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, September 15, 2015

The wrong Derby is being called Super

Saturday's Super Derby marked a continuing decline in the caliber of fields attracted to the once premier late season race for 3-year-olds. It was basically a glorified Louisiana-bred allowance race. Yet the Super Derby continues to be a Grade 2, a mockery of the system. Meanwhile, this coming Saturday's Pennsylvania Derby is also a Grade 2 in spite of the fact it has drawn a Grade 1 field for the third consecutive year. Also, there was another horse players be damned incident at Churchill Downs last Saturday.

MIAMI, Sept. 15, 2015--The Super Derby, like many big stakes, has its own theme song. It was played Saturday as the horses came onto the track. I don’t recall what it was but I know what it should have been: “Is That All There Is?”

The participation and prestige of many stakes soar and wane, generally through no fault of their host tracks. This isn’t peculiar to racing. The National Invitation Tournament used to outrank what is now known as March Madness. The Army-Navy football game for years was the biggest rivalry in college football. The Indianapolis 500, once a behemoth on the sports calendar, has been eclipsed by NASCAR. Tennis’ Davis Cup used to be avidly followed.

No racing event has gone further back than the Super Derby. A less boastful name, more attuned to the caliber of fields in recent years, is definitely in order. The Louisiana Derby is taken so maybe the Remember When Derby or The Best We Could Get Derby.

The Super Derby has been won by some nice but not star caliber horses in recent years: Vicar’s in Trouble in 2014 and Departing the previous year. In both instances, the horses who filled out the trifectas—Declan’s Fast Cat and Victory Not Defeat last season, Ruler of Love and Cameo Appearance in 2013--were household names only in Bossier City.

Compare this to earlier winners of the showcase race of the Louisiana Downs season: Kentucky Derby winners Sunday Silence, Alysheba and Sonny’s Halo; Gate Dancer, who like Sunday Silence and Alysheba was a Preakness winner, and Belmont champions Crème Fraiche and Temperence Hill.

The Super Derby bottomed out last weekend. Seven entered. Six were regulars on the Louisiana summer circuit. The invader, Prime Engine, came in from Emerald Downs and ran last. $400,000 doesn’t buy what it used to.

Four, including the first two finishers, Mobile Bay and Chocopologie, were Louisiana breds, who had done most of their racing in state-bred races. None of the seven had won a graded stakes. Winning trainer Victor Arceneaux also was breaking his graded stakes maiden.

Nevertheless, the Super Derby remains a Grade 2. The Pennsylvania Derby, which will be renewed Saturday, is also a Grade 2. Why it has not been elevated to Grade 1 status is something known only to the committee that decides such things.

Last year’s renewal was won by Bayern, who came out of it to encore in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Among those Bayern led home was Derby and Preakness winner California Chrome, who was voted Eclipse champion 3-year-old.

The previous year, Will Take Charge and Moreno repeated the heart stopping finish they had staged in the Grade 1 Travers. Will Take Charge, who got the best of the photo, went on to lose a photo to Mucho Macho Man in the Classic then take the Grade 1 Clark against older horses. He also was named 3-year-old champion.

With American Pharoah missing, there isn’t a potential Eclipse champion in this year’s probable field but it is still laden with graded stakes winners. Wood Memorial (Gr. 1) winner Frosted, second in the Belmont and third in the Travers after softening up American Pharoah, is the likely favorite.

Bob Baffert ships in Gimme da Lute on a four-race winning streak with a perfect nine-for-nine in the money resume. Todd Pletcher has Madefromlucky, who took the Peter Pan and West Virginia Derby after having the misfortune to pick the same Kentucky Derby preps at Oaklawn as American Pharoah. Upstart, winner of the Holy Bull, first across the finish line in the Fountain of Youth and third to American Pharoah and Keen Ice in the Haskell, also will attempt to get back into the winner’s circle.

This is September’s real super derby.

Churchill strikes again

Veteran horse players probably remember the bad old days when during an inquiry you had to stare at a TV monitor mesmerized as numbers flashed on the tote board. Younger fans got a taste of what that was like Saturday at Churchill Downs.

It has gotten to the point where nothing at Churchill when it comes to ignoring the needs and desires of bettors should be surprising. But the way an inquiry after the Pocahontas Stakes was handled marked another new low for the casino-oriented company.

Dothraki Queen, who looks like quite a prospect, was the clear winner. Bold Quality was second across the line and Dream Dance was third. However, Bold Quality had shifted out in early stretch and blasted Dream Dance. The inquiry sign was posted and noted.

This is where fans are accustomed to and entitled to video of the incident under scrutiny. It didn’t happen. Dothraki Queen was followed coming back and going into the winner’s circle. Her trainer, Ken McPeek, was interviewed at length. All the while there was not a mention of the steward’s deliberations.

The order of second and third was reversed on the screen, again without a word over the speaker system. It was as if it didn’t matter to bettors.Finally, when all the extraneous crap was done, the DQ was announced.

CDI just doesn’t care about racing other than on the first Saturday in May and the day before. It has contempt for horse players. This is one more reason to continue the boycott of Churchill. However, it is becoming clear that management has decided it makes more from the extra 2% rake on Derby and Oaks days than it loses the rest of the year from horse players, who have stricken it from their play list.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, September 10, 2015

GOP has women problem, racing has women crisis

Simulcasting has become the backbone of racing but for women it's as if it doesn't exist, according to unscientific research during a summer of traveling the land visiting simulcasting venues and race books. No sport can afford to write off the majority of the population. This is one of many observations during a glorious summer of playing horses all over the map.

MIAMI, Sept. 10, 2015—If the future (and present) of horse racing is simulcasting, the sport is in big trouble with the majority of the population.

My summer was a joyful odyssey of visiting race tracks, simulcasting locations and Las Vegas race books. One reality struck me at the latter two. The ratio of women to men was worse than it will be next week at the Republican presidential debate.

From anecdotal perspective, women enjoy a day at the races, especially at a treasure like Saratoga. Maybe it’s the color and spectacle and feeling of being part of a happening. The exact opposite is true of race books and simulcasting venues.

I never thought about this until I went to Hialeah the first Saturday of the Saratoga season. The only woman in the place was an elderly Asian, who was there to keep her husband company. I say this because she spent the entire afternoon reading an Asian newspaper and never looking at a TV monitor.

For the rest of the summer, I made it a point to check out the number of women at simulcasting sites. It was the same story at Laurel, Melbourne (FL) greyhound track, the Meadowlands and the OTB in Lake George, N.Y. Women were nowhere to be seen or they were sitting next to a male companion, not paying much attention to the races.

It was a little better in Las Vegas, where I continued my sampling in the race books at Treasure Island, the Mirage, Caesar’s Palace, the Orleans and South Point. There were a handful of women in each of these locations but the ratio had to be one in 20 or 30 at best.

Meanwhile, women were the dominant gender at slot machines. Is it the mindlessness of slots or the difficulty of deciphering past performances without the opportunity to check out the horses up close?

The mantra from race tracks my entire life has been, “We have to attract younger blood or the sport is going to die.” It hasn’t happened because younger people are distracted by establishing their careers and raising kids while in their 20s, 30s and 40s but they finally have the time and disposable income to evolve from casual fans to regulars in their graying years.

Men might evolve but a woman will always be a woman. Any business that ignores more than 50 percent of the population isn’t one that’s going to prosper.

I don’t have the answer but racing needs to come up with one. One day a year when everyone wears pink is not a solution. Maybe the sport could promote the simulcasting sites as a great place for women of a certain age to have their pick of dozens of prospective mates.

OK, I’m half kidding. The floor is open to suggestions.

A dream summer

Other reflections and reminiscences from a summer of horse-playing all over the map:

That Doug O’Neill was able to ship Ralis, a 2-year-old who might be his third string, and crush the Hopeful is an indictment of what we’ve seen of the East’s juvenile colts and geldings this summer. This is the first season in memory the Spa hasn’t produced a 2-year-old male that has people talking.

I’m often critical of NYRA but to give credit where it’s due, it has the best simulcast presentation in the nation. There’s no better way to judge this than to sit in Las Vegas race books for several days viewing dozens of telecasts from hither and yon.

NYRA offers all the information players need on screen at almost all times—win odds, exacta and daily double might-pays, late changes—as well as visuals from the paddock, post parade and warm-ups. The paddock commentary is informed. When the horses come on to the track, there are graphics with their connections, breeding and a photo of the jockey.

NYRA really stands out in posting multi-race will-pays quickly and frequently, including during replays. There’s not even a close second among simulcasts.

Southern California tracks are the absolute worst. Del Mar is no better than Santa Anita in posting will pays, which are crucial in planning next race wagering. They put them up whenever the fit takes them, sometimes not until there are single digit minutes to post. Winner’s circle interviews, multiple replays, promotional pitches and even commercials, which have nothing to do with racing, all come first.

Another praise-worthy innovation at NYRA is the introduction of low-ball handicapping tournaments. For $40, a small player can get a taste and appreciation for what it’s like playing in the big-time events. This gives $2 bettors a sense of being appreciated and is a training ground for future major tournament players. Other tracks should take notice and develop their own variations.

American Pharoah is the most prominent champion to be buried in Saratoga’s “Graveyard” this summer but it was a tough season for Breeders’ Cup winners, too. Judy the Beauty, Untapable, Take Charge Brandi and Texas Red all went down to defeat, although the latter did win the Jim Dandy before trailing Keen Ice home in the Travers.

Drugs might be racing’s biggest problem but there are other things that cause horse players to wonder. On Aug. 21 at Saratoga, Surfspun, trained by Jeremiah Englehart, was 2-5 in the first race. Call Daddy, trained by Jeffrey Englehart, was 3-1. Call Daddy went wire to wire with Surfspun chasing in second all the way. After the race, the NYRA paddock guys noted how it was strange that Eric Cancel broke on top aboard a speed horse, Surfspun, but opted to take him back. I don’t know that they were suggesting chicanery, nor am I. But it sure did look bad. (For the record, this is not sour grapes. Thanks to the cynical side of me, I cashed.)

There is no diminishing the awesome performance of Beholder in the Pacific Classic. What is puzzling is why Americans go ga-ga over a female beating males. It’s commonplace in Europe, where horses have the same four legs and a tail. Treve has won back-to-back Arcs. It travels well, too. Royal Heroine won the first Breeders’ Cup Mile. Six Perfections and Ridgewood Pearl also won it. Miesque did it twice and Goldikova won it three times.

It’s not as if American fillies and mares haven’t outrun the boys in some of the nation’s premier events. Genuine Risk and Winning Colors were Kentucky Derby winners during my lifetime. More recently, Rachel Alexandra and Havre de Grace have captured the prestigious Woodward. A little further back Lady’s Secret took the Whitney.

Obviously, there is no physical competitive difference between the genders. The only reason girls beating boys attracts so much attention in the U.S. is it has become a man bites dog scenario because of the infrequency that it is even attempted. Quality fillies don’t have to face males thanks to all the big money available in stakes restricted to their own gender.

It isn't this way in Europe, especially for older distaffers, who are forced to face males in the biggest races.

Maybe it should be that way on this side of the Atlantic, too.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, September 03, 2015

Pharoah’s bad day was a great one for racing

The Travers result disappointed many, none more so than Team American Pharoah. However, it was a grand day for thoroughbred racing with record handle, huge TV ratings and conversation before and after the event that the sport doesn't get outside Triple Crown season. Thankfully Bob Baffert has convinced Ahmed Zayat to allow the Triple Crown champion the opportunity to redeem himself in the Breeders' Cup Classic.

LAS VEGAS, Sept. 3, 2015--Everything about American Pharoah coming to the Travers was great for racing. This includes the result, which tore off a little piece of my heart. It generated pre- and post-race conversation unheard outside the Triple Crown. People, some of whom ignore racing most of the time, are still talking.

More than 15,000 fans got up early to come to the Spa the day before the race to see the Triple Crown champion merely gallop. You have to wonder how many of them made the effort because Christopher Kay kept them from seeing the champ compete in the Travers.

To put this into perspective, it was more people than NYRA tracks downstate will see for an actual day’s races until next year’s Belmont. Bob Baffert, who has had more than a few big horses and champions, said he was overwhelmed by the turnout.

Handle went through the stratosphere with more than $50 million bet, up about 25% over 2014. Wondering aloud again, what might it have been without Kay’s cap?

TV ratings were the strongest in 20 years, more than double last year.

Ahmed Zayat appears to have gotten over his initial instinct to consider retiring American Pharoah inmediately. Baffert’s position was such thinking was premature. Thank goodness, the trainer's opinion seems to be the prevailing one. Unless something changes, racing fans will get one more chance to love American Pharoah at the Breeders’ Cup on Oct. 31.

What an interesting turnaround. Prior to the Travers, Zayat was the one more enthused about running the champ at Saratoga. Baffert had to be coaxed into it.

Nevertheless, Baffert refused to second guess the decision. “If I had to do it again, I would have brought him here,” Baffert said the morning after the disappointing outcome. “I think racing really needed something like this. It’s amazing what he has done for racing…it almost ended well.”

It didn’t end that badly. American Pharoah did all the dirty work. He was pushed every step by quality stakes winner Frosted. A middle half-mile in sub-47 seconds was particularly taxing. This left American Pharoah vulnerable to the late surge of Keen Ice, who got to run his own race. Without such a favorable race flow, Keen Ice got dusted decisively three straight times by American Pharoah. Still the final margin was less than a length as American Pharoah battled courageously to the wire while Frosted backed out of it.

Also, Keen Ice might be more suited to 10 furlongs. Remember, the Kentucky Derby was American Pharoah’s toughest previous race this year. (The Belmont, though a mile and a half, became a gallop in the park as American Pharoah didn’t have a challenger lapped on him at any time.)

Maybe the two cross-country plane trips on top of all the other traveling did take a toll. This isn’t second guessing, since I raised the issue in last week’s column. Other “excuses” don’t stand up to scrutiny.

If American Pharoah was fatigued from his demanding campaign, Keen Ice should have been no less tired. They were both contesting their seventh race of the year. Both had raced in the Belmont, then the Haskell prior to the Travers. So rest was not an issue.

American Pharoah didn’t have a race over the Saratoga strip Baffert had called tricky. Neither did Keen Ice.

Bottom line, the Travers might have been nothing more than a case of a horse with a more favorable trip overcoming in the final strides one who had done all the dirty work. It happens every day.

NYRA’s ego bruised

The self image NYRA has as the capital of horse racing got scuffed up on Travers’ day. All of the six stakes were won by horses who don’t call New York home.

Runhappy, who upset the Kings Bishop was four-for-four in Kentucky, Louisiana and Indiana. Flintshire came across the Atlantic to dominate the Sword Dancer. If he’s a decent price (5-1 or greater) in the Breeders’ Cup Turf, I’m going to have a piece. Dacita came from Chile to beat up on some of our best turf fillies in the Ballston Spa. And, of course, there’s Keen Ice, whose only other New York start this year was the Belmont.

The winners of the other two stakes have only loose ties to the Big Apple. Unbridled Forever, who upset the Ballerina, had won a previous start at the Spa this season. But she is trained by Churchill Downs-based Dallas Stewart.

Forego winner Private Zone is a frequent New York competitor but he doesn’t stable in the Big Apple. This summer he has been at Monmouth.

Quack, quack

The final week of Saratoga will be duck season. More than 100 trainers have won at least one race at the Spa this year. However, some of the prominent names, who still haven’t gotten off the schneid with one week to avoid the embarrassment of a winless season, are striking.

Two-time Kentucky Derby winner Nick Zito has sent out more than 30 horses, according to Racing Form statistics, without getting to the winner’s circle. Ken McPeek is also approaching 30 starters without a winner. Richard Dutrow protégé Michelle Nevin was stuck at 0-31 after her only scheduled starter on Wednesday scratched.

The numbers aren’t as grim for Ian Wilkes and Rusty Arnold, but they each have saddled more than a dozen horses without getting their pictures taken.

The Saratoga 2015 maidens can take heart, however. Dale Romans was on track for a duck, too, until Saturday.

Written by Tom Jicha

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