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, April 06, 2017


Timing, other factors outweigh grading for Derby preps


The loss of Grade 1 status for the Blue Grass and Wood Memorial has had no impact on the decisions of trainers' choices for final Derby preps, according to a couple of conditioners who will send out leading contenders on Saturday. On the West Coast, Doug O'Neill and Bob Baffert will have seven starters between them in the Santa Anita Derby. O'Neill is confident he only needs one. Off the track, Frank Stronach has launched a preemptive strike against the Dubai World Cup, raising the total purse for the 2018 Pegasus to $16 million.

The downgrading of the Wood Memorial and Blue Grass Stakes, two of the most tradition laden events on the American racing calendar, turns out to be no big deal. Getting to the Kentucky Derby the right way is the only thing that matters, according to the trainers of a couple of leading Derby contenders.

Ian Wilkes, trainer of McCraken, the leader in the National Thoroughbred Racing Association 3-year-old poll, said the fact that the Blue Grass has been lowered from a Grade 1 to a Grade 2 was not a consideration in his decision to make the Keeneland fixture his undefeated colt’s final prep. “I don’t think either of those races should have been downgraded because of their history,” Wilkes said. “But the important thing is I wanted to get a race that could get me to the next race in the best possible way.”

Graham Motion, who will send out Holy Bull winner Irish War Cry as one of the horses to beat in the Wood, conveyed the same feelings on an NTRA conference call. He made his decision based on the calendar and other circumstances. “I didn’t feel comfortable running back in four weeks (in the Florida Derby). I wanted an extra week and to get him back home.” Home is the Fair Hills training center in Maryland, a bucolic facility Motion prefers as his base because it gets his horses away from the hubbub of the racetrack.

On cold hard facts, it’s difficult to argue with the decision to knock the Wood down a grade. The Wood winner hasn’t doubled in the Derby since Fusaichi Pegasus in 2000. However, Funny Cide, who ran second to Empire Maker in the 2003 Wood, reversed that order in the Derby. That was the last time horses who hit the board in New York also finished in the money in Louisville.

Motion called this a matter of happenstance. “It’s only a matter of time until the right horses comes along.” He’s hoping, of course, that Irish War Cry is that horse. But he has no explanation for his colt’s lackluster Fountain of Youth.

NYRA apparently doesn’t care about the downgrade. With more stakes money than it knows how to prudently spend, it has cut back the purse by a quarter-million dollars to $750,000. This makes it the only 100-point Derby prep with a purse under $1 million.

It’s difficult to imagine this season’s Wood triggering the process to restore the tradition rich race to Grade 1. There is a stunning lack of star power. Batallion Runner, the likely favorite has won a maiden and entry level allowance at Gulfstream.

Todd Pletcher has won four of the last seven Wood Memorials with horses bringing gaudy resumes north from South Florida. Batallion Runner could be the fifth, especially considering his modest competition Saturday. But not one of Pletcher’s Wood winners has finished even among the top half of the field in Louisville.

Pletcher has a less heralded, deservedly so, second entrant, Bonus Points. He brings a second and fourth in Aqueduct’s winter stakes into the Wood. Pletcher’s chief rival, Chad Brown, has Cloud Computing, second in the Gotham (somebody had to be) and is still eligible for an entry level allowance. Brown’s big 3-year-old, Practical Joke, is in Kentucky for the Blue Grass.

McCraken set for a big race

The Blue Grass, on the other hand, is taking an impressive first step back toward the top of the heap. It is inarguably the most talent rich field of the prep season. It’s revealing that Practical Joke, is not competing at the trainer’s home base in New York, where he is a dual Grade 1 winner, and J Boys Echo, who won the Gotham, New York’s penultimate 3-year-old prep, also has spurned the Wood for the Blue Grass.

McCraken and Tapwrit, who stood out at Tampa Bay Downs this winter and are in most everyone’s top five Derby contenders, resume their rivalry in the seven-horse field.

Tapwrit has his Derby berth cinched with 54 points but McCraken, although undefeated has only 20 Derby points and needs no worse than a second to guarantee a slot in the gate. Third might be enough but it could become a sweat.

Ian Wilkes sounds like a trainer who doesn’t lose sleep over this. “McCraken has had three good works at Keeneland and I couldn’t be any happier. I’m looking for a really big race.”

Wilkes said he has no qualms about jumping into the stiffest prep. “Horses get better running against good competition. You get a different kind of fitness.”

Forget the mild ankle sprain that cost McCraken a prep, Wilkes said. “It was very minor.” The colt recovered quickly enough that if Wilkes wanted, he said he could have run in the Tampa Bay Derby. He opted out because he would have been unable to squeeze in the kind of final work he wanted.

He’s the horse to beat until someone does it. I can’t see anyone but Tapwrit having a shot to do this Saturday. I’m not going any deeper on my multi-race bets.

Baffert vs. O'Neill

California-based horses have won the past three Derbies and four of the last five but odds are against them improving that statistic on May 6. Mastery looked like this year’s hot contender but he went down before he could even be unsaddled after his breath-taking San Felipe score. Maybe Bob Baffert will get him back in late summer as this year’s Arrogate.

What’s left of the West Coast Derby hopefuls is a relatively non-descript bunch and an uninspiring Santa Anita Derby. The most interesting aspect of this year’s renewal is the intramural scrimmage between Doug O’Neill, who is entering four, and Baffert, who will send three to the gate.

This is illustrative of what’s wrong with the trend toward super trainers and 200-horse barns. “The other Baffert”—the one with the longer odds when he starts two—is a mantra among Southern California fans. What do you do when he starts three and O’Neill, whose success also has inspired skepticism, has four? In any event, what this implies is not good for racing.

How ironic that O’Neill is one up because a horse Kaleem Shah took from Baffert and sent to him, Iliad, is among the four. “It was like a late Christmas present,” O’Neill said. He gives the impression that Iliad will be the gift that keeps on giving.

“Iliad has impressed me from the first day I got him.” O’Neill blames himself for the colt's failure in the San Felipe, although chasing Mastery had a lot to do with it. “I hadn’t trained him hard and he got tired.”

O’Neill has been trying to harness Iliad’s early speed by training him behind horses and feels the effort is paying off. “He doesn’t need to be on the lead.” This should be advantageous in a full Santa Anita Derby field loaded with speed. “Iliad will move way forward on Saturday,” O’Neill said.

Pegasus-World Cup war is on

Frank Stronach has launched a pre-emptive strike at Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashad al Maktoum, who said after last month’s Dubai World Classic that the $10 million purse would be raised to exceed the $12 million offered by the Pegasus at Gulfstream Park.

The Stronach Group announced Wednesday that the 2018 Pegasus, scheduled for Jan. 27, would have a $16 million purse. Stronach is putting up the increased $4 million himself. Where the madness will end is anyone’s guess but it’s hard to imagine Stronach one-upping the Sheikh for world’s richest race.

A disappointing aspect of the Pegasus increase is that it will be bottom heavy. Each of 12 starters is promised at least $650,000, well up from the $250,000 guaranteed to horses who finished fourth through last this past winter. This will leave an increase of only $400,000 to be split among the top three.

This can only be interpreted to mean that Stronach was finding it difficult to get 12 owners to ante up $1 million apiece again after nine of the 12 lost about $750K in January. But this is not what horse racing is about or should be about. The notion of a horse or horses trailing the field by a pole yet bringing home $650K is absurd. It also brings into question the true value of the purse since the connections are really not putting up more than $350K apiece.

A more sensible and headline-grabbing approach for the additional money would have been to hang up an eye-popping $10 million for the winner, $3 million for second, $1.5 million for third and $500K for fourth through sixth. Any horse who doesn’t finish in the top half of the field doesn’t deserve a payoff.

How long do you figure it will be before the Sheikh plays "Can you top this?"


Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, March 30, 2017


Gulfstream, Fair Grounds could produce a leader of 3YO pack


This year's Kentucky Derby crop is still without a clear leader. This could change after Saturday's Florida and Louisiana Derbys. But there are reasons to proceed with caution before going all in on early favorites Gunnevera and Girvin. Not the least of them is both have sufficient points to guarantee a Derby starting berth, so there is no necessity to lay it all on the line in their final preps for the first Saturday in May.

The observation that this season’s Kentucky Derby crop is an uninspiring group lacking a standout has been widely expressed. The latest to join the chorus is Joe Sharp, who will send out favored Girvin in Saturday’s Louisiana Derby. “This year’s Derby picture is as muddled as I can ever remember,” Sharp said on an NTRA conference call this week.

Facts bear this out. Nineteen Kentucky Derby qualifying points races in 2017 have produced 18 different winners. The only horse to double is El Areeb, who won the Jerome and Withers over Aqueduct’s inner track, against winter track competition. He fell off most Kentucky Derby hot lists when he threw in a clunker in the Gotham.

There are extenuating circumstances. McCraken looked like he could be one of the ones as he ran his unbeaten streak to four in Tampa’s Sam F. Davis. But then he went to the sidelines with a minor ankle problem and will have only one more Derby prep, next week’s Blue Grass.

Juvenile Eclipse champion Classic Empire came unhinged before he got to the starting gate in the Holy Bull, the only time he has appeared under silks this year. A foot abscess and back problems have been offered as explanations but when he supposedly was 100% again, he balked at working at Palm Meadows.

Subsequently he supposedly worked like Arrogate at an upstate farm. This is encouraging but what happens when he has to deal with a less bucolic setting, especially one as raucous as Churchill Downs on Derby Day? Maybe we’ll get a clue next week when he goes in the Arkansas Derby.

Mastery looked like the next budding superstar on the Bob Baffert conveyer belt when he destroyed his competition in the San Felipe but he came back bad and probably won’t be seen again until summer at the earliest.

Even those who fell in love with the notion of standout filly Unique Bella trying the boys had their dreams crushed when she came up injured this week, sidelining her for at least 60 days, according to Jerry Hollendorfer.

So there really is no leader as we head into the final round of major Derby preps.Gunnevera and even Girvin could lay claim to pro tem leadership with big efforts Saturday but there are reasons to proceed with caution with both.

Gunnevera already is safely in the Derby field, so there’s no urgency to lay it all down to win. His trainer Antonio Sano said at Gulfstream’s post position draw ceremony that he wants to win the Florida Derby. It is a million dollar race, after all. But he’s training Gunnevera more for the big Derby on May 6 than for this weekend’s race.

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Sano hopes Saturday will be deja vu all over again.

It doesn’t help that Gunnevera drew the outside post with the short run to Gulfstream’s first turn. Moreover, when Chad Brown decided to take Fountain of Youth runnerup Practical Joke out of town to prep in the Blue Grass, a bunch of no-chance dreamers jumped into the Florida Derby. Eleven passed the box although only 10 will go. Todd Pletcher indicated Batallion Runner will scratch and look elsewhere.

Four or five of the late arrivals on the scene have no chance to win but a big chance to back up in the face of Gunnevera when he launches his late bid, likely from last considering his post. If he gets a clear run, he wins and becomes the horse to beat in Louisville--at least until next week. However the price will be too short to tap out on him.

Another Pletcher hopeful, Always Dreaming, is worth a long look at a decent price. He’s never run a bad one and both his two-turn tries have been impressive wins. He has the style to get first run on the cheap speed and the rider, Johnny V., to put him in the optimum spot.

Way down yonder, Girvin, who will be making only his fourth start, still has much to prove. He saved all the ground in the Risen Star and the rail opened for him at the top of the lane as if Calvin Borel was aboard. Even Sharp wants to be shown he has a legitimate Derby horse. “He needs to show he belongs in the Derby and not just because he has the points.”

Meanwhile, Lecomte winner Guest Suite also had a dream journey…a bad dream. Although he comes from off the pace, he got shuffled back further than trainer trainer Neil Howard wanted, so his impressive late run was for naught. Howard loves the way he’s coming up to Fair Grounds’ biggest event. “He’s still moving forward, getting close to the peaking point.”

If he reaches it Saturday, Girvin will need a maximum effort to hold him off.

Kill the 7 p.m. rule

It is illegal to allow a donkey to sleep in a bathtub in Arizona.

You can’t keep an ice cream cone in your back pocket on Sunday in Georgia.

Whale fishing is against the law in Nebraska (think about that one).

These are among scores of inane laws still on the books because they are so ridiculous no one has gone to the trouble to eradicate them.

Florida, which once unintentionally banned all computers by wording an anti-internet café bill poorly, has one of its own. No thoroughbred race may begin after 7 p.m.

While no one pays attention to the laws previously mentioned because they are so asinine, the 7 p.m. rule is scrupulously adhered to by Gulfstream and could come into play on Florida Derby Day. Since daylight savings time has extended the number of sun-lit hours, Gulfstream has flirted with going past 7 p.m. on both Saturdays. Neither day had huge crowds. Saturday will draw the biggest turnout of the season and 14 races are scheduled.

This rule was put into place to protect greyhound tracks and jai alai frontons from thoroughbred competition. Now dog racing and jai alai are virtually dead and thoroughbred simulcasts contribute mightily to greyhound and jai alai bottom lines. Races from Gulfstream would be a boon not a blow.

Yet no one has bothered to have this rule eliminated. With decoupling and other pari-mutuel issues on the legislative agenda this session, it should be a priority to have killing the 7 p.m. rule tacked onto any racing bill. Who would be against it?

There Are No Words

Arrogate’s breath-taking triumph Saturday triggered a flashback to Shea Stadium in 1969. Part of the sideshow to the Miracle Mets was the fan who had an appropriate sign for every occasion.

After one of the championship triumphs—I don’t recall if it was the division, pennant or World Series-- by the team that had been baseball’s laughingstocks (Remember the book “Can Anyone Here Play This Game”), the sign guy held up “There Are No Words.”

The past year has been marked by comebacks usually seen only in movies: the Patriots climbing out of a 25-point hole in the Super Bowl; the Cubs coming back from a 3-1 deficit in the World Series to claim their first title in 108 years; the Cavaliers also rallying from a 3-1 deficit against the record-breaking Golden State Warriors.

None of these compare to what Arrogate did in Dubai. When he crossed the finish line, ears pricked looking for more, I sent a one-word text to J.P.—“Wow!”

I’ve been going to the races since I was 14 and Arrogate is the horse I have been waiting my whole life to see.

I witnessed Secretariat’s Belmont, the performance that rivals what Arrogate did in Dubai. On his best day, Secretariat might have beaten any horse who ever lived. But he had off days. He ran third in the Wood Memorial, his final prep for the Triple Crown, and lost twice more before retiring at the end of his 3-year-old season.

Arrogate hasn’t had any bad days since his debut. Only days that have been better than the last. I can no longer conceive of a scenario, barring injury, in which Arrogate can be beaten. It’s a pity we will only get to appreciate him three more times and maybe not again until August.

Miami, March 30, 2017



Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, March 23, 2017


Too early to put down this year’s Derby generation



One of many rites of spring is a premature disparaging of the latest Kentucky Derby crop.This year is no exception. I would argue we should hold off a while until we see how long McCraken and Malagacy can maintain their unbeaten records; whether Tapwrit's Tampa Bay Derby is a precursor of brilliant things to come; and if multiple stakes winner Gunnevera might be superior to all of them. Also, Arrogate's presence in the Dubai World Cup is this weekend's big event but there are three or four horses in the supporting UAE Derby who could become serious players in the Triple Crown races.


The disparaging of the current 3-year-old crop, an annual springtime event as predictable as the swallows returning to Capistrano, has begun. At least one column in a major racing publication this week put down 2017’s sophomores as an unimpressive bunch.

I have a one-word rebuttal, which coincidentally fits with this weekend’s biggest event: Arrogate.

At this point last year, Nyquist, Exaggerator and Creator, none of whom are likely to have a plaque in the Hall of Fame, were on the verge of divvying up the Triple Crown races. No one outside Bob Baffert’s barn had ever heard of Arrogate, a 3-year-old who would go on to establish himself as at least a Hall of Famer and possibly a horse Hollywood will make movies about. He didn’t make his first start until mid-April and didn’t break maiden until June.

Saturday Arrogate will strive to solidify his status as Horse of the World in the Dubai World Cup. If he doesn’t win, it will be the biggest upset since Keen Ice—who is in the field--ran down Triple Crown champion American Pharoah in the 2015 Travers.

Even absent a late emergence of a standout, it’s still way premature to put down this year’s Derby generation.

What has McCraken done wrong? The horse he beat in the Sam F. Davis to keep his resume unblemished, Tapwrit, rebounded with a Tampa Bay Down performance that offered indications he might be pretty special, too. Gunnevera has stakes wins at fabled Saratoga, the bull ring at Delta Downs and the capital of winter racing, Gulfstream Park. What’s not impressive about this?

Who’s to say any of these or undefeated Rebel winner Malagacy—breeding questions aside, no one has been close to him at the finish of his three races--is incapable of becoming the next American Pharoah. Malagacy, who didn’t make his debut until Jan. 4, also is this year’s candidate to crack the 135-year jinx of Apollo.

Although the circumstances between Mastery and Arrogate are unfortunately different, Mastery could be back by late summer for Bob Baffert, the same time of year Arrogate began knocking people’s socks off.

So let’s not be premature in putting down a crop of 3-year-olds that could yet produce a horse we’ll talk about for years.

World Cup a race mostly to watch

Getting back to Dubai, Arrogate has made the World Cup more of a watching race than a betting race. A case could be made that Gun Runner is an improved colt over the one who finished a zip code behind Arrogate in the Travers. He won the Grade 1 Clark in the fall and the Razorback in his Dubai prep.

His connections must think he’s a much better horse. They were willing to take on Arrogate in the Pegasus until the Fair Grounds quarantine kicked in and now are chasing him halfway around the world. But Gun Runner will probably be an underlay with American bettors as the most logical alternative to Arrogate. An Arrogate-Gun Runner exacta is probably a single-digit proposition.

A potentially more rewarding option in vertical gimmicks is Mubtaahij. He was second in a three-horse photo in the Woodward last summer and is the horse for course at Meydan. He broke his maiden there as a juvenile; won three-of-four, including the UAE Derby, as a 3-year-old; was second to California Chrome last year and was second in this season’s final World Cup prep. Unfortunately, he has drawn the outside post 14 but Meydan’s stretch goes on forever so there is time to overcome any early issues and the challenging post might enhance his odds.

The Gold Cup isn’t the only race of interest for American players. Logic dictates U.S.-based horses are the ones to beat in the dirt races while the overseas contingent are just as dominant in the turf stakes. There’s no reason to believe this won’t hold Saturday.

Off his eye-catching Gulfstream Park Handicap romp, Sharp Azteca stands out almost as much in the Godolphin Mile as Arrogate does in the World Cup. The cherry atop the sundae is trainer Jorge Navarro is on another of his incredible runs, winning with seven of his last nine starters at Gulfstream. Does magic travel across the globe?

Another American magic man, Peter Miller, will attempt to upset Mind Your Biscuits, placed second in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint, with St. Joe Bay, on a three-race roll at Santa Anita. This appears to be a trainers’ mismatch. Mind Your Biscuits is conditioned by Chad Stewart, who became a trainer only last month.

To return to the Derby run-up, the UAE Derby could produce as many as three starters in Louisville. Epicharis is already qualified as the top point-earner in Japanese races designated as Derby qualifiers. Adirato, who ran a close second in the final Japanese qualifier, could punch his ticket to Louisville with a win or place, since the UAE Derby is a 100-40-20-10 race, which is outrageous. It’s totally unfair that this race is put on a par with the final Derby preps in Florida, California, New York and Kentucky.

Todd Pletcher, who already has Tapwrit and Malagacy with sufficient Derby points and two or three others in position to use the final preps to earn their way in, could sneak in through the back door with another, Master Plan, who will be one of the favorites in the Dubai race. He was a fast closing second to Tapwrit in the Pulpit after an eventful trip then rebounded to take the Ocala Breeders Stakes, albeit on a synthetic track.

A Euro, Thunder Snow, might be good enough to steal the show here and make his presence felt in Kentucky. A Grade 1 winner in England as a juvenile, he kicked off his 3-year-old campaign by running away in the UAE 2,000 Guineas on Meydan’s dirt oval. His connections must be impressed. They put up the $6,000 late nomination fee for the Triple Crown this week.

The UAE Derby at almost a mile and three-sixteenths, longer than any of the U.S. preps, isn’t known for producing serious Derby contenders but this year’s renewal might. This is one more reason not to downgrade the 2017 Derby crop.

Good news, bad news

It’s gratifying to see that Marcus Vitali, barred from entering horses in Maryland and Florida for multiple drug violations and creative attempts to avoid the consequences, finished 11th of 11 in the recent Florida HBPA Board of Directors elections.

Not so pleasing is the fact that Vitali garnered 135 votes. The unavoidable conclusion is, there are at least this many FHBPA members who feel Vitali’s shenanigans are no big deal.

Add this to the national HBPA establishing a legal defense fund for serial cheaters such as Murray Rojas and anyone who thinks there is serious sentiment among many horse people to clean up the game is living in a fool’s paradise.

Good beat? Bad beat

You’ve probably all heard the joke that the definition of mixed emotions is seeing your mother-in-law barreling over a cliff in your new Cadillac.

I had a racetrack experience like that last Saturday at Gulfstream. I wasn’t crazy about the sixth and seventh races, so, just for action, I decided to make a $2 daily double part wheel, three horses in the sixth with two in the seventh. Alas, I hit the $5 key on the SAM machine, so the $12 bet I intended to make came out $30 (I had enough funds on my voucher).

I’ll make a $30 bet on something I like but, as I said, this was just for action. So I did something I was lectured not to do in my earliest days at the track. I went to the window and canceled the ticket; not completely. I made the $12 bet I intended.

You probably know where this is going. One of my horses in the sixth, Madame Uno, got up in the final strides to pay $54.80. I was sitting on doubles with the two big favorites in the seventh worth $193 and $279 for a deuce. If I had kept the original tickets they would have had will pays of approximately another $300 and $450.

The shorter of the two, odds-on Legacy Azteca, grabbed the lead out of the gate and had three at the top of the stretch. He still had a couple of lengths in mid-stretch and seemed to be going easily. But out of the pack came a flying 9-1 shot named Crocodile Charlie.

The next 10 seconds brought the slow death every horseplayer has experienced as a fading leader reaches for the wire that seems to be coming faster to the closer. Meanwhile, I’m thinking more about the $300 I might have blown than the $200 I could be collecting on a bet I didn’t really like all that much.

It all became moot as Crocodile Charlie blew past Legacy Azteca in the final strides.

So this was a bad beat that in one perverted way wasn’t such a bad beat. Or was I just being punished for greed?

Miami, March 23, 2017


Written by Tom Jicha

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