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, January 11, 2018

Racing ‘Moment of the Year’ is no contest

Gun Runner will be the star of the show on Eclipse Awards night, Jan. 25. But nothing the certain Horse of the Year did in 2017 came close to matching Arrogate's jaw-dropping rally from last to win the Dubai World Cup. It was not only a Moment of the Year but a Moment of Many Years. Meanwhile, on the West Coast, racing officials continue to embarrass themselves, this time allowing two ineligible horses, including the winner, to compete in the first race for horses from barns with fewer than 20 horses. The excuses offered were more lame than "the dog ate my homework."

Arrogate might have a prominent place at the Eclipse Awards table after all. After last winter’s Pegasus and Dubai World Cup he was odds-on to be the star of the show. Acclaimed then by many as the best horse since Secretariat, he is a finalist in a couple of divisions—Horse of the Year and Best Older Dirt Male—but has no shot to win either. Gun Runner has surpassed him and is a lock in both.

The evening might not be a total wipeout, however. Arrogate has two shots at the NTRA’s “Moment of the Year” designation. There are 13 nominees, all worthy, but Arrogate’s World Cup stands out as not only the moment of the past year but the moment of many years.

A Moment of the Year should have a wow factor, something that will be remembered long after the lights on the tote board go dark. Arrogate’s seemingly impossible last-to-first surge, completed by galloping past Gun Runner, certainly qualifies. To me, it’s no contest.

Without meaning to diminish any of the other candidates, here is my logic:

The deaths of titans of the turf Helen “Penny” Chenery, owner of Secretariat, Hall of Fame trainer Jack Van Berg and gallant Maryland favorite Ben’s Cat, winner of 26 stakes, should not pass without special recognition in an “In Memoriam” tribute. But deaths are not “moments.”

The fire that took the lives of 46 horses at San Luis Rey training center and the devastation Hurricane Maria reeked on Puerto Rico’s Camarero race track were heart-breaking news events, not “moments” to be commemorated.

The long sought tax relief, which allows players to avoid “signers” much more than in the past, is the Accomplishment of the Year. Plaudits to NTRA and lawmakers for their tenacity in never giving up. But this “moment” was years in the making.

This brings us to what I feel should be the focus of such an award—actual horse racing.

Always Dreaming’s Kentucky Derby is in the final 13 because the Kentucky Derby always is. But there was nothing remarkable about it. Some horse wears the roses every May.

The same goes for Cloud Computing’s Preakness. The second jewel of the Triple Crown really matters only when the Derby winner takes it or a horse does something for the ages. Cloud Computing’s win was workmanlike, aided by Almost Dreaming’s failure to show up.

Lady Eli winning the Diana and Accelerate taking the San Diego are arguments that maybe 13 finalists is a few too many. They were sparkling efforts but not races fans will be talking about for years. They were probably forgotten about in most quarters within days.

This leaves the three most formidable candidates. Gun Runner’s decisive triumph in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, with Arrogate well in his wake, clinched Horse of the Year, and might be the winning moment in many seasons. It might even win this year thanks to the pervasive “What have you done for me lately?” attitude.

Arrogate running off with the first Pegasus was the third rung in his extraordinary grand slam—Travers, BC Classic, Pegasus, Dubai World Cup. It also came at the expense of fan favorite Horse of the Year California Chrome. But Arrogate’s most jaw-dropping performance was yet to come.

It hyperbolic to say he did the impossible in Dubai, since he did it. But it sure seemed impossible when he broke tardily and trailed the field, including a free-running Gun Runner, by many lengths. As he picked up his rivals one by one, then bore down on Gun Runner, a feeling erupted that we might be seeing something for the ages.

This is what a Moment of the Year should be and why it should be recognized as such.

More SoCal nonsense

Does anyone ever think things through in California?

This is the state that started the movement to eliminate brown paper bags in super markets for ecological concerns. Then it became clear that the plastic sacks, which replaced the offspring of trees, were more harmful to the environment.

California encouraged drivers to switch to high mileage hybrid cars; better yet, electric models. Now it is dealing with a shortfall in revenue for road maintenance and construction because people are buying less gas and thus paying fewer taxes. A new tariff on miles driven has been proposed to close the gap.

A legislator proposed the state go it alone with single-payer health care. Support was instant and widespread until a killjoy numbers-cruncher pointed out the cost would be more than the entire tax revenue taken in by the state.

So it should come as no surprise that the racing industry also would operate in an act-now, think-later manner.

Santa Anita created a praise-worthy new race condition this season to give smaller outfits a chance to compete and make some money. Claiming races were going to be written for horses from barns with fewer than 20 horses in California.

The first time this condition was used on Sunday resulted in a typical Santa Anita mess. Overcomer, from the Charles Treece barn, got home first to apparently earn the modest $10,800 winner’s share.

Before darkness fell, Jason Jocher, who races as Power Hour Racing, which owned second-place finisher Airfoil, protested. Jocher contended Treece has well more than 20 horses under his care at Los Alamitos. From early indications Jocher’s beef is well founded.

What’s more, Jesus Nunez, who started Dutt Bart, has more than 70 horses under his supervision.

The unbelievable explanation is nobody in the racing office or the stewards’ stand bothered to check if the horses entered fit the conditions. A brand new, unique condition and nobody bothers to check. Only in California.

Part of the problem is typical California. Nobody thought to thoroughly think through the details of the new condition. Nunez might train dozens of horses but many compete in the $3,200-$4,000 claimers at night at Los Alamitos. There should be an exclusion for this caliber of horse.

Also, the count shouldn’t include horses considered not worthy of a stall at Santa Anita, like some in Treece’s care.

All of this should have been hashed out in advance. But this is California.

An investigation is under way and the CYA process has gone into overdrive. Racing secretary Rick Hammerle said he considered the very specific condition more of a “guideline.”

“Hey, you need a race for your multiple stakes-winner? We have an entry-level allowance in the book. Don’t let that NX1 discourage you. It’s only a guideline.”

Sound crazy? Steward Scott Chaney essentially endorsed it. Asked about two ineligible horses in a race, he fell back on the excuse that the condition isn’t perfectly clear. “Does it rise to the level of scratching a horse. It doesn’t.”

So like I said, put that stakes horse in the entry-level allowance. It doesn’t rise to the level of a steward’s scratch.

Only in California.

Jan. 11, Miami

Written by Tom Jicha

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