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, January 18, 2018

The inevitable war for horses is heating up

NYRA announced during the past week an incentive plan to attract horses who winter in Arkansas and Florida. Shipping stipends will be available for those who come in early for the end of the Aqueduct spring meeting. In the case of Oaklawn horses, a bonus on top of purse money is being offered through the end of the Belmont summer session. This could draw horses who normally migrate to the Midwest and Southwest. In the case of the Florida tracks, it could have a negative impact on the final days of the Gulfstream and Tampa Bay Downs winter seasons. In another bonus gambit, NYRA will increase the purse of the Wood Memorial from $750K to $1 million if a Grade 1 winner is in the field. This appears to be a bid to get Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner Good Magic to skip the Florida Derby in favor of NY's major Derby prep.

The first shots of what could turn into a fierce war for horses are being fired. This is an inevitable byproduct of lower foal crops.

NYRA has announced incentives to lure horses, who winter at Oaklawn, Gulfstream and Tampa Bay Downs, to the spring and summer meets at Aqueduct and Belmont.

The Oaklawn bonuses are the most generous. NYRA will pay a $1,500 shipping stipend and an extra 30 percent on top of purse earnings in a horse’s first New York start at either the Aqueduct spring meeting or Belmont summer session. Since they are in effect through mid-July, the bonuses probably won’t have much of an impact on the final days of the Oaklawn season, which ends April 14. But it could attract horses to NY who normally race in the Midwest and Southwest during the spring and summer.

This isn’t the case with Gulfstream and Tampa Bay Downs, although only the $1,500 toward shipping is being offered for horses who make a start at Aqueduct’s spring meeting, which runs through April 22.

Gulfstream races year-round but its prime meet ends April 1. With the exception of horses ticketed for the cornucopia of stakes on Florida Derby Day, snowbird horses start to ship north in late March. The exodus could be advanced by the NYRA shipping money.

(In all cases, first-time starters and horses shipping in for stakes are excluded.)

Gulfstream general manager Bill Badgett thinks it is a savvy move on NYRA’s part. “You have to do whatever you can to get horses.” However,he is unfazed thanks to Gulfstream's secret weapon, Florida’s alluring climate. “I don’t expect a lot of guys to be shipping early into that bad New York weather.”

Tampa Bay’s season extends into early May, so its final weeks could be severely compromised if enough outfits jump at the New York shipping money. It’s a sure thing management will be taking names for when stalls are being allotted next season.

The next step could be NYRA offering bonuses to horsemen who forego a trip to Florida to race during the winter in New York.

Del Mar has been offering purse bonuses for the past few seasons to horses shipping in from other regions. This winter, Santa Anita has a similar “Ship and Stay” incentive program.

If these bonus programs begin to bear fruit and the foal crops decline continues, it could be only a matter of time before tracks declare all out war on their competitors.

Wood could be $1 million again

NYRA badly wants the Wood Memorial restored to a Grade 1. In a different kind of bonus arrangement to steal star horses from its rivals, it has announced that New York’s final stepping stone to the Triple Crown will have its purse kicked up from $750,000 to $1 million if there is a Grade 1 winner in the field.

One of the things the American Graded Stakes Committee looks at is the composition of fields. Having a Grade 1 winner moves the race up in the committee’s deliberation, especially if he wins or goes on to major success in the Derby, Preakness and Belmont.

Since the only Grade 1 races for 3-year-olds are within a week on either side of the April 7 Wood, it is fair to say the bonus is primarily being dangled in front of the connections of only two horses, Breeders’ Cup Juvenile champion Good Magic and Firenze Fire, who took the Grade 1 Champagne last fall and launched his 2018 campaign successfully last weekend in the Jerome.

The only other Grade 1 winners in the East, all for their juvenile achievements, are Hopeful winner Sporting Chance and Free Drop Billy, who took last fall’s Breeders’ Futurity.

Sporting Chance hasn’t raced since the Hopeful and is being brought back by D. Wayne Lukas at Oaklawn, which has its own million dollar Derby prep. Dale Romans, a Kentucky guy, conditions Free Drop Billy, who earned his Grade 1 credentials in the Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland, home of the Blue Grass, which also has a $1 million pot.

An unlikely possibility is Bob Baffert could ship in McKinzie, who earned his Grade 1 bones in December in the Los Alamitos Futurity, if he wants to avoid Bolt d’Or in the Santa Anita Derby. But Baffert seems to prefer the Arkansas route to Louisville when he leaves California.

An even more remote possibility is Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf winner Mendelssohn making a return trip across the Atlantic. That’s it for Grade 1 newly turned 3-year-olds.

So logically speaking, the NYRA bonus is dependent on Firenze Fire and Good Magic.

Harness shows way

Harness racing has always played second fiddle to thoroughbreds. A primary reason is a widespread public perception that for all the drug problems and other integrity issues of “the flats,” the trotters and pacers are less trustworthy.

A tough new initiative by Jeff Gural, forward-thinking owner of the Meadowlands and a couple of lesser upstate NY tracks, and the Woodbine Entertainment Group, which runs Woodbine and Mohawk, could close the credibility gap.

The Standardbred Racing Integrity and Accountability Initiative subjects owners and their horses to a ban from all stakes races in 2018 at the Gural and WEG tracks if a trainer employed by the owner gets a positive for banned drugs for any horse in his barn.

It matters not if the horse, who comes up positive, is owned by the person who has stakes horses. The mere fact that the offending trainer is employed by that owner will make all his horses ineligible for stakes at the participating tracks. Some of the biggest events in the sport, including the Hambletonian, are contested at the Meadowlands.

Moreover, those horses could not be transferred or sold to become eligible. Their stigma travels with them.

This might seem a little unfair but the goal is praise worthy. It is an attempt to force owners to be more vigilant in who they hire to train their horses, hopefully making it difficult for cheaters to get horses.

It’s a commendable if draconian step, one thoroughbreds should examine closely. The nearest comparable situation is the Breeders’ Cup banning any horse and its trainer from competing the following year if a positive is detected after a Breeders’ Cup race.

As with any zero tolerance policy, a flaw in the plan is there is no room for mitigating circumstances. Ron Ellis, known for running a clean barn for more than three decades, has been effectively put out of business as a result of Masochistic coming up positive in the 2016 Breeders’ Cup Sprint.

There was no attempt at deception or cheating on Ellis’s part. He was up front with the stewards about using a legal steroid, which should have passed through Masochistic’s system, and was cleared by the stewards to enter the horse even though there was a microscopic residue still in the horse’s system as the race approached.

The California penalty meted out was dire enough. SRIAI would bar every owner who has horses with Ellis from stakes at tracks signed on to the plan. Under the circumstances, that’s a little much.

Another problem is incidental contamination. Believe it or not there are grooms and hot walkers, who use cocaine and other banned substances. They could touch a horse’s bridle or their hands could come in contact with the horse’s mouth and a positive could result, leaving the trainer, his owners and their horses out in the cold. No one should face the kind of penalties attached to SRAIA in situations such as this.

However, these are bugs that can be worked out over time. In the big picture, SRAIA is one of the most forceful steps ever taken to drive cheaters out of racing. Thoroughbred racing would be wise to take notice.

Written by Tom Jicha

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