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 Sentinels horse racing writer since 2007 as a staff member, and continues to this day as a free-lancer.

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Friday, December 06, 2013

Gulfstream-Calder battle reaches fever pitch

Gulfstream and Calder have been running against each other all summer and fall but they have not had a showdown like the one Saturday when Gulfstream presents the eight-race, million-dollar Claiming Crown and Calder counters with three legitimate stakes, two Grade 3 and one listed.

MIAMI, Dec. 6, 2013--Conventional wisdom was the Gulfstream-Calder war would never come to pass. There would be an 11th hour settlement. Even if there wasn’t, the conflict wouldn’t last longer than the U.S. invasion of Grenada before cooler heads prevailed.

The conventional wisdom—I was part of it—was wrong. Five months later, the conflict has taken on the feel of Vietnam, a conflict with no end in sight.

Strong-willed Frank Stronach is determined to make Gulfstream the realization of his long-stated obsession that race tracks, like other businesses, should be able to operate whenever they see fit. Florida, with no regulation of racing dates, offers the perfect venue. With pockets as deep as the Pacific, Stronach has demonstrated a willingness to spend whatever it takes to win this war, including drastically overpaying summer purses and building new stalls for 360 horses.

By most indicators, he is succeeding. Thanks to a superior national brand, Gulfstream out-handles Calder by as much as four-to-one when they race head-to-head. Horsemen, who were based at Calder for decades, switched their base eight miles east in shocking numbers. Gulfstream snatched the Stallion Stakes and Florida Million Day, former centerpieces of Calder’s season.

Nevertheless, Churchill Downs Inc., parent of Calder, has dug in its heels, refusing to be bullied out of existence. A major motivation is the necessity to run 80 days to keep the Calder and Tropical licenses and the slots license tied to them. So it has cut expenses to such an extent that it could continue the conflict indefinitely.

CDI better be prepared to do that. Gulfstream president Tim Ritvo said last week he plans to extend his track’s weekly agenda to at least three days next summer, maybe more. “We started with two days because we didn’t know how many horses would come over from Calder. Now that we’ve gotten more than even we hoped, we can fill more races. Horsemen have told us they need more than two days a week to get races for their horses.”

NYRA’s decision to run on Mondays through the winter provides Calder with an opportunity it would be unwise to pass on. Rather than operate Friday through Sunday, a switch to Saturday through Monday would give it a day when it could be the second most popular simulcast signal in the nation.

NYRA being open on Mondays figures to lure bigger crowds to simulcast venues. With roughly a half-hour between Aqueduct races, players will be looking for something else to bet. Calder, with its glorious winter weather and familiar trainers and jockeys, would be a natural to fill that void against the likes of Parx and Turf Paradise.

The status quo alternative is to buck Gulfstream, the Fair Grounds, Santa Anita and Oaklawn on Fridays.

Getting back to this Saturday and extending the Vietnam analogy, it is the equivalent of the Tet offensive. Outside the three occasions when Gulfstream hosted the Breeders’ Cup, there has never been a day in South Florida racing like it. Both tracks have offered competing stakes on many Saturdays but the majority were stakes in name only, with high caliber allowance horses dominating over-matched claimers.

Calder is presenting three legitimate stakes, the Grade 3 Tropical Turf Handicap and My Charmer and the listed Fred W. Hooper.

Across town, Gulfstream stages the eight-race, million dollar Claiming Crown for the second time. Last season it produced one of the biggest days of the season.

Last December’s Claiming Crown was a precursor to the monster 2013 enjoyed by Ken and Sarah Ramsey. They entered six of the seven races (one more has been added this season) and won four with a second and a third.

A few weeks ago, Ramsey was asked how many he hoped to win this year. “All of them,” he said in characteristic fashion. He won’t do that. He has entries in only five; four favorites and a second choice.

Ramsey's red-and-white silks could sweep the late pick 4 with Deanallen’s Kitten in the Tiara; defending champion Brother Bird, a half to Mine That Bird, in the Iron Horse; Major Marvel, who missed by a head last year, in the Emerald and Bernie the Maestro, who won the 2012 Rapid Transit and attempts the Jewel this season.

One thing you know when you bet a Ramsey horse. You have the owner as a partner. You have to love a guy who wants to win every time as badly as he does.

The December page of the 2013 Gulfstream calendar has a photo of Team Valor’s Howe Great winning the Palm Beach Stakes. I smile every time I look at it.

Gulfstream has an elevated stand near the finish line, which is used by the media to watch feature races because it offers quick access to the winner’s circle. Some owners, including Ramsey, also occasionally watch races from this perch.

When the Palm Beach entries was drawn, Howe Great wound up in one of the most enviable positions in racing. A confirmed front runner, he was the lone speed.

Ramsey had Coalport, who needed someone to soften Howe Great on the front end to have any chance. It was obvious this wasn’t going to happen. The colorful Ramsey started cursing his fate from the moment he arrived on the stand--probably long before that--throughout Howe Great’s uncontested gallop on the lead and until the horses went under the wire.

The Palm Beach was a relatively minor early season stakes but you would have thought it was the Kentucky Derby or Breeders’ Cup Classic from Ramsey’s reaction. “I’ll never run against that horse again without a rabbit,” was one of his printable outbursts.

I’m smiling as a write this and I'm going to smile again when I write down Ramsey’s name on my Eclipse ballot as owner and breeder of the year.

Written by Tom Jicha

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