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, March 27, 2019

Shug likes his horse in Florida Derby; nobody likes what’s happening out West

By Tom Jicha

Shug McGaughey, who won the 2013 Florida Derby and Kentucky Derby with Orb, says fans shouldn't be fooled by the optics of the Fountain of Youth, when it appeared Code of Honor was tiring late. Shug feels his colt won easily and will handle the extra distance in the Florida Derby and Kentucky Derby. Meanwhile action on the Derby trail is being over-shadowed by the tragedies at Santa Anita and Belinda Stronach's over-reaction to them. Unless there is an 11th hour intervention, Santa Anita will ban use of the whip, separating it from the rest of the racing world.

A widespread perception after the Fountain of Youth was that Bourbon War would have run down Code of Honor in another few jumps, certainly if the mile and a sixteenth would have been a mile at an eighth, the distance of Saturday’s Florida Derby.

Subscribe to this theory at your own risk, Shug McGaughey warns. “I thought (Code of Honor) was an easy winner and I think the extra distance will help us. Johnny (Velazquez) told me that when he made the lead, he started waiting.”

McGaughey stressed he is not being disrespectful to Bourbon War, who like Code of Honor trains at Payson Park. “I see him train every day. He’s training good. He’s a good horse.”

McGaughey is confident he has a better horse. Code of Honor’s Fountain of Youth was actually better than it looked, he feels. “Johnny said he had to press the button earlier than he wanted. He didn’t want to get stuck behind horses backing up in front of him. He’ll run for us as far as we need him to run.”

McGaughey teamed with Velazquez to win the 2013 Florida Derby and Kentucky Derby with Orb. Velazquez practically owns the Florida Derby. He has won four of the past six.

Hidden Scroll, coming off an other-worldly 14-length maiden score on the Pegasus undercard, was the Fountain of Youth buzz horse and somewhat surprisingly has been installed as the 5-2 morning line favorite for the Florida Derby despite tiring late and finishing fourth behind Code of Honor.

McGaughey has a been-there, done-that attitude about taking him on again. “He couldn’t carry his speed a mile and a sixteenth. I know they went fast early but speed carries on this track.”

Code of Honor might be facing a different Hidden Scroll. After getting into a pointless speed duel with a 100-1 shot, Bill Mott has been working Hidden Scroll behind horses in an effort to have him conserve his speed. Hidden Scroll has ample room for improvement in his third career start.

Nevertheless, McGaughey feels he has the horse to beat and should be the favorite. “If he’s not the favorite, he’s going to make people seem kind of funny.”

UAE Derby over endowed

At least one, probably two, perhaps even three horses, who otherwise wouldn’t be in the Kentucky Derby conversation, will earn sufficient qualifying points in Saturday’s UAE Derby. Off the atrocious performances at Churchill Downs the past couple of years of Mendelssohn and Thunder Snow, each a runaway winner of the UAE Derby, this is unfair to horses who will have had to earn their way into the Run for the Roses via more demanding crucibles.

The rash of upsets in Derby preps has scrambled the points system to an extent not seen since it was introduced in 2013. The barrier for admittance the past three years has been about 30 points. With six races that award points on a 100-40-20-10 basis still to come, 13 horses have already achieved that level.

The UAE Derby is one of the six premier races and it shouldn’t be. The Sunland Derby, which carries only 50 points to the winner, has at least produced a Derby winner in Mine That Bird, who ran fourth. The UAE Derby never has. It deserves to have its allotment of Derby points cut in half, at least.

Should horses from Japan and Europe accept their invitations, only 18 others will qualify. Take one or two from Dubai and some top horses could be omitted. As of now, this would include Holy Bull Winner Harvey Wallbanger; Improbable, considered by many to be Bob Baffert’s best until his second in the Rebel; Bourbon War; Hidden Scroll and Instagrand.

They will get another chance over the next two weekends to earn their way in but in much tougher spots than the UAE Derby. Who would you like in head-to-head bets? Any of these five or the three U.S. horses who could sneak into the Derby through the Dubai back door: Plus Que Parfait, 5th in the LeComte and 13th in the Risen Star; Gray Magician, 4th in the Sham, 5th in a subsequent allowance and second in a Laurel stakes; or Stubbins, who won the minor Pasadena Stakes.

For the record, I’m looking at one of the locals, Walking Thunder, to steal the day. But he could win by two poles and I wouldn’t bet him back in Louisville with Michael Avenatti’s money.

Cold turkey not the answer

Heroin abuse is a national scourge. Americans are dying at a level not seen outside wars. It has become a priority to get people off the narcotic before they are found in an alley, a needle in their arm. But it has to be done at a deliberate pace. Going cold turkey can be almost as lethal.

I wouldn’t attempt to equate heroin abuse with the use of the whip in racing but the principle is the same. I’ve been a long and steady advocate of removing whips from racing. The optics are terrible even if today’s new softer whips don’t hurt a horse, they merely get its attention.

However, in a misguided public relations gambit and to appease PETA while distracting from the 22 deaths at Santa Anita this winter, Belinda Stronach, president of The Stronach Group, has decreed a cold turkey approach to the use of whips in a race. Racing figures can't get it through their heads that they will never satisfy PETA, which is as dedicated to ending the game as it was to end circuses and greyhound racing.

Unless something changes at the 11th hour, the ban on whips will alter the nature of centuries of racing and race riding without a weaning off period. Horses have been trained from their breaking to respond to a whip. Some will not give anything close to a top effort without a reminder about why they are in a race.

Jockeys, too, have grown up and been trained in use of the whip. No question some abuse it. This can be dealt with in other ways; fines and suspensions.

The latest example of what might happen with a sudden removal of a primary tool of the trade came Sunday in the Sunland Derby. Johnny V, one of the smartest, most talented humans to ever sit above a race horse, suggested Cutting Humor might not have won the important Kentucky Derby prep if he hadn’t resorted to left-handed whipping in late stretch.

“Once I got to the quarter pole, I thought he was going pretty easy…As soon as he found himself on the lead, he started waiting…I waited until the eighth pole, switched to left-handed and he responded.”

Under the new rules at Santa Anita, Cutting Humor and Velazquez might have been disqualified for use of the whip. Stewards will have this authority at their discretion. I hope the first time this happens, Santa Anita has plenty of security people on hand.

You have to wonder how many fans holding suddenly worthless win tickets will become so disgusted they will walk out and never come back.

The new rule isolates Santa Anita and Golden Gate from the rest of the racing world. A new consideration will have to be added to the already daunting handicapping process. How do you assess a horse coming out of Santa Anita, where his jockeys couldn’t encourage him with a whip, to a track where whips are still legal. Also vice versa, although I don’t see a lot of horses shipping into Santa Anita under the circumstances. Look for an exodus of jockeys, too.

To reiterate, the goal of phasing out whips is an admirable one, long overdue. But it can’t be done cold turkey. It has to start with the earliest training of horses. Likewise, jockeys must be given leeway to accustom themselves to the new norm. Start with a warning, move to fines, then suspensions. Don’t punish the fans.

If Lasix-free racing can be phased in over a couple of years, as Santa Anita and Golden Gate intend to do, there’s no reason the same can’t be done with restrictions on the use of whips.

Written by Tom Jicha

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