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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Wednesday, May 24, 2017


Preakness deprives racing of three weeks attention


The masses have a limited attention span for racing, generally the five weeks from the Kentucky Derby to the Belmont Stakes. Cloud Computing's upset in the Preakness ended any Triple Crown hopes. But the likelihood that neither Cloud Computing nor Derby winner Always Dreaming will enter the Belmont virtually eradicates the hope for widespread interest in the third jewel of the Triple Crown. The most conversation worthy element could be the presence of Japanese standout Epicharis.

Preakness Day provided a scintillating afternoon of racing. Whether it was a great day for racing is debatable.

Cloud Computing’s upset of the second jewel of the Triple Crown effectively cut the legs out from under the Belmont Stakes. The current thinking is neither Preakness champion Cloud Computing nor Kentucky Derby winner Always Dreaming will answer the call.

All sports have become largely star dependent. Without the winners of the first two jewels, the Belmont will be bereft of star power. Of the five big horses going into the Triple Crown—Irish War Cry, Gunnevera, McCraken, Always Dreaming and Classic Empire—only the latter is expected to show up.

Racing captures the masses’ attention for only five weeks each year, during Triple Crown season. This year it is losing three of those weeks. NYRA will put on another great day of undercard races but these hold little interest to the event-seekers, who swell a crowd of 60,000 to 90,000. The TV ratings for the Preakness were about half that of the Derby. Without a Triple Crown possibility and well known horses they could drop in half again for the Belmont.

Chances are better that Chad Brown might decide to send Cloud Computing to the Belmont, although the trainer’s statement that he thought the six-week gap between the Wood Memorial and Preakness while catching the Derby participants on two weeks rest played a significant role in Cloud Computing’s victory. It would be inconsistent to reverse this thinking and throw his colt to the herd of well rested horses, albeit of limited achievement, pointing to the Belmont.

You should live so long before Todd Pletcher runs another of his serious horses back in two or even three weeks, unless another Derby triumph forces his hand.

In spite of his Juvenile Eclipse credentials, it will be a challenge to build a promotional campaign around Classic Empire, whose 3-year-old efforts have been a first, second, third and fourth in four starts. The fact that he was caught late at a mile and three-sixteenths won’t enhance his promotability for a classic that is the length of the stretch and then some further than the Preakness.

This isn’t to say Classic Empire can’t win the Belmont. Perusing his potential challengers, he might be the horse to beat on class alone. Of the top 10 horses in the latest NTRA 3-year-old poll, the only other potential Belmont horses are Lookin at Lee, beneficiary of a golden rail in the Derby to grab second but a non-winner in eight starts since last summer at Ellis Park, and Lexington winner Senior Investment, who closed for third in the Preakness. This might be enough to make him second choice on June 10.

It could be the big attraction will be somewhat of a novelty act, the Japanese invader Epicharis, whose main claim to fame was a close second to Thunder Snow in the UAE Derby. For those with short memories, Thunder Snow is the colt who went bat crap crazy right out of the Churchill Downs starting gate. He’ll seek to restore his reputation Saturday in the Irish Two Thousand Guineas. A strong showing could add to the luster of Epicharis, who suffered his only defeat in the Dubai race.

You have to wonder if Epicharis is coming to the U.S. because his connections feel the Belmont is the right spot for him or whether it’s to chase the $1 million bonus NYRA has put up for a Japanese horse (only a Japanese horse), who captures the Belmont.

There’s a method to NYRA’s bonus madness. With Epicharis in the field, Japanese bettors are expected to send in tens of millions of dollars in wagers even though the race will take place very early on a Sunday morning in the Far East. The Japanese wagered $40 million on last year’s Arc.

American tracks have been avidly pursuing this windfall for the past several years. Gulfstream sent a contingent of executives to Japan last winter in a vain attempt to recruit a Japanese horse for the Pegasus. They can be counted upon to do the same next winter. If Epicharis wins the Belmont, then goes back home, a showdown with Arrogate in the Pegasus would rival last January’s California Chrome-Arrogate confrontation.

This is a dream scenario. In the real world, the 3-year-old division is desperately in need of another Arrogate, who was under the radar at this time last year. Maybe undefeated Mastery will recover from surgery for a condylar fracture and come back to be Bob Baffert's newest superstar. But I keep hearing retirement is the more likely course of action.

Uniformity?

Uniformity in medication rules has been an aggressively pursued and admirable goal for as long as I can remember. Barr-Tomko notwithstanding, there is no indication the sport is any closer to that than it was when first proposed.

In the meantime, how about uniformity in an eminently achievable area closer to racing fans’ hearts—mutual payoffs?

Last Saturday brought maddeningly frustrating examples on both coasts of how different jurisdictions handle scratches in multi-race bets. Consolation payoffs? Refunds? Being moved to the favorite?

Full disclosure: I was involved in each of these. However, none involved serious money. It's the unnecessary lack of consistency that is enervating.

I made some advance daily doubles and pick 3’s for the early Preakness Day races before leaving Gulfstream last Friday. I had the winner of the first race with four in the second in both doubles and pick 3’s.

Two of them scratched after the betting opened, so I figured I would get consolation daily doubles, the policy at most tracks. Instead I got my money back. This would be understandable with overnight scratches but this was a special case, since betting had been open all day Friday.

I figured I would still be alive for consolations pick 3’s with the first race winner, second race scratches and my third race choices, one of which won. But there was no consolation payoff, which also would be the case at most tracks. Apparently my two scratches were moved to the favorite in the middle leg. This is the widespread policy for pick 4’s but not pick 3’s anywhere else that I am aware of.

Speaking of pick 4’s, there was a scratch at the gate in the final leg of Santa Anita’s pick 4. Most everywhere, the track announcer would have explained to the public that bettors holding that horse would be moved to the post-time favorite as well as what would happen to daily doubles and pick 3’s. Regulars know how it works but keeping the public up to date is crucial on big days like Preakness Saturday because so many patrons are infrequent race-goers. There was plenty of time for an announcement as the horses were backed out of the gate. Alas, not a word on the multi-race bets was made.

This is another example of how not to win friends for racing and influence return visits.

Movable figs

I’ve been a fan of the Beyer figs ever since they were introduced in the defunct Racing Times. I don’t use them as the final word but I consider them a useful handicapping tool.

Lately, my enthusiasm has waned as Beyer figs have been subjectively changed between races far too often.

The latest example is Multiplier, who was initially assigned an 89 for his Illinois Derby victory. A week or so later, the 89 was revised upward to a 94. Multiplier had not run and put up another big figure. Neither had the second- and third-place finishers. It was a totally subjective decision.

The elevated number gave Multiplier the third highest last-race fig in the Preakness. At 89, he would have been in a tie for the sixth highest last race fig in a field of 10. Coincidentally, Multiplier ran sixth.

Moving up Multiplier’s Illinois Derby also entailed increasing second-place finisher Hedge Fund from 89 to 94 since he finished only a head behind. This gave Hedge Fund the highest last race Beyer in the Sir Barton on the Preakness undercard. Hedge Fund went off at even-money and ran out of the money. Granted there were other factors, primarilyHedge Fund being from the Pletcher barn. But the highest Beyer surely influenced the price.

Late after-the-fact revisions are an attempt to enhance the credibility of the figs. But to at least one player, they are having the opposite effect.


Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, May 18, 2017


Pletcher’s not a Preakness guy but he and Always Dreaming will adapt


Todd Pletcher doesn't believe in running his horses back in two weeks. This is why he has started 48 horses in the Derby but Always Dreaming will be only his ninth in the Preakness. The last time he brought a Derby winner to Maryland, Super Saver, it was a disaster. But the seven-time Eclipse winner says he has learned from that. More importantly, he has the best horse in Always Dreaming, who hasn't been seriously challenged as a 3-year-old. He'll get a stern test from Classic Empire Saturday but chances are he will head to Belmont with a chance to become a Triple Crown winner.


Todd Pletcher is training against everything he believes and practices in the Preakness. Pletcher has his own way of doing things and has won seven Eclipse Awards as the nation’s outstanding trainer by sticking to his plan.

One thing he avoids doing is running a horse back within two weeks. Four weeks or longer is his norm. This explains his infrequent participation in the Preakness. He has started 48 horses in the Kentucky Derby. He has started only eight in the Preakness. ”Yeah, I think that’s part of it,” he said.

Make no mistake. He would love to capture one of the few prizes that has eluded him. “I have tremendous respect for the Preakness. It’s something I’d love to win. It’s just in a lot of cases we felt like our horses needed a little more time to recover (from the Derby).”

But the best in any business are adaptable. Pletcher is confident both he and Always Dreaming are up to the quick turnaround. Pletcher feels he has learned something from the last time he brought a Derby winner, Super Saver, to Baltimore. He breezed Super Saver between the two races and feels it might have been costly as Super Saver ran eighth.

“I think if I had a do-over with Super Saver I probably wouldn’t have breezed him at all. We tried to go an easy three-eighths with him, which in retrospect probably didn’t put any energy into him. I don’t necessarily think it took any out and I’m not sure it really would have mattered.”

Always Dreaming will go into the Preakness off only gallops, although they have been eye-catching. After his Thursday work, David Grening in the Racing Form said the Derby winner is “on the engine.”

“He’s putting plenty of energy into his gallops,” Pletcher said. “I’m just trying to focus on refueling the tank a little bit.”

The tank apparently doesn’t need much refueling. “We like what we are seeing so far. All indications are he bounced out of the Derby quickly. But sometimes you don’t know until you’re in the heat of battle if they’ve got that extra reserve.”

Mark Casse, trainer of Classic Empire, who will start next to Always Dreaming in No. 5, said the Derby winner had better be at his best. Casse has been ticking off Derby factoids that worked against his colt for two weeks. The one he repeats most often is his 2-year-old champion ran 75 feet further than Always Dreaming in Louisville, roughly the distance he finished in arrears. What’s more, his horse was blasted at the start by McCraken, possibly getting the wind knocked out of him and sometime during the race he was hit in the eye by a stone or a clod of dirt, which might have further discouraged him.

“One can only speculate what the outcome would have been had he been given a clear trip," Casse said. "I’m running him because we think he’s the best horse and we want to prove it. The great thing about our sport is everybody can think and believe but we get to prove it on the track. Maybe Always Dreaming will still beat him but we’re ready to take the shot.”

Off recent history, Casse has a 50-50 chance of being right. The last four Derby winners have all gone off at odds-on but only American Pharoah and California Chrome have justified their odds. Nyquist was third last year and Orb was off the board in 2013.

A neutral observer, Gary Stevens, who was to have ridden Royal Mo, is in the favorite’s corner. “I loved (Always Dreaming) going into the Derby as a spectator. My feeling was that if he repeated his Florida Derby, which was the most impressive prep all spring, he would be tough to beat. And he repeated that. He’s going to have a target on his back but that target is going to be tough to catch. It’s his race to lose.”

I concur. Classic Empire has the talent to turn the tables and starting outside Always Dreaming might be able to keep Always Dreaming pinned on the inside. Casse said after the draw his colt might hook the Derby winner right out of the gate. That's the show fans want to see.

There is little glory in selecting an odds-on favorite but there is no joy in ripping up tickets. I see Always Dreaming heading to Belmont with an opportunity to become the second Triple Crown winner in three years.

Pegasus 2 a go

The Preakness might not be racing’s only big newsmaker in Maryland this week. The Stronach Group might take advantage of having the attention of the racing media to confirm that Pegasus 2 is a definite go. If not this week, the announcement will come soon.

There has been doubt in some quarters that TSG would be able to assemble 12 entities to ante up $1 million apiece for a slot in the starting gate this coming winter. Not only have a dozen indicated they want to be part of what now is the world’s richest race, they are the same 12 who subscribed last year, according to HRI's source.

Moreover, there is a waiting list, including some major global players, who would like to get in but are currently on the waiting list.

The sweetener that kept the band together is the promise of more than $650,000 to each of the subscribers, which would limit their potential deficit. Last year, the minimum a stakes holder could recoup was $250K, the reward for finishing fourth through 12th.

Also, the share-holders have been guaranteed a piece of the betting action, which last year soared to more than $40 million for the day. This wasn’t part of the package in 2017 because of the uncertainty over how the race would be greeted and the expenses with getting it off the ground.

Frank Stronach's bold idea turned out to be a phenomenal success even with the least expensive general admission $100, bar stools going for an additional $200 and tables in the restaurants priced at $575 per person.

Subscribers also have been promised a piece of any TV rights fees and sponsorships. However, this is unlikely to ever produce anything since only the Triple Crown races command a rights fee and sponsorships are traditionally used to cover the expense of buying television time, as TSG had to do last winter.

The total purse for Pegasus 2.0 has been elevated from $12 million to $16 million--the addition coming from TSG--to allow for inflated participation awards, which I feel run contrary to the spirit of what racing is supposed to be.

The precise payouts at the top have not been announced but with $10,150,000 left in the pool after the consolation prizes, they are likely to resemble last year’s payoffs, including $7 million to the winner.

It’s possible, if not likely, that by the time the race is run, the Pegasus will no longer be the world’s richest race. Sheikh Mohammad bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the force behind the $10 million Dubai World Cup, said at this year’s renewal, “I want to be one step ahead…We want to be No. 1. I’m meeting with my people to be No. 1.”

No one doubts the oil rich sheikh can make this happen. It could be that he is merely waiting for the official word on the 2018 Pegasus to announce by how much he plans to top it. The ball will then move back into Stronach's court.

Miami, May 18, 2017


Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, May 11, 2017


Always Dreaming makes it 6 straight, 8 of 10, for unbeaten 3YOs


This year's Kentucky Derby was billed as wide open. But all it took to come up with Always Dreaming was to fall back on what is become a dependable trend. Bet the horses who are unbeaten as 3YOs. There were only 3, including Always Dreaming, in this year's race and there were reasons to put a line through the other two. Over the past decade, this system is an 80% proposition. There's another high percentage handicapping tool in the Preakness.

When does a small sample become a recognized trend?

Always Dreaming became the sixth straight Kentucky Derby winner to reach the finish line undefeated as a 3YO. (If you want the names and exact numbers, they are in my previous column, just below this one.)

Excuse Animal Kingdom’s second-place finish in a turf race at Gulfstream and the list grows to seven, who went into and came out of the Derby perfect as a sophomore. Big Brown’s romp in 2008 makes it eight in 10 years. Anyone know of other 80 percent systems in racing?

It wasn’t as if you had to spread wide to come up with Always Dreaming. There were only three horses who met the undefeated standard and two could have had asterisks. Fast and Accurate was two-for-two in 2017 but one was on turf and the other was on Polytrack. Thunder Snow--who I will spend a long time living down--won a pair of races in Dubai.

The last Derby winner who had tasted defeat at a 3-year-old is Super Saver, Todd Pletcher’s only other winner. Coincidentally, both of Pletcher’s wins have come on off tracks.

Not to take anything away from Always Dreaming, who had as perfect a trip as you could hope for in a 20-horse field, but so many horses with gilded credentials misfiring has to be attributed in some way to lack of experience on off surfaces. Some handle it, others don’t. Lack of familiarity has to be at least a small factor.

I’ll never understand why trainers do everything they can to cover every other possible contingency in prepping for the Classics but change workout schedules and scratch from prep races to avoid anything but a fast surface.

Toss non-Derby horses

The prospective field for the Preakness stands at about 10. As I said, Always Dreaming had a near perfect trip but his combination of tactical speed and stamina untapped to this point makes him a tough beat. He worked out the same trip in the Florida Derby. Christopher Kay must be preparing his “the Belmont crowd will be capped at 90,000” press release already.

Before you even open the Racing Form, more than half Always Dreaming's challengers can be tossed because they didn’t start in the Kentucky Derby. Only three horses in this millennium have won the second jewel of the Triple Crown without competing in the Derby.

One was Rachel Alexandra, who won the Kentucky Oaks the day before the 2009 Derby. Rachel was a filly for the ages, arguably the best horse of her generation of either gender. Bernadini won the 2006 Preakness, which is infamous for undefeated Barbaro breaking down a few steps out of the gate. The other was Red Bullet in 2000.

You have to go back to 1983 and Deputed Testamony for another non-Derby starter winning the Preakness. That’s four in 34 years—two under extraordinary circumstances. This is not a trend savvy players want to buck.

Wood, Blue Grass fire blanks

The Wood Memorial and Blue Grass Stakes weren’t helped in their quest to retain Grade 1 status.

The Wood’s shortcomings were further exacerbated. Irish War Cry was the only one of the eight starters who even bothered to make the trek to Louisville and he ran 10th. If you’re looking for a straw to grasp, at least he beat Blue Grass winner Irap, who checked in 18th.

Todd Pletcher and Chad Brown, trainers of Wood runner-up Battalion Road and show horse Cloud Computing, respectively, decided their horses weren’t up to America’s race. I believe subsequent races will show these to be astute decisions. They might win some stakes but unless the attrition rate is worse than usual, I doubt a Grade 1 will be among them.

The Blue Grass, which seemed like the most loaded of the final preps, sent five starters, including its first four, to Churchill Downs. The best it got was Practical Joke’s fifth-place finish. Practical Joke is already a dual Grade 1 winner as a juvenile and some of the other also-rans, most notably, McCraken and Tapwrit, might fare well in big races later this year. But unless some of them bag Grade 1 stakes in 2017, the Blue Grass need not apply to regain Grade 1 status.

A very live corpse

It’s time for those closest to racing—myself included—to stop wringing their hands about the alleged many things allegedly killing the sport--drugs, breakdowns, abuse of whips, etc. America has repeatedly indicated it really doesn't care, at least not a lot. This is not to say these problems shouldn't be addressed. They just should not be obsessed over.

The Kentucky Derby TV ratings were the strongest since 1989. NBC’s average audience was 16.5 million with 19.1 million tuned in for the actual race, according to fast Nielsens. This was the biggest Saturday audience for any program of any kind since an NFL playoff game—the gold standard—in January. It was also the most watched program of any kind last week by a blowout. The two prime-time leaders, "NCIS" and "The Big Bang Theory," pulled in 12.89 million and 12;38 million, respectively.

As someone who covered TV full time for more than 30 years I can say without equivocation there is not a single series, special program (Oscars, etc.) or sport, including the NFL, whose ratings are as strong now as they were 15 years ago, let alone almost 30.

“American Idol,’ which is coming back next season, was referred to by rival networks as “the death star” because of the extent to which it crushed all competition during its heyday. At its peak, more than 30 million Americans watched. When it left the air at the end of last season, the audience had dwindled to about 10 million. Meanwhile, the year “American Idol” debuted, 2002, the Derby attracted just under 13 million viewers, almost four million fewer than this year.

Fans bet more than $200 million on a single card Saturday for the first time in history, despite the dismal weather and sloppy track.

This comes on the heels of all kinds of terrific news from around the nation. Gulfstream had another record-breaking winter season. Oaklawn was up 5 percent, which allowed purses to soar to more than $500,000 a day. Maryland, a dead racing state walking only a few years ago, saw its average handle soar 22% during its winter meeting.

The only major jurisdiction with a sad story is Southern California and this can be attributed to inept management and horsemen who repeatedly demonstrate they view fans as suckers to be fleeced.

All of this comes in an era of ever increasing competition from casinos, state lotteries, fantasy sports games and widespread availability of playing poker and betting sports online, illegal though much of it is.

The message is a lot of Americans really enjoy and embrace racing when the show is good. Those who participate in and cover the sport should keep this in mind when they fret about all that’s wrong with this “dying” sport.

Miami, May 11, 2017


Written by Tom Jicha

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