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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Monday, July 16, 2018

Breeders make it hard to stay in love with racing

Good to be back. Greedy breeders continue to work against the good of the sport that has made them rich. They continue to retire budding superstars, horses who will hold the attention of the masses, prematurely. A couple of weeks ago, it was Merchant Navy, who in winning the Diamond Jubilee Stakes established himself as one of the great sprinters in the game. Don't expect to see him at the Breeders' Cup. Though still a 3-year-old and perfectly sound and healthy, he has been sent to the breeding shed. It appears Triple Crown champion Justify will follow, even sooner than we expected.

Talk about irony. What was intended to be the lead on my July 5 column—the one that fell victim to technical problems was: “This was almost my farewell column. An event last week caused me to throw up my hands and wonder, "Why do I bother? I don't do this for the money. Neither does J.P. In fact, I don't know a single turf writer who does. We have to pay bills (and build our betting funds) but our primary motivation is love of the game and the horses. We want to convey this to others in the hope they will share our passion and admiration for great equine athletes.”

Because of this, I got over that snit relatively quickly, so I’ll share the rest of the piece because so much of it is still relevant. Alas, always relevant.

I'm not Pollyanna. Of course, racing is a betting game. So is basketball and football. But this doesn't keep fans from marveling at Lebron James and Tom Brady. That's how I get when an American Pharoah or Justify comes along. I get as excited about a super talented horse bursting onto the scene as Dick Vitale does about "diaper dandies.

Strangely, the catalyst for my ire was a horse, Merchant Navy, I saw only once on TV, winning the Diamond Jubilee Stakes at Royal Ascot. More precisely, it was a story in the Blood Horse about Merchant Navy.

The Blood Horse reported that the Diamond Jubilee was Merchant Navy's final race. For no good reason other the greed of Coolmore, this potential international superstar is being retired to stud perfectly healthy, at the top of his game as still a 3-year-old by northern hemisphere standards. He leaves having won seven of 10 starts on two continents and two hemispheres.

Aidan O'Brien, who has trained some of the great horses of contemporary times and had Merchant Navy for only two starts, a prep in Ireland and the Royal Ascot triumph, was effusive in his praise in the Blood Horse. "He's a very special horse. For a 3-year-old to come up from Australia and win like he did at the Curragh, then Royal Ascot while being weighted as an older horse (because he's from the southern hemisphere) is remarkable. He was actually 12 pounds wrong in the Diamond Jubilee."

"He retires to stud as one of the best sprinting colts of modern times," Coolmore's Tom Magnier said.

Why? Doesn't Coolmore have enough top of the line, pricey stallions, including Triple Crown winner American Pharoah? How much is enough? Don't they feel any obligation to the sport that has made them obscenely wealthy?

Those obviously are rhetorical questions.

The same thing happened with American Pharoah and soon will be repeated with Justify. In light of recent developments, the announcement of Justify’s retirement could come even sooner than many of us expected.

A frequent commentator to HRI unfailingly likes to say after racing's biggest days, how many of those fans will show up again next week or the following week? He's a curmudgeonly relentless contrarian but he has a point.

To which I respond, how often does racing give them a reason? All sports are star driven. More than 15,000 fans showed up at Saratoga one morning to see American Pharoah merely walk on the track. Churchill Downs and Santa Anita recently had atypically large turnouts to see Justify parade.

American Pharoah raced only twice more before leaving for the breeding shed. Before the disclosure of Justify’s ankle problems, it appeared that's probably all we were going to from Justify. Now we might not even get that.

If breeders weren't so greedy and uncaring toward the sport and raced their superstars as often as the Spectacular Bids, Seattle Slews and Dr. Fagers of the past, we wouldn't be asking the question, how many fans will show up after the Triple Crown?

I guess this makes me a hopeless romantic. That's why it didn’t take me long to get over my snit.

Super isn't good

The issue of super trainers/super barns came to the fore again in the United Nations at Monmouth.

Chad Brown had four of the nine-horse field, never a desirable situation. In keeping with Murphy's Law that if anything bad can happen, it will, Funtastic, the longest of Brown's uncoupled quartet got home first.

It wasn't just that the 23-1 shot won. It was how the race played out. Funtastic went right to the front, maintained his position in realistic fractions without ever being challenged and had plenty left to hold off Brown's 2-1 favorite Money Multiplier.

Brown is such a fierce competitor I would not suggest there were any chicanery. Knowing Brown, I suspect he was ticked he didn't run 1-2-3-4.

But the optics are really bad, just as they were in the Los Alamitos Derby, when “the other Baffert,” struck again, as 7-1 Once on Whiskey beat BB’s odds-on Ax Man.

In a sport already dealing with suspicions over drugs and 5-1 shots as the gate springs becoming 5-2 at the wire, as happened with Firenze Fire in the Dwyer (more on that in future columns), it doesn't need anything else disturbing public trust.

Alas, not every problem has a ready solution. Deciding the world soccer championship on penalty kicks is an atrocious way to decide a quadrennial tournament. But no one has come up with a better way.

Likewise no one has figured a way to do anything about a trainer or a partnership controlling several well regarded entries in major stakes. Recoupling entries will only result in races with just four or five betting interests, one a prohibitive favorite. Limiting the number of horses a trainer can enter will result in faux barn changes or program trainers.

The floor is open to suggestions.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, June 28, 2018

Breeders’ Cup expands again; how many is too many?

The Breeders Cup continues to expand, directly and in its offshoots. The latest addition, the Juvenile Turf Sprint, already has been endowed with four Win-and-You're-In preps, two of which will be run for the first time. This raises a couple of questions. How can brand new races be put on an equal plain with long established top grade stakes and how many races can Breeders' Cup create before they start to dilute the championship cachet?

The Breeders’ Cup is living up to its title in an unanticipated way. In recent years, it has been breeding races.

At birth in 1984, the Breeders’ Cup was a one-day event with seven races. When it is run on Nov. 2-3, it will have doubled to 14 races after an expansion to two days in 2007.

The latest addition, the BC Juvenile Turf Sprint, to be run for the first time this fall at Churchill Downs, already has spawned a couple of offspring of its own. Four races have been designated as “Win-and-You’re-In” preps.

Talk about a chicken/egg scenario. Two didn’t exist until the Juvenile Turf Sprint was announced. A third, the Futurity at Belmont, was a long established, once extremely prestigious dirt stakes. The fourth is a European event.

A couple of these races being still in the gestation stage diminishes the “WAYI” designation previously endowed upon traditional top-of the line-stakes. One of the new races, set for Santa Anita, doesn’t even have a name yet. The other, the Indian Summer Stakes at Keeneland, has been created specifically to serve as a BC Juvenile Turf prep.

By the way, the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont are not Win-and-You’re-In races.

The Santa Anita race is problematical because of the unique layout at the Great Race Place. The BC Juvenile Turf will be contested at 5 ½ furlongs. Unfortunately, turf sprints at Santa Anita are run down the hill at 6 ½ furlongs.

It’s one of the most picturesque events in racing but in this context, the extra furlong is more significant than it would be anywhere else. Anyone familiar with Santa Anita will tell you there are horses who excel at five and 5 ½ furlongs, who do not factor at the 6 ½ furlong distance, and vice versa.

Even if the new race were started halfway down the hill, it would still entail going from grass to dirt and back to grass again, a dicey proposition for young horses of limited experience.

If, as it is this year, this new race was merely one of numerous preliminary sprints, it would be hardly worth conversation. But Santa Anita has become ensconced as the track where many if not most, future Breeders’ Cups will be anchored. So a race designed for one type runner will morph some years into a totally different type of dash.

The horseplayer in me fosters a “more the merrier” attitude at the addition of BC stakes. But the purist in me has trepidations about a dilution of the cachet of winning a BC race.

The start of BC weekend, which was once billed as Fillies Friday, has been rechristened Future Stars Friday. All five events will be for 2-year-olds, culminating with the Juvenile, which in many years has established the early favorite for the following season’s Triple Crown.

You don’t have to have an over-active imagination to see where this could lead. The first Juvenile Turf Sprint is open to both genders. Inevitably this will lead to gender specific Juvenile Turf Sprints, just as the Juvenile Turf, the Turf and the Sprint have split into separate races.

The only question is how quickly this will happen. The answer figures to be very quickly, especially if the inaugural over-subscribes.

It’s also overdue to reconsider a dirt sprint for 2-year-olds. This race got a quick hook when only five ran in the second edition in 2012. However, its elimination was short-sighted.

The final renewal was run the year the Breeders’ Cup instituted the admirable but futile step of banning Lasix in its 2-year-old races. Horsemen protested at the entry box.

Breeders’ Cup didn’t have to be hit over the head with a two-by-four. The Lasix ban, which was supposed to go into effect for all BC races the following year, was quietly dropped never to be heard from again. The Juvenile Sprint became collateral damage.

It’s indisputable there are more 2-year-olds ready to run in a sprint stakes in the fall than around two turns. If you doubt it, compare the number of sprint races for 2-year-olds to those around two turns.

Re-institute the Juvenile Sprint and like the Turf Sprint, separate gender races will follow. In a matter of a few years, Future Stars Friday could evolve into an eight-race day—the same number as the original Breeders’ Cup.

Again, from a bettors’ prospective this would be welcome development. But you have to wonder, what it will do to the Breeders’ Cup brand.

Gulfstream steps up

The Summit of Speed was conceived at Calder to remind horsemen nationwide that there is a vibrant racing program in South Florida during the summer. It served its purpose. Over the years, the series of sprint stakes, which Gulfstream wisely picked up and improved upon, has produced Eclipse winners and Breeders’ Cup champions.

This year’s renewal on Saturday could again produce legitimate championship candidates. X Y Jet, who heads the centerpiece, the Grade 3 Smile Stakes, certainly fits into this category. Coming off a head loss in Dubai, X Y Jet will be a strong favorite but the race is hardly a walkover.

A couple of horses for the Gulfstream course could make him run every step of the six furlongs. Multiple stakes winner Reason to Soar, on a three-race winning streak, is six-for-seven at Gulfstream. Reason to Soar, also going for four straight, is undefeated in four Gulfstream starts.

Curlin’s Approval will likely be favored to defend her title in the filly counterpart, the Grade 2 Princess Rooney.

Todd Pletcher left My Miss Tapit in South Florida when he went north with the Princess Rooney in mind as the stakes-winning daughter of Tapit is three-for-three at Gulfstream.

In another sign that the Summit is achieving its purpose, Ron Moquett is shipping in Treble from Kentucky coming off a second in the Grade 3 Winning Colors. The trainer is adding blinkers to her equipment.

Oaks winner in Mother Goose

Gulfstream will have an extended presence in another of the weekend’s big races, the Mother Goose at Belmont.

Coach Rocks, uber impressive in winning the Gulfstream Oaks on Florida Derby Day and second in the Black Eyed Susan, will take on West Coast star Midnight Bisou and the unbeaten Road to Victory, the only horse to beat Kentucky Oaks winner Monomoy Girl. The latter is sitting this one out in favor of the Coaching Club American Oaks at Saratoga.

Coach Rocks has a tough task but if she can get it done, the price will be right.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, June 21, 2018

Sports betting still a long way from major racing states

New Jersey is out of the gate fast with sports betting but the big four of racing--New York, California, Florida and Kentucky--are dragging their feet at getting in on the action. This might not be a bad thing in light of the fact that discussions of what's in sports betting for racing are noticeably absent. On a somewhat positive note, Congress is about to take its first real look at the Barr-Tonko Horseracing Integrity Act. But the bill is still a long way from becoming reality and time will run out before this Congress can act.

The Supreme Court took down the federal stop sign for sports gambling a couple of weeks ago but it could be years, if ever, before horse racing sees appreciable benefits.

Delaware beat New Jersey to the starting gate and three or four other states are expected to be taking sports bets by the end of this year. Early returns at Monmouth Park are promising.

Attendance skyrocketed on Father’s Day by more than 5,000 fans from a year ago. More importantly, handle on horse races rose about 17 percent, putting to rest for at least one day the fear that sports betting dollars would come from those normally set aside for betting the horses. The question is how much the novelty factor played into the big day.

Meanwhile, the four major horse racing states—New York, California, Kentucky and Florida—are not close to sports betting.

Despite the widespread expectation for the past couple of years that SCOTUS would act the way it did, the New York legislature shut down for the year this week without taking action to allow sports betting windows to open.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo says the issue needs more study, a euphemism for doing nothing. Based on his past performances, this means Cuomo, whose statewide re-election campaign is a prelude to a White House run in 2020, wants to be sure that flunkies and heavyweight donors are taken care of, just as they have been at NYRA.

California is in typical disarray. Various factions, including the potent casino-funded Indian tribes, are vying with race tracks, off-track betting operations and card rooms to have sports betting. Two years might be an optimistic projection before the situation is settled.

Surprisingly, Kentucky, which has seen its prominence in horse racing challenged by the religious lobby’s refusal to allow casinos, such as those in neighboring racing states, is said to be seriously looking at sports betting. A bipartisan panel is being formed to fashion a sports betting bill and Gov. Matt Bevin has indicated he won’t stand in the way.

However, Kentucky has looked at other forms of betting for years without moving forward. It took years to get relatively innocuous Instant Racing machines and casinos are still a no-go. So it’s foolhardy to think a step as dramatic as legal sports betting is going to sail smoothly into reality.

The Florida legislature is out of session for 2018. Before the lawmakers return next year, voters will have cast ballots on a constitutional amendment, which would require 60 percent approval in a statewide referendum for any expansion of gambling.

The target when the initiative was conceived was slot machines outside South Florida but if it passes, sports betting would get caught in the same net. A coalition of Seminole Indians, which have a monopoly on slots north of the Broward line; Disney, which wants all disposable income to find its way into the Magic Kingdom, and the hotel and restaurant industries that feed off the Central Florida theme parks; as well as organized anti-gambling religious factions would make this a high barrier to overcome.

Meanwhile, even among sports gambling proponents in these states, little to nothing has been said about racing getting a share of the take. It could turn out that racing will be better off without these alluring competitors for the gambling dollar.

Fie on CDI

Churchill Downs Inc. continues to be a pox on racing. I went to a simulcasting site the day before the Belmont and spent $10 for a Racing Form, figuring I would fill the long gaps between Belmont races betting Churchill Downs. Alas, Churchill past performances were not in the Form.

I was ticked at the Form but my anger was misplaced. Churchill started this fight. The Form omitting Churchill was payback for Churchill’s decision to not allow the sale of the Form on its grounds because the Racing Form has an ADW site in competition with Churchill’s

Caught in the middle are fans like myself. If you want to bet Churchill, which I will strive not to do and urge others to join me, you have to buy a separate program.

This is typical Churchill. CDI was going to ban Caton Breder from covering the Kentucky Derby for a Louisville TV station, a role she had filled for almost two decades, because Bredar also works for TVG, which has an ADW site. Only an uproar from industry media got that decision reversed.

But other TVG personnel, legitimate media, were denied credentials.

Churchill is alone in this outrageous and unacceptable behavior. NYRA has its own ADW site, NYRA Bets, but the Form is welcome on the grounds of Aqueduct, Belmont and Saratoga. The Stronach Group owns in addition to Gulfstream, Santa Anita, Laurel and other tracks. But the Form is prominently displayed alongside the track’s house programs.

It’s unfortunate the Breeders’ Cup will be held at Churchill this fall. Hopefully, Breeders’ Cup will demand that every legitimate racing journalist be credentialed. Anything less will be a disgrace and a black eye on the Breeders’ Cup.

Moreover, CDI’s “It’s all about us” attitude should be considered when future Breeders’ Cup sites are awarded. CDI’s behavior merits scorn and ostracism, not rewards.

World Cup, racing common bonds

The World Cup, which despite fawning media doesn’t approach the TV ratings of the Triple Crown, has more in common with racing than might be apparent.

Early speed is more lethal in soccer than horse racing. Throughout the first round, no team that scored first lost. All either won or tied.

Just nine of the 32 teams scored more than one goal. In only one of 16 games did both teams score more than one goal.

Also soccer players are even more accomplished actors than jockeys when it comes to faking that they have been fouled.

Good news that’s really not

The House Subcommittee on Digital Commerce and Consumer Protection will finally convene a hearing Friday on the Horseracing Integrity Act of 2017.

This is the first time any House body has debated the bill, also known as Barr-Tonko for its sponsors-- Andy Barr (R-Ky) and Paul Tonko (D-NY)--since it was introduced more than a year ago. The proposed legislation would be an important step in cleaning up racing’s drug issues by banning race day medications and putting testing under the auspices of a federal agency.

The fact that Barr-Tonko is even being considered qualifies as a step forward. However, in reality, the hearings are meaningless. A House subcommittee is as low as you can go on the congressional food chain. The bill would still have to go through a rigorous and time consuming gauntlet of full House committees in the hope it might someday get to the floor for a full vote.

Even if passed there, it would then have to go through a similar process in the Senate, where there is no companion bill. Congress has relatively few working days left this year. Members will be leaving Washington in late summer to campaign in their home districts.

Before they go they have to deal with the budget, always a rancorous exercise, DACA and other immigration issues and other mundane but necessary issues. Barr-Tonko is not close to being a priority. It probably won’t even be a consideration.

Since a new Congress will convene in January, everything that happened before doesn’t count. It will be back to square one.

Moreover, unless and until Congress takes away from horsemen, who refuse to give up race day medications, the power to effectively shut down tracks by withholding permission for simulcasting, backers are just spinning their wheels.

Written by Tom Jicha

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