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, March 08, 2018


Tampa Bay Derby has moved way up among the Derby preps


The Tampa Bay Derby doesn't get the media attention of longer established Kentucky Derby preps but its status has been elevated in recent years by the performance of its winners. Two eventual Derby winners have come out of Oldsmar since 2007 and four of the five past Tampa Bay Derby winners have gone on to take Grade 1 stakes later in their career. The exception, Destin, missed by a nose in the Belmont. So it would be foolhardy to downgrade the result of Saturday's renewal. On a sad note, the death of John Brunetti last week probably ends any hope that Hialeah will ever come back as a thoroughbred track.

Sometimes when you are doing research you find something surprising. Perusing recent history, I was amazed at the impact the Tampa Bay Derby, which will be renewed Saturday, has had on important racing in recent years.

Florida’s other Derby has produced a couple of Kentucky Derby winners since 2007. Street Sense became the first Tampa Bay Derby winner to double in Louisville in 2007. Three years later, Super Saver ran third in Tampa before wearing the roses at Churchill Downs.

This might not seem like a big deal until you compare it to a couple of other much more heralded Derby preps—the Wood Memorial and Blue Grass Stakes. Much has been made of the Wood and Blue Grass being downgraded from Grade 1 to Grade 2 but when you put their results against those of the Tampa Bay Derby, now also a Grade 2, they have nothing to complain about.

Since 2007, the Wood and Blue Grass winners have combined to produce a total of zero Derby triumphs. To be fair, Street Sense did run second at Keeneland after winning at Oldsmar. The last time the Wood produced a Derby winner was in 2003 when Funny Cide, who ran second in New York behind Empire Maker, turned the tables on the first Saturday in May.

The favorable comparisons don’t end with the Kentucky Derby. Every winner of the Tampa Bay Derby over the past five years has gone on to win at least one Grade 1, with the exception of Destin, who took the Marathon at last fall’s Breeders’ Cup and missed by a nose in the 2016 Belmont Stakes. Last year’s Tampa Bay Derby winner, Tapwrit, went him one better, triumphing in the Belmont.

Carpe Diem, who won at Tampa in 2015, encored in the Blue Grass when it was still a Grade 1. Verrazano in 2013 took the Wood, also when it was still a Grade 1, and later captured the Grade 1 Haskell. Ring Weekend went on to be a grass star, taking the Grade 1 Kilroe Mile among many stakes victories.

This year could bring more of the same. Though the centerpiece of the Oldsmar meeting doesn’t have the marquee names of Saturday’s other major Derby preps, the San Felipe and Gotham, the field is heavy with 3-year-olds with big-time potential.

Flameaway, a gutsy wire-to-wire winner of the Sam F. Davis, will try to go back to back and won’t have highly regarded Catholic Boy, who is heading to the Florida Derby, to beat this time. But he isn’t getting a layup. He could be in for a World of Trouble if he tries to make the front again.

Trainer Jason Servis decided to enter speedball sprinter World of Trouble, who won the seven furlong Pasco stakes by 13 ¾ lengths in near track record time. Servis has no illusions that he has a Kentucky Derby horse, but a mile and a sixteenth could be within World of Trouble’s range.

Vino Rosso could be a big beneficiary if there is a break-neck pace. He was third in the Davis in a deceptively strong effort, which saw him re-rallying late to close fast on the top two. He will try to give Todd Pletcher his fifth win in six years in the TB Derby.

Tiz Mischief, third in the Holy Bull, will start for the loaded Dale Romans, who won the Fountain of Youth with Promises Fulfilled and also will send out Free Drop Billy in the Gotham.

The Kentucky Jockey Club didn’t look like much of a race when Tiz Mischief and Enticed trailed Audible and Free Drop Billy home in the Holy Bull. It’s looking a lot better after Promises Fulfilled became the third horse to come out of the late 2017 stakes and win. It could look really good if Tiz Mischief comes up big at Tampa and Enticed, who is expected to run in New York, makes his presence felt in the Gotham.

A live sleeper is Untamed Domain, who will make his long anticipated dirt debut for Graham Motion, who won the 2011 Kentucky Derby with Animal Kingdom. Like Animal Kingdom, Untamed Domain made his 3-year-old debut in a turf race at Gulfstream.

All three Derby preps have terrific supporting cards but it's revealing a bevy of big name jockeys have chose to ride at Oldsmar—Irad and Jose Ortiz, Johnny Velazquez, Joel Rosario, Jose Lezcano, Julien Leparoux and Florent Geroux. It should be quite a day.

West Coast showdown

The San Felipe, with its showdown between Bolt d’Oro and McKinzie, will deservedly get top billing nationally, especially after Good Magic’s disappointing effort in the Fountain of Youth. I’ve always felt Bolt d’Oro was a superior horse, who had a difficult trip in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. I reluctantly gave my Eclipse vote to Good Magic out of respect for the result of their only meeting, excuses notwithstanding.

No disrespect to McKinzie but I expect my instincts to be ratified Saturday. McKinzie is technically undefeated thanks to being put up in the Los Alamitos Derby. However, he was three horses across the track with Solomini and Instilled Regard and I have a hard time believing all three of them are the equal of Bolt d’Oro.

Gotham no easy spot

If the snow goes away in New York, Romans will be hoping to cash an ambitious double with Free Drop Billy. He scratched the likely second choice out of the Fountain of Youth to steer him toward the Gotham then got the money anyway with Promises Fulfilled.

Romans said afterward he wanted to give Free Drop Billy an easier race leading into the final round of preps. If horses could read, this would be bulletin board fodder for Firenze Fire, who looms Billy’s biggest obstacle.

Romans also might have had an eye on NYRA’s decision to kick up the Wood Memorial purse from $750K to $1 million if there is a Grade 1 winner in the field. Billy qualifies as the winner of the Breeders’ Futurity. If he can beat Firenze Fire in the Gotham, there is little reason to believe he couldn’t do it again in the Wood. Discounting the value of Firenze Fire’s races over the new Aqueduct track, I put more stock in Billy’s second to Audible at Gulfstream.

Enticed, who is cross-entered in the Tampa Bay Derby (snow insurance?), also appears to be looking for a less challenging path to Kentucky. I’m not convinced he’s good enough right now to take down two Grade 1 winners.

With Audible, Promises Fulfilled and Catholic Boy headed toward what should be a terrific Florida Derby, Good Magic ticketed for the Blue Grass and Avery Island looking to the Louisiana Derby, Firenze Fire might be the only one in the way of another lucrative Dale Romans parlay in New York.

RIP John Brunetti and Hialeah

John Brunetti Sr., who died last Friday. was an enigma. He could be cantankerous and unreasonable one moment and ultimately charming the next.

He saved Hialeah in 1977, stepping up to buy the track when the only other bidder was the Donn Family, whose plan was to close the “world’s most beautiful race track” and move the dates to their Gulfstream Park. Then he spent the next two decades alienating horsemen and fans, treating both as nuisances.

He was a horsemen himself but he constantly nickeled and dimed the people who made the game go, battling over how much he owed them and habitually paying them late. Yet he was extraordinarily generous to local charities.

When he was in the process of buying Hialeah, he passed himself off as a friend of the players, because, he said, that’s where he came from. He fell in love with Hialeah while a student at the University of Miami. Then he instituted one of the highest takeouts in the nation, as much as 31 percent in some pools.

Nevertheless, I will miss him and so will racing, because as long as he was alive, there was hope, however faint, that Hialeah might come alive again as a thoroughbred mecca. The demolition of Calder raised hopes that Hialeah might be revived to give Gulfstream a necessary breather during the fall.

Randy Soth, a former Hialeah racing secretary and now general manager of the facility, said Friday, “The way he loved this place was obsessive.”

I had the opportunity to interview Brunetti a few years ago when he was launching a quarterhorse meeting, which was nothing more than a means to the end of qualifying for a casino. He made it clear he had no use for the quarterhorses and reiterated his fondest hope was to bring thoroughbreds back to Hialeah.

His sons are more bottom-line oriented and do not share his passion for racing. They argued that rebuilding the stable area, much of which had been ravaged by hurricanes and the rest of which had been torn down, was too expensive an undertaking.

I like to think John Brunetti in his feisty heyday would have over-ruled them. But his health was failing. He underwent triple heart bypass surgery in 1996 and needed a kidney transplant in 2013. More recently he had a cancerous lung removed.

When he died last week, any hope of the track of the flamingos soaring again died with him.



Written by Tom Jicha

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