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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Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Gulfstream Control Good for Florida Racing; Elsewhere Adios Synthetics

The long pending agreement that turns over control of South Florida racing to Gulfstream and The Stronach Group is a good thing for racing because it gets Churchill Downs Inc. out of an important racing state. The downside is CDI is being rewarded by being allowed to keep it's casino after running racing into the ground.

The landmark agreement that turns over control of South Florida racing to The Stronach Group was described by Gulfstream President Tim Ritvo as a win-win situation. Indeed Gulfstream and Frank Stronach are winners. Gulfstream is now the unchallenged leader of Florida racing and with Santa Anita controlling the bulk of Southern California dates, Stronach now rules over two of the nation's racing centers.

Could NYRA be next? Stronach has been in the mix before and could be again when NYRA becomes privatized in the next two years.

The only downer in the agreement is that Churchill Downs Inc. doesn't deserve a win in this situation. The deal means it has gotten away with murder: The death of Calder as a race track has been sealed, just as Hollywood Park's fate was sealed when CDI sold it to a land development company.

Racing will continue at Calder for 40 days a year in the fall for the next six years, the minimum Florida demands to keep a casino license. But rest assured that efforts will be made during the interim period to have that requirement modified to free CDI from any involvement in racing.

Terms of the agreement include Calder ceasing all simulcasting immediately. Rumors are rampant that the Calder grandstand will be razed and racing will be conducted under temporary facilities each fall.

CDI also is turning over it's interest in HRTV to the Stronach Group.

Trainer Phil Combest said it best. "Churchill Downs has long made it clear that horse racing is only a means to an end for them. They're a casino company now."

No More Kitty Litter

The decisive repudiation of the era of synthetic racing was struck last week when Keeneland and Del Mar were awarded Breeders’ Cups.

The 2015 renewal went to Keeneland and the 2017 event to Del Mar. It’s not coincidental that Keeneland will rejoin the mainstream of American racing by restoring a conventional dirt strip this fall and Del Mar will follow suit in time for next summer’s racing season.

The awarding of the Breeders’ Cup was the sport’s way of saying, “Welcome back.”

This will leave only second and third tier tracks with fake dirt ovals. The arguable exception is Arlington Park but the Chicago area oval emphasizes turf for its major races. Moreover, if Churchill Downs Inc. wasn’t so tight, it, too, would probably convert back to real dirt.

Even Meydan in Dubai, whose sheiks answer to no one, has gone back to conventional dirt.

The anticipated fallout of the abandonment of the well intentioned flirtation with artificial surfaces is the outcry that the safety of horses is being overlooked. A sufficient body of evidence has been established that there are fewer breakdowns on synthetics but the numbers aren’t so overwhelming that they require the reinvention of the game. Extending this argument, all racing should be on turf, the safest surface of all. Alas, it’s just not practical.

To get back to the Breeders’ Cup, it’s long overdue that Keeneland be selected as a site. It didn’t happen sooner because spacious Churchill Downs, an hour away, was the preferable Kentucky venue because of its capacity and proven ability to handle Breeders’ Cup size crowds. Unfortunately, the casino-obsessed bean counters at Churchill Downs have taken it out of the Breeders’ Cup rotation.

The feeling persists that the Kentucky breeding community, the heart and soul of the thoroughbred sport, is being thrown a bone, that the 2015 Breeders’ Cup will be a one-shot stop at Keeneland, just as it has been at Monmouth, Lone Star and Woodbine.

The Breeders’ Cup didn’t even allow Keeneland a singular day in the sun in making the announcement. It had to add that the following two renewals will be back in Southern California. Between the Keeneland and Del Mar stops, Santa Anita will host the 2016 Breeders’ Cup, its fourth shot in five years and sixth in eight years. Del Mar will make it five Southern California Breeders’ Cups in six years and seven in ten years.

Various representatives of Breeders’ Cup have made it clear that if they have their way, the BC will be anchored permanently in Southern California. Barry Weisbord, publisher of Thoroughbred Daily News and a BC board member, is an outspoken proponent of Southern California as the permanent home of the BC. He told the Paulick Report, “I’m not a proponent of coming to Keeneland in November and have made my feelings well known to fellow board members.”

You could almost anticipate Weisbord, who reportedly is pondering a run at the BC Chairman position, doing a rain dance outside Keeneland in 2015 and running around the paddock with a thermometer in his hand to remind everyone how much warmer it is in Southern California.

Weisbord is an unabashed elitist. In the Paulick Report piece, he said, “I’ve had a lot of opportunities to travel throughout the world and see horse racing at places that scream elegance, sell elegance and are most successful. That’s what separates racing from other sports. The more elegance we can deliver the better off we are.”

He wasn’t talking about accommodating the $2 bettors in the grandstand.

What’s more, it’s not the elegance of the dining rooms for the swells but the horses who can be delivered that determines the success of Breeders’ Cup. Once it becomes apparent that the Breeders’ Cup is just another year-end Southern California event, it will lose the support of a lot of horsemen east of the Great Divide. In some cases, it already has.

NYRA has been out of the Breeders’ Cup rotation because of its own political and financial problems. But a lot of those have been alleviated and it demonstrated on Belmont Stakes Day that it can run a Breeders’ Cup caliber event. It also has something Santa Anita and Del Mar don’t—a boatload of casino money, as well as an imaginative leader in Martin Panza.

If NYRA can throw $8 million at the Belmont card, it surely can come up with a few million more to stage a rival Breeders Cup-type event, should this become necessary to break the Southern California stranglehold, especially with a couple of years to get ready.

Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that because two Breeders’ Cups will inevitably lead to no Breeders’ Cups.

Written by Tom Jicha

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