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, July 20, 2017

Your first tip of the Saratoga season

Handicapping books and tout sheets abound at Saratoga. The one that stands out for me is the 'Saratoga Handicapper.' It doesn't attempt to pick winners but gives a player useful information about trainers' historical trends at the Spa, which can be used to come up with not-so-obvious winners and help eliminate heavily played horses who don't fall into a winning pattern. In another matter, it would be great if Songbird's connections give her the opportunity to do the one thing she hasn't done, which other great fillies have, take on the boys and beat them.

It’s horse players’ Christmas Eve. The day before the opening of Saratoga is one of the most joyful, anticipatory occasions of every year, superseded only by opening day itself. Forget sugar plums. Visions of great scores to come dance in players’ heads.

Some of the biggest hits I’ve had at the Spa have come as a result of a Christmas-in-July present I get for myself every year, "The Saratoga Handicapper." The magazine-sized publication put out by Jim Mazur isn’t a tout sheet. It’s an encyclopedia of information, the most useful tool to attack the Saratoga meeting I’ve ever encountered.

The front of the book contains three-year summaries of every trainer who has started a horse at the Spa, not just their overall record but how they fare in various categories: 2-year-olds, maidens, turf, etc.

Personally, I find the negative information to be as useful as the positive. It’s a great handicapping aid to know certain trainers haven’t won a race in three years or are one-for-a-hundred with first time starters. Many times this has helped me to toss horses getting solidly bet.

For example, Mark Henning, a fine trainer, seems to be cursed in upstate New York. Over the past six years, he’s a 6% trainer, 10-for-179, according to the book.

Even more revealing is Tom Albertrani’s past performances with 2-year-old maiden first-time starters. He’s a 9% trainer overall, a number that would jump well into double digits if he wasn’t zero-for-65 with debuting juveniles. Some of these have been well bet because of the classy stock Albertrani gets.

For those who prefer more than cold stats, subsequent pages include full profiles of the top trainers with angles that have been successful for them over the years. Some of the lower profile trainers, who have clicked with price horses at the Spa, have abbreviated bios.

Roy Lerman is a fine example. Lerman, who lives in the upstate area, points for the Spa. He doesn’t hit often. He’s four-for-58 in recent years, but when one of his horses does get home, it makes up for the draughts. His average win payoff is $43, so if you threw a deuce on every horse he sends out, you would have a handsome profit.

Linda Rice has established herself as the queen of the turf sprints. Because of this her horses in this category regularly get over bet. However, her reputation was established a few years when turf sprints were introduced and other barns weren’t as prepared for it as she was. She’s only 5-for-46 the past three years.

Rice is actually more effective in turf routes, where she is 10-for-59.

Mazur, who left a career in real estate to begin publishing handicapping aids, has built his company to more than a dozen covering various tracks and big events such as the Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup. He has been putting out the "Saratoga Handicapper" for more than two decades.

The inspiration, he says, was the "Saratoga Scorecard," a publication he first noticed about 30 years ago when he was just a player. “I thought it was so helpful in handicapping that I decided to try to do something similar at Gulfstream in the winter.”

He didn’t want to rip off its creator, John Angelo, so he asked him if there would be any problem with a Gulfstream edition. “He told me, ‘knock yourself out,’” Mazur said with a laugh. The two became friends and remain so. When Angelo decided he wanted to cut back, Mazur convinced him to become a contributor to his publications. Angelo still contributes to the trainer profiles, Mazur said.

The books are especially useful for relatively contained meets, such as Gulfstream and Saratoga, because trainers from several venues show up each year and many seem to have the same methodology. Mazur points out in the profiles how some like to crack right out of the box at the start of the meeting while others prefer to give their horses a race over the track.

A tip he offers for the first few days of the Spa season is to be wary of horses coming off big efforts at Belmont. New York players get overly enthused about New York form, Mazur said. A more profitable angle would be to watch out for horses with decent credentials shipping in from lesser circuits.

But not every circuit, Mazur said. Not surprisingly, Finger Lakes shippers have a dreadful record at Saratoga. Horses coming up from Delaware used to fare poorly against the stronger Saratoga competition but with top trainers such as Graham Motion using the Fair Hills training center as their base, horses often have one in Wilmington, then come to Saratoga to get the money.

Over the years, Canadian shippers also have produced positive results, according to Mazur. The beauty of this, he said, is out-of-town horses often carry Beyers that don’t seem to measure up to the New Yorkers.

I’m not in the endorsement business and Mazur isn’t an advertiser on Horse Race Insider. This is merely one horse player telling others about a publication that has helped him find Saratoga winners over the years. I spend a week or two every summer in Las Vegas for an orgy of betting horses. I've come to know several regulars and the first question they ask when they see me is, "Did you bring the book?" There's no better testimonial than that.

Songbird's final challenge

Super filly Songbird hasn’t been as dazzling in her first two starts this season as she was as a juvenile and 3-year-old. Perhaps, as John Pricci speculated, her gut-wrenching Breeders’ Cup Distaff effort against Beholder emptied her tank.

Her next start reportedly will be in the Clement Hirsch at Del Mar or Personal Ensign at Saratoga. Both are no-win scenarios. Songbird has done all anyone can ask against her own gender. If she wins, she’s supposed to. If not, her luster is tarnished. Besides, she has the Breeders’ Cup Distaff to ratify her gender superiority.

If Songbird is to be considered among the great distaffers of recent years, she must do the one thing she hasn’t attempted: take on the boys and beat them. Rachel Alexandra did it three times, including in the Preakness as a 3-year-old. Zenyatta did it. Havre de Grace did it. Personal Ensign did it. Lady’s Secret did it. Until Songbird does it, she cannot be in a conversation with those greats.

The Woodward Stakes on Sept. 2 is a prime opportunity. Gun Runner is targeting next weekend’s Whitney and might not run back that quickly with the Breeders’ Cup his ultimate goal. Beyond him there isn’t much. Connect is gone. Shaman Ghost showed his vulnerability when he couldn’t hold off Keen Ice.

The Woodward might be Songbird’s last best chance to show she is better than merely the standout of her gender. Her connections owe her the opportunity.

Miami, July 20, 2017

Written by Tom Jicha

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