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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Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Juvenile Stakes as Classics Predictor? Be Very Afraid

The first Kentucky Derby future book came out last week and the temptation to jump in is great, but recent history teaches it would be foolhardy to base a wager on 2-year-old form.

The last three colts to wear the garland of roses went into their 3-year-old campaigns with only a maiden win.

We note this as there are several races for juveniles on Belmont's Super Saturday card and out west--especially the following weekend, when the best 2-year-olds debut types unleashed by Todd Pletcher and Shug McGaughey at Saratoga will test each other in the prestigious Grade 1 Champagne Stakes.

A cautionary tale follows:

MIAMI, Sept. 23--Shanghai Bobby returned to the races last Friday and had to work hard to beat a moderate field. This was a week after the Wynn in Las Vegas rolled out the first 2014 Kentucky Derby future book. The coincidental confluence of events should be instructive to those tempted to project fall form to next spring and try to make a score or feed an ego by identifying the next Derby winner eight months in advance.

Three words of advice: Don’t do it!

The only exception to getting down early would be if you are part of the connections of an extraordinary young horse, who has not yet revealed his full scope to the general public. See Doug O’Neill and I’ll Have Another.

Shanghai Bobby was all the rage last fall. Before the leaves stopped falling, the son of Harlan’s Holiday had won all five career starts, including the Hopeful, Champagne and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, an imposing triple.

Until his return at Belmont, Shanghai Bobby had not won again. He ran only twice at Gulfstream, then went to the sidelines after finishing fifth in the Florida Derby.

Shanghai Bobby is merely the latest example of a trend that should be foreboding to those contemplating Derby future bets. Winning a major 2-year-old stakes should stand on its own as a noteworthy achievement. But as far as being a predictor of the Triple Crown Classics, it has become close to meaningless.

I compiled a roster of what I consider to be the nine major fall races for juveniles and their 2012 winners: Futurity and Remsen (Overanalyze); Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and Champagne (Shanghai Bobby); Breeders’ Futurity (Joha); Front Runner (Power Broker); Kentucky Jockey Club (Uncaptured); Nashua and Cash Call Futurity (Violence).

Not one of the precocious half-dozen winners hit the board in the Derby, Preakness or Belmont. Only Overanalyze managed to make the starting gate. He ran 11th in the Derby, 7th in the Belmont.

Moreover, Overanalyze is the only one to win one of the seven 100-point Derby preps, the Arkansas Derby. In fact, he was the only one to hit the board in the spring races deemed most important by the people who set the qualifying standards for the Run for the Roses.

Where were the horses, who would become the stars of the 2013 spring classics, in the fall of 2012?

Orb was a three-race maiden until he broke through on Nov. 24. Oxbow, who broke his maiden the next afternoon, was also a three-race maiden. Both entered 2013 eligible for an entry level allowance. Palace Malice won in his second start at Saratoga on Aug. 4 then wasn’t seen again until January.

Golden Soul, the surprise runner-up in the Derby, didn’t break his maiden until Dec. 30 at the Fair Grounds. That was two days after the Derby’s third-place finisher, Revolutionary, got his first win over Aqueduct’s winter oval.

So maybe the place to look for Derby horses is not the major juvenile stakes but late-in-the-year maiden races.

This was not a one-year outlier. I’ll Have Another ended his juvenile year with a maiden win from three starts. Animal Kingdom, the 2010 Derby winner, also went into his 3-year-old campaign with only a maiden win.

Interestingly, the most accomplished 2-year-old in recent years to go on to victory in the Kentucky Derby was one of the most shocking winners in history. Mine That Bird, sent off at 50-1 in Louisville, was a three-time stakes winner, albeit in Canada, as a 2-year-old.

In light of all this, it shouldn’t be surprising that the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, which theoretically draws the best of the 2-year-old crop, has produced only one Kentucky Derby winner, Street Sense. Last year’s BC Juvenile, on the first Saturday in November, didn’t have a single participant make it to the starting gate on the first Saturday in May.

The upcoming Champagne is one of the most anticipated in years, inasmuch as there is no clear-cut standout, as there has been so many times. Strong Mandate was breathtaking in winning the Hopeful with the kind of late run that puts visions of mint juleps and roses dancing in your head.

Honor Code also put in a Silky Sullivan-like surge breaking his maiden at the Spa. After all the years Shug McGaughey jonesed for a Derby winner, could he be sitting on two in a row?

Havana was touted from Long Island to Lake George prior to his Saratoga debut as the second coming and he delivered, winning his debut gate to wire, earning a triple digit Beyer, the only one for a juvenile to date. It doesn’t require a vivid imagination to see him opening up down the Belmont backstretch then having to hold off Strong Mandate and Honor Code as they make their late charges.

Not to dismiss the West Coast horses but so far no colt or gelding has stamped himself as possibly one of the ones. But O’Neill or Bob Baffert is eligible to uncork a budding star at any time.

It should make for a scintillating couple of months of juvenile racing. Enjoy them on their own merits. Just don’t read too much into them.

Written by Tom Jicha

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