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, October 27, 2016

Build BC bankroll by beating these champions

The key to a profitable day at the races is to beat short-priced horses, whose odds over-estimate their chances to win. There are a half-dozen Breeders' Cup champions who fit into this category next weekend. Also, trainer Art Sherman is making a compelling case that it makes more financial sense to keep California Chrome in training for his 6-year-old season than it does to send him off to the breeding shed.

MIAMI, Oct. 27, 2016--The first step to picking Breeders’ Cup winners—we’ll do that next week after the post draw-- is to identify losers. That is, horses who, barring the unforeseeable, will not hit the winner’s circle.

Obviously, there are dozens of horses, many 20-1 and up, who can be tossed on Nov. 4-5. The key to a profitable Breeders’ Cup is to zero in on well bet horses unlikely to win.

(My wagering preferences are win, daily doubles, Pick 3 and Pick 4 wagers. At the Breeders’ Cup there are always more than a few boxcar-priced horses, who get into exactas, tri’s and supers. The ones I am drawing a line through are top end only.)

The low-priced throw-out of this season is defending Sprint champion Runhappy, the epitome of the expression “throwing good money after bad.” Jim “Mattress Mac” McIngvale, his eccentric owner, is one of the dozen dreamers who put up $1 million to buy a starting berth in the Pegasus. Runhappy is his only world class horse.

Alas, Runhappy is world class only up to seven furlongs. What will become the new world’s richest race on Jan. 28 is a nine-furlong, two-turn event. McIngvale is trying to force his square peg into a round hole. It is like Usain Bolt entering the Olympics 1500 meters.

Runhappy’s only loss in his first two seasons of racing was a dismal ninth in the mile-and-70 yards LeComte, after which he reeled off six straight sprint wins, including the Breeders’ Cup. With the Pegasus as the ultimate goal and the BC Dirt Mile as a stepping stone, McIngvale brought Runhappy back off a nine-month layoff in Churchill’s one-turn Ack Ack mile. It was clearly beyond his scope as he ran a non-competitive fourth.

McIngvale is nothing if not stubborn, so instead of turning back to defend his BC Sprint title, Runhappy will continue his march toward the Pegasus in the two-turn Dirt Mile. This pig-headedness provides an opportunity for savvy players. Off his entire body of work, Runhappy will probably be well supported by the thousands of non-sophisticated fans at the Breeders’ Cup. In my opinion, he will get nothing.

The lure of Pegasus' riches is also going to contribute to the further tarnishing of the reputation of Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and Kentucky Derby champion Nyquist. Since the first Saturday in May each of his starts has been more disappointing than the previous one. He ran third in the Preakness, fourth in the Haskell and sixth in the Pennsylvania Derby, his losing margin increasing each time.

He is not the horse who won his first eight races. However, his owner, Paul Reddam, is another of those with a million dollar stake in the Pegasus, so he has been kept in training and, unless he embarrasses his connections, will go on to Gulfstream. He has no shot in the Classic but the magic of “Kentucky Derby winner” will keep his odds about half what they should be.

A couple of other defending champions look to me like solid bet-against’s. Catch a Glimpse, winner of the 2015 BC Juvenile Fillies Turf, appears to be on the downward arc of her form cycle. She had never lost in eight grass starts until this summer’s Lake Placid at the Spa. It was no disgrace to be run down by a neck by Time and Motion, who has won five of six this year, the only blemish a half-length defeat by Catch a Glimpse in the Belmont Oaks. But the Lake Placid offered a small hint Catch a Glimpse wasn’t the dominant filly she had been.

What came next solidified this notion. She ran an inexplicable seventh, beaten 10 lengths in the QE II. Her trainer, Mark Casse, said during a Breeders’ Cup conference call on Wednesday that her dull effort was a head scratcher. He knew she was in trouble in the first quarter-mile. He told Florent Geroux he wanted her on the lead but the Frenchman had to put the pedal to the metal to get there, something that had not happened before.

Another sign all is not as it should be with Catch a Glimpse is Casse cross-entered her in the Turf Sprint as well as the Filly and Mare Turf, which everyone assumed was her destination. Casse said he just wanted to take a look at the two fields and he is 95 percent certain Catch a Glimpse will run in the Filly and Mare Turf. But the fact that he hedged even 5 percent is not a good sign.

It might be suicidal to dismiss a Chad Brown contender but I don’t like the way defending Filly and Mare Sprint champion Wavell Avenue is coming up to this year’s renewal. Wavell Avenue went into last year’s race the right way, off a win and a close second after a troubled break. Since she has won only once in six 2016 starts, an ungraded stakes.

She had every chance to take her BC prep, the Gallant Bloom, but pretty much spun her wheels in the stretch. If you want to give her an excuse, it was over an off track, unfamiliar terrain to her. But then you have to explain her off-the-board effort in the Ballerina, when it looked like she was rounding to her best form.

The upside to bucking Brown is his horses get over bet.

If you want to make it an even half-dozen, I’m leaving out two-time Breeders’ Cup champion Beholder in the Distaff. However, this one I do with less conviction than the others.

My thinking is Stellar Wind beat her on the square in their last two confrontations and had the tougher trip when Beholder got the best of her three races back in their series. So I can’t make a case for Beholder beating Stellar Wind and I think Songbird is better than both of them.

More California Chrome?

The biggest news to come out of the Breeders’ Cup conference call is that Art Sherman is making a case to keep California Chrome in training for his 6-year-old season. Sherman’s logic is California Chrome can run for $27 million next year, far more than his potential earnings in the breeding shed.

Assuming what Sherman has in mind, he actually was a million short: $12 million in the Pegasus, $10 million in the Dubai World Cup and $6 million in the BC Classic. Granted, he would be running for only the winner’s share of those purses but this comes to about $17 million without taking into account any other rich races, such as the Pacific Classic, California Chrome could make.That kind of money will not be available to a first-year sire with a blue collar pedigree, no matter what his record on the track is.

"I think his 6-year-old season would be the peak of his career," Sherman said. "I would love to see him around that long."

So would millions of racing fans.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, October 20, 2016

A Breeders’ Cup Juvenile ‘freak’ to root for and bet

The Breeders' Cup Juvenile seems exceptionally loaded this year. Classic Empire is a likely deserving favorite. Practical Joker and Syndegaard are coming in hot from New York. Either Gormley or Klint could be the next Kentucky Derby winner to come out of California. No telling how good Iroquois winner Not This Time might be. But there's a "freak" shipping west from Florida, who might be talented enough to outrun them all at a generous price.

MIAMI, Oct 20, 2016—Classic Empire was scintillating winning the Breeders’ Futurity. Mark Casse touted him to the heavens going into the race and the son of Pioneer of the Nile—American Pharoah’s sire—delivered, drawing off despite being wide all the way.

Practical Joke and Syndegaard put on a show in the Champagne. Syndegaard did all the heavy lifting up front and Practical Joker had to come from last off a troubled start. Practical Joke got the bob that could have gone either way. Both are exceptionally talented.

Gormley put away the best on the West Coast in the Front Runner while Bob Baffert’s heavy favorite Klimt had a tough trip but was still coming on at the end over the track where the Breeders’ Cup will be run.

Dale Romans is as high on Iroquois winner Not This Time as he has ever been on a 2-year-old.

I’m looking forward to seeing all these extraordinary juveniles going forward into next spring. I’m also looking forward to beating them at a price with Three Rules on Nov. 5.

This is not a parochial selection. Homey don’t play that game. Three Rules has beaten only Florida-breds in winning five straight, including all three legs of the Sires Stakes series at Gulfstream. But the last time I bet a South Florida-developed juvenile at the Breeders’ Cup was Awesome Feather in 2010. She, too, had won her first five, including a sweep of the Sire Stakes. She smoked the best of her generation in the BC Juvenile Fillies and was awarded the Eclipse in her division.

I see Three Rules having the same potential. His connections, Shade Tree Thoroughbreds, must, too. This is a blue collar group you want to root for. They bought their first horse by maxing out their credit cards, according to Tom Fitzgerald, one of the partners.

Their best horse prior to Three Rules, Three Part Harmony, ran second to Big Drama in the 2008 In Reality before eventually sliding back into the claiming ranks. But when he suffered a fractured ankle, the partners went deep into their pockets to save him. He’s enjoying a life of leisure on the farm, Fitzgerald said proudly.

They might be making a bigger gamble than any of the heavy-hitters or computer syndicates at the Breeders’ Cup. Offers have been pouring in to purchase Three Rules. The highest reportedly is the $3 million range.

It’s like the contestants on the game show “Deal or No Deal.” You can take the sure money from The Banker or risk it and try to break the bank. If Three Rules comes through, he might be worth double or triple what he is now. If he runs up the track, the offers will virtually disappear.

It isn’t just that Three Rules hasn’t been seriously tested. He's won his five starts by 31 lengths. No one has gotten within three lengths of him and he has been eased up at the end of every race. It’s his ability to adapt to circumstances.

In the Affirmed Stakes, he was just off a 44-second pace going seven furlongs before he took over, opened 7 and coasted home by 5 ½. In the two-turn In Reality, he wound up on the lead at the first call for the first time in his career, slowed the pace down to a 48-second half, then blasted home to win by 10 in 1:44 3/5 for a mile and a sixteenth, a tick off the stakes record. “Two-year-olds don’t do that kind of stuff,” another of his owners, Bert Pilcher, said.

Three Rules' 87 Beyer is within one point of the last race fig of everyone in the field with the exception of Gormley, who got a 93 in winning the Front Runner with an unchallenged gate-to-wire-never-off-the-rail performance, a situation that always produces an inflated Beyer. And Three Rules, eased at the end, could have run faster in the In Reality.

His trainer, Jose Pinchin, paid him the ultimate tribute. “He can do just about anything you want. He’s a freak.”

I’ve seen it and I believe it.

NYRA finally gets will-pays right

Speaking of joining the rest of the racing world, after criticizing NYRA for years for posting $2 payoffs, even for bets like the Pick 4, which nobody plays in $2 increments, it’s only fair to give it a pat on the back for finally listing all will pays except straight bets for their minimum wagers.

The lone major holdout now in posting only $2 probables is Keeneland, which does everything else so right.

Sport of Kings

Frank Stronach is determined to restore racing to its status as the Sport of Kings.

Gulfstream has released the ticket prices for the Jan. 28 Pegasus Stakes, the world’s richest race. Commoners need not apply.

The least expensive admission--for a track that usually has none--will be $100. This is double the Kentucky Derby, two and a half times the Preakness and more than a two-day pass for the Breeders’ Cup.

The C-note gets you nothing more than through the gate. If you want to sit down, it will cost up to $765.

For comparison purposes, I checked with Orbitz. You can fly to Paris that weekend for $755. This includes airfare and two nights in a three-star hotel.

Found comes up short

Arc winner Found almost did it again to the best males on the continent in the English Champion Stakes last Saturday. The great filly, who won last year’s Breeders’ Cup Turf against males, ran second against the supposedly superior sex in a Grade 1 stakes for the second time in 13 days.

Some on this side of the Atlantic might say it was the short rest that beat her. Maybe. But it could be the fact that Almanzor, the French Derby champion, was winning his fifth in a row and eighth in 10 career races and also beat her in the Irish Champion Stakes.

Incidentally, Aidan O’Brien is still considering a BC Turf defense for Found off what would be a 21-day layoff—three world class stakes against males on two continents in five weeks.
So who do you think knows more about the care and training of horses: the sheets faithful or Aidan O’Brien?

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, October 13, 2016

Early retirement of stars only part of racing’s problem

It's encouraging that a number of stars, such as California Chrome, Beholder, Flintshire and Tepin are racing as 5- and 6-year-olds.However, it doesn't help the game a lot when they appear in the entries every two months or less on average. There are myriad causes but all can be remedied and must be if racing is to reverse its downward spiral.

MIAMI, Oct. 13, 2016--A constant racing lament is, “We have to keep our stars in training and out of the breeding shed.” It’s the primary reason the Breeders’ Cup was created.

The extended careers of 6-year-old stars Beholder, Flintshire and Mongolian Saturday and 5-year-olds California Chrome, Tepin, Ironicus, Hoppertunity and Effinex are testimony that this goal is being partially realized. If the $12 million Pegasus comes to pass and endures, it might induce more owners to keep their stars active.

The retirements of still healthy winners of five of the past six Triple Crown events—American Pharoah, Exaggerator and Creator, are the other side of the coin. This week it also was revealed that 3-year-old Brody’s Cause, a Grade 1 winner at 2 and 3, is being reassigned to baby-making.

Premature trips to the breeding shed is only part of a bigger problem. Even when the best have extended careers, they show up in the entries too infrequently to build star power.

Super Saturday last weekend featured eight Grade 1 stakes. The four at Belmont, with cumulative purses of $2.4 million, drew three six-horse fields and one five-horse field. What made this more discouraging is two of the races, the Champagne and Frizette, were for juveniles. The fact that Keeneland drew big fields for a couple of juvenile stakes could be ascribed to the fact that the New York races were both one-turn events while Keeneland’s events were around two turns, much more useful preps for horses with Breeders’ Cup aspirations.

(I don’t know that there is a solution to this for NYRA but it does point out another big problem should Belmont become the only track in the Metropolitan area. The Wood Memorial would not be nearly as enticing for Derby hopefuls if it started on the Belmont backstretch.)

There’s an obvious reason for the short field dilemma: the trend to space races over absurdly long intervals. The average time between starts for the four top grade stakes at Belmont was six weeks.

The spacing in the Frizette was 41 days, 50 days, 50 days, 27 days, 33 days and 55 days. Interestingly the filly coming back in less than four weeks was Yellow Agate, the winner.

For the Flower Bowl, the number of days between starts was 21 (a French import), 42, 35, 42, 42 and 56. With two exceptions, one a Euro shipper, the field was composed of horses coming off layoffs so long that in days of not-so-old handicappers would have speculated whether they needed one.

The Champagne juveniles had not started in 33, 57, 44, 27, 49 and 33 days.

In the Jockey Club Gold Cup, once one of America’s most prestigious races, the days between starts were 29, 35, 49, 42 and 63. Frosted, who would have been odds-on, was languishing perfectly healthy in his stall, awaiting the Breeders’ Cup Mile or Classic when he will not have raced in more than two months.

The negative impact this has on racing is further illustrated by this factoid: Not one of the entrants in the Flower Bowl and Jockey Club Gold Cup, theoretically among racing’s best, had raced more than six times this year. Only two had been out that many times, the same number as those who had only one prior start in the first nine months of 2016. The average number of starts going into the two races was fewer than five. (I omitted the 2-year-old stakes because not one of the juveniles had begun their career until August.)

This isn’t only an issue in New York, which still likes to think of itself as the capital of racing. The Santa Anita Sprint Championship, worth $300,000, pulled a group of five. This has become the norm for a California stakes. The quintet had an average layoff of 56 days. Anyone sensing a connection? Their average number of starts this season was less than four.

Only Keeneland was able to lure sizable fields for its three Grade 1’s--the First Lady, the Shadwell Turf Mile and the Breeders’ Futurity. The average field size was 11.

As they like to say in politics and football analysis, there’s another story inside the numbers. In the First Lady, four of the 10 starters had raced within four weeks, a reasonable break. Take those away and you would have had a six-horse field.

Half the dozen in the Breeders’ Futurity were within four weeks of their last start. Without them, it would have been another six-horse field.

The Shadwell Mile was the weekend’s outlier with 11 starters, only two of whom had started within four weeks. Even here, the average number of starts in 2016 was just over five.

A number of factors are at play. Trainers are letting their horses’ agendas be dictated by the sheets guys, many of whom have never been closer to a horse than the other side of the rail. They have been sold a bill of goods that horses need a lengthy vacation between starts, although there is evidence to the contrary. Woody Stephens, who won the Belmont and Met Mile within five days with Conquistador Cielo, used to say, "Run them when they are good." The philosophy of the sheets is when a horse runs big, lay him off for more than a month. The sheets are a terrific handicapping tool but I'd rather side with a legendary Hall of Fame trainer when it comes to plotting a horse's career.

Super barns are another factor. Guys like Todd Pletcher, Chad Brown and Bob Baffert have so many horses, including many of the best, that they can afford to run each only a few times a year.
I don’t begrudge them their success. If I were any of them, I would want every good horse on the planet under my shed row. If I owned a world class horse, I would want a superstar trainer to condition him.

It’s up to the tracks to bring about change. A simple remedy would be to allot no more than 50 stalls and to enter only two horses in a race. (I would also bring back the coupled entry rule. When “the longer half” wins now, it raises unnecessary--and often unfounded--suspicions.) If a Pletcher or Brown has 50 2-year-olds, they have to wait their turn to race. Spread them around other barns and you would see them in the entries.

The third factor is per diems. Even a middle of the pack trainer commands about $100 a day in New York. Granted, a lot of this goes for grooms, hot walkers, exercise riders and workmen’s comp, but there is still something for the trainer. Meanwhile owners, whose horses are sitting idle, are doing nothing but writing checks. If trainers had to get by on a percentage of earnings (which would have to be raised considerably), you wouldn’t see them sitting on so many horses.

There’s no mystery to why the foal crop continues to decline. Fewer people want to get into a game in which they are almost a guaranteed loser. A horse who starts 12 times a year, not an onerous burden, is going to pay for more of his upkeep than one who goes out half as often.

I concede these are radical suggestions, which have as much chance to be implemented as Gary Johnson has to be elected president, but racing can't keep doing things the way they have always been done. It isn't working. If the trend of shorter fields and longer layoffs continues or gets worse, the direction it seems to be heading, it will hasten the end of the sport as we know and love it.

Chrome scaring them off

Baffert disclosed this week that Dortmund, arguably the second best horse on the West Coast, is being turned back to the Breeders’ Cup Mile. Makes sense. He’s tried Classic favorite California Chrome three straight times and wound up hot and dirty.

Frosted, the best older horse in the East, also might wind up in the Mile. Kiaran McLaughlin is still on the fence between that and the Classic.Take away California Chrome and there would be no question where Frosted would be headed. To give credit to McLaughin, his preference is the Classic but he is not making the call. Frosted’s owner will do that.

The lesser awards of the $6 million Classic are still lucrative enough to draw a fairly full gate, especially with some stars going elsewhere.

However I wouldn’t want to be that pizza guy in the Midwest or some of the others, who ponied up $1 million apiece for a slot in the Pegasus starting gate, thinking they could sell it for a profit. Entry fees for the BC Classic are hefty but nowhere close to a million dollars.

If Chrome dominates the Classic, I don’t see a lot of owners, who aren’t one of the original 12, banging down doors to pay a cool million to take on the champ.

Written by Tom Jicha

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