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, February 22, 2018

Here we go again with the curse of Apollo

Every spring, a precocious colt or two, who did not race as a juvenile, emerges to be the latest candidate to break the curse of Apollo, which dictates a horse must have raced as a 2-year-old to be a legitimate Kentucky Derby contender. For 136 years, the curse has not been conquered. The latest candidate is Justify from the Bob Baffert barn, who debuted Sunday with the fastest Beyer fig of his generation, 104, and was immediately put on the Triple Crown trail by Baffert.

Just when it looked like we were going to get by 2018 without having to mention the curse of Apollo, Bob Baffert rolled out a speedball named Justify. The son of Scat Daddy annihilated four rivals Sunday running seven furlongs in 1:21.86 for an eye-popping Beyer of 104, the top fig of the year for a Derby age colt.

Justify was no secret. Baffert, the clockers and their clients were laying in wait for him to debut. He was sent off at 1-2.

Baffert’s immediate reaction after the race was to announce Justify is on the Triple Crown trail. My immediate reaction was to scoff. How could a horse, who not only did not start as a 2-year-old—the curse goes back to 1882-- but didn’t make his debut until less than 11 weeks before the Derby be taken seriously? In all likelihood, the Derby would be the third or fourth start of his career.

Then I thought about it. Why not, if he has the ability? Big Brown essentially beat the curse with an even later start. Big Brown did have a start as a juvenile but it was on the turf on closing weekend at Saratoga. He crushed an MSW field and was tagged a future grass star.

Fate intervened. He wasn’t entered again until March 5 of his 3-year-old season at Gulfstream—in an entry level grass allowance. It rained and the race was shifted to the main track. Big Brown buried his competition and was immediately put on the Triple Crown trail.

Not even the dreaded 12 post going a mile and an eighth in the Florida Derby was a hindrance in his next start. He won for fun. It was on to Louisville, where he cruised in the Kentucky Derby, then did the same in the Preakness in career starts 4 and 5. Technically, he didn’t snap the curse of Apollo. Practically speaking, he did.

For the record, Todd Pletcher also has an Apollo-defying candidate, a colt named Magnum Moon, who has won his first two starts. Neither was as dazzling as Justify’s debut and, I mean this as a compliment, doesn’t Pletcher have one or two brilliant late arrivals every spring?

Baffert said he has a plan in mind for Justify. It would be surprising if this included tackling Eclipse champion Good Magic in Florida or Bolt d’Oro in California. But the Tampa Bay Derby, Louisiana Derby and Sunland Derby could be interesting targets, especially the latter since he probably wouldn’t be meeting any superstars and it wouldn’t be as taxing a ship.

Justify saved what was a disappointing weekend for Baffert. Mourinho bombed as a big favorite in the Southwest. Another highly touted sophomore, Zulfikhar, failed to hit the board in the race following the Southwest. Baffert did win a Cal-bred stakes with Heck Yeah but he’s destined for state-bred races, primarily on the turf even though Monday’s stakes was on dirt.

But Baffert is like Nick Saban in football and John Calipari in basketball. He doesn’t regroup. He reloads.

Too many stakes?

It seems as if as the foal crops decrease, the number of stakes races increase. Not surprisingly, tracks are having a difficult time filling some of them.

Saturday’s card at Gulfstream was supposed to have three stakes. The Hal’s Hope for older horses is the headliner. A pair of turf sprints for 3-year-olds, the open Texas Glitter and the Melody of Colors for fillies, were listed to support it. The Texas Glitter will go. The Melody of Colors won’t. It didn’t fill. Maybe it will be re-carded later. It's hard to believe a sprint on the grass would have a hard time drawing a decent field.

This is at least the second stakes of the winter that had to be scrapped. The Skip Away, a nine furlong event for older horses, didn't make it to the gate on Jan. 13. With the Harlan’s Holiday, Fred Hooper, Sunshine Millions and Pegasus all within a month or so of the Skip Away, this shouldn’t have been a surprise.

The number of stakes for older horses during the winter really needs to be re-examined. There just aren’t that many stakes-worthy horses available early in the year. The cream of the crop are pointed to the Pegasus and then the Dubai World Cup.

The winners of all three 2017 Triple events—Always Dreaming, Cloud Computing and Tapwrit—are training at Gulfstream or one of its satellite facilities. But it’s questionable any of them will find his way into the entries this season. The only realistic possibilities are a Grade 2 mile on the Florida Derby undercard or a specially arranged allowance race where they would be 1-20.

Any of them really would have dressed up Saturday’s Hal’s Hope. As it is, the stakes will still have some of its luster salvaged by the 2018 debut of Irish War Cry, hero of last winter’s Holy Bull and Wood Memorial and second in the Belmont. He hasn’t been out since September but Graham Motion said he’s ready, which is endorsement enough.

The price probably won’t be that short. Todd Pletcher is starting 2017 Rebel winner Malagacy and Send It In, who hasn’t been out since being credited with an otherworldly 119 Beyer in last April’s Excelsior. That number is suspiciously high, especially since it came after a pair of 97’s and a 96. Also the Excelsior was a mile and a quarter, a distance rarely run at the Big A, making comparisons a challenge. In any case, it knocked him out for the rest of the year. But fans likely will see Pletcher and 119 and head to the windows.

If Irish War Cry is close to himself, he might be decent value at 5-2/3-1.

Best laid plans

NYRA laid out a creative plan to lure Florida horses back north a little early this season. It offered to pay $1,500 in shipping expenses for horses who come up from Florida and start at least once during the Aqueduct spring meeting, which runs through the third week in April.

Alas, a quarantine of at least three weeks has been ordered for Barn 10 at Belmont after a filly trained by Tom Albertrani, Ladies Day, had to be euthanized after she was diagnosed with EHM.

NYRA is doing all the right things in keeping horses from that barn isolated from the general population and there’s still plenty of time to ship in for the bonus. However, late February, early March is when trainers are starting to map out their shipping plans. If any other horse tests positive for the disease, the quarantine clock starts anew.

If anything, the uncertainty might keep some horses in Florida longer than usual.

Written by Tom Jicha

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