2 to Grade 1. All are sprints: the Churchill Downs, the Jaipur on the turf and the Woody Stephens.

No one is more deserving than Stephens of being honored by an important stakes named for him. But it has always struck me as curious that it is a sprint. The greatest feat attached to Woody’s name is winning five consecutive Belmont Stakes, the longest classic on dirt on the American calendar.

Why would the grading committee celebrate sprints and diminish distance races? It isn’t to help build big days with added promotional value. All the new Grade 1’s are on two of racing’s biggest dates, which need no help. The Churchill Downs Stakes is on Derby Day. The Jaipur and Woody Stephens are on the Belmont undercard.

It isn’t recognition for some of the greats who have won these races. The past five Stephens have been won by Still Having Fun, American Anthem, Tom’s Ready, March and, probably the nicest of the bunch, Bayern.

The past two renewals of the Jaipur have gone to Disco Partner. The previous three were won by Pure Sensation, Channel Maker and Undrafted.

Limousine Liberal encored in the two most recent Churchill Downs Stakes. Prior to that Catalina Red, Private Zone and Central Banker won the seven-furlong event.

There are some nice horses in this bunch. However, I don’t think the Hall of Fame need hold a place on the wall for any of them.

Compare this to some of the champions who have won the downgraded stakes: Gun Runner, Beholder (three times), Unbridled Forever and, going back a bit, Zenyatta herself three times when the race now named for her was the Lady’s Secret.

The most unforgivable, inept decision of all involves the Cash Call Futurity, which will be run this coming weekend. The final major 2-year-old race of the year loses its top grade even though four of the past five winners—McKinzie, Mor Spirit, Dortmund and Shared Belief—went on the become Grade 1 winners as 3-year-olds and older. The exception, Mastery, was retired undefeated with an injury after a smashing win in his only sophomore start, the San Felipe.

Meanwhile, the seven furlong Hopeful Stakes remains a Grade 1. The past five winners are Mind Control, who ran seventh in the BC Juvenile, his only start since; Sporting Chance, who has one subsequent in-the-money finish in six starts; Practical Joke, the only one to later win a Grade 1; Ralis, 0-13 since and last seen running out of the money in a claiming race, and Competitive Edge, whose major past performance line is a Grade 3 victory.

Obviously the latest classifications of the AGSC have only one purpose. They serve American breeders, who are consumed with breeding precocious speed horses, who will bring top dollar at sales after being showcased running 220 yards at break-neck speed.

Stamina is of no concern. If it’s there, it’s an unanticipated bonus.

Breeders want that Grade 1 designation for speedball sires to jack up stud fees. So the AGSC has created more opportunities for them to get it, warranted or not.

The committee and its gradings have forfeited the right to be taken seriously.

Flamingos might fly again

Last weekend’s return to the Gulfstream mothership was a cause for joy on a couple of counts. Not only did it mark the start of the prime winter meeting, it was an escape from the bleak eight-week respite of racing amidst the ruins at Gulfstream West (nee Calder).

Each year at this time I break the wishbone on my Thanksgiving turkey with the hope that South Florida horses will be liberated from ever having to go there again and that a resuscitated Hialeah will be the alternative.

I’ve written so many times in the past that this is a possibility that I don’t blame anyone for regarding me as “the boy who cried wolf (or Hialeah).”

However, I’ve heard from someone knowledgeable that there have been preliminary conversations at the highest levels about Hialeah replacing Calder as the home of a fall thoroughbred meet.

I want to emphasize “conversation” is the extent of how far this has gone. It has not reached the stage where the overtures could fairly be called negotiations. It’s more along the lines of “If we did this, would you be open to considering this?”

On a scale of 1-10, it is still only about a 3 or 4, maybe less, that Hialeah will race again. But this is better than zero.

As I’ve suggested before, if the Jockey Club is serious about helping to preserve race tracks, there is no more spectacular venue than Hialeah. From what I’ve heard, cost is the main sticking point.

Something will have to be done in the next year or two. The contract between Gulfstream and Churchill Downs Inc., owner of the former Calder Race Course, for a 40-day, casino-preserving meeting ends in 2020.

Even before then CDI is trying to do an end-around by creating a sham jai alai season to qualify for its casino license. Whether it can legally do this could wind up being fought out before state regulators and in the courts beyond the scheduled end of the contract.

In any case, it is clear the old Calder will not be a thoroughbred race track one day longer than CDI is legally obligated to keep its casino license.

An unintended benefit of the Gulfstream West meeting is the two-month break has proven to be a boon to Gulfstream’s turf course, refreshing and refurbishing the building and preventing horsemen and customers from becoming track sore from a never-ending meeting. It also contributes to the aura of an event when the horses return for the championship meet, as we saw last Saturday.

It is to Gulfstream’s advantage to maintain the fall break. A revived Hialeah is the only plausible alternative. At least they are talking.

Written by Tom Jicha

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