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 Sentinels horse racing writer since 2007 as a staff member, and continues to this day as a free-lancer.

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Thursday, May 23, 2019

Trainers, owners forcing a more spaced out Triple Crown

Racing is steeped in tradition. But this means nothing to modern participants. They are well along toward diminishing the Preakness to irrelevance because they are disinclined to run back in two weeks. In spite of Derby runners taking first and second last Saturday, we are approaching a crisis point where only the winner in Louisville will show up in Baltimore. The only remedy--and I hate racing being coerced into it--is increasing the spacing between the Triple Crown races. Also, Mark Casse feels Tyler Gaffalione should not have had to claim foul in the Derby, that no rider should feel compelled to lodge an objection. If stewards did their job, it wouldn't be necessary.

By Tom Jicha

You would think (and I would hope) the Triple Crown triumphs of American Pharoah and Justify within a three-year span would curtail debate about lengthening the spacing between the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont. Alas, it might be time for traditionalists like myself to stop batting our heads against a wall and accept the new reality of race horse training.

That only four of the 19 Derby starters--theoretically the finest of their generation--chose to contest the Preakness is dismaying. This was the first time in 68 years the Derby’s top three (four with Maximum Security) chose to pass the increasingly luster-challenged second jewel of the Triple Crown.

The usual bumps, bruises and fatigue have been cited by some horsemen but the truth is it’s nothing more than disinclination to run horses back in two weeks. Kissed-in Derby winner Country House contracted a convenient cough. His stable-mate Tacitus, officially third in the Derby, apparently is in fine fettle but was never under consideration to show up in Baltimore. Ditto for Code of Honor, moved up to second in Louisville.

Defrocked Derby winner Maximum Security is supposedly a little sore but it’s difficult to imagine this would have been a problem if he wasn’t taken down on the first Saturday in May. In fact, Gary West said on The Today Show, “There’s no Triple Crown on the line for us and there’s no reason to run a horse back in two weeks when you don’t have to.”

Consider the implications of that. One of the grand sportsmen of the game feels it makes no sense for anyone other than the Kentucky Derby winner to run back in the Preakness under the current logistics.

Bob Baffert sent at least one of his three Derby horses, Improbable, to the Preakness. But it could be argued it wasn’t his best. Eclipse champion Game Winner is being reserved for the Belmont. Maybe.

Todd Pletcher followed his pattern of not running back any of his Derby starters unless they wore the roses.

The fact that the one-two finishers in Baltimore, War of Will and Everfast, were running back in two weeks from the Derby is unlikely to change many minds.

Plaudits to Mark Casse, who still has respect for the sport and its traditions. Even after winding up sixth in the Derby, Casse never wavered in his intention to run War of Will back in the Preakness. Now he is doing the same with the Belmont Stakes.

After taking time to savor War of Will’s triumph Saturday, Casse said, “I would say there’s an extremely good shot he’ll be at the Belmont. There are only three Triple Crown races and they’re pretty important. I think if you can do it, you should do it.”


Although I could gag writing this, it’s probably time to rethink the scheduling of the Triple Crown events before the leaders of the sport make the Preakness and even the Belmont irrelevant.

Riders shouldn’t have to claim foul

Casse moved up several lengths in my estimation even before the Preakness. During an NTRA teleconference previewing the Preakness, he was asked about Tyler Gaffalione not claiming foul in Louisville.

Casse countered he should not have had to, that no rider should have to claim. This is why racing has stewards.

“I’ve had a problem with this for a long time,” Casse said. He used some big names to make his point, emphasizing he was citing these individuals solely because their names are familiar.

“Let’s run a race. We finish fourth. Todd Pletcher wins and Bob Baffert runs second. My rider, who rides for Bob and Todd, has to make a decision. He was bothered by the winner. He can claim foul and have Pletcher moved down to fourth and the best he’s going to do is move up to third. Tomorrow, he’s got to go look at Todd Pletcher and work with him. I think riders are put in a bad predicament when they’re asked to do that. I think sometimes claims of foul are not made for that reason.”

Similarly, Casse scoffed at the practice of stewards interviewing jockeys as they deliberate. “Can you see in the Super Bowl, the wide receiver goes out and the referee says, ‘Was that pass interference?’ And he goes, ‘Well, I think it was. I think he hit me early.’

“Then the referee talks to the safety. ‘What do you think? Did you hit the wide receiver?’ ‘Well, no, of course I didn’t hit him too soon.’”

Yet this is what stewards do every day even though they have multiple camera angles to dissect a race even before the riders pull up their mounts.

Casse’s point is so logical and unassailable it’s astonishing it hasn’t been made before.

In the realm of sports officialdom, a racing steward has to be the least demanding. No physical exertion is required, travel is cross-town, not cross-country, and the hours couldn’t be softer. They really only go to work for two or three minutes every half hour. When called upon to make a decision, they can take their sweet time, as long as 22 minutes as they did in the Derby.

Yet they are maddeningly inconsistent. A foul in one race or at one track isn’t in another. Just as basketball has its Jordan Rules and LeBron Rules, big name riders are allowed to get away with things that get lesser jockeys taken down.

They see no evil and hear no evil when a trainer wins races at a rate double or triple that of the most illustrious members of the Hall of Fame.

It’s no secret a big reason for this is stewards tend to get their jobs as political patronage rewards or because they are ensconced in a good old boy network.

In a case like the Derby, or any other race for that matter, when a rider feels he has to lodge a claim because the stewards have not lit the “inquiry” sign, the stewards are derelict in their duty. If they can’t do their job right, they shouldn’t have it.

But when racing’s ills are discussed, this is never brought up. Why?

© Tom Jicha,, May 23, 2019, All Rights Reserved

Written by Tom Jicha

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