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, March 15, 2018

Cal stewards take forever to make the wrong call

Stewards are paid to make decisions. It shouldn't take 20 minutes to scrutinize video and make a call, as it did in the San Felipe. What did they see in minute 19 that they didn't see in minute 12 or minute 7? The mere fact that it took so long is argument enough that what happened on the race track should have been left "as is." This is merely the most recent embarrassment to come out a Southern California stewards stand. Something has to be done and it shouldn't take 20 minutes to do it. They have to go.

If Santa Anita’s stewards are fired--as they should have been a long time ago--there is a natural landing spot for them. They could go to work for Robert Mueller, the only man in America procrastinating longer before making a decision.

This is not a political statement. I don’t have the facts the special counsel does. However, isn’t it time he do something one way or the other?

I and everyone else who watched the San Felipe does have all that is necessary to make a call on the disqualification of McKinzie. It was a horrible call, especially given the significance of the race. There was minimal contact in the final strides. Neither horse was knocked off stride. Both riders continued to go all out. There was more substantial contact initiated by Bolt d’Oro at the head of the stretch, which mitigated anything that occurred in the closing yards.

The fact that the stewards took 20 minutes is all that is necessary to amplify that this was too close to call, which should have led to a no call.

I have long argued that unless there is what the NFL calls clear and incontrovertible evidence, no action should be taken. This was the case in the San Felipe. If there was clear and incontrovertible evidence, the stewards could have come to a decision in a minute or three. You look at the pan once or twice, you check the head-on a couple of times and if you don’t see indisputable evidence a horse has been wronged, what happened on the track should stand “as is.”

Fortunately, the San Felipe, as important as it was, was merely a stepping stone toward Kentucky. Bolt d’Oro and McKinzie could meet again in the Santa Anita Derby, although a justifiably miffed Baffert said the DQ might lead to him going out of town with McKinzie.

Although it was said in the heat of the moment, this seems more than a little disingenuous. Baffert is based at Santa Anita. Is he going to declare a jihad against the track and take the whole operation elsewhere. Of course not. One horse is not a statement.

But in the case of McKinzie, it makes sense to avoid another gut-busting showdown with what is now the No. 1 ranked colt in the land. A second race like the San Felipe could drain the tanks of both of them before they get to the most important race of their lives. There is not another prep anywhere in which McKinzie would not be an odds-on favorite.

Moreover, Baffert has to find a final prep for Justify, who dazzled again in his entry level allowance tour de force Sunday. But he still has zero Derby points. This means the latest challenger to the curse of Apollo has to finish no worse than second wherever he goes.

Under the circumstances, it might seem foolhardy to stay home and take on the top colt in the land in the Santa Anita Derby. But Baffert still doesn’t fully know what he really has and he has one last chance to find out. If Bolt d’Oro is too much for Justify on April 7, he probably will be too much for him on May 5.

If Justify can’t finish at least second in what doesn’t figure to be a star-studded field beyond Bolt d’Oro, he doesn’t belong in Louisville.

Baffert still would have McKinzie and probably Solomini, who will be heavily favored in the Rebel on Saturday. This affords the trainer the opportunity to regroup with Justify and take the late summer Arrogate-West Coast route the rest of the year.

Elsewhere, the Kentucky Jockey Club looks more and more like the key race of 2017. Quip in the Tampa Bay Derby and Enticed in the Gotham became the fourth and fifth horses to come out of that race and win a Derby prep, following Bravazo in the Risen Star, Promises Fulfilled in the Fountain of Youth and Reride in a couple of stakes wins at Delta Downs and Sunland Park.

This doesn’t mean any of them are ready to topple Bolt d’Or, Mckinzie, Solomini and possibly Justify at Churchill Downs. But there are other big 3-year-old races the rest of the year where anyone coming out of the late season Churchill Downs stakes has to be given extra consideration.

Big Cap is dying

The Santa Anita Handicap has to move.

It’s really sad that what was long one of the most prestigious non-Triple Crown related stakes in racing has been relegated to almost obscurity. Once Santa Anita was packed with 50,000-plus fans for the Big Cap. Saturday, an embarrassing 17,377 fans showed up and it’s not unfair to speculate most braved rain for the Bolt d’Oro-McKinzie showdown in the San Felipe.

There are probably some who don’t even realize the Big Cap was run Saturday. I’ll bet almost everyone, who even casually follows racing, knows what happened in the San Felipe, which was supposed to be an undercard race to the Big Cap.

It has become a nationwide reality that during the winter the best older horses have gone to stud after the Pegasus (Gun Runner), are preparing for the Dubai World Cup (West Coast) or are still prepping for the major summer and fall races (all three Triple Crown winners from last year).

The Big Cap has too major a historical place in racing to be allowed to fade into relative obscurity. It can’t compete with the purses of the Pegasus and World Cup, so continuing to schedule it in March is a fool’s errand.

How about moving it to the Saturday before the Kentucky Derby? There are no other major races anywhere, so there is a void begging to be filled. It is for older horses, so it wouldn’t be competing with the Derby. The Met Mile would still be six weeks off, so you might even grab some hotshots from the East. Surround it with rich sprints and grass stakes for each gender and you would have a big day that would grab the attention of fans everywhere.

This probably would detract somewhat from the Derby’s supporting stakes but what makes the Alysheba and Woodford Reserve sacred cows? Besides, the Oaks and Derby don’t need any support. Also, there’s no love lost between The Stronach Group and Churchill Downs.

Another possibility would be the June slot where the old Hollywood Gold Cup has been repositioned.

No matter what, the Big Cap can’t be left to die where it is.

Miami, March 15, 2018

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, March 08, 2018

Tampa Bay Derby has moved way up among the Derby preps

The Tampa Bay Derby doesn't get the media attention of longer established Kentucky Derby preps but its status has been elevated in recent years by the performance of its winners. Two eventual Derby winners have come out of Oldsmar since 2007 and four of the five past Tampa Bay Derby winners have gone on to take Grade 1 stakes later in their career. The exception, Destin, missed by a nose in the Belmont. So it would be foolhardy to downgrade the result of Saturday's renewal. On a sad note, the death of John Brunetti last week probably ends any hope that Hialeah will ever come back as a thoroughbred track.

Sometimes when you are doing research you find something surprising. Perusing recent history, I was amazed at the impact the Tampa Bay Derby, which will be renewed Saturday, has had on important racing in recent years.

Florida’s other Derby has produced a couple of Kentucky Derby winners since 2007. Street Sense became the first Tampa Bay Derby winner to double in Louisville in 2007. Three years later, Super Saver ran third in Tampa before wearing the roses at Churchill Downs.

This might not seem like a big deal until you compare it to a couple of other much more heralded Derby preps—the Wood Memorial and Blue Grass Stakes. Much has been made of the Wood and Blue Grass being downgraded from Grade 1 to Grade 2 but when you put their results against those of the Tampa Bay Derby, now also a Grade 2, they have nothing to complain about.

Since 2007, the Wood and Blue Grass winners have combined to produce a total of zero Derby triumphs. To be fair, Street Sense did run second at Keeneland after winning at Oldsmar. The last time the Wood produced a Derby winner was in 2003 when Funny Cide, who ran second in New York behind Empire Maker, turned the tables on the first Saturday in May.

The favorable comparisons don’t end with the Kentucky Derby. Every winner of the Tampa Bay Derby over the past five years has gone on to win at least one Grade 1, with the exception of Destin, who took the Marathon at last fall’s Breeders’ Cup and missed by a nose in the 2016 Belmont Stakes. Last year’s Tampa Bay Derby winner, Tapwrit, went him one better, triumphing in the Belmont.

Carpe Diem, who won at Tampa in 2015, encored in the Blue Grass when it was still a Grade 1. Verrazano in 2013 took the Wood, also when it was still a Grade 1, and later captured the Grade 1 Haskell. Ring Weekend went on to be a grass star, taking the Grade 1 Kilroe Mile among many stakes victories.

This year could bring more of the same. Though the centerpiece of the Oldsmar meeting doesn’t have the marquee names of Saturday’s other major Derby preps, the San Felipe and Gotham, the field is heavy with 3-year-olds with big-time potential.

Flameaway, a gutsy wire-to-wire winner of the Sam F. Davis, will try to go back to back and won’t have highly regarded Catholic Boy, who is heading to the Florida Derby, to beat this time. But he isn’t getting a layup. He could be in for a World of Trouble if he tries to make the front again.

Trainer Jason Servis decided to enter speedball sprinter World of Trouble, who won the seven furlong Pasco stakes by 13 ¾ lengths in near track record time. Servis has no illusions that he has a Kentucky Derby horse, but a mile and a sixteenth could be within World of Trouble’s range.

Vino Rosso could be a big beneficiary if there is a break-neck pace. He was third in the Davis in a deceptively strong effort, which saw him re-rallying late to close fast on the top two. He will try to give Todd Pletcher his fifth win in six years in the TB Derby.

Tiz Mischief, third in the Holy Bull, will start for the loaded Dale Romans, who won the Fountain of Youth with Promises Fulfilled and also will send out Free Drop Billy in the Gotham.

The Kentucky Jockey Club didn’t look like much of a race when Tiz Mischief and Enticed trailed Audible and Free Drop Billy home in the Holy Bull. It’s looking a lot better after Promises Fulfilled became the third horse to come out of the late 2017 stakes and win. It could look really good if Tiz Mischief comes up big at Tampa and Enticed, who is expected to run in New York, makes his presence felt in the Gotham.

A live sleeper is Untamed Domain, who will make his long anticipated dirt debut for Graham Motion, who won the 2011 Kentucky Derby with Animal Kingdom. Like Animal Kingdom, Untamed Domain made his 3-year-old debut in a turf race at Gulfstream.

All three Derby preps have terrific supporting cards but it's revealing a bevy of big name jockeys have chose to ride at Oldsmar—Irad and Jose Ortiz, Johnny Velazquez, Joel Rosario, Jose Lezcano, Julien Leparoux and Florent Geroux. It should be quite a day.

West Coast showdown

The San Felipe, with its showdown between Bolt d’Oro and McKinzie, will deservedly get top billing nationally, especially after Good Magic’s disappointing effort in the Fountain of Youth. I’ve always felt Bolt d’Oro was a superior horse, who had a difficult trip in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. I reluctantly gave my Eclipse vote to Good Magic out of respect for the result of their only meeting, excuses notwithstanding.

No disrespect to McKinzie but I expect my instincts to be ratified Saturday. McKinzie is technically undefeated thanks to being put up in the Los Alamitos Derby. However, he was three horses across the track with Solomini and Instilled Regard and I have a hard time believing all three of them are the equal of Bolt d’Oro.

Gotham no easy spot

If the snow goes away in New York, Romans will be hoping to cash an ambitious double with Free Drop Billy. He scratched the likely second choice out of the Fountain of Youth to steer him toward the Gotham then got the money anyway with Promises Fulfilled.

Romans said afterward he wanted to give Free Drop Billy an easier race leading into the final round of preps. If horses could read, this would be bulletin board fodder for Firenze Fire, who looms Billy’s biggest obstacle.

Romans also might have had an eye on NYRA’s decision to kick up the Wood Memorial purse from $750K to $1 million if there is a Grade 1 winner in the field. Billy qualifies as the winner of the Breeders’ Futurity. If he can beat Firenze Fire in the Gotham, there is little reason to believe he couldn’t do it again in the Wood. Discounting the value of Firenze Fire’s races over the new Aqueduct track, I put more stock in Billy’s second to Audible at Gulfstream.

Enticed, who is cross-entered in the Tampa Bay Derby (snow insurance?), also appears to be looking for a less challenging path to Kentucky. I’m not convinced he’s good enough right now to take down two Grade 1 winners.

With Audible, Promises Fulfilled and Catholic Boy headed toward what should be a terrific Florida Derby, Good Magic ticketed for the Blue Grass and Avery Island looking to the Louisiana Derby, Firenze Fire might be the only one in the way of another lucrative Dale Romans parlay in New York.

RIP John Brunetti and Hialeah

John Brunetti Sr., who died last Friday. was an enigma. He could be cantankerous and unreasonable one moment and ultimately charming the next.

He saved Hialeah in 1977, stepping up to buy the track when the only other bidder was the Donn Family, whose plan was to close the “world’s most beautiful race track” and move the dates to their Gulfstream Park. Then he spent the next two decades alienating horsemen and fans, treating both as nuisances.

He was a horsemen himself but he constantly nickeled and dimed the people who made the game go, battling over how much he owed them and habitually paying them late. Yet he was extraordinarily generous to local charities.

When he was in the process of buying Hialeah, he passed himself off as a friend of the players, because, he said, that’s where he came from. He fell in love with Hialeah while a student at the University of Miami. Then he instituted one of the highest takeouts in the nation, as much as 31 percent in some pools.

Nevertheless, I will miss him and so will racing, because as long as he was alive, there was hope, however faint, that Hialeah might come alive again as a thoroughbred mecca. The demolition of Calder raised hopes that Hialeah might be revived to give Gulfstream a necessary breather during the fall.

Randy Soth, a former Hialeah racing secretary and now general manager of the facility, said Friday, “The way he loved this place was obsessive.”

I had the opportunity to interview Brunetti a few years ago when he was launching a quarterhorse meeting, which was nothing more than a means to the end of qualifying for a casino. He made it clear he had no use for the quarterhorses and reiterated his fondest hope was to bring thoroughbreds back to Hialeah.

His sons are more bottom-line oriented and do not share his passion for racing. They argued that rebuilding the stable area, much of which had been ravaged by hurricanes and the rest of which had been torn down, was too expensive an undertaking.

I like to think John Brunetti in his feisty heyday would have over-ruled them. But his health was failing. He underwent triple heart bypass surgery in 1996 and needed a kidney transplant in 2013. More recently he had a cancerous lung removed.

When he died last week, any hope of the track of the flamingos soaring again died with him.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, March 01, 2018

Good Magic will be tested in the Fountain of Youth

Kentucky Derby season is like college basketball. Nothing truly significant happens until March. The calendar has turned from February and Chad Brown has Good Magic set to make his 3-year-old debut in the Fountain of Youth against some talented rivals. Bolt d'Oro's coming out party is a week away in the San Felipe. By the end of next weekend, the Derby picture should be in much clearer focus. Meanwhile, in a laudable but probably fruitless exercise, 64 trainers have signed on to support the Water, Hay and Oats Alliance (WHOA), whose main goal is medication free racing. Alas the National HBPA has said this is not going to happen and it has the power to back up the tough talk.

The champ is back. The question is, is he ready to deliver a knockout blow?

Chad Brown has made it clear his game plan is not to have Eclipse winner Good Magic run his best race Saturday in the Fountain of Youth, his first start since winning the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Brown wants Good Magic to run well Saturday, better in his next start, most likely the April 7 Blue Grass, then explode on May 5 at Churchill Downs.

There might be some as good as Brown at pointing toward a specific race but there are none better. Although there is plenty of evidence of this, all that is needed is last season’s Preakness with Cloud Computing.

Derby qualifying points aren’t a major concern. Good Magic has 24. Forty should be enough to clinch a berth in the starting gate. A second (20 points) would do that and a third (10) would put him on the cusp with his final prep to come in a 100-40-20-10 race. He has not finished worse than second in three career starts, two in Grade 1 races.

While Brown might not have him at his peak, players got a tipoff to Good Magic’s fitness level in last Saturday’s Hal’s Hope. Good Magic’s workmate this winter has been 4-year-old Economic Model, who ran away from a solid field of older horses, including Wood Memorial winner and Belmont Stakes runnerup Irish War Cry.

If Good Magic is even close to what Economic Model showed, it will take an awfully talented horse to deny him the bulk of the $400,000 purse. On the other hand, there are some horses who have demonstrated exceptional talent.

Dale Romans has three of them—Breeders’ Futurity winner Free Drop Billy, who will have recency going for him after a solid second in the Holy Bull behind Audible; the optimistically named Promises Fulfilled, making his first start since a third in the Kentucky Jockey Club in November; and Storm Runner, who Romans has been raving about. The trainer said the colt, who ran his dirt record to 2-for-2 in winning a recent optional claimer, is improving as quickly as any horse he has ever trained.

The potential sleeper is Strike Power, who didn’t get started until December but has won both his starts like a monster. He graduated with an eight-length score in December (taking the curse of Apollo off the table) then toyed with his rivals in the Swale, winning by almost three in as visually impressive a win as you would want to see.

Both those races were sprints, which would be in the wheelhouse of a son of Speightstown. Now he gets tested around two turns but if he wants the lead, it’s hard to imagine anyone denying him. A mile and a quarter might be a bridge too far but all he has to do Saturday is negotiate a mile and a sixteenth on a generally speed favoring track with a short stretch run due to the use of the auxiliary finish line.

As we saw last Saturday, Brown doesn’t send out short horses. So Good Magic has to be the key in all types of wagers but Strike Power will definitely be included on my Pick 3’s and Pick 4’s.

Wasted effort

The headline was so heartening: “More Than 60 Trainers Sign Letter Supporting WHOA.”

Then the story ruined everything. Indeed more than 60 trainers (64) threw their support behind the Water, Hay and Oats Alliance, whose goal is to turn over the policing of testing nationwide to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency.

Bless every single signee. Their vehicle is the latest Horseracing Integrity Act, which has been kicking around the House of Representative for years without noteworthy progress. There is not even a companion bill in the Senate.

When you peruse the roster of signees, the names listed aren’t as eye-catching as some of the ones missing: Todd Pletcher, Bob Baffert, Chad Brown, Steve Asmussen, D. Wayne Lukas, Bill Mott, Dale Romans, Shug McGaughey. I could go on. Put it this way: not one Eclipse-winning trainer since the award was instituted in 1971 is on the list.

This should not be interpreted as these giants of the profession being against medication-free racing. Given the superior stock they are blessed with, they probably wish more than anyone that racing become totally clean.

Maybe they weren’t asked to sign. Maybe they had better things to do, like almost anything.

Six hundred or 6,000 trainers could sign on to support of the Horse Racing Integrity Act and it wouldn’t make a bit of difference as long as the National HBPA and its regional acolytes are steadfast against any action that makes them race drug-free, as in without Lasix.

The last time Washington got seriously involved in the game, the Interstate Horse Racing Act of 1978, a seemingly innocuous provision in the bill gave local horsemen a right that has become omnipotent in controlling the fate of tracks and racing in general.

In order to simulcast across state lines, permission had to be granted by the sending track, its state governing body; the state commission of the receiving track and the horsemen of the host track. Nothing about this seemed unreasonable at the time.

Simulcasting was such an insignificant part of racing’s big picture, few, if any, had the foresight to see where the latter provision could lead. Horsemen now have the power to stop any and all tracks from sending their signals to other tracks, which has become the backbone of the game. The national and regional HBPA’s have stated unequivocally they will exercise this power should any attempt be made to ban race day medications. Denied simulcasting, tracks would be shutting down faster than Toys R Us.

So the latest Horse Racing Integrity Act is a waste of time, effort and money unless and until Congress amends the IHRA of 1978 to strip horsemen of the unilateral power to control simulcasting. WHOA and its supporters would be better served to expend their efforts and treasure toward this end.

Written by Tom Jicha

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