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, February 15, 2018

Lessons to be learned from first half of Derby prep season

Kentucky Derby prep season turns a corner Saturday with the first 50-points to the winner race, the Risen Star. The early races have produced some promising new shooters but the big horses, Good Magic and Bolt d'Oro, are still ranked well above the rest in the opinion of the media and the betting public. But there are lessons to be learned from the early events that could prove profitable in the 17 remaining stops on the Derby trail.

Halfway through the Kentucky Derby qualifying process, nothing has significantly changed since the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.

The leaders after Nov. 4, Good Magic and Bolt d’Oro, who finished one-two in the closest of the Eclipse categories, have yet to start since Nov. 4 at Del Mar. Nevertheless, they remain the horses to outrun for the roses, in the opinions of the media and betting public. Good Magic is atop the weekly NTRA poll and Bolt d’Oro still is second. In the latest Derby futures pool, which closed Sunday, the public made both exactly 8-1, the shortest odds of the individual contenders.

This pecking order is likely to hold for the rest of the month. Good Magic isn’t expected to make his 3-year-old debut until the March 3 Fountain of Youth. Bolt d’Oro has the March 10 San Felipe penciled in for his sophomore coming out party. McKinzie, the top new shooter who didn't make the BC Juvenile, also could run in that race.

The final two 10-point Derby qualifiers, the El Camino Real at Golden Gate and the Southwest at Oaklawn, will be run over the Presidents Day weekend. More significantly, the first 50-pointer, the Risen Star, will go Saturday at the Fair Grounds.

However only one of the top 10 in the NTRA poll, No. 5 Instilled Regard, is expected to be in action. With no ranking contenders to beat in the Risen Star, Instilled Regard has more to lose than gain in status. More on him shortly.

While the big picture is in a holding pattern, there are many useful hints for handicapping purposes from what has happened between early November and mid-February. Most notably, a gauge can be gleaned on which of the juvenile and early 2018 stakes have been productive and which might be over-rated. There will be only one Derby winner but bets will be taken on 17 preps in North America between now and April 14 and most will feature horses shipping in from other venues, so it’s useful to know how stakes stack up.

Instilled Regard comes out of what might be the toughest of the late 2017 juvenile stakes, the Los Alamitos Futurity. Solomini, who split Good Magic and Bolt d’Oro in the BC Juvenile, got to the wire first but was disqualified in one of those dubious California stewards’ decisions.

Stuck between horses in a three-way stretch battle and the one the stewards adjudged to be fouled in the San Felipe, Instilled Regard next shipped halfway across the country to the Fair Grounds and tallied a workmanlike victory against a decent field in the LeComte. He will take a lot of beating Saturday.

Principe Guilherme, second in the LeComte, also is coming back. Todd Pletcher has the stranger danger in Noble Indy, 2-for-2 at Gulfstream. His close victory margin in his most recent race is deceiving, according to Pletcher and Johnny Velazquez. Noble Indy is a fighter, a coveted trait for a Derby contender, and tends to relax when he hits the front. Todd and Johnny excel at working young horses through these quirks.

As seems to be the case every spring, Todd might have another one or two even better back in the barn. Audible unleashed an awesome turn of foot in winning the Holy Bull, brushing away Grade 1 winner Free Drop Billy, who looked like he was going to run past Audible at the top of the lane.

The Florida Derby is the next likely spot for the New York bred. He could go back to Aqueduct, where he is 2-for-2, for the Wood, but Pletcher has shown a preference for the five-week gap from the Florida Derby to Louisville as opposed to the four weeks from the Wood.

Baffert, who treats 3-year-old stakes at Oaklawn like annuities, is bringing back Smarty Jones winner Mourinho in the Southwest, where he is likely to hook up with D. Wayne Lukas’s Sporting Chance, idle since winning the Hopeful at Saratoga. Two turns off a six-month layoff could be a tough nut to crack for the Coach’s protege.

McKinzie, who was placed first in the Los Alamitos Futurity, made his official record 3-for-3 in crushing the Sham Stakes. Baffert has McKinzie and Solomini listed as possibles for the San Felipe but history teaches there is no way Baffert is going to have these two stars in the same starting gate before the first Saturday in May. One of them will be going out of town. Maybe both, if Baffert wants to duck Bolt d’Oro at Santa Anita.

A 2-year-old race I have been down on over the years, the Remsen, also is coming up as a key indicator of 3-year-old talent. Avery Island, second to Catholic Boy at Aqueduct in December, easily disposed of Champagne and Jerome winner Firenze Fire, in the Withers. Firenze Fire is one of only five Grade 1 winners and one of two sophomores to win two Derby points races (McKinzie is the other).

Catholic Boy got his campaign off to a promising start with a strong second to Flameaway’s stakes-record Sam F. Davis despite being forced wide on both turns. Catholic Boy lost more ground than his margin of defeat. The Florida Derby could be next for him, too.

Another one to keep an eye on out of the Sam F. Davis is Pletcher’s third-place finisher Vino Rosso, who was 2-for-2 going in. He labored between horses down the backstretch, looked like he was going to fall totally out of it on the turn, but rebroke to make up ground on Flameaway and Catholic Boy, who weren’t coming back. He's probably on a lot of "horses to watch" lists.

The Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes should be looked at warily when others out of that race show up in a Derby prep. The race came back slow and the one-two finishers, Enticed and Tiz Mischief, gave credence to this assessment when they were both beaten more than a dozen lengths in the Holy Bull.

Another BC stakes; why?

Though there was little demand or discussion in advance, the Breeders’ Cup has added still another stakes, the Juvenile Turf Sprint. This will make 14 for this coming fall’s renewal at Churchill Downs.

With turf sprints becoming more ubiquitous even for younger horses, the addition is easily defended although there has been no known clamor for it. The newest event seems aimed at attracting more Euros, where, of course, all sprints are on grass.

Meanwhile, most juvenile sprints in North America are conducted on the main track, so the Breeders’ Cup should take another look at a dirt sprint for 2-year-olds.

The Juvenile Sprint had a two-year trial in 2011 and 2012 but it wasn’t a fair one. The 2012 race was run under the admirable but misguided experiment with forcing juveniles in the Breeders’ Cup to race without Lasix. Horsemen staged a de facto boycott. Only five ran and the Breeders’ Cup was embarrassed when an eight-race maiden, Hightail, won the only race of his career.

However, the 2011 running was taken by Secret Circle, who beat eight rivals. Two years later, he went on to win the BC Sprint.

Nevertheless, under the guise that it detracted from the other juvenile events, the BC discontinued it after 2012. This rationale disintegrates with the newest race, which could be just as harmful to the Juvenile Turf and Juvenile Fillies Turf as a dirt sprint would be to the longer 2-year-old main track races.

Surely, there are more young horses ready to run six furlongs than there are for a mile and a sixteenth.

Written by Tom Jicha

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