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.

Most recent entries

Monthly Archives


Thursday, August 10, 2017

High and low points of a week at the Spa

The Saratoga experience remains scintillating with the only downer NYRA, which gets tens of millions of dollars from the Aqueduct casino, not sharing any of the windfall with fans. To the contrary, it continues to nickel and dime (or $5 and $10) customers with unjustified price hikes. Meanwhile, Gun Runner is the latest champion to prove that Saratoga's reputation as the Graveyard of Favorites is more myth than reality.

NYRA displayed an internet poll on who would win the Whitney on the infield tote board during last Saturday’s card. Keen Ice was the overwhelming favorite with something like 53%. Gun Runner had, as I recall, 29 percent. The rest was spread among the others.

My immediate reaction was "Oh please, let it be so." Any price above even-money on Gun Runner would be stealing money. Alas, these internet opinions, like most such exercises, were worth what they cost to express: nothing.

When the only opinions that matter were registered at the mutual windows, Gun Runner was 3-5, as he deserved to be, and Keen Ice was approximately six times as long at about 3-1.

Gun Runner justified the public confidence with a business-like romp. Keen Ice did what he usually does, closing just well enough to encourage his fans that next time will be the one when he wins for the fourth time in four years.

A jubilant Steve Asmussen seemed ready to take on Arrogate, the only horse ranked higher than Gun Runner in the NTRA poll. Arrogate crushed Gun Runner by about 15 in last season's Travers. The margin decreased to only two lengths when they next met in Dubai.

"We're getting closer," Asmussen crowed. He had a point if you overlook one small detail. The margin in the Middle East was as close as it was because Arrogate broke behind the field and spotted Gun Runner, who had clear sailing, double digit lengths. Arrogate still ran past Gun Runner so easily that Florent Geroux couldn’t believe it.

A trainer should brag on his horse, especially one as exceptional as Gun Runner. But the only way Gun Runner ever beats Arrogate is if the Arrogate of the San Diego Handicap, not the one of the Travers, Breeders' Cup, Pegasus and World Cup shows up.We'll get an indication of which way Arrogate is headed in the Pacific Classic next weekend.

Gun Runner's triumph put another puncture wound in the myth of Saratoga being the Graveyard of Favorites, which is more urban legend than reality. Sure, Triple Crown winners American Pharoah, Secretariat and Gallant Fox were toppled at the Spa. Going way back, Man O War went down to a horse who gave coinage to the term Upset.

However, year in and year out the percentage of winning favorites at the Spa is among the highest in the nation and also stands up on the grandest stages. In addition to Gun Runner's tour de force, the week I spent there saw favorites win four of the five features. Carina Mia took the Shine Again; Green Mask won the Troy and Hard Study get home first in the Birdstone. The lone non-favorite feature winner was Bricks and Mortar in the Hall of Fame. He was the 4-1 third choice.

Earlier in the season, Abel Tasman was a prompt favorite in the Coaching Club American Oaks and Lady Eli came through in the Diana.

Cigar had his 16-race winning streak snapped at Del Mar and Arrogate imploded there this season but no one calls Del Mar the Graveyard of Favorites. Some perspective, please.

It was a great week at the Spa, as it always is. Some highlights and lowlights:

Wednesday—There are few feelings as exhilarating as making the turn off Exit 14 of the Northway onto Union Avenue. Unfortunately, the reality of Christopher Kay’s stewardship provided an instant slap in the face.

The first parking lot encountered, the one by the backstretch rec hall, used to be part of the free general parking. Now it is $10 weekdays, $12 Saturdays except Whitney and Travers Day, when it is $15. This was the first of several such developments.

Carina Mia did take care of business but it wasn’t easy as one racing publication headline indicated. She was all out to beat Chad Brown barn-mate Going for Broke by a neck. The Shine Again was a prep for bigger races in the fall but Carina Mia will have to be a lot better to compete with the caliber of fillies and mares she is destined to face.

Todd Pletcher hasn’t been dominating the juvenile races this season and last as he had in years past but he unveiled a potential goodie, March X Press, in the day’s finale, a turf sprint. March X Press was left so badly, if she hadn’t uncorked a breath-taking surge from last to first, there might have been a stewards’ inquiry of the start. Put this New York-bred on your horses to watch list.

Thursday—Not a happy nor otherwise noteworthy day. Fall Colors broke down in the jump race and had to be euthanized and Munjaz suffered a similar fate in the featured Birdstone. They were the third and fourth fatal mishaps of the early season. Amazingly PETA pickets have yet to appear.

Friday—If there is a bigger money-burner in racing than Switzerland, it escapes me. In her first three starts, she went off at 2-5 at Gulfstream, 4-5 at Keeneland and 2-5 at Belmont. He came out of them still a maiden. He did it again at Saratoga, going off at 4-5 and failing to hit the board.

It’s my custom to buy a copy of the next day’s Post Parade past performance magazine for $5 every day as I leave the track. “That’s $6,” the woman at the stand said, looking at my $5 bill as if it had EPV.

“Why? It’s $5 every other day.”

“It’s $6 on Saturdays,” she said with disdain. There’s a simple reason why NYRA bumped up the price. It’s because it can.

Saturday—NYRA’s security staff became the TSA. In addition to the usual screening of coolers for bottles, fans had to pass through metal screening devices after emptying their pockets of anything that might set them off.

It’s hard to quarrel with enhanced security these days but this made little sense since these measures were in force only on Saturday. What is NYRA’s thinking? We’ll allow terrorists to take out 15,000-20,000 people on other days but not 30,000 on Whitney Day?

Chairman Kay is missing an opportunity. NYRA might as well sell every picnic table on big days rather than the limited number now up for sale. The security guards have their own little racket going. I got to the Top of the Stretch at 11 a.m. during a drenching rain storm. There wasn’t a soul in sight but every table was already taken. I went to the back yard and it was the same deal.

Coincidentally (or not) almost every table was covered by the same bright red table cloth. A woman, who heard me bitching out loud and seemed to know what she was talking about, contributed, “I was here at 6:30 and they were all taken. The guards do it before the gates open for fans who give them big tips.”

Sunday—Hopefully, we have seen the last of Mohaymen. How a horse with such unlimited potential went so bad so fast remains a mystery and probably will remain that way. Kieran McLaughlin admitted he entered him as an MTO in a Saturday turf race, hoping to fall into an easy spot if the race came off the grass, which the weather forecast indicated was a strong possibility.

The predicted rain tailed off by post time and Mohaymen’s race stayed on the grass. McLaughlin’s fallback was the restricted Alydar Stakes with a five-horse field on Sunday but it was to no avail. Mohaymen wound up getting distanced, which had to be an embarrassment to his connections. Afterward, McLaughlin indicated Mohaymen was being sent off the track to a farm. Let’s hope he stays there until someone who wants to breed the multiple stakes winner steps up.

Rick Violette unveiled a 2-year-old filly to be watched, Honey Graeme, in a salty maiden dash. The tipoff the first-timer had ability came in the daily double possibilities, where she was in a virtual deadheat with a touted Pletcher filly, History Supreme, who had gone off 4-5 in her debut.

The same pattern held in the race betting. History Supreme went off a slight favorite with Honey Graeme the close second choice. The race wasn’t this close. Honey Graeme went right to the front, fought off a succession of challengers and drew off at the end.

One of the peripheral fun aspects of Saratoga is trying to identify 2-year-olds with a future. Honey Graeme looks to be one of those.

Monday—NYRA tried to extend Whitney weekend by staging a T-shirt giveaway on a weekday. There might have been more people than on a normal Monday but judging from the mountains of huge cardboard boxes still unopened at the Top of the Stretch distribution area, the turnout didn’t approach what was hoped for.

The latest fleecing of customers came when NYRA announced that advance grandstand admission for Travers Day could be obtained for a “bargain” $10, instead of the $15 tariff on the day of the race. So in a short span under Kay, Travers admission has increased from $5 to $10 to $15.

This is outrageous when NYRA is being endowed with tens of millions of dollars from the casino at Aqueduct. It has been an unwarranted windfall for NYRA and horsemen but fans, who make the wheel turn, have not gotten a single benefit.

Nevertheless, I can't wait to get back next year.

Saratoga, Aug. 10, 2017

Written by Tom Jicha

Comments (13)


Thursday, August 03, 2017

Gun Runner can restore some normalcy to a crazy season

Champions and would-be champions have been disappointing at an alarming rate the past few months. Arrogate threw in the biggest clunker. Derby and Preakness winners Always Dreaming and Cloud Computing, respectively, came up wanting in the Jim Dandy last Saturday. Songbird has not returned to her dominant ways as a juvenile and 3-year-old. Drefong kissed off Mike Smith in the Pat O'Brien. In this atmosphere, Gun Runner will have every chance to improve his status in the Whitney on Saturday. But the way things have been going this year, it's caveat emptor.

The highest level of racing has become like the highest level of government: totally chaotic.

Horse of the Planet Arrogate decided to take the day off in his first start after seeming invincible in the three richest races in the world. If ever a horse were entitled to forgiveness for having one bad day, it's Arrogate.

But I was at Saratoga the day Lady's Secret suddenly decided she didn't want to race anymore and I was watching on TV when Life at Ten did the same thing in the Breeders' Cup Distaff. Arrogate's San Diego Handicap looked eerily similar. He didn't just get beat, he didn't run at all.

Arrogate's latest workout convinced Bob Baffert that the old Arrogate is back but a workout is not a race. As I recall, Baffert was just as high on Arrogate's works going into the San Diego. We'll find out in the Pacific Classic.

Songbird has been like Madonna this season, still good but no longer indisputably No. 1. Stellar Wind has become her Lady Gaga.

Drefong decided last Saturday in his return to the races from last November's smashing win in the Breeders' Cup Sprint that he wants to be a solo act this year. He dumped his partner Mike Smith right after the start of the Pat O'Brien.

The 3-year-old division reminds me of a line from a Grade B movie of long ago, "The D.I," starring Jack "Dragnet" Webb, Playing a Marine drill instructor frustrated by the lack of cohesion of his latest squad of recruits, Webb's character barked, "You guys aren't even a mob. A mob has a leader."

In the wake of upsets in last weekend's JIm Dandy and Haskell, this year's crop of sophomores isn't even a mob. The five most recent important races for 3-year-olds have been won by five different horses, a pattern that also showed itself last spring.

The most encouraging aspect of last weekend was the emergence of Good Samaritan as possibly this season's Arrogate, a previously overlooked late season developer, who could wind up exceeding the stars of the Triple Crown trail
Good Samaritan was off radar screens because he had previously been exclusively a turf horse. Bill Mott explained that it wasn't because Good Samaritan seemed superior on grass. It was because the colt was crying out for distance and the best opportunities were in the infield. Mott said he and Good Samaritan's people were waiting for the right spot for his main track debut and it turned into quite a coming-out party.

Racing lives off precedence and there is a grand one for a young turf horse morphing into a dirt superstar--Cigar. The Travers will be a revealing indicator if Good Samaritan is on his way to that kind of career or whether he was just a one-race flash in the pan, who took advantage of the Jim Dandy falling apart in front of him.

Gun Runner, who jockey Florent Geroux says keeps getting better, can restore some normalcy to the older horse division and perhaps launch a campaign to overtake Arrogate in Saturday's Whitney. The No. 2 horse in the NTRA weekly poll and the No.3 in the Longines World Poll will have no excuses against a demonstrably inferior group of six opponents.

Then again, Arrogate loomed a layover in the San Diego and Songbird had to run her guts out to take the Delaware Handicap against a band of fillies with nothing approaching her credentials.

The most logical challenger to Gun Runner, Keen Ice, will be trying to win his second race in four weeks after winning only twice in 22 months. Significantly, his only two wins since his maiden-breaker have come over a mile and a quarter. The Whitney is a mile and an eighth. He's just as strong a proposition to hit the board as Gun Runner is to finish first but winning is another matter. It would take similar circumstances to the Jim Dandy, the race going to pieces in the stretch.

Keen Ice has tried Gun Runner in Dubai and the U.S. several times without success. However, he pulled Saratoga's biggest upset of this millennium, racing past American Pharoah in the 2015 Travers, so he'll probably be only in the 3-1 range. Not a dime of my money will contribute to that.

Chilean Tu Brutus will take some action off the 118 Beyer--arguably the phoniest number in the history of the Figs-- he was given in the Excelsior when he finished second to Send It In.

War Story comes in off a win in the Brooklyn but he wasn't beating any Gun Runners that day. On the other hand, he's trained by miracle worker Jorge Navarro, who upset the Vanderbilt with El Deal last week. This was no surprise to regulars of Gulfstream and Monmouth, who are used to Navarro moving up horses like almost no one else.

Dean Reeves, owner of Canadian invader Breaking Lucky, who chased Gun Runner home in the Foster and Clark, summed up the situation. "I'm hoping that crazy things happen on Saturday."

That's what it will take.

Big day at Gulfstream

If you're at a simulcast site Saturday, you might want to pay some attention to the card at Gulfstream.

The first round of the 2017 Sire Stakes anchors the program. This series for Florida-breds produced Three Rules last year and champions Big Drama and Awesome Feather to name just a couple of important horses who have emerged in previous years.

Of more immediate importance. Gunnevera is scheduled to make his return to the races in a prep for the Travers. With the 3-year-old division in such disarray. the late running colt is not a horse to overlook, especially at a mile and a quarter.

Saratoga Springs, Aug. 3

Written by Tom Jicha

Comments (5)


Thursday, July 27, 2017

Saratoga Live is a Grade 1 telecast

Saratoga Live, which is available in 75 million homes every racing day at the Spa, should be the model for racing telecasts. It's fast paced and informative and never condescending or frivolous. The hosts know their stuff and communicate it well. This weekend the show will be all over the Jim Dandy showdown between Derby champion Always Dreaming and Preakness upsetter Cloud Computing and the Grade 1 Haskell at Monmouth.

NYRA can be justifiably proud that it has managed to get “Saratoga Live” into 75 million American homes. But some perspective is needed. When I was writing about TV for three decades a point driven home repeatedly was content is king.

Being in a home is meaningless if nobody bothers to tune you in. Only about 10 programs in the cable/satellite universe of literally thousands of shows average as many as 1 million viewers. Many of these are on cable channels such as ESPN, USA, TBS and TNT, which are in about 100 million homes.

Fortunately, if any racing program is going to bring people to the set, “Saratoga Live” is it. In racing parlance it is Grade 1: informative, thorough, well paced and, most importantly, entertaining.

The talent also is Grade 1. Unlike some racing telecasts, the commentators delve into racing’s finer points without talking down to their audience. When they put up their suggested bets, you get the feeling they are also putting their money where their mouth is.

I didn’t get to see this season’s first two telecasts for the best of reasons. I was at the track betting the simulcast. This past Sunday, Monday and Wednesday, I monitored the show from beginning to end. In what might be a career first, I have almost nothing negative to say.

I made notes critiquing Gabby Gaudet for interviewing Mike Smith early in the Coaching Club American Oaks show and not bringing up Arrogate’s clunker at Del Mar the previous day. This was one of those occasions when I was glad I was gathering material for a column and not instant tweeting. The explanation became apparent shortly thereafter.

Gabby did her job, quizzing Smith about the Arrogate debacle in a portion of the interview that was being held to be shown just prior to the CCAO.

My first inclination was a half-dozen voices would be two or three too many but each of the commentators has a specific role and handles it without stepping on the others.

Greg Wolf and Paul Lo Duca are the nominal hosts and keep the show moving while also offering insights to upcoming races. Former Major League catcher Lo Duca took some heat unjustly because a lot of NYRA fans blamed him for the departure of Richard Migliore.

In any profession when someone suddenly quits “to spend more time with my family,” you can be sure there is a bigger story. This was reiterated when within days The Mig wound up on XBTV doing essentially what he was doing for NYRA.

There might be a nasty little man instrumental in The Mig leaving but it wasn’t Lo Duca. If he didn’t replace The Mig, someone else would have.

Gabby Gaudet and Maggie Wolfendale, who handle paddock and race track analysis, aren’t just the obligatory female voices. These two women know their stuff and how to communicate it. Sunday, Maggie pointed out that trainer Horacio de Paz is an up and comer, whose horses are worth giving second and third looks. She looked prescient as De Paz’s Ginger N Rye got home for a $24 mutuel.

After the feature, she questioned Smith, who rode favored Abel Tasman, about pinning down Elate on the rail sufficiently to have the stewards take a look. “It was old fashioned race-riding,” Smith acknowledged, the kind of candid revelation you don’t often get.

Gabby, who works the paddock show at Gulfstream during the winter, demonstrated her handicapping chops on Monday, nailing back-to-back exactas. She’s Ms. Versatility. She also sits in with Wolf and Lo Duca at the main desk and with Andy Serling for handicapping.

Serling’s normal partner is trainer Tom Amoss, who has the luxury of being a successful trainer when he’s not on TV. So he can speak his mind and dare to cross favorite son Serling. The two get into some heated discussions. After a flareup on Sunday, Amoss was missing Monday and Wednesday. Maybe he had responsibilities in his far-flung barns.

This is something to watch for in the coming days and weeks—just one more reason to pay attention to one of the best racing programs ever produced.

3YO’s start anew

Time to hit the reset button on the 3-year-old division. Through the first half of the year, the closest to a leader is Always Dreaming. All things being equal, the edge always goes to the Kentucky Derby champion.

However, even though Always Dreaming also has the Florida Derby on his credit sheet, things could not be more equal. Three different horses won Triple Crown races and several others have sufficient credentials to crash the party by putting together a string of wins during the second half of the season.

The shakeout could start this weekend. Always Dreaming and his conqueror in the Preakness, Cloud Computing, go at it again in the Jim Dandy in a Todd Pletcher-Chad Brown showdown.

On the Jersey Shore, Wood Memorial winner and Belmont runnerup Irish War Cry tries to get back into the championship mix in the Haskell against an accomplished group of challengers, some of whom also still have championship aspirations.

I’ll reiterate something I do every year at this time. It is absolutely insane that two races of this stature are contested within 24 hours. The Jim Dandy is pretty much locked in because of the compact Saratoga meeting, which culminates in the Travers. The Haskell could and should move to earlier in the Monmouth season, ideally around the Fourth of July. This would provide sufficient spacing from the Triple Crown races on one side and the Jim Dandy/Travers on the other.

I’m in Always Dreaming’s corner at the Spa. Taking nothing away from Cloud Computing, he had everything going for him in Baltimore. Brown skipped the Derby to have a fresh horse for the second jewel of the Triple Crown. He joked after Cloud Computing ran third in the Wood that not winning New York’s premier prep saved him some grief. If he had won, Brown quipped, it would have been difficult to tell Cloud Computing’s owners that the plan was to skip the Derby.

Cloud Computing didn’t beat the real Always Dreaming, the stellar colt I expect to show up Saturday. Always Dreaming had not finished behind a horse during his 3-year-old campaign, which coincided with a switch to the Pletcher program. At Pimlico, he finished behind seven horses. Obviously, this was the outlier.

Pletcher, who doesn’t prepare his horses to run back in two weeks, has had more than two months to get Always Dreaming right again.

The Jim Dandy has the bigger marquee names but the Haskell is the more intriguing and challenging betting race. In addition to Irish War Cry, McCraken, who was at the top of many lists this past spring, will line up as will a couple of Brown standouts , Dwyer winner Practical Joke and undefeated Timeline, and Girvin, the Risen Star and Louisiana Derby winner.
Irish War Cry is the sentimental choice. His owner, Isabelle de Tomaso, is the daughter of Amory Haskell, Monmouth’s first president and the man for whom the race is named. Graham Motion said he doesn’t have to be told how much winning the race would mean to de Tomaso, who, for decades has presented the trophy to others.

My preference is for McCraken. Trainer Ian Wilkes is bringing McCraken to Monmouth for one reason and it’s not to duck Always Dreaming and Cloud Computing. “We’re not ducking anyone. The Haskell is a Grade 1 and it’s important that we win a Grade 1 with this horse.”

Written by Tom Jicha

Comments (8)


Page 16 of 103 pages « FirstP  <  14 15 16 17 18 >  Last »