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, January 31, 2019

It’s Separation Saturday for Derby hopefuls

This Saturday is the most heavily trafficked road to the Kentucky Derby thus far this year. Major stakes are scheduled in Florida (Holy Bull), SoCal (Robert Lewis) and New York (Withers). Maximus Mischief, arguably the ranking sophomore not under Bob Baffert's shedrow, makes his 3-year-old debut against Mucho Macho Man winner Mihos at Gulfstream. Sham winner Gunmetal Gray takes on another touted Baffert sophomore, Mucho Gusto, at Santa Anita and a trio of impressive maiden breakers tackle winners at Aqueduct.

I compete in a fantasy horse league. It’s a clued-in bunch; DRF columnists, TVG staffers, jockey agents and me. I’ve never cracked the top three. But it’s fun.

We had our annual draft last week. Thirteen “stables” took 156 horses. Less than a month ago, Bob Baffert’s glowingly praised maiden winner Coliseum would have been a top five pick. Shug McGaughey’s Code of Honor would have been a high first-rounder, too.

In the first Kentucky Derby futures wager, Coliseum was tied for the second lowest odds for individual horses, behind only undefeated Breeders’ Cup Juvenile champion Game Winner. Code of Honor was fifth in the futures wagers.

After dismal efforts in the Sham and Mucho Macho Man, respectively, Coliseum was selected 154th, two from the end, in our draft. Code of Honor was totally ignored. I bring this up to show how quickly fortunes can change on the Derby trail.

Bear this in mind Saturday. Three significant Derby preps are scheduled: the Holy Bull at Gulfstream, the Robert Lewis at Santa Anita and the Withers at Aqueduct. The status of some highly regarded 3-year-olds are bound to rise and fall.

Baffert’s current one-two punch, Game Winner and Improbable, will remain on top. Game Winner is not scheduled for his 2019 sophomore debut until the March 9 San Felipe. Improbable is penciled in for the March 16 Rebel, now a $1 million race. (They are giving away money in Arkansas as if it is backed by the Confederacy.)

The third most promising Derby hopeful, Maximus Mischief, could solidify his position as the best prospect east of the Baffert barn in Gulfstream’s Holy Bull. Having come out of Parx, he’s being mentioned in the same sentences as Smarty Jones.

He’s won at 5 ½ furlongs, 7 furlongs and 9 furlongs in the Remsen, so he’ll actually be turning back to a mile and sixteenth. With the exception of early in the Remsen, when he pressed the pace, he has never been behind a rival.

The most interesting aspect of the Holy Bull could be whether trainer Butch Reid tries to educate him behind horses early.

If Maximus Mischief does take back, Todd Pletcher could have a dangerous pace-setter in two-for-two Federal Case, making the sensible progression from 7 furlongs to a mile to a two-turn mile and a sixteenth. Todd isn’t having a Pletcher year with his young horses but dismiss him at your own peril.

Still Maximus Mischief’s biggest threat figures to be Mucho Macho Man winner Mihos, who has come from off the pace in all three of his races. Then again, those races have all been around one turn. He could be closer going two turns.

If Mihos were in the Pletcher or Chad Brown barn, there is almost no chance he would be running back so quickly. But Jimmy Jerkens learned under his father, Hall of Fame giant killer H. Allen Jerkens, who was fond of saying, “Run them when they are good.” Mihos is very good right now.

Another Hall of Famer, Jerry Hollendorfer, must have studied at the same school as Jerkens. He’s bringing back Sham winner Gunmetal Gray in the Lewis. If nothing else, this is perhaps the last opportunity to duck Game Winner and/or Improbable.

Gunmetal Gray, who vanquished Baffert’s Much Better four weeks ago will have to contend with a probably more talented Baffert, Mucho Gusto. The only horse he hasn’t handled in three starts is Improbable.

If the Polar Vortex lifts in New York, we’ll see what we learned from Coliseum et al about betting low-priced impressive maiden-breakers. Among the likely top choices in the Withers are Pletcher’s Moretti, Steve Asmussen’s Tikhvin Flew and Dale Romans’ Admire.

Like Maximus Mischief, the regally bred Moretti (Medaglia d’Oro-Rigoletta), a half to Battle of Midway, has a win at nine furlongs after a solid second in his debut at a mile. Tikhvin Flew turned heads with his debut win at seven furlongs.

Admire is coming up from training in Florida, a money-making angle over the years. But Romans also has a pair in the Holy Bull, Come on Gerry and Everfast. So this might be a case of sending the third team to a less challenging spot.

The newcomers to the ranks of winners will find a couple of accomplished colts waiting for them. Our Braintrust, winner of the Tremont last spring and second to Mind Control in the Jerome, makes his first start for Gary Barber and Mark Casse after a private purchase. Like many Saturday, he’ll be making his first start around two turns.

Sir Winston, who took the Display at Woodbine, is coming back to the frozen north after also training in Florida, at an Ocala training center.

All of this makes the Withers the most wide open intriguing betting opportunity of the three Derby preps but the least likely to produce a horse to put a scare into those at the top of the polls.

This is improvement?

A trickle becomes a leak then a leak becomes a flood.

In one important way a trickle in the way racing is conducted is heading toward a deluge. First the American Graded Race Committee downgraded important formerly Grade 1 distance stakes—the Stephen Foster, Beldame, Zenyatta, Santa Margarita and Cash Call Futurity--while giving enhanced status to sprints—the Woody Stephens, Churchill Downs and the grassy Jaipur.

More recently the MATCH series, a praise-worthy idea to elevate minor stakes to higher levels at Mid Atlantic tracks only occasionally visited by top-of-the-line horses, has unveiled its 2019 agenda. Three of the four categories are in the sprint division—one for each gender on dirt and another on turf. Older fillies and mares have a distance category—on turf.

There’s nothing for two-turn runners on dirt. What once was the testing grounds for stardom is now treated like a novelty.

You get what you pay for. The inevitable fallout of these decisions will be an increase in the number of horses bred to run short at the expense of breeding for classic runners. So much for racing being about—please don’t laugh—the improvement of the breed.

Written by Tom Jicha

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