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 Breedersí Cup at Gulfstream Park.

He's been the Sun Sentinelís horse racing writer since 2007 as a staff member, and continues to this day as a free-lancer.

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Thursday, December 28, 2017

NHL arena could alter NY racing forever

The new arena for the NY Islanders, which will be built in Belmont Park's backyard, is an efficient use of the vast expanse of land that goes mostly unoccupied except on Belmont Stakes Day. But it could be the first step in changing NY racing. The third jewel of the Triple Crown will probably have to be moved for a few years to Aqueduct, which thanks to the casino takeover is not the same facility it was when the Belmont was contested there from 1963-68. Also, a more compact Belmont grandstand, which seems inevitable, might rule out the Breeders' Cup ever returning to the Big Apple.

John does the heavy lifting at Horse Race Insider. I'm a regular presence. But our bi-weekly contributor Mark Berner uncovered the Scoop of the Year. Mark was ahead of New York's major newspapers and all its TV and radio stations in reporting months ago that a new arena for the New York Islanders hockey team will be built on what is now part of the backyard at Belmont Park.

I'll leave the details to Mark, who has been on top of every development. As an observer from afar I see serious potential ramifications for New York racing. As Mark also beat the pack on, it means the Belmont Stakes will have to be run at Aqueduct for a year or two (or three; almost nothing ever gets built on time in New York), starting probably in 2020.

This might seem like merely a geographic inconvenience, since the third jewel of the Triple Crown was run at Aqueduct from 1963-68 while Belmont was being rebuilt . It wasn't ideal to start such an important race on the far turn but otherwise it was no big deal.

Unfortunately, there is a huge difference between then and now. Aqueduct could handle 50,000-plus back in the pre-casino days. With the once enormous grandstand refitted for slot machines, it would be a stretch to squeeze in 10,000.

The alternative? I can't think of one. The floor is open.

There is another issue. With Belmont a construction zone, there is no possibility that the Breeders' Cup, which hasn't been run in New York since 2005, could return before some time in the mid-2020's. This is if it ever could return.

Something NYRA board member Michael Dubb said at the Islanders arena announcement set off a red flare with me. Speaking of what will become the new Belmont, Dubb said that NYRA would like to work out an extension of its current lease and work with designers "to take Belmont Park to its highest best use to promote horse racing and the racing industry."

This sounds like a plan for winterizing in a one-racetrack metropolitan area. Also, no one in the racing industry believes Belmont needs to be its current size. Almost all conversations about a new, probably winterized Belmont have centered around a greatly reduced capacity, more suitable for the reduced crowds that have become racing's new normal. But a significantly smaller Belmont would take NYRA out of the running to ever host the Breeders' Cup again.

This is exactly what has happened at Gulfstream. Also like Gulfstream, plans to include a mammoth hotel and retail spaces development in what is now the backyard also will shrink the track's footprint.

This isn't necessarily a bad thing. It actually makes sense in the big picture. However, Belmont and NY racing will never be the same.

The winners are...

Every Eclipse voter has his or her own standards for what constitutes a champion. I refuse to even consider a Euro off one big race in the U.S. The continent has its own championships.

I also shy away from turf specialists in categories that were created for main track horses and horses whose credentials are one big race. To me, the Eclipse Awards are for a body of work.

But flexibility is as important in picking champions as it is in handicapping individual races. I'm not even considering Breeders' Cup upsetter Bar of Gold as top female sprinter. Her only other win was in a NY-bred stakes. That doesn't do it for me.

This isn't the case in both juvenile categories even though one of the candidates in each has only the Breeders' Cup as a stakes win. I'm splitting my ballot. My vote for 2-year-old female goes to Caledona Road, who was 2-for-3, with a second in the Frizette, before capturing the BC Juvenile Fillies.

However, I'm passing on Good Magic in the male category because he went into the Breeders' Cup a maiden. Meanwhile, Bolt d'Oro had three wins, two in stakes, and was the victim of a brutal trip in the BC Juvenile.

I don't expect to be on the winning side but the idea, just as in political races, is to vote your convictions, not who you think will win.

Here is the way my vote went in the other Eclipse categories:

Horse of the Year--Gun Runner should be a unanimous choice in this category and as Best Older Male Dirt Horse. Anyone who votes otherwise should have his or her credentials scrutinized.

3-Year-Old Male-- West Coast gets my vote and will almost certainly win but it isn't as one-sided as it's being made out to be. Always Dreaming has the Kentucky Derby hole card, the greatest tie-breaker in racing. This more than offsets West Coast's Travers. Always Dreaming's Florida Derby and West Coast's Pennsylvania Derby cancel each other out. West Coast's good third against older at the BC--Always Dreaming never stepped out of his division--is the difference maker.

3-Year-Old Filly--Abel Tasman won three Grade 1 stakes and was second to an older champion in the BC Distaff. Elate mounted a late season campaign with big wins in the Alabama and against older in the Beldame, but couldn't handle Abel Tasman when the title was on the line.

Older Female--Forever Unbridled got a late start on her campaign and only raced three times but it was more than enough to assert her dominance. The clincher for me was when she ran down two-time champion Songbird, who had set soft fractions, in the Personal Ensign at Saratoga.

Male Sprinter--Roy H won five of six, had an excuse in the loss, and won the big one at Del Mar in November.

Female Sprinter--A case could be made for about a half-dozen candidates, each with as many con's as pro's. Unique Bella fired last in the La Brea, her fifth graded stakes win and finally a Grade 1. That's good enough for me.

Male Turf--World Approval always wanted to be just a miler but it took a while for his connections to figure that out. When they did, he was all but unbeatable, capping a three Grade 1 streak at the Breeders' Cup.

Female Turf--Let's finally formalize what everyone in racing has known for three years. The inspiring Lady Eli is a champion.

Written by Tom Jicha

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