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, October 05, 2017


What about star power drives sports does racing not understand?



The Breeders' Cup is one of the best things to happen in racing. Unfortunately, it has led to many of the sports most tradition laden and richest stakes, such as this Saturday's Jockey Club Gold Cup, to be treated as if they didn't exist. The BC isn't to blame. It's the fault of extremely conservative training methods by some of the sport's biggest names, who act as if they owe the game nothing. But the biggest event of this weekend and the next month is the players' boycott of Keeneland to protest greedy and unnecessary takeout hikes. Follow the lead of Ken Ramsey, an owner and a player: Don't bet a dime on Keeneland.


Star power drives sports and entertainment, both of which apply to racing. Yet many of the game’s biggest stars will not have been seen for two months or more while awaiting the Breeders’ Cup.

It isn’t because race tracks haven’t offered lucrative incentives to get them out of the barn into the entries. Belmont distributed $1,450,000 in stakes money last Saturday. NYRA will give away another $1,850,000 this weekend.

Santa Anita hung out $1,500,000 last Saturday and another $200,000 on Sunday in a series of stakes geared toward corresponding Breeders’ Cup races. Another $400,000 will be distributed this coming weekend.

Keeneland’s Fall Weekend of Stars is offering $3,000,000 between Friday and Sunday.

That’s more than $8,000,000. Yet there was no sign of Arrogate, Collected, Gun Runner, Lady Eli, Stellar Wind, Forever Unbridled, Lady Aurelia, Drefong and other big names even casual racing fans would recognize. A fan who wanted to see them had to get up early for morning workouts.

This is a major contributing factor to why there were oceans of empty seats in Elmont and Arcadia last weekend and likely will be again this weekend. Keeneland is a special case. Fans go there for the place as much as the race. Its limited three-week seasons are the outdoor highlights of the year in Lexington. The next biggest thing is University of Kentucky football. (Please hold your laughter.)

Bob Baffert, Todd Pletcher, Chad Brown and Steve Asmussen, to name just a few of the sport’s big name trainers, have become incredibly rich in racing yet their actions suggest they feel they owe nothing back.

I don’t want to hear they’re doing what’s best for their horses. That’s what comes out of a horse’s rear end. If horses need two or three months off between starts we might as well shut down the game. Of course, they don't. Voodoo Song won four races in six weeks at Saratoga, capped by the Grade 3 Saranac Stakes.

Conservative training methods trace to religious adherence to the sheets and their dubious bounce philosophy. The sheets (I include all of them) are racing’s version of Moneyball. The Oakland A’s were the poster children for Moneyball, a non-traditional way of running a baseball team. You know how many pennants the A’s have won since adopting Moneyball? None.

Moneyball is useful to a point. So are the sheets. They’re the best handicapping tools to come along in years but are no way to manage horses. But this is what’s happening to the detriment of the sport.

There’s a way to combat this. If the big horses are not going to run in the major fall races, cut these events down to size. Top out the prize money at no more than $200,000—and this might be overly generous. You’ll still get the kinds of fields they are drawing now, horses owned and trained by people who are so old fashioned that they still think the purpose of racing is racing.

The Keeneland boycott is on

Ken Ramsey wins Keeneland owners titles as regularly as the Harlem Globetrotters beat the Washington Generals. So he would be a prime beneficiary of purse increases. He also bets with both fists, so any increase in takeout is money out of his pocket.

It was the latter that led him to go on an unsolicited rant on Los Angeles radio this past August over Keeneland’s announcement that it is raising the takeout on straight bets from 16% to 17.50% and the rake on exotics from 19% to 22%.

At quick glance, this might seem like a point and a half increase in the win-place-show pools and three percent in the others. No big deal. But it is a huge deal. In fact, it is almost a 10% jump in the former pools and almost 16% in the latter. This is money taken directly out of players’ pockets.

Ramsey urged bettors to rise up as one voice and resist this example of “corporate greed.” He said players should join him and not bet a dime on the Keeneland meeting, which opens Friday. He said the ones who will be hurt most are “$2 players, the backbone of the racing industry.”

The whales won’t feel a thing because they’ll continue to get their rebates. You might even say the increase on the small players is actually going to help offset the kickbacks to the heavy hitters.

Keeneland says the increased revenue (on the misguided assumption there will be an increase) will be used to increase purses. Ramsey said Keeneland has plenty of money from the enormous revenue generated by its thoroughbred auctions as well as its betting handle.

As I mentioned above, Keeneland is giving away $3,750,000 in stakes this weekend. Does this sound like a track that needs to put its hands into the pockets of its customers to bump up purses even more?

It's more likely the increase is to put Keeneland on a par with Churchill Downs, its new best friend. The two were recently thwarted in a combined bid to open sham harness and quarterhorse meetings designed solely to undermine Kentucky Downs and its low takeout structure.

Moreover, history teaches that the elevated takeout will be counter-productive. When Churchill Downs raised its rates in 2014 to the levels Keeneland is instituting, a bettors’ boycott caused handle to decline 25% outside Derby and Oaks Days. This led to a 20% decrease in purses.

The Keeneland takeout hike has united players like nothing before. HANA (Horseplayers Association of North America) is championing the boycott as are many cyber racing sites, including Horse Race Insider. It could be argued that this is the most important concerted action in racing history, bettors’ red line in the sand. If Keeneland gets away with this increase, other tracks will be emboldened to raise takeouts whenever the whim strikes them.

Keeneland is a tough meeting to pass because of the quality of its racing. You know what they say, “No pain, no gain.”

It is also an easy meet to skip because it’s only three weeks. The stakes-laden cards this weekend are alluring as ever. But there also is an outstanding card at Belmont, so there is an attractive alternative to Keeneland.

If Keeneland takes a huge hit—the ideal would be one so substantial it will cause purses to be cut—that will be noticed, too, by other tracks and maybe another boycott will never be necessary.

Miami, Oct. 5, 2017

Written by Tom Jicha

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