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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