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 18, 2018

The inevitable war for horses is heating up

NYRA announced during the past week an incentive plan to attract horses who winter in Arkansas and Florida. Shipping stipends will be available for those who come in early for the end of the Aqueduct spring meeting. In the case of Oaklawn horses, a bonus on top of purse money is being offered through the end of the Belmont summer session. This could draw horses who normally migrate to the Midwest and Southwest. In the case of the Florida tracks, it could have a negative impact on the final days of the Gulfstream and Tampa Bay Downs winter seasons. In another bonus gambit, NYRA will increase the purse of the Wood Memorial from $750K to $1 million if a Grade 1 winner is in the field. This appears to be a bid to get Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner Good Magic to skip the Florida Derby in favor of NY's major Derby prep.

The first shots of what could turn into a fierce war for horses are being fired. This is an inevitable byproduct of lower foal crops.

NYRA has announced incentives to lure horses, who winter at Oaklawn, Gulfstream and Tampa Bay Downs, to the spring and summer meets at Aqueduct and Belmont.

The Oaklawn bonuses are the most generous. NYRA will pay a $1,500 shipping stipend and an extra 30 percent on top of purse earnings in a horse’s first New York start at either the Aqueduct spring meeting or Belmont summer session. Since they are in effect through mid-July, the bonuses probably won’t have much of an impact on the final days of the Oaklawn season, which ends April 14. But it could attract horses to NY who normally race in the Midwest and Southwest during the spring and summer.

This isn’t the case with Gulfstream and Tampa Bay Downs, although only the $1,500 toward shipping is being offered for horses who make a start at Aqueduct’s spring meeting, which runs through April 22.

Gulfstream races year-round but its prime meet ends April 1. With the exception of horses ticketed for the cornucopia of stakes on Florida Derby Day, snowbird horses start to ship north in late March. The exodus could be advanced by the NYRA shipping money.

(In all cases, first-time starters and horses shipping in for stakes are excluded.)

Gulfstream general manager Bill Badgett thinks it is a savvy move on NYRA’s part. “You have to do whatever you can to get horses.” However,he is unfazed thanks to Gulfstream's secret weapon, Florida’s alluring climate. “I don’t expect a lot of guys to be shipping early into that bad New York weather.”

Tampa Bay’s season extends into early May, so its final weeks could be severely compromised if enough outfits jump at the New York shipping money. It’s a sure thing management will be taking names for when stalls are being allotted next season.

The next step could be NYRA offering bonuses to horsemen who forego a trip to Florida to race during the winter in New York.

Del Mar has been offering purse bonuses for the past few seasons to horses shipping in from other regions. This winter, Santa Anita has a similar “Ship and Stay” incentive program.

If these bonus programs begin to bear fruit and the foal crops decline continues, it could be only a matter of time before tracks declare all out war on their competitors.

Wood could be $1 million again

NYRA badly wants the Wood Memorial restored to a Grade 1. In a different kind of bonus arrangement to steal star horses from its rivals, it has announced that New York’s final stepping stone to the Triple Crown will have its purse kicked up from $750,000 to $1 million if there is a Grade 1 winner in the field.

One of the things the American Graded Stakes Committee looks at is the composition of fields. Having a Grade 1 winner moves the race up in the committee’s deliberation, especially if he wins or goes on to major success in the Derby, Preakness and Belmont.

Since the only Grade 1 races for 3-year-olds are within a week on either side of the April 7 Wood, it is fair to say the bonus is primarily being dangled in front of the connections of only two horses, Breeders’ Cup Juvenile champion Good Magic and Firenze Fire, who took the Grade 1 Champagne last fall and launched his 2018 campaign successfully last weekend in the Jerome.

The only other Grade 1 winners in the East, all for their juvenile achievements, are Hopeful winner Sporting Chance and Free Drop Billy, who took last fall’s Breeders’ Futurity.

Sporting Chance hasn’t raced since the Hopeful and is being brought back by D. Wayne Lukas at Oaklawn, which has its own million dollar Derby prep. Dale Romans, a Kentucky guy, conditions Free Drop Billy, who earned his Grade 1 credentials in the Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland, home of the Blue Grass, which also has a $1 million pot.

An unlikely possibility is Bob Baffert could ship in McKinzie, who earned his Grade 1 bones in December in the Los Alamitos Futurity, if he wants to avoid Bolt d’Or in the Santa Anita Derby. But Baffert seems to prefer the Arkansas route to Louisville when he leaves California.

An even more remote possibility is Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf winner Mendelssohn making a return trip across the Atlantic. That’s it for Grade 1 newly turned 3-year-olds.

So logically speaking, the NYRA bonus is dependent on Firenze Fire and Good Magic.

Harness shows way

Harness racing has always played second fiddle to thoroughbreds. A primary reason is a widespread public perception that for all the drug problems and other integrity issues of “the flats,” the trotters and pacers are less trustworthy.

A tough new initiative by Jeff Gural, forward-thinking owner of the Meadowlands and a couple of lesser upstate NY tracks, and the Woodbine Entertainment Group, which runs Woodbine and Mohawk, could close the credibility gap.

The Standardbred Racing Integrity and Accountability Initiative subjects owners and their horses to a ban from all stakes races in 2018 at the Gural and WEG tracks if a trainer employed by the owner gets a positive for banned drugs for any horse in his barn.

It matters not if the horse, who comes up positive, is owned by the person who has stakes horses. The mere fact that the offending trainer is employed by that owner will make all his horses ineligible for stakes at the participating tracks. Some of the biggest events in the sport, including the Hambletonian, are contested at the Meadowlands.

Moreover, those horses could not be transferred or sold to become eligible. Their stigma travels with them.

This might seem a little unfair but the goal is praise worthy. It is an attempt to force owners to be more vigilant in who they hire to train their horses, hopefully making it difficult for cheaters to get horses.

It’s a commendable if draconian step, one thoroughbreds should examine closely. The nearest comparable situation is the Breeders’ Cup banning any horse and its trainer from competing the following year if a positive is detected after a Breeders’ Cup race.

As with any zero tolerance policy, a flaw in the plan is there is no room for mitigating circumstances. Ron Ellis, known for running a clean barn for more than three decades, has been effectively put out of business as a result of Masochistic coming up positive in the 2016 Breeders’ Cup Sprint.

There was no attempt at deception or cheating on Ellis’s part. He was up front with the stewards about using a legal steroid, which should have passed through Masochistic’s system, and was cleared by the stewards to enter the horse even though there was a microscopic residue still in the horse’s system as the race approached.

The California penalty meted out was dire enough. SRIAI would bar every owner who has horses with Ellis from stakes at tracks signed on to the plan. Under the circumstances, that’s a little much.

Another problem is incidental contamination. Believe it or not there are grooms and hot walkers, who use cocaine and other banned substances. They could touch a horse’s bridle or their hands could come in contact with the horse’s mouth and a positive could result, leaving the trainer, his owners and their horses out in the cold. No one should face the kind of penalties attached to SRAIA in situations such as this.

However, these are bugs that can be worked out over time. In the big picture, SRAIA is one of the most forceful steps ever taken to drive cheaters out of racing. Thoroughbred racing would be wise to take notice.

Written by Tom Jicha

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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

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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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