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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Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Gun Runner romp reinforces greatness of Arrogate

Gun Runner re-establshed himself as the best dirt horse other than Arrogate with his business-like domination of the Stephen Foster. It only re-emphasized the gap between Arrogate and the rest of the planet.

Gun Runner re-established himself as the best dirt horse in the world not named Arrogate Saturday night in the Stephen Foster, demolishing as solid a group of two-turn older horses as could be assembled.

In so doing, he underlined that there is Arrogate and there is everyone else. Since memories tend to be short and overtaken by what-have-you-done-for-me lately comparisons, let's briefly revisit Arrogate's last four starts. He crushed a solid Travers field by more than 13 lengths, with Gun Runner 15 lengths in arrears.

Next he spotted California Chrome, the best horse of his generation, three lengths in the stretch of the Breeders' Cup Classic and ran him down as if he was a workout prompter.

Then he turned the Pegasus, the world's richest race, into a $7 million paid workout, ending the career of California Chrome on an unfortunate down note.

Finally, in what might be one of the most remarkable efforts in history, he broke behind his field in the Dubai World Cup, seemingly losing all chance--Bob Baffert said he couldn't bear to watch after that--then passed them all like they were running in desert sand. The final rival he put away was Gun Runner, who had five on the rest of the field.

Gun Runner had won his previous two starts--the Grade 1 Clark and Grade 3 Razorback--by more than eight lengths. He returned home to win another Grade 1 Saturday by seven lengths. That's how good Arrogate is. He has relegated Gun Runner to the category of Sham and Alydar, superior race horses who had the misfortune to come along in the wrong year.

Along with the majority of the Foster's $500,000 purse, Gun Runner earned a win-and-you're-in rematch with Arrogate in the Breeders' Cup Classic. This is like being rewarded with a shot to challenge the Golden State Warriors.

Arrogate, who has been training like, well Arrogate, is on schedule to make his return to the races on July 22 in the San Diego at Del Mar. It's something for racing fans to look forward to but I wouldn't want to be the racing secretary assigned to line up a field to run against him.

Baffert might have to drag a couple of his lesser stars out of the barn to make the race go. This would be one time I wouldn't think of betting the longer-priced Baffert.

NYRA's pants on fire

Saturday's decision by NYRA to cancel racing after the third race was a disgrace and its explanation an insult to the fans, who went to the time and expense to come out to Belmont and simulcast sites.

The press release read: "Following unexpectedly heavy rain in the New York City metro area, the New York Racing Association Inc. was forced to cancel the final six races at Belmont Park following the third race on Saturday, June 17 to ensure the safety of all participants."

What a crock! Racing is conducted in worse conditions all the time. There are torrential storms in Florida more days than not this time of year, which make Saturday's rain at Belmont look a spritz, and the show goes on.

Often in such instances, the jockeys play a role in decisions such as this. Johnny Velazquez, who is widely respected by management and his peers, did have an eventful trip aboard Clipthecouponannie in the Dancin' Renee, the final race to be run. But there was no mention on Saturday or since of the riders influencing the cancellation.

It would be understandable that they would not want to be attached. How heavy was the rain? About an hour after NYRA canceled the races, the Mets began and completed a nine inning game without delay at Citi Field approximately 10 miles away. Monmouth, also in the New York City metro area, was hit by essentially the same conditions and ran a complete card.

Here's what really happened: Five of the remaining six races were scheduled for the turf. Before the cancellation was announced, they had all been taken off the grass.

This would have entailed the usual array of massive scratches, probably creating several three- and four-horse fields. NYRA couldn't have that because this meant far fewer Pick 6 combinations and a greater likelihood that the bet would be hit and there was a $194,809 carryover. By cancelling, the carryover was protected for Sunday.

When NYRA shamelessly lies to its fans, how can its integrity be trusted on any matters?

Gulfstream saves the day.

Thankfully, the mandatory jackpot distribution of Gulfstream's Rainbow Six, which soared to more than $5 milllion, saved the day on what was a blah afternoon with NYRA bugging out and Churchill racing its stakes heavy Foster card at night.

I didn't hit it, of course--they don't pay conso's on four of six--but at 20 cents a shot, I had to get involved, especially with nothing else going on. I got four races worth of thrills for a less than $20 ticket.

The dream ended when 19-1 Fifth Avenue Flash won leg five. Just as well. I might have run out into traffic if I was still alive when my lone single, Enterprising, put up no effort in the final leg.

The scheduling of the mandatory payout was another example of the forward thinking of Gulfstream management. It wasn't the end of the meeting or the state's fiscal year. But Tim Ritvo and company saw the opening with Churchill racing at night and the likelihood of a weak Belmont card with only a New York-bred filly stakes.
Gulfstream got lucky when Belmont canceled. What's that saying about it's better to be lucky than good. Gulfstream was both.

I was neither but I got the consolation of a couple of hours of dreams staying alive.

Translation, please

Here’s an example of how, thanks to lawyers, everything costs more than it need to and common sense has no place in the legal system.

Frank Pallone, a congressman from New Jersey, has unveiled a bill that would overturn the prohibition against sports gambling and give states the right to determine whether they want sports gambling within their borders.

Does anyone not know what a bet is? Nevertheless, this is how Pallone had to word his proposed legislation to (hopefully) make it lawyer-proof.

“The staking or risking any person of something of value, including virtual currency and actual or virtual items that can be sold or otherwise exchanged for cash at the gaming facility or elsewhere, upon the outcome of a contest of others, a sporting event, a game subject to change, or a game in which the outcomes reflect the relative knowledge and skill of the participants, upon an agreement or understanding that the person or another person will receive something of value in the event of a certain outcome.”

Aren’t you glad Pallone cleared that up? Whatever happened to "Wanna bet?"

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, June 08, 2017

Belmont a Classic but this year it’s no classic

The absence of Always Dreaming and Cloud Computing and now the scratch of Classic Empire, and possibly Epicharis, this year's Belmont Stakes has been stripped of much of its luster. Irish War Cry, who wasn't being pointed to the race, has inherited the role of favorite but under the circumstances, this isn't a year when it's prudent to go with the chalk.

This hasn't been a good year for me when it comes to important family events conflicting with significant racing events. My wife and I celebrated our 50th wedding anniversary on Nov. 5. For those with short memories, that was Breeders' Cup Day. I saw that one coming a couple of years out. Fortunately my wife loves Las Vegas as much as I do so we celebrated there. She played the slots while I played the Breeders' Cup card, then we had a great dinner.

I've also known for quite a while that our only grandson will be playing in a national baseball tournament in Cooperstown, N.Y.--home of baseball's Hall of Fame--starting this Saturday, Belmont Stakes Day. Couldn't miss that. I'm writing this en route there.

Recent events have made missing the Belmont for the first time in--I don't know how long--less painful.

I was planning to knock myself out scouring Central New York to find a place to bet and watch the Belmont. Now I'll settle for making a small bet and probably watching it on my phone. This Belmont might be a Classic with a capital C, but it isn't a classic with a lower case c.

The absence of a Triple Crown candidate makes Saturday's third jewel of the Triple Crown less compelling. The news Wednesday morning that Classic Empire has another foot abscess (just like the aftermath of his disastrous Holy Bull) that will keep him out of the Belmont, eradicated any disappointment I might feel.

I really thought that this was the Triple Crown race with his name on it. So did his trainer, Mark Casse. "He's been really unlucky," Casse said during an NTRA conference call last week. "I think he deserves to win one of these races. I think we have the best 3-year-old and I wanted to prove it."

He's down to the Haskell, Travers and Breeders' Cup to do it.

Call it irony, call it karma, but before Classic Empire was knocked out of the Belmont, Casse took a little dig at Chad Brown for not running Preakness champion Cloud Computing. “Always Dreaming is not at the top of his game so I’m not disappointed he’s not running, but I’m really disappointed the Preakness winner isn’t there. Why not? He’s fine.”

He also said something that endeared him to me forever. "We're not afraid to run even if we might not have a 25% winning record. I think too many horses sit in the barn when they’re ready to run.” That last sentence should be chiseled in stone and hung over the entrance to every barn in America.

With three big horses out, only two of the Top 10 3-year-olds in the weekly NTRA poll will make the Belmont, Irish War Cry and Lookin at Lee.

Graham Motion didn't make the decision to run Irish War Cry, who has misfired badly in two of his three most recent races, until early this week. Now with the defection of Classic Empire, he'll probably be the post time favorite.

Cloud Computing provided a big boost to the Wood Memorial's campaign to restore its Grade 1 status by winning the Preakness. Irish War Cry could do even more if he gets the job done Saturday.

Lookin at Lee hasn't won since last August at Ellis Park. The Pea Patch is the site of the only winner's circle Lookin at Lee has ever earned his way into. That's an eight-race slide. He could be the second choice.

Without strong feelings about anyone in the field, I was going to take a shot with the stranger danger, Japan's Epicharis. The way the Japanese love to bet, he'll probably be the favorite back home but this action will not be commingled with the U.S. pools.

Alas, there is a report Thursday morning that he was treated with Butazolidin for lameness in his right fore. His trainer said he will know more about his ultimate Saturday Friday morning.

The way this Belmont in shaping up, it could be won by another Da'Tara or Sarava.

The latter was trained by Ken McPeek. In a strange year without a standout horse, maybe McPeek can strike again with the improving Senior Investor.

Just for action, make it Senior Investor, Irish War Cry, Multiplier.

TVG screws viewers to serve bottom line

Let's play TVG producer. Two races are coming up and it's clear they will break from the gate almost simultaneously. One is a maiden race at Golden Gate; the other is the $500,000 Grade 2 Penn Mile. Which one do you present live and which do you exile to TVG2, which not everyone has access to, or save to play on a delayed tape on the main network?

If your answer seems to be the no-brainer, you don't know racetrack politics, business practices, and you'll never work for TVG.

Golden Gate is owned by Frank Stronach, Penn National is not. [Ed. note] Stronach tracks pay a premium to have their races shown live and not on tape delay.

These agreements do racing fans a disservice. The decision to delay the Penn Mile was on its face outrageous. It was equally contemptuous of fans that Golden Gate didn't have the sense to delay the post of a relatively meaningless race by a couple of minutes so that racing fans could see one of the most significant stakes of the day.

It's not as if dragging posts isn't standard operating procedure at Stronach tracks.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, June 01, 2017

Racing should follow other sports and take replays away from local stewards

Racing's stewards are more inconsistent than $2,500 claimers. A foul meriting disqualification at one track is an "as is" at other venues.Racing should take a lesson from the major team sports and remove decision-making from local officials and allow a central office to adjudicate foul claims and inquiries. Baseball, football and basketball have shown how easily and effectively this can be done. There's no reason for racing not to follow suit.

Racing needs to take a page from Major League Baseball, the NFL and NBA. All have gone from instant replay decisions being made on site by game officials to relying on a central office at a remote location.

Last Saturday’s Gold Cup at Santa Anita is the latest example of a non-decision igniting controversy racing doesn't need. Martin Garcia aboard favored American Freedom allowed his mount to veer out at the start, blasting third choice Follow Me Crev, who didn’t recover until he was near the back of the pack.

Garcia is not a stranger to this kind of controversy. Remember what he did aboard Bayern in the 2014 Breeders Cup Classic. This time, like then, the see-no-evil stewards at Santa Anita did nothing. They didn’t even call Garcia in to talk to him.

What caused a foul odor to settle over the event was the fact that American Freedom’s stablemate in the Bob Baffert barn, Cupid, got the money. Collusion is as difficult to prove in racing as it is in politics. I’ve been going to the races for a half-century and I’ve never seen a horse taken down because of a foul by an entry-mate. It becomes even more complicated when horses from the same barn run uncoupled. But when has this ever stopped a bettor holding a losing ticket from screaming he has been robbed?

The bigger issue is some jurisdictions have a laissez faire attitude about what happens out of the gate. This will probably continue until someone gets maimed or killer. Thankfully, others are not as lenient. Likewise, at some tracks, an infraction has to cost a rival a position to cause a disqualification. At others, a foul is a foul.

This sort of inconsistency is unacceptable in an era where simulcast fans bet a variety of tracks. This is where a central office of judges comes in. If the same people made the calls on racing in California as in New York, in Florida as in Kentucky, players would have a reasonable expectation of what decisions will be.

The ideal composition of such a panel would be retired stewards, trainers and jockeys—maybe even a veteran member of the racing media--people who know the game best through years of participation. A side benefit would be the people making the decisions would not be social buddies with those they are ruling upon, which is the case at almost every track.

Obviously, with racing 18 hours a day, seven days a week, multiples of each would be needed but not so many that expenses would be prohibitive. Shared by several tracks, costs would be easily manageable.

The argument that with so many races going on in proximity and the possibility of simultaneous inquiries this is not workable does not stand up to scrutiny. Baseball has 15 games most nights and it gets decisions made a lot faster than a typical race track inquiry. Same for football and basketball.

This would not alleviate the need for stewards. The major sports still have full crews of game officials. One of their duties is to signal to the central office that there is something worth reviewing. Local stewards could do the same. They also would retain their other responsibilities in meting out suspensions, supervising entries and other local activities. So nobody loses a job while the sport gets rid of some headaches.

Who’s out, who’s in?

The Belmont Stakes card keeps losing major players.

The centerpiece event already has been diminished by the loss of the Derby and Preakness winners. This past week the connections of Blue Grass winner Irap decided to go in a different direction, the Ohio Derby.

The HRI staff will have a lot more on the races next week, but more than a week out, Classic Empire is looking to me more and more like an almost single, with a few savers on the stranger danger, Japan’s Epicharis.

The biggest of the stellar undercard races also has suffered a major loss. Wednesday it was announced that Connect, who is bidding to become racing’s next big star, is out of the Met Mile with an injury. This leaves the race at the mercy of Sharp Azteca, one of the top milers in the world. His gallant second in Dubai only enhanced that status.

The return of Songbird in the Ogden Phipps is a day-maker in itself. There have been some great fillies in recent years and Songbird is right up there with all of them. She might not race in the East again so she's worth going out to see. She’s a single no matter who shows up against her.

A Just a Game showdown between the sizzling Chad Brown’s imports, Antonoe and Roca Rojo vs. streaking Dickinson (Lady Eli made her look even better in winning the Gamely) is worth the inflated price of admission.

On the downside, NYRA has announced only three possibilities for the Easy Goer. If more can’t be hustled this will be the second time in three years the mile and a sixteenth stakes has had a field of three. Last year it drew an overflow five.

With the Woody Stephens at 7 furlongs and the Belmont Stakes on the same card, there are just not enough stakes-worthy 3-year-olds to produce a representative field. The Easy Goer should either be relocated or scrapped.

Early Twilight

Twilight arrives later during the summer in most locales. One exception is Gulfstream Park. Twilight starts at 2:15 p.m.—about the same time it does in Alaska in winter—beginning this Friday. Through the beginning of September, Gulfstream will stage “twilight” racing every Friday.

There’s a simple explanation for twilight coming in the middle of the afternoon and ending while it’s still bright daylight in South Florida. As I’ve mentioned before, a law on the books dictates that there be no thoroughbred racing after 7 p.m.

The now pointless rule was created decades ago at the behest of greyhound tracks and jai alai frontons to protect their monopoly on evening racing. These days, the dog tracks and frontons themselves don’t want to protect their live product. They have been fighting for decoupling for the past several years because their racinos are far more lucrative than races and games.

Moreover, the rule was passed before the era of simulcasting. It’s likely the dogs and jai alai generate more revenue from simulcast bets on horse tracks than their own live contests.

With no known constituency to resist its repeal, the 7 p.m. restriction endures through inertia. The only time it comes into play during the prime winter season is Florida Derby Day, scheduled deep enough into spring that there is still daylight past 7 p.m. Most of the rest of the meeting dusk arrives well before 7. So Gulfstream hasn’t made its repeal a priority or even a consideration.

Absent the rule, Gulfstream could have genuine twilight racing, a 4 p.m. start that would allow a 9-race card to be completed in the vicinity of 8 p.m. when there is still plenty of daylight. So if the twilight cards prove successful, especially toward their back end, maybe Gulfstream finally will be moved to have the 7 p.m. deadline stricken when the legislature meets next year.

A possible welcome change in the Gulfstream agenda is the addition of live racing on Mondays during the Saratoga season. The Spa is the only major track in the nation that races on Mondays, so there are long gaps of nothingness for simulcast players in the 30-35 minutes between races. Gulfstream surely would prove to be a more attractive alternative than the minor venues available.

When it was suggested to Gulfstream CEO Tim Ritvo, he liked the idea. Thinking out loud, he said, “We’d certainly do better on a Monday during Saratoga then we would on a Wednesday (the day likely to be dropped if the shift happens).”

Ritvo’s history is when he hears an idea that strikes him as good for racing and Gulfstream, he makes it happen.

Miami, June 1, 2017

Written by Tom Jicha

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