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 Sentinels horse racing writer since 2007 as a staff member, and continues to this day as a free-lancer.

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Tuesday, September 03, 2013


Spa still the greatest but anything can be made better


New NYRA CEO Christopher Kay says one of his priorities is to make the fan experience more enjoyable. It's hard to improve on a day at Saratoga but as long as Kay asked, here are a few suggestions.


MIAMI, Sept. 3, 2013--High among the priorities new NYRA CEO Christopher Kay set for his first season at Saratoga was to learn who his customers are and how he can make the racetrack experience more enjoyable. There are few more commendable goals.

How much Kay learned about his customers is a matter of conjecture. But racing fans certainly learned who Kay is. He was on TV in the winner’s circle more often than Todd Pletcher and was on microphone more than Tom Durkin.

To put a positive spin on this, you have to say Kay was involved.

I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt for his good intentions. Just in case his self assigned busy work denied him the chance to accomplish the fan experiences on his “to do” list, I made a list of minor fixes that would make a day at the races more enjoyable.

Most of the year, I’m one of those spoiled media types in the press boxes at the South Florida tracks. At Saratoga, I’m just another guy in the crowd—my choice--so I can speak to these matters first-hand.

Learning who NYRA’s customers are and making their day at the races more pleasant are in synch with my first issue. NYRA’s customers are horse players. The Spa is exhilarating, the reason I and tens of thousands of others travel hundreds of miles to be there. But primarily we’re there to play horses.

NYRA has already made a significant positive step in getting new SAM’s. I haven’t seen them yet but they have to better than the dinosaurs fans have had to put up with. Hopefully, the new ones will be able to accept cash, to eliminate the cumbersome extra step of having to go to a live teller to obtain a voucher. If fans are going to be forced to stand in line for tellers, they might as well make their bets there, eliminating the whole purpose of SAM’s.

More than anything, we want to know the odds and, when we’re astute enough to be alive in multi-race wagers, we want to know the will-pays, in order to make decisions about possible saver bets.

Almost all the time Kay spent on camera was at the expense of this. Whether it was cutting a celebratory 150th anniversary cake, glad-handing politicians, congratulating racing figures on noteworthy feats, etc. , etc., it delayed the posting of “will pays.”

There was at least one occasion when it was 12 minutes to post before potential doubles and pick threes appeared on TV screens. This was the worst example, but making players wait up to 15 minutes for “will pays” was commonplace. (To be fair, Southern California tracks are even worse and do it after every race.)

Is it asking too much that an extra minute be taken before the ceremonies commandeer the closed-circuit feed to provide this crucial information? How about a split screen?

As long as we’re on the subject of multi-race “will pays,” I’d like to reiterate a point John Pricci, myself and countless others have made. How about posting them the way most people play them. Few play $2 Pick 3’s and trifectas and no one (at least no one in their right mind) plays $2 Pick 4’s. As part of any bettor education program, players should be taught why the tax implications make this imprudent.

The $2 payoffs are posted for the same reason lotteries pump humongous jackpots on billboards, to entice people chasing the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. But it’s a disservice to real players.

Pick 3 payoffs should be posted on the basis of the common $1 wager and Pick 4’s and, when they are finally introduced, Pick 5’s, should be shown on the basis of a 50 cent bet. Handicapping requires a lot of math as it is. Long division to gauge the actual payoff to an individual bettor shouldn’t be an extra burden.

My other suggestions are geared toward casual fans, who make Saratoga the nation’s best attended track along with its summer rival Del Mar. The first parking lot fans encounter after exiting the Northway is more than a quarter-mile from the nearest entrance gate. To make matters worse, this is where a large handicapped parking area is situated. It’s almost a sick joke to give disabled fans preferred parking in an area that far from the track. A tram or bus is essential. Surely insurance issues come into play but there are trams and busses utilized elsewhere.

Saratoga might be the only track of any size in America where every seat facing the track is sold every day. NYRA has to make money where it can with the Cuomo regime looking over its shoulder. But there are days—mostly Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays—when the three sections way up the stretch are empty, occupied only by ushers making certain no one squats for free.

NYRA knows from its records when these days fall. It would be a customer friendly gesture to make these sections available free of charge on such occasions, or for a nominal fee of $1 or $2 to discourage those who tie up three seats with papers so that no one crowds them. This might even bring out a few more people, who don’t come now because there is no place to sit down and watch the races.

The giveaway distribution methods also need to be re-examined and tinkered with. The Top of the Stretch is my preferred location. This also is where the ($3) freebies are distributed.

On the Sunday when the T-shirts were given away, customers stood on lines that stretched to the grandstand only to discover that the only size left was medium. America has become a nation of large and extra large. Ask Michelle Obama.

If you wanted the most desired sizes, you were sent to another tent near the Big Red Spring. For those unfamiliar with the vast Saratoga grounds, this is as far as you can walk from one point to another and still be within the track. The lines there were even longer. I’m guessing there was a cause-effect relationship.

None of these steps are budget busters. Failure to act on them won’t diminish the irresistibility of Saratoga. One day after the meeting, I’m counting down to next season.

But as long as Kay says he is intent on improving the fans experience, they are a good place to start. Surely some of you must have ideas of your own.


Written by Tom Jicha

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