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 22, 2018

There could be something magic about the number 136

Maryland-Baltimore County made March Madness history last week when it upset Virginia, the first 16th seed to beat a No. 1 in 136 tries. Coincidentally, two extraordinarily talented and undefeated colts, Magnum Moon and Justify, seem poised to conquer the Curse of Apollo, which has endured for 136 years. More immediately, Saturday's first final phase Kentucky Derby qualifier, the Louisiana Derby, is more likely to produce a couple of Derby starters than the winner.

There could be something magic about the number 136 this year. Maryland-Baltimore County was the 136th No. 16 seed to attempt to take down a No. 1 seed last week. In crushing Virginia, M-BC not only knee-capped the No. 1 seed in its bracket but the top rated team in the nation.

Coincidentally, it has been 136 years since Apollo became the last horse to win the Kentucky Derby without racing as a 2-year-old. This year there are two 3-year-olds sitting on busting that jinx. All eyes this winter have been on Bob Baffert’s brilliant Justify, two-for-two and heading for the Arkansas Derby on April 14. Todd Pletcher’s Magnum Moon one-upped Justify Saturday, rolling to a decisive score in the Rebel Stakes to run his record to 3-for-3.

In his immediate wake was Solomini, second in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile to Good Magic, ahead of Bolt d’Oro, and first under the wire in the Los Alamitos Futurity. So Magnum Moon’s first stakes win was genuine.

The 50 Kentucky Derby points from the Rebel guarantees Magnum Moon a berth in the Kentucky Derby starting gate. It will be interesting to see if the ultra conservative Pletcher sends him back to Hot Springs for a potentially gut-busting showdown against Justify in the Arkansas Derby on April 14, just three weeks in advance of the big one at Churchill Downs.

The quick turnaround to Louisville is not Pletcher’s M.O. but Derby fever forces many trainers out of their comfort zone. Pletcher is not a stranger to the centerpiece of the Racing Festival of the South. He won it back-to-back in 2013-14 and ran second in 2010 with Super Saver, before he became Pletcher’s first Kentucky Derby winner.

If Pletcher feels he doesn’t want to go seven weeks from the Rebel to the Derby, there is another less challenging option, the Lexington Stakes at Keeneland on the same day as the Arkansas Derby. It’s only 20 points to the winner but this is no longer a concern for Magnum Moon and eliminates a plane trip. Keeneland is a short van ride from Churchill Downs.

Maybe the question should be whether Baffert will stick to his guns and send Justify to Arkansas when he has to finish no worse than second to clinch his Derby berth. Moreover, there is no guarantee the 40 points for the place will be enough, especially if horses from Europe, Japan and Dubai claim the spots set aside for them. This would reduce the American allotment to 17.

Right now there are seven horses with 40 or more points, three more with at least 30 and another three in the 20s. Even a third in the final round of six major Derby preps, which award 100-40-20-10 to the first four finishers would put them over the 40-point bar, generally considered to be the point of separation.

Odds are some of those atop the leader board will take down the bulk of the points in the final major preps. Also, there is bound to be the usual attrition in the final month. But, as they say, there are no sure things in racing.

Intentions could matter

Saturday’s Louisiana Derby, the first of the final round ofpreps is more likely to generate two, maybe three Derby starters, than it is to produce the winner of the Run for the Roses.

None of the 10 entrants are among HRI’s weekly Top 10 of 3-year-olds and only Bravazo cracked the NTRA’s weekly 3-year-old poll, squeaking in at No. 10. However, as many as three others—Snapper Sinclair (22 points), My Boy Jack (12) and Noble Indy (10)--could crash the 40 point party with a big effort.

So intentions have to included in handicapping considerations. The million-dollar purse is enticing but you have to wonder if D. Wayne Lukas wants Gary Stevens to empty Bravazo’s tank if that becomes necessary to win. This is especially true when you consider Bravazo could be a short price. Then again, Lukas craves the spotlight in big races and Stevens is a fierce competitor. Use your own judgment.

The track line-maker has made My Boy Jack the lukewarm 5-2 favorite, a price both he and Bravazo could be under. This is based almost solely on My Boy Jack’s more than four-length win in the Southwest at Oaklawn. But he got a golden rail trip on a day when that was the place to be. The fact that My Boy Jack was a non-competitive seven lengths in arrears of McKinzie in the Sham bolsters the feeling that the Louisiana Derby isn’t going to produce any sleepless nights for the connections of the more highly regarded Derby winners.

If you like Bravazo, you have to like Snapper Sinclair, who lost a bob of their heads in the Risen Star. But Snapper Sinclair didn’t appear to be a horse who wants more than a mile and a sixteenth and this is a mile and an eighth.

Of the others, the only one worth more than a dreamer’s chance is Noble Indy, primarily because of the Pletcher factor. Even though Bravazo and Snapper Sinclair were ripping off each other’s faces down the long Fair Grounds stretch, Noble Indy made no impact on them while running third. Pletcher is adding blinkers an effort to close the gap.

NYRA innovates

The bane of racing is the increasingly fewer starts made by horses. This is directly related to the decreasing foal crops. There is nothing more discouraging for an owner than paying the bills for a horse that runs every five or six weeks. Fewer owners leads to fewer horses being bred.

NYRA has devised a couple of innovative programs to deal with this. Starting April 2, horses can start working toward bonus awards based on the number of starts made at a NYRA track within a calendar year. Horses, who make at least five or six starts, will get an extra 5% added to their earnings. Seven to nine starts kicks up earnings by 7 ½%. Ten or 11 starts is worth an extra 12 1/2% and 12 or more starts—as if-- boosts earnings by 15%.

Maiden races count as starts but do not earn purse bonuses. Race credits travel with horses who are sold, claimed or otherwise change hands. Among other things, this could lead to more horses being left in New York for winter racing.

This is unlikely to influence Pletcher or Brown to start horses more often but it is an incentive for lesser barns, which scuffle to make ends meet. They are the ones who make the everyday cards go.

Lesser barns are also the intended beneficiaries of the “Under 20s Claiming Challenge” during the Belmont spring/summer meet. NYRA has put up $80,000 to be distributed to trainers with 20 or fewer horses based on the performances of their horses in claiming races for winners.

Points for dirt races will be distributed on a 6-5-4-3-2 basis. Turf races are worth one fewer point for each corresponding finish.

To avoid the abuse of horses or even the appearance of it, a horse can earn points only twice within a 30-day period.

The trainer at the top of the standings when the horses leave for Saratoga will win $18,000 with lesser prizes down to $3,000 for eighth place.

Anything that gets horses out of the barn and into the starting gate has my whole-hearted endorsement.

Written by Tom Jicha

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