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, November 16, 2017

There’s a universal lesson to be learned from BC Betting Challenge manipulation

The winner of the $300,000 first prize in the Breeders' Cup Betting Challenge made his score by violating the spirit, if not the letter of the rules. He was willing to endure a slap on the wrist punishment to gain the advantage that put him over the top. The same things happen often on the racetrack. Trainers and jockeys are willing to take an edge because the penalties when caught are so lenient they provide no real deterrent.

I find it ironically amusing that professional bettors, who scream loudest when they suspect a trainer is taking an edge, have found a way to subvert the spirit, if not the letter of the law of a big money handicapping tournament.

As of this writing, Breeders’ Cup has not released the prize money from the Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge while questionable tactics are being investigated.

Long story short, Nisan Gabbay, the winner of the million dollar event, was willing to flaunt the rules because with a windfall on the line the penalty wasn’t sufficiently discouraging. Contestants in the live money event were supposed to bet at least $600 of their $7,500 starting bankroll on five races on Friday and $900 on five races Saturday.

The penalty for not doing this was a 1,000 points per race deduction on Day One and 2,000 points on Day Two. Gabbay didn’t bet at all Friday and stayed inactive until the final three races Saturday.

The loophole in the rules was the penalty points were subtracted from the final score but a comparable amount was not subtracted from the available live bankroll. So Gabbay was able to preserve his whole cache until late Saturday, when he could judge what he needed to do to win.

Reportedly, he took home the $300,000 first prize with a $4,000 win bet on 14-1 Talismanic in the Turf and used the proceeds to make huge exacta bets on the Classic, including a $15,000 punch on Gun Runner-Collected, which put him over the top.

If he had $5,000 subtracted from his $7,500 buy-in for Friday’s abstinence and $4,000 more for sitting out most of Saturday, he wouldn’t have had the funds to do this.

There’s a lesson to be learned, which should spill over into all of racing. Trainers are willing to take a shot at juicing a horse because if they are caught, the penalties are generally not severe enough to outweigh the major scores to be made at the windows.

Remember Jorge “The Juice Man” Navarro and company gloating in front of a TV screen at Monmouth. His penalty was a $10,000 fine, possibly (probably?) less than he would have made betting.

Likewise, jockeys can herd or shut off opponents because if the stewards come down on them, the suspensions are laughable. They can appeal until they feel like serving the days, often during low spots in the season or the holidays. These aren’t penalties, they are vacations.

Racetrack justice has to be made swift and severe. They have to hurt and succeeding offenses should result in graduated punishment. Appeals should come with an expensive price, the same as regular citizens face when they go to court to contest a ticket.

What is now a 30-day suspension for trainers should start at 90 days with 60 forgiven if there is no appeal. The penalties should double, then triple for subsequent offenses within a year. Five-day suspensions for riders should start at 30 days with 25 forgiven if there is no appeal.

Unless and until this is done, there are no disincentives to take edges.

BC ratings an also ran

The Breeders’ Cup was an aesthetic triumph. On TV, it was another story.

The ratings were a Grade 1 bummer. The prime-time hour on NBC when the Classic was run was the lowest rated hour all night. An estimated 2,150,000 were tuned in.

This was not just the low point on NBC. It was the lowest rated hour on any broadcast network.

A repeat of an old “Dateline,” which immediately followed the Breeders’ Cup, drew an average audience of 3,180,000. An hour of old clips from “Saturday Night Live” at 10 p.m. pulled in an average of 2,970,000.

The under-performance of the Breeders’ Cup telecast plunged NBC into last place for the night in total viewers. More importantly, it also dropped NBC into the broadcast network cellar in the 18-49 demographic, the currency for ad sales. The Breeders’ Cup had an 0.3 rating and 1 share. The two rerun hours that followed doubled that with 0.6/2 apiece.

The afternoon Breeders’ Cup on the NBC Sports cable network was another downer. It didn’t crack the Top 25. To put this into perspective, one of the shows tied for No. 25, “Justice League Action” had 627,000 viewers—at 7 in the morning on the Cartoon Network.

If there is a glimmer of light, it can safely be said that the ratings were depressed by the fact hundreds of thousands, if not more potential viewers were at race tracks and OTB outlets watching and betting the races.

Gulfstream shut out again

Some say there is no such thing as a coincidence. But coincidence seems to be a plausible explanation for something happening for the second straight year at Gulfstream.

The Eclipse Awards will be presented at Gulfstream for the seventh straight year in the heart of what is dubbed the Championship Meeting. But the Breeders’ Cup results sealed the reality that not one of the divisional champions will have raced in South Florida during the 2016-17 December-April prime season. The same thing happened last year.

It seems inexplicable that with all the outstanding thoroughbreds, who launch their campaigns at Gulfstream, not one has gone on to earn an Eclipse statue for the past two years.

Horse of the Year California Chrome made his final start there in last January’s Pegasus, a showdown with then 3-year-old champion Arrogate. But Chrome was retired and Arrogate threw in the towel himself after big wins in the Pegasus and Dubai World Cup. These won’t be enough in light of what Gun Runner has done since.

The shutout could have been avoided except for the quarantine at the Fair Grounds last winter. The connections of Gun Runner, certain to be a double Eclipse winner (Horse of the Year and Older Dirt Horse), tried to extricate him from New Orleans to run in the Pegasus. Gulfstream, exercising extreme caution, made this difficult to impossible.

Gun Runner is expected to make the second Pegasus in January. Surefire older female champion Forever Unbridled is also being pointed for the world’s richest race.

Always Dreaming became the second Kentucky Derby winner in a row to come out of the Florida Derby. Like Arrogate, his major achievements ended in the spring.

Nevertheless, Always Dreaming is the only horse with even a remote chance of breaking the Gulfstream Eclipse Award drought. With “what have you done for me lately?” a significant factor, it’s almost certain West Coast will be voted 3-year-old champion.

I have no problem with that. But I am puzzled by some of those comparing credentials. West Coast’s Travers and Pennsylvania Derby triumphs are being put on an equal plain with Always Dreaming’s Florida Derby and Kentucky Derby, because they are all Grade 1’s. I’ll concede the Gulfstream and Parx races are comparable but there’s no way the Travers-- or any other race--is the equivalent of the Kentucky Derby.

One is the Midsummer Derby, the other is The Derby. The first question asked of owners, trainers and jockeys is not, “Have you ever won the Travers?”

The difference between the two contenders is West Coast’s solid third behind the best older horses in America in the BC Classic. It’s a slim difference but slim differences are decisive in racing every day.

Written by Tom Jicha

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