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, September 20, 2018

Split Pegasus wiser than keeping ‘world’s richest race’ boast

The Pegasus is no longer the world's richest race. The purse for the Jan. 26 renewal has been cut to $9 million. But the other $7 million has been allocated to a companion turf race. It's a prudent move, especially since horsemen's resistance dictated that there was no way the Pegasus would have been funded at its previous level. Double the number of world class races might make the day an even more attractive event for fans. Insane jackpot bets will reach their nadir that day. Gulfstream will offer a bet challenging fans to pick the exact finish, 1 through 12, of each of those races. It's only a 480 million to one shot. A companion bet will ask bettors to pick the exact order of finish in both races. The odds against that--480,000,000 times 480,000,000--would be laughable if The Stronach Group didn't plan to go ahead with it.

The Stronach Group has allowed common sense to prevail over ego.

TSG announced this week that there will be a Pegasus World Cup in 2019 at Gulfstream. This was a given in racing circles, so much so that owners of some top horses announced it as a prime target.

However, the purse will not be a world record $16 million, as it was last year, or even $12 million, as it was in 2017. Sixteen million dollars will still be at stake on Jan. 26 but divided between the Pegasus World Cup on the main track and a new Pegasus World Cup Turf. The main track stakes will go for $9 million-- down $7 million--with $4 million going to the winner. The Turf will hang up a $7 million pot, $3 million to the winner.

While Gulfstream can no longer boast of hosting the world’s richest race (this distinction goes back to the Dubai World Cup) it can lay claim to being the home of the richest American dirt and grass races.

The first two editions of the Pegasus lured the reigning Horse of the Year. The hope is this will happen again and the Turf will attract the best grass horses in the world. If the latter group comes from Europe, all the better. It would enhance the betting appeal of the race on the continent. A representative from Japan would be a grand slam, since it would open betting there, where tens of millions of dollars are routinely wagered on a single race.

The Pegasus announcement broke the radio silence in effect at Gulfstream. There have been no press conferences nor press releases, unlike the previous two years when the race was trumpeted many months out. Clearly, the Pegasus was not the sure thing many had assumed.

Funding of the stakes was the primary issue. Frank Stronach was able to cajole a dozen people to ante up $1 million eight months out from the inaugural Pegasus. Subscribers were promised shares of TV revenue, which turned out to be zero; advertising, which wound up helping to fund the staging of the race, and other ancillary profits, which were negligible. It turned into a financial bloodbath for most of them. Each starter was guaranteed $350,000 and that is all most received.

Getting owners to ante up $1 million apiece for 2018 became a challenge, an insurmountable one in some cases even though Frank Stronach went into his own pocket for $4 million to ratchet the purse still higher. To fill the starting gate, TSG had to allow some horses in at a cut rate with the stipulation they would be running for a greatly reduced share of the purse. Without a new model for Pegasus 3.0, it probably would have been impossible to get anyone to commit for the full nominating fee.

Aesthetically, the event has been a fabulous success. Celebrity laden crowds packed Gulfstream for both editions. On the track, reigning Horse of the Year California Chrome and superstar of the moment Arrogate headed the first field. Newly named HoY Gun Runner brought star power last year.

Pegasus 3 might be the best yet with twice the number of world class races. Do you think it matters a whit to fans that they will "only" offer $9 million and $7 million?

480 million to one

There is a comical sidelight to the new Pegasus format. TSG also announced it will introduce a new wager, challenging bettors to pick the exact order of finish, 1 through 12, of each race. $5 million is guaranteed to anyone who succeeds in either race. The cost of the wager was not revealed but even at a penny it is over-priced. According to my amateurish calculations the odds on a perfect ticket are just under 480 million-to-one.

It gets even sillier. There also will be a $15 million jackpot for someone who correctly picks the 1-through-12 order of finish in both races. The odds against this are so ridiculously high that the calculator on my computer couldn’t provide the answer without resorting to the kind of symbols you see on “The Big Bang Theory.” Suffice it to say, it is well into the billions.

Stronach 5 over-priced

Not as absurd but still over-priced is the revised Stronach 5 wager, which resumes Friday.

This is a reworking of the discontinued Magna 5, five races at Stronach tracks run within an hour. Laurel will serve as the hub and the rake is a commendable 12 percent. However, the pricing is a problem.

The minimum wager is $1. Gulfstream, Santa Anita, Laurel and Golden Gate, which will host races in the sequence, each have their own Pick 5. All have 50-cents minimums.

The motivation for the increased tariff is obvious. It’s to build a jackpot carryover. When there wasn’t a perfect ticket in the Magna 5, 75 percent of the pool carried over. The entire pool will carry over in the Stronach 5.

The bet will be difficult enough. Few fans have a strong handle on the horses, trainers and jockeys at all four tracks, especially Golden Gate, where the caliber of racing is well below that of the other Stronach tracks. Undoubtedly, the racing secretaries will be encouraged to card their most challenging races in the Stronach 5. Doubling the cost of the Fridays-only bet will discourage massive spreading. Fewer combinations increases the chance of a carryover.

Fridays at the Stronach tracks will be like Sundays at church. You make whatever donation you can afford then forget about it.

Sports horror story

It hasn’t taken long for the legalization of sports betting in New Jersey to produce its first horror story.

This past weekend at the Meadowlands, one bettor, Anthony Price, thought he saw a real opportunity in the in-game betting pool of Denver-Oakland. The Broncos trailed 19-17 into the final minute when they completed a pass deep into Raider territory that set up an easy field goal.

FanDuel, which manages sports gambling at the Meadowlands, inadvertently put up a proposition that listed the Broncos at 175-1 to win the game, which they did. The company, which disingenuously brags in its fantasy football TV ads that bettors can get rich on a small wager, said it meant to make the price minus-600 (1-to-6) on Denver because of its admirable position. It sold Price a ticket that promised $82,610 for his $110 bet. Alas, when he went to the window to collect, he was told he would be paid a net gain of only $18.35, which would have been the payoff at 1-6.

They said they had a glitch in their system so they were not obligated to pay the big money, according to Price.

Clearly this was a mistake on the house’s part. But if they are allowed to get away with this, what would prevent them from saying they made a mistake when they posted an inferior team as the favorite in a game so they are not paying?

FanDuel is suffering many times $81,000 in bad publicity. A single commercial during an NFL game costs many times more than $81,000. The dispute has been reported on almost every sports betting site and countless blogs. Even the Racing Form did a story on it.

It might have been more prudent to just quietly pay off Price then take steps to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

Is anyone surprised Price is getting a lawyer? I like his chances. In Nevada when such things happen, the Gaming Commission always sides with the house. Of course in Nevada, the Gaming Commission and the casinos are tighter than the Kardashians.

However, the rules in New Jersey, which haven’t been around long enough to have all the kinks worked out, say a bet-taker cannot unilaterally rescind a bet without prior approval of the State Gambling Commission. Advantage Price.

I’m not a lawyer. But if I were representing Price, I would open and close my case with one question for FanDuel. “If the Broncos had missed the kick, would you have given Price his $110 back?”

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, September 13, 2018

Monmouth goes from up to down after sports betting arrives

Early indications are that the dollars spent on sports betting at Monmouth Park probably came out of money that might have been bet on horses. Monmouth was up at the halfway point of its meeting but wound up on the downside of the ledger after sports betting took hold. Doing nothing as Jorge Navarro won with almost half his starters, an absurd ratio for even Hall of Famers, also might have been a turnoff to bettors.

Early indicators of new business ventures can be like exit polls on Election Day, not always an accurate forecast of the eventual results. Racing should pray this is the case with sports betting. The early returns are sports betting is going to be a fabulous success—no surprise there—alas, at the expense of racing.

Monmouth was a pioneer in introducing legalized sports betting. At the halfway point of its 52-day meeting on-track handle was up 8%. Total handle was even better, up 10%. By the time the final official of the meeting was posted Sunday, on-track handle was off 6% and overall business was down 2.1%, according to published figures.

What happened in the final month and a half that would cause the negative turnaround? Wet weather, which resulted in about a third of scheduled turf races being moved to the main track, with resulting shorter fields and murky past performances, is being cited as a primary cause and undoubtedly did have an impact.

Arguably, a greater factor occurred in mid-June when sports betting arrived. The transfer of racing dollars to sports betting might not have shown up immediately because it was still a novelty and there was no NFL, NBA or NHL. Baseball is a great sport, my favorite, but not that big a betting sport.

However, king football kicked off in early August and sports betting picked up appreciably. A report in the New York Post on the first day of the NFL regular season said lines at Monmouth’s sports betting windows were 20 deep from early morning to the start of the 1 o’clock games, then picked up again for the late afternoon contests. Twenty-deep lines at race betting windows have become fond memories of a distant past.

Anyone who thinks there is an infinite amount of disposable income for gambling is naĂŻve. You have to wonder how much of that sports money will never see its way to the race windows again.

Legalized sports betting at race tracks is still in its infancy. When the really big racing states get on line (in more ways than one), the war for the gambling dollar is going to get really ferocious. Racing is not the favorite to come out on top.

The Juice Man turnoff

Another possible negative in Monmouth’s decline is the dominance of Jorge Navarro. “The Juice Man” ran away with his sixth straight training championship and racked up his third straight record-setting season.

Navarro outdid himself this summer, winning with 85 of 190 starters, an absurd 45% strike rate. When you consider races in which he had more than one starter, this percentage becomes even more unbelievable.

Why should Navarro stop doing whatever it is he is doing? Monmouth clearly has a “see no evil, hear no evil” attitude toward a situation that defies credulity.

Bettors might not be so voluntarily gullible. Navarro has created a situation where you can’t bet him, because of the short prices on his horses, but it’s foolhardy to bet against him. This finally might be showing up in the handle.

Rain, rain, go away

Atypically wet weather is also being blamed for a slight downtick at Saratoga this summer. Again the culprit seems to be the multitude of races taken off the turf, causing a plethora of scratches.

Allowing “main track only” entries helps somewhat. But there is usually no more than two or three of these in a race.

I’ve offered a close cousin remedy a few times in the past that I feel is a viable alternative. The conditions of all turf races, except stakes, should include the stipulation, “preference to horses entered for turf or dirt.” These horses would not be allowed to scratch in the event of a surface switch.

Grass races, especially at Saratoga, can be tough to draw into. Trainers willing to roll the dice with this condition would be all but guaranteed a spot in the starting gate and the track would be spared four- and five-horse fields in the event of bad weather.

I’ll concede there is a potential downside, trainers who want to race only on turf, avoiding those races. Nevertheless, it’s worth a try. The Aqueduct spring meeting, at a time of year when there is a lot of precipitation, could be a useful Petri dish.

If it works, as I think it would, it could be extended to other meetings. If not, how much would be lost?

Triple Crown grind

The road to the Triple Crown gets under way this Saturday at Churchill Down with the Iroquois Stakes, the first event to offer qualifying points for next spring’s Kentucky Derby.

The recent retirement of 2017 Kentucky Derby winner Always Dreaming is the latest reminder of how taxing an ordeal getting to racing’s most glamorous events can be.

The 2017 Derby was Always Dreaming’s fourth straight win. After the Run for the Roses, he never won again, finishing in the money only twice in five starts as a 3- and 4-year-old.

Cloud Computing, who upset that spring’s Preakness, raced three more times but never hit the board.

Tapwrit, the 2017 Belmont champion, is winless in five subsequent starts. The only time he has hit the board was a third in an allowance race.

It might be convenient to dismiss the 3-year-old class of 2017 as an inferior lot, which it certainly seems to be. But the year before wasn’t much better. Nyquist was zero-for-three after extending his unbeaten streak in the 2016 Derby.

Exaggerator was the over-achiever. He added the Haskell to his Preakness laurels. But he was zero-for-three otherwise.

Creator raced twice, a seventh in the Travers and sixth in the Jim Dandy, after capturing the Belmont.

Throw in Justify, who was retired after sweeping this years Triple Crown, and the past three years, winners of a Triple Crown event have subsequently won only once in 22 starts.

These were ostensibly the best of their generation. This is what the Triple Crown can do to a horse.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, September 06, 2018

More Poor Decisions from California Officials

Once again, California officials, the embarrassment of racing, have allowed justice to be delayed. Then when they finally acted it was essentially denied.

Kent Desormeaux was on a familiar hot seat for his ride aboard Take a Leap in the fourth race on Aug. 25. He eased up yards before the wire and Take a Leap was nailed for the place, a costly faux pas for bettors, who had Desormeaux’s mount in vertical gimmicks.

Given Desormeaux’s penchant for such lazy riding, social media erupted. The Del Mar stewards first tried to ride out the storm, then kicked it down the road to the California Racing Board for action.

When the furor didn’t die down, they finally assessed a three-day suspension to be served during the second tier Los Alamitos meeting. This is primarily vacation time for the big names in the Southern California riding colony. Desormeaux didn’t accept a single mount during the last Los Al session.

So what the Del Mar stewards in effect did was the same as suspending an insolent school kid a three-day suspension from school—during July.

Then they wonder why they are considered a joke.

Thomas on the Right Path with Catholic Boy

Catholic Boy's victories in the Penine Ridge and Belmont Derby on grass and the Travers on the main track have ignited speculation on where he might wind up on Breeders' Cup Day--the Dirt Mile, (Turf) Mile, Turf or Classic.

However, unless there is a change of heart by his connections, Catholic Boy is headed toward the Classic, according to his bright young trainer Jonathan Thomas. The deciding factor is the mile and a quarter distance, which Thomas says hits his horse right between the eyes.

Speculation is rampant about the Breeders’ Cup intentions of one of the most versatile horses in years, Catholic Boy. Only Yoshida, surprise winner of last Saturday’s Woodward, can match Catholic Boy’s boast of Grade 1 victories on dirt and turf.

Catholic Boy’s three straight wins along with a second and fourth in five starts this year makes his resume more compelling. Some have even argued that he still could steal Horse of the Year from Justify, although I’d like to take all their action on that.

Catholic Boy’s performances gives his connections a smorgasbord of options for Breeders’ Cup Day—Dirt Mile, (Turf) Mile, Turf and Classic. However, the decision on where he will be headed was all but made before the Travers. His take-no-prisoners romp sealed the deal.

He’ll be going to the Classic. His sharp young trainer Jonathan Thomas was leaning this way before the Midsummer Derby even though Catholic Boy’s most recent dirt start in the Florida Derby was arguably the poorest performance of his career.

Thomas never lost faith in the son of super turf sire More Than Ready “If he were to be effective on the dirt in the Travers,” he said in a phone interview just prior to the race, “my leaning would be more towards the Classic.”

To say Catholic Boy was effective would be one of racing’s understatements of the year.

However, it isn’t the surface that has Thomas thinking Classic. More than anything, he said, the Classic distance would be the deciding factor. “I think the mile and a quarter at this time in his life hits him right between the eyes.” After the Travers, who could argue?

Each of the colt’s other options carries a downside in Thomas’s estimation. “Facing older horses on the turf and backing up to a mile (on dirt) might be a little bit quick for him. Stretching out to a mile and a half against some of those Euros might not be in his best interests.”

So, while there is still uncertainty about the surface and race Catholic Boy will use as his final prep for Nov. 3, unless something goes amiss, he’ll be lining up against Accelerate, Diversity and maybe Yoshida, among others, on the day.

Viva Gulfstream

If at first you do succeed, why not try it again? Gulfstream has adopted this attitude toward the Clasico del Caribe, which will return to Gulfstream for the second year on Dec. 8.

The inaugural staging of the five-race series for horses from eight Caribbean and Latin American nations was a smash hit. The racing was good but it was the atmosphere throughout the grounds that stole the show. Think international soccer but with four-footed stars. National flags waved, chants and cheers erupted.

Much of the crowd clearly had never been to Gulfstream. The crowd was dotted with families of parents and their kids, all pulling enthusiastically for their home nation’s horses.

The Clasico also gives Gulfstream back-to-back early season special events, following the Classic Crown on the prime season’s first Saturday. The timing could not be better, the waning days of the year when many of the familiar stars of the turf are laying up and stakes are a challenge to fill.

Helping the little guys

NYRA is bringing back the under-20 bonus for trainers at its winter meet. The program, instituted to help trainers who don’t often get stakes horses, awards points to horses from barns with 20 or fewer horses based on their performance in claiming races. The inaugural competition was won by Ed Barker, who pocketed an $18,000 bonus, a windfall for a less than big name trainer.

“It was a great, innovative program, particularly for the smaller trainers at NYRA, like myself, who need help making ends meet,” Barker said. “It helped fill the entry box with some extra starters. It was win-win for us and NYRA.”

Other tracks should take note.

I have a suggestion for a similar promotion. Tracks should offer purse bonuses for any horse, who comes back in 21 days or less. Because it would be performance-based, trainers would not be encouraged to enter unfit horses to qualify for a bonus.

Better yet, they should write races for horses coming back this quickly.

The program would pay for itself, since every extra starter adds X-number of dollars to the handle.

It would also be a display piece for trainers, a demonstration that most horses don’t need a month or more between starts, no matter what the sheets guys say.

Cap? What cap?

NYRA announced a crowd of 49,000-plus for this summer’s Travers Day.

This seems odd since attendance has been supposedly capped at 45,000 since Triple Crown champion American Pharoah appeared at the Spa in 2015. With no superstar this year, NYRA was probably ecstatic to get everyone they could, especially at the inflated admission prices.

As best I can find, there has not been a single complaint or issue raised that the crowd was too big, making the day atypically uncomfortable. Anyone who has ever been to the Midsummer Derby expects to be somewhat uncomfortable.

This bolsters my argument that crowd caps for the Travers and Belmont, when a Triple Crown is on the line, are nothing more than an attempt to get money into the till early by creating an artificial shortage.

Written by Tom Jicha

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