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, February 05, 2014

Gulfstream Taking a Gamble by Putting Racing First with Donn on Sunday

Gulfstream Park is putting the sport ahead of its bottom line in moving the Donn Handicap from Saturday to Sunday, Donn coming up a terrific race headed by Will Take Charge, in order to help launch 'The Jockey Club Tour on Fox.' It is also kicking in another $50K to lure a representative field to take on Groupie Doll in her career finale, which will open the Fox telecast.

MIAMI, Feb. 5, 2014--Gulfstream is taking one for the team this weekend. The Donn Handicap is being moved from its original date on Saturday to Sunday to accommodate the launch of "The Jockey Club Tour on Fox."

This should not be dismissed as no big deal, especially in light of how other tracks have done nothing to support the latest initiative to get more racing on TV. (There is not a single race from a Churchill Downs-owned track on the schedule. Their bad, or Fox's?)

The Donn traditionally produces one of the biggest days of the winter season at Gulfstream, often behind only Florida Derby Day. In moving it to Sunday, Gulfstream is risking a major hit to its bottom line.
Gulfstream President Tim Ritvo is hopeful this won’t be the case, but it is a roll of the dice. “Saturday will not do as well (without the Donn) but Sunday will be better than usual. We’re hoping the combination will equal or be better than what we would do on a normal weekend.”

The only precedent came a few years ago when Gulfstream experimented with moving The Florida Derby to Sunday with another stakes loaded day, including the Gulfstream Oaks, on Saturday. The idea was to see if it could create a Kentucky Oaks-Kentucky Derby-like two-day event.

The weekend handle was about what a Saturday Florida Derby and normal Sunday would have generated, according to Ritvo. But it is perhaps revealing that it became a one-and-done trial. The Florida Derby went back to Saturday and has been anchored there since.

What’s more, the Florida Derby is long established as a major event, which transcends racing, on the South Florida social calendar. The Donn is eagerly anticipated by racing fans but not the general population.

This is why Gulfstream deserves accolades for taking the chance with the Donn for all the right reasons. “We’re hoping the exposure on TV outweighs what we might lose on the change.”

Sunday racing was touted as the panacea that would reverse the downward trend in Florida racing when it was being debated in the Florida legislature. I can’t recall if it was the panacea to usher in a new golden age before or after the minors bill was the panacea that would usher in a new era of prosperity. Both definitely preceded slots, the panacea du jour.

Thankfully, it’s not three panaceas and you’re out for racing.

For some reason, or many reasons, Sunday racing has never caught on in a big way in Florida—or anywhere else in the United States. This is why many big stakes are not on the "Jockey Club Tour" agenda. Many tracks have been unwilling to move their marquee events from Saturday to Sunday.

Theories for the disappointment Sundays have become are as myriad as handicapping techniques. King NFL is a prominent one for almost half the year. Every track shows the games on monitors throughout their plant—some even have contests linking football and racing-- but this is no match for the comfort of home with a big screen TV.

Besides--the NFL’s disingenuous protests notwithstanding--more money probably changes hands on Sunday in football game bets and fantasy leagues than at the nation’s racetracks. So gambling thirsts are sated without a trip to the track.

Ken Dunn, the only man to run Calder and Gulfstream, says a higher power than even the NFL should not be overlooked. “Sunday is a church day for an awful lot of people.” Many extend this to the commandment to keep holy the Lord’s day. A gambling and drinking establishment does not fit within this parameter. (Christianity is not the only religion, but it is the dominant one in numbers).

Dunn, who also was a top executive at Arlington and Atlantic City, said experience teaches him Sundays will never be as strong as Saturdays, no matter what inducements tracks offer to attract customers. “At Calder, we created a family picnic area. We had pony rides, face painting and games for kids. It boosted attendance for a while but it quickly became old hat. Racing is never going to make it with families. It’s great to expose it to them but they are not going to come to the track every week.”

Probably because Sunday is such a family oriented day, “The male of the household has a more difficult time getting away on a Sunday than on Saturday,” Dunn said.

Speaking from anecdotal experience, Dunn, an avid golfer, said it is the same at local courses. “It’s much easier to get a tee time on a Sunday than it is on a Saturday.”

Dunn and Ritvo are on the same page with another factor that’s especially peculiar to South Florida during the winter. “Sunday is a travel day here,” Ritvo said. Tourists who visit for a week or weekend tend to head home on Sunday.

Indeed, since changing the date of the Donn, Ritvo said he has heard from disappointed fans, who told him they had made plans to be in Florida for the Donn on Saturday then fly home the next day.

Those who can’t make it are going to miss a sensational race. Eclipse champion Will Take Charge tops an anticipated big field expected to include Revolutionary, River Seven and Lea. There will be more on the Donn on Friday.

As a bonus, two-time Eclipse winner Groupie Doll will make the final start of her career in the Hurricane Bertie. Gulfstream is biting another bullet by kicking in an extra $50K to the purse if Groupie Doll runs but it really isn’t to assure her presence. She has been set for a while. The track is hoping to entice a few more contenders to take on the champ so that the race is meaningful and competitive for TV.

Both races, in addition to the Gulfstream Turf Cup, will be part of the telecast on Fox Sports 1 from 5-6:30.

Dunn applauds Gulfstream’s selflessness in making this possible. “I can’t tell you how many meetings I sat through where we tried to get more races on TV but there was little willingness to make a short-term sacrifice for long-term gains.”

Written by Tom Jicha

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