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, May 17, 2018

Racing might not benefit from sports betting

The legalization of sports betting this week is being looked upon as a big plus for horse racing. But there are many reasons why the anticipated benefits might not materialize. Meanwhile, the unanticipated entry of Eclipse champion Good Magic has made the Preakness more than a walk in the park for Justify.

Once again the future of racing isn't racing.

The latest savior--remember Sunday racing and slots machines--is sports betting. A Supreme Court decision this week allows individual states to make their own decision about legalization. It is expected New Jersey, which brought the case to the Supremes, could be in business within the next week.

By the end of the year, a half-dozen or more states could be part of the party. Within two or three years, there could be more states with sports betting than not.

The conventional blueprint has wagering on games being limited to casinos, existing pari-mutuels and OTB venues. The latter two are what has given rise to the belief/hope that racing will be a beneficiary. However, there are many reasons why this might be overly optimistic.

The most threatening would be phone and internet wagering. They might not come immediately but they will come. This would eliminate the necessity to visit a track or OTB. So much for attracting new fans.

Also, sports betting and racing might be close cousins, unlike slots and racing, so luring a sports player to make a bet on races while awaiting the outcome of a three-hour game is a reasonable hope. However, this relies on the assumption that there is an infinite amount of disposable income for gambling. So far, this seems more true than not but there has to be a breaking point. If and when this is reached, racing figures to lose more than sports because of their relative popularity.

More to the moment, sports betting is cash intensive. Outside Nevada, an abundance of wagering on games is done via bookmakers on credit. Sure, the bills come due but players are cockeyed optimists. They always figure the next bet will get them out. Cash laid out on a ball game is cash that is not going to be bet on a race.

Estimates vary wildly about how much is bet on sports annually. A generally accepted figure is approximately $150 billion, but this is a product of guesswork tied to efforts to legalize sports betting.

The website Market Watch says about half that amount is probably more realistic. It based its projections on comparisons to Great Britain, where sports betting has been around almost as long as the monarchy. Market Watch took the handle and population of Great Britain and multiplied by five to reflect the different population sizes.

Even this assessment could be on the high side, since wagering on races and games is legal nationwide in Great Britain. Horse racing is legal in only 38 states in the U.S. It is unlikely sports betting will be welcomed where racing isn't.

Moreover, there would be a learning curve in America. Sports betting can be as simple as taking one team to beat another by the spread. But this doesn't generate the entirety of the huge figures being bandied about. Some games have a dozen different ways to bet. Lines are set on each quarter and half as well as on total points for each team and the entire game; which team will score first and last and, in baseball, the combined number of runs, hits and errors.

In Great Britain, punters can also get down on exotics such as election outcomes and the gender of the next royal baby. This isn't allowed in Nevada and won't be elsewhere.

Most importantly, there has been little serious conversation about how much of a taste racing will get from sports betting at tracks and OTB's. Sports betting isn't close to the money tree slots are. According to figures from Nevada, the rake on sports betting is a bit over 5 percent. Slots produce almost double that and never take sick days or vacation. They need only IT people to keep them operating.

Sports wagering demands savvy individuals to create and manage betting lines. Monmouth is already in bed with British firm William Hill and Churchill Downs has announced an agreement to manage the Golden Nugget Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City. These are more fingers in the pie.

States will demand their cut and are unlikely to be as initially generous toward racing as they were when slots were introduced. Indeed, the trend is in the opposite direction. It is not inconceivable that some states will balk at directing any sports revenue toward horses.

The major sports leagues have indicated they want a cut, too, even though the Nevada precedent doesn't allow for this. They'll benefit enough from increased interest in their sports at the gate and on TV, where ratings should zoom, increasing rights fees. Unappealing match-ups suddenly will have greatly enhanced interest. An NFL game between Cleveland and Arizona will be just as involving to someone with action as the Patriots against the Eagles.

None of this should be interpreted as a screed against sports betting. I can't wait for it to happen. We just have to be clear-eyed as to how much. if at all, racing will benefit.

Chad does Preakness a solid

I'm rooting for Justify to win the Preakness then go on to capture the Triple Crown in three weeks. But if Justify doesn't get the job done Saturday, I hope Good Magic does.

Chad Brown, America's newest great trainer, isn't one to bring back a horse, let alone a champion, in two weeks. He's doing it in the Preakness.

If Good Magic and Brown were to pull off the upset, he and less prominent trainers might begin to re-examine the overly conservative tactics that I feel is helping to kill the game. Granted, this might be wishful thinking but racing is all about living with hope.

Like I said, I'm all in on Justify. Given his prohibitively short price--he's 1-2 on the morning line and could go lower-- I might just root without betting.

For those who must have action, the key is to get Good Magic out of the exotics. A Justify-Good Magic exacta could pay not much more than even-money. If I were taking a shot, I'd throw in Bravazo, because D. Wayne has a way with the Preakness. The Coach also has Sporting Chance but his last win was at seven furlongs, which I think is close to his best distance.

I also give Marylander Diamond King a shot at hitting the board, since he'll have a home town advantage in a field not overly loaded with talent. Javier in the irons won't hurt.

Here's the question of the day. Would a second Triple Crown in three years diminish the accomplishments of American Pharoah and Justify?

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, May 10, 2018

Curse of Apollo is dead but other streaks endure

Justify put to rest the theory that a horse who did not race as a 2-year-old could win the Kentucky Derby. Other streaks endure, most notably that the winner of the Derby is likely to be a horse who goes into the race undefeated as a 3-year-old. Justify was the seventh straight Derby winner to fit this condition, which helps to explain why favorites have won six straight Derbies. On the downside, something to keep in mind next week is the the last two Derby winners have not won again.

One of many post-Derby reports and commentary I have read went me one better in a challenge to Bob Baffert, who brought Justify to the Run for the Roses off only three career starts. I mentioned in a pre-Derby column that but for the points system, the day would come when a precocious colt would be jumped from a maiden score into the Derby.

I can't recall where I read it--I apologize for that--but a wiseguy quipped, "If Baffert is so great, let's see him win the Derby with a first-time starter."

The points system mitigates against this but it wouldn't be a shock if some horse soon wins the Derby in his third start, after a maiden race and a stakes to accumulate the required points. Good Magic, for example, went from his maiden victory to a second in the Grade 1 Champagne. The Champagne is only a 10-point race because it occurs during the juvenile campaign but I hope you get my point. Is there any doubt Justify could have won an important 3-year stakes coming out of his maiden win?

Winning the Derby with a contemporary horse making only his fourth start isn't unprecedented. Big Brown did it for Richard Dutrow only 10 years ago.
In addition to Justify, Hofburg was making his fourth start. Magnum Moon, the other threat to the Curse of Apollo, and Noble Indy each had only four prior starts.

Not all streaks died

While the Curse of Apollo has been put to rest, a number of other streaks endure. It has been well noted that the Derby has been won six straight times by the favorite. However, few have pointed out the streak I have been pushing, which helps explain why the public has been so uncanny in identifying the correct chalk.

Justify is the seventh straight Derby winner to go into and come out of the race undefeated as a 3-year-old. The number would be eight if you dismiss a second in a turf race by Animal Kingdom. This is no longer a small sample and, as I have said post-Derby in recent years, it is something to keep in mind next spring.

There's also a negative streak that will be challenged by Justify next Saturday. If he wins the Preakness and considering the potential field he will face, I'd like to hear a compelling case that he won't, it will be the first post-Derby victory by the winner since American Pharoah. Nyquist was 0-3 after the first Saturday in May and Always Dreaming's no-show in the Alysheba on Oaks Day was his fifth straight post-Derby loss.

Orb extended a winning streak to five in the 2013 Derby but failed to win again in four subsequent starts. This is an indication of how debilitating the Derby can be. So if you want to make a case against Justify, this might be the only place to start. Of course, it entails ignoring American Pharoah and California Chrome.

UAE Derby is dead to me

Fool me once, shame on you. Shame on me for being taken in again by a big performance in the UAE Derby, this time Mendelssohn's. Last year it was Thunder Snow.

Here's another negative Derby streak. If the winner of next year's UAE Derby manages to beat even one horse, it will be the first time in three years.

Moreover, no winner of the UAE Derby has ever hit the board in Louisville. It will be a disgrace if Churchill Downs maintains this race on the same points pedestal as the major final Derby preps in the U.S.

Too much Jack

I share my foolish feeling about backing Mendelssohn with those who knocked My Boy Jack down to second choice. This isn't red-boarding. I posted a comment early Saturday afternoon saying the deflated odds on him were insane.

I at least had justification for Mendelssohn. His UAE Derby was eye-catching and he was a Breeders' Cup champion, albeit on grass. My Boy Jack's credentials were ordinary, to say the least. He had to bust his gut to beat a glorified allowance field in the Lexington, his last chance to get the necessary points, which proved to be unnecessary, and he hung for an eighth of a mile while running third in the Louisiana Derby.

The only explanation I can come up with for making him the second choice is Kentucky is bourbon country. A lot of folks refer to its most popular brand simply as "Jack" and there is an orgy of boozing on Derby weekend, not all of it at Churchill Downs.

Blue Grass helped, Wood hurt

The Blue Grass Stakes probably was helped this spring in its campaign to regain Grade 1 status. The presence of Juvenile champion Good Magic gave the race a boost. His victory moved up the race even more and his solid second behind Justify last Saturday did more good than harm.

Meanwhile, the Wood Memorial had another dismal Derby and might be years from regaining elite status. By any objective evaluation, the Wood was the weakest of the April preps and the horses who emerged from it were dismal in Louisville. Vino Rosso checked in ninth, Firenze Fire was 11th and Enticed finished 14th.

The Wood hasn't produced a Derby winner since Funny Cide in 2003.

Ironically, the Wood's woes might work against the Blue Grass, which probably won't be re-elevated after one good year, in any case. If the Keeneland stakes is restored as a Grade 1, it would leave New York's signature Derby prep as the only one in the final round not to be a Grade 1. This would perpetuate the problem.

The Graded Stakes Committee wouldn't do that to the circuit still regarded by many to be the capital of American racing, would it?

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, May 03, 2018

Perfection isn’t enough to stand out in this year’s Derby

The last six Kentucky Derbies have been won by colts who were undefeated as a 3-year-old. This year there are four who qualify--Justify and Magnum Moon, the challengers to the Curse of Apollo, as well as Audible and Mendelssohn. So this angle isn't of much service, although it does preclude juvenile champion Good Magic. However, I'm taking a stand with two of them and pressing hard on one, who I'm hoping will be in the area of 4-1, 5-1.

The undefeated sophomore angle has produced the last six Kentucky Derby winners but it's of minimal help this year. An angle or trend isn't necessary to find Audible, Mendelssohn, Justify and Magnum Moon, all perfect as 3-year-olds. The latter two are undefeated, period.

I expect the 2018 Derby winner to come from this group, even though it excludes juvenile champion Good Magic. This is a risky gambit the way he has been training and Chad Brown has been talking him up. Out of respect to Brown, I'll probably use him in a very small way on my multiple race bets (but I won't take credit for selecting him.)

I'm not predicting this but Brown is so much his own man, it wouldn't be shocking if Good Magic won the Derby then skipped the Preakness because it comes up too fast. Remember, Chad skipped last year's Derby, the race every trainer points toward, with Cloud Computing, a colt talented enough to win the Preakness. Then he skipped the Belmont.

To be clear, I'm also taking a pass on Bolt d'Oro and Pletcher's pair of Vino Rosso and Noble Indy. I'm not knocking them and wouldn't find fault with anyone who backs them, but you have to take a stand somewhere. Beyond these, to me, the rest are Mine That Bird.

Trying to separate the perfect quartet is as challenging as finding the exit at an Ikea store. Justify and Magnum Moon are not only unbeaten, they haven't been seriously challenged.

Bob Baffert has been touting Justify as a potential superstar since before his debut. "When he came in from Kentucky, they said he was a really nice horse," Baffert said on an NTRA conference call. "When we got him to Los Alamitos, we worked him a few times and he always looked impressive. When I got him over to Santa Anita, the first time I worked him I knew he was something really special. Usually they get a little tired because the track at Santa Anita is really deep. He just went around there effortlessly. That's when I knew he was really a cut above the rest. First out, the way he ran was just incredible. He showed us right there how special he is."

Pletcher is characteristically more low key than Baffert but he's just as high on Magnum Moon. "He’s a colt we’ve been very high on since literally my dad broke him as a yearling. I remember seeing him back in December, when he first started galloping. He’s a natural athlete that always had a tremendous presence about him, a great way of moving. He had a couple minor baby issues that we just felt like, being a May foal and a horse with a lot of promise, we would give him some time off and send him back to my dad’s training center. He freshened him up nicely for us. He hasn’t missed a beat since he came back. It’s just been a tremendous development for him, to go from a strong maiden win on the 13th of January to now being four-for-four and winning the Arkansas Derby in his fourth start. It just tells you a lot about the quality and the natural ability that he has."

Audible, another of Pletcher's four-pack, brings an impressive credential to Kentucky. He won the Florida Derby, which has produced three of the last five Derby winners. This followed a big score in the Holy Bull.

"He's another very talented colt who has just really, really blossomed this winter and spring," Pletcher said. "We felt early on he was a very nice colt, but I think his Holy Bull was kind of the breakthrough performance that we were hoping for. I love the way he attended the pace in the Holy Bull and the way he dropped off the very fast pace of the Florida Derby. It shows his versatility. And I loved the way he finished those two races and really showed a turn of foot, which is not always easy to do in dirt races."

With respect to all of these colts, I'm going to go with Mendelssohn, who checks all my boxes, beginng with his record setting other-worldly 18-length-plus runaway in the UAE Derby.

His breeding is as good as it gets. He's a half to three-time Eclipse champion Beholder and Into Mischief, the sire of Audible.

The mile and a quarter should not be an issue. Beholder smashed males at 10 furlongs in the Pacific Classic. More significantly, Mendelssohn's win in Dubai was at approximately a mile and three-sixteenths, further than any of his rivals on Saturday have run, and he was going away at the end.

He's coming from halfway across the globe but he shipped across the Atlantic to win the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf. So he's won in Europe, the Middle East and North America, a remarkable feat for a horse his age.

There will be a degree of irony if Mendelssohn captures the garland of roses. His older sister won her trio of Eclipses without ever winning outside of Southern California.

Mendelssohn won the Juvenile Turf from off the pace then went gate to wire in Dubai, so he should be able to adapt to any pace scenario. He's also won on grass, synthetics and conventional dirt, so no matter how the track comes up, he should be able to handle it.

His connections are world class. There might be some as skilled as trainer Aidan O'Brien but there are none better. His jockey, Ryan Moore, has been among the best in the world for years and in Europe he's accustomed to rating horses at 10 furlongs and longer.

The 14 post could actually be an advantage. It's at the end of the regular gate, so there will be a small gap between it and the auxiliary gate. It might not matter but it can't hurt.

I can't think of a single negative other than the disgraceful performance of last year's UAE Derby winner Thunder Snow. But this is a different year and a different horse.

I'll use the undefeated four and Good Magic on multiple race tickets, mostly Mendelssohn and Justify. However, if it comes down to a single win bet on the Derby, my money will be on Mendelssohn.

Written by Tom Jicha

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