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, February 02, 2017

Woody’s revered record facing a challenge

Woody Stephens' five consecutive Belmont Stakes winners is a record that could stand for all time. However, it is fair to ask if Bob Baffert is approaching an equally superlative achievement. He has won three straight Breeders' Cup Classics and has Arrogate for a potential fourth. After last Saturday's Pegasus, you have to wonder, who is going to beat this superhorse?

MIAMI--Some records are so revered, they are considered almost unassailable: Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak; Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game; the Dolphins’ perfect season. For racing fans, Woody Stephens’ feat of five consecutive Belmont Stakes winners fits into this category.

Literally, Woody’s mark might never be surpassed. Since Woody’s remarkable run from 1982-86, only D. Wayne Lukas has won as many as three consecutive Belmont Stakes. No one else has gone even back-to-back.

However Arrogate’s sensational triumph in the Pegasus raises the question of whether we might be on the verge of a racing achievement at the highest level that is the equal or better of Woody’s.

It’s a long way from February to November. At this point last year, no one outside Bob Baffert’s inner circle had heard of Arrogate. But right now the grey colt would have to be considered a short price to give Baffert his fourth straight Breeders’ Cup Classic victory. Arrogate’s connections say this is his No 1 target for 2017. Everything else will be counting backward from the Nov. 4 Classic at Del Mar, according to Baffert.

Barring injury—granted, a big leap—who’s going to beat him? What the son of Unbridled Song has done in his last three races has been other-worldly and, in a strange development, it has gotten even better since Saturday.

Respected clockers, including Craig Milkowski of Time Form U.S., Randy Moss and Bruno DeJulio, have challenged the official clocking of 1:47.61. Milkowski has concluded that Arrogate ran nine furlongs in 1:46.53, better than Lea’s track record of 1:46.86. This would give Arrogate a second track record in three starts, to go with his 1:59.36 in the Travers.

Gulfstream is promising an official review. Whether Arrogate gets credit for another record is almost irrelevant. “Superhorse,” Milkowski wrote.

Andy Beyer has revised upward his “fig” for Arrogate from 116 to 119. This puts it in line with his 120 for the BC Classic and 122 for the Travers, figs in a different stratosphere.

Certainly no older horse we’ve seen can keep up with Arrogate, especially with California Chrome gone. He’s killed the best that can be lined up twice now. As for last year’s 3-year-old crop, the winners of all three Triple Crown races have gone to the breeding shed. Gun Runner and Connect, the best of those who didn’t show up for the Pegasus, finished a time zone behind Arrogate in the Travers and Classic.

What about new 3 year-olds?

Maybe there’s a newly turned 3-year-old, who will be ready to challenge by year’s end. Juvenile champion Classic Empire launches his campaign this Saturday in the Holy Bull. The only time he has been beaten was when he wheeled at the start. Undefeated McCraken cranks it up a week from Saturday in the Sam F. Davis at Tampa Bay Downs. Also undefeated Mastery is being pointed toward a March race, according to Baffert. It could turn out the biggest threat to Arrogate is another Baffert.

Do four Breeders’ Cup Classics in a row equal five Belmont Stakes? I would argue yes. The Belmont at a mile and a half is a one of a kind race, often diminished by shortcomings of the breed as well as the attrition of the grueling Triple Crown campaign. Of Woody’s five winners, only 1984 Derby winner Swale took part in the first two legs the Triple Crown events. The other four skipped one or the other, some both, to be pointed specifically for the Belmont while others of their generation knocked themselves out in the Derby and Preakness.

The Breeders’ Cup has become the year-end championship, run at America’s classic distance. It is targeted for the entire season by almost everyone in the game, including some of Europe’s best.

I am not minimizing Woody’s accomplishments. Others had the same opportunities and didn’t come close. I am merely putting them in the context of this debate.

This is not to say the Baffert conveyer belt of superstars might not provide him with a fifth straight or more Classic champion.
To this point, the two streaks have only one significant bond. Both have been done entirely with 3-year-olds. This was a prerequisite, of course, of Woody’s feat. Baffert has beaten all comers of any age with Bayern, American Pharoah and Arrogate.

A fabulous day for TSG & racing

Getting back to the Pegasus, it was great to hear Belinda Stronach rave about the South Florida vibe and how she hopes to bring the world’s richest race back to Gulfstream in 2018. But all this was said in the euphoria of what was a fabulous day for The Stronach Group and racing.

It remains to be seen if it will be as easy this coming year to get a dozen entities to ante up $1 million months ahead of time on the if-come.

One lesson learned is that by January there are not 12 horses worthy of such an event. Three of this year’s dozen went off in excess of 100-1. A fourth, Eragon, the South American substitute for Runhappy, should have been 1,000-1. He trailed throughout. A GPS device would be needed to tabulate how far he finished behind Arrogate.

So the possibility of a slot in the starting gate becoming a sellers’ market asset is unlikely to come to pass. It’s a debatable point whether the possibility of having Arrogate go for an encore next January is a plus. It certainly is for the race, not so much for getting others to sign on.

The ancillary revenue streams promised to share-holders are probably a long way from amounting to much, if anything. The TV ratings, which Tim Ritvo said was crucial to future finances, were nothing special. The 1.23 Nielsen rating translated to about two million fans. Compare this to the 12 million who dependably tune into the Kentucky Derby.

The ratings were roughly comparable to the Breeders’ Cup, which has been around since 1984 and still doesn’t command a dime for TV rights. Sponsorships, another potential source of revenue for subscribers, will have to continue to pay the freight to get the Pegasus on TV.

If there is a bright spot, it is the $40 million plus handed Saturday, a little less than half that on the Pegasus. Share-holders have been promised a piece of this in the future.

If somehow a Japanese horse could be lured to the race, this could almost double and actually amount to something for share-holders.

There is a reason Japanese race horses have become as in demand as a fun date in prom season. The Japanese bet about $20 million on the Arc when one of their horses is competing. It’s not unreasonable to expect that much or more on the Pegasus if one of their local heroes was in the field.

This is why Ritvo took a party to Japan hoping to get a Japanese horse for the inaugural Pegasus. It’s why the Kentucky Derby has set aside a slot for a Japanese 3-year-old and NYRA has put up a $1 million bonus for a Japanese horse who wins the Belmont.

A more equitable distribution of the Pegasus purse also is mandatory. As it was, only Arrogate, who took home $7 million and house horse Shaman Ghost, who won $1.75 million for second, turned a profit. The $1 million Neolithic got for third was merely the break-even mark; less than that when you subtract jockey and trainer fees. Finishing third should be profitable.

The $7 million will stay to maintain the Pegasus as the world’s biggest payoff—at least until the sheiks in Dubai pony up some more oil money. But the other $5 million needs a redistribution table; maybe $2 million for second; $1.5 million for third; $1 million for fourth and the rest set aside as expense money for the also-rans. Awarding $250,000 for fourth through last runs against everything horse racing is supposed to be.

Nothing is perfect the first time it is attempted, as Ritvo said. There was far more good than not at the inaugural Pegasus. Let’s hope this is sufficient to ensure many more Pegasuses in the future.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, January 26, 2017

Two-horse Pegasus can still be a good betting race

If Arrogate or California Chrome don't win the Pegasus, it will be the biggest upset since, well, Upset beat Man O War. It's conceivable either of the big two could throw in a clunker or run into trouble. Stuff happens. For both to come up short is inconceivable. Still there are ways to make the Pegasus an interesting betting proposition thanks to multiple horizontal and vertical wagers. But the best strategy is to enjoy these two superstars meeting for the final time.

MIAMI, Jan. 26--The NBA has 30 teams. Outside local loyalists, it would be hard to find anyone who doesn’t expect either the Cleveland Cavaliers or Golden State Warriors to win this year’s championship.

This is analogous to Saturday’s $12 million Pegasus. Anything can happen in a horse race but it requires a surplus of imagination and optimism to work up a credible case for anyone but California Chrome or Arrogate. One is the newly crowned Horse of the Year, the other was just named the world’s best race horse. In the Breeders’ Cup Classic, which had a tougher field top to bottom, they put 10-plus lengths on the rest.

To borrow an expression, the others don’t breathe the same air. For one of them to beat either of the stars would be a gargantuan upset. To beat both would be cause to think about throwing away the Racing Form and resort to picking names or jockey colors.

For the hardcore, there are still ways to make it an interesting betting proposition. Of course, there’s the multi-race bets, Pick 3’s, 4’s, 5’s and the Rainbow 6. But even if you’re not alive, there are wide-open exactas and trifectas—the back end of the superfectas and super hi 5. Do what you will with the top two then put your next two or three below them.

You have to wonder about the race within the race. How many of the 10 field-fillers will just lay back and gun for the $1 million show money. It doesn’t matter after that, since fourth through 12th gets the same $250,000.

Keen Ice is an obvious fit for a big minor share. He doesn’t have the speed to test the big two, so burnout is less of a threat, he will be running late and he’s had a race over the track. Alas, a standard trifecta including him might pay single digits thanks to his giant killer reputation for running down American Pharoah in the 2015 Travers.

If you’re looking for ticket-makers, you could do worse than Breaking Lucky and Semper Fortis. Both are in sharp hands and have run races good enough to get on the board here. A superfecta box with the big two on top and what amounts to a three-horse box with Keen Ice, Breaking Lucky and Semper Fortis in the third and fourth slots might be a good way to go.

But the big two make this a race to watch and savor. To waste the experience of seeing the superstars coming down to the wire by focusing on the battle for fourth or fifth is sinful.

Likewise, the riders of the also-rans will get $1,000 apiece unless they have a private arrangement, according to Tim Ritvo, COO of The Stronach Group and President of Gulfstream Park. He says all have been advised that they will be expected to go all out to get the lesser spots.

This is merely one of the issues surrounding the Pegasus. But few things are perfect right from the get-go. Secretariat got beat in his first start. So did American Pharoah and Arrogate. You fix what wasn’t quite right and go on from there.“Like anything else, you get better with practice,” Ritvo said

The equality of purse money beyond third and paying back to last was a sweetener for stakes-holders and is something that will be reconsidered for the future, Ritvo said. When the $1 million buy-in was conceived there was no confidence a dozen players could be enticed. “Mr. Stronach was prepared to buy three shares,” Ritvo said. But the 12 slots were gone within a week. Stronach kept one, which he will use on Shaman Ghost.

Much has been made of each share-holder putting up $1 million. Thanks to the $250,000 guarantee, the ante is really $750,000. This is still a lot of cash but Ritvo tried to put it into an interesting perspective. “Through the years, people have bought million dollar horses, always looking to get into the big races. What we did was say, ‘Why not buy the spot in the gate then try to find your horse?’ So we kind of reverse engineered the process.”

The original share-holders also have right of first refusal for future renewals of the Pegasus and the potential to share in the proceeds for media rights. This might be overly optimistic. The Stronach Group is paying NBC to carry the race from 4:30-6 p.m.This is the norm. Only the Triple Crown races command rights fees. All other races, including the long established Breeders’ Cup, pay to be on TV in one form or another. Sponsorships are used to cover the cost.

This is why Ritvo said the most important metric on Saturday isn’t crowd size or handle but TV ratings. “We’re hoping in the future there will be a bidding war between the networks to carry the race?” It will be a greater accomplishment than creating the world’s richest race if The Stronach Group can ever get TV to pay a rights fee.

In the latest example of Murphy’s Law (If something can go wrong, it will) the worst nightmare for the Pegasus--a standout horse drawing a bad post—came to fruition when California Chrome pulled the No. 12 pill.Over the past decade, the only horse to win a mile-and-an-eighth race from No. 12 at Gulfstream is Big Brown in the 2008 Florida Derby. Big Brown, who went on to win the Derby and Preakness, didn’t have an Arrogate inside him.

Chrome’s trainer, Art Sherman, has such faith in his horse, the draw didn’t faze him. “He’s overcome about every post. He drew the 1 in the Pacific Classic and nobody was winning from there but you saw what happened. Then in Dubai he was on the outside, the 11. It might as well have been the 12. He is just a push button horse. You can get your position coming out of there because he’s got enough early speed to put him in any place you want to.”

The short run to the first turn at nine furlongs has been viewed as problematic since the Pegasus was announced, Ritvo acknowledged. A mile and a quarter was considered. The feeling was a mile and an eighth would attract milers stretching out and mile-and-a-quarter type horses. I'll say it one more time. Why not a mile-and-three-sixteenths, the same distance as The Stronach Group premier race, the Preakness?

One miler stretching out that the Pegasus people had to have in mind was 2015 Eclipse Sprint Champion Runhappy, whose owner James McIngvale was an original subscriber. “Mattress Mac” spent 2016 trying to get Runhappy to stretch out with the Pegasus the target. He wound up wasting a year of a great horse’s career and having to settle for Argentinian import Eragon—a miler.

Some feel the No. 1 post could be disadvantageous to Arrogate, if he doesn’t break sharply. Money Mike Smith, who will be aboard, doesn’t share this concern.“It worked good for us in the Travers. You hope it works again.”

He’d take any post over the one California Chrome wound up with. “The post I didn’t want to draw the most is the 12. The 1 isn’t the post I would have chosen, either, but it is what it is. He’s sharp right now. He’s been training aggressive in the morning, so he’s going to be aggressive leaving there.”

He better be. “Chome is on his game,” a supremely confident Sherman said. “He’s as good as I’ve ever seen him. It’s going to be a great race.”

Minor issues notwithstanding, kudos to The Stronach Group for making it happen.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, January 19, 2017

Cuomo’s re-privatization of NYRA proposal loaded with land mines

New York governor Andrew Cuomo has come up with another proposal to re-privatize NYRA. It would include night racing at Belmont and fewer winter dates at Aqueduct. Each of these is sure to stir opposition from horsemen and citizen activist groups. This might be Cuomo's intention. He could delay turning back NYRA and blame it on others.

MIAMI, Jan. 19, 2017--Racing after dark could be coming to Belmont and winter racing could be going at a re-privatized New York Racing Association.

These bombshells were first dropped on Tuesday in the midst of a hearing of the New York Senate Racing, Gaming and Wagering Sub-Committee. As he conducted the hearing, Sen. John Bonacic was handed a blog post from the Albany Times-Union reporting Cuomo was planning to turn back NYRA as part of his new state budget. The report was confirmed later in the day.

Evening racing at Belmont and an unspecified reduction in racing during the cold weather months is a part of the governor’s plan.

Sen Bonacic’s panel was essentially a gripe session. Others present are as unhappy as Bonacic is with Gov. Cuomo maintaining control of NYRA two years past the deadline for returning it to private hands. So Cuomo’s proposal, which came out of the blue, could be just blowing smoke by the politically savvy governor. Cuomo knew he was going to take a beating at the hearing and probably wanted to change the narrative in media coverage, which he did.

It is not cause for New York racing fans to begin kissing each other in Times Square. Cuomo had a plan last year to supposedly re-privatize NYRA but it was basically a sham in which Cuomo flunkies would still control NY racing. This one could be more of the same.

A new NYRA board would have 15 members, eight from the private sector, six appointed by the governor and NYRA’s CEO Christopher Kay. So Cuomo would start with seven votes in his pocket. All he would need to maintain control is to win over one of the private sector representatives. This wouldn’t be a daunting challenge considering the power the governor has over areas of commerce in which private sector representatives likely to be chosen participate.

The same citizen’s coalitions that kept slot machines out of Belmont could reorganize to oppose evening racing in their neighborhood. Even if this is avoided, thoroughbred racing after dark in the metropolitan area at the Meadowlands never proved to be the wild success it was forecast to be. In fact, the harness horses did better, probably a product of the trotters and pacers having a history and fan base after the sun went down. It’s easy to say, “Well, that was New Jersey,” but the Meadowlands is located closer to parts of the Bronx and Manhattan than Belmont Park on Long Island is.

How greatly winter racing will be curtailed would be a major issue with horsemen and their employees, who can’t afford to winter in Florida. Also, horsemen at every venue where night racing has been introduced have raised objections to their people having to cool out horses after midnight then be at the barn a few hours later for normal training procedures.

This proposal also represents the latest indication that the governor remains determined to shut down Aqueduct as a race track and use the land to expand the casino and surround it with a hotel and convention center.

So these reports might be nothing more than a tactic to get horsemen and others to raise objections, which would allow Cuomo to pass blame for another delay in surrendering control of NYRA.

Sunshine (not nearly) Millions

Anyone who doubts how difficult it is to get horsemen to agree on anything, even when it’s in their best interests, need not look any further than Gulfstream Park this Saturday. The annual Sunshine Millions will be renewed but this year the title is a misnomer.

In the past, there were six races with cumulative purses of more than a million dollars: the Classic for $250K, the Distaff for $200K and the Turf, Filly & Mare Turf, Sprint and the Turf Sprint for $150K apiece. This year, the Turf Sprint has been dropped, the Classic has had its purse reduced to $200K and the other four will go for $100K apiece.

It’s fair to ask how can this be when Gulfstream recently announced wagering on live races last year was up 13% to more than a billion and a half dollars?

Simple answer. The Florida Thoroughbred Breeders and Owners Association (FTBOA) and the Florida Horsemen ‘s Benevolent and Protective Association (FHBPA) are in a tinkling war, which essentially boils down to who is going to have the loudest voice in South Florida racing and control the vast amount of dollars gleaned from handle.

The sides are pointing blame at each other but the end result of their circular firing squad is everyone will compete for less than 60% of what they could have.

Keep in mind, both organizations have members who also race at the NYRA tracks and will have a voice in the re-privatization proposal.

Circus closing a warning to Greatest Show on Turf

Most folks probably felt a tinge of sadness at the announcement that the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus is shutting down after 146 years. It might be years since the last time you went to the “greatest show on Earth” but it’s disheartening to see a once cherished piece of Americana die.

The demise of the circus can be traced to several factors. Changing tastes is a big one. If the circus was turned into a video game, kids these days might take interest. Also, the cost of staging a traveling road show has exploded.

Another major factor--the reason I bring it up here--was years of battling animal rights groups, the same hassles horse racing is experiencing. Organizations like the Humane Society and PETA are relentless. It matters not if their allegations are unfounded or outright lies. Feld Entertainment, owner of RBB&B, won a $25 million settlement last May from activists for baseless charges that the circus mistreated its elephants.

Alas, it took 14 years and became a Pyrhhic victory. In the meantime, cities, most notably Los Angeles and Oakland, jumped on the bandwagon and banned elephants and other elements of the circus. To appease them, RBB&B eliminated the elephants, a concession not unlike California thinking it could get PETA off its back by instituting a whip rule. Feld Entertainment said the elimination of the elephants led to the loss of customers, the same effect the whip controls could have on horse racing.

Now, not only the elephants are gone. The entire circus is about to fade into nostalgia.

Over the past few years, animal rights crusaders also have gotten greyhound racing banned almost everywhere but Florida. With decoupling in Florida looking inevitable, they’ll probably soon be able to claim another victory. They still won’t stop. If anything, they will be emboldened. They need villains, real or invented, to keep fund raising going.

I was going to say horse racing could be the next big target but their campaigns have already started. In addition to the whip rule cave-in, there have been pickets at racing’s biggest events the past few years, which always get plenty of media coverage.

Appeasement won’t succeed any more than it does in politics. Situations like the whip rule are almost an admission of wrong-doing. Instead of the losing strategy of giving in incrementally, racing has to mount a vigorous campaign to answer, resist and discredit these organizations or the game could go the way of the circus.

Written by Tom Jicha

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