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, April 27, 2017

Decoupling almost a done deal in Florida

The Florida legislature has worked out a compromise that would allow Calder Race Course (now Gulfstream West), Hialeah Park's quarterhorse operation, area greyhound tracks, jai alai frontons and Isle of Capri's harness racing to cease their pari-mutuels while maintaining their limited casinos and card rooms. If and when this bill is finalized and all the components realized, Gulfstream Park will be the only pari-mutuel operation in South Florida.

Gulfstream Park is only some legislative fine tuning away from becoming the only pari-mutuel facility in the Miami area.

The Florida House and Senate have worked out the major details of a compromise on gambling in the state. The headline is, Hialeah Park; the skeleton that remains of Calder Race Course; the Magic City Casino (nee Flagler Dog Track); Mardi Gras Casino (nee Hollywood Greyhound Track); Isle of Capri Casino (nee Pompano Park harness track) and jai alai frontons in Miami and Dania get the decoupling they have been pursuing. They can cease pari-mutuels while retaining their casino and card rooms.

There is one surmountable obstacle. They have to get approval in a county-wide referendum to eliminate pari-mutuels. Since the final wording of the bill was not settled as this was written, it is not clear whether they could go the voters as a group or would have to do it individually. The legislature might as well make it as easy as possible since there is no known organized opposition. Horsemen's groups have spoken against decoupling but if they had any clout, these bills would never have gotten this far.

The referendum provision could prove crucial down the road, should Gulfstream ever decide it wants to go the casinos-only route. An attempt to end tourist-magnet thoroughbred racing would likely ignite substantial opposition.

This is a moot point for the foreseeable future, since the Stronach Group, which owns the track is thoroughbred racing oriented. Patriarch Frank Stronach owns an Eclipse Award-winning breeding farm, Adena Springs, in addition to Gulfstream; Laurel Park; Pimlico, home of the Preakness; Santa Anita and Golden Gate.

He remains active in the operation of the track and is outspoken on racing issues. On Wednesday, he endorsed the bipartisan Barr-Tomko Act in Congress, which would create uniform medication standards in all racing states and put the USDA in charge of testing for illegal pharmaceuticals. Stronach is on record many times as opposing all race-day medications. Even with the weight of such an influential figure behind it, this praise-worthy campaign remains an uphill climb because of the opposition of horsemen.

Stronach is 84 but he has created a line of succession for TSG, which seemingly will keep racing in the family for decades to come. His daughter Belinda, 50, holds the title President of The Stronach Group. She called almost all the shots for the first Pegasus Stakes, which had a $12 million purse last winter, a world record that will increase to $16 million next January. Her brother Andrew also is active in racing.

The absence of pari-mutuel competition in South Florida doesn’t necessarily have to be the boon to Gulfstream it might seem. Freed from the obligation to maintain expensive tracks and housing for its dogs and horses, the tracks and frontons could pour tens of millions into sprucing up and expanding their casinos and offer consumer enticements Gulfstream, which has a casino of its own, would be hard put to match.

Another provision of the bill would allow one new free-standing casino in Miami-Dade. Leading contenders for that license seem to be The Genting Group, which bought the Biscayne Bay waterfront site that used to be the home of the Miami Herald, and the Fontainebleau Hotel on Miami Beach. Each has spoken of elaborate facilities to rival the top end casino hotels in Las Vegas. Every new casino in South Florida moves it closer to Las Vegas South. There is only so much disposable income among the public. Every dollar spent in a casino is a dollar that will not find its way to the track. There has never been a successful race track in Las Vegas in spite of several attempts.

We’ll have more on this in the coming weeks as the final wording of the gambling compromise is worked out and the pieces start to fall into place.

Santa Anita irony challenged

Add a sense of irony to the many deficiencies in California racing. Less than 48 hours after announcing that the Thursday racing program had been canceled due to lack of entries, Santa Anita issued an email/press release with the headline, “Daring Daschunds race for glory this weekend.”

Before getting into the body of the release, there was a headline in bold red type, “Note: No racing Thursday, April 25. Racing returns Friday, April 26.”

Included was a picture of wiener dogs frolicking on the Santa Anita turf course…the same course where there would be no horses on Thursday and goodness knows how many more Thursdays.
Does anybody in the Santa Anita front office think before sending out a release so open to ridicule?

The situation is not funny if you value California racing. Santa Anita had already cut back to a four-day race week. Now it’s a three-day week. Next week and beyond, who knows?

Is it any surprise that California racing has hit this low ebb after abominations such as the Pick 6 Jackpot ripoff; threats to turn off access to one of the nation’s largest ADW sites in a territorial hissing war; myriad stewards’ decisions that defy consistency and logic; cave-ins to activists like PETA, who will never be satisfied until horse racing is abolished; admission prices that top the industry and the most exorbitant exacta takeouts of any major circuit? I’m sure I left plenty out.

In any other business, heads at the top would roll. What is Frank Stronach waiting for?

If that isn’t enough bad news

In the midst of these major events a smaller one likely to go largely unnoticed also speaks to the sorry state of California racing. The only satellite horse racing betting facility north of Sacramento closed its doors on Tuesday.

A spokesperson for the Shasta District Fairgrounds in Anderson said the facility suffered a $6,000 loss last year. To be fair, it was never a big money-maker. On good years, it would turn a $10,000 profit, according to the spokesperson.

However, the downturn from the black into the red can be interpreted in only one way: a declining interest in horse racing in the nation’s most populous state. This might not go unnoticed in the legislature, which meets in Sacramento.

When four- and five-horse fields are commonplace—when even that many can be assembled--and customers are treated like pigeons on track and off, this is the inevitable result.

Hall of Fame needs patience

What do the major sports-NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL--have in common that thoroughbred racing doesn’t?

None have Hall of Famers still competing. You don’t qualify for the highest honor in the team sports until you are out of it for a specified number of years.

Racing doesn’t subscribe to this qualifier. Horses have to be retired for five years before they are eligible for induction into the shine in Saratoga but trainers are eligible 25 years after taking out their license and riders have to be licensed for 20 years.

Fortunately, there have been no major scandals involving the game’s most honored but why take the chance? Most riders hang up their saddles by their mid-50s. They can afford to wait. Maybe their eligibility could come two or three years after they call it quits, leaving time to relish the honor.

Trainers are a little more complicated. Some ply their trades into their 80s and beyond. Ron McAnally is 84, D. Wayne Lukas is 81 and Jack Van Berg is 80. Others Hall of Famers, such as Jonathan Sheppard and Roger Attfield, are approaching their octogenarian years.

Perhaps the waiting period for trainers could be cut to one year after they announce their retirement. But they should have to wait until they declare their career over.

The catalyst for this commentary is the election of still active riders Javier Castellano and Victor Espinoza as well as the late Garrett Gomez. All have credentials worthy of Hall of Fame status but Castellano and Espinoza could continue riding for many years, as Mike Smith, John Velazquez, Kent Desormeaux, Gary Stevens, Edgar Prado and Calvin Borel have.

Hall of Famers should be remembered fondly for their many achievements, not be subject to vilification for their latest failure.

Miami, April 27

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, April 20, 2017

Kentucky Derby points system gets it right

The Kentucky Derby qualifying system took some hits in its first few seasons. Arguably, it got it almost perfectly right this year. When the gate is loaded on May 6, as many as 16 or 17 starters of the 20 starters will have wins in points-worthy prep races. Still, there is room for minor tweaking. The 10-point races early in the new year need to be at least doubled in value. There is no stronger argument for this than the fact that the first three finishers in the Holy Bull--Irish War Cry, Gunnevera and Classic Empire--are likely to be among the top four or five betting favorites in Louisville.

The system works! How many things in society can we say that about? However short the list is, add the Kentucky Derby qualifying points to it.

At the end of the 26 qualifying races in 2017 and before attrition sets in, 20 hopefuls have at least 40 points. Conquest Mo Money also earned 40 points in the Arkansas Derby but is not nominated and will not be. His connections say they will wait for the Preakness.

Four horses won two qualifiers: Gormley (Sham and Santa Anita Derby), Irish War Cry (Holy Bull and Wood) and Girvin (Risen Star and Louisiana Derby) are set to go on May 6. El Areeb, who took the 10-point Jerome and Nashua, has gone into the shop for repairs.

Fifteen of the current top 16 will enter the Churchill Downs starting gate with a win in a prep race. The exception, State of Honor, earned his berth with a second or third in three qualifying stakes.

A compelling case cannot be made for any of those on the waiting list. A mild argument could be mounted for Royal Mo, currently 24th. He is the only points-race winner (the Robert B. Lewis, in which eventual Blue Grass winner Irap ran second) still not in the starting gate and he still might get in.

Chad Brown has indicated Cloud Computing, one of those in the final four to qualify, will also wait for the Preakness, according to reports. This would allow Untrapped to join the field and move Royal Mo to third alternate. Todd Pletcher is reportedly wavering on Malagacy, who got the staggers in the final yards of the nine-furlong Arkansas Derby. Pletcher always has felt Malagacy would be a superior sprinter/miler. If Pletcher opts out with him, second alternate Lookin at Lee joins the field.

The Racing Form has reported UAE Derby winner Thunder Snow is expected to make the trip stateside but there has been no definitive statement to that effect. If he comes 16 of the 20 starters will have won a major prep.

While the points system functioned ideally this season, there is room for improvement. Another look should be taken at doubling the value of 10-point races early in the season. Gormley, Irish War Cry and Girvin each won one of these before tacking on 100-point scores in the final stage.

The first three finishers in the 10-point Holy Bull were Irish War Cry, Gunnevera and Classic Empire. They will likely be among the top four or five favorites in Louisville. So the calendar should not be the ultimate determination of the value of a race.

What would be wrong with the 2-year-old points races staying at 10 to the winner and the early 3-year-old stakes offering 20?

One other tweak: the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile should be “Win and You’re In.” It’s the only true championship race for the generation prior to the Derby.

More is more

It’s always reassuring when someone respected echoes an opinion you have been espousing.

Cot Campbell’s Dogwood Stable transformed thoroughbred ownership by introducing the concept of multi-participant partnerships in 1969. Over the years, he has raced hundreds of top quality runners and brought countless new blood to the sport. He opined in a guest column in the Thoroughbred Daily News, “In a game that has its own sizeable set of challenges, it is not desirable that the runners keep trending towards less racing. I hate that. And it will be a trend that will be difficult to reverse.”

Campbell offered that if a young trainer going out on his own were to take out an ad saying that he does not think the average racehorse runs as often as he could, so the philosophy of his stable will be horses are going to run more and train less, while getting the best possible care, he would become instantly in demand. “There is a message that much of the horse world has hungered for,” Campbell wrote. “I believe that young man or woman would be swamped with business.”

All I can add is “Amen.”

Keeneland close to perfect

Keeneland has a deserved reputation of being a showplace of thoroughbred racing, the track that does things right. I don’t have a bucket list but one of the things I want to do before descending to the wrong side of the turf course is to visit the Lexington, Kentucky track. This said, even the best can be made better.

The spring meeting, which is breaking records, provides three examples. The decision to exile will-pays for daily doubles, pick three’s and other exotic bets to a quick flash on the TV screen is not well thought out. Most wagering is now done at simulcast facilities where races from many tracks are telecast, sometimes simultaneously.

Speaking from experience, it’s easy to miss Keeneland will-pays because another race was in progress. The unfortunate aspect is Keeneland fixed what wasn’t broken. The former system of displaying will-pays on a constant cycle was one of the most useful in racing. Keeneland won awards for its simulcast presentation.

The use of white saddle cloths in stakes races is a throwback to earlier times but it makes no more sense than going back to the days when Keeneland didn’t have a race caller. Bettors have become accustomed to looking for colored saddle cloths to follow their horses. In stakes races, this is beyond challenging. It doesn’t help that at most simulcast sites, the audio of the race call is turned off.

The counter-argument is there are always the racing silks. However, so many are similarly colored this isn’t as easy as it can be made out to be, especially when the field is on the backstretch.

The front-loading of major stakes is essential in the fall to fit into Breeders’ Cup preparations. There is no compelling need for this in the spring. The Blue Grass, of course, has to be four weeks out from the Derby to appease contemporary training techniques. This also would apply to the filly equivalent, the Ashland.

Other major Keeneland stakes would be better spaced out throughout the short session. As it is, there are more than a half dozen stakes the first weekend and almost that many again the following weekend. Then just three are spaced out over the final two weeks.

One justification could be that these races are scheduled to serve as stepping stones for the plethora of stakes on Oaks and Derby days at Churchill. But with the exception of the Derby and Oaks, the Keeneland stakes are as prestigious or more so than anything offered at Churchill Downs the first weekend in May.

The will-pay and white saddle cloth issues can and should be dealt with before the fall session. The spring stakes schedule can be adjusted next year. Keeneland owes it to its fans, local and simulcast, to do the right thing by them.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, April 13, 2017

Pletcher on verge of a first-time Derby experience

Todd Pletcher's uncharacteristic 1-for-45 record in the Kentucky Derby has been well reported. Too well reported, the seven-time Eclipse winning trainer must feel. Amazingly, when you consider the great horses he has developed, not one of the 45 was the post-time favorite. That could change this year with Always Dreaming. However, Mark Casse, who will get Juvenile Champion Classic Empire back to the races in the Arkansas Derby, feels a big effort Saturday will make his colt the favorite on the first Saturday in May.

An astonishing statistic emerged from a National Thoroughbred Racing Association conference call the other day. Todd Pletcher has been oft criticized for his less than stellar record in the Kentucky Derby. He has sent out 45 starters in America’s most famous horse race and has won with only Super Saver.

The surprising factoid is not one of the 45 has been the post-time favorite. Think of all the 3-year-olds with gilded credentials, some undefeated going into the first Saturday in May, Pletcher has brought to Churchill Downs. But the public has always found a non-Pletcher contender they liked more.

That could change this year. If the Derby were being run this Saturday rather than May 6, it’s likely Florida Derby champion Always Dreaming would break from the starting gate as the people’s choice. “It would be sort of uncharted waters for us,” Pletcher said.

It would represent a triumph of sorts even before the race is run. “There would be a sense of accomplishment to get a horse there that would be considered the favorite.”

Pletcher feels Always Dreaming is deserving of the honor and has the ability to justify it. “We’re very pleased with the way Always Dreaming has progressed all winter and spring. We were very excited to run him in the Florida Derby and we were even more excited after the race and with the way he has come out of it and trained since.”

Last Saturday's Wood Memorial, Blue Grass Stakes and Santa Anita Derby did nothing to knock Always Dreaming off the top perch. If anything, they solidified his status.

Maybe second choice, too

There’s a chance Pletcher could have the favorite and second choice if Malagacy runs big in the Arkansas Derby. Among other things, the son of Shackleford represents this year’s threat to the curse of Apollo, since he didn’t make his debut until Jan. 4 at Gulfstream.

But if the Cubs can break a 108-year spell, it might be time for a thoroughbred to snap the 135-year streak of a horse who didn’t start as a 2-year-old winning the Kentucky Derby.

Ironically, Malagacy was ticketed to run as a juvenile—in a claiming race. He showed no signs in his early training of being exceptionally talented so Pletcher entered him with a $75,000 tag late last year.

In a stroke of bad fortune/good fortune, the day Pletcher dropped Malagacy’s name into the box, the colt came down with a temperature and had to be scratched.

“Part of the reason we considered running him for maiden claiming first time out was he hadn’t shown us much but his lazy side in the morning. It was a blessing that he got the temperature and we had to scratch him. It was interesting that after that, he’s shown to be far better.”

He’s perfect, in fact, three-for-three as his distances extended from 5 ½ furlongs to 6 ½ then a mile and a sixteenth in the Rebel.

“One of Malagacy’s strengths is he’s got a high cruising speed. He proved in the Rebel that he’s capable of carrying it around two turns. What’s impressed me the most about him is as fast as he is, he’s also very tractable and ratable, willing to sit behind horses when necessary," Pletcher said.

"Javier (Castellano) has commented that he’s kind of a rare horse in that you can ask him to leave the gate and show you some speed, then you can quickly turn him off after you do that. That’s one of the reasons why we’re optimistic that he’ll handle a little more ground.”

Casse touts Classic Empire

Mark Casse, who will saddle Eclipse juvenile champion Classic Empire in the Arkansas Derby, would like to file a dissenting opinion on who the Derby favorite will be. “I may be a little biased but I have to think if our horse runs really well and wins, he’s going to be the favorite for the Kentucky Derby.”

There are a couple of big if’s there, especially given Classic Empire’s eventful winter.

It started with a non-menacing third in the Holy Bull, prior to which he became unglued in the walking ring and going to the post. A foot abscess--which might have contributed to his antics at Gulfstream--back issues and, when all seemed well, a refusal to work at the Palm Meadows training center. Thus, the Holy Bull was his only start in 2017.

Casse knows Classic Empire will have to show the talent that earned the Eclipse Award as 2016’s outstanding juvenile, starting with the Arkansas Derby, to go to Louisville as the public’s choice. He feels his son of Pioneer of the Nile is up to it, although like most trainers would, he said a good strong race is more important than winning his final Derby prep.

“It’s been a tough road but luckily the last month has gone very well. Do I wish we had another start? Of course, I do. But I put three really strong works into him. The good news is he’s not a big, robust horse. He’s an athlete. So, it’s not like he carries a lot of excess weight. He has a tremendous amount of ability, which will help him out.”

Classic Empire has had a fancy workmate in recent weeks, Airoforce, a graded stakes winner on dirt and turf. “He’s a good horse in his own right,” Casse said. “Julien (Leparoux) worked (Classic Empire) and he worked extremely well. The following week, Julien worked him again and he worked even better.

"He disposed of Airoforce much easier then galloped out really strong. That’s the Classic Empire we know. More importantly, he’s a happy horse. We know he has the ability. We just have to keep him happy.”

He clearly wasn’t happy at Gulfstream or Palm Meadows. Casse has no explanation for that. The day of the Holy Bull, it could have been the abscess, which was just beginning to bother Classic Empire, or he resented racing off the one-hour van ride from Palm Meadows to Gulfstream, the explanation initially offered.

Classic Empire’s subsequent refusal to work is inexplicable. “They can’t speak to us, so I don’t have a good answer. I’m not in any shape or form knocking Palm Meadows because we love it. It’s been good to us. But it’s crazy.

"Over this winter, we’ve had five or six or seven horses refuse to train. Tepin is one of them. I don’t know what they see or what it is. The good news is, [Classic Empire] is not doing it anymore.”

Casse offered some advice to those who have given up on Classic Empire. “I feel that ability wise he is the most talented horse out there.”

Written by Tom Jicha

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