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 Sentinels horse racing writer since 2007 as a staff member, and continues to this day as a free-lancer.

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Thursday, April 14, 2016

Pharoah’s gone but Baffert’s in the Derby picture again

Bob Baffert isn't bringing an American Pharoah to the Kentucky Derby this season. But he's not coming unarmed. He feels he has a potent arrow in his quiver in Cupid, who is on target to give Baffert his seemingly annual victory in the Arkansas Derby, the final major prep for Louisville. Baffert isn't giving up on Mor Spirit, either, in spite of a disappointing effort in the Santa Anita Derby.

MIAMI, April 14, 2016--American Pharoah is gone to a life of love and leisure, leaving a huge void in Bob Baffert’s barn. The attention this spring has moved down shed row to Doug O’Neill’s barn, home of undefeated juvenile champion Nyquist.

But Baffert can never be counted out during Derby season. He could have the second betting choice in Cupid, who is favored to win Saturday’s Arkansas Derby, as well as Grade 1 winner Mor Spirit, who has never been worse than second in seven career starts.

There is an outside chance Collected, who runs in the Lexington on Saturday, will also move into the Derby picture. However, Baffert said in a conference call that he has reservations about Collected getting 10 furlongs.

He has almost no reservations regarding his other two potential Derby starters. He’s especially high on Cupid, who has won around two turns twice, including the Rebel. “He’s very fast and a beautiful long striding horse.”

The Rebel was impressive on its face but Baffert feels Cupid’s race was even better than it appeared. “He broke a little step slow, rushed up and still made the lead. He almost hit the rail and still managed to hold off fast closing Whitmore.”

The necessity to ship cross country to Arkansas from California twice, as he did with American Pharoah, gives him some pause. “When you ship then you ship twice, it can be a little bit tough on them. That’s what made Pharoah such a great horse. Horses have a small window of greatness. Pharoah had a window all year long, which is very rare.”

So far, so good with Cupid, Baffert said. “I haven’t seen him regress. If I thought I saw a little regress, I would have just run him fresh into the Derby or maybe I could have taken him to the Coolmore Lexington.” The 50 points Cupid earned in the Rebel would have afforded Baffert these options.

Mor Spirit slipped in the estimation of many after being soundly beaten by Exaggerator in the Santa Anita Derby but Baffert hasn’t lost faith in him. “I don’t like to make excuses for my horses but he didn’t get the trip we were hoping to get. We wanted to be near the lead. But Gary (Stevens) said they all left like their hair was on fire. So he hung in the middle. He basically just passed tired horses at the end. The winner ran a great race. It was disappointing but we’ll move on.”

One thing Baffert has no reservations about is using a race only three weeks out as a final Derby prep. “I think three weeks is fine. They changed (the preps) because some trainers feel like they need an extra week. I think everybody has their own way. But to me, three weeks is fine. It’s the sheet guys who sort of tell them you don’t want to run a big number this close. Your horse is going to bounce. So they go by that. I don’t really go by that.”

From Baffert’s lips to the ears of every trainer in America.

Like most others, Baffert feels Nyquist stands above the crowd. “He hasn’t done anything wrong. He has been handled great. He’s all race horse. We keep waiting to see if he’s going to get the distance but he’s so good that he just keeps on going.”

Nyquist’s stamina issues trace to his sire, Uncle Mo, who didn’t win past a mile and a sixteenth. Baffert said this might not matter. “Pedigree in America now is so diluted that it doesn’t really matter anymore. It’s how good you are. So I think you have Nyquist and a lot of horses underneath.”

This doesn’t mean he’s conceding anything. “You need some luck. We have a 20-horse field to deal with. So many things can go wrong. So we still have a long way to go.”

Songbird still the one

America’s best 3-year-old will not be running for roses on the first Saturday in May. She will be racing for lilies on Friday.

On last Saturday’s busiest day for Derby preps, the most dazzling performance was again turned in by Songbird, who cantered to her seventh straight blowout in the Santa Anita Oaks.

I opined recently that Nyquist will be one of the shortest priced Derby favorites in recent years, deservedly so. But if Songbird was in the race, Nyquist would be no better than second choice.
I’ll double down. If Songbird does her thing in the Oaks, then runs in the Preakness, as is being speculated, she will be favored over Nyquist even if he wins the Derby.

Ponder that. An undefeated, Eclipse champion Kentucky Derby winner would not be favored in the second jewel of the Triple Crown.

That’s how good Songbird is.

Another Stymie?

Ken Ramsey plans to supplement Spiral winner Oscar Nominated, who he claimed for $75,000 last fall, to the Derby even though he has never raced on conventional dirt. Why not, the colorful Eclipse-winning owner figures? “I’m optimistic. It’s not a stellar field after Nyquist.”

Depending on how the points shake out in the Arkansas Derby, a pair of maidens, Laoban, fourth in the Blue Grass, and Trojan Nation, second in the Wood, could be in the Churchill Downs starting gate.

Ramsey, who is always looking for new worlds to conquer, is targeting another. “We got a chance to make a little history. I go back a long way. I’m 80 and I remember back when Hirsch Jacobs claimed Stymie. They say Stymie is the greatest claim in history. So if Oscar Nominated goes on to win the Derby, I guess that puts me right in the history books with Hirsch Jacobs and Stymie.”

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, April 07, 2016

Derby preps lack usual luster but there are prices to be had

The Kentucky Derby shapes up as Nyquist against the world after last Saturday's demolition of Mohaymen in the Florida Derby. This weekend's trio of final major preps will decide little beyond who might be second choice in Louisville but the lack of standouts makes them attractive betting races.

MIAMI, April 7, 2016--The Kentucky Derby is too big to be rendered anti-climactic by any other race. But the normally prestigious final round of preps has fallen into this category. Nyquist’s demolition of previously unbeaten Mohaymen in the Florida Derby has taken a lot of the oxygen out of the pre-Derby atmosphere. However reports of an elevated white cell count keeping him in his stall at Keeneland will lend encouragement to the connections of Derby wannabes and those shopping for a price horse.

Still, unless the situation lingers--elevated white blood cell counts are not unusual after a ship, as Nyquist did from Florida to Kentucky--no matter what happens in this weekend’s Blue Grass, Wood Memorial and Santa Anita Derby as well as next week’s Arkansas Derby, Nyquist will enter the starting gate at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May as one of the strongest Derby favorites in years. The standard in the era of 20-horse fields is the $2.40-1 Big Brown went off in 2008.

Nevertheless this weekend’s tripleheader of Derby preps provides some great betting opportunities with potential live price horses all over the map. Isn’t that what it’s all about?

A couple of all stakes Pick 4’s, which, thanks to their wide open nature, also could pay handsomely. An all-NYRA Pick 4 opens with the Gazelle. The Bay Shore, Wood Memorial and Carter Handicap follow. The Bay Shore, Keeneland’s Madison, which is Breeders’ Cup caliber, Wood Memorial and Blue Grass make up the Kentucky-New York Pick 4.

The Wood Memorial, Blue Grass and Santa Anita Derby will anchor a telecast on the cable NBC Sports Network from 5-7 p.m.

John Pricci will have his customary extensive analysis of the weekend stakes Friday. I will share some comments from trainers and jockeys on an NTRA conference call earlier this week as well as my own observations from this winter at Gulfstream.

Undefeated Gotham winner Shagaf is the horse to beat from the fence in the Wood Memorial. Some might downgrade his chances, especially at a short price, because of relatively light numbers. Chad Brown said this would be a mistake. “His speed figs haven’t been super impressive but he hasn’t done anything wrong.” Brown noted that the lightly raced colt has been making steady progress, physically and mentally and he sees more room for improvement.

Shagaf’s uncoupled stablemate, Flexibility, also has a big shot, in Brown’s estimation. Off a couple of seconds to Mohaymen followed by an impressive score in the Jerome, he looked like the class of the New York winter 3-year-olds until a misfire in the Withers.

The Withers might have been a case of too many races in too short a period, Brown said. Flexibility was due for a layoff between that race and the Wood in any event. “The plan was the (Kentucky) Derby would be his second race off a short layoff.”

If Flexibility’s tank was on fumes, he’s bounced back well, according to the trainer. “His energy level is terrific. I’m real happy with the way he’s coming into the race.”

This hasn’t been Todd Pletcher’s finest winter for 3-year-olds but he’s back home and it would be imprudent to toss his chances with Outwork, whose only defeat in three races has been to stablemate Destin in the Tampa Bay Derby. He was a little short that day in his first try around two turns but the Tampa surface builds conditioning.

The overflow field of 14 plus two AE’s for the Blue Grass is a sign that beyond Nyquist, the 3-year-old division is currently lacking star power. Pletcher will have the likely favorite in Zulu, who chased Mohaymen home in the Fountain of Youth after a couple of sprint wins. However, off Mohaymen’s collapse in the Florida Derby that doesn’t look as impressive as it did a week ago.

Dale Romans likes the chances of his pair, Brody’s Cause and Cherry Wine. Brody’s Cause is a prototypical horse for course. He became a Grade 1 winner at Keeneland in October when he took the Breeders’ Futurity. Four weeks later he put in a big late run to finish third in Nyquist’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.

Romans has no explanation for Brody’s Cause’s dull seventh in his seasonal debut in the Tampa Bay Derby. “He was training like a monster. I’ve never had a horse train so well then run so poorly. Maybe he needed the race.” Romans is hoping the return to his favorite track will turn around Brody’s Cause. “I know he ran third in the Breeders’ Cup and won a Grade 1 here.”

Romans is also high on Cherry Wine, who was talked up as a Derby sleeper after a flashy allowance win around two turns at Gulfstream. Romans thought enough of him to ship to Oaklawn for the Rebel. His fourth place finish was better than it looked, the trainer says. “It was sneaky good.” After breaking from an outside post in a bulky field, Cherry Wine got shuffled back to last down the backstretch. He was forced to split horses at the top of the lane and weave his way through traffic but he was charging hard at the end.

The Santa Anita Derby is a rematch of Danzing Candy, who wired the field in the San Felipe for his third straight win, and Mor Spirit, who closed fast to get the place. That was a mile and a sixteenth, 110 yards shorter than the Santa Anita Derby. It didn’t appear Mor Spirit was going to get to Danzing Candy if they were still running but Bob Baffert has a way of getting them up for the big ones. Unfortunately, a forecast of heavy rain for Saturday could change its impact on the Derby picture, especially if some improbable mud-lover jumps up and upsets the field.

However, the story Saturday at Santa Anita is the 3-year-old who won’t be in the Santa Anita Derby, super filly Songbird. She’ll be 1-10, maybe 1-20, in the Santa Anita Oaks. She also would have been odds-on against the boys in the Derby.

Asked if he thinks Songbird could beat the colts, Smith, who rides Danzing Candy, said, “Without a doubt.” Smith has ridden great distaffers Zenyatta, Azeri and Royal Delta. Songbird is more advanced than any of them, he says. “She’s the most promising 3-year-old I’ve ever been on. That includes the boys.”

Romans, whose Go Maggie Go upset the Gulfstream Oaks last Saturday, jokingly suggested Songbird should have taken the supposedly tougher assignment. “Songbird should go in the Santa Anita Derby, get some points, then run in the (Kentucky) Derby and leave the (Kentucky) Oaks alone.”

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, March 31, 2016

Two big horses not holding back in Florida Derby ‘prep’

Major stakes leading up to the Kentucky Derby are called preps for a reason. Trainers use them to advance along the Derby trail. They are plum prizes but not the big one, so they are treated accordingly. Not this year's Florida Derby. Eclipse champion Nyquist is in it to win it because of a million dollar bonus. Mohaymen will hold nothing back, his trainer Kiaran McLaughlin says, because it is a Grade 1 and he wants Mohaymen to have that on his resume.

MIAMI, March 31, 2016--The Florida Derby, Louisiana Derby, Arkansas Derby, Santa Anita Derby, Blue Grass Stakes and Wood Memorial are called Kentucky Derby preps for a reason. As rich and prestigious as each is, horsemen treat them as stepping stones to the ultimate prize on the first Saturday in May.

This season’s Florida Derby is going to be the exception. The most ballyhooed “prep” in anyone’s memory is a prize target in its own right. Bettors can make their selection and put down their money confident that there will be no holding back with the Kentucky Derby in mind.

Doug O’Neill, who trains undefeated Breeders’ Cup and Eclipse champion Nyquist, and Kiaran McLaughlin, who’ll send out also undefeated Mohaymen, have made this clear. Lest there be any misunderstanding, each is pointing his star 3-year-old toward the Triple Crown. Show me a horseman who says any race outranks the Kentucky Derby and I’ll show you a liar or a fool. However, Saturday’s race carries its own significant rewards.

For Nyquist, it’s a paycheck that would exceed first-place money in any of the Triple Crown races. Thanks to a $1 million bonus created a year ago by Gulfstream and Fasig-Tipton, Nyquist, as a graduate of F-T Gulfstream, would bank $1.6 million with a win—the $600,000 first-place purse plus the $1 million bonus. The Kentucky Derby prize amounts to about $1.2 million. The Preakness and Belmont hang out about $900,000 to their winner.

Nyquist’s bonus is an all-or-nothing proposition. Win and take home the extra million. Run second and all you earn is the Florida Derby’s $200K place money.

O’Neill says he isn’t bringing his colt 3,000 miles to take on the only challenger mentioned in the same breath as Nyquist solely for the bonus. Right!

Anyone who follows sports knows whenever someone says, “It’s not about the money,” it’s about the money.

Judge for yourself. O’Neill could have opted for any of five other Derby preps, all of which offer the same $1 million pot as the Florida Derby. None feature Mohaymen. Nyquist would have been odds-on in any of them. But there is no million dollar bonus attached to them.

Instead, Nyquist was flown cross-country to take on Mohaymen on what amounts to his home track. So you know it’s all in for Team Nyquist.

O’Neill says the timing of the Florida Derby, five weeks out from the Kentucky Derby, is as much a factor as the extra million. Funny how the connections of every other serious 3-year-old decided that a six-week, four-week or three-week gap before the Derby is preferable to taking on Mohaymen.

Less than a decade ago, there were predictions that scheduling the Florida Derby five weeks before the first Saturday in May would cost the Gulfstream race major Derby contenders because it was too far out. This is how much training techniques have changed in a short period.

In an example of income inequality, Mohaymen, though the probable favorite, will be running for $1 million less because, as a Keeneland sales graduate, there is no bonus for him. Nevertheless, McLaughlin said, there will be no holding back. “This is a Grade 1 and we don’t have a Grade 1 yet.” Mohaymen has won four stakes in a row but all were Grade 2.

McLaughlin has been in this position as recently as two years ago. His Cairo Prince went into the Florida Derby as the horse to beat off three wins in four races. Two of them were the Grade 2 Nashua and Holy Bull, which are also on Mohaymen’s credit sheet. Cairo Prince ran fourth and was injured in what turned out to be the final race of his career. He never got his Grade 1. So McLaughlin comes from the get your Grade 1’s when you can school of thought.

The possibility of emptying his horse in the race in a gut wrenching showdown against a champion before the Kentucky Derby is of no concern to McLaughlin. To the contrary, he’s looking forward to a tough race. “We don’t mind a stern test. It will be tough on both of us. It will be nice to have a tougher test than we’ve had. It will show us where we are.”

In a mild surprise, eight other 3-year-olds jumped into the Florida Derby. By no reasonable handicapping principle do any of them have a chance against the big two. Only Fellowship has won as many as two races and he has run a distant third twice this winter to Mohaymen. Six others have only a maiden win. Only one is still winless in seven career starts.

I’ve voted Nyquist No. 1 in the HRI poll every week this year but I’m backing Mohaymen Saturday. My logic is in the poll I voted for what each has accomplished. Nyquist is the champion until beaten. In the Florida Derby I’m betting what I think will happen.

Mohaymen is coming out of four straight two-turn wins, the last two over the Gulfstream surface. He has a win at nine furlongs. Nyquist has had one seven furlong race in five months and is coming cross country to race over a track on which he has no experience. There have always been questions about his distance limitations. He has not won beyond a mile and a sixteenth, which is also the furthest distance his sire, Uncle Mo, handled successfully.

If Nyquist can overcome Mohaymen under these circumstances and remain unbeaten, we might be looking at another Triple Crown winner. I think an encore to American Pharoah is a live possibility but my money is the potential champion is named Mohaymen.

Romans staying put

Dale Romans says it isn’t so. He was quoted this week in a Chinese newspaper bad-mouthing American racing and saying he’d like to try his hand at training in Hong Kong. “Every single sentence in that story was said in a different context,” Romans said.

Romans said he was speaking hypothetically when he was asked if he’d like to train in Hong Kong. “Sure I’d consider it. The only thing you have to worry about over there is training. They take care of everything else for you.”

The season is shorter and a strict limit on the number of trainers licensed—only 12 can be expatriates--means each trainer makes a fortune, Romans said. “But I’m not looking to go anywhere.”

Romans has what he thinks could be a live longshot in the Florida Derby,Takeittotheedge. The son of Broken Vow won at first asking at Gulfstream on March 5. “That maiden race was really impressive. He just galloped along with his ears pricked.”

Stepping up against Mohaymen and Nyquist is a tall assignment but Romans, who sent out Keen Ice to shock American Pharoah in the Travers, figures it’s worth a shot. “This is the time of year when you don’t want to go in an allowance race with a 3-year-old then wonder what might have been (in a stakes).”

Coming out of a seven-furlong sprint, Romans expects Takeittotheedge will set the pace in the Florida Derby. If the two big horses become overly concerned with each other and let Romans colt go, you never know what could happen.

“Speed is always dangerous,” Romans said, “and this is a really good horse.”

Another chance for Airoforce

The Spiral Stakes has had more names than P. Diddy but only one Kentucky Derby winner, Animal Kingdom. This year's renewal on Saturday offers a chance for redemption for Airoforce, considered a major Derby contender coming into this year.

Not that long ago, Airoforce was mentioned in the same conversations as Nyquist and Mohaymen off his outstanding juvenile season. He won the Bourbon on Keeneland’s dirt, ran a close second in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf then returned to the dirt to take the Kentucky Jockey Club over the Kentucky Derby surface. The second, third and fourth place finishers were Mor Spirit, Mo Tom and Gun Runner.

Then Airoforce ran a dismal 10th in his 2016 debut in the Risen Star. His trainer Mark Casse was so disappointed, he declared his colt off the Derby trail. His presence in the Spiral means he is back on it.

“I’m still not sure what happened (in the Risen Star),” Casse said. “At the half-mile pole, he threw his head up. Julien (Leparoux) just let him gallop along from there. We haven’t found a whole lot to give him an excuse. But he did cough a lot after the race.”

Airoforce has trained so well in the aftermath that Casse is giving him another chance to earn his way to Louisville. What’s more, both his two most recent breezes have been on the synthetic track at OBS. “So the Spiral makes sense.”

Written by Tom Jicha

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