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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Friday, March 28, 2014

Racing’s Worst Nightmare: Asmussen at the Derby

Unless and until Steve Asmussen clears himself of the PETA allegations, his presence at the Kentucky Derby would be the worst thing that could happen to racing. It would shift the focus from the race to Asmussen. If he were to win, headlines would read, "Disgraced Trainer Wins Derby."

MIAMI, March 27, 2014--Racing is staring at its worst nightmare: Steve Asmussen at the Kentucky Derby.

Make that its second worst nightmare. The worst would be if Asmussen were to win the Derby with Tapiture, who is a genuine contender.

Thanks to the PETA allegations, which allege the Asmussen barn is guilty of mistreatment and drugging of horses as well as encouraging a jockey to ride with a buzzer, the spring classics would become secondary to the Asmussen controversy.

Media will jump all over the story, knowing that any piece involving mistreatment of animals is a guaranteed ratings and reader magnet. Asmussen’s past drug suspensions will be dredged up...if there is enough time to discuss all of them. Before it’s over, Michael Vick would be more popular among animal lovers.

The damage to racing will be incalculable. In the wake of the Asmussen controversy, God forbid a horse breaks down in one of the televised races.

What will go largely unmentioned is the vile history of PETA, which disingenuously claims to be all about the welfare of animals. The Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services reports that PETA killed more than 29,000 animals during an 11-year period. In 2013 alone, 1,792 dogs and cats were put down, 82% of those who came under PETA control. That’s one state. What is 50 times 1,792?

The U.S. Department of Agriculture once branded PETA a terrorist threat.

PETA contributed at least $45,200 to the Rodney Coronado support committee in 1994-95. Coronado was convicted in federal court of arson for fire-bombing a Michigan State University research lab in 1992. A sentencing memorandum by U.S. attorney Michael Detmer expressed the opinion that Ingrid Newkirk, co-founder of PETA, was connected to the crime.

PETA has given financial support and has common members with the Animal Liberation Front and Environmental Liberation Front, which the FBI has labeled domestic terrorist threats.

PETA distributed reading material to the children of fishermen competing in a tournament that read, “Your dad is a blood-thirsty murderer and he loves killing animals.” PETA is as opposed to fishing and hunting as it is to horse racing, zoos, circuses, rodeos, eating meat and dairy products and wearing any clothing that comes from animal hides or fur. It is even opposed to guide dogs for the blind.

These are the people the New York Times unquestioningly jumped into bed with.

The Asmussen contretemps could be avoided with some common sense. The reason it won’t be is epitomized by the statement David Fiske, racing manager for Ron Winchell, owner of Tapiture and Oaks favorite Untapable, gave to the Racing Form. “I think it’s just too close to the second and third of May to take these horses away from the people, the routine, the feed and everything they’ve known for the last two years and put them someplace else. That’s not in the horses’ best interests.”

The best interests of the sport apparently aren't a consideration.
Fiske’s statement epitomizes why racing might never have uniform standards or produce any united action to move the sport forward. Whether it’s owners, trainers, tracks or state legislatures, the attitude is “It’s all about me. Nothing else matters.”

What’s more, Team Winchell isn’t thinking things through. What they haven't considered is if their horse wins, the story won't be Tapiture, it will be along the lines of “Disgraced Trainer Wins Derby.” They will be lucky if the horse’s name is mentioned in the headline.

The Fiske statement is nonsense. Horses move from barn to barn every day without negative ramifications. Bob Baffert didn’t get War Emblem until three weeks before he won the 2002 Kentucky Derby then encored in the Preakness.

Is Fiske saying a Baffert, Todd Pletcher or Kiaran McLaughlin, to name just a few world class trainers, couldn’t bring Winchell’s horses up the Derby and Oaks at the top of their game?

It might seem unfair, even un-American, to penalize Asmussen. We are supposed to have a presumption of innocence until convicted in a court of law. But this is due to a misinterpretation of the Constitution similar to the common one about free speech.

The First Amendment prohibits the government from prosecuting an individual for something he or she said or wrote (with the traditional "Fire!" in a theater exceptions). This freedom doesn’t extend to the workplace. Say or do something that embarrasses your employer or puts it into a bad light and you probably will be gone. Likewise, Asmussen has a presumption of innocence only as it pertains to criminal prosecution, which might be coming.

Asmussen didn’t extend any presumption of innocence to his top assistant Scott Blasi, who made most of the most outrageous comments on the PETA video. Let’s not overlook that the video contained more words than deeds and very little Asmussen. Within two days of the controversy erupting, Asmussen fired Blasi, who had worked for him for 18 years and, according to Blasi, was his friend as well as his boss.

Asmussen must not have realized how self-indicting this was. It’s inconceivable that the two worked side by side for almost two decades and the trainer was unaware of any of the outrages Blasi described. If Blasi deserved to have his career thrown into tatters, what about the man himself?

The only way this disaster in the making can be avoided is for Asmussen to be replaced as the trainer of Team Winchell's horses. The Hall of Fame did the right thing in tabling Asmussen’s nomination. The Zayats did the right thing in moving their horses out of his barn. Team Winchell needs to reconsider and follow suit.

Written by Tom Jicha

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