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 02, 2017

Beating favorites key to a successful Breeders’ Cup

The key to prosperity on any racing day is being able to beat short-priced favorites. This is especially true on Breeders’ Cup weekend when reputation horses tend to get seriously over bet.
I think there are at least four such opportunities in Breeders’ Cup heats, two each on Friday and Saturday, including the climactic races on both afternoons.

I see some big names going down Friday and Saturday at Del Mar. I want to stress that I am not knocking these horses. They have earned their rankings at the top of the sport. But circumstances make them vulnerable.

One caveat: I am a win, daily double, Pick 3 and Pick 4 player, so I am looking at only the top slot. It would be folly to think these extraordinary runners won't find their way into the vertical exotics.

Classic--Gun Runner (9-5): He has earned his status as the top rated main track horse in America but he faces hurdles here he hasn’t had to deal with during his three-race, post-Dubai winning streak.

He has never won at a mile and a quarter. He has never run over what Bob Baffert calls “the tricky” Del Mar surface. All you have to know is how it brought Horse of the World Arrogate back to the pack. Gun Runner could wind up loving it. But you shouldn’t have to take 9-5 to find out.

Most important, Gun Runner has never beaten Arrogate. If it wasn’t for Arrogate’s seeming dislike for Del Mar, there would be no reason to believe Gun Runner ever would beat him, considering the trouncing he got in the Travers and Arrogate coming from dead last to run him down in Dubai.

Finally, Gun Runner has never beaten a top notch field. As a 3-year-old he was third in the Kentucky Derby, fifth in the Pennsylvania Derby, third in the Travers and second in last year’s BC Dirt Mile. He didn’t start dominating until many of the best of his generation fell by the wayside.

In his four wins this season, the place and show horses behind him have been Hawaakom, Domain’s Rap, Rally Cry, Keen Ice, Honorable Duty, Neolithic and Breaking Lucky twice. With the exception of Keen Ice and Neolithic, who would have been in the 20-1 to 30-1 range, any of the others would be in the 50-1 or more zip code if they were even allowed to break into the race.

To put it another way, none would be shorter odds than the longest of Baffert’s quartet, Mubtaahij. All Baffert’s entrants will be on my horizontal exotics but I’ll be leaning hard on Arrogate and West Coast, after Collected drew the extreme outside gate.

Distaff—Stellar Wind (5-2): She has had an exceedingly easy route to a 2017 three-race winning streak. She faced only five rivals in the Apple Blossom, four in the Clement Hirsch and two in the Beholder, one of whom, Vale Dore, ran second to her in both California stakes.

The last time she had to deal with a field as large as eight, not to mention a field of this quality, she was fourth in last year’s BC Distaff. It’s no disgrace getting beat by certain Hall of Famers Beholder and Songbird. However, the third-place finisher in that race, Forever Unbridled, also is back.

It’s a commentary on the state of American racing at the highest level that Forever Unbridled also beat only three in her win in the Personal Ensign but she did come out on top in a field of eight in her other 2017 start, the Fleur de Lis. An ankle injury, from which she has shown she is fully recovered, limited her to only those two starts.

In the Personal Ensign she did something Stellar Wind couldn’t do, running down Songbird, who had it all her own way in soft fractions.

Stellar Wind also will have to contend with a quartet of talented sophomores--Kentucky Oaks winner Abel Tasman; streaking Elate, coming off a huge Beldame win; last year’s BC Juvenile Fillies champion Champagne Room and speedball Paradise Woods, who will play catch me if you can and gets really brave if left alone.

Other significant stats: Stellar Wind has not won beyond 1 1/16th miles. She’s 0-for-3 at nine furlongs. Trainer John Sadler is 0-for-39 in Breeders’ Cup races. Sadler is too skilled a trainer to stay on the duck forever. However, it’s not prudent wagering strategy to take a short price that this is the race in which he will finally break his Breeders’ Cup maiden.

The keys to my Distaff-Classic two-day daily double and Friday’s final Pick 3 will be Forever Unbridled and Elate.

Filly & Mare Sprint—Unique Bella (9-5): On the West Coast, she’s being talked about in the same sentence as Songbird. So she could break at appreciably less than her morning line odds.

Why not? Since a poor start second in her maiden effort, she’s won five in a row by more than 32 lengths.

But there are red flags. Only her most recent start, the L.A. Woman, was against older. She has yet to face Grade 1 competition. She has not won at six furlongs. (To be fair, she hasn’t been asked to run less than 6 ½ furlongs after her 5 ½ furlong debut.) Typical of Southern California, only one of her races had as many as eight starters.

If you want to stretch the comparison, Songbird failed in her only Grade 1 against older rivals, albeit the memorable 2016 Distaff against Beholder.

Unique Bella will be confronted by some crack elders, including Grade 1 winners Finest City, the defending champion; Paulassilverlining; By the Moon; Constellation and Carina Mia.

Also not to be discounted, even though they lack a Grade 1 win, are Ami’s Mesa, on a four-race winning streak; Finley’s Lucky Charm, a winner of 9-of-12 with two photo-finish seconds; Highway Star, coming off a win in the Grade 2 Gallant Bloom and Skye Diamonds, five of six this season, including a score in the Rancho Bernardo over the Del Mar strip.

This looks like a spread race, not one in which to key a possible odds-on favorite, who has gotten off to a poor start in two of her six races.

Dirt Mile—Mor Spirit (3-1): When pre-entries were disclosed, I planned to include Practical Joke as a fourth short-priced bet-against. The fact that he drew the extreme outside No. 10 with a short run to the first turn undoubtedly was a factor in him being 6-1 on the morning line, double what I had penciled in for him.

I didn’t like him to win because he has never gotten up around two turns. To think he can do it with an atrocious draw seems to be wishful thinking.

This still might be a race to buck the chalk. Mor Spirit is 3-1 on the morning line but usually cocky Bob Baffert cold-watered him in a conference call last week. He labeled Mor Spirit’s Met Mile “pretty incredible.” If he runs back to that race, he’ll be tough to beat, Baffert said.

Then he warned that Mor Spirit, who hasn’t run since, might not be up to another effort like that. “After he ran that big race, it sort of took a lot out of him. It’s taken him a long time to come around. I would have loved to put a prep race into him but I didn’t get a chance.”

This isn’t the only negative Baffert ticked off. “He’s never run at Del Mar…He struggled with that track earlier but now he’s doing much better. But he’s coming off a layoff that long, so he’s got his work cut out for him.”

This could be a case where “the other Baffert” is the one to key. Cupid was the beaten favorite in the Awesome Again (behind “other Baffert” Mubaahtij) but he won his two previous 2017 starts, including the Gold Cup at Santa Anita and the Harry F. Brubaker over the same Del Mar mile as this race.

One Baffert favorite I am not going to try to beat is Drefong, the defending champion in the Sprint. I’m also going all in on globe-trotting Lady Aurelia in the Turf Sprint.

I’m seeing Saturday as “Lady’s Day” with Lady Eli, in the Filly & Mare Turf. I won’t single her but I’ll be rooting as hard for racing’s greatest story as any horse over Breeders’ Cup weekend.

Miami, Nov. 2, 2017

Written by Tom Jicha

Comments (16)


Thursday, October 26, 2017

Which ‘other Baffert’ do you key in the Classic

Bob Baffert goes into the Breeders' Cup Classic more loaded than usual. He has pre-entered five, including his big three of Arrogate, Collected and West Coast. He also dropped Mubtaahij and Cupid into the box. With so many possibilities, it will be a challenge to pinpoint which is "the other Baffert." Baffert's East Coast counterpart, Chad Brown, is also loaded with sentimental favorite Lady Eli in the Filly & Mare Turf and solid contenders in the the Turf and Sprint, as well as a colt he feels could be a sleeper at a big price in the Juvenile.
“The other Baffert” is a way of life for horse players. Betting the longer-priced stable mate is a must when Baffert has more than one horse in a race. It’s uncanny how often they get home. It’s enough to ignite a “bring back coupled entries” movement.

The Breeders’ Cup Classic presents a conundrum. There will be almost as many “other Bafferts” as there are horses in a typical California stakes. Baffert has pre-entered five, including his big three—Arrogate, Collected and West Coast. He also expects to start at least one other, Mubtaahij, who won the Awesome Again as “the other Baffert,” or Cupid, the shorter-priced Baffert in Santa Anita’s major BC Classic prep.

Either of the latter two would qualify as “the other Baffert” but how do you separate the other three?

Arrogate, dubbed Horse of the World until he fired blanks in the San Diego Handicap and Pacific Classic, is likely to be the most heavily bet on reputation. But Baffert has been saying for weeks he isn’t sure Arrogate will be favored. He has hung that target on Gun Runner’s back. He might be right but Arrogate won’t be far behind on the tote board.

What about Collected? His 8-for-11 record is slightly better than Arrogate’s 7-for-10. Moreover, Collected beat Arrogate on the square in the Pacific Classic over the Del Mar strip that is hosting the Classic. Can’t leave him out

The closest Baffert came during a Breeders’ Cup conference call to offering a hint at a possible upsetter was his comment that West Coast, a 3-year-old who has six wins and two seconds, should be 8-for-8. Baffert has won the last three Classics with 3-year-olds.

They all have to beat Gun Runner, the No. 1 horse in the NTRA poll. But there are chinks in Gun Runner’s armor. The big one is he has never won at a mile and a quarter. He also has not beaten a field with the top-to-bottom quality of the Classic. Finally, Arrogate has beaten him twice, including the Dubai World Cup when Arrogate couldn’t have had a worse trip and Gun Runner couldn’t have had a better one.

The Classic is getting the most attention, as it usually does, but the best sentimental story of Breeders’ Cup weekend is Lady Eli’s attempt to go out on a glorious note in the Filly & Mare Turf.

Chad Brown presents himself as an all-business type of guy. However, even he admits that the gallant filly, who battled back from life-threatening laminitis—the affliction that took Irap’s life this week—to regain her status as one of the world’s best distaffers has a special place in his heart.

“She’s a great story on so many fronts, an example of what horses can overcome. She has such a will to win. I’ve never seen a horse with so much heart and determination.”

Brown is confident he has her set for her best effort. “She’s training super, better than ever and she runs well fresh.”

The 2016 Eclipse trainer hates to see Lady Eli go on to her career as a broodmare but he intends to say so long, not goodbye. “I plan to visit her quite a bit, no matter where she is.”

Brown is in position to sweep the major turf races next weekend with Beach Patrol, who he calls “an over-achiever,” in the Turf.

Brown has another big shot in the Dirt Mile with Practical Joke, who is betwixt and between at Del Mar. At some tracks the mile is a one-turn race. Practical Joke has never been beaten around one turn. Alas, at Del Mar, it’s a two-turn race. Practical Joke has never won around two turns.

The six-furlong Sprint was a consideration, Brown said, but he felt it was too short for his colt, who prefers to stalk then strike. “I’d rather he have more track to work with.” Still, he says, he could call an audible by Monday when the fields will be set.

Brown thinks he has a puncher’s chance with a colt who will be boxcars in the Juvenile. “Good Magic is improving and has the pedigree to improve.”

He’s a two-race maiden but most recently demonstrated quality with a second in the Champagne. “We’ve always felt he has exceptional ability,” Brown said. “We feel he’s going to run better in his third start than he did in his second. If that happens, according to the numbers, he could be right there.”

Brown concedes that Bolt d’Or, likely to be the shortest price favorite in any of the 13 Breeders’ Cup races, will take a lot of beating but “the reward is better than the risk.” If he’s right, the same could be true of those who take this information to the windows. There are exactas, tri’s and super’s.

Race order set
Breeders’ Cup has announced the order of the races. The Juvenile Fillies Turf is the leadoff event on Friday at 5:25 Eastern time. It will be followed in order by the Dirt Mile, the Juvenile Turf and the Distaff.

Saturday’s card begins at 3 p.m. Eastern with the Juvenile Fillies, followed by the Turf Sprint, the Filly & Mare Sprint, the Filly & Mare Turf, the Sprint, the Mile, the Juvenile, the Turf and the Classic.

A $1 two-day daily double will be offered on the Distaff into the Classic. Otherwise, in keeping with California’s misguided tradition, rolling daily doubles will be $2 plays.

Unlike the California norm, pick 3’s will be 50 cents, as will trifectas, pick 4’s and pick 5’s and rolling Hi 5’s. Ten-cent superfectas also will be offered.

Maybe if the fractional exotics get hammered, Del Mar and Santa Anita will get the message.

Miami, Oct. 26, 2017

Written by Tom Jicha

Comments (15)


Thursday, October 19, 2017

Vegas resort fees illustrate why Keeneland boycott is crucial

When racetracks want to squeeze more money out of customers they raise the takeout, as Keeneland has done this fall. Las Vegas has its own version of this, "resort fees." These add-on charges started in the $10-$15 range. Visitors accepted the increases without meaningful pushback, so the hotels consistently increased these fees to as much as $40-plus per night and they seem to go up every year. This is why the Keeneland boycott must succeed. If it doesn't, racetracks everywhere will feel confident they can kick up their takeouts with impunity.

I’ve canceled my annual trip to Las Vegas for the Breeders’ Cup. Let me explain before you ask why you should care?

The reason for my change of plans has a parallel to the ongoing Keeneland boycott. Las Vegas hotels have instituted a ripoff called resort fees. I can’t pinpoint exactly when they were created but I’m fairly certain it was within the past 10 years.

In the beginning, they were in the $10-$15 range and only at the high-end properties. Several hotels held out, trumpeting “NO resort fees” in their advertising. Alas, the holdouts quickly came to realize tourists were unfazed by the surcharge, possibly because there already are so many hidden add-ons in Las Vegas (like breakage at the track) the latest one went virtually unnoticed at checkout time.

One by one the holdout hotels instituted their own resort fees, which were justified by “free” use of amenities (swimming pool, gym, etc.) that had always been free and still are at cut-rate motels on any interstate. The resort fees are just another unjustified way to reach deep into uncomplaining customer's pockets.

As the resort fees became universal, the higher end hotels realized they could jack up their own tariffs even higher. From $10-$15, the Bellagio now adds $44.22 per night to its average $300 rate, according to You would think for $300 a night, the pool would be free. Ceasar’s Palace and the MGM Grand tack on $39.68 per night. The Hard Rock, which isn’t even on The Strip, adds $35.15.

What really hurts is the downtown properties, the Golden Nugget ($27.50) and Downtown Grand ($25.99) have fallen into line after being leaders of the resist the resort tax movement.

My personal favorite, South Point, which is racing fan friendly, is a comparative bargain at $21. But last year, it was $14. This is why I said, “Enough is enough.”

Making these fees more pernicious is unlike room rates, which vary from weekdays to weekends, the resort fees are a constant, seven days a week, no cut-rates for weekdays or slow periods.

Hopefully, the connection to the Keeneland boycott is obvious. If this protest of elevated takeout rates fizzles, tracks everywhere will conclude, rightfully so, that they can do what they want without serious ramifications. It will be just like the resort fees in Las Vegas. The limit will be whatever those in charge decide. Someone in the comments section this week said Churchill Downs got away with raising its rates. This is exactly why Keeneland felt brazen enough to follow suit.

If Keeneland is brought to heel, other tracks will think twice before raising their own prices.

The boycott is succeeding, as John Pricci demonstrated with real figures in his most recent column. Now is not the time to taper off. The pedal must be kept to the metal for two more weeks.

A grand start for 2018

Win some, lose some. In a refreshing change, news from the camps of four champions is mostly positive.

The winners of this spring’s Triple Crown races, Always Dreaming, Cloud Computing and Tapwrit are all being pointed to 2018 campaigns. This is especially good news for the Eastern half of the country, where all three are based. The handicap division on the right side of the Mississippi has been in a downward cycle in recent years, with few genuine stars.

It has become rare for even the Kentucky Derby champion to race as a 4-year-old. It’s only happened five times this millennium. Only once this century, in 2011, have three different winners of the Triple Crown events—Animal Kingdom, Shackleford and Ruler on Ice--come back as older horses.

It will be interesting to see if any of the Triple Crown trio deign to take a shot at the 2018 Pegasus, the first big event of the new year—assuming it happens. In announcing the return of Always Dreaming, who was said to be suffering from ulcers, Todd Pletcher mentioned a spring campaign with the Met Mile the key objective. (Horsemen have more reverence for the Met Mile than NYRA, which has relegated it to a Belmont Stakes undercard race.)

Inasmuch as Always Dreaming, who won the Florida Derby before the Kentucky Derby, is undefeated at Gulfstream, it might be worth taking a look at the Pegasus, especially if it is lacking in star power.

On the negative side, Eclipse Juvenile champion Classic Empire has been retired. After winning four of five, including the BC Juvenile, as a 2-year-old, physical and mental issues bedeviled him as a sophomore. The highlights of a four-race campaign were a triumph in the Arkansas Derby and a second in the Preakness, which turned out to be his final race. Mark Casse has been trying for months to get Classic Empire back to the races but never could get a handle on a recurring foot abscess.

If there is one small downside to the three Triple Crown race winners coming back it is that Pletcher also trains Tapwrit. So it is unlikely that he and Always Dreaming will be in the same starting gate unless both make it to next year’s Breeders’ Cup.

On the other hand, one or the other would dress up any race in which they were entered and separating them doubles these possibilities.

Janney tells off Pa.

Good for Stuart Janney. The chairman of the Jockey Club is standing his ground in a war of words with Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding, who is also chairman of his state’s racing commission.

At the annual Round Table in August, Janney went off on the disgraceful lack of oversight in Pennsylvania, saying officials were asleep at the wheel and the scandals in the Keystone State were giving the entire racing industry a black eye.

Redding became the odds-on favorite for the Chutzpah of the Year Award, calling Janney irresponsible for saying such a thing and demanding an apology.

Janney fired back that maybe the fact that Penn National trainer Murray Rojas was found guilty of 14 counts of race manipulation and that a colleague, Stephanie Beattie, said under oath that 95-98% of trainers at the track had vets administer forbidden drugs on race day. “It was a known practice,” Beattie said.

Apparently one of the few to whom it was not known is Redding, whose job is to know such things. It's astutely said, the dumbest people are those who don't know what they don't know.

Miami, Oct. 19, 2017

Written by Tom Jicha

Comments (17)


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