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, December 21, 2017

California racing needs Stronach more than he needs California racing

The Stronach Group is heavily invested in California racing and Frank Stronach told horsemen he is prepared to spend millions more to build new barns to replace those lost at San Luis Rey. All he asks in return is for the omnipotent TOC to work with him in areas such as reduced takeout experiments. But with Mike Pegram leading the way, they have dug in their heels and refused to budge. It's a short-sighted strategy. Stronach could throw up his hands and sell Santa Anita's property for development ala Hollywood Park, leaving horsemen with nowhere to race.

December 26 is a big day in many places. It's Kwanza in the U.S. In Canada and the UK, it’s Boxing Day. And in Southern California, it’s opening day of the prime winter racing season at Santa Anita.

The traditional joy and enthusiasm for the latter is mitigated this year by the tragic San Luis Rey fire. The only good to come out of it is the demonstration of the love and affection people in the game have for horses, so much so that they were willing to put themselves in harm's way to save the equine athletes.

If the Eclipse Awards had a Person of the Year--and it should--there is no question who the first recipient would be. Martine Bellocq suffered second and third degree burns over 50 percent of her body as she repeatedly dashed into burning barns to save as many horses as she could. She couldn't have been more determined and dedicated if these were her own children.

If Bellocq is up to traveling, the Eclipse people should bring her to Gulfstream for the annual awards on Jan. 25 so she can get the standing ovation she deserves from everyone in the sport.

This is not meant to diminish all the other heroes and heroines, who put their lives at risk to save horses, and the thousands who have donated money and equipment to help the recovery of the horsemen and horsewomen, who suffered devastating losses.

The deaths of at least 47 horses and potential lung issues facing an untold number of others couldn’t come at a worse time for Southern California racing, which already is at a crisis point due to the shortage of ready to race horses.

Prior to the fire, Tim Ritvo and The Stronach Group had taken creative steps to help alleviate the problem. One measure, Ship and Stay, offers a bonus to horses, who come in from other jurisdictions to race. Alas, in light of the fire, Santa Anita will be lucky to achieve a wash between new horses and those lost.

“We’re trying to find a way to get more horses here rather than guys taking them out of town,” Ritvo said.

The circuit suffered a noteworthy loss when classy Glen Hill Farm and its trainer, Tom Proctor, decided it was pulling up stakes and heading back East. The problem for Glen Hill was an inability to get its horses into races, which shouldn’t be an issue in the crowded Northeast corridor. If you can’t find a race at one track, there are two or three others within reasonable vanning distance. This is not the case in California.

In an attempt to rebuild racing's middle class, Ritvo announced plans to card races for barns with fewer than 20 horses and for home bred maidens and those who sold at auction for less than $100,000. This way, modest stables can make a living without having to take on the big ticket stock from Bob Baffert, Doug O’Neill, John Sadler and other elite outfits.

I’d like to suggest another novel condition, claiming races for horses who have run with the past 21 days. Not only would this level the playing field for those who chose to enter, it would show everyone that horses don’t need two or three months between starts.

Santa Anita also has cut more than a half-million dollars from its stakes program, so that daily purses could be kept at last year’s level. The biggest casualty is the Santa Anita Derby, a former million dollar event, which fell to $750,000 last year and will go for $600,000 in 2018. The cut is merited because of how the Pegasus and Dubai World Cup have strip-mined the top-of-the-line horses from the no longer such a Big 'Cap.

Ritvo also would like to try new betting options but he is being obstructed by the powerful Thoroughbred Owners of California, which cares only about those at the top. Ritvo wanted to initiate a second Pick 5 at the end of the card with the same 14% rake as the early Pick 5, which has proven so popular.

Unfortunately, Mike Pegram, who thinks TOC stands for Teamsters of California and he is the new Jimmy Hoffa, told Ritvo that if the takeout is going to be reduced, it will have to come out of the track's share. He won't budge a dollar.

Pegram was the driving force in jacking up the takeout on exotic bets to more than 23 percent, a move that threw Southern California racing into a tailspin from which it has not recovered.

Pegram made his fortune with a chain of McDonald’s. I wonder if he allows the help to tell him how he should run those businesses. Of course, I don’t wonder; I know the answer.

It was encouraging to see Frank Stronach play a little hardball back with the TOC. At a meeting with horsemen he reminded them that without Santa Anita there is no racing in Southern California.

Stronach indicated a willingness to build new barns on the Santa Anita backside to replace those lost at San Luis Rey at a cost of millions. But he wants the horsemen to make concessions, too, rather than act like the Resistance in D.C.

If Santa Anita goes the way of Hollywood Park and Bay Meadows, Stronach, who could pocket hundreds of millions of dollars, will still have his Florida and Maryland tracks as well as his breeding and racing operations. California horsemen will be left with nothing. They should keep this in mind.

No Battle of Sexes

The Pegasus suffered a key defection this week when Charles Fipke announced that he intends to run only Clark winner Seeking The Soul in the $17 million race on Jan. 27.

The Pegasus won't have a California Chrome-Arrogate showdown this year but it looked as if there would be a highly promotable Battle of the Sexes between Horse of the Year cinch Gun Runner and certain-to-be filly and mare champion Forever Unbridled, also owned by Fipke.

Now the race looms to be a stroll around the park for Gun Runner. Collected and West Coast, if Baffert sends both, are quality horses but Gun Runner dusted them in the Breeders’ Cup Classic and there was nothing about that race to suggest the next time will be any different.

Fipke hasn’t totally closed the door on entering Forever Unbridled. For the sake of the race, and racing in general, here’s hoping he reconsiders.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, December 14, 2017

Clasico shows potential for more international races

Gulfstream was mobbed for the Clasico Internacional del Caribe with Latin fans, who rooted for their nation's horses as if it were an international soccer match. This enthusiasm demonstrated there is a substantial untapped market among fans originally from south of the border. It would be wise for Gulfstream and other tracks in areas with similar demographics--NY and California, for instance--to create similar events. Also, the 1-3 finish for fillies is the latest example that the U.S. is behind the times when it comes to segregating the genders. Meanwhile, out West, Southern California stewards became the story in another major stakes.

Gulfstream rolled the dice with the Clasico Internacional del Caribe, five races for horses unfamiliar to U.S. fans, and was richly reward with a crowd comparable to Florida Derby and Pegasus Days.

The initial inclination after an event as successful as the Clasico is, “How can we do this again?” The prudent answer is you probably can’t, at least not right away, and shouldn’t try.

Gulfstream COO Tim Ritvo gets this. He was beaming like an emoji at the crowd and handle figures Saturday. Nevertheless, asked if Gulfstream would try to get the Clasico back as soon as possible or try to make it an annual event as the Claiming Crown has become, he responded, “Not right away. Maybe in a few years. It’s best if the Clasico moves around like the Super Bowl.”

One reason for patience is there could be an Ugly American backlash if a track in the United States tried to commandeer one of the major sports festivals in Latin America. Hosting it every four or five years in the U.S. might add to the stature of the event.

Nevertheless, seeing the fervor among fans, who wore their nation’s colors and waved flags, it is worth exploring how a race or series of races featuring horses from south of the border could become a part of the calendar at Gulfstream, which sits in the midst of one of the largest Latin population areas in the nation.

Seeing so many people from this demographic, who appeared to be first-timers or occasional race-goers, underscored how untapped this market is.

The races for the best from Latin America wouldn’t have to be part of Gulfstream’s prime winter season. Year-round racing has created relative dead spots between April and December. The Summit of Speed and Sire Stakes fill some of the voids but there is plenty of room for another big day. An invitational race or two featuring horses from the nine nations in the Confederation, which stages the Clasico, could become another “offseason” high spot.

What weaker sex?

The victory by Mexican filly Jala Jala in the big race, the Clasico del Caribe, provided the latest evidence that American racing is out of step with the rest of the world in segregating genders. This lesson has been driven home repeatedly at the Breeders’ Cup as Euro females regularly beat our--and their--best males.

Three of the dozen entrants in Latin America’s Kentucky Derby were fillies. Two finished in the money as Jala Jala’s stablemate Joyme held the show. Clearly the difference in ability between males and females is mainly in the minds of those who control North American racing.

Races restricted to fillies and mares probably help fill cards but a drastic reduction in the number of stakes for females-only is long overdue. Among other benefits, it would help alleviate the short fields that plague so many stakes for older horses. It also would diminish the number of graded stakes, of which there are far too many considering the decline in foal crops.

Good to be high

One other tidbit picked up Saturday, worth filing away for if and when more Pan-American races are run in the States, is the influence of altitude. Mexican horses, who race and train at almost a mile and a half high altitude have a distinct advantage when coming down to sea level. “Absolutely,” said trainer Fausto Gutierrez, who trains Jala Jala and Jaguaryu, winner of the Lady Caribbean Cup. Gutierrez trains so many top Mexican horses that he quipped back home he is called “Pletcher.”

OK, so how long is it going to be before some enterprising trainer takes his horses to some mile high location to train for the Triple Crown or Breeders’ Cup?

Got the time?

Gulfstream race-caller Pete Aiello was about to call out the quarter-mile time for The Buffalo Man Stakes Saturday when he stopped in mid-sentence. He immediately recognized the time posted on the board, 25.53, was ridiculous for a talented group of juveniles sprinting six furlongs.

No time was posted for the half-mile or the finish. Thankfully, as John Pricci pointed out last week, Gulfstream has created a backup fail safe for the continuing timing problem. All races, dirt or turf, are now also hand-timed.

The correct quarter-mile time was 22.50 en route to a final 1:11.40.

The winner of the minor stakes, Diamond Oops, is one to keep an eye on in the coming months. He did it the right way, rating just off the speed then making his move near the top of the lane and drawing off by two lengths. Among those in his wake was a 4-5 Todd Pletcher colt, Mojovation, whose previous effort was a third in the Futurity at Belmont.

It's too soon to make Diamond Oops a Derby horse but he comes off as a colt who will take a lot of beating in stakes this winter and spring. The Mucho Macho Man on Jan. 6 at one mile out of a chute would seem to hit him right between the eyes.

Diamond Oops' breeding suggests the stretch out is well within his scope. His sire, Lookin at Lucky, won the Rebel, Preakness, Haskell and Indiana Derby and was fourth in the Blame-Zenyatta Breeders’ Cup Classic. His dam, Patriotic Viva, won the Serena’s Song around two turns at Monmouth.

Take this for what you consider it to be worth. Victor Espinoza, who guided American Pharoah and California Chrome to win five Triple Crown races, flew cross-county to ride Diamond Oops for Patrick Biancone even though the colt was coming off a sixth in the Saratoga Special in August.

Unanimity is a must

Once again Southern California stewards made themselves a big part of the story in a major stakes race, the Cash Call Futurity.

Solomini came from off the pace to engage McKinzie and Instilled Regard, who were in a ferocious stretch-long battle. It was reminiscent of the first Breeders’ Cup Classic when Gate Dancer came from well back to make it a three-horse free-for-all in the final strides with Wild Again and Slew O Gold.

As in that Classic, there was some light bumping. However, none of the three jockeys ever stopped riding all out. The result was left to stand in the first Classic and it should have stood in Saturday’s Cash Call.

Unfortunately, the stewards decided that Solomini, who finished first, drifted in enough on Instilled Regard, the third horse under the wire, to be disqualified.

It was a bad call for at least two reasons. It didn’t cost Instilled Regard a placing. Solomini clearly was going by him and Instilled Regard had the longest stretch in America to pass McKinzie and was unable to do it.

The other reason is a sore point with me. The vote in the stewards’ stand was 2-1. No horse should ever be disqualified on a less than unanimous vote. If one of the stewards, hired for his expertise (justified or not) feels a DQ is not warranted, there should be no change.

A disqualification is like a conviction in a court of law. No one can be convicted on a less than unanimous decision. Racing would do well to adhere to this principle.

Miami, December 14, 2017

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, December 07, 2017

Latin America’s Kentucky Derby is a guessing game

Gulfstream, which has gambled and won with year-round racing, the Pegasus and Claiming Crown, is taking another risk Saturday, bringing the Clasico Internacional del Caribe to South Florida for the first time. The centerpiece of the five-stakes festival, the Clasico del Caribe, is often called "The Kentucky Derby of the Caribbean and Latin America." But the dozen horses entered are all unknowns to local players and the big race is supported by four other stakes for imports, which will transform handicapping into a guessing game.

Gambling establishments are notorious for disdaining risk. Race tracks cancel show betting when an overwhelming favorite threatens a minus pool. Try card counting in a casino, even though it doesn’t guarantee winning. All it does is cut into the house edge.

Frank Stronach is an exception. The owner of multiple tracks, he repeatedly has been willing to roll the dice, in a manner of speaking. He chafed at not being able to run Gulfstream like his other businesses, operating when he saw fit. He took on Calder head to head and ground the long established summer track into submission. Gulfstream now dwarfs the numbers Calder used to put up.

He created the world’s richest race, the Pegasus World Cup, with a funding mechanism that has fallen onto shaky ground in its second season. However, the race itself was a world class success with Arrogate out-running reigning Horse of the Year California Chrome, and the track was jammed in spite of “Hamilton” prices as it is only on Florida Derby Day--when admission is free.

Stronach brought the Claiming Crown to Gulfstream at a time when there wasn’t exactly a bidding war to host the then struggling concept and anchored it on opening day of the prime winter season. The sixth edition at Gulfstream last Saturday set a handle record for the fourth consecutive year.

His next gambit might be his most brazen. In a bid to expand Gulfstream’s brand south of the border, he lured the Clasico International del Caribe to North America for the first time in its 50 runnings and built a Saturday around it. There is talk of the festival returning at some point if Saturday is a success but for now it’s a one-shot deal.

Gulfstream is not just pre-empting one race on a prime winter Saturday. The feature, the $300,000 Clasico del Caribe, the Kentucky Derby of Latin America, will be preceded by four other stakes for horses from six nations. They are positioned in prime location, the final five races on an 11-race card (six small stakes for American juveniles will precede it).

The later races typically attract the most action. This trend will be tested as players are challenged to decipher form from tracks most people have never heard of with unfamiliar horses and trainers. At least the jockeys will be well known.

Emisael Jaramillo has the mount on El Cubita, the 3-1 morning line favorite from Venezuela. Juan Carlos Diaz, a legend in Puerto Rico who has been riding at Gulfstream since Hurricane Maria devastated his home island, is on second choice Justiciero, the Puerto Rican Triple Crown winner.

Diaz has never won Puerto Rico's biggest race. Joel Rosario, who has won a Clasico, will be up on Inmenso, who has won nine straight in the Dominican Republic against suspect competition.

Johnny Velazquez, Javier Castellano, Irad Ortiz, Luis Saez, Edgard Zayas, Manny Franco and Tyler Gaffalione also have mounts.

I'm not going to put my credibility at risk pretending to have a clue to the relative merits of these horses. The best way to go probably is to keep an eye on the tote board; someone has to know how these horses measure up. Another way might be to put a few bucks on the three or four longest shots in each race. All things considered, there figures to be some winners who will blow up the tote board.

Where is the finish line?

Gulfstream’s wide-as-the-Intracoastal turf course is wonderful for scheduling more grass races than a typical course could handle. Alas, a lot of problems accompany it.

The accuracy of the timing of races has been a constant issue. Also, extended run-ups make frequently carded 7 ½ furlong turf races closer to a mile than the listed distance.

Let me add another. The lack of a finish pole for any race other than when the rail is at zero makes gauging close finishes a guessing game for jockeys and players. The final yards of temporary rails are colored red, the only indication that the end is near. The race is over when a horse gets to the end of the red rails, which can be obscured by horses.

The ninth race last Saturday was a prime example. Martini Glass was life and death to hold on as hard charging Peru was gobbling up what was a clear lead. They hit the end of the red rails together. It appeared Peru had gotten up in the final jump. One media member opined it looked like at least a head, maybe a neck. I had no interest either way but this is how it appeared to me, too—even in the replays. But the photo finish gave the nod to Martini Glass.

If temporary rails can be placed around the entire track, is it too much to ask that a temporary finish pole be stuck in the ground where the wire is? It wouldn’t have to be official, just a target for jockeys and a gauge for bettors.

Takeout does matter

It isn’t only disgruntled horse players who feel that increased takeouts, such as the one that inspired a boycott of Keeneland this fall, are counter-productive.

A parade of well credentialed speakers, including a college professor of economics, at the annual University of Arizona Global Symposium on Racing, said this week that race tracks would serve themselves and their customers with a reduction in takeout, especially on single race wagers, such as win, place and show, exactas and trifectas. Keeneland’s increase was mentioned in the presentations.

Pushing players to easier to win single race propositions would create additional churn, which would make up for the lower rake, it was argued. It also would create more winning tickets, an incentive for bettors to keep playing.

Todd Bowker, general manager of the Premier Turf Club, a rebate shop, said his players who focus on individual races have a greater churn than those who prefer multi-race bets.

Referring to Keeneland, Marshall Gramm, a professor of economics at Rhodes College, said an increase in takeout produces short term gains but long term losses because of its impact on churn.

Bill Nader, former COO of NYRA and executive director of the Hong Kong Jockey Club, said a key is for the major tracks to act in concert to reduce takeout. “It has to start with the industry leaders. This will not work in isolation.”

Bowker was not optimistic that the counsel offered at the symposium will be heeded. “I think the industry knows what it needs to do to move the handle needle forward,” he was quoted in the Racing Form as saying. “But it doesn’t want to do them, probably because it’s going to take some short-term pain.”

They must be oblivious or indifferent to the saying, “No pain, no gain.”

Written by Tom Jicha

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