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, June 29, 2017


Summit went to the top of racing quickly and has stayed there



Summer used to be truly the racing doldrums in South Florida. The conventional thinking was it was too hot to risk really outstanding horses. Calder's pre-Churchill Downs management team refused to accept this and created the Summit of Speed to lure top sprinters south in July. The series of rich races, which will be renewed at Gulfstream on Saturday, took off immediately and is now an established high spot in the lull month between the end of the Triple Crown and the openings of Saratoga and Del Mar.

Gulfstream has done such a splendid job elevating the status of South Florida summer racing it is easy to forget the foundation was laid by Calder's pre-Churchill Downs management team.

One of the cornerstones was the Summit of Speed, which will be renewed Saturday in a stakes laden Gulfstream card highlighted by a couple of Grade 2's and a Grade 3.

Prior to the inaugural Summit in 2000, the notion of a graded stakes during the blistering South Florida heat was a pipe dream. This gnawed at then promotion and marketing director Mike Cronin, a rare race track executive, who passionately loves racing more as a sport than a business.

Creation of the Summit was his of way of reminding horsemen, "Hey, guys, we're still here."

Cronin relied on a cardinal rule of business, find a void and fill it. “I knew sprints were an under-utilized category and there was a soft spot on the calendar for major events between the end of the Triple Crown and the openings of Saratoga and Del Mar.”

He asked his forward thinking boss, Calder president Ken Dunn, to approve $1 million in purses for the centerpiece events, the Smile Sprint and Princess Rooney, each endowed with $500,000 purses. Confident in Cronin, Dunn told him to go for it.

"We both felt we had to put on a big show to get noticed,” Cronin said.

Half-million dollar purses were unheard of windfalls for sprints anywhere during the summer. In fact, the Smile and Princess Rooney will each go for half the original amounts this weekend, although Gulfstream will disperse $1 million including the undercard stakes.

They were lucky to have the late Bobby Umphrey Jr. as racing secretary. "Bobby had worked on the West Coast for many years," Cronin said. "He still had a lot of connections out there, so every year he and I went out there recruiting. West Coast guys are used to shipping East for big races, so they were susceptible. By the second or third year, when they saw us coming around the barns, they would go, 'Here come the Summit guys.'"

It didn't hurt that Dunn also signed off on underwriting the cost of a plane to bring the Westerners back East and treated them royally when they arrived.

Getting a series as ambitious as the Summit off the ground can be daunting and time consuming. In this case, it was a success from the get-go, Cronin said. "It hit pretty quickly, We were over the hump after the first year."

The racing world noticed when Caller One took the initial Carry Back then went on to win the Golden Shaheen in Dubai twice. So much for the fear that Florida’s summer heat would debilitate a horse. In 2002 and 2003, Orientate and Cajun Beat competed in the Summit prior to winning Breeders’ Cup Sprint races. Crack sprinters have been coming south ever since.

In 2005, Lost in the Fog, one of the finest sprinters of the millennium, shipped in from the West Coast to capture the Carry Back.

The Breeders’ Cup eventually recognized what was happening. The Smile and Princess Rooney are now “win-and-you’re-in” events. There was a one-year break in continuity in 2014 at the height of the Calder-Gulfstream dates battle but once that was settled, Gulfstream picked up the baton and kept the series going.

The only discordant note during the early stages of the Summit, Cronin said, was local horsemen got their noses out of joint that out-of-towners were coming to town and scooping up big money they felt should be going to them.

This problem was solved the right way. Racing is a meritocracy. The Calder guys were urged to point their own best stock at the Summit. By 2010-11, this problem went away when locals won seven of the eight biggest stakes. They’ve been holding their own ever since.

This trend could continue Saturday. Dearest will take a ton of beating in the Princess Rooney. She won the Azalea on last year’s Summit card then encored in the Sugar Swirl during the winter meet. The latter was sandwiched by close defeats in the Prioress at Saratoga and Inside Information this past winter.

Distinta, who won the Inside Information, is also in the field but the race shape works in Dearest’s favor. She can consistently fire sub-45 second first quarters, something none of the others have demonstrated an ability to match. She should be long gone.

Three Rules, hero of last summer’s Sire Stakes, looks like a good bet to get back in the win column in the Carry Back. He won his first five career starts at Gulfstream but hasn’t won in his last five, all in top grade company. His only out-of-the-money finishes during this stretch were in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and Kentucky Derby and he wasn’t disgraced in either.

His connections nominated him for the Carry Back for 3-year-olds as well as the open Smile and opted to stay against his own age to get him back on the winning track.

Awesome Banner, another Gulfstream development, is likely to be heavily supported in the Smile but he doesn’t appear to be the horse he used to be. He had five wins and three seconds in 11 starts last year but has only a pair of thirds in four 2017 starts.

An intriguing alternative is Mid-Atlantic shipper Imperial Hint, who has three consecutive triple-digit Beyers, which is three more than his rivals combined.

Cronin, whose heart was broken by the demise of Calder, now works for the HBPA in Minnesota but still follows the Summit. He can be proud of what he started.

Another mockery

Flavien Pratt is the latest jockey to make a mockery of riding rules. Pratt, in a tight race for the Santa Anita riding title, was hit with a three-day suspension for careless riding in the Summertime Oaks on June 16.

He should have served the days this weekend but to keep his hopes alive to win the championship, he appealed to the California Horse Racing Board. The CHRB turned his plea aside, so he went to court and got a stay. This is just what society needs, jockeys tying up the courts.

Don’t be surprised if he drops the appeal after this weekend so he is all set to ride at Del Mar, which opens July 19. This is standard operating procedure for jockeys.

The only way to stop these sham appeals is to come down hard on riders after the process plays out. If you get a traffic ticket and take it to court, the fine can be tripled or quadrupled. This should also be the case for frivolous rider appeals.

When Pratt drops his appeal, the CHRB should raise the suspension to 10 to 15 days. It’s the only way this nonsense will be stopped.

Miami, June 29, 2017




Written by Tom Jicha

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