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, March 08, 2013

Handicaps are a joke; it’s time for them to go

Handicap racing has become a farce. Breeders' Cup Classic champion Fort Larned makes his 2013 debut Saturday in the Gulfstream Park Handicap carrying 124 pounds. He carried 125 in winning Saratoga's Whitney, two races before he won the Classic under allowance conditions. Last Saturday, Game on Dude, who towers over everything on the West Coast, won the Big Cap with 125. Santa Anita has a new rule that highweights can't be assigned more than 126. With many jockeys unable to ride with less than 117 or 118, this makes it impossible to create a true handicap. Racing should stop the charade, retire the term handicap, and run all stakes, especially graded stakes, under allowance conditions.

MIAMI, March 8, 2013--When are we going to stop with the farce that contemporary “handicap” racing has become? This isn’t a novel thought but it is one that needs to be reiterated until something is done.

Fort Larned is making his 2013 debut Saturday in the Grade 2 Gulfstream Park “Handicap.” The reigning Breeders’ Cup Classic champion was assigned 124 pounds, one pound less than the last time he was in a Handicap, the Grade 1 Whitney at Saratoga, which he won.

An argument could be mounted that he is picking up two pounds off the BC Classic. But it would be hard to make this argument with a straight face measuring the 11 horses he beat in the Classic against his opposition this weekend.

One of his five rivals, Decaf Again, is on a 20-race losing streak. He hasn’t hit the board in his last eight starts and was seventh of eight in a $40,000 claimer less than a month ago. Is there anyone who thinks the 12-pound pull Decaf Again is getting is going to bring him together with Fort Larned?

If this truly were a handicap, Decaf Again’s trainer, Barry Rose, would have to go to a maternity ward to find someone who could make the weight.

Another starter, Discreet Dancer, offers a cautionary note for anyone thinking about sending it in on Verrazano in the Tampa Bay Derby. Discreet Dancer was last year’s Verrazano. He won his first two starts at Gulfstream for Todd Pletcher by more than 15 lengths. Then he tried two turns and his first stakes, the Fountain of Youth. He wound up a non-threatening third, beaten more than six lengths. He didn’t show up again under silks for a year.

Discreet Dancer has shown sufficient promise of brilliance to not be dismissed Saturday. His lone loss was to Juvenile Eclipse winner Union Rags, who would go on to win the Belmont. But Discreet Dancer is still a non-stakes winner, getting only nine pounds from a finalist for Older Horse of the Year.

A week previously, Game on Dude ran away with Santa Anita’s Big ‘Cap by more than seven lengths, the biggest winning margin in the 76-year history of the race. He was burdened with 125 pounds. Santa Anita has a relatively new rule that the high weight can’t be assigned more than 126 pounds.

Many top jocks, the caliber sought for big money races, can make no less than 117, 118 pounds. So if the top weight cannot get more than 126, where is the real handicap?

So why continue the charade of labeling stakes “handicaps.”

Weight used to be a measuring stick for a horse’s standing in the sport. The grading of stakes now serves this function.

Also working against the concept of handicaps is the competition among tracks for marquee horses. The heyday of handicaps was during an era almost all big money purses were offered either in New York or Southern California and air travel for horses was unheard of. So outstanding horses, such as Dr. Fager, Kelso, Forego, Affirmed and Spectacular Bid, had to accept 130 pounds or more and spot in excess of 20 pounds to some rivals or stay in the barn.

Today, tracks, many fueled by slots money, would be lining up to throw million dollar purses at superstars while promising friendly weighting. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing for a sport crying out for attention. Outstanding thoroughbreds don't generate publicity standing in their stall.

Handicaps also have outlived their usefulness for bettors. When there was only win, place and show betting, putting the grandstand on a standout was a way to create the illusion that the field was being leveled enough to encourage players to take a shot, rather than passing the race. Exactas, trifectas, superfectas and horizontal multi-race wagers now provide plenty of pari-mutuel lures.

Uniformity: Discussions of uniformity in medication rules is a hot topic. It will be great if it happens. Meantime, how about a consensus among tracks in another area: uniformity in late scratch rules in multiple race wagers?

The fourth race at Gulfstream on March 3 provided an example of why this is needed. Frank Calabrese entered a coupled entry in the $12,500 maiden claimer. One Tough Cowgirl had a single lifetime start, a second-place finish for $25K, beaten just over a length. Her entry mate, Trini Spice, was the only other horse in the field who had raced for more than $12.5K last out. She was fourth for $16K.

Normally a drop in half in claiming price off a solid race like One Tough Cowgirl’s is a red flag. But this is a move Calabrese routinely employs to win.

Midway through third race betting, well into rolling daily double wagering, with rolling pick threes and the early pick four in progress, it was announced One Tough Cowgirl had been scratched.

Anyone who had keyed One Tough Cowgirl, the day’s Best Bet for the Racing Form’s Mike Welsch, was out of luck. Trini Spice surely was competitive and wound up going off the betting favorite. But you have to think One Tough Cowgirl was the horse many had singled in horizontal bets. Nevertheless, they were stuck with Trini Spice, who finished third. Because they were an entry and one of them started, there wasn’t a consolation.

In New York, the entry would have been scratched for betting purposes. Trini Spice would have run for purse money only. Bet 3 players would have gotten a consolation payoff. Pick Four players would have been transferred to the post time favorite. In the absence of Trini Spice, this would have been Pure Treasure, who won.

For the sake of players, NYRA’s policy should be uniform nationwide.

Written by Tom Jicha

Written by Tom Jicha

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