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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Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Horses haven’t changed, trainers have

Baseball pitchers used to routinely pitch complete games. Now they rarely do, because they aren't asked to. Horses used to run every two weeks or more frequently. Now they rarely do, because they aren't asked to. American Pharoah won four Grade 1 races in eight weeks. On the other side of the Atlantic, John Gosden sent out the French Oaks winner off only nine days rest. Not every horse can come back so quickly but a lot more can than are being asked.

MIAMI, June 16, 2015--The year Secretariat swept the Triple Crown, 1973, Tom Seaver pitched 18 complete games and won the National League Cy Young Award. The greatest Met ever also had seasons in which he finished what he started 21 and 19 times.

Bob Gibson twice had seasons with 28 complete games.

Jim Palmer, who took the 1973 American League Cy Young had 19 complete games the year Secretariat broke the last Triple Crown drought.

Seattle Slew’s year, 1977, Steve Carlton won the NL Cy Young and had 17 complete games. Ron Guidry, who won the AL Cy Young in 1978, Affirmed’s Triple Crown year, put up 16 complete games.

This season’s stats are a work in progress. The past two seasons, Clayton Kershaw won back-to-back Cy Young Awards for the Dodgers. He had six complete games in 2014, a career high and double the number he put up in 2013.

Kershaw’s AL counterpart last season, Corey Kluber, had three complete games. Max Scherzer won the AL Cy Young in 2013 without finishing any of his 32 starts.

The point is that athletes do what they are trained and prepared to do. Contemporary starting pitchers aren’t any less physical specimens than their 20th century counterparts. If anything, they are bigger and stronger thanks to advanced training techniques. But they are asked to throw only six or seven innings, so that is all they do.

I would argue that the same is true of equine athletes, thoroughbreds. They are being asked to run only every four or five weeks. So is it any surprise that they seem incapable of doing more?

Thank goodness for the Triple Crown. It’s a rare opportunity to demonstrate the fallacy that modern horses can’t race every couple of weeks. That the Derby winner has repeated two weeks later in the Preakness three of the past four years and the past eight Preakness winners also have run in the Derby or Oaks (Rachel Alexandra) is not coincidental. Horses can run more often, even at the highest level, if they are prepared for and asked to do it.

Critics of American racing often couple it with praise for the patient way things are done on the other side of the Atlantic. Eight days after American Pharoah became the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years, winning his fourth race in eight weeks, Star of Seville came back in nine days off a poor performance in the Epsom Oaks to win the French Oaks for trainer John Gosden.

A counterpoint is that drugs have weakened the American breed. This is only a theory. If it could be proven, we should go back to hay, oats and water immediately or shut it all down. Isn’t the romanticized justification for racing “improvement of the breed”?

What this theory doesn’t take into account is that not all drugs are evil. There likely is not an athlete in any sport, who hasn’t gone on the field aided by drugs, from aspirins to remedies far more potent.

It’s rarely pointed out that pharmaceuticals also lengthen horses’ careers. Injuries that used to signal the end of the line can now be treated so that horses can return to racing, often at their previous levels.

The decline in foal crops is a major contributing cause to smaller fields and fewer race days. I would argue that the timidity of trainers and the influence of fig sheets also have partial culpability. How has the physiology of the horse changed so much that thoroughbreds, who routinely raced every couple of weeks, and often more frequently, not that many years ago can only be put under silks once a month or less.

The Racing Form a few years back instituted a line across the past performances when a horse had a six-week or longer gap between races. Now that’s not considered a break. It’s almost the norm.

I’ve been told by several prominent trainers that another Racing Form innovation, publication of trainer stats—a great tool for handicappers-- is a reason conditioners have become extremely selective in picking their spots. “Giving horses a race” brings down winning percentages and scares away potential owners.

The bounce theory popularized by fig sheets and adhered to religiously by top trainers is another contributing factor to horses racing less frequently. Obviously, horses can’t run one race after another improving their figs each time. That they don’t doesn’t mean “they bounced.”

Even in swimming, where records fall every five minutes, world class competitors don’t always match their best “fig.” Does this mean they bounced? By fig guys’ standards, it does.

Racing isn’t alone in letting nebulous numbers play a role in how the game is played. Baseball managers mindlessly let the ridiculously lenient save rule guide their strategy. If they are up by 3 runs going to the 9th, they get their closer ready. If an someone homers and makes it a 4-run lead, they sit down the closer and bring in someone else. There is no thinking involved.

If you can see the absurdity in this, you should be able to also see how trainers let themselves be dictated to by figs. Their decisions should be a product of knowing their horses, not an arbitrary number on a piece of paper.

Until this happens, short fields will continue to plague the sport.

Final Triple Crown thoughts

The Met Mile isn’t the only thing that got lost in the excitement of American Pharoah’s Triple Crown.

In an act almost as gutless as capping attendance to cover up its inability to deal with crowd management, NYRA ran two of its premier stakes, the Woody Stephens and Ogden Phipps, without show wagering even though both stakes had six-horse fields. This is almost unprecedented and is totally unacceptable.

Ironically, one of the horses they were afraid would create a minus pool (a misnomer), Competitive Edge, ran off the board. NYRA unintentionally saved some bridge-jumpers a fortune. The other horse that caused NYRA to chicken out, Untapable, also got beat, although she did manage to finish second.

All sources handle was down about 10 percent on Belmont Day. Bad decisions by the NYRA brass were responsible for almost every penny lost.

Watch for Japan

Bill Mott, generally low key and humble, made an uncharacteristic boast after his Japan won the Easy Goer, beating only two foes. “I said before the race that he’s the only horse who can upset American Pharoah. I just ran him in the wrong race.”

He should be careful what he wishes for. However, if Mott is this high on Japan, it’s worth remembering for the next time Japan runs, which probably will not be in a race including American Pharoah.

Bayern looks like a goner

It might be time to stick a fork in Bayern after dismal last-place finishes in the Churchill Downs Handicap and Met Mile. He got a late start on the season because of ailments and obviously isn’t close to being the same horse who won the controversial Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Karma, anyone?

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, June 11, 2015

Case closed on the Triple Crown spacing

American Pharoah not only made history by sweeping the Triple Crown, he made certain that history wouldn't be tampered with. The arguments that the five weeks of the Triple Crown made it impossible to win were demolished, hopefully forever. As Bob Baffert said, all it takes is a superior horse, which is exactly how it should be.

MIAMI, June 11, 2015--Two words for those who have been saying the relatively brief spacing of the Triple Crown makes it impossible to conquer: Go away!

To elaborate: Go away and don’t come back! I don’t want to hear it, ever again. As anyone who reads this column knows, I never believed it. All it takes, all it ever took, is an extraordinary horse; a horse like American Pharoah.

“For a while.I was starting to think maybe it's never going to happen,” Bob Baffert said Sunday. “It's changed, it's too tough ... maybe it's the breed. It's not the breed. You just have to wait for these superior horses to come around. They don't come around that often.”

Baffert is pleased to have put this bellyaching to rest. "I think the Triple Crown has to stay the same,” he said. ”If you spread it out, it would lose its build. Once the Derby is run, everyone starts getting on board. You want it to stay in a short time frame.”

American Pharoah was the only horse to run in all three races. For good measure, he also won the final major prep, the Arkansas Derby, the closest one to the Kentucky Derby. So his agenda was three weeks-two-weeks-three weeks; four races in eight weeks, just like old times. His final quarter mile of the final jewel, when fatigue should have been taking hold, was faster than Secretariat’s when he ran the most dazzling race in the history of the sport.

Materiality, a quality Grade 1 winner, who tried to run with American Pharoah early, was galloped into the ground. He finished last. He was one of five rivals to freshen for five weeks after the Kentucky Derby. Madefromlucky was off four weeks since winning the Peter Pan. Only Tale of Verve also ran in the Preakness but he didn’t run in the Derby. A lot of good the conservative regimen did them.

One other point: American Pharoah races with Lasix. Somehow it doesn’t debilitate him. I’ve always felt this is nothing but a crutch for trainers, as valid as the loser’s lament, “didn’t handle the track.” Some horses need more time between races but not all. Just as not all horses need Lasix.

Todd Pletcher is a great trainer. But it doesn’t hurt to have a couple of hundred million-dollar pedigrees in the barn. This affords him the luxury of taking as much time as he feels necessary with each of them. He can pick his spots because there’s almost always something else in the barn for every race. However. it’s telling that when his spots are dictated by tradition, his record is less than sterling: one Kentucky Derby, two Belmonts, zero Preaknesses. This is despite nominating about 40 3-year-olds to the Triple Crown every season.

American Pharoah has few worlds left to conquer. He has beaten the winners of every major and a lot of minor Derby season preps with the exception of the Louisiana Derby’s International Star, who is on the sidelines injured. But others who have come out of that race, all the Fair Grounds preps for that matter, have been established to be second tier at best.

So it was great to hear American Pharoah’s owner Ahmed Zayat say he is as anxious to see his colt run again as fans are to see him. “We would like to enjoy him as long as we can…a very, very long campaign. I personally made a promise to my family and to the fans more than anybody else. We need to enjoy our stars and race them as long as we possibly could.”

One possible destination mentioned by Zayat and Baffert would give American Pharoah the opportunity to do something that has happened only once and hasn’t happened in double the number of years between Triple Crowns. The only Triple Crown winner to add the Travers to his laurels was Whirlaway in 1941. (Affirmed finished first in 1978 but was placed behind Alydar for interference.)

Baffert has a long, prosperous history with Monmouth’s Haskell. He’s won it seven times, including four of the last five. But he has Dortmund for this year’s renewal.

The Pacific Class against older horses is another option. But American Pharoah’s connections can save that for the Breeders’ Cup Classic, likely the champ's final start.

The Travers is another opportunity to make history and should be the race Baffert and Zayat point toward. It’s not as if the centerpiece of Saratoga’s summer is foreign terrain to Baffert. He won it in 2001 with Point Given and tried to encore last year with Bayern, who was coming off a smashing triumph in the Haskell. That didn’t work out so well. Bayern led early but faded to tenth and last. So running American Pharoah in both is probably a non-starter, even though they are 27 days apart.

One will be enough and it should be the Travers. If it happens, I wonder what cap NYRA will put on attendance.

NYRA diminishes great day

The attendance for Belmont Day was conspicuously missing from the charts. This indicates to me that even the misguided 90,000 cap wasn’t reached. Potential customers were either scared away by nightmarish warnings of congestion or convinced they wouldn’t be able to get in. Way to go, NYRA.

It’s not difficult to gauge the effect of the cap, or the mere threat of it. Handle was up on Thursday and Friday. On Saturday, the main event, it was down.

On-track handle was $16.8 million. Last year, it was $19 million. Last year, 102,000 were allowed to see California Chrome bid for the Triple Crown. The plunge in handle corresponds closely to the mandated drop in attendance.

Last year was a mess. With a year to fix it, it’s disgraceful NYRA was unable to make the necessary adjustments. Instead it took the easy way out. Yet these people expect, and probably will get, bonuses at the end of the year.

Camera friendly NYRA CEO Chris Kay was seen on videos all afternoon on the closed-circuit feed congratulating himself for Belmont Day. But no matter how hard he works it, Kay’s legacy will forever be as the man who kept thousands of racing fans from witnessing history.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, June 04, 2015

Let’s hope the Belmont isn’t deja vu all over again

There are no sound handicapping principles that suggest American Pharoah shouldn't complete the Triple Crown. He has buried every one of his foes. But strange things have happened in the mile-and-a-half Belmont.The main danger appears to be Materiality, who had a horrendous trip in Louisville and has been pointed for this since, a winning tactic in recent years. Other than Frosted, the rest appear in it for their owner's ego. But to reiterate, the Belmont has a history of strange results.

MIAMI, June 4, 2015---Here we go again. We’ve been in this spot a dozen times since Affirmed became the last horse to sweep the Triple Crown in 1978. On almost every one of those occasions, the potential successor to Affirmed has looked as extraordinarily formidable as American Pharoah does going into the Belmont Stakes.

The list of scalps on American Pharoah’s belt includes the winners of the Wood Memorial, Florida Derby, Blue Grass, Santa Anita Derby, UAE Derby, Tampa Bay Derby, Sunland Derby and a load of lesser Derby preps. He has beaten every other horse in the field. None of his triumphs have been close. With the same past performances, if the Belmont Stakes were a mundane race on a weekday card, American Pharoah would be about 1-5. So if he goes off at his 3-5 morning line, you could almost argue he is value.

Post position is unlikely to be a factor in an eight-horse field going a mile and a half but American Pharoah is ideally drawn in the middle of the pack at No. 5. Bob Baffert says this has always been a lucky post for him but you get the feeling that he would have said that no matter where American Pharoah had drawn, with the possible exception of the rail.

Frammento just inside him and Frosted immediately to his outside are late runners, so Victor Espinoza should be able to get American Pharoah away and into stride cleanly.

Should American Pharoah join the roster of those who were undone in the Belmont Stakes, it will be more likely a result of contemporary breeding strategies than the tight spacing of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont. There have been too many close misses to buy into the rationale that the brief separation between the three races is too much to overcome.

Real Quiet came out on the wrong end of a heart-breaking photo in 1998, the closest any horse has come to a Triple Crown since Affirmed. The previous year, Touch Gold ran down Silver Charm in the shadow of the wire. Smarty Jones suffered a similar fate in 2004. To contend these slight margins were solely the result of three races within five weeks is sophistry.

Moreover, given the brilliance of American Pharoah’s post-Preakness workouts, the notion that he will be a fatigued horse is a reach. He seems to be getting stronger, if that is possible.

But American breeders’ penchant for speed and precocity renders few horses capable of handling 12 furlongs at the highest level of competition. This is a quarter-mile further than they have ever been asked to race. So it could be not that Derby-Preakness winners couldn’t go a mile and a half but that they ran into a rival genetically more suited to the challenge. Touch Gold in ’97, Victory Gallop in ’98 and Birdstone in 2004 all were horses who became tougher as the distances got longer.

American Pharoah’s pedigree is a mixed bag as it relates to 12 furlongs. His top end says yes. Grandsire Empire Maker ended Funny Cide’s bid for a Triple Crown in 2003 by running away from him in the Belmont Stakes stretch.

The bottom half of his pedigree says, not so much. It is speed oriented but if you go back a few generations, you get to champions Storm Bird and Storm Cat. A little further back, you’ll find Northern Dancer and Secretariat, who ran the fastest Belmont in history. That’s the blood American Pharoah will need to call upon in the final yards.

But you never know if one of his seven rivals will turn out to be a 12-furlong freak. This appears to be the only way American Pharoah will be denied.

American Pharoah’s task seemed to have gotten less challenging when Todd Pletcher declared Carpe Diem, who does have distance breeding, out of the Belmont.Maybe Pletcher feels that with Materiality and Madefromlucky, he doesn't need him.

Materiality and Frosted can legitimately claim troubled trips in the Derby. Of the two, Materiality has more upside. The Derby was only his fourth start and first defeat, so there is ample room for a move forward. If he does, it could be a real horse race. Materiality, who lost all chance when he got away slowly in the Derby, also should benefit from the outside post. If he’s tardy again when the latch is sprung, he shouldn’t be squeezed back as he was in Louisville. Pletcher said he expects Materiality, who vied for the lead all the way in the Florida Derby then drew off, to be prominent going into the first turn.

Being outside American Pharoah should be beneficial, allowing him to track the favorite without getting trapped down on the inside. It’s not difficult to imagine a scenario in which Materiality could pin American Pharoah on the rail behind dead speed. I’ll have Materiality on at least some of my multi-race wagers. But he's the only other one.

Frosted is reminiscent of Wicked Strong last year, a disappointment in Florida followed by a big Wood Memorial then an off-the-board finish in the Derby. Frosted has won only twice in eight starts, both at Aqueduct. At the price he is likely to go off as the second choice, he offers no value. I’ll let him beat me.

Mubtaahij is intriguing solely because his trainer Michael de Kock is a magician, who has specialized in developing horses to handle the extended distances overseas. Still, off his Kentucky Derby, Mubtaahij appears to be in deep against a field far stronger than whatever it was he was beating in Dubai. Even de Kock conceded that if American Pharoah runs his race, the others are in it for minor awards. But you could do worse than include him on exotic tickets.
Since strange things have happened in the Belmont, anyone looking to cash a ticket at a big price might as well pick one of the other four out of a hat or bet each of them equally, since the return will be many times 4-1. There are no logical reasons to zero in on any one of them to win.

If you want to take a wild stab, put a few bucks to show on anyone but American Pharoah. If something goes amiss with the odds-on favorite (remember the seemingly unbeatable Big Brown), the show payoffs could be astronomical. If American Pharoah comes through and your selection finishes second or third, you’ll get your money back and make a dime.

But American Pharoah is the bet from the head and the heart.

Written by Tom Jicha

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