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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Wednesday, April 15, 2015


Derby points should play a creative new role


Dortmund and Materiality have never lost. American Pharoah and Carpe Diem are unbeaten this year. But one of the top Kentucky Derby contenders could have his first defeat sealed before he steps onto the track. Whoever draws the No. 1 post is all but eliminated. This should not be the fate of any serious horse. Let one of the under-achievers swallow the poison pill. An easy way to accomplish this would be to have the connections pick their posts in the order of the points they have earned.

MIAMI, April 15, 2015--It takes a pretty special horse to do what everyone expects and still impress the hell out of you. That’s what American Pharoah did in the Arkansas Derby.

There were two questions he needed to answer: Could he rate and was he beating anything?

He answered the first with elan, sitting patiently off Bridget’s Big Luvy, a horse intent on getting the lead at any cost, then blowing right past him and spread eagling the rest of the field in fast time while being geared down to the wire.

The second question will have to wait until the first Saturday in May. Off his juvenile form, when his vanquished foes included Breeders’ Cup Juvenile champion Texas Red, American Pharoah should have the right response for that, too.

It would be a shame if bad racing luck cost him the opportunity. This could befall him or any of the other key contenders at the post position draw. It has become almost a given that whoever draws the one hole might as well stay in the barn. Ask any trainer if he would rather have the one or the twenty and you’ll get a look that says, “You’re really even asking that?”

There’s a 20 percent chance one of the perceived Big Four—A.P., Dortmund, Materiality and Carpe Diem—will draw the poison pill. Throw in some other serious players, such as Frosted, International Star, Firing Line, Mubtaahij and Upstart, and the odds for disaster striking at the post draw creep toward the 50-50 level.

There is a simple remedy. The Derby points system has done its job. There aren’t any no-shot pure sprinters such as Trinniberg to compromise the chances of legitimate contenders and there is no horse of exceptional promise who will be left on the outside looking in. It might be time to utilize the points in a creative new way.

The tricked up post position by selection draw, which had a deserved short shelf life, should be brought back with a revised formula. The connections of the horse with the most qualifying points should pick a post first, followed in descending order by points earned.

Because not all Derby preps have the same degree of difficulty, the obvious favorites wouldn’t always get the first or second choice but they wouldn’t have to sweat getting the dreaded rail. That would be left for an outsider who snuck in at the bottom of the points list.

This also would add an additional conversation point to the qualifying races. Anything that gets people talking more about racing merits consideration.

This obviously can’t be utilized for this year’s running but it’s worth looking into for the future.

Decoupling moves forward

The Florida legislature has advanced bills that will achieve the long anticipated “decoupling” of pari-mutuels from racinos and card rooms. Decoupling would free greyhound and horse tracks from having to operate racing to have slots and card rooms. Florida lawmakers meet in full session only in March and April, so if it happens, it will be before the playing of “My Old Kentucky Home.”

The impact could be dramatic in South Florida. Gulfstream could be relieved of the obligation to run a two-month meeting at Calder/Gulfstream West. The sole purpose of this exercise in absurdity is to meet Churchill Downs’ racing requirement to keep its slots license at Calder.

It galls me beyond words that the bottom-liners at CDI would get exactly what they want but the game is better off without them.

A pipedream is the end of the Gulfstream West session could open the door to Hialeah getting back into the picture, since it is to Gulfstream’s benefit to have a respite somewhere on the calendar.

Alas, people close to the situation say a thoroughbred renaissance at Hialeah is the longest of longshots. John Brunetti is game but his sons don’t share his enthusiasm for racing and they discourage any venture that might have an impact on their inheritances.

It would cost tens of millions to refurbish Hialeah, starting with an entirely new barn area. The quarterhorses use temporary facilities, which would be unacceptable for the caliber of thoroughbreds we would hope to see at Hialeah.

But we can dream, can’t we?

One brave man in all NY

It’s encouraging to see there is at least one racing figure with the cajones to speak out against Gov. Cuomo’s extended takeover of NYRA.

John Hendrickson, spouse of Marylou Whitney, said he is “extremely disappointed” that the governor rammed into the state budget process a provision that will extend the state’s (read Cuomo’s) control of NYRA for at least one more year. The governor appoints the majority of the patronage loaded NYRA board, so they do whatever he tells them to do.

A plan to re-privatize NYRA was supposed to have been completed by the end of this year. Now we are looking at the start of 2017 at the earliest. But in situations like this in New York, one more year is never just one year.

VLT’s were kept out of Aqueduct for a decade while politicians wrangled over which favored campaign cash cows were going to get the franchise and how the pie was going to be cut.

Hendrickson was quoted in upstate newspapers as saying, “NYRA has completed all the tasks required by state statute. However, state government has not followed its own law. What prevents the state from extending it takeover of racing indefinitely?”

If there is an answer to this question, it has not been forthcoming.


Written by Tom Jicha

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Friday, April 10, 2015


Arkansas Derby might be rare case of ‘It’s not about the money” being the truth



The Arkansas Derby figures to be a well endowed public workout for American Pharoah, "a spectacular, spectacular horse," in the words of Justin Zayat, who manages his father's racing operation. For the others, the final major Kentucky Derby prep is an opportunity to grab enough of the minor share points to earn a berth in the Churchill Downs starting gate.
MIAMI, April 10, 2015--It must be nice to have a track put up $1 million for your final workout before the Kentucky Derby. This is the position Zayat Stables is in with American Pharoah in Saturday’s Arkansas Derby.

The Eclipse champion juvenile didn’t work up a sweat in demolishing the field in the Rebel. Justin Zayat, manager of his father’s racing operation, pointed out during an NTRA teleconference this week that American Pharoah works out faster than he was forced to run in the Rebel. This could be the case again in the centerpiece race of the Oaklawn season.

Skeptics have noted that American Pharoah was allowed to gallop uncontested on the lead, which is why he ran slower than in some of his morning breezes. Zayat’s response is that was because no one wanted to be a sacrificial lamb. “He’s a spectacular, spectacular horse. Honestly, that’s the reason he’s never been challenged.”

No one from Team Zayat is concerned that someone could foul things up by going on a suicide mission early against the champ on Saturday, according to Zayat. “We’ve rated him in the morning. He’s not a headstrong horse trying to pull you the whole way. He has shut off and relaxed. If there’s a horse, who wants to go out there and try to duel with him on the lead, he could easily sit off that horse.”

For naysayers, who complain American Pharoah hasn’t beaten anything, Zayat noted that as a 2-year-old he easily handled Texas Red before that one went on to win the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. He also twice put away Calculator, who rebounded to win the Sham Stakes by more than four lengths despite racing wide.

There’s a practical reason why it’s unlikely any of American Pharoah’s rivals will empty the tank trying to take him on early. The Arkansas Derby is one of the rare occasions in sports when someone who says, “It’s not about the money,” might be telling the truth. For the other not so magnificent seven who passed the entry box, it’s primarily about qualifying points for the Kentucky Derby.

American Pharoah is safe with 60 and the 40 for second will get any of the other Arkansas Derby horses into the Derby starting gate. This includes Bridget’s Big Luvy, whose win in Laurel’s Private Terms on March 21 didn’t carry Derby qualifying points.

Jeremiah Englehart, who trains Bridget’s Big Luvy for Tom O’Grady, says the Arkansas Derby is all about earning a spot in the Run for the Roses. Englehart said he has known since the eighth pole of the Private Terms, in which Bridget’s Big Luvy went unchallenged wire to wire, that the pursuit of Derby qualifying points would become the priority.

“Tom’s a Louisville guy. He lives there with his family. He has a big party the Thursday evening before the Derby that a lot of people know about. So I knew all along when (Bridget’s Big Luvy) was coming down the stretch what our plans were going to be.”

Englehart, who trained Ria Antonia to upset the 2013 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies, is realistic about his chances of earning the 100 points that go to the winner. “I’ve been a big fan of American Pharoah for a long time, so I understand how nice of a colt he is. I’m kind of honored to be able to run against him. We’re the newcomer in the race. I was expecting him to run well in the Private Terms. He did and I’m expecting him to run his race this time. Is it going to be good enough to win? I’m not sure.”

Some in the Arkansas Derby don’t even need to finish second. The 20 points for third should be good enough for American Pharoah’s Zayat stablemate Mr. Z, who has 14, and The Truth or Else, who has 11. Anything less and their prospects are dicey.

Mr. Z might not even run, Zayat says. In addition to American Pharoah, the barn has El Kabeir safely into the Derby field, so the only reason Mr. Z was entered was for his trainer D. Wayne Lukas, according to Zayat. “He’s the greatest trainer of all time. If he tells us he thinks Mr. Z is a legitimate Kentucky Derby horse, we’ll run. I honestly don’t think he can hold a candle to American Pharoah.”

Far Right (22), Made From Lucky (20) and Bold Conquest (17) could be in the running with the 10 points for fourth. The cutoff right now is 30 even after the defection of Prospect Park on Thursday. But history teaches attrition and owners, who exercise discretion over valor, will take others out of consideration.

Ron Moquett, who trains Southwest winner Far Right, said he has been scoreboard watching the Derby points standings on a regular basis. He also appreciates what his horse is up against trying to beat Amercian Pharoah. “I’ve been hearing words like Seattle Slew. If that’s the case, we’ll be reading about the horse who ran second to (the new) Seattle Slew.”

You get the feeling that the connections of any of the Arkansas Derby challengers would gladly settle to be that horse.


Written by Tom Jicha

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Wednesday, April 08, 2015


This year’s Derby is good enough for pay-per-view


Three weeks out, this year's Kentucky Derby is so loaded with talent that it shapes up as one of the most exciting and unpredictable in years. The current big four of Dortmund, American Pharoah, Carpe Diem and Materiality have all shown that on their best days they are almost unbeatable. A case could be made for a half-dozen others including UAE Derby mystery horse Mubtaahij trained by MIchael de Kock, who is on a very short list of the best trainers in the world. The Oaks is also coming up big with I'm a Chatterbox, Stellar Wind, Condo Commando and Birdatthewire all seemingly at the top of their game.

MIAMI, April 8, 2015--This year’s Kentucky Derby is coming up so rich in talent and unpredictability it is a race to anticipate with the same zeal as boxing fans are exhibiting toward the long delayed Floyd Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao showdown the same night.

Horse players have it over fight buffs in one big way. They can take the $100 it will cost to see the fight on pay-per-view and bet it on the Derby, which will be free on NBC.

I like Mayweather in the fight. At this point, I don’t know where I would put $100 on the Derby. I’d probably spread it around.

Two undefeated horses—Dortmund and Materiality--and two others with only one blemish on their credit sheet—American Pharoah and Carpe Diem are the headliners. International Star, who swept the Fair Grounds three-stakes series, is unbeaten as a 3-year-old and he has done it with late charges down one of the few stretches longer than Churchill Downs.

Who knows how good Mubtaahij is. I know how good Michael de Kock is. If he thinks the UAE Derby winner has a shot, that’s good enough for me.

Last weekend did little to unscramble the Derby picture. I pushed Dortmund over American Pharoah in the HRI poll after his sixth straight win. However, if American Pharoah puts on a show in Saturday’s Arkansas Derby, as I expect him to, I’ll probably flip flop them again.

It has been said that only Bob Baffert knows which of his two stars is better. Baffert said even he can’t say. He was asked during an NTRA conference call last week if he had ever worked Dortmund and American Pharoah together. “No! Never! Not at all!”

The Derby could be the only time we get to see these two in the same starting gate. If one of them wears the blanket of roses, I can’t see Baffert trying to ruin his Triple Crown possibility by running the other against him again even though they have separate ownerships.

I acknowledge all kinds of caveats to this. If the outcome is decided by a photo, if one is compromised by an horrendous trip or some other extraordinary circumstance, there could be a rematch in the Preakness. However, if the Derby is truly run and Dortmund or American Pharoah is a clear winner, I don’t expect to see both of them in Baltimore and certainly not in the Belmont should a Triple Crown be on the line.

Carpe Diem could ruin the Baffert party without anyone rekindling memories of MineThat Bird. The only horse to ever finish in front of Carpe Diem, Texas Red in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, won’t be in Louisville. Other than that Carpe Diem has never had a horse within two lengths of him at the wire in his other four starts, including his workmanlike polishing off of Saturday’s Blue Grass. He’s already won three times around two turns. If ever a horse was bred for the Triple Crown series, it is this son of Giant’s Causeway and the Unbridled’s Song mare Rekindled Dreams.

It appears Kiaran McLaughlin has figured out what happened to Frosted in the Fountain of Youth he appeared to have won at the top of the stretch. However, I can’t put the Wood Memorial on the same level as Dortmund’s Santa Anita Derby or Carpe Diem’s Blue Grass. El Kabeir didn’t fire his best shot (or maybe he did and it wasn’t good enough) and Daredevil didn’t fire at all. Beating Tencendur, who was one-for-one against New York bred maidens and zero-for-three against open company doesn’t elevate Frosted to my top tier of Derby contenders. I’m not saying he’s a toss but with so many others I consider superior, as of now that’s what I’m going to do.

The Oaks is a beauty, too

After Saturday, the Kentucky Oaks is almost as inscrutable. A big downside of the trend toward Super Saturdays, especially during Derby prep season, is the tendency to overlook outstanding performances in important stakes, which formerly commanded a showcase day of their own.

I’m a Chatterbox looked like this year’s Untappable in sweeping the Fair Grounds distaff series. But an hour before Frosted stole the spotlight in the Wood, Condo Commando reinforced her status as an elite filly with another cakewalk in the Gazelle.

She has one inexplicably poor race in the Frizette last fall on a sloppy track. Yes, she was the “splash-tastic” winner of the sloppy Spinaway at Saratoga but all slop is not the same. That the Frizette was her first try at a distance as long as a mile after winning a couple of sprints by more than 25 lengths caused some to dismiss her as a freakish sprinter. She has put that theory to rest, galloping in three straight two-turn stakes.

Stellar Wind was even more impressive in the Santa Anita Oaks, which got lost as a supporting player to Dortmund’s Santa Anita Derby. The filly purchased privately by Hronis Racing after a big maiden-breaker in Maryland has looked like the second coming of Zenyatta in a pair of West Coast races. Saturday, she crushed a solid field of fillies, drawing away after a sweeping last-to-first surge around the far turn.

Also overwhelmed by Materiality’s impressive Florida Derby a week ago was the rapidly developing Birdatthewire’s convincing win in the Gulfstream Oaks. She was so rank and awkward around the first turn into the backstretch that her trainer, Dale Romans, and a lot of others watching thought Irad Ortiz had lost his irons. Ortiz got her act together and she, too, circled the field to win going away.

There’s a traditional Kentucky Oaks-Kentucky Derby daily double. Anyone thinking about jumping into that pool better be prepared to spread.


Written by Tom Jicha

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