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 26, 2015

The (Derby) future is now; avoid Spa winners

The first round of Kentucky Derby futures is this weekend with another ridiculous pool added--the sire of the Derby winner. Nyquist is a deserving early favorite for the Run for the Roses but he'll have to prove a son of Uncle Mo can get 10 furlongs. Exaggerator also looked promising in winning the Delta Jackpot last weekend. However, he is bucking a trend that indicates Saratoga might be the launch pad for future champions but not Kentucky Derby winners.

MIAMI, Nov. 26, 2015--Nyquist is a deserving de facto favorite for next spring’s Kentucky Derby. At the comparable stage of their careers, his juvenile accomplishments are similar to American Pharoah in some areas, superior in others.

Both won the Del Mar Futurity and the Front Runner Stakes. But Nyquist broke his maiden at first asking while American Pharoah ran fifth in his debut. Nyquist prepped for the Futurity with a win in the Best Pal. Racing’s newest Triple Crown winner went straight from his first start into the Futurity. Nyquist followed up on the Front Runner by capturing the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, the most important race for 2-year-olds. American Pharoah was sidelined with an injury after the Front Runner.

Nevertheless I won’t be investing in Nyquist in this weekend’s first round of Kentucky Derby future wagering. I won’t be investing in anything six months out. But if I was, it wouldn’t be on Nyquist. I’ll have to be shown that an offspring of Uncle Mo can get 10 furlongs.

(To digress slightly, is there a dumber bet than the new future wager on the sire of the Kentucky Derby winner? Next, there’ll be a future on the winning post position, which, come to think of it would be preferable to the current ones because there wouldn’t be an “all others” at odds-on.)

For those who can’t resist futures, another logical contender at this point, Exaggerator, is up against the tide of history. After Exaggerator captured last Saturday’s Delta Jackpot, it was noted he had won this past summer’s Saratoga Special. This led me to what I think is an astonishing factoid.

One of the joys of each Saratoga season is the rollout of highly regarded 2-year-olds. The potential is there for a future champion to emerge on any given day. Many have. What hasn’t come out of Saratoga’s big three stakes—the Special, the Stanford and the Hopeful—very often are Derby winners.

It will be 32 years next spring since Swale wore the roses after winning one of the Spa’s juvenile stakes. The 1984 Derby and Belmont winner grabbed the trophy for the Saratoga Special the previous summer.

American Pharoah ended a 37-year drought between Triple Crown champions. The last one to do it was Affirmed in 1978. Amazingly, Affirmed also is the last horse to win the Kentucky Derby after winning the Hopeful, the most prestigious of Saratoga’s stakes for 2-year-olds. He took the Sanford and Hopeful in 1977.

This doesn’t mean a future Derby winner can’t come out of Saratoga. Just don’t look in the Spa's winner’s circle. I’ll Have Another ran sixth in the 2011 Hopeful. Orb was third in an MSW in 2012 and Super Saver was second in an MSW in 2009.

The most recent Derby winner to take a race at Saratoga as a juvenile is almost a trick question. It was Big Brown in 2007…but his MSW victory was on the turf. I went bleary-eyed trying to find the last Derby winner who had won on the dirt as a 2-year-old at Saratoga. Suffice it to say, it hasn’t happened in this millennium.

RIP Calder

This weekend marks the end of the casino-preserving meeting at Calder dubbed Gulfstream West. Let’s hope there never is another one. This could come to reality if the Florida legislature approves decoupling pari-mutuels and slots and poker operations this coming spring.

In any case, this season will be the last with the Calder grandstand in place. Demolition, which has already begun on the interior, will begin in earnest after the final race on Saturday.

Meanwhile, racing fans have been subjected to some of the most abusive conditions imaginable. Like most players, I’ve used the mother Gulfstream facility (as has the boss) for my action the past two months. This despite each of us living closer and with easier access to the live racing at Calder. It’s that bad.

Last Saturday, duty forced me to go for the first and only time this season to cover the pair of graded stakes. It was the worst day I ever spent at a racetrack. (No sour grapes. I made a very small it-beats-losing profit on the four races I endured.)

To be clear, none of this is Gulfstream’s fault. It is doing the best it can under extreme circumstances, which Churchill Downs Inc., owner of Calder, has made as impossible as it can.

The building has been totally shut off to the public. Last year, the first floor was open for shelter from the heat and rain. This season, there are a couple of tents on the track apron for the public, with SAM machines and a few tellers. Another under-sized tent, without betting facilities, was constructed near the paddock for owners and trainers. A single over-burdened clerk with a hand-held device is the only avenue to bet for the people who put on the show.

When it’s not raining as it was Saturday, the only relief from the blazing heat are a few under-sized fans. “You should be here when it’s 90 degrees,” someone offered, rolling his eyes.

Meanwhile, the tents for the public became so over-crowded with people trying to stay dry in monsoon conditions it was almost impossible to push through to the betting machines.

Churchill also shut off the infield toteboard/video screen. “They wanted to charge a small fortune for us to use it,” an insider revealed. Gulfstream rolled in a couple of big screen video monitors on the apron to complement the TV sets in the tents.

Churchill is an equal-opportunity abuser. The media is treated as shabbily as the fans. Another ramification of the building being shut off is I had to write my story in what is now the bare bones racing office. The wi-fi is so spotty and undependable I finally threw up my hands and raced home, 30 miles, to file my story. The upside was it got me out of the joint earlier than usual.

The outrageous aspect of this is Churchill is the one benefitting the most from this sham meeting. Gulfstream would spare itself a world of inconvenience and expenses if it didn’t have to move everything across town for two months. This is the price it had to pay to get Calder to stop racing head-to-head.

Without the Gulfstream West meeting, Churchill couldn’t keep its slot license under current law. That this has been allowed to happen is a disgrace.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, November 19, 2015

Jockey appeals make a mockery of rules

Suspensions are a primary tool to control over-aggressive or outright reckless race-riding. But jockeys are allowed to make a mockery of the system by lodging appeals, then withdrawing them and serving the time when it is convenient. This can't be allowed to continue. Speaking of rulings, the NY Gambling Commission is scheduled to finally release its report on the investigation of Steve Asmussen, which was settled in Kentucky almost a year ago.

MIAMI, Nov. 19, 2015--The debate over disqualifications is never ending. A comment by a reader on the disqualification of Trouble Kid in last Saturday’s DeFrancis Dash ignited a series of passionate responses. Among those weighing in was Richard Migliore, who has adeptly made the transition from rider to racing commentator.

I won’t re-litigate the DeFrancis here. The points and counter-points are still posted for anyone who wants to reference them.

My position, as I have often written, is that unless a foul is flagrant and indisputably affects the outcome of the race, as opposed to say a surging horse crossing over too soon in front of a fading leader, the result should stand for betting purposes with the rider being assessed an appropriate fine or suspension.

Events of the past few days undermine the second half of my position. Jose Ortiz committed a foul in the Sanford Stakes on July 25, veering out than lugging in. His mount, Magna Light was dropped from first to third and Ortiz was given five days. (The fact that Uncle Vinny, who was not involved in the incident and was not going to win, was moved up to first, is another flaw in the system.)

Ortiz didn’t serve the days during the lucrative and prestigious Saratoga meet. He appealed-- reaffirming justice delayed is justice denied—and has chosen to drop his appeal and serve the days this week when racing is in pretty much a lull period. This makes a mockery of the system.

On the West Coast, Santiago Gonzalez and Felipe Valdez each got three days for infractions in recent races. They, too, are appealing and likely will pursue their appeals until it is convenient to drop them and serve the days.

This can’t be allowed to continue. Various remedies have been attempted. One was to make riders serve their time during the period a foul was committed the following year. In other words, Ortiz would serve his five days during next season’s Saratoga meeting. This is impractical at most venues, which don't have boutique meetings.

Another attempt at fine-tuning the system is to double the customary number of days, then waive half of them if there is no appeal. I would take this a step further. If the normal suspension is five days, make it 20 (essentially a month instead of a week) and waive 15 if there is no appeal. Appeals of convenience would be curtailed.

This might run contrary to the American justice system but we are not dealing with a court of law. This is sports. The decision of the judges, umpires, referees, etc., should be final.

As long as riders know they can take a shot at shutting off a rival and if they are caught, they will get a penalty that can easily be manipulated to their advantage, there is no real deterrent to reckless riding.

The optimum solution is for appeals to be heard quickly, preferably by the next racing day. Riders, who commit fouls, are routinely summoned to the stewards’ stand to review the film. If they want to appeal, they should be compelled to make their case then and get an immediate ruling.

At last, Asmussen ruling due

Speaking of justice delayed, the New York State Gambling Commission is scheduled to release on Monday its long delayed report on allegations made by the activist fringe group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) against Steve Asmussen.

Allegations that Asmussen and his top assistant Scott Blasi abused horses under his care were made in March 2014 in a nine-minute video edited from seven hours of tape, compiled over three months in 2013, in part at Saratoga.

The nine minutes were damning, catching Asmussen’s long-time assistant Scott Blasi making comments about mistreating horses, using illegal aliens in the barn and joking about electrical devices being used on horses. Asmussen fired Blasi but rehired him four months later.

The Kentucky Horse Racing Commission held its own investigation. Almost a year ago, it exonerated Asmussen and Blasi, saying they broke no rules and horses in the barn were well cared for.

The New York probe has inexcusably dragged on. Its findings twice were put on the commission agenda only to be withdrawn. As a result, Assmussen, the second winningest trainer in history, was deleted from last year’s Hall of Fame ballot. The Hall has said it will not allow a vote on Asmussen’s candidacy until allegations against him are settled.

Logic would suggest New York also will largely or totally exonerate Asmussen, who has a history of violations but not in recent years as the stock under his care has improved dramatically.To rule otherwise would be an insult to its counterparts in Kentucky and raise the question why procrastination allowed a trainer guilty of serious allegations of mistreatment of horses was allowed to continue to race in New York while they dithered.

Toteboard chicanery

A recurring topic at the political debates has been how to deal with alleged currency manipulation by the Chinese. I have no idea how this works in the world of high finance.

However, I suspect it is akin to something that happened at Del Mar last Saturday. Early in the day, a player made five $1,000 punches on Tale of a Champion in the first race. The horse opened 3-5, undoubtedly inducing thousands in additional wagers from fans, who respected that much money showing up for a horse, who on form should have been an outsider.

Two minutes to post, the big bettor canceled the $5K win bets. Tale of a Champion shot up to 10-1 and ran like it, finishing last.

This should not be allowed to happen. The ability to cancel a bet has been a welcome innovation in recent years. This was obviously an abuse of the privilege. Whether it was part of some kind of betting coup might never be known.

This should be a learning experience for tracks, ADW’s and simulcast venues. A limit to when a ticket can be canceled is a necessity. Within five minutes of its purchase might work. Under no circumstances should it be allowed within two minutes to post.

A lot of fans probably felt, with some justification, they were screwed by what happened. One more layer of cynicism is the last thing racing needs.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, November 12, 2015

Decoupling could benefit thoroughbreds

Florida horsemen are marshalling their forces to combat another effort in the Florida legislature this spring to decouple the necessity to run dog racing and jai alai to maintain a racino. This could be a misguided effort. Gulfstream and Tampa Bay Downs have given no indication they would curtail racing if decoupling passes and the anticipated end of dog racing and jai alai would give horses a monopoly in pari-mutuel wagering. Rather than fight decoupling, thoroughbred efforts should be concentrated on tailoring any bill to the advantage of horse racing.

MIAMI, Nov. 12, 2015— The Florida legislature’s regular session doesn’t convene until March but the thoroughbred industry is already marshalling forces to fight a faux boogyman.

Bill White, an outstanding trainer and president of the Florida HBPA, wrote a guest editorial in the Blood-Horse slamming the concept of decoupling, which would relieve pari-mutuel facilities of the necessity of conducting live horse or dog racing and jai alai games in order to have card rooms and slot machines. A website,, has been created with the same goal.

Analyzed closely, decoupling represents no threat to the thoroughbred industry at this time or the foreseeable future. The state has only two thoroughbred tracks, Gulfstream and Tampa Bay Downs, and neither has given any indication decoupling would result in a curtailment of racing. Indeed, Frank Stronach’s Gulfstream is the only Florida pari-mutuel with a casino that still puts much, if not most, of its promotional dollars into racing.

Decoupling is being pushed by greyhound and jai alai interests, who have seen the live audiences for their products diminish to a laughable extent. A strange bedfellows’ coalition of dog tracks and animal rights activists, former mortal enemies, are the driving forces behind decoupling. Isle of Capri (nee Pompano Harness Track) has made it clear that it maintains the trotters and pacers only because it is a requirement to keep its prosperous casino.

Few people knowledgeable about the situation don’t appreciate that decoupling is inevitable. It’s just a matter of when and the coming legislative session is a live favorite.

This is why the thoroughbred industry should give up the fight to stop it and concentrate its efforts on having the eventual bill tailored to its advantage. It shouldn’t be difficult or complicated. The state has unfailingly acknowledged the importance of thoroughbred racing. Racing and breeding supports an estimated 20,000 jobs and maintains vast green spaces throughout the state as well as being a tourism magnet.

Step one is to use these factors to insert a clause that exempts Gulfstream and Tampa Bay Downs from decoupling. Calder is already out of the game. It’s not a stretch to speculate that Churchill Downs is about to demolish the Calder grandstand because it expects decoupling to happen as soon as this spring. This would end the necessity to continue the sham Gulfstream West meeting.

A wish list possibility is this could bring Hialeah back into the mix with a short meeting along the lines of what is now Gulfstream West, since Gulfstream benefits from the two-month buffer zone between the summer meeting and its prime winter dates.

Step two would be to fight for safeguards that decoupling won’t be paired with state-sanctioned additional free-standing casinos. There is a sizable and vocal constituency in the state opposed to the expansion of gambling, especially casino gambling. Align with these people to argue that decoupling represents a contraction of gambling, since dog racing, jai alai and probably harness racing would disappear. Meanwhile, an influx of new casinos would turn Florida into Las Vegas South.

As long as no new casinos are allowed, decoupling actually could create a net gain for the thoroughbred industry. Card rooms and slots are already a fact of life in South Florida. But tourists who want to engage in pari-mutuel wagering would have only horses as an option.

Fighting decoupling in its entirety is a losing battle. Working to have it tailored to benefit horse racing is a winning strategy.

Racing’s best go west

Day-to-day racing in Southern California has deteriorated to an alarming degree. Even with cutbacks to four days per week for a substantial part of the year and abbreviated eight-race weekday programs, cards are dominated by short fields of bottom-level claimers and state-bred career maidens. However, at the top of the game, Santa Anita will be where the action is early in 2016.

No fewer than six Eclipse winners are expected to be in action at Santa Anita. By contrast, there might not be any champions at the start of the Gulfstream season. However, off past performances, the daily racing cards will be the most interesting and challenging in the country.

The Great Race Place will live up to its name in almost every division. Presumptive juvenile champions Nyquist and Songbird will be prepping for the spring classics, as will Swipe, whose placing at the Breeders’ Cup Classic was the fourth straight time he was closest under the wire to Nyquist.

California’s older division has been especially forlorn the past few years. It doesn’t appear that will be the case this coming winter. Former Horse of the Year and 3-year-old champion California Chrome is back in the U.S. and training forwardly, as John Pricci noted earlier this week.

At some point, the 2014 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner will probably renew his rivalry with former 2-year-old champion Shared Belief, who is on the road to recovery from the fractured hip he suffered at Charles Town last spring. He recently checked back into Jerry Hollendorfer’s Northern California barn. He should be back in serious training before the calendar turns. At his best, he was the nation’s best.

One of the ironies of 2015 was that American Pharoah was based in Bob Baffert’s Santa Anita barn but his only appearances on the track were for workouts and celebratory parades. He went from Oaklawn (twice) to Churchill Downs to Pimlico to Belmont to Monmouth to Saratoga and finally to Keeneland.

Two horses, who, in American Pharoah’s absence, dominated last winter’s 3-year-old stakes then ran 2-3 in the Kentucky Derby, Firing Line and Dortmund, could make things interesting for California Chrome and Shared Belief.

Late season developer Smooth Roller, who upset the Grade 1 Awesome Again for his third win in four starts, ought to be recovered from the minor injury that forced him to be scratched from the BC Classic.

Some will argue that the best horse in the country is a mare, Beholder. She’s the opposite of American Pharoah. She never leaves Southern California. With the 2016 Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita, there is no reason for her to travel in the coming year, when she could capture a fourth Eclipse without ever winning a race east of Pasadena.

Maybe her connections will do the sporting thing and take a shot at the male heavyweights in the Big Cap.

The nation’s best sprinter, Runhappy, also will be in Southern California after being yanked from trainer Maria Borell’s barn the day after his scintillating performance in the BC Sprint and turned over to owner James “Mattress Mac” McIngvale’s sister-in-law.

Love the horse but the connections are a big root against.

Written by Tom Jicha

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