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 18, 2017


Pletcher’s not a Preakness guy but he and Always Dreaming will adapt


Todd Pletcher doesn't believe in running his horses back in two weeks. This is why he has started 48 horses in the Derby but Always Dreaming will be only his ninth in the Preakness. The last time he brought a Derby winner to Maryland, Super Saver, it was a disaster. But the seven-time Eclipse winner says he has learned from that. More importantly, he has the best horse in Always Dreaming, who hasn't been seriously challenged as a 3-year-old. He'll get a stern test from Classic Empire Saturday but chances are he will head to Belmont with a chance to become a Triple Crown winner.


Todd Pletcher is training against everything he believes and practices in the Preakness. Pletcher has his own way of doing things and has won seven Eclipse Awards as the nation’s outstanding trainer by sticking to his plan.

One thing he avoids doing is running a horse back within two weeks. Four weeks or longer is his norm. This explains his infrequent participation in the Preakness. He has started 48 horses in the Kentucky Derby. He has started only eight in the Preakness. ”Yeah, I think that’s part of it,” he said.

Make no mistake. He would love to capture one of the few prizes that has eluded him. “I have tremendous respect for the Preakness. It’s something I’d love to win. It’s just in a lot of cases we felt like our horses needed a little more time to recover (from the Derby).”

But the best in any business are adaptable. Pletcher is confident both he and Always Dreaming are up to the quick turnaround. Pletcher feels he has learned something from the last time he brought a Derby winner, Super Saver, to Baltimore. He breezed Super Saver between the two races and feels it might have been costly as Super Saver ran eighth.

“I think if I had a do-over with Super Saver I probably wouldn’t have breezed him at all. We tried to go an easy three-eighths with him, which in retrospect probably didn’t put any energy into him. I don’t necessarily think it took any out and I’m not sure it really would have mattered.”

Always Dreaming will go into the Preakness off only gallops, although they have been eye-catching. After his Thursday work, David Grening in the Racing Form said the Derby winner is “on the engine.”

“He’s putting plenty of energy into his gallops,” Pletcher said. “I’m just trying to focus on refueling the tank a little bit.”

The tank apparently doesn’t need much refueling. “We like what we are seeing so far. All indications are he bounced out of the Derby quickly. But sometimes you don’t know until you’re in the heat of battle if they’ve got that extra reserve.”

Mark Casse, trainer of Classic Empire, who will start next to Always Dreaming in No. 5, said the Derby winner had better be at his best. Casse has been ticking off Derby factoids that worked against his colt for two weeks. The one he repeats most often is his 2-year-old champion ran 75 feet further than Always Dreaming in Louisville, roughly the distance he finished in arrears. What’s more, his horse was blasted at the start by McCraken, possibly getting the wind knocked out of him and sometime during the race he was hit in the eye by a stone or a clod of dirt, which might have further discouraged him.

“One can only speculate what the outcome would have been had he been given a clear trip," Casse said. "I’m running him because we think he’s the best horse and we want to prove it. The great thing about our sport is everybody can think and believe but we get to prove it on the track. Maybe Always Dreaming will still beat him but we’re ready to take the shot.”

Off recent history, Casse has a 50-50 chance of being right. The last four Derby winners have all gone off at odds-on but only American Pharoah and California Chrome have justified their odds. Nyquist was third last year and Orb was off the board in 2013.

A neutral observer, Gary Stevens, who was to have ridden Royal Mo, is in the favorite’s corner. “I loved (Always Dreaming) going into the Derby as a spectator. My feeling was that if he repeated his Florida Derby, which was the most impressive prep all spring, he would be tough to beat. And he repeated that. He’s going to have a target on his back but that target is going to be tough to catch. It’s his race to lose.”

I concur. Classic Empire has the talent to turn the tables and starting outside Always Dreaming might be able to keep Always Dreaming pinned on the inside. Casse said after the draw his colt might hook the Derby winner right out of the gate. That's the show fans want to see.

There is little glory in selecting an odds-on favorite but there is no joy in ripping up tickets. I see Always Dreaming heading to Belmont with an opportunity to become the second Triple Crown winner in three years.

Pegasus 2 a go

The Preakness might not be racing’s only big newsmaker in Maryland this week. The Stronach Group might take advantage of having the attention of the racing media to confirm that Pegasus 2 is a definite go. If not this week, the announcement will come soon.

There has been doubt in some quarters that TSG would be able to assemble 12 entities to ante up $1 million apiece for a slot in the starting gate this coming winter. Not only have a dozen indicated they want to be part of what now is the world’s richest race, they are the same 12 who subscribed last year, according to HRI's source.

Moreover, there is a waiting list, including some major global players, who would like to get in but are currently on the waiting list.

The sweetener that kept the band together is the promise of more than $650,000 to each of the subscribers, which would limit their potential deficit. Last year, the minimum a stakes holder could recoup was $250K, the reward for finishing fourth through 12th.

Also, the share-holders have been guaranteed a piece of the betting action, which last year soared to more than $40 million for the day. This wasn’t part of the package in 2017 because of the uncertainty over how the race would be greeted and the expenses with getting it off the ground.

Frank Stronach's bold idea turned out to be a phenomenal success even with the least expensive general admission $100, bar stools going for an additional $200 and tables in the restaurants priced at $575 per person.

Subscribers also have been promised a piece of any TV rights fees and sponsorships. However, this is unlikely to ever produce anything since only the Triple Crown races command a rights fee and sponsorships are traditionally used to cover the expense of buying television time, as TSG had to do last winter.

The total purse for Pegasus 2.0 has been elevated from $12 million to $16 million--the addition coming from TSG--to allow for inflated participation awards, which I feel run contrary to the spirit of what racing is supposed to be.

The precise payouts at the top have not been announced but with $10,150,000 left in the pool after the consolation prizes, they are likely to resemble last year’s payoffs, including $7 million to the winner.

It’s possible, if not likely, that by the time the race is run, the Pegasus will no longer be the world’s richest race. Sheikh Mohammad bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the force behind the $10 million Dubai World Cup, said at this year’s renewal, “I want to be one step ahead…We want to be No. 1. I’m meeting with my people to be No. 1.”

No one doubts the oil rich sheikh can make this happen. It could be that he is merely waiting for the official word on the 2018 Pegasus to announce by how much he plans to top it. The ball will then move back into Stronach's court.

Miami, May 18, 2017


Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, May 11, 2017


Always Dreaming makes it 6 straight, 8 of 10, for unbeaten 3YOs


This year's Kentucky Derby was billed as wide open. But all it took to come up with Always Dreaming was to fall back on what is become a dependable trend. Bet the horses who are unbeaten as 3YOs. There were only 3, including Always Dreaming, in this year's race and there were reasons to put a line through the other two. Over the past decade, this system is an 80% proposition. There's another high percentage handicapping tool in the Preakness.

When does a small sample become a recognized trend?

Always Dreaming became the sixth straight Kentucky Derby winner to reach the finish line undefeated as a 3YO. (If you want the names and exact numbers, they are in my previous column, just below this one.)

Excuse Animal Kingdom’s second-place finish in a turf race at Gulfstream and the list grows to seven, who went into and came out of the Derby perfect as a sophomore. Big Brown’s romp in 2008 makes it eight in 10 years. Anyone know of other 80 percent systems in racing?

It wasn’t as if you had to spread wide to come up with Always Dreaming. There were only three horses who met the undefeated standard and two could have had asterisks. Fast and Accurate was two-for-two in 2017 but one was on turf and the other was on Polytrack. Thunder Snow--who I will spend a long time living down--won a pair of races in Dubai.

The last Derby winner who had tasted defeat at a 3-year-old is Super Saver, Todd Pletcher’s only other winner. Coincidentally, both of Pletcher’s wins have come on off tracks.

Not to take anything away from Always Dreaming, who had as perfect a trip as you could hope for in a 20-horse field, but so many horses with gilded credentials misfiring has to be attributed in some way to lack of experience on off surfaces. Some handle it, others don’t. Lack of familiarity has to be at least a small factor.

I’ll never understand why trainers do everything they can to cover every other possible contingency in prepping for the Classics but change workout schedules and scratch from prep races to avoid anything but a fast surface.

Toss non-Derby horses

The prospective field for the Preakness stands at about 10. As I said, Always Dreaming had a near perfect trip but his combination of tactical speed and stamina untapped to this point makes him a tough beat. He worked out the same trip in the Florida Derby. Christopher Kay must be preparing his “the Belmont crowd will be capped at 90,000” press release already.

Before you even open the Racing Form, more than half Always Dreaming's challengers can be tossed because they didn’t start in the Kentucky Derby. Only three horses in this millennium have won the second jewel of the Triple Crown without competing in the Derby.

One was Rachel Alexandra, who won the Kentucky Oaks the day before the 2009 Derby. Rachel was a filly for the ages, arguably the best horse of her generation of either gender. Bernadini won the 2006 Preakness, which is infamous for undefeated Barbaro breaking down a few steps out of the gate. The other was Red Bullet in 2000.

You have to go back to 1983 and Deputed Testamony for another non-Derby starter winning the Preakness. That’s four in 34 years—two under extraordinary circumstances. This is not a trend savvy players want to buck.

Wood, Blue Grass fire blanks

The Wood Memorial and Blue Grass Stakes weren’t helped in their quest to retain Grade 1 status.

The Wood’s shortcomings were further exacerbated. Irish War Cry was the only one of the eight starters who even bothered to make the trek to Louisville and he ran 10th. If you’re looking for a straw to grasp, at least he beat Blue Grass winner Irap, who checked in 18th.

Todd Pletcher and Chad Brown, trainers of Wood runner-up Battalion Road and show horse Cloud Computing, respectively, decided their horses weren’t up to America’s race. I believe subsequent races will show these to be astute decisions. They might win some stakes but unless the attrition rate is worse than usual, I doubt a Grade 1 will be among them.

The Blue Grass, which seemed like the most loaded of the final preps, sent five starters, including its first four, to Churchill Downs. The best it got was Practical Joke’s fifth-place finish. Practical Joke is already a dual Grade 1 winner as a juvenile and some of the other also-rans, most notably, McCraken and Tapwrit, might fare well in big races later this year. But unless some of them bag Grade 1 stakes in 2017, the Blue Grass need not apply to regain Grade 1 status.

A very live corpse

It’s time for those closest to racing—myself included—to stop wringing their hands about the alleged many things allegedly killing the sport--drugs, breakdowns, abuse of whips, etc. America has repeatedly indicated it really doesn't care, at least not a lot. This is not to say these problems shouldn't be addressed. They just should not be obsessed over.

The Kentucky Derby TV ratings were the strongest since 1989. NBC’s average audience was 16.5 million with 19.1 million tuned in for the actual race, according to fast Nielsens. This was the biggest Saturday audience for any program of any kind since an NFL playoff game—the gold standard—in January. It was also the most watched program of any kind last week by a blowout. The two prime-time leaders, "NCIS" and "The Big Bang Theory," pulled in 12.89 million and 12;38 million, respectively.

As someone who covered TV full time for more than 30 years I can say without equivocation there is not a single series, special program (Oscars, etc.) or sport, including the NFL, whose ratings are as strong now as they were 15 years ago, let alone almost 30.

“American Idol,’ which is coming back next season, was referred to by rival networks as “the death star” because of the extent to which it crushed all competition during its heyday. At its peak, more than 30 million Americans watched. When it left the air at the end of last season, the audience had dwindled to about 10 million. Meanwhile, the year “American Idol” debuted, 2002, the Derby attracted just under 13 million viewers, almost four million fewer than this year.

Fans bet more than $200 million on a single card Saturday for the first time in history, despite the dismal weather and sloppy track.

This comes on the heels of all kinds of terrific news from around the nation. Gulfstream had another record-breaking winter season. Oaklawn was up 5 percent, which allowed purses to soar to more than $500,000 a day. Maryland, a dead racing state walking only a few years ago, saw its average handle soar 22% during its winter meeting.

The only major jurisdiction with a sad story is Southern California and this can be attributed to inept management and horsemen who repeatedly demonstrate they view fans as suckers to be fleeced.

All of this comes in an era of ever increasing competition from casinos, state lotteries, fantasy sports games and widespread availability of playing poker and betting sports online, illegal though much of it is.

The message is a lot of Americans really enjoy and embrace racing when the show is good. Those who participate in and cover the sport should keep this in mind when they fret about all that’s wrong with this “dying” sport.

Miami, May 11, 2017


Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, May 04, 2017


In a wide-open Derby, 20-1 (or better) on Thunder Snow looks really attractive



The Kentucky Derby has had an obvious big horse the past few years and all have come through. This year's Run for the Roses is the most wide open in memory so why not take a big price on UAE Derby champion Thunder Snow, who has established distance ability and a proven will to win? He also is one of three Derby entrants who fit the recent pattern of coming into the Derby undefeated as a 3-year-old.

The Derby has been too easy the past few years. Nyquist was unbeaten and coming off a big Florida Derby win last year. American Pharoah was a once-in-a-generation horse. California Chrome looked like a standout and was. Orb was a little tougher to zero in on but the fact that I had seen him win three times at Gulfstream and was convinced his late-running style was perfect for Churchill Downs put me on him.

There is no such horse this year.

No matter what kind of race I handicap, my first step is the process of elimination, drawing a line through those I feel aren’t good enough to get the money. It’s a maddening chore this year. Two-thirds of the field could win without triggering wonder about how it happened. But the process has to start somewhere.

(For these purposes, I’m basically a win better, whether it’s a straight wager or part of Daily Double, Pick 3 or Pick 4. Improbable horses have a way of sneaking into the vertical gimmicks but my sole concern with the Derby is the horse who wears the roses.)

I’m tossing late qualifiers Untrapped, Lookin at Lee and Sonneter. Until someone shows me otherwise, I’m saying no horse, who needed another to scratch to get into the race, has ever won the Derby.

I’ll have none of Patch, Battle of Midway, State of Honor, Irap and Fast and Accurate, either, even though the latter fulfills the most dependable Derby system of recent years. The Spiral winner is undefeated in his 3-year-old season, albeit neither of his two wins came on conventional dirt.

Nyquist and American Pharoah were two-for-two. California Chrome and Orb each won all three starts before Louisville. I’ll Have Another was perfect in a pair of preps. The last Derby winner to suffer defeat going into the race as a sophomore was Animal Kingdom in 2011. But this came with an asterisk, since his lone blemish was a second in a grass race. (Girvin could qualify for the same exemption, since he was second in a minor grass stakes but has won both dirt starts in 2017.)

The only other Derby horses who have not lost in 2017 are Always Dreaming and Thunder Snow, my top two selections for this and other reasons. More about them in a bit.

With some reluctance, I’m also cutting Hence, who looks better after horses he beat at Sunland won the Blue Grass and ran second in the Arkansas Derby; J Boys Echo, who beat nothing in the Gotham, his strongest credential; Gormley, who won an atypically slow Santa Anita Derby; Girvin, who I didn’t like before the foot problems and twice delayed work; Practical Joke, who I can see in the leading group turning for him but not at the wire; and the one who really hurts, Tapwrit. He was one of my prime Derby horses much of the winter but after the Blue Grass I have to conclude he beat little in the Tampa Bay Derby after being unable to handle McCraken in the Sam F. Davis.

It gets tougher with the final half-dozen, each of whom I hope to be able to squeeze onto at least a Pick 3 ticket. Classic Empire looks back in championship form but you never know if he might melt down as he did prior to the Holy Bull. Always Dreaming’s Florida Derby was as good as it gets. He's my second choice. No one has a better late kick than Gunnevera. McCraken has to be forgiven his third in the Blue Grass but Ian Wilkes was Carl Nafzger’s right-hand man when Street Sense bounced out of a runner-up showing in the Keeneland race into the Churchill Downs’ winner’s circle.

I almost chucked Irish War Cry because of the Wood Memorial’s dismal record in Louisville and the conviction his big fig is at least partly a product of the NY bias I feel is baked into the Beyers. But his Holy Bull might have been the most impressive race in North America this Derby season.

The continental qualifier is one you don’t often see but it brings me to the horse who will have the bulk of my money on Saturday, Thunder Snow. The five other horses I narrowed the race down to will all likely be single-digit betting propositions. So I’m going with the one who will be double or triple that? I’ll take Mike Battaglia’s 20-1 morning line right now, although the No. 2 post does give me some pause. Only lethal No. 1 is worse.

The Derby points system is working just fine but there should be one more tweak. Connections should get to pick their posts according to their standings in the qualifying points. This would alleviate a major contender being eliminated at the draw by pulling No. 1. That post should go to a horse at the bottom of the points barrel.

Thunder Snow’s race in the UAE Derby was extraordinary. At about a mile and three-sixteenths, it is longer than any of the U.S. Derby preps, a not insignificant factor with so many others having questions about their 10-furlong stamina.

Considering the trip Thunder Snow had, four wide early and three wide around the final turn, he might have run close to a mile and a quarter. Yet he was the strong horse after a stretch-long war against gutty Japanese star Epicharis, who was undefeated in four starts and is coming for the Belmont. Not to be overlooked is the stretch run at Meydan is even longer than the one at Churchill Downs and Thunder Snow was in a dogfight with Epicharis for every inch.

There were 16 starters in the UAE Derby and Thunder Snow had to fight for position early, so the unwieldy Derby field will be nothing new. Veteran jockey Christophe Soumillon will give away experience at Churchill Downs but he will have the advantage of having ridden countless big races with huge fields in Europe. If you're not familiar with the Belgian-born rider, he's up there with Europe's best. You lose nothing with him in the saddle.

Thunder Snow is already a Group 1 winner on grass and could have stayed in Europe for the 3-year-old classics there. But the Kentucky Derby is one of the few unchecked boxes for Godolphin. Thunder Snow is by far the strongest candidate they have brought to the U.S.

Most important, as I said, the price will be right.

Not so fast…

What looked like a sure thing a week ago has become a dead piece.

The Florida legislature is scheduled to adjourn without passing a gambling bill, which seemed headed for certain passage. The key component for pari-mutuels would have allowed greyhound, quarterhorse and harness tracks as well as jai alai frontons to eliminate their races and games while maintaining card rooms and slots.

There were no hang-ups over this issue in the conference committee. The bill-killer was the Senate’s insistence that pari-mutuel venues in eight upstate counties, where voters had approved it, could add slots to their gambling menus. Currently outside Miami-Dade and Broward (Fort Lauderdale) only Indian casinos are allowed to have slots. The House balked at the expansion of gambling.

This puts decoupling into what could be an extended limbo, since 2018 is an election year. Expanded gambling is a volatile issue outside South Florida. Religious groups, deep-pocketed Disney and its satellite theme parks use hefty campaign contributions and faux grass roots activism against pro-gambling lawmakers.

Ergo, there will be at least one more year of Gulfstream West as well as quarterhorse racing at Hialeah.

This is disappointing but I’m not going to let it ruin my Derby weekend.

Miami, May 4,2017


Written by Tom Jicha

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