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, December 07, 2017

Latin America’s Kentucky Derby is a guessing game

Gulfstream, which has gambled and won with year-round racing, the Pegasus and Claiming Crown, is taking another risk Saturday, bringing the Clasico Internacional del Caribe to South Florida for the first time. The centerpiece of the five-stakes festival, the Clasico del Caribe, is often called "The Kentucky Derby of the Caribbean and Latin America." But the dozen horses entered are all unknowns to local players and the big race is supported by four other stakes for imports, which will transform handicapping into a guessing game.

Gambling establishments are notorious for disdaining risk. Race tracks cancel show betting when an overwhelming favorite threatens a minus pool. Try card counting in a casino, even though it doesn’t guarantee winning. All it does is cut into the house edge.

Frank Stronach is an exception. The owner of multiple tracks, he repeatedly has been willing to roll the dice, in a manner of speaking. He chafed at not being able to run Gulfstream like his other businesses, operating when he saw fit. He took on Calder head to head and ground the long established summer track into submission. Gulfstream now dwarfs the numbers Calder used to put up.

He created the world’s richest race, the Pegasus World Cup, with a funding mechanism that has fallen onto shaky ground in its second season. However, the race itself was a world class success with Arrogate out-running reigning Horse of the Year California Chrome, and the track was jammed in spite of “Hamilton” prices as it is only on Florida Derby Day--when admission is free.

Stronach brought the Claiming Crown to Gulfstream at a time when there wasn’t exactly a bidding war to host the then struggling concept and anchored it on opening day of the prime winter season. The sixth edition at Gulfstream last Saturday set a handle record for the fourth consecutive year.

His next gambit might be his most brazen. In a bid to expand Gulfstream’s brand south of the border, he lured the Clasico International del Caribe to North America for the first time in its 50 runnings and built a Saturday around it. There is talk of the festival returning at some point if Saturday is a success but for now it’s a one-shot deal.

Gulfstream is not just pre-empting one race on a prime winter Saturday. The feature, the $300,000 Clasico del Caribe, the Kentucky Derby of Latin America, will be preceded by four other stakes for horses from six nations. They are positioned in prime location, the final five races on an 11-race card (six small stakes for American juveniles will precede it).

The later races typically attract the most action. This trend will be tested as players are challenged to decipher form from tracks most people have never heard of with unfamiliar horses and trainers. At least the jockeys will be well known.

Emisael Jaramillo has the mount on El Cubita, the 3-1 morning line favorite from Venezuela. Juan Carlos Diaz, a legend in Puerto Rico who has been riding at Gulfstream since Hurricane Maria devastated his home island, is on second choice Justiciero, the Puerto Rican Triple Crown winner.

Diaz has never won Puerto Rico's biggest race. Joel Rosario, who has won a Clasico, will be up on Inmenso, who has won nine straight in the Dominican Republic against suspect competition.

Johnny Velazquez, Javier Castellano, Irad Ortiz, Luis Saez, Edgard Zayas, Manny Franco and Tyler Gaffalione also have mounts.

I'm not going to put my credibility at risk pretending to have a clue to the relative merits of these horses. The best way to go probably is to keep an eye on the tote board; someone has to know how these horses measure up. Another way might be to put a few bucks on the three or four longest shots in each race. All things considered, there figures to be some winners who will blow up the tote board.

Where is the finish line?

Gulfstream’s wide-as-the-Intracoastal turf course is wonderful for scheduling more grass races than a typical course could handle. Alas, a lot of problems accompany it.

The accuracy of the timing of races has been a constant issue. Also, extended run-ups make frequently carded 7 ½ furlong turf races closer to a mile than the listed distance.

Let me add another. The lack of a finish pole for any race other than when the rail is at zero makes gauging close finishes a guessing game for jockeys and players. The final yards of temporary rails are colored red, the only indication that the end is near. The race is over when a horse gets to the end of the red rails, which can be obscured by horses.

The ninth race last Saturday was a prime example. Martini Glass was life and death to hold on as hard charging Peru was gobbling up what was a clear lead. They hit the end of the red rails together. It appeared Peru had gotten up in the final jump. One media member opined it looked like at least a head, maybe a neck. I had no interest either way but this is how it appeared to me, too—even in the replays. But the photo finish gave the nod to Martini Glass.

If temporary rails can be placed around the entire track, is it too much to ask that a temporary finish pole be stuck in the ground where the wire is? It wouldn’t have to be official, just a target for jockeys and a gauge for bettors.

Takeout does matter

It isn’t only disgruntled horse players who feel that increased takeouts, such as the one that inspired a boycott of Keeneland this fall, are counter-productive.

A parade of well credentialed speakers, including a college professor of economics, at the annual University of Arizona Global Symposium on Racing, said this week that race tracks would serve themselves and their customers with a reduction in takeout, especially on single race wagers, such as win, place and show, exactas and trifectas. Keeneland’s increase was mentioned in the presentations.

Pushing players to easier to win single race propositions would create additional churn, which would make up for the lower rake, it was argued. It also would create more winning tickets, an incentive for bettors to keep playing.

Todd Bowker, general manager of the Premier Turf Club, a rebate shop, said his players who focus on individual races have a greater churn than those who prefer multi-race bets.

Referring to Keeneland, Marshall Gramm, a professor of economics at Rhodes College, said an increase in takeout produces short term gains but long term losses because of its impact on churn.

Bill Nader, former COO of NYRA and executive director of the Hong Kong Jockey Club, said a key is for the major tracks to act in concert to reduce takeout. “It has to start with the industry leaders. This will not work in isolation.”

Bowker was not optimistic that the counsel offered at the symposium will be heeded. “I think the industry knows what it needs to do to move the handle needle forward,” he was quoted in the Racing Form as saying. “But it doesn’t want to do them, probably because it’s going to take some short-term pain.”

They must be oblivious or indifferent to the saying, “No pain, no gain.”

Written by Tom Jicha

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