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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Wednesday, February 13, 2019

It’s time for some colt to attack the Baffert inevitability

The traditional ‘who do you like in the Derby?’ conversation that dominates racing circles this time of year is being replaced by ‘which Baffert horse do you like?’ Baffert has the top two contenders in Game Winner and Improbable and Mucho Gusto might not be far behind them. It’s time for a 3-year-old outside the Baffert barn to assert himself and insert some uncertainty and fun into Derby run-up season.

I heard a lot of great Hollywood stories during three decades as a TV critic. Some were quite salacious. Of course, those were the ones I’ve repeated most to friends. But I’ve never found an appropriate reason to share one of the best with you. Until now.

Milton Berle, Mr. Television in the infancy of the medium, was legendarily well endowed, according to Hollywood lore. His pals talked so much about it people outside their immediate circle tired of hearing it. Some took it as a challenge to find someone bigger than Uncle Miltie.

They scoured Hollywood adult film sets until they found a guy so well equipped that if he was a horse he would have been syndicated. They goaded Berle’s buddies into serious bets that they could show the King of Television was no longer the biggest thing in Tinseltown. Berle was up for the challenge.

The upstart’s backers’ eyes bugged out of their heads in awe when he unwrapped his package. So sure they had a winner, they couldn’t understand why Berle’s side, who stood to lose a small fortune, started laughing hysterically and doing the 1950’s equivalent of high-fives. It quickly became clear.

“Milton, just show them enough to win,” they roared.

To bring this around to racing, even at this early stage, Bob Baffert might have already shown enough to win the Kentucky Derby. This would be without even unveiling his one-two punch of Game Winner and Improbable.

Mucho Gusto’s win in the Robert Lewis was his third in four starts, and best yet. The only horse to beat him to the wire is Improbable. I’m not putting Mucho Gusto under a garland of roses but at this point, he is a more logical winner than most. And, at least for now, he’s Baffert’s third string.

I have no problem with Baffert winning another Derby, even another Triple Crown, but his early season dominance is taking a lot of the fun out of racing’s most wonderful time of the year. This is why I hope someone, ideally more than one, jumps up in the next couple of weeks with a performance to put the Baffert inevitability into doubt.

Maximus Mischief looked like he could be that horse until his inexcusable dud in the Holy Bull. He’ll have to atone big time in the Fountain of Youth before he even belongs back in the Derby conversation.
He’s not even the most spectacular disappointment so far. This dishonor would have to go to the outlandishly over-hyped Coliseum. After another flop at odds-on in the San Vicente Sunday, Baffert has taken him off the Derby trail.

The winner, Sparky Ville, isn’t even under Derby consideration. He will be pointed for sprint stakes, according to trainer Jeff Bonde.

The same could be said of Sam Davis winner Well Defined, who is more likely to be a factor in the Pat Day Mile than the Run for the Roses. The Tampa Bay race did expose Knicks Go as a two-race flash in the pan last fall.

There are still some serious horses from last year who haven’t been heard from as sophomores. Ken McPeek, whose Harvey Wallbanger made some noise in the Holy Bull, has Signalman, third in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, waiting in the wings. He might make his seasonal debut in the Fountain of Youth but that’s not definite, according to McPeek.

One of these days, Instagrand, whose iconoclastic owner Larry Best specializes in skipping races, will show up under silks again. It was supposed to happen in the San Vicente but Best made an 11th hour decision to skip that event, too. Even if Instagrand comes back with another 10-length tour de force, as he did twice as a juvenile, how excited can you get about a colt whose owner says he doesn’t believe in the Triple Crown?

War of Will, coming off a big win in the LeComte, could create some excitement Saturday if he can encore in the Risen Star, especially saddled with a post out in the Fair Grounds parking lot. But it is the Fair Grounds and history teaches Derby winners don’t come from Bourbon Street Adjacent.

The Southwest on Monday looks like a rerun of the Smarty Jones. If anyone was impressed by Gray Attempt’s win, they have not made themselves heard. He sits 16th, behind Maximus Mischief among others, in the weekly NTRA Derby poll.

At this point, the most exciting prospects are Hidden Scroll, whose maiden breaking debut on Pegasus Day was breathtaking, and Global Campaign, who demonstrated last Saturday that his big maiden win was not illusory. Enthusiasm for both has to be tempered until they run in a stakes, which might not be for almost a month or more.

Justify was barely known at this time last year, so there is still time for a new star to emerge. I just wish he would hurry up.

More dollars than sense

It must be nice to have more money than you know what to do with.

NYRA has demonstrated again that it feels burdened with this with the announcement it is putting up $5.25 million for a couple of new, richly endowed three-race series of turf races for 3-year-olds. The Turf Trinity for males offers $1 million for each of its legs. The Turf Tiara races are $750,000 apiece.

Both series launch on July 6 with the Belmont Derby and Belmont Oaks, races that already exist. The next segment is new stakes, which are being used to sandwich the Whitney and create a three-day weekend. The Saratoga Oaks is scheduled for Friday, Aug. 2. The Saratoga Derby heads that Sunday’s card. The series concludes on opening weekend of Belmont’s fall meet. The new Jockey Club Derby and Jockey Club Oaks are set for Sept. 7.

The concept for a series of grass races for 3-year-olds is solid, even if the opening round consists of established races. The idea for a three-day Whitney weekend is commendable. In the event the Belmont meeting has to be moved to Aqueduct because of the construction of the Islanders’ new arena, this would be a great way to call attention to the new agenda. However, it is inarguable that these races would be just as alluring to horsemen with half their purses.

One goal of the bloated purses is to entice Euros to come over. But these races fall in the heart of their season, so there is no shot at Europe’s finest. When, if ever, has the best of the continent showed up for the Arlington Million—or the Belmont Derby and Oaks? If anything, second- and third-stringers will be deployed.

When you are forced by law to spend casino money on purses. this is what happens. Laws can be changed and this one should be. Enough is enough. Owners, trainers and jockeys are already well taken care of by the casino dole. Besides the rich stakes, there is even a loyalty bonus for trainers of horses who fill the winter cards.

The only entity that hasn’t benefited a dime is the fans. It is unacceptable that with all the money NYRA gets from casinos, it still charges admission at Belmont and Saratoga.

Using the $5 million-plus for the new series and the ridiculously over-generous purse increases for other stakes, whose fields are no stronger than they were pre-casino, NYRA could wipe out admission charges in a show of appreciation for the fans without whom there would be no game.

At the very least NYRA could roll back the Christopher Kay increases at Saratoga, a license to print money meeting. If the goal of the new stakes is to attract fans to the game, this would be a far more effective and appreciated way to do it.

Written by Tom Jicha

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