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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Tuesday, June 30, 2015


Stars are out for the big holiday weekend



Three Breeders' Cup champions--Main Sequence, Texas Red and Work All Week--are expected to get back on the road to this year's renewal, hoping to reverse disappointing showings last time out in major stakes over the holiday weekend. Also, Lady Eli tries to stretch her unbeaten streak to six in the Belmont Oaks.

MIAMI, June 30, 2015--The Triple Crown and its long run-up dominate the first half of the racing season. After that, focus turns to the Breeders’ Cup. This process picks up momentum all over the map during the Independence Day weekend.

For three of last year’s Breeders’ Cup champions, Fourth of July weekend represents a chance for redemption after less than stellar performances. Main Sequence, who started his four-for-four U.S. campaign in 2014 in Monmouth’s United Nations, is expected back to defend his title on Sunday.

A Horse of the Year finalist in 2014, he extended his unbeaten streak to five in Gulfstream’s Mac Diarmida, his 2015 debut. However, he didn’t look like the star, who beat some of the world’s best in the BC Turf last November, in the Dubai Sheema Classic, checking in a non-competitive seventh. Maybe he’s just a horse for U.S. courses.

Texas Red became the de facto Kentucky Derby favorite off an eye-catching, late-running 6 ½ length score in the BC Juvenile. However, he didn’t get very far down the Derby trail. He ran second in the San Vicente in February then went to the sidelines with a foot abscess. He’ll make his first start on the comeback trail in the Dwyer, one of six stakes on Belmont’s July 4th Stars and Stripes mega Saturday.

It’s not an easy spot. Among those also pointing to the Dwyer is Blofeld from Todd Pletcher’s armada of talented 3-year-olds.

Blofeld rattled off convincing wins in the Futurity and Nashua to cap a three-for-three juvenile campaign. He suffered his first defeat when he ran third in the William Walker--the stakes that replaced the Derby Trial--at Churchill Downs. He had a tough trip on an off track that night and still missed by less than two lengths. He could be double tough back home at Belmont.

Work All Week completed a five-for-six 2014 with his game half-length triumph in the BC Sprint. Like Texas Red, he wound up running second against less heralded company in his 2015 debut, the Aristides, during Derby week at Churchill.

He has been working bullets preparing for his return in the Smile, one of nine stakes on Sunday’s Summit of Speed card at Gulfstream. Restoring the Summit, which was AWOL last summer due to the conflict with Calder, which wasn’t resolved soon enough to schedule it, is another of the praise-worthy moves Gulfstream has made since the dispute was worked out.

The Summit, which offers purses in excess of a million dollars, was created by Calder to give South Florida summer racing a focal point. It succeeded beyond the most optimistic hopes, enticing a number of Eclipse and Breeders’ Cup-caliber horses to return at a time of year when serious horses had long departed the area.

Alsvid, who outran Work All Week in the Aristides, also is coming in for the Smile hoping to show that last time wasn’t a fluke and grab the BC Win and You’re In Award attached to the Smile. The Princess Rooney for fillies and mares also carries a Win and You’re In award.

Also not intimidated by the prospect of facing the Eclipse winning sprinter, Wildcat Red, who won the 2014 Fountain of Youth and was second in the Florida Derby, is being pointed to the Smile. It’s a challenging assignment for a horse who hasn’t been out since the Sunshine Millions in January.

Not only top horses are lured to South Florida for the rich Summit card. Two-time Eclipse jockey champion Javier Castellano is scheduled to fly in to ride Wildcat Red. Last weekend, he ventured out to Prairie Meadows and won two big races, the Iowa Derby and Cornhusker.

A bigger attraction for local fans might be the presence of Triple Crown winning jockey Victor Espinoza. Castellano is a winter regular at Gulfstream. South Florida fans don’t get to see the West Coast-based Espinoza, who is scheduled to ride City of Weston in the Smile and is sure to pick up other mounts on the card.

Back at Belmont, Lady Eli, the BC Juvenile Fillies Turf champion, will try to run her record to a perfect six-for-six in the Belmont Oaks. She already has won both 2015 starts, the Appalachian at Keeneland and the Wonder Again at Belmont. She looks like a free space in multiple race wagers. It will be interesting to see if NYRA takes the Oaks out of the Pick 6 sequence.

Lady Eli’s trainer, Chad Brown, is also loaded for the companion Belmont Derby with Takeover Target and Startup Nation, who ran two-three in the Penine Ridge, the prep for this Derby. However, they will have to find a way to hold off Divisidero, the winner of that race.

Divisidero, who’s three-for-four, with his only loss the result of a horrific trip at Gulfstream, is a fun horse to watch. He has a breath-taking turn of foot, reminiscent of really top Euros. But a horse with his style is always vulnerable to pace and racing luck.

Getting back to the super Belmont card, it also includes the return of Tonalist, who suffered his first defeat at Belmont in the Met Mile when he ran second to Honor Code. He is back at a more favorable distance in the mile-and-a-quarter Suburban.

Out West, highly touted Laz Barrera winner Kentuckian could be tested by Dortmund, who was six-for-six until running third in the Kentucky Derby and fourth in the Preakness. If Bob Baffert’s “other” outstanding 3-year-old gets back on track, he could be headed East for the Haskell or Travers, depending on what Baffert decides to do with American Pharoah.

The Triple Crown champion will continue to be racing’s biggest story wherever he shows up. However, judging from this coming weekend, he will be far from the only story.


Written by Tom Jicha

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Sunday, June 28, 2015


Advice to Baffert: Stay West with American Pharoah


Bob Baffert's options for American Pharoah's next start include Del Mar's Pacific Classic. Given the sorry state of the older horse division in Southern California, which was underlined by Saturday's lackluster Gold Cup, Baffert should stay home for what amounts to easy pickings in a $1 million race, whose pot could grow considerably if bonuses being put together become reality.

MIAMI, June 28,2015--If Bob Baffert is looking for the least challenging path to the Breeders’ Cup for American Pharoah, he would be crazy to venture far from home.

The Pacific Classic on Aug 22 at Del Mar is on the short list of potential next starts for the Triple Crown champion. With the typically lackluster group of West Coast older horses he would have to beat, a fact underlined by Saturday’s Gold Cup, American Pharoah wouldn’t have to work up a good sweat to take home the winner’s share of the $1 million purse, which could become more lucrative if a $5 million bonus being assembled is added as a sweetener.

As American Pharoah was paraded on the track at Santa Anita between Saturday’s seventh and eighth races, “New York, New York” blared on the track’s speakers. For the Gold Cup field, Santa Anita should have played “Is That All There Is?”

As has been the case in most Grade 1 races in recent years for older horses in Southern California, the race was beneath the dignity of the grade. Hard Aces, who had never won a graded race of any level, broke through by nosing out Baffert’s Hoppertunity in a head-bobbing finish, thanks to a ground saving ride by Victor Espinoza. Less than an hour earlier Espinoza had joined Baffert for a celebration of American Pharoah’s Triple Crown. This had to drive conspiracy theorists nuts.

The only stakes on Hard Ace’s resume was a $75K unlisted race at the Fair Grounds in January when the better older horses aren’t cranked. But John Sadler worked his characteristic Southern California magic, which for some reason doesn’t seem to travel well.

Baffert lost the race but might have gained valuable insight. He knows how Hoppertunity stands in regard to American Pharoah--not in the same universe. If Hoppertunity, who appeared to have the Gold Cup won one jump from the wire and one jump after it, could perform so well against the best that could be lined up on the West Coast, why put American Pharoah on a plane?

By the way, Hoppertunity was running back in only two weeks after a third in the Stephen Foster. In spite of the “short” rest and cross-country plane trip, he performed even better than he did in Louisville. Just saying.

The Triple Crown is the gift that keeps on giving. After a huge throng showed up at Churchill Downs a couple of weeks ago to see American Pharoah parade on the track, the Gold Cup crowd was also up substantially; 21,528 Saturday compared to 12,386 a year ago.

We can only speculate how many might show up to see American Pharoah actually compete. Del Mar and Santa Anita, which has the Awesome Again as a final prep for the Breeders’ Cup Classic, surely have taken note and will do everything they can to get Baffert to stay home.

Grade inflation was also apparent at Belmont. Saturday’s Grade 1 race for 3-year-old fillies fell well short of being “The Mother of All Gooses,” the accolade Leroy Jolley attached to the 1991 East-West showdown between Eclipse champion Meadow Star and Kentucky Oaks winner Lite Light.

There was nothing that breathes the same air as those two Hall of Famers did in this year’s renewal. Include Betty was impressive in coming from off the pace to win going away by more than three lengths. However, it has to be noted that the division’s heavyweights—Kentucky Oaks winner Lovely Maria; her multiple stakes-winning stablemate I’m a Chatterbox; late developing Acorn winner Curalina and West Coast star Stellar Wind—sat it out.

Include Betty is a classy filly, who might yet prove herself worthy of being ranked with the best of her generation, but she still has a lot to prove. She was the only graded stakes winner in the Mother Goose and that was the Grade 3 Fantasy at Oaklawn. In fact, the only other stakes winner of any kind was Money’soncharlotte, who won an overnight event at Gulfstream West (Calder), which was a stakes in name only. She went off at 42-1 Saturday and beat only two of the ten.

Wonder Gal, who outfinished Chide for the place, continues to be the most accomplished non-winner of an open race in America. She now has finished on the board in four Grade 1’s and has earnings in excess of a half-million dollars. But her only win was in a New York-bred stakes in her career debut.

Arguably the most impressive performance in a Grade 1 on Saturday was Masochistic’s devastation of the West’s best sprinters in the Triple Bend. Tyler Baze was standing almost straight up trying to restrain Masochistic down the backstretch as San Onofre tried to get away on the lead. When Baze gave Masochistic his cue, he went by with arrogant ease. Without any urging from Baze, Masochistic drew away to win by 3 ½ lengths in 1:20 1/5, three-fifths off the track record. “All I can say is awesome, unbelievable,” Baze said.

Alas, if Masochistic gets to the Breeders’ Cup, there will be some who will use other words, such as scandalous. He’s everything casual fans don’t need to hear about the unsavory aspects of racing.

Masochistic was apparently stiffed in his debut in a California bred maiden race, setting up what appears to have been a betting coup. His former trainer, A.C. Avila, is serving a 60-day suspension for his part in it. Masochistic next showed up at Churchill Downs in an open maiden race on Derby Day, opened odds-on (it takes a ton of money to do this on the first Saturday in May) and romped by 14.

His debut is the only time Masochistic, who added the Triple Bend to his Grade 2 win in the Kona Gold, has finished worse than second. He’s two-for-two under new trainer Ron Ellis, who seems to have improved an already supremely talented colt.

But his story is not one racing needs to have told on a major stage.


Written by Tom Jicha

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Tuesday, June 23, 2015


Triple Crown still has issues to address


The assault on the spacing of the Triple Crown races is over, thanks to American Pharoah. But the annual shortfall of Derby horses who run back in the Preakness is an issue that needs attention. That American Pharoah was the only horse to run in all three classics is also unacceptable. Incentives need to be created to make the second and third jewels of the Triple Crown irresistible. A bonus system in which series purses are doubled for horses who run in all three is a possible solution.

MIAMI, June 23, 2015--American Pharoah saved the Triple Crown as we know it. In proving it was still achievable under long-standing conditions, American Pharoah silenced the chorus demanding increased spacing between the races. It will be difficult for those singing this tune to find an audience for the foreseeable future.

This should not mute conversation about lingering issues with the Preakness and Belmont. Only four of the 18 Derby starters ran back in the Preakness. Of those, American Pharoah was alone in also contesting the Belmont. This is unacceptable.

Two of the three most important races for a generation of thoroughbreds should not be treated so cavalierly. Attempts have been made to remedy this situation. A point system was put in place for a few years but all it did was create a big pot of gold for one horse, who might not have been the winner of any of the three races. By the Belmont, the owners of only two or three horses had a reason to take a shot at the jackpot. Inasmuch as this system wasn’t achieving its purpose, it was eventually abandoned.

What’s needed is an incentive for the connections of every Derby starter to continue on through the Preakness and Belmont. As usual, the key is money. One solution is to create a pool through which horses, who competed in all three races, would have purse earnings in the series doubled.

The total purses of the Derby ($2 million), Preakness and Belmont ($1.5 million apiece) is $5 million. Theoretically, this would demand a commitment of another $5 million. Practically speaking, it would be less. This year only American Pharoah would have gotten to double dip. His bonus would have been just under $3 million and it took a sweep of the triad to get to that number.

Funding the bonus is doable. Del Mar is working on a $5 million bonus just to get American Pharoah to make his post-Triple Crown starts in Southern California. The money wouldn’t have to come from one source. Sponsors could be sought, just as Del Mar is doing. Perhaps some of it could come from TV rights fees, which have become substantial. The NTRA, Jockey Club and three tracks could chip in.

Getting skinflint Churchill Downs, which could adopt its characteristic “What’s in it for us?” attitude, might be problematic. But it’s certainly in the interests of Pimlico, which gets the fewest Derby starters, and Belmont, which won’t have a Triple Crown candidate every year.

Moreover, a greater number of starters creates a geometric increase in exotic wagers, which generally are the most heavily taxed. So the track’s contributions could almost pay for themselves.

Some fine points that would need to be worked out. Preference would have to be given to Triple Crown starters. If the Preakness or Belmont still oversubscribed, best finish in the previous race or races could be afforded priority.A horse entered but omitted by these conditions could be treated as a starter for purposes of the bonus.

The extraordinary windfall of positive publicity for racing that American Pharoah’s Triple Crown has generated in media that routinely ignores racing—the champ has even been photographed for Vogue—underlines the series importance to the sport. Everything that can be done to keep it healthy and thriving should be done.

Preventive treatment is always preferable to emergency care.

Only Baffert knows what’s next

The venue for American Pharoah’s next start has become as intriguing as LeBron James’ franchise-hopping.

The conventional wisdom is the Haskell on Aug. 2 has the inside track. Ahmed Zayat has said Bob Baffert will make the call. Baffert has had a great relationship with Monmouth Park. It doesn’t hurt that he’s won the million dollar race seven times.

Baffert’s detractors are likely to point out that he and Zayat are in line for $75,000 apiece in appearance money--$25K for each of American Pharoah’s Triple Crown victories. But Baffert has already donated almost three times that amount to racing charities from his American Pharoah earnings, so this will be a factor only in the minds of those who find fault with the color of Baffert’s socks.

The Travers on Aug. 29 offers more prestige but when you have “Triple Crown winner” on your resume, your prestige cup is already overflowing.

One of Baffert’s primary duties between now and the Breeders’ Cup is to protect American Pharoah’s reputation. The Haskell, a mile and an eighth on Monmouth’s speed favoring track, is a less demanding task than the mile and a quarter of the Travers.

The Pacific Classic on Aug. 22 could be an easier spot than either, given the sorry state of the older horse division in Southern California. Shared Belief won it last year as a 3-year-old. There’s also the potential $5 million bonus Del Mar is trying to put together to keep American Pharoah out west.

American Pharoah has been based in Southern California most of his career. He made his debut then broke his maiden at Del Mar in the Grade 1 Futurity. His win in the Front Runner at Santa Anita clinched the Juvenile Eclipse. But he has not raced at home during his championship 3-year-old season. Both his Derby preps were in Arkansas.

Baffert, who went Hollywood long ago, might want to show off in front of the home folks. Maybe he can get ESPN to schedule a special to announce, “I’m taking American Pharoah’s talents to…”


Written by Tom Jicha

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