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, March 29, 2018

It might be a good thing if stars on the bubble are shut out of Derby

The Kentucky Derby qualifying points system has come in for criticism since being instituted. Never has it deserved it more than this year. High quality 3-year-olds such as Audible, Catholic Boy, Good Magic and Justify are all on the endangered list. Much of this can be traced to using solely the calendar as the basis for the number of points at stake. It's unacceptable that the Borderland Derby is worth five times as many points as the Holy Bull and Sham. The UAE Derby is worth 10 times as many. But it isn't only the points. Conservative trainers, who plot only two preps for their stars, leaving no room for error or mishap, must share the blame.

Louisville, you have a problem.

The Kentucky Derby points system is designed to get the best 3-year-olds in training into the starting gate. For the most part, it has succeeded. This year might be the exception and this could be a good thing for racing.

Some of the most exciting sophomores find themselves in do-or-die jeopardy heading into their final preps and the reason is trainers’ conservative racing strategy.

Audible, who was made the 9-5 morning line favorite for Saturday’s Florida Derby, traditionally one of the toughest and most productive of the Derby preps, has run one of the most impressive races of the year for a 3-year-old, his 5 ½ length tour-de-force in the Holy Bull.

However, unlike the Borderland Derby, which awards 50 points to its winner, or the UAE Derby, a 100-point bonanza, the Holy Bull is worth only 10. Why? Justify that one, Churchill Downs.

In any case, those 10 points are all Audible has. So the winner of three straight in a four-race career must finish at least second Saturday or he’s probably out of the Derby.

It won’t be easy. Promises Fulfilled, impressive winner of the Fountain of Youth, is the second choice. He’s in because the FoY earned him 50 points. Why the discrepancy between two races, both at a mile and a sixteenth over the same track? Solely because the FoY is run four weeks later than the Holy Bull. That’s it. There is no other reason. Does this make sense?

Promises Fulfilled doesn’t stand in the way of only Audible. Catholic Boy, a graded stakes winner on grass and dirt and whose Remsen score makes him the only starter in the field with a win at a mile and an eighth, is also in jeopardy. He got only 10 points for the Remsen and his second to the ultra-tough Flameaway in the Sam F. Davis was worth only four points—10 times less than whoever finishes second in the UAE Derby will get. So he has to finish at least second, too.

Unless Audible and Catholic Boy run one-two Saturday, one of them probably is not going to make the Derby cut.

Promises Fulfilled is not the only horse these two have to fear. Strike Power was a solid second in the Fountain of Youth, his first try around two turns after a couple of uber-impressive sprint wins. He’s drawn the rail and figures to be on the lead or close to it, according to trainer Mark Hennig. Anyone who even casually follows Gulfstream knows how dangerous speed is.

Audible and Catholic Boy are not alone on the Derby endangered list.

How about Good Magic? I’ll never get off my position that the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile should be a Derby win-and-you’re-in, which, in effect, the Borderland Derby, UAE Derby and some lesser races in Japan and Europe are. Good Magic has 34 points so he would need only a fourth in the Blue Grass to go over the top. But strange things can happen in a horse race.

Perhaps the most attention-grabbing 3-year-old in the nation, Justify, is also in a precarious spot but Churchill can’t be blamed. Bob Baffert’s colt has run faster than anyone in his two starts but has zero points because neither was a stakes. He essentially needs to win the Arkansas Derby to guarantee a slot. All this entails is putting away his rival in breaking the curse of Apollo, undefeated Magnum Moon.

A second would probably do it but there is no guarantee in a year in which 10 colts already have at least 40 points and more than a dozen more are in the 30s and 20s, which puts them within a third-place finish in one of the final round preps of getting to or exceeding 40.

There also are the two slots set aside for Euro and Japanese representatives. A Euro might come, but the Japanese are not expected to send anyone. Still, another two slots could go to the winner and place horse in Saturday’s UAE Derby. This would leave only 17 for the home team.

If there can be set-asides for foreign horses of dubious credentials, Churchill owes it to American horses to offer the same. Maybe one of two slots could be saved for well deserving late developers, such as Justify. A panel of racing secretaries and racing writers—the same people who decide Eclipse Awards--could award the berth with the proviso that in most years they could elect to pass.

Churchill Downs can do its part by making all the preps in the new year at least 20-pointers. It’s absurd that stakes such as the Holy Bull count for only one-fifth what the Borderland Derby does and one-tenth of the UAE Derby, solely because of the calendar.

To get back to my original point, I would hate to see a star horse kept on the Derby sidelines but maybe it would influence trainers to get them out of the barn a little sooner and a little more often. Anyone doubt that if Audible, Catholic Boy, Good Magic and Justify had even one more qualifying points prep, we wouldn’t be having this discussion?

When you schedule only two preps for a legitimate Derby hopeful and something goes amiss, you deserve what you get—or don’t get.

Looking forward

There will be life for racing after the Triple Crown. Not just mundane life, exhilarating life.

Good Samaritan came back to the races Saturday with a performance that harkens memories of Silky Sullivan. He dropped back almost to Bourbon Street before launching a breath-taking surge in the New Orleans Handicap that blew away the field. This is the kind of performance that captures the fancy of the racing public.

West Coast is expected to put on a show Saturday in the Dubai World Cup, which will cement his temporary leadership among older horses.

Kentucky Derby champion—a magic term to fans—Always Dreaming is coming back to the races Saturday on the Florida Derby undercard. Todd Pletcher also has Belmont Stakes winner Tapwrit warming up in the bullpen for his return.

Chad Brown is prepping Preakness champion Cloud Computing for a 2018 campaign.

It’s too much to hope that we might see all of these stars in the same starting gate before the Breeders’ Cup but given good health, it should be quite a summer and fall.

Written by Tom Jicha

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