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, January 11, 2018

Racing ‘Moment of the Year’ is no contest

Gun Runner will be the star of the show on Eclipse Awards night, Jan. 25. But nothing the certain Horse of the Year did in 2017 came close to matching Arrogate's jaw-dropping rally from last to win the Dubai World Cup. It was not only a Moment of the Year but a Moment of Many Years. Meanwhile, on the West Coast, racing officials continue to embarrass themselves, this time allowing two ineligible horses, including the winner, to compete in the first race for horses from barns with fewer than 20 horses. The excuses offered were more lame than "the dog ate my homework."

Arrogate might have a prominent place at the Eclipse Awards table after all. After last winter’s Pegasus and Dubai World Cup he was odds-on to be the star of the show. Acclaimed then by many as the best horse since Secretariat, he is a finalist in a couple of divisions—Horse of the Year and Best Older Dirt Male—but has no shot to win either. Gun Runner has surpassed him and is a lock in both.

The evening might not be a total wipeout, however. Arrogate has two shots at the NTRA’s “Moment of the Year” designation. There are 13 nominees, all worthy, but Arrogate’s World Cup stands out as not only the moment of the past year but the moment of many years.

A Moment of the Year should have a wow factor, something that will be remembered long after the lights on the tote board go dark. Arrogate’s seemingly impossible last-to-first surge, completed by galloping past Gun Runner, certainly qualifies. To me, it’s no contest.

Without meaning to diminish any of the other candidates, here is my logic:

The deaths of titans of the turf Helen “Penny” Chenery, owner of Secretariat, Hall of Fame trainer Jack Van Berg and gallant Maryland favorite Ben’s Cat, winner of 26 stakes, should not pass without special recognition in an “In Memoriam” tribute. But deaths are not “moments.”

The fire that took the lives of 46 horses at San Luis Rey training center and the devastation Hurricane Maria reeked on Puerto Rico’s Camarero race track were heart-breaking news events, not “moments” to be commemorated.

The long sought tax relief, which allows players to avoid “signers” much more than in the past, is the Accomplishment of the Year. Plaudits to NTRA and lawmakers for their tenacity in never giving up. But this “moment” was years in the making.

This brings us to what I feel should be the focus of such an award—actual horse racing.

Always Dreaming’s Kentucky Derby is in the final 13 because the Kentucky Derby always is. But there was nothing remarkable about it. Some horse wears the roses every May.

The same goes for Cloud Computing’s Preakness. The second jewel of the Triple Crown really matters only when the Derby winner takes it or a horse does something for the ages. Cloud Computing’s win was workmanlike, aided by Almost Dreaming’s failure to show up.

Lady Eli winning the Diana and Accelerate taking the San Diego are arguments that maybe 13 finalists is a few too many. They were sparkling efforts but not races fans will be talking about for years. They were probably forgotten about in most quarters within days.

This leaves the three most formidable candidates. Gun Runner’s decisive triumph in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, with Arrogate well in his wake, clinched Horse of the Year, and might be the winning moment in many seasons. It might even win this year thanks to the pervasive “What have you done for me lately?” attitude.

Arrogate running off with the first Pegasus was the third rung in his extraordinary grand slam—Travers, BC Classic, Pegasus, Dubai World Cup. It also came at the expense of fan favorite Horse of the Year California Chrome. But Arrogate’s most jaw-dropping performance was yet to come.

It hyperbolic to say he did the impossible in Dubai, since he did it. But it sure seemed impossible when he broke tardily and trailed the field, including a free-running Gun Runner, by many lengths. As he picked up his rivals one by one, then bore down on Gun Runner, a feeling erupted that we might be seeing something for the ages.

This is what a Moment of the Year should be and why it should be recognized as such.

More SoCal nonsense

Does anyone ever think things through in California?

This is the state that started the movement to eliminate brown paper bags in super markets for ecological concerns. Then it became clear that the plastic sacks, which replaced the offspring of trees, were more harmful to the environment.

California encouraged drivers to switch to high mileage hybrid cars; better yet, electric models. Now it is dealing with a shortfall in revenue for road maintenance and construction because people are buying less gas and thus paying fewer taxes. A new tariff on miles driven has been proposed to close the gap.

A legislator proposed the state go it alone with single-payer health care. Support was instant and widespread until a killjoy numbers-cruncher pointed out the cost would be more than the entire tax revenue taken in by the state.

So it should come as no surprise that the racing industry also would operate in an act-now, think-later manner.

Santa Anita created a praise-worthy new race condition this season to give smaller outfits a chance to compete and make some money. Claiming races were going to be written for horses from barns with fewer than 20 horses in California.

The first time this condition was used on Sunday resulted in a typical Santa Anita mess. Overcomer, from the Charles Treece barn, got home first to apparently earn the modest $10,800 winner’s share.

Before darkness fell, Jason Jocher, who races as Power Hour Racing, which owned second-place finisher Airfoil, protested. Jocher contended Treece has well more than 20 horses under his care at Los Alamitos. From early indications Jocher’s beef is well founded.

What’s more, Jesus Nunez, who started Dutt Bart, has more than 70 horses under his supervision.

The unbelievable explanation is nobody in the racing office or the stewards’ stand bothered to check if the horses entered fit the conditions. A brand new, unique condition and nobody bothers to check. Only in California.

Part of the problem is typical California. Nobody thought to thoroughly think through the details of the new condition. Nunez might train dozens of horses but many compete in the $3,200-$4,000 claimers at night at Los Alamitos. There should be an exclusion for this caliber of horse.

Also, the count shouldn’t include horses considered not worthy of a stall at Santa Anita, like some in Treece’s care.

All of this should have been hashed out in advance. But this is California.

An investigation is under way and the CYA process has gone into overdrive. Racing secretary Rick Hammerle said he considered the very specific condition more of a “guideline.”

“Hey, you need a race for your multiple stakes-winner? We have an entry-level allowance in the book. Don’t let that NX1 discourage you. It’s only a guideline.”

Sound crazy? Steward Scott Chaney essentially endorsed it. Asked about two ineligible horses in a race, he fell back on the excuse that the condition isn’t perfectly clear. “Does it rise to the level of scratching a horse. It doesn’t.”

So like I said, put that stakes horse in the entry-level allowance. It doesn’t rise to the level of a steward’s scratch.

Only in California.

Jan. 11, Miami

Written by Tom Jicha

Comments (16)


Thursday, January 04, 2018

An Eclipse Award doesn’t make a horse a star

A new bevy of champions will be crowned at the Eclipse Awards on Jan. 25. But it's overly optimistic to think any stars will be born. Mainstream sports fans hardly know them. Likely Horse of the Year Gun Runner ran only six times in 2017. Two, possibly three, of the winners made just three starts. On average, each of them started less frequently than once every 10 weeks. Out of sight, they were out of mind. Meanwhile, in California, the CHRB has held itself up to scorn for an out-of-proportion penalty meted out to Ron Ellis, a trainer with an almost spotless record over 35 years.

The Eclipse Awards celebrate all that's great about American racing. Slightly beneath the surface they also reveal something eating away at the sport. Only two of the dozen likely champions raced more than six times in 2017. West Coast made nine starts and Abel Tasman had seven.

The outstanding distaffer, Forever Unbridled raced just three times. So did likely 2-year-old filly champion Caledonia Road. The male juvenile champion will be either Good Magic or Bolt d'Oro. The former raced three times, the latter four.

Horse of the Year in waiting Gun Runner did not have a health or injury issue and was in training from January through December. Nevertheless, he made only six starts, one on the other side of the world in Dubai.

The 11 probable champions (Gun Runner will be a double winner) made 53 or 54 starts, depending on who wins the 2-year-old male category. This averages out to fewer than five apiece, less than one every 10 weeks.

Compare this to Secretariat, recently crowned the No. 1 thoroughbred of the past 50 years. Secretariat didn't begin his career until July 4 of his juvenile season yet still made nine starts as a 2-year-old. He made a dozen more during his Triple Crown winning season, including one at Arlington only three weeks after his breathtaking Belmont. Contemporary trainers would pass out at the thought.

When Secretariat raced, network television and major newspapers took notice. He made the covers of Time and Newsweek; not just Sports Illustrated but the ones whose prime space was generally devoted to world leaders and events.

It cannot be stated often enough that sports and entertainment, essentially the same thing, have become almost totally star driven. It's difficult to achieve star power when you are out of sight and thus out of mind, as today's best horses are.

Without stars, racing is a roulette wheel with saddle cloths. This is where the game is headed and nobody seems to care. Major stakes and what passes for star horses are relegated to early races on racing cards so as not to get in the way of feeding rainbow chasing jackpot pools which, no matter how huge, can't compete with the gargantuan payoffs on progressive slot machines.

The Eclipse Awards have become just another vehicle to service breeders. Why should casual sports fans, who showed up by the thousands to see American Pharoah work out and jammed race tracks to witness the likes of Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Spectacular Bid, Buckpasser and Dr. Fager get excited about horses who made only three starts all year?

The only time racing insinuates itself into the mainstream of sports is during the five weeks of the Triple Crown. This is when casual fans become familiar with the major players and follow them. Once the Triple Crown ends, most of these horses disappear. So does the interest of less than hardcore fans.

The Eclipse Awards will barely get a line or two, if that, in most newspapers this month. The reason; outside the industry nobody cares. Several hundred people will be in Gulfstream's Sport of Kings Theater on Jan. 25 for the Eclipse ceremonies. There will probably be double that number in the slots parlors on the other side of the building.

Selfish breeders and trainers more concerned with their winning percentage than the good of the sport can blame themselves for this.

CHRB an embarrassment again

The California Horse Racing Board, the worst, most pig-headed, regulatory body in racing, has demonstrated again it's lack of common sense and fair-mindedness.

The Board has issued a draconian penalty--60 days and a $10,000 fine-- against Ron Ellis for a minuscule positive in Masochistic, second under the wire in the 2016 Breeders' Cup Sprint.

Ellis is one of the good guys. In a sport heavily populated by cynics and knockers, it would be difficult to find anyone to say a negative word about him.

A trainer more than 35 years, he has a near spotless record. You won't find his name near the top of the trainers' standings because he is devoted to his horses to a fault. If they are not absolutely fit and healthy, he doesn't run them. When he does enter, his horses are invariably well backed. Fans know they will get a good run for their money.

Nevertheless, the CHRB is treating him as if were the late Oscar Barrera. The significance of 60 days is it is the threshold for dire ramifications, which threaten to put him out of business. Most significantly, he has to disband his stable. So not only is he being punished far beyond what his ffense merits but 15 employees are suffering with him. They are out of a job. This is not justice.

It is not as if Ellis hasn't already suffered. Beyond the harm to his reputation, he was forbidden to enter a horse in the 2017 Breeders' Cup. You have to wonder how many top class horses this cost him.

His daughter Elizabeth, who is married to jockey Joe Talamo, penned a heartfelt defense of her dad that would make any parent proud and makes more sense than anything you get from the CHRB. Her epistle convincingly points out the circumstances that make the penalties against Ellis so outrageously out of proportion.

The overage of a legal steroid, stanozolol, found in Masochistic are so minute, they had to be measured in picograms. A picogram is a trillionith of a gram. You would need the Mount Palomar telescope to see it. It is beyond absurd to think this amount would be performance enhancing.

Moreover, Ellis made no effort to hide or deny that he treated Masochistic with stanozolol, which he used to keep weight on the horse. Stanozolol is said to pass through a horse's system within 60 days. Masochistic's last treatment was 68 days out.

Ellis had Masochistic tested three times, with the CHRB's knowledge, before the Breeders' Cup. The last test was eight days prior to the race. Traces of the steroid were still in Masochistic's system but in such small amounts, it was believed it would be gone by race day.

Fully armed with this knowledge, the CHRB, which is supposed to protect the bettors, allowed Ellis to enter and run the horse. It eventually disqualified him but bettors who had the exacta with Mind Your Biscuits, who was elevated to second well after the fact, were SOL. So who screwed the betting public more: Ellis or the CHRB?

Under the circumstances, shouldn't each of the CHRB's members be subject to the same or additional sanctions?

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, December 28, 2017

NHL arena could alter NY racing forever

The new arena for the NY Islanders, which will be built in Belmont Park's backyard, is an efficient use of the vast expanse of land that goes mostly unoccupied except on Belmont Stakes Day. But it could be the first step in changing NY racing. The third jewel of the Triple Crown will probably have to be moved for a few years to Aqueduct, which thanks to the casino takeover is not the same facility it was when the Belmont was contested there from 1963-68. Also, a more compact Belmont grandstand, which seems inevitable, might rule out the Breeders' Cup ever returning to the Big Apple.

John does the heavy lifting at Horse Race Insider. I'm a regular presence. But our bi-weekly contributor Mark Berner uncovered the Scoop of the Year. Mark was ahead of New York's major newspapers and all its TV and radio stations in reporting months ago that a new arena for the New York Islanders hockey team will be built on what is now part of the backyard at Belmont Park.

I'll leave the details to Mark, who has been on top of every development. As an observer from afar I see serious potential ramifications for New York racing. As Mark also beat the pack on, it means the Belmont Stakes will have to be run at Aqueduct for a year or two (or three; almost nothing ever gets built on time in New York), starting probably in 2020.

This might seem like merely a geographic inconvenience, since the third jewel of the Triple Crown was run at Aqueduct from 1963-68 while Belmont was being rebuilt . It wasn't ideal to start such an important race on the far turn but otherwise it was no big deal.

Unfortunately, there is a huge difference between then and now. Aqueduct could handle 50,000-plus back in the pre-casino days. With the once enormous grandstand refitted for slot machines, it would be a stretch to squeeze in 10,000.

The alternative? I can't think of one. The floor is open.

There is another issue. With Belmont a construction zone, there is no possibility that the Breeders' Cup, which hasn't been run in New York since 2005, could return before some time in the mid-2020's. This is if it ever could return.

Something NYRA board member Michael Dubb said at the Islanders arena announcement set off a red flare with me. Speaking of what will become the new Belmont, Dubb said that NYRA would like to work out an extension of its current lease and work with designers "to take Belmont Park to its highest best use to promote horse racing and the racing industry."

This sounds like a plan for winterizing in a one-racetrack metropolitan area. Also, no one in the racing industry believes Belmont needs to be its current size. Almost all conversations about a new, probably winterized Belmont have centered around a greatly reduced capacity, more suitable for the reduced crowds that have become racing's new normal. But a significantly smaller Belmont would take NYRA out of the running to ever host the Breeders' Cup again.

This is exactly what has happened at Gulfstream. Also like Gulfstream, plans to include a mammoth hotel and retail spaces development in what is now the backyard also will shrink the track's footprint.

This isn't necessarily a bad thing. It actually makes sense in the big picture. However, Belmont and NY racing will never be the same.

The winners are...

Every Eclipse voter has his or her own standards for what constitutes a champion. I refuse to even consider a Euro off one big race in the U.S. The continent has its own championships.

I also shy away from turf specialists in categories that were created for main track horses and horses whose credentials are one big race. To me, the Eclipse Awards are for a body of work.

But flexibility is as important in picking champions as it is in handicapping individual races. I'm not even considering Breeders' Cup upsetter Bar of Gold as top female sprinter. Her only other win was in a NY-bred stakes. That doesn't do it for me.

This isn't the case in both juvenile categories even though one of the candidates in each has only the Breeders' Cup as a stakes win. I'm splitting my ballot. My vote for 2-year-old female goes to Caledona Road, who was 2-for-3, with a second in the Frizette, before capturing the BC Juvenile Fillies.

However, I'm passing on Good Magic in the male category because he went into the Breeders' Cup a maiden. Meanwhile, Bolt d'Oro had three wins, two in stakes, and was the victim of a brutal trip in the BC Juvenile.

I don't expect to be on the winning side but the idea, just as in political races, is to vote your convictions, not who you think will win.

Here is the way my vote went in the other Eclipse categories:

Horse of the Year--Gun Runner should be a unanimous choice in this category and as Best Older Male Dirt Horse. Anyone who votes otherwise should have his or her credentials scrutinized.

3-Year-Old Male-- West Coast gets my vote and will almost certainly win but it isn't as one-sided as it's being made out to be. Always Dreaming has the Kentucky Derby hole card, the greatest tie-breaker in racing. This more than offsets West Coast's Travers. Always Dreaming's Florida Derby and West Coast's Pennsylvania Derby cancel each other out. West Coast's good third against older at the BC--Always Dreaming never stepped out of his division--is the difference maker.

3-Year-Old Filly--Abel Tasman won three Grade 1 stakes and was second to an older champion in the BC Distaff. Elate mounted a late season campaign with big wins in the Alabama and against older in the Beldame, but couldn't handle Abel Tasman when the title was on the line.

Older Female--Forever Unbridled got a late start on her campaign and only raced three times but it was more than enough to assert her dominance. The clincher for me was when she ran down two-time champion Songbird, who had set soft fractions, in the Personal Ensign at Saratoga.

Male Sprinter--Roy H won five of six, had an excuse in the loss, and won the big one at Del Mar in November.

Female Sprinter--A case could be made for about a half-dozen candidates, each with as many con's as pro's. Unique Bella fired last in the La Brea, her fifth graded stakes win and finally a Grade 1. That's good enough for me.

Male Turf--World Approval always wanted to be just a miler but it took a while for his connections to figure that out. When they did, he was all but unbeatable, capping a three Grade 1 streak at the Breeders' Cup.

Female Turf--Let's finally formalize what everyone in racing has known for three years. The inspiring Lady Eli is a champion.

Written by Tom Jicha

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