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, September 14, 2017

QUESTION to INDUSTRY: Why Should One Bet Be Taxed More Heavily Than Another?

The average takeout for straight bets is a little more than 17 percent. For exotics, it's more than 22 percent. How does this make sense? Why should the more difficult to hit bets be taxed more for the attempt? The answer is typical: This is the way it always has been done. Another argument is this pushes people into easier to hit pools. This is outrageous paternalism: We know what's better for you than you do. A dirty little secret is the heavily taxed exotics subsidize the rebates to the computer guys, who aren't even real horse players.

The boss saved me some research with his column the other day (which I don’t agree with but applaud the effort to think outside the box).

J.P. reported the average takeout, according to HANA , is 17.25 percent on WPS and 22.28 percent on exotics. This saved me from tracking down these stats as soon as I finished getting my house into something resembling what it was before Hurricane Irma.

(Thank you again to those who sent well wishes. As the governor of Florida stressed, property can be replaced, lives can’t. My wife and I and our immediate family in South Florida had a lot of property damage but we are all safe and sound and have mostly dealt with the cleanup and restoration by now.)

The average takeout numbers are exorbitantly high and unfair but the bigger issue is a question I am ashamed of myself for never having raised. Why should any horse racing wager be taxed more heavily than any other?

The response that this is the way it always has been done is insulting and unsatisfactory. For most of the years this “has always been done,” racing had a monopoly on gambling opportunities. It could afford a take-it-or-leave-it attitude.

As Bob Dylan sang, “The times, they are a changin’.” Racing no longer even has a monopoly at tracks with slots, which has become most of them.

Without endorsing what should be at least two to three points lower, if the rake on WPS is 17.25 percent, I would really like someone to explain why all bets are not 17.25 percent. In earlier times, I suppose it could have been argued that it took more labor by tellers to punch in a Pick 3 or Pick 6 than a Pick 1.
Now most wagers are made via automated terminals on track and computers off track. Tracks don’t have to do anything but crank up their computers after the race to see what the winners are going to get paid. This is no more difficult or time consuming for a Pick 4 than it is for a Show bet.

In fact, many tracks get to hold bettors’ money in the more challenging multiple-race and multiple-horse wagers when there are no perfect tickets, another outrage. This is never the case with WPS. So, if anything, tracks should charge less for the super exotic bets. But my contention remains all bets should be evenly taxed.

Expanding on that, if the whales are getting say 10 percent rebates on straight bets, shouldn’t these be taxed at a greater rate than the pools where rebates to the last-minute (or perhaps past-post) computer guys aren’t as much of a factor? The dirty little secret is raising the rake on the exotics preferred by casual players subsidizes the rebates to the computer gangs, who aren't even real horseplayers.

But the bigger point remains: why should any bet cost more than any other? It’s counter-intuitive that the harder a bet is to win, the more a player should be charged to make the attempt.

That some jurisdictions now offer Pick 5’s at the lowest takeout on their menu, some as low as 12 percent, bolsters my case. If they can offer a Pick 5 at 12 percent, why can’t all bets be similarly taxed? I have yet to hear any track say these low takeout rates are costing them money.

I have heard it said that higher takeouts on the more difficult bets are an attempt to push players into the pools where success is easier to achieve. I concur that this is the most prudent wagering strategy but that is for the individual to decide, not someone from on high.

If protecting the public from themselves is the goal, an argument could be made that racing should cease to exist. Nobody would lose anything. I jest, of course.

Also, if protecting the public from themselves is a goal, why do tracks expend almost their entire promotional efforts tempting players to jump into super jackpot pools. When was the last time you saw or heard a racetrack ad that says, "Win $6 on a $2 bet"?

This is a classic example of the paternalistic attitude that we know what is better for you than you do.

I categorically and emphatically reject this.

No Casino Bucks, No Jackpot

Racing got what I fear is a terrifying preview of the future this week.

Delta Downs has been forced to cancel eight stakes at its upcoming meeting, including the Delta Jackpot, which has ascended to national prominence and put the Louisiana bullring on the map. The culprit? Casino revenues are down big time because of Hurricane Harvey.

Delta’s casino relies heavily on patrons from the Houston area, where storm recovery has taken priority over slot machines. As has become the case at many venues, purses, especially big money stakes, are almost totally dependent on the casino dole.

Several states have either begun to reduce the set-aside from slots that goes to racing purses; have already done so; or are debating it in their legislative halls.

When this drip-drip becomes a deluge, which it inevitably will, racing as we now know it will cease to exist. The Pennsylvania Derby and Cotillion, $1 million apiece when they are renewed next week, will go the way of this season’s Delta Jackpot if and when state lawmakers cut the casino money now dedicated to racing, as they have been threatening to do.

As much a racing champion as I am, I can’t say I will be sorry. Tracks have done nothing that I have been made aware of to prepare for this day.

Moreover, fans have not benefitted in any meaningful way from the casino windfalls. To use one prominent example, did the Whitney Stakes need to have a $1.2 million purse? Would it not have gotten the same field for a flat million? To answer my own question, of course it would have. Four weeks later, Gun Runner crushed the same caliber field for $750K in the Woodward.

If you took $200K from the Whitney and applied it to the benefit of fans, there would have been no need to kick up admission prices $5 a head for the Travers. As long as Resorts World is sending humongous checks to NYRA, there should be no admission or parking charges at any New York track. It's not as if the Aqueduct casino ceases to suck up money by the carload while the horses are at Saratoga.

The Whitney is just an expedient example. Stakes schedules are replete with ridiculously over-endowed races, some of which draw four- and five-horse fields—and not the best four or five.

I am not unaware that there is a legal prescription that a certain percentage of slots money goes to purses. This could be easily negotiated, especially since most of the horsemen who put on the daily show rarely share in million-dollar-plus purses. States are in the process of negotiating purse enhancements downward every day by attempting to lower the slots funds being sent to racing.

To bring this column full circle, if fans were allowed to wet their beaks from the casino money even just a little, there would be no need for some bets to cost more than others. And the rake could be a lot lower than 17.25 percent.

Miami, Sept. 14, 2017

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, September 07, 2017

When is something going to be done about ‘The Juice Man’?

Jorge Navarro has accomplished some amazing feats this summer at Monmouth. A video available, which has gone viral, suggests more than good horsemanship might be involved. One of his owners, who has won with eight of 12 recent starters, is seen shouting at a racetrack monitor as one of his horses gets home, 'The Juice Man. We f—k everyone and I line my pockets.' If this doesn't call for a thorough investigation into Navarro's methods, it's hard to imagine what might.

Hurricane Irma is bearing down on the South Florida command post of Horse Race Insider, so it’s uncertain when we will be able to communicate again. As an almost half-century Floridian, I have managed through numerous hurricanes and hurricane scares. This one is like no other. Remember us and the horses who give us such pleasure in your prayers.

Three or four days before its scheduled landfall, Gulfstream has canceled the entire weekend of racing.

John and I are hoping for no disruptions. Just in case, there are things I want to say before they become old news.

Pardon me if I don’t get excited about Jorge Navarro, a Gulfstream regular, breaking his own record for wins at Monmouth Park. I’ve said often that any trainer who wins at a 30% or more rate over a period of time belongs either in the Hall of Fame or a jail cell. Navarro might be totally clean and just better than legends Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons, Charlie Whittingham, Bobby Frankel and contemporary super trainers Todd Pletcher and Chad Brown.

However, there is a video that has gone as viral as any racing video can go. Navarro and one of his owners, Randall Gindi, are seen at Monmouth rooting home one of Gindi’s horses. Gindi, who gives all the appearances of being one of those loud, obnoxious guys you try to avoid at the track, is seen screaming as his horse wins, “The Juice Man. We f—k everyone and I line my pockets.” Gindi has won with eight of his 12 horses since the beginning of August. (Google Jorge Navarro and “juice” and you can see it for yourself.)

This appears to be as incriminating as a video can be. Yet Monmouth has taken no action that has been made public. To the contrary, Navarro has been celebrated for his record-breaking season.

Richard Dutrow got 10 years on a lot flimsier evidence.

Pegasus II will happen--Ritvo

Tim Ritvo is a little miffed at the media and some within racing over doom and gloom predictions regarding the second running of the Pegasus.

Contrary to published reports, seven entities, not four, have committed to the 2018 edition, which will go on as scheduled on Jan. 27, according to Ritvo. He didn't name names and seven is not the 12 needed to fuel the $16 million purse (The Stronach Group is kicking in $4 million) but there are still more than five months to the race, TSG’s chief operating officer said. He expressed confidence a full dozen will be in place in plenty of time.

Ritvo said he can’t understand why people in racing, most notably the connections of Gun Runner, who would be a solid favorite to capture the $7 million first money, would want to bad mouth the race and effectively sabotage it by encouraging others not to ante up.

“You would think they would want the race to go,” Ritvo said.

He emphasized that the true cost to an owner is less than a half-million dollars, since the minimum a participant will earn is $550,000. Unlike last year, when all the also-rans took home the same $250,000, the rewards will be stepped this time. Exact distribution hasn’t been finalized, according to Ritvo, but some will earn $550,000, some $600,000, some a little more. The $7 million first prize is chiseled in stone.

He suggested a scenario in which a horse like Gun Runner, whose owners didn’t commit, could be frozen out of the field. The other owners could decide they all have a better chance at the big money if none of them make a deal for a berth for Gun Runner.

This is a bit of salesmanship on Ritvo’s part and an effort to respond to the biggest hurdle of the Pegasus. Berths were for sale or barter at cut-rate prices last year, so prospective participants have to be convinced that if they don’t get in early, they might not get in at all.

On the other hand, does Gulfstream really want to stage the world’s richest race without the horse ranked the world’s best on dirt? NBC is still committed to the Pegasus, so there certainly would be pressure brought to bear to get Gun Runner into the field.

Post time for the next race: Soon

Gulfstream’s post dragging has devolved to ridiculous lengths. Three-minute delays became four, then five, then six or more on a routine basis. Last Saturday, a division of the Florida Sire Stakes went off 10 minutes after the post.

Las Vegas race books and I suppose some simulcasting sites, which have numerous TV monitors geared to various tracks, have a practice of moving races about to go to a large central monitor. Because of the post drags, which the books apparently have not caught on to, Gulfstream gets more time on the big screen than any other track.

How much this induces people to bet is a matter of conjecture. It can’t hurt. During my recent vacation in Sin City I noticed players on line to bet other tracks giving a quick check to the Gulfstream PP’s and making a bet they otherwise might not have made. Maybe this is the method to the post-dragging madness.

This isn’t to say it doesn’t annoy some bettors. One Saturday afternoon, Gulfstream went up on the big screen because there were zero minutes to post. Del Mar, the most popular option out west, had four minutes to post. The Gulfstream horses were still doing the Tijuana Twirl as the Del Mar field loaded.

There was almost an insurrection as players screamed, “Del Mar! Del Mar!” to the unseen wizard behind the curtain. The switch was made just as the Del Mar field broke.

To illustrate how absurd the post-dragging at Gulfstream has become, the Del Mar race was completed, the “official” was posted, the winning jockey had dismounted and had his picture taken and there was still time to put Gulfstream back on the big screen for the actual race.

Maybe Gulfstream should change its policy. Instead of Pete Aiello announcing how many minutes there are to the next post, which nobody takes seriously anymore, he should just say, “Post time for the next race…in a little while.”

Written by Tom Jicha

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Friday, September 01, 2017

In This Game, One Must Keep Learning

American racing's inferiority complex when it comes to European grass horses should have run its course. There's money to be made in recognizing this.

For decades, Euros treated our richest races as ATM machines. They shipped their second and third stringers and scooped up millions in purses (and making some hellacious betting scores, I've been told).

No more, although it is taking a while for U.S. bettors to catch on. I know I've learned the hard (and expensive) way. This is where the advantage is for early adapters.

The latest example is last Saturday's Sword Dancer. Saratoga players sent it in big time on Erupt and Idaho, pounding the latter down to 7-5 favoritism. He beat one horse. Erupt bested two, including Idaho, as American horses--not our best--swept the money positions.

This was not an isolated occurrence. It has become a trend.

A week before Beach Patrol ran off with the Arlington Million. Dacita, a South American import who has been U.S. based for a couple of years, took the female counterpart, the Beverly D. Well bet Euros chased home both winners.

Tepin went over there and beat the best Euros on their own ground. Lady Aurelia, who has won several big Euro stakes, lost a heart-breaker in England last week but she still outran all but one. Wesley Ward has pioneered taking U.S. juveniles overseas to win some of their big stakes. These results never used to happen.

NYRA's big turf races around the Fourth of July, the Belmont Derby and Belmont Oaks, both saw U.S. stars, Oscar Performance and New Money Honey, respectively, outrun Euro shippers. This shouldn't have come as a surprise. The same two Stars-and-Stripers won last fall's Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf and its filly counterpart.

That was when I started to rethink the way I approached stakes with international fields. My philosophy had always been to toss home team grass horses, especially juveniles, and spread with the Euros. I got beat a few times but on the whole made some nice hits.

There's a sensible explanation for why the tide has turned. Until recent years, U.S. trainers didn't put horses on the grass until they had established they were no bargain on the main track. It wasn't that many years ago that there were no meaningful turf races until a horse's 3-year-old season.

Now horses with turf pedigrees or hooves suited to the infield start their careers on turf and many stay there. It's a first resort, not a last, just like in Europe.

Meanwhile, European horses race exclusively on turf, so there is a gauge on who has talent and who doesn't. In a turnabout, their horses who don't perform at a high level are banished to synthetics for puny purses or are sent to the U.S. to race on dirt.

All of this is relevant because we are coming up to the big fall grass races, where Euros will be prominent. I'm not suggesting we've seen the last Euro winner of a prestigious U.S. turf stakes. However, there is money to be made in not taking it for granted that they are the horses to beat.

Woodward no test for Gun Runner

Arrogate got beat twice this summer. Songbird went down last Saturday. If Gun Runner doesn't gallop past four rivals into the winner's circle of Saturday's Woodward, it will rank equally on the scale of cataclysmic upsets.

With Arrogate and Collected on the West Coast awaiting the Breeders' Cup and Shaman Ghost on the sidelines, there's no one to give Gun Runner a meaningful test. So he'll probably go into the Breeders' Cup Classic as the big favorite, coming off three straight Grade 1 triumphs and trying to avenge his lone loss this year to Arrogate in the Dubai World Cup.

Why Bob Baffert is persisting in running Arrogate is a mystery. It has to be coming down from the Juddmonte hierarchy, who have said all year the Breeders’ Cup Classic is the primary goal for 2017.

Arrogate is clearly not the same horse who took everyone's breath away in last year's Travers, BC Classic, Pegasus and World Cup. He also seems to despise Del Mar, which is, unfortunately for him. where the Classic will be run. He can only further tarnish his reputation.

The horse not getting his due is Arrogate's conqueror, Collected. The talk after the Pacific Class was how Arrogate didn't win more than Collected did. Perhaps Arrogate just got beat by a better horse.

I was talking to a really sharp handicapper in a Las Vegas race book the other day who expressed surprise when I pointed out Collected has a better record than Arrogate. Collected is now 8-for-11 to Arrogate's 7-for-10. (Gun Runner is 9-for-16)

Collected hasn't won the prestigious stakes Arrogate and Gun Runner have but he hasn't been given the opportunity. He certainly beat a better field in the Pacific Classic than Gun Runner will face Saturday. Keep this in mind at Breeders' Cup time, especially since it's possible neither will race again before Nov. 4.

Del Mar player-unfriendly

Sitting in a race book for a couple of weeks, you notice things, such as how player-unfriendly the Del Mar simulcast is.

Will-pays, crucial information for those involved in multi-race propositions, are displayed in no discernible pattern and never in a timely manner, like immediately after the previous race payoffs, as is done almost every place else. Sometimes it's closer to the next race then the previous one, long after replays, interviews and a carnival of commercials.

Thanks to another Del Mar shortcoming, it's difficult to estimate what might be coming back so that you can strategize whether it's worthwhile to consider saver bets. The on-screen constant, such as it is, is exacta possibilities.

Instead of alternating exactas and daily double potentials, Del Mar runs the exacta payoffs both ways, most of the time, with the daily double possibilities displayed after every other full run through of exacta payoffs.

Has it occurred to anyone that if you run all the exacta possibilities in one column, the reverses will be shown? If you like a 1-4, it will be only two screen clicks to find out what the reverse will pay. If you like a 1-4 double, be patient. It will be awhile before that's posted.

Worse, even the exactas disappear for three or four minutes at a crucial time when the field comes on the track. Then they disappear again for a minute or two when the pool totals are displayed in the final two minutes to post.

NYRA has the most useful wagering information of any track, with the exacta and double payoffs on the screen from the end of one race to the loading of the gate the next and multi-race bet will-pays shown on the side of the screen during the replays.

Thankfully, the Breeders' Cup has its own simulcast with potential payoffs on display constantly. Del Mar officials should pay attention. They might learn something about serving the players--if they care.

Las Vegas, Aug. 31, 2017

Written by Tom Jicha

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