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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Sunday, June 28, 2015

Advice to Baffert: Stay West with American Pharoah

Bob Baffert's options for American Pharoah's next start include Del Mar's Pacific Classic. Given the sorry state of the older horse division in Southern California, which was underlined by Saturday's lackluster Gold Cup, Baffert should stay home for what amounts to easy pickings in a $1 million race, whose pot could grow considerably if bonuses being put together become reality.

MIAMI, June 28,2015--If Bob Baffert is looking for the least challenging path to the Breeders’ Cup for American Pharoah, he would be crazy to venture far from home.

The Pacific Classic on Aug 22 at Del Mar is on the short list of potential next starts for the Triple Crown champion. With the typically lackluster group of West Coast older horses he would have to beat, a fact underlined by Saturday’s Gold Cup, American Pharoah wouldn’t have to work up a good sweat to take home the winner’s share of the $1 million purse, which could become more lucrative if a $5 million bonus being assembled is added as a sweetener.

As American Pharoah was paraded on the track at Santa Anita between Saturday’s seventh and eighth races, “New York, New York” blared on the track’s speakers. For the Gold Cup field, Santa Anita should have played “Is That All There Is?”

As has been the case in most Grade 1 races in recent years for older horses in Southern California, the race was beneath the dignity of the grade. Hard Aces, who had never won a graded race of any level, broke through by nosing out Baffert’s Hoppertunity in a head-bobbing finish, thanks to a ground saving ride by Victor Espinoza. Less than an hour earlier Espinoza had joined Baffert for a celebration of American Pharoah’s Triple Crown. This had to drive conspiracy theorists nuts.

The only stakes on Hard Ace’s resume was a $75K unlisted race at the Fair Grounds in January when the better older horses aren’t cranked. But John Sadler worked his characteristic Southern California magic, which for some reason doesn’t seem to travel well.

Baffert lost the race but might have gained valuable insight. He knows how Hoppertunity stands in regard to American Pharoah--not in the same universe. If Hoppertunity, who appeared to have the Gold Cup won one jump from the wire and one jump after it, could perform so well against the best that could be lined up on the West Coast, why put American Pharoah on a plane?

By the way, Hoppertunity was running back in only two weeks after a third in the Stephen Foster. In spite of the “short” rest and cross-country plane trip, he performed even better than he did in Louisville. Just saying.

The Triple Crown is the gift that keeps on giving. After a huge throng showed up at Churchill Downs a couple of weeks ago to see American Pharoah parade on the track, the Gold Cup crowd was also up substantially; 21,528 Saturday compared to 12,386 a year ago.

We can only speculate how many might show up to see American Pharoah actually compete. Del Mar and Santa Anita, which has the Awesome Again as a final prep for the Breeders’ Cup Classic, surely have taken note and will do everything they can to get Baffert to stay home.

Grade inflation was also apparent at Belmont. Saturday’s Grade 1 race for 3-year-old fillies fell well short of being “The Mother of All Gooses,” the accolade Leroy Jolley attached to the 1991 East-West showdown between Eclipse champion Meadow Star and Kentucky Oaks winner Lite Light.

There was nothing that breathes the same air as those two Hall of Famers did in this year’s renewal. Include Betty was impressive in coming from off the pace to win going away by more than three lengths. However, it has to be noted that the division’s heavyweights—Kentucky Oaks winner Lovely Maria; her multiple stakes-winning stablemate I’m a Chatterbox; late developing Acorn winner Curalina and West Coast star Stellar Wind—sat it out.

Include Betty is a classy filly, who might yet prove herself worthy of being ranked with the best of her generation, but she still has a lot to prove. She was the only graded stakes winner in the Mother Goose and that was the Grade 3 Fantasy at Oaklawn. In fact, the only other stakes winner of any kind was Money’soncharlotte, who won an overnight event at Gulfstream West (Calder), which was a stakes in name only. She went off at 42-1 Saturday and beat only two of the ten.

Wonder Gal, who outfinished Chide for the place, continues to be the most accomplished non-winner of an open race in America. She now has finished on the board in four Grade 1’s and has earnings in excess of a half-million dollars. But her only win was in a New York-bred stakes in her career debut.

Arguably the most impressive performance in a Grade 1 on Saturday was Masochistic’s devastation of the West’s best sprinters in the Triple Bend. Tyler Baze was standing almost straight up trying to restrain Masochistic down the backstretch as San Onofre tried to get away on the lead. When Baze gave Masochistic his cue, he went by with arrogant ease. Without any urging from Baze, Masochistic drew away to win by 3 ½ lengths in 1:20 1/5, three-fifths off the track record. “All I can say is awesome, unbelievable,” Baze said.

Alas, if Masochistic gets to the Breeders’ Cup, there will be some who will use other words, such as scandalous. He’s everything casual fans don’t need to hear about the unsavory aspects of racing.

Masochistic was apparently stiffed in his debut in a California bred maiden race, setting up what appears to have been a betting coup. His former trainer, A.C. Avila, is serving a 60-day suspension for his part in it. Masochistic next showed up at Churchill Downs in an open maiden race on Derby Day, opened odds-on (it takes a ton of money to do this on the first Saturday in May) and romped by 14.

His debut is the only time Masochistic, who added the Triple Bend to his Grade 2 win in the Kona Gold, has finished worse than second. He’s two-for-two under new trainer Ron Ellis, who seems to have improved an already supremely talented colt.

But his story is not one racing needs to have told on a major stage.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Triple Crown still has issues to address

The assault on the spacing of the Triple Crown races is over, thanks to American Pharoah. But the annual shortfall of Derby horses who run back in the Preakness is an issue that needs attention. That American Pharoah was the only horse to run in all three classics is also unacceptable. Incentives need to be created to make the second and third jewels of the Triple Crown irresistible. A bonus system in which series purses are doubled for horses who run in all three is a possible solution.

MIAMI, June 23, 2015--American Pharoah saved the Triple Crown as we know it. In proving it was still achievable under long-standing conditions, American Pharoah silenced the chorus demanding increased spacing between the races. It will be difficult for those singing this tune to find an audience for the foreseeable future.

This should not mute conversation about lingering issues with the Preakness and Belmont. Only four of the 18 Derby starters ran back in the Preakness. Of those, American Pharoah was alone in also contesting the Belmont. This is unacceptable.

Two of the three most important races for a generation of thoroughbreds should not be treated so cavalierly. Attempts have been made to remedy this situation. A point system was put in place for a few years but all it did was create a big pot of gold for one horse, who might not have been the winner of any of the three races. By the Belmont, the owners of only two or three horses had a reason to take a shot at the jackpot. Inasmuch as this system wasn’t achieving its purpose, it was eventually abandoned.

What’s needed is an incentive for the connections of every Derby starter to continue on through the Preakness and Belmont. As usual, the key is money. One solution is to create a pool through which horses, who competed in all three races, would have purse earnings in the series doubled.

The total purses of the Derby ($2 million), Preakness and Belmont ($1.5 million apiece) is $5 million. Theoretically, this would demand a commitment of another $5 million. Practically speaking, it would be less. This year only American Pharoah would have gotten to double dip. His bonus would have been just under $3 million and it took a sweep of the triad to get to that number.

Funding the bonus is doable. Del Mar is working on a $5 million bonus just to get American Pharoah to make his post-Triple Crown starts in Southern California. The money wouldn’t have to come from one source. Sponsors could be sought, just as Del Mar is doing. Perhaps some of it could come from TV rights fees, which have become substantial. The NTRA, Jockey Club and three tracks could chip in.

Getting skinflint Churchill Downs, which could adopt its characteristic “What’s in it for us?” attitude, might be problematic. But it’s certainly in the interests of Pimlico, which gets the fewest Derby starters, and Belmont, which won’t have a Triple Crown candidate every year.

Moreover, a greater number of starters creates a geometric increase in exotic wagers, which generally are the most heavily taxed. So the track’s contributions could almost pay for themselves.

Some fine points that would need to be worked out. Preference would have to be given to Triple Crown starters. If the Preakness or Belmont still oversubscribed, best finish in the previous race or races could be afforded priority.A horse entered but omitted by these conditions could be treated as a starter for purposes of the bonus.

The extraordinary windfall of positive publicity for racing that American Pharoah’s Triple Crown has generated in media that routinely ignores racing—the champ has even been photographed for Vogue—underlines the series importance to the sport. Everything that can be done to keep it healthy and thriving should be done.

Preventive treatment is always preferable to emergency care.

Only Baffert knows what’s next

The venue for American Pharoah’s next start has become as intriguing as LeBron James’ franchise-hopping.

The conventional wisdom is the Haskell on Aug. 2 has the inside track. Ahmed Zayat has said Bob Baffert will make the call. Baffert has had a great relationship with Monmouth Park. It doesn’t hurt that he’s won the million dollar race seven times.

Baffert’s detractors are likely to point out that he and Zayat are in line for $75,000 apiece in appearance money--$25K for each of American Pharoah’s Triple Crown victories. But Baffert has already donated almost three times that amount to racing charities from his American Pharoah earnings, so this will be a factor only in the minds of those who find fault with the color of Baffert’s socks.

The Travers on Aug. 29 offers more prestige but when you have “Triple Crown winner” on your resume, your prestige cup is already overflowing.

One of Baffert’s primary duties between now and the Breeders’ Cup is to protect American Pharoah’s reputation. The Haskell, a mile and an eighth on Monmouth’s speed favoring track, is a less demanding task than the mile and a quarter of the Travers.

The Pacific Classic on Aug. 22 could be an easier spot than either, given the sorry state of the older horse division in Southern California. Shared Belief won it last year as a 3-year-old. There’s also the potential $5 million bonus Del Mar is trying to put together to keep American Pharoah out west.

American Pharoah has been based in Southern California most of his career. He made his debut then broke his maiden at Del Mar in the Grade 1 Futurity. His win in the Front Runner at Santa Anita clinched the Juvenile Eclipse. But he has not raced at home during his championship 3-year-old season. Both his Derby preps were in Arkansas.

Baffert, who went Hollywood long ago, might want to show off in front of the home folks. Maybe he can get ESPN to schedule a special to announce, “I’m taking American Pharoah’s talents to…”

Written by Tom Jicha

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Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Horses haven’t changed, trainers have

Baseball pitchers used to routinely pitch complete games. Now they rarely do, because they aren't asked to. Horses used to run every two weeks or more frequently. Now they rarely do, because they aren't asked to. American Pharoah won four Grade 1 races in eight weeks. On the other side of the Atlantic, John Gosden sent out the French Oaks winner off only nine days rest. Not every horse can come back so quickly but a lot more can than are being asked.

MIAMI, June 16, 2015--The year Secretariat swept the Triple Crown, 1973, Tom Seaver pitched 18 complete games and won the National League Cy Young Award. The greatest Met ever also had seasons in which he finished what he started 21 and 19 times.

Bob Gibson twice had seasons with 28 complete games.

Jim Palmer, who took the 1973 American League Cy Young had 19 complete games the year Secretariat broke the last Triple Crown drought.

Seattle Slew’s year, 1977, Steve Carlton won the NL Cy Young and had 17 complete games. Ron Guidry, who won the AL Cy Young in 1978, Affirmed’s Triple Crown year, put up 16 complete games.

This season’s stats are a work in progress. The past two seasons, Clayton Kershaw won back-to-back Cy Young Awards for the Dodgers. He had six complete games in 2014, a career high and double the number he put up in 2013.

Kershaw’s AL counterpart last season, Corey Kluber, had three complete games. Max Scherzer won the AL Cy Young in 2013 without finishing any of his 32 starts.

The point is that athletes do what they are trained and prepared to do. Contemporary starting pitchers aren’t any less physical specimens than their 20th century counterparts. If anything, they are bigger and stronger thanks to advanced training techniques. But they are asked to throw only six or seven innings, so that is all they do.

I would argue that the same is true of equine athletes, thoroughbreds. They are being asked to run only every four or five weeks. So is it any surprise that they seem incapable of doing more?

Thank goodness for the Triple Crown. It’s a rare opportunity to demonstrate the fallacy that modern horses can’t race every couple of weeks. That the Derby winner has repeated two weeks later in the Preakness three of the past four years and the past eight Preakness winners also have run in the Derby or Oaks (Rachel Alexandra) is not coincidental. Horses can run more often, even at the highest level, if they are prepared for and asked to do it.

Critics of American racing often couple it with praise for the patient way things are done on the other side of the Atlantic. Eight days after American Pharoah became the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years, winning his fourth race in eight weeks, Star of Seville came back in nine days off a poor performance in the Epsom Oaks to win the French Oaks for trainer John Gosden.

A counterpoint is that drugs have weakened the American breed. This is only a theory. If it could be proven, we should go back to hay, oats and water immediately or shut it all down. Isn’t the romanticized justification for racing “improvement of the breed”?

What this theory doesn’t take into account is that not all drugs are evil. There likely is not an athlete in any sport, who hasn’t gone on the field aided by drugs, from aspirins to remedies far more potent.

It’s rarely pointed out that pharmaceuticals also lengthen horses’ careers. Injuries that used to signal the end of the line can now be treated so that horses can return to racing, often at their previous levels.

The decline in foal crops is a major contributing cause to smaller fields and fewer race days. I would argue that the timidity of trainers and the influence of fig sheets also have partial culpability. How has the physiology of the horse changed so much that thoroughbreds, who routinely raced every couple of weeks, and often more frequently, not that many years ago can only be put under silks once a month or less.

The Racing Form a few years back instituted a line across the past performances when a horse had a six-week or longer gap between races. Now that’s not considered a break. It’s almost the norm.

I’ve been told by several prominent trainers that another Racing Form innovation, publication of trainer stats—a great tool for handicappers-- is a reason conditioners have become extremely selective in picking their spots. “Giving horses a race” brings down winning percentages and scares away potential owners.

The bounce theory popularized by fig sheets and adhered to religiously by top trainers is another contributing factor to horses racing less frequently. Obviously, horses can’t run one race after another improving their figs each time. That they don’t doesn’t mean “they bounced.”

Even in swimming, where records fall every five minutes, world class competitors don’t always match their best “fig.” Does this mean they bounced? By fig guys’ standards, it does.

Racing isn’t alone in letting nebulous numbers play a role in how the game is played. Baseball managers mindlessly let the ridiculously lenient save rule guide their strategy. If they are up by 3 runs going to the 9th, they get their closer ready. If an someone homers and makes it a 4-run lead, they sit down the closer and bring in someone else. There is no thinking involved.

If you can see the absurdity in this, you should be able to also see how trainers let themselves be dictated to by figs. Their decisions should be a product of knowing their horses, not an arbitrary number on a piece of paper.

Until this happens, short fields will continue to plague the sport.

Final Triple Crown thoughts

The Met Mile isn’t the only thing that got lost in the excitement of American Pharoah’s Triple Crown.

In an act almost as gutless as capping attendance to cover up its inability to deal with crowd management, NYRA ran two of its premier stakes, the Woody Stephens and Ogden Phipps, without show wagering even though both stakes had six-horse fields. This is almost unprecedented and is totally unacceptable.

Ironically, one of the horses they were afraid would create a minus pool (a misnomer), Competitive Edge, ran off the board. NYRA unintentionally saved some bridge-jumpers a fortune. The other horse that caused NYRA to chicken out, Untapable, also got beat, although she did manage to finish second.

All sources handle was down about 10 percent on Belmont Day. Bad decisions by the NYRA brass were responsible for almost every penny lost.

Watch for Japan

Bill Mott, generally low key and humble, made an uncharacteristic boast after his Japan won the Easy Goer, beating only two foes. “I said before the race that he’s the only horse who can upset American Pharoah. I just ran him in the wrong race.”

He should be careful what he wishes for. However, if Mott is this high on Japan, it’s worth remembering for the next time Japan runs, which probably will not be in a race including American Pharoah.

Bayern looks like a goner

It might be time to stick a fork in Bayern after dismal last-place finishes in the Churchill Downs Handicap and Met Mile. He got a late start on the season because of ailments and obviously isn’t close to being the same horse who won the controversial Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Karma, anyone?

Written by Tom Jicha

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