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 Sentinels horse racing writer since 2007 as a staff member, and continues to this day as a free-lancer.

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Thursday, May 23, 2019


Trainers, owners forcing a more spaced out Triple Crown


Racing is steeped in tradition. But this means nothing to modern participants. They are well along toward diminishing the Preakness to irrelevance because they are disinclined to run back in two weeks. In spite of Derby runners taking first and second last Saturday, we are approaching a crisis point where only the winner in Louisville will show up in Baltimore. The only remedy--and I hate racing being coerced into it--is increasing the spacing between the Triple Crown races. Also, Mark Casse feels Tyler Gaffalione should not have had to claim foul in the Derby, that no rider should feel compelled to lodge an objection. If stewards did their job, it wouldn't be necessary.

By Tom Jicha

You would think (and I would hope) the Triple Crown triumphs of American Pharoah and Justify within a three-year span would curtail debate about lengthening the spacing between the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont. Alas, it might be time for traditionalists like myself to stop batting our heads against a wall and accept the new reality of race horse training.

That only four of the 19 Derby starters--theoretically the finest of their generation--chose to contest the Preakness is dismaying. This was the first time in 68 years the Derby’s top three (four with Maximum Security) chose to pass the increasingly luster-challenged second jewel of the Triple Crown.

The usual bumps, bruises and fatigue have been cited by some horsemen but the truth is it’s nothing more than disinclination to run horses back in two weeks. Kissed-in Derby winner Country House contracted a convenient cough. His stable-mate Tacitus, officially third in the Derby, apparently is in fine fettle but was never under consideration to show up in Baltimore. Ditto for Code of Honor, moved up to second in Louisville.

Defrocked Derby winner Maximum Security is supposedly a little sore but it’s difficult to imagine this would have been a problem if he wasn’t taken down on the first Saturday in May. In fact, Gary West said on The Today Show, “There’s no Triple Crown on the line for us and there’s no reason to run a horse back in two weeks when you don’t have to.”

Consider the implications of that. One of the grand sportsmen of the game feels it makes no sense for anyone other than the Kentucky Derby winner to run back in the Preakness under the current logistics.

Bob Baffert sent at least one of his three Derby horses, Improbable, to the Preakness. But it could be argued it wasn’t his best. Eclipse champion Game Winner is being reserved for the Belmont. Maybe.

Todd Pletcher followed his pattern of not running back any of his Derby starters unless they wore the roses.

The fact that the one-two finishers in Baltimore, War of Will and Everfast, were running back in two weeks from the Derby is unlikely to change many minds.

Plaudits to Mark Casse, who still has respect for the sport and its traditions. Even after winding up sixth in the Derby, Casse never wavered in his intention to run War of Will back in the Preakness. Now he is doing the same with the Belmont Stakes.

After taking time to savor War of Will’s triumph Saturday, Casse said, “I would say there’s an extremely good shot he’ll be at the Belmont. There are only three Triple Crown races and they’re pretty important. I think if you can do it, you should do it.”

Amen.

Although I could gag writing this, it’s probably time to rethink the scheduling of the Triple Crown events before the leaders of the sport make the Preakness and even the Belmont irrelevant.

Riders shouldn’t have to claim foul

Casse moved up several lengths in my estimation even before the Preakness. During an NTRA teleconference previewing the Preakness, he was asked about Tyler Gaffalione not claiming foul in Louisville.

Casse countered he should not have had to, that no rider should have to claim. This is why racing has stewards.

“I’ve had a problem with this for a long time,” Casse said. He used some big names to make his point, emphasizing he was citing these individuals solely because their names are familiar.

“Let’s run a race. We finish fourth. Todd Pletcher wins and Bob Baffert runs second. My rider, who rides for Bob and Todd, has to make a decision. He was bothered by the winner. He can claim foul and have Pletcher moved down to fourth and the best he’s going to do is move up to third. Tomorrow, he’s got to go look at Todd Pletcher and work with him. I think riders are put in a bad predicament when they’re asked to do that. I think sometimes claims of foul are not made for that reason.”

Similarly, Casse scoffed at the practice of stewards interviewing jockeys as they deliberate. “Can you see in the Super Bowl, the wide receiver goes out and the referee says, ‘Was that pass interference?’ And he goes, ‘Well, I think it was. I think he hit me early.’

“Then the referee talks to the safety. ‘What do you think? Did you hit the wide receiver?’ ‘Well, no, of course I didn’t hit him too soon.’”

Yet this is what stewards do every day even though they have multiple camera angles to dissect a race even before the riders pull up their mounts.

Casse’s point is so logical and unassailable it’s astonishing it hasn’t been made before.

In the realm of sports officialdom, a racing steward has to be the least demanding. No physical exertion is required, travel is cross-town, not cross-country, and the hours couldn’t be softer. They really only go to work for two or three minutes every half hour. When called upon to make a decision, they can take their sweet time, as long as 22 minutes as they did in the Derby.

Yet they are maddeningly inconsistent. A foul in one race or at one track isn’t in another. Just as basketball has its Jordan Rules and LeBron Rules, big name riders are allowed to get away with things that get lesser jockeys taken down.

They see no evil and hear no evil when a trainer wins races at a rate double or triple that of the most illustrious members of the Hall of Fame.

It’s no secret a big reason for this is stewards tend to get their jobs as political patronage rewards or because they are ensconced in a good old boy network.

In a case like the Derby, or any other race for that matter, when a rider feels he has to lodge a claim because the stewards have not lit the “inquiry” sign, the stewards are derelict in their duty. If they can’t do their job right, they shouldn’t have it.

But when racing’s ills are discussed, this is never brought up. Why?

© Tom Jicha, HorseRaceInsider.com, May 23, 2019, All Rights Reserved

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, May 16, 2019


Derby controversy could be best thing Preakness has going for it


By Tom Jicha

One of the weakest fields in memory will chase the second jewel of the Triple Crown. The first four finishers under the wire in Louisville are AWOL. The likely favorite, Improbable, has not won a race as a 3YO, War of Will, the colt at the center of the Derby debacle, has finished ninth and seventh (moved up to sixth) in his two most recent races. Non-Derby horses and Maryland hotshots have a weak record in the Preakness but the lesser quality of the field could open the way for streaking Alwaysmining to score a minor upset.

Controversy doesn’t have to be a bad thing. The fallout from the Kentucky Derby might be the best thing Saturday’s Preakness has going for it.

Ranked on star power, this is the least lustrous second jewel of the Triple Crown in memory. The only reason for many to watch is to see how War of Will rebounds from his Derby debacle. Was he really denied his chance at glory by Maximum Security or was the alleged foul much ado about very little.

Trainer Mark Casse said ruefully that because of the Derby brouhaha, War of Will has gotten as much or more attention going into the Preakness as American Pharoah and Justify did en route to their Triple Crowns.

It’s shameful only four horses from this spring’s Kentucky Derby are coming back. The first four horses under the wire in Louisville are no-shows. Country House and Maximum Security have legitimate ailment excuses. Others just don’t want to play in one of the few races that draws national attention to the sport. Way to support the game, guys.

Neither of the Preakness’ “big horses” is coming in on a high. Improbable, the last flash Derby favorite, is winless in three starts as a 3-year-old. The Derby was the weakest performance of his career, the first time in six career starts he finished out of the exacta. Still, he is very likely to be favored again.

Mike Smith, who climbs aboard for the first time, feels this status is merited. “I think we haven’t seen his best race yet. I’ve seen him from afar…and from behind,” Smith said with a laugh. “This horse has a lot of talent. If I can get him happy, he’s going to run big.”

Money Mike is confident he’ll be able to do that. Not having first-hand knowledge of a horse has often proven beneficial in their first collaboration, he said. “I have a knack for that.”

Improbable’s main challenger, War of Will, has finished ninth and seventh (put up to sixth) in his most recent starts. His trainer, Mark Casse, said those races are throw-outs. “I think he’s a great horse. Through all the adversity, he’s continued to show his class.”

Casse said if Tyler Gaffalione had gotten a clean trip, “You would be talking to me as the trainer of the Kentucky Derby winner. Not a whole lot of things went right and he still got beat about four lengths.”

The stranger danger is local hero Alwaysmining, who in some ways resembles Maximum Security. He didn’t start for a cheap claiming price, but once he moved to Kelly Rubley’s barn and she figured him out, he has been unbeatable, winning by ridiculous margins during a six-race streak.

There’s a local hotshot in the Preakness every year and they almost always finish hot and dirty against competition classier than what they have been bullying at Laurel and Pimlico. But this isn’t a typically loaded Preakness. If the Marylanders don’t bet Alwaysmining down below 6-1, he’s a value play.

Stars won’t be out

The entire Preakness weekend has devolved into racing’s equivalent of college basketball’s National Invitation Tournament, highly competitive second tier events.

The racing office knocked itself out to assemble big fields for the many stakes Friday and Saturday. Alas, there isn’t much star power. Not a single horse in the top 10 of the NTRA’s latest weekly poll of non-Triple Crown contenders will be in action in Baltimore this weekend.

This is especially noticeable in the most prominent supporting features, the Black-Eyed Susan and the Pimlico Special. The latter has been extended to a mile-and-a-quarter, a refreshing change from the trend to shorten stakes to no more than a mile-and-an-eighth. Let’s hope other tracks notice it has drawn a limit field of 14.

To be honest, half or more of the 14 are glorified allowance horses taking a shot.

Todd Pletcher has a strong entry—everything being relative—Rally Cry and You’re To Blame. You’re To Blame is a distance specialist. Ten furlongs might be too short for him. Last season, he won the mile-and-a-half Greenwood Cup at Parx and was second at a mile-and-five-eighths Temperence Hill at Belmont. Lightly raced Rally Cry hasn’t won since the 2017 ungraded Alydar at Saratoga.

Tenfold, third in last year’s Preakness, is sure to take a lot of action. He always does but he has been burning a lot of money. He has been out of the money as the favorite in both 2019 starts. Still anything close to his best race puts him right there with this bunch. But I’d rather bet against him than on him.

If you’re making vertical exotics, you could do worse than include Unbridled Juan. He rarely wins but he usually gets somewhere on the board. He’s the house horse, owned by Frank Stronach, so you know his trainer Jose Corrales will have him ready for a peak effort.

The Black-Eyed Susan pulled an original field of nine, which was quickly scratched down to eight when Sweet Diane was withdrawn. Pletcher has the filly to beat, Always Shopping. She got good at the tail end of the Aqueduct winter meeting, winning a couple of stakes, the Busanda and Gazelle. She took the Busanda as a zero-for-three maiden, an indication of the quality of competition.

The morning line is curious. Point of Honor and Cookie Dough are both rated stronger than the Pletcher filly, who's 4-1. Point of Honor's main claim to fame is scoring in a minor Tampa Bay Stakes. Most recently she was a non-distinguished fourth in the Gulfstream Oaks. She's 5-2, just ahead of 3-1 Cookie Dough, who finished ahead of her at Gulfstream. Cookie Dough lays it on the line every time and Stanley Gold is a terrific trainer. However, her only wins have been in the restricted Florida Sire Stakes series.

I’ll be taking a shot with Brill, a road warrior, who has been facing tougher for Jerry Hollendorfer. Brill comes in off a third in Oaklawn’s Fantasy. Either of the two who finished in front of her, Lady Apple and Motion Emotion, would be solid favorites in this spot.

A potential bold move

There’s a simple explanation for the dearth of top tier horses on such a big weekend--the loaded cards on Oaks and Derby Day at Churchill. The reluctance of contemporary trainers to come back in two weeks in the Preakness is also being felt in the undercards. Some of those who argue the spacing between the Triple Crown races should be increased have begun using the Preakness supporting cards as another reason to do it.

The Maryland Jockey Club is helpless. The Derby is always going to be on the first Saturday in May. As long as NYRA holds its ground with the Belmont scheduled five weeks later, there is no place for the Preakness to go.

Actually, there is but it would require a really brazen move. Suppose The Stronach Group decided to run the Preakness three or four weeks after the Belmont, say around July 4. It would juggle the Triple Crown sequence, which hasn’t always been Derby-Preakness-Belmont anyway.

As a traditionalist, I would be against this move. But trainers would love it and undoubtedly support it more strongly than they do now in both the main event and supporting stakes.

Even the threat to do it could induce NYRA to play nice with the schedule.

Just thinking out loud.






Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, May 09, 2019


DQ is justifiable but still a terrible decision


By Tom Jicha

Racing's horrible year reached its nadir with the Kentucky Derby disqualification of Maximum Security. If you adhere to "a rule is a rule," it was justifiable. But if "a rule is a rule" were applied in every race, every day, there would be inquiries in almost every race and numerous DQ's every day. Given the import of the event and the conditions in which the race was run, Maximum Security should have been afforded some benefit of the doubt. As it is, we have arguably the most unworthy Derby winner in history and a Preakness that will not have any of the first three Derby finishers--four if you count Maximum Security.

Maximum Security is paying the price for Nickell Robey-Coleman’s sin. Coleman is the Los Angeles Rams cornerback who clearly interfered with New Orleans Saints receiver Tommy Lee Lewis in the waning minutes of the NFC Championship game. The officials, who made no call on the obvious foul, were vilified by fans and media.

Churchill Downs stewards were in a similar position Saturday. They didn’t want to become the first officials to take down a Derby winner but they didn't want to become the object of scorn and derision the NFL officials were. This is why they didn’t put up the inquiry sign and why they took 22 minutes looking for ways not to change the order of finish. The attention of TV, specifically NBC, whose commentators took forceful positions against Maximum Security, forced their hand.

There is ample evidence to support this contention. Most revealingly, the stewards didn’t illuminate the inquiry sign. They had seen the same video before Flavien Prat registered an objection as after he did, standard procedure in all stewards stands. They did nothing.

Prat’s claim was borderline frivolous. His house, Country House, was one of the few in the top flight who wasn’t bothered. Prat acknowledged as much. He said he knew a lot had gone on behind him and wanted the stewards to take a look at it. If the decision had been based on whether Maximum Security had fouled Country House, it would have taken 22 seconds, not 22 minutes, to let the result stand “as is.”

In my years at the track. I’ve seen instances where the stewards changed the order beyond the expected because they saw more during the reviews than was alleged. But I’ve never seen nor heard of a foul claim made by a jockey on behalf of other horses.

This is where Nickell Robey-Coleman and TV comes in. NBC was all over Prat’s claim, as it should have been. Every replay angle they showed made it look worse for Maximum Security. They interviewed horse people, including House Call’s trainer Bill Mott, who said if this were an ordinary race on a weekday card, there is no question Maximum Security would be disqualified.

The stewards had access to the NBC feed. Indeed, NBC showed the stewards examining some of the NBC angles. If anything good is to come out of this debacle, the network showing the race should have the opportunity to have microphones in the stewards’ room.

Not wanting an encore of what happened in the Saints-Ram game, the stewards in effect reversed their initial decision in not lighting the inquiry sign. That they are lacking the courage of their convictions was sealed when they refused to answer questions from the media after the races.

There is no justification for this. If the stewards do eventually face the media to explain themselves, it will be after they have been lawyered-up and advised what to say and not say.

The bottom line is they made a justifiable disqualification but one of the worst decisions in the history of racing. The one thing that apparently wasn’t considered, but should have been given how close a call it was, is that in taking down Maximum Security, they would be elevating an unworthy winner to the top prize in racing.

Country House will stand forevermore as the least deserving winner of America’s most important horse race. He got a clean run and wasn’t good enough.

(Forward Pass, put up after a drug positive, is a separate case. Dancer’s Image’s owner, trainer and jockey got to go to the winner’s circle and savor their greatest moment and people who bet on him were paid. The result wasn’t overturned until days later when public attention had moved on.)

The “a rule is a rule” justification doesn’t stand up to analysis. Whether it be in courtrooms or stewards’ stands, discretion is applied every day. Mitigating factors are considered in dispensing punishment. Maximum Security was egregiously over-punished. I have yet to hear anyone argue he wasn’t the best horse in the Derby. A hefty fine against Luis Saez would have been sufficient.

If “a rule is a rule” was applied to every race every day, there would be inquiries and disqualifications several times every day.

The most prominent but far from the only example is “an incident at the start.” More horses have their chances compromised or eliminated soon after the break than at any other point in a race. Yet “a rule is a rule” is almost never applied.”

When police unions have a hair up their behinds in contract disputes, one of their favored tactics is to do everything exactly according to the rules. It brings essential police work to a screeching halt.

I hope everyone espousing the “rule is a rule” stance never gets a speeding ticket for driving one mph over the limit. A rule is a rule, after all.

The stewards also were destroying this year’s Triple Crown series. If Country House, who subsequently was taken out of Preakness consideration with a cough, had stayed in and won the Preakness and Belmont, the Triple Crown would have been irreparably tarnished. So it’s just as well he’s not running next Saturday.

The argument that Maximum Security’s disqualification would have been an easy, non-controversial call in a mundane race doesn’t hold up, either. There aren’t 19 horses scrambling to get traction on a treacherously slippery course in a mundane race on a weekday. There aren’t 150,000 screeching voices, a situation these young horses have never encountered, in a mundane race. Moreover, the jockey on the horse most significantly bothered, Tyler Gaffalione on War of Will, didn’t claim foul. That NBC wasn’t able to get him on camera, given how long the review went on, was an egregious shortcoming.

Most significantly, the Kentucky Derby is not a mundane race. Minstrels don’t sing of mundane races, “It’s the chance of a lifetime in a lifetime of chance.” The only chance.

Maximum Security, inarguably the best horse, deserved some benefit of the doubt. He got none.

Could this year get any worse for racing, from the Santa Anita tragedies to a divisive controversy at the Derby and now neither of the winners, the one who won on the track and the one put up by the stewards, will be running in Baltimore. Neither will the declared place and show horses, Code of Honor and Tacitus. I couldn’t find the last time the first three horses in the Derby—four if you include Maximum Security--skipped the Preakness.

Coming off the highest Derby TV ratings since 2001—the estimated 16.5 million viewers made it the most watched telecast of the week, including all prime-time programs—I cringe at what the drop off will be for a Preakness even avid fans will care little about.

Hey, want some Belmont Stakes tickets cheap?

Written by Tom Jicha

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