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, November 23, 2017

Racing provides so much for which to be thankful

On a day of reflection of our blessings, horse racing should be somewhere on the list, below health and family. Things for which I am thankful include outstanding racing after the Breeders' Cup this weekend, Pegasus Stakes 2.0, last season's Triple Crown race winners coming back as 4-year-olds, the end of Gulfstream West, daylight standard time arriving and, of course, all of our regular readers and commentators.

This is the day to reflect upon how fortunate we are. Racing is down the list of our blessings, compared to health and family, but it is still an important element of so many of our lives for the pleasure, entertainment and occasional profit it provides. I hope you share many of the following thoughts.

I’m thankful there is racing life after the Breeders’ Cup. Aqueduct, Churchill Downs and Del Mar have stakes-loaded cards this coming weekend. Many of the biggest stakes will be run on Friday. Churchill has the Grade 1 Clark, the Mrs. Revere and the Dream Supreme. The Comely, Gio Ponti and a state-bred stakes are carded in New York. The Hollywood Turf Cup will be renewed at Del Mar.

Why are so many stakes on a weekday? It’s because tracks across the nation realize there are millions of people off work and available. I would be really thankful if I thought the Breeders’ Cup was paying attention.

Pegasus produces again

I’m thankful for the Pegasus Stakes. Problems still abound with how the race is funded, which brings into question whether the concept is viable on an ongoing basis. However, on the track, there will be another attention-grabbing showdown in Pegasus 2.0.

Gun Runner vs. Forever Unbridled might not pack the wow factor of Arrogate vs. California Chrome but the battle of the sexes injects a fascinating element . When the two face off a couple of days after the Eclipse Awards, it will be the Horse in the Year vs. the Female of the Year.

Without this gender clash, the Pegasus would amount to a romp in the Florida sun for Gun Runner, who has trounced almost every other horse likely to show up.

More to anticipate

I’m thankful that for the first time in memory, three different winners of Triple Crown races are coming back to race as 4-year-olds. I wish perfectly healthy BC Dirt Mile winner Battle of Midway was also coming back.

Fie on the breeders who took him away from us prematurely but it’s par for the course for the most greedy, selfish people in the game.

Pharoah stands alone

I’m thankful we haven’t had a Triple Crown winner the past two years—but only in retrospect. I rooted for Nyquist and Always Dreaming to replicate what American Pharoah accomplished, the only horse to sweep the Derby, Preakness and Belmont in four decades.

But the fact that they didn’t underlines how extraordinary Pharoah’s feat was. If there was a Triple Crown winner every year or two, it would become ho-hum. Every year that goes by without a Triple Crown winner only enhances appreciation for the amazing talent it requires and anticipation every spring that this could be the year of the next one.

Viva Frank Stronach

I’m thankful for Frank Stronach. He might be a little eccentric and some of his ideas come off as strange but every one of has the goal of advancing racing, a rare business attitude in an increasingly bottom line world.

Stronach is one of those people who will not be fully appreciated until he is no longer on the scene.

RIP Gulfstream West (I hope)

I’m thankful (or is it hopeful?) that the upcoming week could be the final one ever for Gulfstream West. It’s a travesty that Florida allows this faux meeting to qualify Churchill Downs Inc., owner of what used to be Calder Race Course, for a casino.

I’m not thankful for the state officials, who sanctioned this and for Hialeah to qualify to keep its casino license by running a couple of worn-out nags about 100 yards eight times a day for 40 days.

The latter all but eliminates any hope that “the most beautiful track in the world” will spend the money to get back into the thoroughbred picture, regardless of what happens with Gulfstream West, which provides an essential break--if it were a real race meeting--from year-round racing at real Gulfstream.

Decoupling, which failed in the Florida legislature last year, faces better prospects this coming spring because one of the issues that short-circuited it, casino expansion in the state, has been settled in the courts. Passage of decoupling will free CDI from the obligation to lease its vacant lot adjacent to a racing oval to Gulfstream.

Good riddance

Del Mar out of the picture

I’m thankful Florida, New York and other major venues I play have better photo finish cameras than Del Mar. How many more faux deadheats must there be before Del Mar does whatever is necessary to get it right.

I guess I’m thankful, too, that there were no really tight photos at the Breeders’ Cup.

They can do it, if asked
I’m thankful for Voodoo Song, the New York bred who won four races, two within four days, during the 40-day Saratoga stand. This fortified my belief that the only reason horses don’t run as often as they used to is because they are not asked to.

They are babied by trainers who collect their per diem whether the horse is in the barn or on the track.

Racing Form does right thing
I’m thankful the Racing Form has opened its editorial copy, albeit for only 30 articles a month.

It’s in the Form’s interest to promote racing to the greatest degree possible. No major newspaper still maintains a racing beat writer. Without the Form, there would be no daily coverage of the entire racing world in one place. This would work against the Form’s ADW site.

Cyber sites, including Horse Race Insider, the Paulick Report, Thoroughbred Daily News and the Blood Horse, have become essential for racing information and opinions but they typically prioritize regional coverage and national high spots. Only the Form has coverage of virtually every track, every day.

The price of the print edition has become so expensive it virtually rules out attracting new customers. This will eventually lead to the same kind of attrition that is bringing down print newspapers. I don’t think many in racing realize how important the Form is and the negative effect its absence would create.

One week to go

I’m thankful for the end of daylight savings time because the onset of earlier darkness alleviates at least some of the post dragging that has become a trademark of racing at Gulfstream.

That said post dragging is a minor annoyance that doesn’t detract from how thankful I am that Gulfstream’s prime winter meet is only a week away.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, November 16, 2017

There’s a universal lesson to be learned from BC Betting Challenge manipulation

The winner of the $300,000 first prize in the Breeders' Cup Betting Challenge made his score by violating the spirit, if not the letter of the rules. He was willing to endure a slap on the wrist punishment to gain the advantage that put him over the top. The same things happen often on the racetrack. Trainers and jockeys are willing to take an edge because the penalties when caught are so lenient they provide no real deterrent.

I find it ironically amusing that professional bettors, who scream loudest when they suspect a trainer is taking an edge, have found a way to subvert the spirit, if not the letter of the law of a big money handicapping tournament.

As of this writing, Breeders’ Cup has not released the prize money from the Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge while questionable tactics are being investigated.

Long story short, Nisan Gabbay, the winner of the million dollar event, was willing to flaunt the rules because with a windfall on the line the penalty wasn’t sufficiently discouraging. Contestants in the live money event were supposed to bet at least $600 of their $7,500 starting bankroll on five races on Friday and $900 on five races Saturday.

The penalty for not doing this was a 1,000 points per race deduction on Day One and 2,000 points on Day Two. Gabbay didn’t bet at all Friday and stayed inactive until the final three races Saturday.

The loophole in the rules was the penalty points were subtracted from the final score but a comparable amount was not subtracted from the available live bankroll. So Gabbay was able to preserve his whole cache until late Saturday, when he could judge what he needed to do to win.

Reportedly, he took home the $300,000 first prize with a $4,000 win bet on 14-1 Talismanic in the Turf and used the proceeds to make huge exacta bets on the Classic, including a $15,000 punch on Gun Runner-Collected, which put him over the top.

If he had $5,000 subtracted from his $7,500 buy-in for Friday’s abstinence and $4,000 more for sitting out most of Saturday, he wouldn’t have had the funds to do this.

There’s a lesson to be learned, which should spill over into all of racing. Trainers are willing to take a shot at juicing a horse because if they are caught, the penalties are generally not severe enough to outweigh the major scores to be made at the windows.

Remember Jorge “The Juice Man” Navarro and company gloating in front of a TV screen at Monmouth. His penalty was a $10,000 fine, possibly (probably?) less than he would have made betting.

Likewise, jockeys can herd or shut off opponents because if the stewards come down on them, the suspensions are laughable. They can appeal until they feel like serving the days, often during low spots in the season or the holidays. These aren’t penalties, they are vacations.

Racetrack justice has to be made swift and severe. They have to hurt and succeeding offenses should result in graduated punishment. Appeals should come with an expensive price, the same as regular citizens face when they go to court to contest a ticket.

What is now a 30-day suspension for trainers should start at 90 days with 60 forgiven if there is no appeal. The penalties should double, then triple for subsequent offenses within a year. Five-day suspensions for riders should start at 30 days with 25 forgiven if there is no appeal.

Unless and until this is done, there are no disincentives to take edges.

BC ratings an also ran

The Breeders’ Cup was an aesthetic triumph. On TV, it was another story.

The ratings were a Grade 1 bummer. The prime-time hour on NBC when the Classic was run was the lowest rated hour all night. An estimated 2,150,000 were tuned in.

This was not just the low point on NBC. It was the lowest rated hour on any broadcast network.

A repeat of an old “Dateline,” which immediately followed the Breeders’ Cup, drew an average audience of 3,180,000. An hour of old clips from “Saturday Night Live” at 10 p.m. pulled in an average of 2,970,000.

The under-performance of the Breeders’ Cup telecast plunged NBC into last place for the night in total viewers. More importantly, it also dropped NBC into the broadcast network cellar in the 18-49 demographic, the currency for ad sales. The Breeders’ Cup had an 0.3 rating and 1 share. The two rerun hours that followed doubled that with 0.6/2 apiece.

The afternoon Breeders’ Cup on the NBC Sports cable network was another downer. It didn’t crack the Top 25. To put this into perspective, one of the shows tied for No. 25, “Justice League Action” had 627,000 viewers—at 7 in the morning on the Cartoon Network.

If there is a glimmer of light, it can safely be said that the ratings were depressed by the fact hundreds of thousands, if not more potential viewers were at race tracks and OTB outlets watching and betting the races.

Gulfstream shut out again

Some say there is no such thing as a coincidence. But coincidence seems to be a plausible explanation for something happening for the second straight year at Gulfstream.

The Eclipse Awards will be presented at Gulfstream for the seventh straight year in the heart of what is dubbed the Championship Meeting. But the Breeders’ Cup results sealed the reality that not one of the divisional champions will have raced in South Florida during the 2016-17 December-April prime season. The same thing happened last year.

It seems inexplicable that with all the outstanding thoroughbreds, who launch their campaigns at Gulfstream, not one has gone on to earn an Eclipse statue for the past two years.

Horse of the Year California Chrome made his final start there in last January’s Pegasus, a showdown with then 3-year-old champion Arrogate. But Chrome was retired and Arrogate threw in the towel himself after big wins in the Pegasus and Dubai World Cup. These won’t be enough in light of what Gun Runner has done since.

The shutout could have been avoided except for the quarantine at the Fair Grounds last winter. The connections of Gun Runner, certain to be a double Eclipse winner (Horse of the Year and Older Dirt Horse), tried to extricate him from New Orleans to run in the Pegasus. Gulfstream, exercising extreme caution, made this difficult to impossible.

Gun Runner is expected to make the second Pegasus in January. Surefire older female champion Forever Unbridled is also being pointed for the world’s richest race.

Always Dreaming became the second Kentucky Derby winner in a row to come out of the Florida Derby. Like Arrogate, his major achievements ended in the spring.

Nevertheless, Always Dreaming is the only horse with even a remote chance of breaking the Gulfstream Eclipse Award drought. With “what have you done for me lately?” a significant factor, it’s almost certain West Coast will be voted 3-year-old champion.

I have no problem with that. But I am puzzled by some of those comparing credentials. West Coast’s Travers and Pennsylvania Derby triumphs are being put on an equal plain with Always Dreaming’s Florida Derby and Kentucky Derby, because they are all Grade 1’s. I’ll concede the Gulfstream and Parx races are comparable but there’s no way the Travers-- or any other race--is the equivalent of the Kentucky Derby.

One is the Midsummer Derby, the other is The Derby. The first question asked of owners, trainers and jockeys is not, “Have you ever won the Travers?”

The difference between the two contenders is West Coast’s solid third behind the best older horses in America in the BC Classic. It’s a slim difference but slim differences are decisive in racing every day.

Written by Tom Jicha

Comments (31)


Thursday, November 09, 2017

Del Mar would be ideal for a Thanksgiving weekend BC

Since its expansion to two days, the Breeders' Cup has had to deal with Day One being a work day for most of America. The magnificent renewal at Del Mar offers an ideal opportunity, which I have been championing. Push the BC back to Thanksgiving weekend with Day One on Black Friday when so many Americans do not have to report to work. There are numerous upsides and not one downside I can think of. Also, the handle results at Del Mar settle once and for all that fractional wagering is the present and future of racing. Finally, how about a win-and-you're-in the Kentucky Derby for the BC Juvenile champion.

The smashing success of the first Breeders’ Cup at Del Mar ensures the BC will meet the turf and the surf again within the next three years. (Churchill Downs has the event next year.)

So I’ll renew my plea that the BC think outside the box and experiment with a Thanksgiving weekend schedule. Day one on Black Friday, when many Americans have the day off, would surely demolish the betting records for work day Fridays, which has been the norm since the BC went to two days.

Tucked in the middle of a four-day weekend, it would be a bonanza for tourism in the San Diego area. Moreover, every track and off-track betting venue in the nation would benefit. TV ratings would undoubtedly improve, too.

Del Mar is the perfect venue to give it a try. The weather can be counted on to be glorious. Even with the absence of daylight savings time, darkness wouldn’t be much of an issue because of the three-hour time difference with the East Coast, where most of the nation lives and bets.

Another benefit would be the late November date might entice more horsemen to participate in what used to be classic fall stakes at Belmont, Keeneland and Santa Anita, since there would be gaps of six weeks or more. It also would put more air between the Arc and English Champions days.

It’s only fair to consider the downside. I can’t think of even one.

Long layoffs backfire

Speaking of the trend to put lengthy gaps between races for star horses, there might be a lesson to be learned from this Breeders’ Cup.

The biggest busts were Lady Aurelia, Lady Eli, Drefong, Stellar Wind and Arrogate, none of whom even hit the board.

There were many explanations--or excuses, if you will--troubled trips, questionable rides and/or alleged track bias. But consider this. Stellar Wind hadn’t been out since July 30. Arrogate had been kept in bubble wrap since Aug. 19. Lady Aurelia hadn’t raced since Aug. 25. Lady Eli and Drefong’s most recent races were Aug. 26, Travers Day.

I’ll concede all these horses had won in the past off similar layoffs but just because something works once doesn’t mean it will work every time. I remember the good old days when recency was valued.

Eight of the nine winners on Saturday and three of the four on Friday had their most recent starts in September or October, the majority in prestigious fall stakes the connections of the big names opted to skip.

Less produces more

If there is any debate that fractional wagering is the future and present, it was put to rest last weekend.

Rolling daily doubles were offered on both days but Del Mar insisted on maintaining its $2 minimum wager. California is the only major jurisdiction in the nation that has kept this minimum.

Meanwhile, Del Mar capitulated to the Breeders’ Cup and reduced the price of rolling pick threes to 50 cents from the usual $1 minimum. In every single instance, the 50-cent pick three out-handled the corresponding $2 daily double, in some cases by a two- or three-to-one margin.

There was one exception to the $2 daily double. The two-day Distaff-to-Classic double had a $1 minimum. The $628,940 handle was by far higher than any $2 daily double during the two days.

If California doesn’t see the message fans are sending, it’s no wonder racing on the West Coast keeps falling further behind the rest of the nation.

What inferiority?

I mentioned in a recent column that there is no longer any justification for the inferiority complex our turf racers and bettors have when it comes to facing off against European counterparts. This was borne out last weekend. Six BC turf races were carded. American based horses got a draw, winning three.

Significantly, our success wasn’t limited to the top slots. American-based turfers ran 1-2-4 in the Juvenile Fillies Turf; 2-3-4 in the Juvenile Turf; 1-2-3-4-5 in the Turf Sprint; 3-4 in the Filly and Mare Turf; 1-3-4 in the Mile and 2-4 in the Turf.

Toss all favorites

I’m not going to crow over having three of my four big-name vulnerable favorites finishing off the board. The first step toward success this year was to throw out all the favorites. I wasn’t shocked that Arrogate, not Gun Runner, went off the public choice in the Classic but, even though I liked her, I was shocked that Elate went off a shorter price than Stellar Wind in the Distaff.

Stellar Wind’s pathetic showing, last of eight, continued John Sadler’s inexplicable run at the Breeders’ Cup. One of the top trainers in California, he is now 0-41 in Breeders’ cup races. What makes his duck worse is that so many of the recent Breeders’ Cups have been on his home court in Southern California.

Females work harder

Could anyone explain why the BC Sprint is 6 furlongs and the Filly & Mare Sprint is 7 furlongs? In championship tennis, women play best-of-three sets, men play best-of-five. Golf has men’s tees and shorter women’s tees. The WNBA uses a smaller basketball than the NBA and games are eight minutes shorter.

Not only that, the females run for $1 million while the males go for 50 percent more, $1.5 million. Good thing Hillary isn't President.

Having played feminist, let me go to the other side. There is a justification for the purse disparity. The Sprint is open to all. The F&M Sprint is limited to half the equine population.

Moreover, I don’t think there should be a Filly & Mare Sprint or Turf or a Distaff. Females race and beat males in championship events all over the globe, including the Breeders’ Cup (Lady Aurelia, Tepin, Goldikova, Miesque to name just a few) . There’s no reason the not-so-weaker sex shouldn’t be asked to do it in the U.S. in what are billed as “championship” races.

Win and in Kentucky Derby

With the Breeders’ Cup returning to Churchill Downs next year, it would be the perfect time to make the BC Juvenile a “win-and-you’re in” for the Kentucky Derby, which it should have been a long time ago.

Barring injury, it’s unlikely that with its 20-point head start, a BC Juvenile winner wouldn’t qualify on the points system. However, the ability to make it automatic would add another level of cachet to the Juvenile.

TV would love it, since it would have another promotional selling point. NBC also has the rights to the Triple Crown, so it might even get the Juvenile on the mothership NBC network rather than the lesser NBC Sports cable network.

Miami, Nov. 9, 2017

Written by Tom Jicha

Comments (35)


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