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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Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Results don’t count in Derby polls

Kentucky Derby polls are ubiquitous this time of year. But the weekly rankings often make it seem that the results on the race track don't matter. (In late news, a spike has been driven through the heart of synthetic race tracks.)
MIAMI, Feb. 19, 2014--Polls are an American obsession. People love to be asked their opinions and avidly follow the results. Thoroughbred racing isn’t exempt. But sometimes you have to question their usefulness, to say nothing of their wisdom.

At this stage of the prep season, it’s pointless to attach any significance to Kentucky Derby polls for two big reasons: Shared Belief and Honor Code. Each has had minor physical issues, which have delayed their season debuts, although they are still on track to jump onto the Derby Trail. Until they do, or drop out, it’s impossible to gauge where the rest of the generation stands.

Shared Belief earned the Juvenile Eclipse with breath-taking performances in the Hollywood Prevue and Cash Call Futurity. Since then those races have gained luster.

In the Prevue, Shared Belief buried Kobe’s Back by almost eight lengths. This past Sunday, Kobe’s Back rejoined the Derby picture by winning the San Vicente by more than five.

In the Futurity, Shared Belief allowed Candy Boy to get first run on him, then reeled him in and ran away from him like a man competing against a boy. Candy Boy rebounded to capture the Robert B. Lewis so impressively that those with short memories are calling him the best in the West.

In fact, in the latest Courier-Journal poll, Candy Boy is ranked fourth, five places better than Shared Belief.

Honor Code came to Florida as the de facto leader of the New York-based crop off his re-rallying win over Cairo Prince in the nine furlong Remsen. Cairo Prince might not have gotten the best of rides but he took the lead in late stretch and allowed Honor Code to come back and beat him. Nevertheless, Cairo Prince’s romp in the Holy Bull has many rating him above Honor Code.

In the Courier-Journal poll, Cairo Prince is ranked ahead of everybody, No. 1. He has so impressed the voters that Conquest Titan, who ran a non-threatening second in the Holy Bull, is rated eighth, one spot ahead of Shared Belief. So a distant second is enough to put a horse ahead of an undefeated Eclipse champion.

It would not be a surprise to see Shared Belief and Honor Code fall even further down Top 10 lists after the results of this week. Tapiture is surely going to pick up supporters off his facile win in the Southwest, with highly regarded Strong Mandate, who has a knack of running himself into tough trips, chasing him home.

Saturday’s Fountain of Youth and Risen Star also are likely to produce winners who will move up in the eyes of many. Unfortunately, limit fields in both could compromise the chances of an untold number of Derby hopefuls.

Once again, in the Fountain of Youth, there is a “what have you done for me lately?” scenario. Commissioner out gamed Top Billing in a January 3 allowance at Gulfstream. But Top Billing became the talk of the track with an eye-catching win in a subsequent entry-level allowance. In the Courier-Journal poll he is up to second and Commissioner is No. 5.

Why? Because Top Billing won an allowance Commissioner wasn’t eligible for because he beat Top Billing. Go figure.

What’s more, in spite of drawing the 12 post for the 1 1/16th mile Fountain of Youth, with its short run to the first turn, the headline on the Blood Horse advance was “Top Billing Headlines Fountain of Youth.” So much for what happened on the race track. There are some who will say Top Billing had the tougher trip. The fact remains that in mid-stretch they were nose to nose and Commissioner came out best.

This isn’t to say Top Billing won’t turn the tables on Commissioner Saturday. Three-year-olds can improve dramatically from race to race this time of year and Top Billing’s allowance win was as impressive as has been seen this winter. But as of right now, the fact lost on poll participants is the score is Commissioner 1, Top Billing 0.

The FoY is not a two-horse race by any means. Gulfstream Derby winner General a Rod, who got the best of Wildcat Red by a head in the New Year's Day mile, meets that foe again. Since then Wildcat Red had a dominating win in the seven furlong Hutcheson Stakes. A mile and a sixteenth might be as far as he wants to go but sprinters can have success at this distance at Gulfstream.

Almost Famous, highly regarded in Kentucky last fall, had a tougher than looks trip in the Holy Bull, challenging the pace all the way and holding on to miss second by less than a length. He could move forward off his first race of the year.

We Miss Artie won the Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland last fall but, as I have pointed out repeatedly, results over Keeneland’s fake dirt track have proven to be meaningless when the winners show up elsewhere. We Miss Artie’s seventh in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile is just the latest example. (Very happy news on fake dirt tracks to come).

The Risen Star is a total crapshoot. Sixteen entered and though only 14 will be allowed to start, it would take a miracle for half the field not to have to endure troubled trips. Too bad, since this is the first Derby prep bringing together horses from the major winter racing venues. Bob Baffert and Doug O’Neill are sending in contenders from California and Todd Pletcher is shipping in a well regarded starter from Florida.

One of the locals, LeComte winner Vicar’s in Trouble, got the worst shafting, drawing post 14. This could advantage the LeComte’s second and third place finishers, Albano and Gold Hawk. The Louisiana contingent also includes Rise Up, winner of the Delta Jackpot.

Pletcher will go for his third Risen Star win in five years with Intense Holiday, third behind Cairo Prince in the Holy Bull.

Bond Holder brings the strongest credentials from the West, a win in the Grade 1 Front Runner and fourths in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and Cash Call Futurity. In the latter, he was no match for Shared Belief. But if he were to win Saturday, you could bet case money that he will be ranked higher than Shared Belief in next week’s polls.

Baffert’s hopeful, Hoppertunity, a half brother to Executive Privilege, comes in off a three-length maiden-breaker around two turns.

The logical move in pursuit of a more meaningful result would have been to split the Risen Star. It didn’t happen because of the Kentucky Derby points system. This is the first weekend of the 50-20-10-5 allotment but if the race had been split, those points would have been halved. The only way to avert this would have been to make both divisions worth the announced purse of $400,000, an onerous burden for any track.

If the goal is to get the best horses into the Churchill Downs starting gate on the first Saturday in May, this is a rule that needs to be re-examined.

Ding dong, kitty litter is dead

I am positively giddy at another long overdue logical move. Del Mar has caved. It will restore a real dirt surface to its main track in 2015.

This effectively ends the era of synthetics. When Del Mar gets real, Keeneland will be racing’s outlier, the only track that stages major races on kitty litter. So it should be only a matter of time until Keeneland rejoins racing’s mainstream.

Arlington still has a synthetic but its big races are on grass. Turfway runs a big race whenever it can scrape together a few dollars, which isn’t often. Besides, as a winter racing center, Turfway is one of the few places where a synthetic makes sense. Woodbine is in a world of its own up in Canada.

There are many ramifications to Del Mar’s decision, which came just before my publication deadline. I’ll have a lot more in future columns

Written by Tom Jicha

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