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, January 17, 2019

The Pegasus is here to stay

The Pegasus will be run for the third time next Saturday. This is two more than many foresaw when the concept was announced. Changes still have to be made. A big one this year is the addition of the companion Turf. The rich buy-in and exorbitant payoffs to also-rans remain an issue of concern. With the Super Bowl coming to Miami next year, a fourth Pegasus at Gulfstream is more certain than Justify and Monomoy Girl being named 3-year-old champions. This year's Derby prep schedule picks up Saturday at the Fair Grounds, where 15 are entered and a case can by mounted for at least half of them.

We’re a week away from Pegasus 3. When the concept was announced in May 2016 a chorus of naysayers predicted there would be no need for a numerical qualifier. Like the elites of college basketball, it would be one-and-done.

They were wrong and will continue to be wrong. Rest assured there will be a Pegasus 4, 5, 6…

Future Pegasuses won’t exactly resemble the original or even the year before. Neither of the subsequent two have.

Primarily, Gulfstream still has to work out a way to balance the risk-reward structure. The $1 million ante for the first Pegasus was absurd. Last year, it was illusory, thanks to the $650,000 kickback for just showing up, the Pegasus version of a participation trophy.

The disproportionate payoffs at the bottom need to be reduced to nothing more than expenses, as it is in every race every day. Only the first five should share in the main spoils. This would make it possible to enhance the payoffs for second through fifth to make them more worthwhile. Moreover, if the Pegasus wasn’t refunding a couple of million dollars to deep also-rans, it might not need exorbitant entry fees.

The first two editions have drawn the reigning Horse of the Year, extending careers that would have ended at the Breeders’ Cup. This was one of the goals, although ideally the extension would have been for more than one race.

Pegasus 3 probably won’t have the Horse of the Year, an honor likely to be bestowed upon Justify next Thursday. But the best horse in training, Accelerate, will head the race, as will most of the best of the rest.

It would have been great if McKinzie had come east. His clunker at the Breeders’ Cup was too bad to be true, which he showed in crushing the Malibu.

It would have been even better if certain Eclipse filly champion Monomoy Girl had accepted the challenge, as her connections indicated she might in the euphoria of the Distaff winner’s circle. A battle of the sexes would have really jazzed up the Pegasus among casual fans. No good reason for the change of heart has ever been offered.

The race won’t have the same “sex appeal” but there will be a prominent female in the Pegasus Turf. Speedy Californian Fahan Mura, recent winner of the Robert J. Frankel, is shipping east trying to take advantage of her front-running speed in a race that otherwise is coming up light.

Attribute this to growing pains. It’s a sure thing more outstanding turfers—which America didn’t have in 2018 anyway—will be pointed toward the $7 million race in 2020.

Bottom line, there will be a Pegasus every winter as long as the Stronach family owns Gulfstream Park.

A family feud might be wending through the courts but Frank and his daughter Belinda, who is in line to inherit control of The Stronach Group, are in synch on the Pegasus. It is the embodiment of their dream to meld racing and celebrity-driven entertainment.

Tim Ritvo is already thinking past next Saturday. He recently speculated aloud about a slight but significant shift in the date for Pegasus 4. The event has been anchored on the weekend between the NFL’s conference championship games and the Super Bowl to take advantage of a relative dead spot in the sports calendar.

The Super Bowl is in Miami next winter, so Ritvo is contemplating moving the Pegasus to the Saturday of Super Bowl weekend. As much media as convenes in any one location all year will be in town. Writers and broadcasters have little to do on the Saturday before the game. Neither do the well-heeled fans who can afford a trip to the NFL title game.

Celebs, who flock to the Super Bowl site, also look for something to do, especially something where they can grab some face time in front of cameras. It’s a gilded opportunity to get them to Gulfstream. If nothing else, awareness of the Pegasus will be heightened.

Thanks to a recent referendum, which was dishonestly sold by Disney and its allies, sports betting could be years away in Florida. So one dream, Super Bowl fans having the opportunity to bet on the game at Gulfstream, unfortunately can’t come true. Battalions of cops would be needed to handle the traffic around the track. Maybe someday.

LeComte wide open

A mystery of racing, albeit not one many obsess over, is why a parade of superstar fillies have come out of the Fair Grounds while you have to go back to 1996 to find a colt (Grindstone), who completed the Louisiana Derby-Kentucky Derby double.

During this period, ten fillies have come out of New Orleans, including superstar Rachael Alexandra and Monomoy Girl, to capture the Kentucky Oaks. To be fair, not all made the Fair Grounds their winter base. Some shipped in for the big filly races. However, the Louisiana Derby, with its 100-point Kentucky Derby endowment, also attracts a goodly number of out-of-towners.

This trend might come into play again. The Silverbulletday, named for a Louisiana Oaks-Kentucky Oaks champion, is headed by Liora, who has demonstrated unlimited promise in two career starts. She will be gunning for her third straight victory, all around two turns.

Most recently, the daughter of Candy Ride out-gamed Restless Rider, coming off a second in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies and a win in the Grade 1 Alcibiades, in the Golden Rod at Churchill Downs. Off those two wins, Liora is one of the ones to beat in the major races for her sex and generation and she’ll probably be odds-on against a half-dozen foes of lesser credentials Saturday.

Meanwhile, the LeComte, first of the significant Fair Grounds Derby preps, has attracted a field of 14 plus an also eligible and a case could be made for about half of them, none with great conviction. On the other hand, there shouldn’t be a horse much less than 4-1.

Tight Ten is the probable favorite off seconds in the Saratoga Special and Iroquois and a troubled trip at the Breeders’ Cup. Having Steve Asmussen in his corner won’t help his price.

Brendan Walsh has been talking up Plus Que Parfait, coming off a second to Signalman in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes. Both these colts figure big.

I’ll be shopping for a more generous payoff with War of Wills, whose connections thought they had a turf horse (remember Cigar?). War of Wills' first four starts were on grass and he did manage a second in a Woodbine stake. He finally got on the dirt last time out and ran away and hid. There is quality dirt in his family. What’s more, Tyler Gaffalione is skipping out on the Florida Millions card at Gulfstream to fly in for the ride.

I don’t think the Kentucky Derby winner or even the Louisiana Derby winner will be coming out of this mile and 70 yards but the wide open nature offers the opportunity for a good score.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, January 10, 2019

Christie tells Uncle Sam, keep your hands off sports betting

Former NJ governor Chris Christie, the driving force behind the legalization of sports betting, gave a speech this past week in which he urged lawmakers from gambling states to tell the federal government that it is not needed to oversee the newest form of gambling. In other NJ-related news, Monmouth Park made a long overdue move to separate the track's centerpiece event, the Haskell, from the same weekend as the Jim Dandy at Saratoga. It's a step in the right direction but not a big enough step.

Chris Christie might be a typical politician, who enjoys the sound of his own voice, but let’s give credit where credit is due. He almost single-handedly was responsible for the legalization of sports gambling.

As governor of New Jersey, he took breaks from screwing up traffic on the George Washington Bridge to relentlessly push for the lifting of the federal prohibition against betting on games. Despite countless setbacks in the courts, he refused to take no for an answer and eventually won the day at the Supreme Court.

Now a private citizen, Christie continues to be a leading voice on the implementation of sports betting. He gave a speech this week to the National Council of Legislators from Gambling States whose key point was states do not need the federal government intruding into their business

The catalyst was a bill introduced by Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and now retired Orrin Hatch (R-Ut), which would give the feds oversight and regulatory power over sports betting.

Christie’s talking point was, “who needs them?” He pointed out that the federal government was the enemy throughout the legalization fight. Why embrace them as allies now? “We need to stand up and fight strongly against federal regulation,” Christie argued. “We fought for seven years to get the right to do this ourselves. Let’s not give it away.”

Racing has a sizable constituency, which advocates federal involvement in the sport, especially in the area of drug testing. The same conditions do not exist in sports betting. Numerous athletes have been caught using performance enhancing drugs but this don’t have the impact on a single game or series of games that drugs do in racing.

What’s more, all the major sports have strong central governing bodies, something many in racing yearn for but appears to be light years away from fruition.

What could the federal government offer sports? Christie noted that Nevada has done an admirable job of uncovering scandals, most involving point-shaving. “Where did Nevada sports gaming ever seem it was incapable of being regulated by the state regulators in Nevada? When I ask people in the federal government this, they can’t come up with one reason.”

Nothing government does is free. If Uncle Sam gets involved in sports betting, the first thing that will happen is a new massive, expensive bureaucracy will be created, because that’s what government does.

Louisiana state senator Ronnie Johns cut to the chase. “I can see a tremendous money grab from the feds.”

A good move

Monmouth Park has finally done something long overdue. The Haskell, the track’s centerpiece event, has been moved ahead by eight days to July 20.

This separates it from being on the same weekend as the Jim Dandy at Saratoga, which has never been good for either race or racing in general. Shifting from Sunday to Saturday has an additional advantage. Monmouth has been guaranteed coverage on NBC for the next three years.

I have been advocating that the Haskell be moved even further, to July 4 or the closest weekend to Independence Day, to get it away from the premier races at the Spa. However, I do recognize that Monmouth prefers to stage its biggest day while it is the only thoroughbred track in the Metropolitan area.

I would counter that each track has its own customer base, with minimal crossover, so this is an issue that might have had relevance in the past when Belmont would get 40,000 people on a Saturday and these people needed an outlet when the horses were upstate. With ADW’s and OTB’s, this is no longer the case.

Casual fans are event oriented. If Monmouth had the day’s big attraction, this is where they would show up.

One reaction in the media to the new date offers another clue as to why the move took so long. Stephen Edelson of the Asbury Park Press wondered if the earlier date will cost Monmouth horses from the Triple Crown races. He speculated that Bob Baffert might not have shipped Triple Crown winner American Pharoah to the 2015 Haskell if it had been six weeks, rather than seven, removed from the Belmont Stakes.

I would counter that American Pharoah was a once-in-four decades exception and Baffert wheeled him back in less than four weeks in the Travers. Justify didn’t make the Haskell, or any other race, after the Belmont. Long term decisions shouldn’t be influenced by hypotheticals.

Moreover, the Belmont is such a gruelingly unique race it could be hurt more than the Haskell. Unless a trainer had a Triple Crown candidate, he or she might skip the mile and a half on Long Island in favor of a $1 million mile and an eighth on the Jersey Shore a month later.

Chad Brown did this last summer with Eclipse champion Good Magic. He skipped the Belmont and went from the Preakness to the Haskell. On Haskell Day, he was the leading 3-year-old in training and won easily to bolster this status.

I don’t want to blaspheme but unless you have the Kentucky Derby winner, the Preakness and Belmont have become mere lucrative options on a racing calendar brimming with them.

The new date also offers trainers an extra week between the Haskell and Travers. It’s absurd that whether to run or not in any race could be contingent on whether it is five weeks or six weeks removed from a horse’s most recent race but this is the new norm we have to live with.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Sunday, January 06, 2019

Saturday’s lesson: Never get too high on maiden-breakers

Bettors--and analysts--went overboard on Code of Honor and Coliseum in Saturday stakes, betting each down to odds-on even though both had only one win on their credit sheet. Neither hit the board. The rallying style in which Mihos and Gunmetal Grey scored in the Mucho Macho Man and Sham, respectively, offered indications that both will be factors on the Triple Crown trail as the distances extend. Meanwhile, the announcement of the Eclipse finalists raises the possibility that a championship could go overseas to a horse who started only once on this side of the Atlantic.

Saturday provided a teachable moment—actually, two of them.

Code of Honor and Coliseum, among the most touted youngsters on the East and West Coasts, were expected to use the Mucho Macho Man and Sham, respectively, as launch pads for their ascension to the highest strata among this year’s Derby class. Neither got off the ground.

The primary lesson is never get too high on a horse, who has only a maiden win on his resume, no matter how eye-catching. Although Code of Honor had a second in the Grade 1 Champagne as a follow-up to his debut victory at the Spa, deeper scrutiny diminished that laurel. Complexity, who ran away from him by at Belmont, imploded at the Breeders’ Cup, running 10th of 13, beaten more than 20 lengths.

Coliseum took his only previous start by 7 when he was bet down to 1-2 as an international good thing. However, nothing behind him that day has amounted to anything since.

It was an expensive takeaway for many, who hammered both down to odds-on and undoubtedly usedthem as “free space” singles in multi-race horizontals.

Neither was ever a factor. Code of Honor didn’t have any noteworthy gate issues, as he did in the Champagne, but nevertheless dropped back to last in a six-horse field. He appeared to be mounting his move going to the turn but Johnny Velazquez said after a brief surge he spit out the bit.

Coliseum didn’t get away well and also trailed early. But the headstrong colt refused to relax, fighting Joe Talamo as he tried to rush wide into contention. He continued far out into the track into the second turn, too. All the extra exertion took its toll. He was totally empty when the real running began.

So much for the negatives. A couple of serious players in this season’s Derby class emerged. Gunmetal Grey was clearly the more impressive. He loitered near the back of the pack with Coliseum early but unleashed a furious surge in the lane, the type that will have Derby dreamers swooning all winter and spring. However, it can’t be overlooked that he has hooked pro tem division leader Game Winner a couple of times without throwing a scare into the likely Eclipse champion.

A totally new shooter jumped into the Derby picture at Gulfstream. Mihos, who broke maiden in his second start, did what Code of Honor was expected to do. Indeed, they moved together on the turn. The difference was Mihos sustained his rally while Code of Honor backed out of it.

Extending from six furlongs to a mile, Mihos, too, scored in a manner that will encourage the thought longer distances will not be an issue. He appeared to have a slim chance to catch front-running Trophy Chaser but kicked in another gear in the final sixteenth to get up just before the wire.

Mihos’ next challenge will be to demonstrate that he can have the same kick around two turns. His opportunity likely will come in either the Holy Bull on Feb. 2 or Fountain of Youth on March 2. With zero Derby qualifying points, Jimmy Jerkens cannot be too conservative.

To clarify, both Gunmetal Grey and Mihos had only maiden wins. The majority of the fields in early stakes for juveniles and sophomores fall into this category, so obviously sometimes this is where you have to look. But over the long haul, the quick route to insolvency is to invest in them at odds-on.

There will be several more opportunities to put this lesson to use in the coming weeks. I promise to remember it, too.

Pegasus Turf picks up starter

The new Pegasus Turf, whose prospective field is still short of the desired dozen, picked up a new player from Santa Anita’s co-featured San Gabriel, Next Shares. Already a Grade 1 winner, Next Shares came out best in a three-horse photo to win the Grade 2.

Immediately after his number was put up, his connections indicated intentions to ship east for the $7 million Pegasus Turf, which needs every quality horse it can get.

Once is enough

It’s interesting that in a year the Horse of the Year debate is whether Justify’s early retirement should be held against him, there is a chance horses who raced only once in North American could capture divisional championships.

Breeders’ Cup Turf champion Enable is one of the finalists in the Filly & Mare Turf category and Expert Eye, winner of the Mile, is up for the male counterpart.

Races overseas are not supposed to be considered but in the case of Enable’s win in the Arc this is like telling jurors to unhear something crucial to a case because of an upheld objection.

There is no rule regarding how many North American starts a candidate must have but I personally do not vote for horses who race on this side of the Atlantic only once. It’s not as if there isn’t a worthy American champion in Sistercharlie, who had four Grade 1 wins in five starts.

The male turf category is a different matter. No standout American emerged, illustrated by the fact that Stormy Liberal, who didn’t run past 6 ½ furlongs, is a finalist. So Expert Eye’s nomination is understandable. In fact, he might have a better chance to win than Enable due to the weak competition.

To extend the once is enough scenario, Gun Runner, who ended his career winning the Pegasus in January, is a finalist for older dirt male. Not that it matters. Accelerate deserves to be unanimous choice, a consolation for the likelihood that Justify will beat him out for Horse of the Year.

Written by Tom Jicha

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