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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Friday, February 07, 2014

Loaded Donn pushes 3-year-olds into background for a week

The road to the Derby continues Saturday with the Robert B. Lewis at Santa Anita, where Midnight Hawk is expected to solidify his status as the best in the West not named Shared Belief. But the race of the weekend is the Donn at Gulfstream in which Eclipse champion Will Take Charge makes his seasonal debut against an extremely salty field.

MIAMI, Feb. 7,2014—Winter and spring belong to 3-year-olds but a short detour from the Derby trail is called for this weekend to focus on the race of the year so far, the Donn Handicap Sunday at Gulfstream.

Gulfstream’s grandest stage for older horses will kick off the “Jockey Club Tour on Fox” with an abundance of star power. The marquee name is Will Take Charge, who might have been a nose away from Horse of the Year—the distance he fell short of catching Mucho Macho Man in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

But he is far from a free bingo square in the Donn, which concludes a pick 3, pick 4, pick 5 and Rainbow 6. He hasn’t been out since running down Game on Dude in the Clark Handicap Thanksgiving weekend. What’s more, the Donn is the first step on the long journey back to the Breeders’ Cup. D Wayne Lukas obviously wants to win another Grade 1 but it’s doubtful the screws are fully tightened.

The weights surely will not be an excuse. Will Take Charge got a kindly package of 123 pounds. In an understatement, Lukas said, “I think probably at this time of year, they’re not going to load up too much on any of these horses.” The Coach didn’t need the qualifier “at this time of year.” Handicaps have become a joke as racing secretaries vie to get star horses to their track. Grade 1’s, which are supposed to identify the best of the breed, shouldn’t be handicaps anyway.

Unlike Game on Dude, who launches his 2014 season Saturday in the San Antonio Stakes--another of those California cakewalks in which he has built his reputation beating nobodies--Will Take Charge will be challenged by a deep, talented field of 10 rivals.

Revolutionary, second high weight at 119, was arguably a better horse than Will Take Charge during the time both were in training last year. They met twice. Revolutionary was third in the Kentucky Derby. Will Take Charge finished eighth. Revolutionary was fifth in the Belmont. Will Take Charge ran tenth.

Revolutionary didn’t get to prove conclusively that he was better because his connections put him away after the Belmont in order to have a top 4-year-old. He certainly looked that part in his Gulfstream return, which was more impressive than the half-length victory margin makes it look.

The Donn is far from a two-horse race. River Seven has done most of his racing in Canada but comes into Sunday’s race on a three-race winning streak, including a turf stakes at Churchill and a track record performance in the Harlan’s Holiday, his first experience on Gulfstream’s main track. In his only previous try on conventional dirt, he was a close second in the Prince of Wales, a leg of the Canadian Triple Crown.

Lea also might have better than a puncher’s chance against the champ. He’s been on the verge of becoming a serious horse throughout his career, which has been spent mostly on grass. Last summer he was second and third to Wise Dan in graded stakes. Bill Mott took over his training this winter and put him on dirt in the Hal’s Hope. Lea responded with a runaway win.

The Hall of Fame trainer once took another horse, who was not firing his best shots on turf, which seemed to be the surface he was bred for, and tried him on dirt. Cigar became the best horse in the world. It’s foolhardy to suggest Lea is the second coming of Cigar but he could be a major player in the older horse ranks this year.

The Jockey Club Tour got an unexpected bonus when Groupie Doll’s new owner, Mandy Pope, who bought her at auction for $3.1 million after the Breeders’ Cup, decided she didn’t want her new star mare to go out on an off-the-board finish in the Cigar Mile. So she was pointed to the Hurricane Bertie. Win or lose, Groupie Doll next goes to the breeding shed.

She might be a better bet against than Will Take Charge. After-thought races are never ideal situations. Moreover, her second Eclipse was awarded solely on the basis of a repeat victory in the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint. Maybe this was the race her whole season was pointed toward, because she certainly wasn’t the Groupie Doll of 2012 last year.

She opened her campaign hanging the length of the stretch to finish third against a couple of horses of moderate ability at Ellis Park. She redeemed herself somewhat with an encore win in the Presque Isle Masters but then ran third again in the TCA at Keeneland. She wound up the year fourth in the Cigar. She had some excuses, but don’t they all?

Wildcat Lily and Jamaican Smoke are both Grade 1-placed. But the one to pay most heed to might be Heart Stealer, two-for-two since joining the Marty Wolfson barn, which is lethal in local stakes.

The Fox telecast (5-6:30 p.m.) has a third stakes, the Grade 1 Gulfstream Turf Handicap, which marks the return of Amira’s Prince. Four-for-four in the U.S., he hasn’t been out since the Mervin Muniz at the Fair Grounds almost a year ago. But he is in the hands of Mott, who’s as good as it gets bringing quality horses back to the races off long layoffs.

The threats are Summer Front, who made the Fort Lauderdale last month his seventh career stakes win, and the current Shug, old Shug duo of Imagining and Boisterous. Six-year-old Imagining, in Shug McGaughey’s barn his entire career, will be gunning for his third straight win and first in a Grade 1. Boisterous, who became a millionaire under Shug’s tutelage, was sold at Keeneland last fall to Gary Barber and makes his first start for Todd Pletcher.

The weekend’s only 3-year-old race of note, the Grade 2 Robert B. Lewis, goes Saturday at Santa Anita. Midnight Hawk will be an overwhelming favorite in a field of seven and, as Trevor Denman likes to say, looking for a danger, can’t find one.

Everything out west is in a stagnant state until the status of Shared Belief is established.

Written by Tom Jicha

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