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, March 08, 2018

Tampa Bay Derby has moved way up among the Derby preps

The Tampa Bay Derby doesn't get the media attention of longer established Kentucky Derby preps but its status has been elevated in recent years by the performance of its winners. Two eventual Derby winners have come out of Oldsmar since 2007 and four of the five past Tampa Bay Derby winners have gone on to take Grade 1 stakes later in their career. The exception, Destin, missed by a nose in the Belmont. So it would be foolhardy to downgrade the result of Saturday's renewal. On a sad note, the death of John Brunetti last week probably ends any hope that Hialeah will ever come back as a thoroughbred track.

Sometimes when you are doing research you find something surprising. Perusing recent history, I was amazed at the impact the Tampa Bay Derby, which will be renewed Saturday, has had on important racing in recent years.

Florida’s other Derby has produced a couple of Kentucky Derby winners since 2007. Street Sense became the first Tampa Bay Derby winner to double in Louisville in 2007. Three years later, Super Saver ran third in Tampa before wearing the roses at Churchill Downs.

This might not seem like a big deal until you compare it to a couple of other much more heralded Derby preps—the Wood Memorial and Blue Grass Stakes. Much has been made of the Wood and Blue Grass being downgraded from Grade 1 to Grade 2 but when you put their results against those of the Tampa Bay Derby, now also a Grade 2, they have nothing to complain about.

Since 2007, the Wood and Blue Grass winners have combined to produce a total of zero Derby triumphs. To be fair, Street Sense did run second at Keeneland after winning at Oldsmar. The last time the Wood produced a Derby winner was in 2003 when Funny Cide, who ran second in New York behind Empire Maker, turned the tables on the first Saturday in May.

The favorable comparisons don’t end with the Kentucky Derby. Every winner of the Tampa Bay Derby over the past five years has gone on to win at least one Grade 1, with the exception of Destin, who took the Marathon at last fall’s Breeders’ Cup and missed by a nose in the 2016 Belmont Stakes. Last year’s Tampa Bay Derby winner, Tapwrit, went him one better, triumphing in the Belmont.

Carpe Diem, who won at Tampa in 2015, encored in the Blue Grass when it was still a Grade 1. Verrazano in 2013 took the Wood, also when it was still a Grade 1, and later captured the Grade 1 Haskell. Ring Weekend went on to be a grass star, taking the Grade 1 Kilroe Mile among many stakes victories.

This year could bring more of the same. Though the centerpiece of the Oldsmar meeting doesn’t have the marquee names of Saturday’s other major Derby preps, the San Felipe and Gotham, the field is heavy with 3-year-olds with big-time potential.

Flameaway, a gutsy wire-to-wire winner of the Sam F. Davis, will try to go back to back and won’t have highly regarded Catholic Boy, who is heading to the Florida Derby, to beat this time. But he isn’t getting a layup. He could be in for a World of Trouble if he tries to make the front again.

Trainer Jason Servis decided to enter speedball sprinter World of Trouble, who won the seven furlong Pasco stakes by 13 ¾ lengths in near track record time. Servis has no illusions that he has a Kentucky Derby horse, but a mile and a sixteenth could be within World of Trouble’s range.

Vino Rosso could be a big beneficiary if there is a break-neck pace. He was third in the Davis in a deceptively strong effort, which saw him re-rallying late to close fast on the top two. He will try to give Todd Pletcher his fifth win in six years in the TB Derby.

Tiz Mischief, third in the Holy Bull, will start for the loaded Dale Romans, who won the Fountain of Youth with Promises Fulfilled and also will send out Free Drop Billy in the Gotham.

The Kentucky Jockey Club didn’t look like much of a race when Tiz Mischief and Enticed trailed Audible and Free Drop Billy home in the Holy Bull. It’s looking a lot better after Promises Fulfilled became the third horse to come out of the late 2017 stakes and win. It could look really good if Tiz Mischief comes up big at Tampa and Enticed, who is expected to run in New York, makes his presence felt in the Gotham.

A live sleeper is Untamed Domain, who will make his long anticipated dirt debut for Graham Motion, who won the 2011 Kentucky Derby with Animal Kingdom. Like Animal Kingdom, Untamed Domain made his 3-year-old debut in a turf race at Gulfstream.

All three Derby preps have terrific supporting cards but it's revealing a bevy of big name jockeys have chose to ride at Oldsmar—Irad and Jose Ortiz, Johnny Velazquez, Joel Rosario, Jose Lezcano, Julien Leparoux and Florent Geroux. It should be quite a day.

West Coast showdown

The San Felipe, with its showdown between Bolt d’Oro and McKinzie, will deservedly get top billing nationally, especially after Good Magic’s disappointing effort in the Fountain of Youth. I’ve always felt Bolt d’Oro was a superior horse, who had a difficult trip in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. I reluctantly gave my Eclipse vote to Good Magic out of respect for the result of their only meeting, excuses notwithstanding.

No disrespect to McKinzie but I expect my instincts to be ratified Saturday. McKinzie is technically undefeated thanks to being put up in the Los Alamitos Derby. However, he was three horses across the track with Solomini and Instilled Regard and I have a hard time believing all three of them are the equal of Bolt d’Oro.

Gotham no easy spot

If the snow goes away in New York, Romans will be hoping to cash an ambitious double with Free Drop Billy. He scratched the likely second choice out of the Fountain of Youth to steer him toward the Gotham then got the money anyway with Promises Fulfilled.

Romans said afterward he wanted to give Free Drop Billy an easier race leading into the final round of preps. If horses could read, this would be bulletin board fodder for Firenze Fire, who looms Billy’s biggest obstacle.

Romans also might have had an eye on NYRA’s decision to kick up the Wood Memorial purse from $750K to $1 million if there is a Grade 1 winner in the field. Billy qualifies as the winner of the Breeders’ Futurity. If he can beat Firenze Fire in the Gotham, there is little reason to believe he couldn’t do it again in the Wood. Discounting the value of Firenze Fire’s races over the new Aqueduct track, I put more stock in Billy’s second to Audible at Gulfstream.

Enticed, who is cross-entered in the Tampa Bay Derby (snow insurance?), also appears to be looking for a less challenging path to Kentucky. I’m not convinced he’s good enough right now to take down two Grade 1 winners.

With Audible, Promises Fulfilled and Catholic Boy headed toward what should be a terrific Florida Derby, Good Magic ticketed for the Blue Grass and Avery Island looking to the Louisiana Derby, Firenze Fire might be the only one in the way of another lucrative Dale Romans parlay in New York.

RIP John Brunetti and Hialeah

John Brunetti Sr., who died last Friday. was an enigma. He could be cantankerous and unreasonable one moment and ultimately charming the next.

He saved Hialeah in 1977, stepping up to buy the track when the only other bidder was the Donn Family, whose plan was to close the “world’s most beautiful race track” and move the dates to their Gulfstream Park. Then he spent the next two decades alienating horsemen and fans, treating both as nuisances.

He was a horsemen himself but he constantly nickeled and dimed the people who made the game go, battling over how much he owed them and habitually paying them late. Yet he was extraordinarily generous to local charities.

When he was in the process of buying Hialeah, he passed himself off as a friend of the players, because, he said, that’s where he came from. He fell in love with Hialeah while a student at the University of Miami. Then he instituted one of the highest takeouts in the nation, as much as 31 percent in some pools.

Nevertheless, I will miss him and so will racing, because as long as he was alive, there was hope, however faint, that Hialeah might come alive again as a thoroughbred mecca. The demolition of Calder raised hopes that Hialeah might be revived to give Gulfstream a necessary breather during the fall.

Randy Soth, a former Hialeah racing secretary and now general manager of the facility, said Friday, “The way he loved this place was obsessive.”

I had the opportunity to interview Brunetti a few years ago when he was launching a quarterhorse meeting, which was nothing more than a means to the end of qualifying for a casino. He made it clear he had no use for the quarterhorses and reiterated his fondest hope was to bring thoroughbreds back to Hialeah.

His sons are more bottom-line oriented and do not share his passion for racing. They argued that rebuilding the stable area, much of which had been ravaged by hurricanes and the rest of which had been torn down, was too expensive an undertaking.

I like to think John Brunetti in his feisty heyday would have over-ruled them. But his health was failing. He underwent triple heart bypass surgery in 1996 and needed a kidney transplant in 2013. More recently he had a cancerous lung removed.

When he died last week, any hope of the track of the flamingos soaring again died with him.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, March 01, 2018

Good Magic will be tested in the Fountain of Youth

Kentucky Derby season is like college basketball. Nothing truly significant happens until March. The calendar has turned from February and Chad Brown has Good Magic set to make his 3-year-old debut in the Fountain of Youth against some talented rivals. Bolt d'Oro's coming out party is a week away in the San Felipe. By the end of next weekend, the Derby picture should be in much clearer focus. Meanwhile, in a laudable but probably fruitless exercise, 64 trainers have signed on to support the Water, Hay and Oats Alliance (WHOA), whose main goal is medication free racing. Alas the National HBPA has said this is not going to happen and it has the power to back up the tough talk.

The champ is back. The question is, is he ready to deliver a knockout blow?

Chad Brown has made it clear his game plan is not to have Eclipse winner Good Magic run his best race Saturday in the Fountain of Youth, his first start since winning the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Brown wants Good Magic to run well Saturday, better in his next start, most likely the April 7 Blue Grass, then explode on May 5 at Churchill Downs.

There might be some as good as Brown at pointing toward a specific race but there are none better. Although there is plenty of evidence of this, all that is needed is last season’s Preakness with Cloud Computing.

Derby qualifying points aren’t a major concern. Good Magic has 24. Forty should be enough to clinch a berth in the starting gate. A second (20 points) would do that and a third (10) would put him on the cusp with his final prep to come in a 100-40-20-10 race. He has not finished worse than second in three career starts, two in Grade 1 races.

While Brown might not have him at his peak, players got a tipoff to Good Magic’s fitness level in last Saturday’s Hal’s Hope. Good Magic’s workmate this winter has been 4-year-old Economic Model, who ran away from a solid field of older horses, including Wood Memorial winner and Belmont Stakes runnerup Irish War Cry.

If Good Magic is even close to what Economic Model showed, it will take an awfully talented horse to deny him the bulk of the $400,000 purse. On the other hand, there are some horses who have demonstrated exceptional talent.

Dale Romans has three of them—Breeders’ Futurity winner Free Drop Billy, who will have recency going for him after a solid second in the Holy Bull behind Audible; the optimistically named Promises Fulfilled, making his first start since a third in the Kentucky Jockey Club in November; and Storm Runner, who Romans has been raving about. The trainer said the colt, who ran his dirt record to 2-for-2 in winning a recent optional claimer, is improving as quickly as any horse he has ever trained.

The potential sleeper is Strike Power, who didn’t get started until December but has won both his starts like a monster. He graduated with an eight-length score in December (taking the curse of Apollo off the table) then toyed with his rivals in the Swale, winning by almost three in as visually impressive a win as you would want to see.

Both those races were sprints, which would be in the wheelhouse of a son of Speightstown. Now he gets tested around two turns but if he wants the lead, it’s hard to imagine anyone denying him. A mile and a quarter might be a bridge too far but all he has to do Saturday is negotiate a mile and a sixteenth on a generally speed favoring track with a short stretch run due to the use of the auxiliary finish line.

As we saw last Saturday, Brown doesn’t send out short horses. So Good Magic has to be the key in all types of wagers but Strike Power will definitely be included on my Pick 3’s and Pick 4’s.

Wasted effort

The headline was so heartening: “More Than 60 Trainers Sign Letter Supporting WHOA.”

Then the story ruined everything. Indeed more than 60 trainers (64) threw their support behind the Water, Hay and Oats Alliance, whose goal is to turn over the policing of testing nationwide to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency.

Bless every single signee. Their vehicle is the latest Horseracing Integrity Act, which has been kicking around the House of Representative for years without noteworthy progress. There is not even a companion bill in the Senate.

When you peruse the roster of signees, the names listed aren’t as eye-catching as some of the ones missing: Todd Pletcher, Bob Baffert, Chad Brown, Steve Asmussen, D. Wayne Lukas, Bill Mott, Dale Romans, Shug McGaughey. I could go on. Put it this way: not one Eclipse-winning trainer since the award was instituted in 1971 is on the list.

This should not be interpreted as these giants of the profession being against medication-free racing. Given the superior stock they are blessed with, they probably wish more than anyone that racing become totally clean.

Maybe they weren’t asked to sign. Maybe they had better things to do, like almost anything.

Six hundred or 6,000 trainers could sign on to support of the Horse Racing Integrity Act and it wouldn’t make a bit of difference as long as the National HBPA and its regional acolytes are steadfast against any action that makes them race drug-free, as in without Lasix.

The last time Washington got seriously involved in the game, the Interstate Horse Racing Act of 1978, a seemingly innocuous provision in the bill gave local horsemen a right that has become omnipotent in controlling the fate of tracks and racing in general.

In order to simulcast across state lines, permission had to be granted by the sending track, its state governing body; the state commission of the receiving track and the horsemen of the host track. Nothing about this seemed unreasonable at the time.

Simulcasting was such an insignificant part of racing’s big picture, few, if any, had the foresight to see where the latter provision could lead. Horsemen now have the power to stop any and all tracks from sending their signals to other tracks, which has become the backbone of the game. The national and regional HBPA’s have stated unequivocally they will exercise this power should any attempt be made to ban race day medications. Denied simulcasting, tracks would be shutting down faster than Toys R Us.

So the latest Horse Racing Integrity Act is a waste of time, effort and money unless and until Congress amends the IHRA of 1978 to strip horsemen of the unilateral power to control simulcasting. WHOA and its supporters would be better served to expend their efforts and treasure toward this end.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, February 22, 2018

Here we go again with the curse of Apollo

Every spring, a precocious colt or two, who did not race as a juvenile, emerges to be the latest candidate to break the curse of Apollo, which dictates a horse must have raced as a 2-year-old to be a legitimate Kentucky Derby contender. For 136 years, the curse has not been conquered. The latest candidate is Justify from the Bob Baffert barn, who debuted Sunday with the fastest Beyer fig of his generation, 104, and was immediately put on the Triple Crown trail by Baffert.

Just when it looked like we were going to get by 2018 without having to mention the curse of Apollo, Bob Baffert rolled out a speedball named Justify. The son of Scat Daddy annihilated four rivals Sunday running seven furlongs in 1:21.86 for an eye-popping Beyer of 104, the top fig of the year for a Derby age colt.

Justify was no secret. Baffert, the clockers and their clients were laying in wait for him to debut. He was sent off at 1-2.

Baffert’s immediate reaction after the race was to announce Justify is on the Triple Crown trail. My immediate reaction was to scoff. How could a horse, who not only did not start as a 2-year-old—the curse goes back to 1882-- but didn’t make his debut until less than 11 weeks before the Derby be taken seriously? In all likelihood, the Derby would be the third or fourth start of his career.

Then I thought about it. Why not, if he has the ability? Big Brown essentially beat the curse with an even later start. Big Brown did have a start as a juvenile but it was on the turf on closing weekend at Saratoga. He crushed an MSW field and was tagged a future grass star.

Fate intervened. He wasn’t entered again until March 5 of his 3-year-old season at Gulfstream—in an entry level grass allowance. It rained and the race was shifted to the main track. Big Brown buried his competition and was immediately put on the Triple Crown trail.

Not even the dreaded 12 post going a mile and an eighth in the Florida Derby was a hindrance in his next start. He won for fun. It was on to Louisville, where he cruised in the Kentucky Derby, then did the same in the Preakness in career starts 4 and 5. Technically, he didn’t snap the curse of Apollo. Practically speaking, he did.

For the record, Todd Pletcher also has an Apollo-defying candidate, a colt named Magnum Moon, who has won his first two starts. Neither was as dazzling as Justify’s debut and, I mean this as a compliment, doesn’t Pletcher have one or two brilliant late arrivals every spring?

Baffert said he has a plan in mind for Justify. It would be surprising if this included tackling Eclipse champion Good Magic in Florida or Bolt d’Oro in California. But the Tampa Bay Derby, Louisiana Derby and Sunland Derby could be interesting targets, especially the latter since he probably wouldn’t be meeting any superstars and it wouldn’t be as taxing a ship.

Justify saved what was a disappointing weekend for Baffert. Mourinho bombed as a big favorite in the Southwest. Another highly touted sophomore, Zulfikhar, failed to hit the board in the race following the Southwest. Baffert did win a Cal-bred stakes with Heck Yeah but he’s destined for state-bred races, primarily on the turf even though Monday’s stakes was on dirt.

But Baffert is like Nick Saban in football and John Calipari in basketball. He doesn’t regroup. He reloads.

Too many stakes?

It seems as if as the foal crops decrease, the number of stakes races increase. Not surprisingly, tracks are having a difficult time filling some of them.

Saturday’s card at Gulfstream was supposed to have three stakes. The Hal’s Hope for older horses is the headliner. A pair of turf sprints for 3-year-olds, the open Texas Glitter and the Melody of Colors for fillies, were listed to support it. The Texas Glitter will go. The Melody of Colors won’t. It didn’t fill. Maybe it will be re-carded later. It's hard to believe a sprint on the grass would have a hard time drawing a decent field.

This is at least the second stakes of the winter that had to be scrapped. The Skip Away, a nine furlong event for older horses, didn't make it to the gate on Jan. 13. With the Harlan’s Holiday, Fred Hooper, Sunshine Millions and Pegasus all within a month or so of the Skip Away, this shouldn’t have been a surprise.

The number of stakes for older horses during the winter really needs to be re-examined. There just aren’t that many stakes-worthy horses available early in the year. The cream of the crop are pointed to the Pegasus and then the Dubai World Cup.

The winners of all three 2017 Triple events—Always Dreaming, Cloud Computing and Tapwrit—are training at Gulfstream or one of its satellite facilities. But it’s questionable any of them will find his way into the entries this season. The only realistic possibilities are a Grade 2 mile on the Florida Derby undercard or a specially arranged allowance race where they would be 1-20.

Any of them really would have dressed up Saturday’s Hal’s Hope. As it is, the stakes will still have some of its luster salvaged by the 2018 debut of Irish War Cry, hero of last winter’s Holy Bull and Wood Memorial and second in the Belmont. He hasn’t been out since September but Graham Motion said he’s ready, which is endorsement enough.

The price probably won’t be that short. Todd Pletcher is starting 2017 Rebel winner Malagacy and Send It In, who hasn’t been out since being credited with an otherworldly 119 Beyer in last April’s Excelsior. That number is suspiciously high, especially since it came after a pair of 97’s and a 96. Also the Excelsior was a mile and a quarter, a distance rarely run at the Big A, making comparisons a challenge. In any case, it knocked him out for the rest of the year. But fans likely will see Pletcher and 119 and head to the windows.

If Irish War Cry is close to himself, he might be decent value at 5-2/3-1.

Best laid plans

NYRA laid out a creative plan to lure Florida horses back north a little early this season. It offered to pay $1,500 in shipping expenses for horses who come up from Florida and start at least once during the Aqueduct spring meeting, which runs through the third week in April.

Alas, a quarantine of at least three weeks has been ordered for Barn 10 at Belmont after a filly trained by Tom Albertrani, Ladies Day, had to be euthanized after she was diagnosed with EHM.

NYRA is doing all the right things in keeping horses from that barn isolated from the general population and there’s still plenty of time to ship in for the bonus. However, late February, early March is when trainers are starting to map out their shipping plans. If any other horse tests positive for the disease, the quarantine clock starts anew.

If anything, the uncertainty might keep some horses in Florida longer than usual.

Written by Tom Jicha

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