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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Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Two Series Enhance Racing’s TV Profile

Without TV, it's impossible for a sport to be taken seriously by the masses. The Jockey Club Tour on Fox and the new documentary-style series 'Horseplayers' are steps in the right direction even if they are works in progress.

MIAMI, Jan. 22-2014--First impressions might be lasting but they should be open to reconsideration and revision.

When Gulfstream announced it was relocating the Donn Handicap, the premier event of the winter season for older horses, to Sunday, Feb. 9, from its original position the day before in order to help launch a new racing series on the Fox Sports Network, the kneejerk reaction was, here we go again with a sport showing little regard for its fans in order to accommodate television.

Indeed, Gulfstream president Tim Ritvo acknowledges that he has heard from customers, who say they had made travel plans to attend the Donn, then get on a plane for home Sunday.

However, the more I thought about it, the more I came around to the old expression, “You can’t make an omelet without cracking some eggs.”

Baseball and football. with their resources, tradition and vast fan bases, can afford to alienate fans with customers-be-damned schedule changes. Racing isn’t in this position. It has to tread carefully and weigh risk against reward. This is why Gulfstream deserves a pat on the back for shuffling its deck to get the series off to a strong start.

The Donn would have done more for Gulfstream on Saturday than it will on Sunday. Nevertheless, Ritvo said, “We’re hoping the exposure on TV outweighs anything we might lose because of the change.” Oh that more racetrack executives had that attitude.

Sports—all entertainment, or that matter—is driven by star power. The series launch couldn’t ask for more. The Donn has the makings of a hum-dinger. New Eclipse winner Will Take Charge is definitely pointing to the race. The joke last weekend was, getting the race on TV cinched that D. Wayne Lukas would be there.

Revolutionary, third in last year’s Kentucky Derby and a smashing winner of his recent 2014 debut, is also probable. So is River Seven, who set a track record in winning the Haran’s Holiday. Word from the West Coast is Doug O’Neill is planning to ship in Private Zone.

What’s more, Groupie Doll’s people announced last week that she will make one final start in the Hurricane Bertie, which is now on the Donn undercard. Each telecast of the Jockey Club Tour will include at least two big races. The co-feature for the Feb. 9 launch is listed to be the Gulfstream Turf Handicap but rest assured Groupie Doll’s finale will find its way onto the show.

Most of the other telecasts have only the major attraction penciled in right now. The Dubai World Cup is on deck for March 29, followed by the Blue Grass on April 12, the Man O’War May 11, the United Nations July 6, the Eddie Read and Coaching Club American Oaks on July 20, the Saratoga Special (the most curious selection) on Aug. 10, the Sword Dancer on Aug. 17 and the Woodbine Mile on Sept. 14.

A glaring absence is the lack of any races from a Churchill Downs-owned track. (The Kentucky Derby and Oaks have separate TV deals).

'Horseplayers' too busy

“Horseplayers” is harder to find than the winner of a bottom level maiden claimer at Beulah. The new series on the characters who frequent handicapping contests is on the Esquire Network, which used to be called the Style Network. Look up in the hundreds on your cable dial.

The premiere was busier than a groom in the morning, to the detriment of the show. It’s a challenge to every TV pilot to introduce characters, explain relationships and lay the groundwork for what is to come while maintaining a compelling narrative. “Horseplayers” came up short in these areas.

The protagonists are people who have had success or are striving to achieve it in big money handicapping contests. New York based Team Rotondo—Peter Sr., his son Peter Jr. and their pal Lee Davis—dominated opening night. However, other than the fact that they like to play horses and think they are the best around we didn’t get to know them very well. They seem to have some interesting personal stories, not the least of which is how Peter Sr. met and married a 22-year-old. In the show’s defense, this is a series, so maybe that is to come.

Christian Helmers, the West Coast element, is more of a mystery. We found out he’s a young guy with a beautiful girlfriend but little more. It’s said some gamblers have ice water in their veins. Helmers appears to have Freon. He was seen making two huge scores at the 2012 Breeders’ Cup without even cracking a smile. Again, maybe we’ll learn more about him down the road, too.

The fact that the girlfriends of Rotondo and Helmers were the only women given prominent screen time and were treated as accessories won't endear "Horseplayers" to 52% of the population.

The frequent jumps from coast to coast also were jarring. If this is an attempt to bring in viewers who are not avid racing fans, which it obviously is, the documentary-style show could benefit greatly from a narrator to smooth over the many transitions.

A lesson I learned during my three decades as a TV critic is just as you don’t judge a book by its cover, you don’t judge a series by its pilot. I’ll reserve judgment until I get to see a few more episodes. But for now, I fear “Horseplayers” will have a difficult challenge sustaining an audience beyond avid fans of the sport.

Written by Tom Jicha

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