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, April 16, 2014


Lessons to be learned from the Derby trail


History teaches many of the same lessons during each year's Kentucky Derby prep season. Alas, it seems few learn them.

MIAMI, April 16, 2014--We study history to learn from the past and hopefully not make the same mistakes. So what have we learned from this year’s Triple Crown prep season?

The foremost lesson is a reiteration. Getting involved in Kentucky Derby Futures betting is a fool’s venture. It got even more foolish this season when Churchill Downs moved the first pool into November 2013.

The smartest guy in the room is the one who makes one large preemptory bet on the field within minutes of the pool opening. (I assume it is one guy or one syndicate because the M.O. has been the same since Churchill introduced futures betting.)

By driving the price below even-money he discourages those making lesser plays from taking the only logical bet. Not many $2 or even $20 players want to tie up their money for six months on an odds-on proposition. Besides, this doesn’t provide ego satisfaction or bragging rights. Isn’t that what futures betting is all about?

The first pool field wager is especially golden this season. At most, only Cairo Prince and Ride on Curlin of the 23 individual horses in the November pool will make it to the starting gate.

But there are no sure things. I remember a dreary Tuesday January afternoon in Las Vegas in 1993. A new race book, the Sport of Kings, a free-standing building across from Convention Center, was trying to pull players from the big hotel books by promising to book any bet, no matter how large. There wasn’t much going on this day. Only a few minor tracks were in action.

To drum up business, an announcement came over the loud speaker that the book was offering an enticing prop, 6-1 on any horse from the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winning that spring’s Kentucky Derby. At the time, the winter book favorite, Gilded Time, was 7-1 around town. Getting him and a dozen others while giving up only one odds point seemed to be a grand bargain. There weren’t many people in the place but everyone there must have sent it in because betting was closed in a matter of minutes—while I was still in line looking to get my piece of the action.

Come May, the bet didn’t seem so golden. Only one of the Breeders’ Cup 13, Sea Hero, started in the Derby and he was 13-1. But he was all those who made the bet needed. I don’t remember the exact sequence but the Sport of Kings went bust either just before or after that Derby.

This segues nicely into another lesson reinforced this season. The Breeders’ Cup Juvenile is a super-sized negative key race when it comes to the Derby. Street Sense, who won the 2006 Juvenile and 2007 Derby, is the only horse to pull off this challenging double. Not a single horse from the 2012 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile even made it to the 2013 Derby starting gate.

This season's percentage is only slightly better. We Miss Artie, Dance With Fate and Medal Count, who finished 7th, 8th and 11th in the Juvenile, are among the Top 20 in Derby qualifying points. The latter two needed big races in their final chances last Saturday to make the cut. What’s more, Dance With Fate remains uncertain to run. Good for Peter Eurton, who recognizes that Polytrack form from the Blue Grass doesn’t transition well to the Derby on real dirt.

Kiaran McLaughlin hopefully learned a lesson that will be picked up by his colleagues. If you have one of the leading Derby hopefuls, don’t play brinksmanship by protecting them like a white heavyweight. McLaughlin, one of the sharpest trainers in the game, sat on Cairo Prince for nine weeks after a dominant win in the Holy Bull. He was super confident his colt, who he feels should have been undefeated at the time, would at least run third in what would be his final Derby prep, the Florida Derby.

Cairo Prince, perhaps showing his rust, managed only a fourth-place finish, so McLaughlin had to sweat whether his 24 points would be enough. It wasn’t until Run on Curlin outnodded Bayern for second in the Arkansas Derby, the last prep on the Derby trail, that Cairo Prince was locked into No. 20.

As it turns out, Cairo Prince would have gotten in anyway as No. 21 as Constitution has been sidelined with an ankle injury, which opens a spot for Uncle Sigh.

With Constitution out, it’s a crap shoot who will be the second choice behind California Chrome. Hoppertunity? Wildcat Red? Wicked Strong? It might even be Cairo Prince.

Maybe Churchill Downs, which created the points system to get the best “now” horses into the Derby, could learn something from the second season of the new system. Relegating prestigious 2-year-old stakes, including the BC Juvenile, to 10 points is defensible in light of recent history.But once the calendar turns, there needs to be a jump to an intermediate 20-points to the winner category for productive early-in-the-year races, such as the Holy Bull, Sham, Robert B. Lewis and Southwest, before the big leap to 50 and 100 point races. Cairo Prince wouldn’t have been on the fence if this had been in effect this season.

McLaughlin’s suggestion (made before the Florida Derby) that a couple or three spots be reserved for selection via committee, ala the Breeders’ Cup, merits consideration. McLaughlin’s concern that something unforeseeable, such as an untimely minor illness on the eve of a major prep, a horrid trip or losing a rider shouldn’t keep a genuine contender out of the Run for the Roses.

Of course, not putting all your Derby eggs into one prep basket could achieve the same end. It will be interesting to track in future seasons how well this lesson has been learned.







Written by Tom Jicha

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