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 03, 2019


Traffic is thick early on the road to Louisville



One of last year's few Grade 1 winning juveniles, Mind Control, has already launched his Derby campaign with a smart win in the Jerome. Other highly regarded newly turned 3-year-olds make their debuts Saturday on both coasts. Code of Honor, runner-up in the Champagne, gets back into action in the Mucho Macho Man at Gulfstream. Out West, Bob Baffert's highly touted debut winner Coliseum moves into stakes company in the Sham.


The new year is charging out of the gate like a quarterhorse. The coin hadn’t been flipped at the Rose Bowl when this year’s Kentucky Derby generation had its first graded winner of 2019, Mind Control, already a Grade 1 winner, ran away with the Jerome as if he will be the terror of New York this winter.

Saturday two of the colts I have among my Top Five Derby contenders, Code of Honor in the East and Coliseum in the West, make their 2019 debuts. (The others in my Top Five are the obvious: Game Winner, Improbable and Maximus Mischief.)

Code of Honor tops a field of six in Gulfstream’s Mucho Macho Man. Coliseum makes his long awaited encore performance in the Sham at Santa Anita.

Mind Control, coming off a dismal showing at the Breeders’ Cup, looked in the Jerome more like the horse who fought off all challengers in the Hopeful last summer. Under a characteristic masterfully rated ride by Johnny Velazquez, Mind Control dueled on the pace with Souper Jackpot, put that one away on the turn then, given his cue by Johnny V., spurted away just when it seemed the rest of the field was poised to swallow the leaders.

The son of Stay Thirsty immediately became one of the more accomplished Hopeful winners of recent years. The juvenile headliner at the Spa hasn’t been a precursor to Triple Crown success in a long while. However, the style with which Mind Control drew off in the one-turn mile suggests the relatively minor extensions in distance on the Derby trail won’t be an issue. We won’t know about a mile and a quarter with any of them for another four months.

Mind Control has a head start on most of his generation thanks to the 10 Derby qualifying points that accompanied the purse. However, if it came down to this reward being the difference when the field is drawn in Louisville and I owned a horse edged out by him, I would throw the red challenge flag.

By Churchill Downs standards, Derby qualifying points are not supposed to be attached to any race around only one turn. I have a hunch the Jerome put one over on the Derby folks because it has been run around two turns on Aqueduct’s inner track, which no longer exists. We might not have heard the last of this story.

Mind Control’s victory also had to be encouraging to NYRA and anyone who has an eye on the Wood Memorial. In a bid to regain its Grade 1 status with a better credentialed field, NYRA reinstated a $250,000 bonus, which would raise the purse to $1 million, if there is a Grade 1 winner in the starting gate.

However, this has limited application since there are only five of those: Bob Baffert’s Game Winner (BC Juvenile and American Pharoah) and Improbable (Cash Call Futurity), Complexity (Champagne); Knicks Go (Breeders Futurity) and Mind Control. The connections of the latter gave indication of their intentions to follow the New York road to Kentucky, mentioning the Withers next month as Mind Control’s next start.

(An interesting question: does the Grade 1 winner condition apply to turf races? This would open the bonus to a few more.)

Getting back to the two-turn situation for Derby qualifying points, the Mucho Macho Man (nee Gulfstream Derby) has been denied this bonus due to the fact that it is a one-turn mile. My feeling is, let the Jerome keep its points but give the MMM the same consideration. It’s a better race than some of the early two turn Derby trail events.

Shug McGaughey’s Code of Honor has been highly regarded since winning his debut at Saratoga. Any time the uber patient Shug wins with a firster, you have to assume it’s a really talented horse. Code of Honor followed with a fast closing last-to-second after a tardy break in the Champagne. He would have been no worse than third choice at the Breeders’ Cup, perhaps even the second choice, if he hadn’t been forced out of the race by a cough.

Plan B also went awry. Shug ticketed Code of Honor for the Remsen the first weekend in December but when Johnny V. told him the colt wasn’t working as well as he had for the BC Juvenile, Shug put him away for the year, with the MMM his first target as a 3 year-old.

The price won’t be much but it will be a shock if Code of Honor can’t handle his five rivals, whose major credentials have come against lesser in Florida.

Coliseum will likely be an even shorter price in the Sham. As loaded as the Baffert barn is, Coliseum has been touted as the one of the ones since even before his debut in November. He was slammed down to 1-to-2 for his seven-furlong maiden-breaker and made the price look like a bargain, crushing his foes with ease by almost seven lengths.

Off that alone, he was hit hard in the Derby futures bet, closing at 10-1, tied for the second lowest individual price behind BC Juvenile champion Game Winner. Undefeated stakes winner Improbable closed at 18-1.

Coliseum won’t have an easy task in the one-mile Sham. Among others, he’ll be tested by Baffert stablemate Much Better, moving back to dirt, where he broke maiden, after a couple of turf tries, which included a second in a minor stakes. With his herd of impressive maiden winners, Baffert will be doubling up in many 3-year-old stakes this winter. Horse players know the perils of overlooking “the other Baffert.”

Jerry Hollendorfer, who does almost nothing wrong, has another Sham contender with a world of promise in Gunmetal Gray. Stretched to a mile for his second start last summer, he broke maiden as if distance will not be a problem. Then he ran second to Game Winner in the American Pharoah. He beat more than beat him while fifth in the BC Juvenile. So no matter what happens in the Sham, this is not a horse you want to go to sleep on as the distances get longer.

It’s still a long way to the first Saturday in May but I’ll remind you for the first (but not last) time this year that while the Derby has no official “win and you’re in” races, there is an unofficial lose and you’re out. The last seven Derby winners have all entered the Churchill Downs starting gate undefeated as 3-year-olds.


Written by Tom Jicha

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