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, July 27, 2017

Saratoga Live is a Grade 1 telecast

Saratoga Live, which is available in 75 million homes every racing day at the Spa, should be the model for racing telecasts. It's fast paced and informative and never condescending or frivolous. The hosts know their stuff and communicate it well. This weekend the show will be all over the Jim Dandy showdown between Derby champion Always Dreaming and Preakness upsetter Cloud Computing and the Grade 1 Haskell at Monmouth.

NYRA can be justifiably proud that it has managed to get “Saratoga Live” into 75 million American homes. But some perspective is needed. When I was writing about TV for three decades a point driven home repeatedly was content is king.

Being in a home is meaningless if nobody bothers to tune you in. Only about 10 programs in the cable/satellite universe of literally thousands of shows average as many as 1 million viewers. Many of these are on cable channels such as ESPN, USA, TBS and TNT, which are in about 100 million homes.

Fortunately, if any racing program is going to bring people to the set, “Saratoga Live” is it. In racing parlance it is Grade 1: informative, thorough, well paced and, most importantly, entertaining.

The talent also is Grade 1. Unlike some racing telecasts, the commentators delve into racing’s finer points without talking down to their audience. When they put up their suggested bets, you get the feeling they are also putting their money where their mouth is.

I didn’t get to see this season’s first two telecasts for the best of reasons. I was at the track betting the simulcast. This past Sunday, Monday and Wednesday, I monitored the show from beginning to end. In what might be a career first, I have almost nothing negative to say.

I made notes critiquing Gabby Gaudet for interviewing Mike Smith early in the Coaching Club American Oaks show and not bringing up Arrogate’s clunker at Del Mar the previous day. This was one of those occasions when I was glad I was gathering material for a column and not instant tweeting. The explanation became apparent shortly thereafter.

Gabby did her job, quizzing Smith about the Arrogate debacle in a portion of the interview that was being held to be shown just prior to the CCAO.

My first inclination was a half-dozen voices would be two or three too many but each of the commentators has a specific role and handles it without stepping on the others.

Greg Wolf and Paul Lo Duca are the nominal hosts and keep the show moving while also offering insights to upcoming races. Former Major League catcher Lo Duca took some heat unjustly because a lot of NYRA fans blamed him for the departure of Richard Migliore.

In any profession when someone suddenly quits “to spend more time with my family,” you can be sure there is a bigger story. This was reiterated when within days The Mig wound up on XBTV doing essentially what he was doing for NYRA.

There might be a nasty little man instrumental in The Mig leaving but it wasn’t Lo Duca. If he didn’t replace The Mig, someone else would have.

Gabby Gaudet and Maggie Wolfendale, who handle paddock and race track analysis, aren’t just the obligatory female voices. These two women know their stuff and how to communicate it. Sunday, Maggie pointed out that trainer Horacio de Paz is an up and comer, whose horses are worth giving second and third looks. She looked prescient as De Paz’s Ginger N Rye got home for a $24 mutuel.

After the feature, she questioned Smith, who rode favored Abel Tasman, about pinning down Elate on the rail sufficiently to have the stewards take a look. “It was old fashioned race-riding,” Smith acknowledged, the kind of candid revelation you don’t often get.

Gabby, who works the paddock show at Gulfstream during the winter, demonstrated her handicapping chops on Monday, nailing back-to-back exactas. She’s Ms. Versatility. She also sits in with Wolf and Lo Duca at the main desk and with Andy Serling for handicapping.

Serling’s normal partner is trainer Tom Amoss, who has the luxury of being a successful trainer when he’s not on TV. So he can speak his mind and dare to cross favorite son Serling. The two get into some heated discussions. After a flareup on Sunday, Amoss was missing Monday and Wednesday. Maybe he had responsibilities in his far-flung barns.

This is something to watch for in the coming days and weeks—just one more reason to pay attention to one of the best racing programs ever produced.

3YO’s start anew

Time to hit the reset button on the 3-year-old division. Through the first half of the year, the closest to a leader is Always Dreaming. All things being equal, the edge always goes to the Kentucky Derby champion.

However, even though Always Dreaming also has the Florida Derby on his credit sheet, things could not be more equal. Three different horses won Triple Crown races and several others have sufficient credentials to crash the party by putting together a string of wins during the second half of the season.

The shakeout could start this weekend. Always Dreaming and his conqueror in the Preakness, Cloud Computing, go at it again in the Jim Dandy in a Todd Pletcher-Chad Brown showdown.

On the Jersey Shore, Wood Memorial winner and Belmont runnerup Irish War Cry tries to get back into the championship mix in the Haskell against an accomplished group of challengers, some of whom also still have championship aspirations.

I’ll reiterate something I do every year at this time. It is absolutely insane that two races of this stature are contested within 24 hours. The Jim Dandy is pretty much locked in because of the compact Saratoga meeting, which culminates in the Travers. The Haskell could and should move to earlier in the Monmouth season, ideally around the Fourth of July. This would provide sufficient spacing from the Triple Crown races on one side and the Jim Dandy/Travers on the other.

I’m in Always Dreaming’s corner at the Spa. Taking nothing away from Cloud Computing, he had everything going for him in Baltimore. Brown skipped the Derby to have a fresh horse for the second jewel of the Triple Crown. He joked after Cloud Computing ran third in the Wood that not winning New York’s premier prep saved him some grief. If he had won, Brown quipped, it would have been difficult to tell Cloud Computing’s owners that the plan was to skip the Derby.

Cloud Computing didn’t beat the real Always Dreaming, the stellar colt I expect to show up Saturday. Always Dreaming had not finished behind a horse during his 3-year-old campaign, which coincided with a switch to the Pletcher program. At Pimlico, he finished behind seven horses. Obviously, this was the outlier.

Pletcher, who doesn’t prepare his horses to run back in two weeks, has had more than two months to get Always Dreaming right again.

The Jim Dandy has the bigger marquee names but the Haskell is the more intriguing and challenging betting race. In addition to Irish War Cry, McCraken, who was at the top of many lists this past spring, will line up as will a couple of Brown standouts , Dwyer winner Practical Joke and undefeated Timeline, and Girvin, the Risen Star and Louisiana Derby winner.
Irish War Cry is the sentimental choice. His owner, Isabelle de Tomaso, is the daughter of Amory Haskell, Monmouth’s first president and the man for whom the race is named. Graham Motion said he doesn’t have to be told how much winning the race would mean to de Tomaso, who, for decades has presented the trophy to others.

My preference is for McCraken. Trainer Ian Wilkes is bringing McCraken to Monmouth for one reason and it’s not to duck Always Dreaming and Cloud Computing. “We’re not ducking anyone. The Haskell is a Grade 1 and it’s important that we win a Grade 1 with this horse.”

Written by Tom Jicha

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