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 27, 2018

Lots of tough Eclipse choices but Justify is an easy one

Many years, the winners of the Eclipse Awards are obvious beyond argument. This is why the NTRA asks voters to list second and third choices. This is not one of those years. Analysts and fans have been debating the merits of Justify vs. Accelerate for months. Then there are the people awards. Chad Brown or Bob Baffert for outstanding trainer. Which of the Oritz brothers is the outstanding jockey? Last and least is the outstanding male turf horse. Whoever goes home with this trophy owes an apology to some of the greats who have won it in the past.

Justify or Accelerate?

Chad or Bob?

Dirt of Turf?

Jose or Irad?

And, do we really need to name an outstanding male turf horse?

These are the questions facing an Eclipse voter.

To start at the top, I’ll reiterate what I have been saying for months.

If a golfer won the Masters, PGA, U.S. Open and British Open, there would be no argument. He would be player of the year.

If a tennis player swept the Australian, French, Wimbledon and U.S. Open, he or she would be the player of the year.

If a baseball player led the league in home runs, runs batted in and batting percentage, he’s the MVP.

Justify won the Triple Crown, the most cherished, pursued prize in racing. To suggest that he is not the Horse of the Year is either a fit of pique or ignorance.

As Bob Baffert said, no disrespect to Accelerate, there is a Breeders’ Cup Classic winner every year. There have been only 13 Triple Crown winners in more than a century. Case closed.

Speaking of Baffert, he and Chad Brown are in almost as tight a race for outstanding trainer. Chad, who will have only one Eclipse winner, made his closing argument the first weekend of December when he won a trio of Grade 1’s: the Remsen, Matriarch and Hollywood Derby.

Baffert, who will account for a sure two and likely three Eclipses, countered with the Cash Call Futurity and Starlet and closed the season with McKenzie’s emphatic Malibu.

Still, Chad won more Grade 1’s, more graded races and more money. This is tough to go past even to the trainer of a Triple Crown and a zillion candidates to encore in 2019. Advantage Chad.

Brothers Irad and Jose Ortiz ran away from the field in the jockey’s race. On the basis of wins and money, Irad gets the photo.

There hasn’t been a dirt vs. turf argument since Wise Dan like the one between Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies winner Jaywalk and BC Juvenile Fillies Turf champion Newspaper of Record. I personally think Newspaperofrecord is more dynamic but dirt is still the name of the game in American racing, so my vote goes to Jaywalk.

Rather than distract from the brilliance of all those I have just named, I’ll save the male turf horse award for last.

Most of the other categories are so dominated by a standout horse, the choice is obvious. However, the Eclipse people request first, second and third choices even though only the No. 1 pick counts. The reason for place and show is so that in divisions with a standout, the choice isn't settled when the finalists are announced. The Eclipse people want to maintain some suspense for Jan. 24 at Gulfstream.

Two-year-old colt—This is otherwise known as who is the best juvenile in Bob Baffert’s barn. He has a half-dozen or more who could be included among the top three. Breeders’ Cup Juvenile champion Game Winner is not only the certain winner but in all likelihood a unanimous choice. I filled out my ballot with Los Al Futurity winner Improbable, who is equally impressive but not the Breeders’ Cup winner, and just to break up the Baffert monopoly Maximus Mischief, who concluded his 3-for-3 season in the East with a convincing triumph in the Remsen, the only graded nine furlong race for the 2019 Derby generation.

Two-year-old filly—Jaywalk has four wins and a second in five starts and blew away her BC Juvenile Fillies rivals by 5 ½. End of story. Bella Fina was the front-runner until her clunker as the 9-5 favorite in the BC. American Pharoah’s little sister Chasing Yesterday became a Grade 1 winner in the Starlet but after a weak showing at Saratoga in the Spinaway, Baffert kept her out of the BC.

Three-year-colt-- The inclusion of second- and third-place nominees was created with horses like Justify in mind. The Triple Crown champion is going to be the unanimous choice. McKinzie’s third Grade 1 in the Malibu moved him all the way to second, just past Travers winner Catholic Boy, a Grade 1 winner on dirt and turf.

Three-year-old filly—Monomoy Girl is another example of why the Eclipse people ask for second- and third-place nominees. She was never beaten to the wire in seven races and did something not even Justify did, thrashing older in the BC Distaff. Midnight Bisou chased her all year so this category should be no exception. Since it really doesn’t matter, I put BC Filly & Mare Sprint winner Shamrock Rose in the show spot.

Older dirt horse—Accelerate will be another unanimous choice. This year is loaded with contenders who would be champions in other years. City of Light, the only horse to beat Accelerate, falls into this category. He also won the Breeders’ Cup Mile. Bee Jersey was four-for-four in an abbreviated campaign.

Older female—Unique Bella didn’t race after July when she made the Clement Hirsch her second Grade 1 score and third win with a second in four races. Fortunately for her, Abel Tasman would have been better off if she had knocked off after the summer. She won the Ogden Phipps and Personal Ensign, both Grade 1, but then fired two such dismal efforts, including at the Breeders’ Cup, that she effectively took herself out of contention for back-to-back Eclipses. Blue Prize won four stakes, including the Grade 1 Spinster. If she could have done better than fourth at the Breeders’ Cup, she might have been able to steal this award.

Male sprinter—I was tempted to put City of Light on top since the BC Dirt Mile was one turn at Churchill and he had won the Grade 1 Triple Bend earlier in the year. But Roy H won his second straight BC Sprint to go with the Santa Anita Sprint Championship. Far back is X Y Jet, who has three wins in the U.S. and a second in Dubai.

Female sprinter—Another toughie. Unique Bella is better than any of them but she didn’t compete in a sprint. Shamrock Rose won the big one at the BC but I thought Marley’s Freedom, a tough trip fourth as the favorite, had the better year, which she punctuated with a score in the Go For Wand. Selcourt won her first three before throwing in the towel at the BC.

Female turf horse—BC Filly and Mare Turf winner Sistercharlie is best in a field in which any of my top three are superior to the best of the boys. Uni was four-for-four with a Grade 1 in the Matriarch. Vasilika is the feel good story. Claimed out of a win for $40K in February, she went on to win eight more races, including the Grade 1 Rodeo Drive. (I did not consider Enable. I do not vote for horses who race only once in the U.S.)

Male turf horse—Do I have to? I’m abstaining in the steeplechase category because I didn’t see one jump race all year. I can’t use that excuse here. It’s a shame there are two or three horses, who will go home empty-handed on Eclipse night while whoever wins this category diminishes the Eclipse. Catholic Boy raced on the turf only twice, both against 3-year-olds but they were memorable at the time, less so when Analyze It was exposed as not as good as billed. But in a year like this, he gets the nod. Heart to Heart is the only one to win two Grade 1’s but they were in February and April when the good ones weren’t cranked. He was horrid the second half of the year. Glorious Empire, who took the Grade 1 Sword Dancer at the Spa, finished his year with a runaway in the Fort Lauderdale.

Written by Tom Jicha

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