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 23, 2017

To tackle Arrogate or not to tackle Arrogate; that is the question

After his smashing Razorback triumph, it's fair to say Gun Runner might be the best older horse in America not named Arrogate. This creates a dilemma for his connections. Do they go to Dubai and likely have to take on Arrogate or stay home and possibly dominate the handicap division. On the 3-year-old front, Todd Pletcher has another strong Derby contender, One Liner, who ran his record to 3-for-3 in the Southwest Stakes and partially answered questions about his distance limitations.

Discretion or valor? These are the options confronting the connections of Gun Runner after his 5 ¾ length victory in Monday’s Razorback Handicap.

Do they go on to Dubai, as they indicated was their intention, where they likely will be confronted by Horse of the World Arrogate? Or do they pull an adaptation of baseball Hall of Famer Wee Willie Keeler’s batting credo, “Hit ‘em where they ain’t,” by staying home and running where Arrogate ain’t.

When Gun Runner was being pointed toward the Middle East, it didn’t appear Arrogate was better than 50-50 to also make the trip. Now it’s more like 80-20 in favor of Arrogate getting on the plane.

After a characteristically sharp work by Arrogate on Tuesday—five furlongs in 59 seconds—Garrett O’Rourke, manager of Juddmonte Farms, was quoted in the BloodHorse as saying, “The horse is sound. He is in super form and Bob (Baffert) said there is difficulty keeping him on the ground when he gets too high. The easiest way to keep him on the ground is let him work and let him run.”

O’Rourke said the final call will be made by Prince Khalid, the colt’s owner, but he is leaning toward going to Dubai.

Gun Runner’s people intended to take on Arrogate in the Pegasus but couldn’t make the race because of the quarantine at the Fair Grounds, their winter base. So they still might take up the challenge. Second money in Dubai is $2 million, more than any stakes in America will offer its winner until the Breeders’ Cup.

On the other hand, there is a bevy of rich stakes on the home front from which to choose in the next few months—the $750,000 Oaklawn Handicap on April 15 over the track Gun Runner relished in the Razorback; the $1.25 million Charles Town Classic on April 22 and the $1.25 Met Mile on June 10—where the only conceivable threat would be Connect, who has not been heard from since winning the Cigar Mile.

Gun Runner’s co-owner, Ron Winchell, might have given a hint as to which way the barn is leaning when he said after the Razorback, “We’ll see who else is getting on that airplane.”

You don’t have to be Jeopardy Tournament of Champions material to figure out to whom he was referring.

One Liner jumps on Derby trail

The nature of racing in late winter and spring is such that Gun Runner’s Razorback was almost completely overshadowed by One Liner’s eye-catching score in the Southwest Stakes for Derby age horses.

One Liner established his quality with a first-out score at Saratoga last summer then an equally impressive entry-level allowance win at Gulfstream six months later. Those races were at 5 ½ and 6 furlongs, respectively, so there was a question about his two-turn ability.

His breeding doesn’t scream stamina. His sire, Into Mischief, won at a mile and a sixteenth but he was at his best around one turn. His dam, Cayela, is by sprint champion Cherokee Road.

One Liner dispelled some of the distance concerns despite breaking from post 11 with a 122-pound high weight impost. His time, 1:41.85, compares well to the 1:40.97 the older Grade 1 winner Gun Runner took an hour earlier.

However, a mile and a sixteenth is within the scope of most milers and sprinters. A mile and a quarter is still a bridge pretty far for a horse with One Liner's breeding.

One Liner will extend to a full nine furlongs in his final Derby prep, which will come either April 1 or April 8, according to Todd Pletcher. This puts the Florida Derby and Louisiana Derby on April Fools Day into play as well as the Blue Grass and Wood Memorial a week later.

Of those, only the downgraded $750,000 Wood Memorial, now a Grade 2, has less than a $1 million purse. This isn’t going to help NYRA to attract the caliber of horses necessary to get the Wood back to the top of the grading ladder. If the $1.25 Met Mile surrendered $250,000 to the Wood to get it back on par with the other elite final Derby preps, do you think the Met Mile would be any lesser of a race?

A non-rare rarity

The commentators on TVG must feel that if there is a moment of dead air, the network will go dark forever. They kept saying that One Liner’s ship to Oaklawn was a rarity for Pletcher.

Not so. Pletcher might not have competed in many Southwest Stakes but he is hardly a stranger to the Hot Springs track. He has had an entrant, in some cases more than one, in the Arkansas Derby every year since 2010.

Pletcher’s Overanalyze and Danza won Oaklawn’s signature race in 2013 and 2014, respectively, and Super Saver used it as his final prep before winning Pletcher’s only Kentucky Derby in 2010.

Pletcher also has had representatives in two of the four most recent Rebel Stakes and the last four Oaklawn Handicaps for older horses, which he won with Race Day in 2015.

What’s inexcusable is TVG covered these races.

It’s all about Vic

The first time I heard Vic Stauffer in an announcer’s booth was at Hialeah many years ago. I thought Tom Durkin had slipped in unnoticed. In his early days, Stauffer tried hard to emulate Durkin. He can’t be faulted for trying to model himself after the best.

Stauffer’s future seemed boundless. He had a great announcer’s voice and delivery and tried to paint a picture of a race rather than the mundane, “first by a half, second by two…sixth by a head.” Indeed he has had a noteworthy run, calling races at top venues, including Gulfstream, Hollywood Park and now Oaklawn.

But he has not enjoyed the success for which he once seemed destined because over time, he did something Durkin never did. He tried to overwhelm races, making them more about his call than the race itself. If it was a stakes on TV or likely to be replayed on TV, he really hammed it up.

Back in the booth at Oaklawn, you would think he might have learned something and moderated his calls. It hasn’t happened. It’s still all about Vic and his pet phrases.

TVG replayed the Smarty Jones prior to the Southwest. In the stretch, Stauffer called runaway winner Uncontested “straight and strong.” The colt might have been strong but he wasn’t straight. He could be seen wandering all over the track. Who to believe, Vic or your lying eyes?

Earlier, in calling the final strides of Gun Runner’s easy score in the Razorback, Stauffer interjected the stakes record and biggest winning margin and exclaimed, “Gun Runner might get both.” He got neither.

Stauffer could have withheld these tidbits until Gun Runner crossed the wire. But then it would have been about the horse, not Vic Stauffer.

MIami, February 23, 2017

Written by Tom Jicha

Comments (25)


Thursday, February 16, 2017

Winning is the only thing, according to a Derby trend

One loss shouldn't dash the hopes of Kentucky Derby prospects but a trend over the past five years indicates that it's a bad omen. The five most recent Derby winners have gone 12-for-12 in their preps. Throw out a defeat in a grass race by Animal Kingdom and another year is added to the streak. Meanwhile, the likelihood of sports betting winning approval in the courts or by Congress grows. But would this be a bad thing for racing?

MIAMI--Classic Empire, the Juvenile Champion and early Kentucky Derby favorite, might have disappointed in the Holy Bull because he became unnerved by shipping into Gulfstream from the Palm Meadows training center on the morning of the race.

Maybe it was a developing foot abscess that went undiscovered until a few days after the race. Perhaps it was a little bit of this, a little bit of that.

Whatever it was, failing to win in his first start as a 3-year-old makes him unlikely to wear the roses on the first Saturday in May, according to a trend over the past five years. Since 2012 the winner of the Kentucky Derby has been undefeated in his 3-year-old campaign.

I brought this up for the first time a year ago and Nyquist kept the streak going, winning both his sophomore starts before Louisville. That made it 12-for-12, still a small sample but sizable enough to not be disregarded.

American Pharoah won both his preps. California Chrome was 3-for-3 prior to the Derby. Orb also was 3-for-3. I’ll Have Another was perfect in a pair of preps.

The last time the eventual Derby winner suffered defeat prior to the Run for the Roses carries an asterisk. Animal Kingdom ran second in a turf allowance at Gulfstream in his 2011 debut. He rebounded to win the Spiral, on an artificial surface, in his final Derby prep.

So when you’re trying to identify the horse most likely to win America’s greatest race, keep in mind the phrase often attributed to Vince Lombardi even though he didn’t originate it: “Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.”

A Pletcher irony

The most recent Derby winner to score the first win of his 3-year-old campaign in the big one was Super Saver in 2010. How ironic that he is the only Derby winner for Todd Pletcher, who seems to have a herd of streaking Classic hopefuls with sparkling records at this time of year.

This year’s hot prospect is Battalion Runner who has won impressively at seven furlongs and a mile and a sixteenth and is being pointed toward the Florida Derby.

Pletcher has another flashy 3-year-old named Malagacy, who won his 5 ½ furlong debut by 15 lengths in the slop then came back last Sunday to take a 6 ½ furlong entry level allowance by 7 on a fast track. His first race was on Jan. 4, so he is this year’s candidate to rekindle talk of the Curse of Apollo; no horse has won the Derby without racing as a 2-year-old since 1882.

Thankfully, Pletcher has tamped down such talk. He feels Malagacy’s future is around one turn.

Coincidentally, Pletcher’s rival Chad Brown said the same about Favorable Outcome after his big win in the Swale.

If and when these two hook up it could be something to see. Unfortunately, there is nothing left on the Gulfstream stakes schedule for 3-year-old sprinters.

However, the Hutcheson failed to fill earlier in the meeting and Tim Ritvo said he would consider bringing it back later in the season if there is a call for it. A Malagacy-Favorable Outcome confrontation would add even more luster to the traditionally sensational Florida Derby card.

Sports betting: blessing or curse?

Some societal changes can be seen coming years away; decriminalization of marijuana, same sex marriage. It was clear they were inevitable, only a matter of time. Legalization of sports betting is beginning to slide into this category.

Obstacles that have limited legal sports betting to Nevada are under relentless challenge. New Jersey, which has been clutching at every straw to salvage what’s left of the casino business in Atlantic City, has been frustrated by the courts in its effort to join Nevada for the better part of the decade.

A couple of New Jersey congressman, Frank LoBiondo and Frank Pallone Jr., are introducing a bill in Congress that would give states a four-year window to decide whether they want sports gambling. President Trump, a former Atlantic City casino owner, is said to have no objections.

Now Maryland is joining the cause. A bill, H989, has been introduced in the legislature. It would allow the state’s tracks and casinos to apply for sports betting should the federal prohibition against it be eliminated.

The barrier is the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992, which prohibited any state but Nevada from taking action on individual games. Professional sports leagues have been ferocious opponents of all attempts to get around this law. But opposition appears to be softening.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver was the first to break from the pack. In an op-ed in The New York Times in November 2014, Silver wrote, “Gambling has increasingly become a popular and accepted form of entertainment in the United States.” Noting that it is estimated that as much as $400 billion is wagered illegally in the U.S., Silver continued, “Congress should adopt a federal framework that allows states to authorize betting on professional sports.”

Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred has joined the chorus. A year ago, he said, “It’s important for baseball to give fresh consideration to the issue.” More recently he has amplified this position. “There’s this buzz out there in terms of people feeling that there may be an opportunity here for legalized sports betting. We are re-examining our stance on gambling.”

The NFL remains publicly opposed to gambling on its games but it has overtly supported fantasy sports, disingenuously saying it doesn’t consider this gambling. Some NFL owners have a piece of the fantasy sports action.

The fact that the league seems on the verge of allowing the Oakland Raiders to move to Las Vegas, where a new stadium would be wedged between casinos whose biggest sports business is the NFL--$138 million was wagered on the Super Bowl--is a further indication that the league isn’t as anti-sports gambling as it claims to be.

The expectation is that if and when sports betting is legalized, it will be limited, at least initially, to existing casinos and race tracks.

This might not be a good thing for racing. Slots were supposed to save race tracks. They have done exactly the opposite. Slots have become ubiquitous while race tracks are closing down or running fewer dates. The promised purse subsidies are under assault.

Sports betting could be slots squared. It is said slots players don’t gamble on the horses to any substantial degree and vice versa.

Horse players do gamble on sports. A lot. There is a finite amount of gambling funds among the public. Money now invested in races would be re-directed to games.

Also, sports betting is capital intensive. One certainty is Congress and the states would insist on a prohibition of betting on credit. This would take significant sums out of players' pockets.

Horse racing relies on churn. Sports betting doesn’t to any great extent.

As a fan, I would love to see tracks allowed to handle sports. As someone who loves racing, I’m concerned it could be the final nail in racing’s coffin.

February 16, 2017

Written by Tom Jicha

Comments (16)


Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Shed a tear for Hialeah thanks to latest travesty

Hialeah, still beautiful as ever, continues to descend into racing oblivion. The latest travesty is as outrageous as the Metropolitan Museum of Art being transformed into a brothel would be. A quarterhorse meet has been used to justify Hialeah being allowed to operate a slots casino and poker room. Now that is being abandoned in favor of some sort of sham racing where as few as two horses gallop--in a manner of speaking--down a path. The only consolation is, it might not come to pass if decoupling is approved by the Florida legislature this spring.

I haven’t been to Hialeah for simulcasting since the Gulfstream West meeting. If I’m going to watch local races on TV, Hialeah is half the trip for me that Gulfstream is.

The Hialeah experience still gives me a good feeling. Palm trees still sway, the grounds remain breath-taking, flamingos cavort in the infield and the clubhouse has been refurbished. It’s like revisiting my old neighborhood, which has become, shall we say, not a desirable place to live anymore. But the structures and landscape are unchanged, so going back still rekindles warm memories of what once was.

On my next trip to Hialeah, if there is one, I’m going to check to see if there is a tear running down the cheek of the statue of Citation. There should be.

According to a dispatch in The Paulick Report, the once most cherished thoroughbred track in the world is about to be reduced to running sham two-horse races to satisfy the legal requirement to keep its casino and card rooms.

This might seem only marginally worse than the Gulfstream West meeting at a venue that is now an empty lot bordering a race track or the low grade quarterhorse meeting Hialeah has used to keep its casino . But Calder, as much as it grew on me over the years, was never the treasure of the turf that Hialeah was.

The latest development all but dashes my dream of thoroughbreds racing under the flamingoes again. I felt that if decoupling were passed, as seems likely this legislative season, the Gulfstream West meeting at Calder would be put out of its misery and Hialeah would move in with a short boutique meeting between Gulfstream’s summer session and the prime winter meet.

It would make sense. A fall hiatus is beneficial to Gulfstream. It breaks the monotony of running 12 straight months at a single venue with one season bleeding right into the next. But now, as they say in Brooklyn, "Fuhgeddaboutit!"

I still think decoupling is a factor in the farcical meeting Hialeah got approved. I’m not the only one who feels decoupling is inevitable. If it happens, it will probably be at the end of April, near the conclusion of the 2017 legislative season.

Hialeah announced last year that it was shifting its keep-the-casino quarterhorse meeting from December-February to a June start, apparently hoping decoupling would make it unnecessary. By dumping the quarterhorses for barrel racing or flag fall racing or God-knows-what racing, Hialeah doesn’t even have to go through the motions of preparing for a quarterhorse meet.

This is the thanks the scuffling quarterhorse guys get for helping Hialeah to get a casino.

Some things never change in John Brunetti Land.

Too many stakes

The foal crop has dropped in half over the past decade or so. Logically speaking, the roster of stakes worthy horses also has had a decline. Yet, it seems as if the number of stakes races hasn’t had a corresponding reduction. If anything, stakes opportunities have increased.

Tim Ritvo was justifiably proud when the Pegasus, even with its million dollar buy-in, and its consolation heat, the Poseidon, drew 21 entries on Jan. 28. “Normally we struggle to get eight in the Donn (the premier handicap race the Pegasus replaced),” the Gulfstream president said.

He might have added that one week earlier, eight older horses ran a mile and eighth in the Sunshine Millions Classic. There was only one repeater between the Classic and the Poseidon, Hy Riverside. Thus, 28 older horses ran for added money within a week.

This Saturday, older horses will go at it again in the Gulfstream Park Handicap. Nine have been entered. Iron horse Hy Riverside is answering the bell again. Awesome Banner and Awesome Slew are back from the Millions. Even with these repeaters, the three-week total of older horses in stakes stands at 34. Subtract Arrogate and Imperative, who shipped in from California to win the Pegasus and Posideon, as well as California Chrome and this still leaves 31.

The question is, are there really 31 older stakes caliber horses in South Florida at this time of year? The answer would have to be no. An argument could be made that there aren’t 31 genuine older stakes horses in the country.

I never thought I would be one to call for a reduction in stakes. However, it takes more than dropping an entry slip in the box to qualify as a stakes horse. Fewer stakes, spaced over a longer period of time, would enhance the prestige and caliber of field of all of them.

The Sunshine Millions should be relocated to December. The Hal’s Hope could also stay at the end of the calendar year for horses ineligible for the Florida-bred races. The Pegasus and any accompanying race should have January all to themselves.

A race like the Harlan’s Holiday could be wedged into late February or early March. The Gulfstream Handicap would be a nice fit on the Florida Derby undercard. Run the first week in April, it might attract some of the better handicap horses ready to come out of their winter break.

It makes little sense to continue to cram these races within little more than a month.

Bring back the Donn

With a second edition of the Pegasus likely, I’d like to reiterate my call to attach the Donn name to the Gulfstream Park Handicap, which is kind of a generic anyway.

Without the Donn family, there would be no Gulfstream Park.

If the Pegasus indeed comes back and the Donn is not used for a stakes for the second straight year in 2018, it will be stripped of its graded status and likely be forgotten about. That would be a pity.

Miami, February 9, 2017

Written by Tom Jicha

Comments (4)


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