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, April 19, 2018

Scandal could be not what is bet late but what is un-bet

A funny thing happened on the way to the post for the Apple Blossom Stakes. More than $20,000 disappeared from the win pool on prohibitive favorite Unique Bella. She happened to miss the break, which probably cost her the race. The question of when and how this occurred had not been answered almost a week later. An explanation could have and should have been forthcoming in a matter of minutes. That it wasn't feeds suspicions of chicanery--remember the Fix Six--and provides ammunition for those who feel the large computer betting syndicates get special privileges, such as a late lock on the betting machines.

The secret of sleight-of-hand artists is to keep attention on one hand while the other is doing its thing. Those who have become skeptical about late odds fluctuations while a race is in progress might have been watching the wrong hand.

Widespread suspicion is computer program syndicates have been able to punch huge sums into the pools after the gate is sprung. How long after, if at all, is a matter of conjecture. Something that happened at Oaklawn in last Friday’s Apple Blossom Stakes raises the possibility we have been watching the wrong hand.

The chicanery might not involve money pumped into the pool but money taken out. (Conceivably it’s both.)

Unique Bella was a prohibitive favorite in the Grade 1 race. As the field was loading, there was $137,000 bet to win on her. Unique Bella blew the break, severely compromising her chances. When she crossed the wire second, there was only $114,000 bet to win on her.

A lot of bets had to have been canceled, either in the U.S. or north of the border. The question is when.

Because most late odds drops have involved short-priced horses, the suspicion has been betting after the bell is the issue. But taking money out of a pool late can have the same effect while drawing less attention. Few people would notice that a 6-1 shot, who got off badly, had drifted up to 10-1.

Meanwhile, the cancellation of those thousands of dollars from the pool causes the odds on the lower-priced horses to drop just as surely as late plunges. It’s just not as noticeable. This is what I meant by watching the wrong hand.

It’s easier than ever to get away with such shenanigans as some tracks no longer have tote boards that constantly display the amount of money wagered into each pool. These tracks display the pools on TV monitors two or three minutes to post. That’s all. So it’s difficult to ascertain the cause of late odds changes.

Give wise guys the opportunity to take advantage of situations such as this and the one sure thing in racing is they will figure a way to exploit it.

Dumb luck

The outcome of this year’s Kentucky Derby qualifying process harkens to the sayings, “A stopped clock is right twice a day,” and “Even a blind squirrel occasionally finds an acorn.”

The points system is poorly conceived and unfair but somehow it worked this year. No legitimate contenders have been left out, even though some horses who don’t belong got in. Under any system, the Derby always has non-worthy entrants.

This does not mean the current points system should be preserved intact. Too many absurdities argue against this.

The Lexington, used this year by My Boy Jack as a last chance to qualify against a relatively weak field, should not reward its first four finishers the same number of points as the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Or any points, considering its recent fields.

The Sunland Derby should not count for five times as many points as the Sham, Holy Bull and Sam F. Davis, to cite just a few examples of under-valued Derby qualifying races. I don’t mean to celebrate an injury, albeit a minor one, to any horse but it’s karma that Ghost Runner, whose only credential was winning the nondescript stakes, will not be able to make the Derby.

It’s bad enough that the UAE Derby in Dubai is de facto a “win and you’re in.” To afford the same privilege to the second-place horse is unacceptable. With 40 points settling in as the borderline for Derby qualification, second in the UAE Derby cannot also be a “place and you’re in.”

This also applies to the major stakes in the final stage of preps. If 40 becomes the unofficial bar to getting into the Derby, second place in any race should not be worth more than 30. I would cap it at 25. A horse should have to have done more than sneak into second in one of these races to crack the Derby field over horses who have actually won lesser point-valued preps.

Some other easy fixes begin with the historical quality of a stakes counting for more than the month in which it is contested.

No points should be awarded to any 2-year-old race other than the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, which should be a win and you’re in. Fat chance of this happening, since three of the eight juvenile stakes in North America that carry points are run at Churchill Downs or its new best friend Keeneland.

One of the races that would be de-valued under this proposal is the Springboard Mile at Remington Park, which counts for the same points as the Champagne, Breeders’ Futurity and Los Alamitos Futurity.

Races between Jan. 1 and Feb. 15 should have value well beyond what they do now, no less than 50 percent of stakes in late February and early March. Right now they are worth only 20 percent,

It is not a contradiction to maintain that the final round of preps in late March and early April should count for substantially more than races that amount to the preps for them (Gotham/Wood; Fountain of Youth/Florida Derby; Rebel/Arkansas Derby, etc.). Every plausible Derby hopeful runs in one of them. So it is more their timing in relation to the Derby than its place on the calendar that makes them special.

Challenge to Pegasus

Frank Stronach went into his own pocket this year for an additional $4 million to solidify the Pegasus as the world’s richest race, which it already was at $12 million. The sheiks in Dubai had threatened to jack up the $10 million World Cup to surpass the Pegasus but, at least for the time being, have opted against it.

Now Saudi Arabia is apparently on the verge of joining this hooves race. Stories this week out of the desert kingdom report a $17 million stakes, the King Abdulaziz, is being considered for the end of February in Riyadh as part of a $29 million program of eight to 10 stakes.

Given contemporary training techniques, this date would virtually rule out horses running in both the Pegasus, the last Saturday in January, and the Saudi Arabian race.

It also would be a blow to Stronach’s ego. This might not be a bad thing. Relinquishing the world’s richest race status could result in a sensible restructuring of the Pegasus funding. A story this week in Thoroughbred Racing Commentary by Bob Ehalt indicates horsemen’s resistance to basically funding the race with $1 million buy-ins has reached the tipping point.

An $8 million purse, with $5 million to the winner, could be underwritten with a $100,000 nominating fee in the fall, when owners have an idea of whether they have legitimate contenders, and another $250,000 to start. This could generate $4 million or more. Add Stronach’s $4 million, which would be covered by the betting handle--in excess of $40 million this year--and the nut is covered.

The first two runnings of the Pegasus with a $7 million top prize lured the reigning Horse of the Year to run one more time before retirement. It’s hard to believe a $5 million first prize wouldn’t have the same drawing power.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Blue Grass gets a huge boost; Wood not so fortunate

The Blue Grass Stakes and Wood Memorial are still smarting over their relegation to Grade 2 status. Their efforts to regain the top grade went in different directions last weekend. The presence of Eclipse winner Good Magic and Grade 1 winners Sporting Chance and Free Drop Billy injected luster into the Keeneland race, which was further enhanced by Good Magic's victory. The Wood put up an extra $250,000 to lure Grade 1 winners to New York but got only Firenze Fire, who is not the horse at 3 that he was at 2. It didn't help that he didn't hit the board. All NYRA has going for it now is the hope that Vino Rosso makes a major splash in the Triple Crown races.

The Derby trail isn’t important only to owners, trainers, jockeys and horses. Tracks have a vested interest in the results, too.

Keeneland and NYRA are striving mightily to regain their Grade 1 status. Keeneland might have come up a big winner Saturday. NYRA, not so much.

Breeders’Cup Juvenile and Eclipse champion Good Magic gave Keeneland a boost by showing up for the Blue Grass and a bigger boost by winnng convincingly. Two of the vanquished, Free Drop Billy and Sporting Chance, are Grade 1 winners. There were only six prior to the final round of preps. Bolt d’Oro, McKinzie and Firenze Fire were the others.

Audible and Justify joined the Grade 1 club in their final preps and McKinzie has gone to the sidelines. So the Blue Grass had more than half the available Grade 1 winners and a champion. The Graded Stakes Committee will have a hard time ignoring that. If Good Magic wins one of the Triple Crown races, the Blue Grass could be a Grade 1 again by next season.

In spite of its best efforts, NYRA was not so fortunate. The Wood did attract Firenze Fire but all he did was cost NYRA another $250,000 toward the purse, the bonus promised if a Grade 1 winner was in the field. He ran off the board and has become a trial horse for 3-year-olds who have progressed more than he has. He is on the bubble to even qualify to run in the Derby and will be in the area of 50-1 or more if he does go.

Three-year-olds can improve rapidly in the spring but unless Vino Rosso takes another big step forward and upsets one of the Triple Crown races, his victory might wind up hurting the Wood more than helping. He was so lightly regarded going into the race he wasn’t even included among the 23 horses in the final Kentucky Derby Futures pool.

Five of the nine horses he beat were eligible for an entry-level allowance. That’s not going to help the Wood’s case for regaining its top grade. A poor performance in the Derby and Vino Rosso’s Wood triumph gets relegated to “someone had to win.”

The restoration of Keeneland’s Grade 1 status would be a potential death blow for the Wood as a top level race. What used to be the showcase race of the entire Aqueduct year would be left as the only race in April that doesn’t have Grade 1 status. This could trigger a domino effect of owners and trainers going elsewhere. There certainly are sufficient options.

To be fair, the Blue Grass should not be elevated on the basis of one year. But fairness and common sense have never been a hallmark of the Graded Stakes Committee. On the other hand, politics always has and Keeneland is a powerful force in racing. NYRA is, too, but Keeneland has a case to make. Absent Vino Rosso going on to become best in class, NYRA doesn’t.

All this being said, I reiterate my oft-stated opinion that there should be no Grade 1 races for sophomores prior to the Derby other than the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Preps should not be put on the same plain as the main event.

Jack’s last chance

Derby fever leads horsemen to behave uncharacteristically.

Keith Desormeaux would rather not run My Boy Jack in Saturday’s last chance Lexington Stakes but his precarious position in the points pecking offer is forcing his hand. My Boy Jack, winner of the Southwest and third in the Louisiana Derby, has 32 points, which puts him 21st on the list. Chances are there will be defections among the top 20—there always are—but Desormeaux is taking no chances.

My Boy Jack is running Saturday after only a three-week break from the Fair Grounds race. Amazing, isn't it, that three-weeks is now considered a quick turnaround?

The Lexington awards 20 points to the winner and 8 to second—the same as the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, as mind boggling as that is. Even a place would get My Boy Jack to 40 points, which is expected to be enough.

Desormeaux isn’t thinking about second. “If he can’t win the Lexington decisively, he doesn’t have any business in the Derby. These are serious, serious horses this year. The talent is off the charts.”

But his confidence in his horse knows no bounds, which is why he is so intent on making it to the big one in Louisville. “It’s going to be a lot of fun putting these horses down.”

Free Dutrow

I’m a hardliner when it comes to punishing cheaters. I don’t think 10-year bans, such as the one meted out to Richard Dutrow, is too draconian for serial offenses. I am appalled at the slap on the wrist given to Jorge “The Juice Man” Navarro.

Nevertheless, I have signed the petition ( to reduce Dutrow’s banishment to time served, which will be the better part of six years, if the petition drive is successful. I’m in heady company. Dale Romans started the petition and it has been signed by some titans of the sport; owners, trainers, jockeys and media.

To put Dutrow’s penalty into perspective consider this: the three men who engineered the infamous Fix Six in the 2002 Breeders’ Cup were given sentences of three years and a month, two years and a year and a day. I haven’t tracked how much time they actually did but under customary guidelines, it was substantially less than what the judge handed down.

The apparent attitudinal contradiction on my part derives from the shenanigans by NY regulators—perjury, alleged evidence planting, etc., which have been well documented by John Pricci on this site.

Also, I am still trying to figure out what was the worst offense allegedly committed by Dutrow. Since 1979 he has started more than 7,000 horses without any serious medication violations. Not one horse under his care has broken down on the track in 11 years.

The circumstances of his suspension defy belief and fair play. He was hit with an uncommonly severe 90-day suspension for two positives, one a therapeutic medication, which since has been made legal. He appealed to the New York State Racing and Wagering Board, which apparently relished the opportunity to get him. It denied his appeal and increased the penalties to a 10-year ban and a $50,000 fine.

This is like appealing a running-a-stop-sign ticket and getting hard time.

As best I can figure, the problems the New York regulators have with Dutrow goes to his outspoken, brash personality. I don’t think the people who made taking him down an obsession ever forgave him for admitting he administered steroids to horses—at the time, perfectly legal—in the wake of the embarrassing Big Brown fiasco in the 2008 Belmont Stakes.

Even Dutrow’s most strident detractors concede he is a hell of a horsemen. But I am not naïve. Did he take edges? Possibly. Probably. Almost all do. The difference is when they get caught, they get closer to 10 days than 10 years.

Dutrow has suffered more than enough. This is why I signed the petition and urge others to do so.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, April 05, 2018

Derby at the gain-some, lose-some stage

The Kentucky Derby lost its prospective favorite McKinzie this week. But it gained a brilliant star in Mendelssohn, who ran one of the races of the year in the UAE Derby. It lost Catholic Boy, a stakes winner on dirt and turf but Audible stepped forward in the same Florida Derby to establish himself as one of the horses to beat on the first Saturday in May. The field should be close to established after this weekend's Santa Anita Derby, Wood Memorial and Blue Grass. Only the Arkansas Derby, where Magnum Moon and Solomini are expected to dominate, will remain.

Qualifying season is winding down. Attrition season is setting in. The Derby fever epidemic has spread from America to Europe and the Middle East.

The potential Kentucky Derby field picked up three new qualifiers, including two who look special, and lost two last week, one of whom had shown to be special.

Audible established himself as arguably the best in the East with his convincing win in the Florida Derby. He could not have been more impressive. The New York bred inexplicably decided “Not yet,” early in the backstretch.

But when John Velazquez let him know, “It’s time,” Audible responded brilliantly, gobbling the field one by one. He drew away as if a mile and a quarter will be no problem. Johnny V said this is certainly his impression. Audible had only 10 Derby points going in but the 110 going away ensures his spot.

Half a world away, Mendelssohn left even conservative analysts searching for new superlatives after his devastation of his challengers in the UAE Derby. “He is the real deal and he is fast,” Bob Baffert, who was in Dubai, said. “He has a lot of speed, and I think he has a very huge chance at the Kentucky Derby.”

The half-brother to champion Beholder and, interestingly, Audible’s daddy Into Mischief was all the more impressive in that the UAE Derby was his first try on conventional dirt. How he would handle it was the last question he needed to answer. We already know the ship to Middle America won’t be an issue. He went all the way to California to win the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf. Having Aidan O’Brien calling the shots completes the package.

The most interesting aspect of the third new shooter, Gronkowski, is his name. He still hasn’t won on real dirt, hasn’t won beyond a mile and there are legitimate questions about what was behind him in Britain. Euros don’t run well regarded horses during the winter and they don’t run them on synthetics ever.

It’s a travesty that Gronkowski might push a legitimate American contender out of the starting gate in the supposed interest of international racing.

McKinzie, Catholic Boy out

On the Derby downside, a tentative favorite, McKinzie, is officially out of the Triple Crown races with a hock injury, Baffert confirmed. “He’ll be back for the summer,” said the man who sprung West Coast and Arrogate on America the past two summers.

Catholic Boy also is off the Derby trail after bleeding like Chuck Wepner in the Florida Derby. His future might be on the turf, where his became a stakes winner in his second start.

40 still the number

Heading into the crucial weekend of the Blue Grass, Wood Memorial and Santa Anita Derby, there are 14 horses with 40 or more points and three serious horses on the cusp of that; Good Magic and Solomini have 34, Flameaway has 30. Even a fourth in their final prep will get them to the magic number or beyond.

This leaves three open slots for horses further down the points list before what history has taught will be more attrition. So 40 should be enough.

Speaking of horses further down the points list, there are none further down than Justify, the colt who has generated more excitement than any other. He has zero, so he needs at least a second in the Santa Anita Derby.

This shouldn’t be a problem. Beyond Bolt d’Oro, there doesn’t appear to be anything in an otherwise lackluster bunch that could warm up the Justify we have seen in his first two starts.

The caveat is Justify and Bolt d’Oro going nuts and killing off each other as Promises Fulfilled and Strike Power did in the Florida Derby. This could set it up for Instilled Regard, the only other horse with a legitimate claim to belong in such a prestigious race.

With Money Mike Smith in his corner Baffert is confident this won’t happen. Justify has demonstrated in his two races that he can race on the lead or sit off it. “Mike knows the horse pretty well. He’ll keep him comfortable whatever his position. He’s not going to be too far off the lead. He’ll be up close, but I think the break is the key.”

Baffert would rather not be facing the top ranked 3-year-old in the country in Justify's final prep and stakes debut. It wasn’t part of the original plan, which was to run in the Arkansas Derby. McKinzie’s injury changed everything.

“That was the plan when I broke his maiden. When McKinzie wasn’t able to make this race, I thought we hate to run against Bolt d’Oro because we know it’s going to be a tough race, but it’s tough when you ship all the way to Arkansas. We don’t want to go to the Kentucky Derby unless we have a really legitimate chance with him. He runs against a horse like Bolt, we’ll know where we stand.”

Baffert probably has some idea where he stands with Justify using McKinzie’s San Felipe gut-buster against Bolt d’Oro as a measuring stick. The question is, how much did that race take out of Bolt d’Oro.

His owner/trainer Mick Ruis has changed his own mind about that. “He came out of the San Felipe incredible. They can fool you, they can come back and you think that it didn’t do much to him. I almost thought I was going to have to carry him to the winner’s circle. He was dead tired. He gave it his all. But to our surprise, he cleaned up all his dinner, he hasn’t missed a meal since and he’s training incredible.”

Bolt d’Oro was only about 80% cranked for the San Felipe, according to Ruis. He’ll be 90%-95% for the showdown with Justify, Ruis promises. He’s saving the last 5%-10% for Louisville.

Wood comes up soft

Poor NYRA. It can’t catch a break. In an effort to lure more horses north sooner, it announced participation bonuses for the Aqueduct spring meeting. Then a horse came down with a fatal case of EHV-1, necessitating a quarantine be put into place. It was cleared in the minimum period but it had to have cast some doubt in the minds of snowbird horsemen pondering an earlier return trip north.

Next NYRA promised an extra $250,000 for the Wood Memorial purse, bringing it back to $1 million, if a Grade 1 winner was entered. This was an effort to regain the race’s Grade 1 status.

The Wood drew its Grade 1 winner, Firenze Fire, as well as Gotham winner Enticed but not much else among seven other prospective starters, five with only a maiden win. The best of them appears to be Vino Rosso from the white hot Todd Pletcher barn. The past three weekends Pletcher sent out the winners of the Rebel (Magnum Moon), the Louisiana Derby (Noble Indy) and Florida Derby (Audible).

After the Florida Derby, Pletcher was asked how it felt to have three horses in the Derby. With a sly smile, he retorted, "I hope to have more after next weekend." That would be reference to Vino Rosso, who, unlike most Pletcher horses, will be a value play. It's where my money will be.

Good Magic a ?

The question of the weekend is which Good Magic shows up in the Blue Grass—the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner or the colt who straggled home third in the Fountain of Youth.

Bettors ignore at their own peril that Chad Brown said before the Gulfstream race that it was just a step along the way toward the ultimate prize on the first Saturday in May. Good Magic didn’t win his debut, improved greatly in his next start, running second in the Grade 1 Champagne, then exploded in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.

The draw did him no favors. He pulled the 11 pill in what is expected to be a 14-horse field, which is deeper than the Fountain of Youth. Among others, he’s up against the winners of Tampa Bay Downs’ two big races, Flameaway and Quip, and a couple of Grade 1 winners, Sporting Chance and Free Drop Billy. The latter earned his Grade 1 credential over the Keeneland strip in the Breeders’ Futurity.

If it’s any consolation to Good Magic’s connections, Free Drop Billy and Flameaway didn’t draw much better. They’ll be sandwiching Good Magic at the break with Free Drop Billy springing from the 10 and Flameaway coming out of the 12.

In light of the draw, with the likelihood the 10, 11 and 12 will be the top three betting selections, I'm going for a decent price on Quip.

It’s a great betting race and I urge everyone to send it in with both fists at Keeneland this season. The bettors’ boycott at the fall meeting led the track to roll back its takeout on some bets. Now it’s up to the people who took part in the boycott to show that it was the sole factor in Keeneland’s rare business downturn. Rest assured, tracks across the nation will be watching.

Written by Tom Jicha

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