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, November 08, 2018

Gulfstream’s coincidental Eclipse draught will endure

Gulfstream stages some of the finest racing in the nation. Bulletin's BC triumph is the latest sign that the summer program is catching up to the prime winter meet. Yet in a strange coincidence, this will be the fourth straight year in which none of the Eclipse champions will have raced at Gulfstream during their championship campaign. Speaking of the BC, the latest addition, head-to-head matchups with bargain takeouts, is a welcome development with an important caveat. Bettors had to wager on the blind because the odds were never displayed. Unacceptable. Finally, Florida is the latest state to vote greyhound racing out of existence. The do-gooders pushing the vote have not thought about what will happen to the thousands of dogs who will no longer be useful.

Sometimes streaks are just coincidences.

Gulfstream Park has become the unofficial home of the Eclipse Awards ceremonies. It stages the highest caliber of winter racing on the East Coast, if not the nation. Yet when the Eclipses are passed out in January, Gulfstream likely will be shut out of the 11 awards (12 if you count steeplechasers) for the fourth straight year.

This was all but sealed as a result of just about all the 2018 divisional championships being settled by the time the “official’ was posted for Accelerate’s Classic victory Saturday. (Do we really have to have a male turf champion?)

Too bad there is no Eclipse for Juvenile Turf Sprint champion. Bulletin, runaway winner of the corresponding BC stakes, would be a cinch. This is the latest example of how the quality of racing during the summer is growing along with the handle. Other than the obvious, Saratoga and Del Mar, Gulfstream’s summer racing has become as solid as any in the nation.

Nevertheless, you have to go back to 2015 to find an Eclipse winner who competed at Gulfstream during the season in which he or she wound up winning a championship. Honor Code, who would be named top dirt male, took the Gulfstream Park Handicap and Tepin won a classified allowance en route to her first Eclipse as champion turf female. However, she didn’t race at Gulfstream in 2016 when she also won an Eclipse.

There are plausible explanations. One is the “what have you done for me lately?” attitude of many Eclipse voters, which explains the growing groundswell of support for Accelerate as Horse of the Year over Triple Crown winner Justify. Another is the tendency of trainers to start highly regarded horses later in the year, outside Gulfstream’s prime meeting.

However, this is not the case with other winter racing centers, another example of some streaks being mere coincidences. Horse of the Year Gun Runner raced at Oaklawn in his championship year, 2017, and Tepin started twice at Tampa Bay Downs in 2016. American Pharoah captured the 2015 Rebel and Arkansas Derby.

Granted none of these champions won their titles off these early races but countless stars have launched their seasons at Gulfstream without going on to win an Eclipse. Moreover, the last two Horses of the Year, California Chrome and Gun Runner, ran in the Pegasus just weeks after their championship season ended.

Three of the six most recent winners of the Florida Derby have gone on to wear the roses on the first Saturday in May but none was later named best of his generation. Conversely the other three Kentucky Derby winners in this period all became 3-year-old champion.

You have to go back to Animal Kingdom in 2011 to find a horse who achieved the Kentucky Derby-Eclipse double after racing at Gulfstream. Interestingly Animal Kingdom’s South Florida campaign was one race on the grass, in which he finished second.

Monomoy Girl, a lock to be 3-year-old filly champion, made her first 2018 start at the Fair Grounds. So the other major winter tracks in the Eastern and Central time zones have produced champions in the era when Gulfstream has been shut out. Streak or coincidence?

Betting in the dark

I gave out four head-to-head Breeders’ Cup wagers and they all won. So I have no axe to grind.

However, I didn’t bet any of them for a simple reason. Unless they were snuck in during the moments I blinked, the odds were never shown on the TV monitors. There is no acceptable explanation or excuse.

The most egregious of the omissions was for the Turf, which had a proposition pitting Enable against the field. It would have been useful to know the odds inasmuch as this was identical to betting her to win. Thanks to the H-H bargain 10 percent takeout, the return could have been higher. It turns out this was the case. She paid $3.80 in the H-H against $3.60 in the straight pool.

Alas this was impossible to take advantage of as a result of the odds blackout. If these wagers are to become a regular part of the Breeders’ Cup menu, the odds have to be displayed as prominently as the other pools.

Post-Triple Crown hangovers

It probably went largely unnoticed on Breeders’ Cup Saturday but 2017 Preakness winner Cloud Computing failed to hit the board in an optional claimer at Aqueduct Saturday. It was his fourth straight out of the money effort since his big day 18 months ago. He ran so poorly it wouldn’t be a surprise if his retirement is announced any minute now.

It isn’t just him. Always Dreaming is winless in five starts since winning the 2017 Derby. Tapwrit has the same negative streak since getting home first in that year’s Belmont.

The only post Triple Crown win by any of the three race winners in 2016 was Exaggerator’s in that summer’s Haskell.

Justify gets an asterisk since he went to the breeding shed after his Triple Crown sweep but he at least won the Preakness after the Derby and the Belmont after the Preakness. That’s twice as many post-Triple Crown victories as the previous two years combined.

So much for the Triple Crown producing stars and gate attractions for the rest of the year.

Greyhound apocalypse

Animal rights activists rarely think of the unintended consequences of their campaigns.

They succeeded in passing a ban on greyhound racing in Florida in Tuesday’s referendums. All greyhound racing must cease in the state by the end of 2020.

Kitty Block, president of the Humane Society of the United States, was quoted in the Miami Herald after the returns saying, “Because of the decision of millions of Florida voters thousands of dogs will be spared the pain and suffering that is inherent in the greyhound racing industry.”

While patting herself and organization on the back, she neatly skipped over the fact that this alleged pain and suffering will be alleviated by what will amount to a greyhound apocalypse.

There are thousands of greyhounds currently racing at Florida’s 12 dog tracks. Thousands more are pups still months away from the race track. None will have any value but will still have to be housed, fed and medically cared for after Dec. 31, 2020. Some will be shipped to tracks in the remaining five greyhound racing states. But it will be a small percentage.

The greyhound industry has done an admirable job getting greyhounds adopted after their racing careers. People should not be fooled by the muzzles. They are to help decide photo finishes. These dogs are in no way vicious and make affectionate pets. I recommend them heartily for anyone who has room in their home and heart for a lovable pet. Steve Crist has a couple in his home and has become an advocate for greyhound adoption.

Unfortunately there is no way homes can be found for so many greyhounds at one time. I don’t think I need to connect the dots on what is going to happen to those for whom homes are not found. The Humane Society and PETA will walk away as if they are in no way responsible.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, November 01, 2018

Racing has many great days but Breeders’ Cup stands alone

Florida Derby Day is a grand day of racing at the highest level. Belmont Stakes Day is arguably even better. The Travers card is the highlight of the summer. But as much as they like to bill themselves as Breeders' Cup-like, they pale in comparison to the real thing. Star horses throw their caps into the ring for Eclipse consideration on other big days but more often than not, the championships are settled at the Breeders' Cup and they will be again on Friday and Saturday.

Gulfstream Park likes to brag its stakes laden Florida Derby card is like a Breeders’ Cup. The same boast is made by NYRA about Grade 1 packed Belmont Stakes Day and the high spot of the summer, the Travers program.

Each of these is a scintillating day of racing at the highest level, featuring champions and would-be champions. Then the first weekend in November rolls around and you realize there is no afternoon of racing like Breeders’ Cup Saturday. (Friday, whose configuration has been fiddled with again this year, is pretty special, too, but it’s not Saturday, nor is it intended to be.)

Almost every BC race features an intriguing storyline, angle or jinx waiting to be broken.

Where to start?

Might as well go right to the top. This year’s Classic might not have the star power of Sunday Silence-Easy Goer, Alysheba-Ferdinand, California Chrome-Arrogate and Zenyatta against the boys. However, top to bottom it is one of the most loaded ever.

Accelerate, the horse to beat, has California’s Big Three, the Santa Anita Handicap, Gold Cup and Pacific Classic, on his resume and has been No. 1 in the weekly NTRA poll the past couple of months.

The two most recent Travers winners, Catholic Boy and West Coast, will line up against him. So will the last two Dubai World Cup winners, Thunder Snow and Mendelssohn.

Bob Baffert liked McKinzie, the Pennsylvania Derby champion, as much or more than Justify last spring. Yoshida is a Grade 1 winner on turf and dirt. Mind Your Biscuits would probably be the favorite in the Sprint and stretched out to win around two turns at CD last out.

Roaring Lion is the Euro stranger danger. All he has done is win his last four races, all Grade 1’s, albeit on grass. Perhaps nothing underlines the strength and depth of the field as much as Discreet Lover, off a win in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, is 20-1 on the morning line and likely will go higher.

The only downer, a peripheral one, is that the race will not be televised in prime time, especially since Churchill Downs has lights. This is not an encouraging positive development for racing.

Much has been made of Accelerate’s trainer John Sadler being 0-41 at the Breeders Cup but, Christophe Clement is 0-34 and Ken McPeek is 0-29. Would anyone argue these are not superior trainers? Would you judge Manny Machado’s worth on his dismal World Series? All the negative streaks demonstrate is how tough it is and how much luck is needed to win a Breeders’ Cup race.

Interestingly, all three streaks could go the way of the Curse of Apollo Saturday. In addition to Accelerate, Sadler will send out the potentially shortest price of the festival, the undefeated Catalina Cruiser in the Dirt Mile. In a sign that Sadler’s luck might be changing, Catalina Cruiser drew the outside post 10, a major plus in a one-turn race out of the chute. A caveat: his undefeated record has been compiled against suspect competition in short fields out west. If you like Accelerate in the Classic, you have to give serious consideration to City of Light, the only horse to beat him this year.

Clement has the morning line favorite in the Turf Sprint, Disco Partner, whose prospects were enhanced by Churchill being able to extend the distance to 5 ½ furlongs. This still might be a bit short for Disco Partner but he would have been severely compromised at the former 5 furlong sprint distance.

McPeek has Restless Rider, early second choice behind post-compromised Bellafina in the Juvenile Fillies. Restless Rider, winner of Keeneland’s Alcibiadies around two turns last out, also has home court advantage. She’s two-for-two at Churchill.

The Turf has the day’s most luminous star power in Arc winner Enable, who Euros will tell you is the world’s best horse of either gender. If she lives up to her billing, another jinx will fall. Arc winners are 0-7 at the BC. However, the Arc has produced the winner of the Turf 10 times. This makes Waldgeist, who had a four-race winning streak snapped in the Arc, worth a long look. The American side is so below par, even defending champion Talismanic, whose 2018 form doesn’t match 2017’s, is not a toss.

The Distaff is almost as loaded as the Classic. Kentucky Oaks winners will meet for only the fourth time as 3-year-old monster Monomoy Girl faces off against Abel Tasman. Princess Rooney completed the Oaks-Distaff double at the first Breeders’ Cup but none of the Oaks winners have won in face-to-face circumstances since.

Midnight Bisou, who has been trying to get past Monomoy Girl all season and finally got the money courtesy of the stewards in the Cotillion, will give it another try. Ditto, Wonder Gadot, who came up just short of running down Monomoy Girl in the Oaks despite an eventful journey then beat the boys in the first two legs of Canada’s Triple Crown.

Amidst all this talent, Blue Prize is being somewhat overlooked even though the Argentine import is on a three-race run, two of them stakes at Churchill Downs. Chad Brown has another crack South American import, Wow Cat, who finally broke through in the U.S. in the Grade 1 Beldame. Then there’s the never to be overlooked “other Baffert,” Vale Dori, off a win in the Grade 1 Zenyatta, the race in which Abel Tasman didn’t show up.

The horse for course angle should never be overlooked and could produce a decent-price winner in the Sprint. Limousine Liberal has won his last five starts under the Twin Spires. If you want to see a trip that will bring tears to your eyes, check out his Phoenix. He tried to go inside, then outside, then inside again only to be blocked each time yet still wound up in a blanket finish with Promises Fulfilled and Whitmore, who will be shorter prices Saturday.

Here’s a stat that might be useful in the head-to-head wager in the Juvenile Fillies Turf. There is a widespread perception that Euros are better but American fillies have won the past four renewals. So a false favorite is not impossible in one of seven head-to-head wagers with a $10 minimum and a dirt cheap 10 percent takeout.

Others I find enticing are Game Winner over Complexity in the Juvenile, Thunder Snow over Mendelssohn in the Classic and Europe’s best to beat ours in the Mile.

That’s all I have. I hope it’s enough.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, October 25, 2018

BC menu offers big payoffs, demands big bankrolls

Potential life-changing wagers have been mixed into the Breeders' Cup wagering menus next weekend. A rolling Jackpot High 5 will carry over from race to race until there is only a single winning ticket with a mandatory payoff on the Classic. Four Pick 4's, two each day, will have carryover provisions with a mandatory payoff on the Classic. These bets won't rival Powerball but the payoffs could break all pari-mutuel records.

You might want to bring your ATM card to Breeders' Cup wagering sites.

You'll be enticed by potential windfall payoffs for some innovative bets, which might not equal the $1.6 billion Powerball but it won't be for lack of effort on the part of Breeders' Cup. Given the amount of money typically bet on the Breeders' Cup, several have the possibility to soar into seven (perhaps even eight) figures. The encouraging part is all feature low takeouts, 15 percent or less.

This is in addition to the customary roster of rolling daily doubles and pick 3's, seven pick 4's, exactas, trifectas and superfectas with their more expensive rakes. There also will be a $1 pick six on Saturday, ending with the Classic.

The most potentially life-changing bet is a rolling Jackpot Super High 5, which will be available on every race, Breeders' Cup and otherwise, save the final post-Classic heat Saturday. The challenge is to pick the first five finishers in exact order with a 50-cent minimum bet. Good luck with 14 starters in almost every race.

The stairway to bettors' heaven is the rollover provision. If there is more than one winning ticket, 75 percent will be paid out and 25 percent will carry over to the next race. If there is no perfect ticket, 100 percent will carry over. Should there be no single winner over the two days, there will be a mandatory payoff in the Classic. The mind boggles at how much could be at stake.

Horizontal pick 5's also offers life-changing possibilities for a 50-cent bet. Pick 5's will be sold on the first five races Friday then the five-race Future Stars, which wraps Day One.

The same pattern will be used Saturday, the first five races of the day then another all BC sequence ending with the Classic. If any of the first three Pick 5's do not have a winner, the pool will be rolled over into the final one on Saturday featuring the cream of the BC card--Filly & Mare Turf, Sprint, Mile, Distaff, Turf, Classic.

Pending scratches and decisions on preferences, all but two races could have limit 14-horse fields. The Juvenile Fillies drew only 11 and the Distaff attracted an even dozen.

The new Juvenile Turf Sprint, which opens the carnival on Friday, drew a ridiculous 28 entrants. Ironically this is the only race limited to 12 starters. There's no precedent for this race so you have to wonder why it couldn't have been split. I guess Breeders' Cup didn't want to establish a precedent.

With so many possible horizontal combinations, the potential payoffs are enormous.

I'd love to be alive into the Classic with Accelerate, Catholic Boy, West Coast, McKinzie, Mind Your Biscuits, Yoshida, Thunder Snow and Mendelssohn. But I wouldn't feel safe. I'll try to narrow that down before next week's column.

The preceding races aren't appreciably more manageable. If you can beat Enable in the Turf or Imperial Hint in the Sprint, you're looking at four figures minimum. Beat both, you can add another zero.

To be clear, I'm not picking (or tossing) anyone right now. There are hours of poring over past performances and trying to measure form in Europe against what has happened in North America before final judgments can be made.

Some less lucrative but more hitable opportunities also are on deck. A trio of two-day crossover daily doubles--the Juvenile Turf to the Turf, the Juvenile Fillies to the Distaff and the Juvenile to the Classic--will be introduced with $1 minimums.

I wouldn't even attempt the first one this far out because of the Euro factors. However, at this point the latter two intrigue me because I have an opinion on a couple of non-favorites. Like many others, I was more impressed by Code of Honor's second in the Champagne than with Complexity's unchallenged front-running win. Given all the money Bob Baffert's undefeated Game Winner will deservedly take, the price will be generous.

I also think Argentinian import Blue Prize might be slightly overlooked in the Distaff due to the presence of stellar 3-year-olds Monomoy Girl and Midnight Bisou as well as last year's Eclipse champion 3-year-old Abel Tasman, who was a closing second by a half-length in the 2017 Distaff.

Blue Prize has won four of six this year, including her last three in a row, capped by the Grade 1 Spinster. She also has won back-to-back stakes at Churchill Downs. A victory for the South American wouldn't be unprecedented. Bayakoa (1989 and 1990) and Paseana (1992) came up from Argentina to capture three Distaffs.

The Breeders' Cup will also put its toes into the water of sports-like betting with three head-to-head match-ups with $10 minimums and a 10 percent takeout. This is as close as racing has ever gotten to the approximate 5 percent rake on two-side sports propositions.

A significant departure is prices will not be fixed. Thus one side could be 3-5 and the other 6-5, although Breeders' Cup can be counted on to come up with the most seemingly evenly matched possibilities. The final odds will not be locked until the betting windows are.

The match-ups will be announced after the actual fields are settled on Monday.

The record 14 races and three head-to-head matches will demand stamina, prudent money management and a hefty bankroll (or well stocked ATM account). I can't wait.

Written by Tom Jicha

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