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, December 15, 2016

NY state wants to teach Pletcher, Brown, et al, how to train

The New York Gaming Commission has dictated that all trainers, including superstars such as Todd Pletcher, Chad Brown and Bob Baffert, must take a four-hour course each year on how to care for horses and manage a stable. Elsewhere, the Pegasus Stakes will not only be the world's richest race, it will be the most expensive to attend. On top of the previously announced $100 general admission, Gulfstream plans to charge $50 per car to park.

MIAMI, Dec. 15--The following has to be prefaced with this is not a joke.

Todd Pletcher and Chad Brown are being compelled by the New York State Gaming Commission to take a four-hour course annually on how to train horses and run a stable. So is Kiaran McLaughlin and every other trainer on the NYRA circuit. If he starts more than 12 horses in New York the entire year, Bob Baffert also is subject to this ludicrous dictate, as is every out-of state-trainer.

This is like New York forcing Billy Joel, who regularly plays Madison Square Garden, to take performing lessons from the state.

The Gaming Commission mandate, which also applies to assistant trainers, would be praiseworthy if it were limited to those trying to break into the profession or running one- and two-horse barns. To subject Hall of Fame achievers to it is beyond insulting. But as often is the case with government, common sense is a non-starter.

“Creating a continuing education requirement for trainers will bring knowledge and evidence-based research to an audience that otherwise generally would not be exposed to it,” according to Rob Williams, the gaming commission’s executive director.

Fortunately, there is an expedient escape. The course can be taken online, so trainers too busy conditioning hundred-horse barns can assign an underling, who it might help, to take the course for them. Stupid edicts beg to be circumvented.

The New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association is understandably opposed to this onerous burden, especially since standardbred horsemen are exempt. A similar program is being contemplated for the standardbred industry, according to Williams.

Why is the state only thinking about it? Before this program was announced, someone should have figured out that when it comes to physical issues, a horse is a horse, (of course, of course), whether it’s toting a jockey or pulling a sulky. Sound business practices and ethics are equally crucial in both games.

The intriguing question is who is going to teach Pletcher, Brown and their colleagues to do what they do better than anyone? Apparently, it’s going to be a bureaucrat. Beautiful.

Bridge jumping on way out?

At the same session, the Gaming Commission took under consideration allowing tracks to eliminate show wagering in races with four entrants to combat staggering minus pools.

This is a reminder of a proposal West Coast racing activist Andy Asaro has been pushing in California. To reduce minus pools, he wants tracks to be able to reduce the minimum payoff to $2.05.

His tradeoff is breakage would be eliminated. If a horse’s odds dictated, say, a $6.39 payoff, that is what the bettor would get. This was not feasible in the era when most players cashed at the windows and pennies would have tied up the lines. With fractional betting and a large percentage of players opting for automated tellers and computer betting, this is no longer a significant drawback.

I think the proposal has a lot of merit. Like the overwhelming majority of players, I don’t get involved in bridge-jumper situations. However, I would like to get the true odds on a winning bet and it’s not a matter of pennies. It could come out to a couple of bucks on a $10 win bet. Asaro argues this might steer some players back to the win pool, thereby increasing churn and fans cashing bets.

What do you think?

Movable finish lines?

Kent Desormeaux, who can ride the hair off a horse, doesn’t have a lot going on under his own hair.

Biting the hand that has fed him spectacularly over the years, Desormeaux said at the annual jockey’s convention in Las Vegas that he doesn’t trust photo finishes. His contention is the finish line can be drawn wherever the placing judges want it.

The irony is Desormeaux is someone who has typically not had a handle on where the wire is. He has been fined and suspended repeatedly for not riding his horse out to the finish.

Desormeaux isn’t the only one to voice this opinion. I have pondered it myself when they put up a number I couldn’t believe. But there has never been a smidgen of proof that this is happening.

Unless and until he produces evidence of tampering with photos, Desormeaux should keep his mouth shut. The last thing the game needs is another conspiracy theory challenging its integrity espoused by someone with his prominence.

Commoners not welcome

If you asked Santa to bring you one of those $100 tickets to the Pegasus Stakes, better send him an addendum that you need a $50 parking pass, too.

If the purpose of the $12 million Pegasus—the world’s richest race—is to bring new fans to racing, The Stronach Group is choosing a strange way to do it.

The $100 general admission gets you through the gate, nothing more. Every place to sit down except the toilets is substantially extra. Bar stools are going for $200.

On top of that, parking will cost $50 per car. That’s self parking. If you want to valet, it will cost you a C-note, tip not included.

General admission and parking at Gulfstream is normally free. It has been since the new plant with its slots casino opened. Given that the mainstream media doesn’t devote much space to thoroughbred racing and Gulfstream isn’t highlighting the budget-busting prices in its advertising, it’s a sure bet thousands of regular race-goers are going to be shocked when they arrive at the track.

When you factor in what it is going to cost Gulfstream to erect and staff barriers where there are none, it’s fair to ask whether there could be a point of diminishing returns in revenue while suffering a major blow in public relations.

The premium areas, where a seat at a restaurant table goes for as much as $765, could be segregated by wrist bands to keep out the commoners while the general areas could be free as always or cost a nominal amount, say $10 or $20, without the bottom line taking much of a hit. This is somewhat how the crowd is handled on Florida Derby Day and it has worked well.

This doesn’t take into account that Gulfstream is essentially putting its mall out of business for the day because of the parking fee and essentially closing its casinos to the general public on a weekend day in the height of tourist season.

Speaking of the Florida Derby. the Pegasus situation also creates a long range threat to horse players. If a substantial number of race-goers spring for the $100 admission, a precedent will have been established. It would seem to be only a matter of time until admission and parking are no longer free on Florida Derby Day and maybe other big attraction afternoons.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, December 08, 2016

A series of wrongs finally makes for one right

California did it again. With a mandatory Jackpot 6 payoff on closing day at Del Mar, there was no announcement that there would be no consolation payoff for five winners, as there had been every other day at the meeting. Bettors didn't find out until after the prices had been posted. The uproar was immediate and sustained, as it should have been, so much so that Del Mar relented and announced that those with five winners would be paid. It was the right thing to do but it could turn out badly. A precedent has been established that the "official" sign is not the final word on payoffs.

MIAMI—California, which has done everything wrong, has finally been moved to do the right thing. Ultimately this might turn into another mistake.

Del Mar management, the California Horse Racing Board and the stewards each completed egregious faux pas in such a relatively short period they couldn’t have screwed up more if they were trying.

Recognizing the latest mistake could have been the outrage that set off a revolution, Del Mar did something tracks rarely, if ever, do. Without being obligated by law, but spurred by business sense, it went into its own pocket to pay off an extra set of winners.

Last Sunday was closing day at Del Mar. The track’s jackpot Pick 6 had the customary mandatory payout. When the official was posted on the final race, the price for 6 winners was posted--$15,660.

No consolation payoff for 5-of-6 was posted, to the surprise and consternation of those with such tickets. No reason they shouldn’t have been surprised. When the bet was hit earlier in the meeting with a single jackpot winner or with multiple winners, there were consolation payoffs. Most significantly, there was no announcement there would be no consolation payoffs.

Del Mar fell back on a rule created by the Association of Racing Commissioners International, which dictates no consolations on mandatory payout days. Who knew? Apparently not anyone in the upper echelon of Del Mar, which explains why there was no announcement to bettors.

The ARCI rule was utilized because California allowed the bet to be introduced without creating a rule of its own. Think about that. A new bet, which everyone recognized could zoom into the millions--in fact, that was its purpose--was instituted without rules about payoffs.

After three days of standing its ground in spite of an uproar from coast to coast, Del Mar announced it will pay those who had 5-of-6 the $81 they felt entitled to on Sunday.

This could come back to bite Del Mar and other tracks in the behind since a precedent has been established.

Throughout history, the official result has always been the last word for pari-mutuel payoffs. Now when results are overturned because of a successful appeal or a drug positive, bettors could go to court and say, “They paid off on the Jackpot 6 well after the fact. Since the result has been altered for every other purpose—purses, horses’ records, etc.—why shouldn’t I be paid, too.”

With so many wagers being made by computer, the mechanisms are in place. This wasn't the case when paper tickets provided the only proof of having the winner.

These tactics might not ever be successful but they have the potential to generate a lot of legal headaches.

Gambling's not shameful

Horse racing is a sport. So is curling. Without gambling, horse racing is curling.

The kickoff panel at the annual Symposium on Racing and Gambling in Arizona discussed whether racing should be marketed as a sport or as a gambling vehicle. This was as much a waste of time as debating whether Certs is a candy mint or a breath mint.

Racing is a sport on a balmy winter afternoon at Gulfstream, a spring day at Keeneland, a summer getaway at Saratoga or Del Mar. But absent gambling, the Little League World Series would draw bigger crowds. Anyone who thinks otherwise is delusional.

In the dead of winter at Aqueduct or on a snowy night at Penn National, racing is slot machines with flesh and blood. Trying to present it otherwise is not only futile it diminishes the credibility of those trying to do so.

Whether at the Spa in August or Aqueduct in February, the unifying thread is racing is a rare form of entertainment with gambling in which an intellectual challenge and strategy offers the individual some control over his fate. Yet it can be equally enjoyed by newcomers seeking only an exciting diversion.

Poker and fantasy sports might be the only other forms of entertainment in this category. Not coincidentally both are soaring in popularity and attracting the demographics--young people--racing desperately needs to cultivate to secure its future.

For some unfathomable reason, racing refuses to market itself in this manner. T-shirt and hat giveaways, dollar beer and hot dog days are useful promotional tools but the core product, gambling, has to be the lure.

“Our races are like a fantasy game every few minutes. You can bet as little as 50 cents or a dollar, win hundreds, maybe thousands, and the payoffs are immediate” should be a universal marketing campaign.

Once you can get new fans in the door, they might discover the aesthetic beauty of the game and learn the names of the outstanding competitors, which might contribute to bringing them back.

The panel in Arizona had “racing’s identity crisis” as its theme. Racing doesn’t have an identity crisis. It has a self esteem crisis. It’s ashamed to admit what it is, a gambling sport.

With so many casinos popping up all over the map that they are cannibalizing each other (see Atlantic City), lottery tickets available at the checkout counter in supermarkets, poker all over cable TV and legalized sports gambling coming soon, there is no reason for racing to apologize or back away from what it is. The sooner it accepts this, the better.

Wood, Blue Grass downgrades a start

The Wood Memorial has the Blue Grass Stakes to thank for being downgraded from a Grade 1 to a Grade 2.

The Blue Grass Stakes has the Wood Memorial to thank for being downgraded from a Grade 1 to a Grade 2.

The Graded Stakes Committee could not have downgraded one of the tradition rich stakes at racing’s most prestigious venues without the other screaming murder so loud the O.J. jury would have heard it. By knocking down two, the Committee was able to fall back on results, which should be the only criteria.

The most recent winner of the Wood Memorial to double in the Kentucky Derby was Fusaichi Pegasus in 2000. The last horse to run in the Wood then win the Derby was Funny Cide in 2003.

Outwork , the 2016 winner, ran 14th in the Kentucky Derby then was retired. The field he beat included Trojan Nation, a maiden when he ran second, Adventist, Matt King Coal, Shagaf, Tale of Svall, Flexibility and Dalmore.

Frosted, the 2015 Wood champion, gives the race some cachet but his big triumphs didn’t come until he was 4. The Wood field that year was only marginally superior to 2016: Tencendur, El Kabeir, Daredevil, Tiz Shea D, Toasting Master and Lieutenant Colonel.

If the Wood wasn’t NYRA’s prestige Derby prep, it would have been downgraded long ago. The same goes for Keeneland’s Blue Grass. Strike the Gold in 1991 was the last winner to encore in Louisville. Street Sense, almost 10 years ago, is the last Blue Grass participant to wear the roses on the first Saturday in May.

Brody’s Cause, last spring’s winner, ran seventh in the Derby and sixth in the Belmont before being retired.

To belabor a point I love to make, the glory days of the Blue Grass were when it was 10 days out from the Derby. The Wood was at its peak when it was run two weeks in advance of the Derby. Then again, today's trainers are so much smarter than Ben Jones, Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons and Charlie Whittingham, who didn't have the advantage of getting advice from guys producing sheets in an office miles from the track.

Part of the Blue Grass’ downfall is self-inflicted, a victim of Keeneland having a synthetic track from 2006-14. Many top contenders shied away from using the kitty litter surface for their horse’s final Derby prep.

A bigger problem than the downgrading of a couple of races with such rich histories is the false equivalency it creates. The Wood Memorial and Blue Grass are now the same grade as the Nashua, which had a four-horse field. Three had one win apiece. The other was a maiden, who won the race. There are numerous other examples of over-rated Grade 2’s.

The entire process needs to be revised. There should not be a Grade 1 race for juveniles other than the two Breeders’ Cup events. The vast majority of these stakes are no more than entrance level allowances.

Any juvenile race in which the majority of starters have only a maiden win should not be eligible for grading at any level.

Similarly, stakes for any age with five or fewer starters should be reduced by at least one grade unless at least two of the starters have wins at that grade or higher.

The Florida Derby, Santa Anita Derby and Arkansas Derby, the remaining Grade 1 spring races for 3-year-olds, are admittedly preps for the Triple Crown and the top prospects strive to avoid each other. Ergo, none should be higher than Grade 2. Preps for these races—the Fountain of Youth, Rebel, etc.--should not be higher than Grade 3.

The Derby, Preakness, Belmont, Haskell, Travers and now the Pennsylvania Derby, which earned its upgrade, should be the only Grade 1’s restricted to 3-year-olds. A coveted sprint, such as the Kings Bishop and maybe one or two others, is an exception worth discussion.

Until changes along these lines are made, the grading system will be nothing more than a promotional tool for breeders so misleading that it would not be tolerated in other forms of business.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, December 01, 2016

It’s prime time at Gulfstream and more of same at Del Mar

Gulfstream's prime season, home of the finest winter racing in the nation, opens Saturday with a new focus, the $12 million Pegasus on Jan. 28. But the makeup of the field is still in doubt with everyone crossing their fingers for a California Chrome-Arrogate rematch. On the other coast, California stewards again demonstrated they have no regard for the betting public by failing to do what they should have when debris interfered with 10 of 13 horses in the Jimmy Durante.

MIAMI, Dec. 1, 2016--How appropriate that the giveaway Saturday at Gulfstream Park is a 2017 calendar. There might be four weeks left in the current year for society at large but opening day of the prime winter meeting signals that as far as Florida racing goes--racing on the East Coast for that matter--it’s time to turn the page on 2016 and look ahead to the new year.

The Claiming Crown has become cemented as the opening day fixture. Light on star power, it’s arguably the best betting day of the year—full, competitive fields shipping in from hither and yon.

Once the Day One festivities are out of the way, the coming season will be unlike those that have preceded it in a significant way. For the first time, the focus of the meeting will not be on the Florida Derby on April 1 but the ground-breaking Pegasus, with its uniquely funded $12 million purse, on Jan. 28.

There are still naysayers, who believe it won’t happen, not without justification. Eight weeks out, there are only a couple or three committed starters. I’ve also had my doubts but I think it’s too far down the road to call it off. The embarrassment would be suffocating.

The saving grace is one of those definitely pointing for what will be the world’s richest race is California Chrome, the world’s richest thoroughbred. As long as he makes the race, it will be a definite go even if it means hustling the backstretch for a few sacrificial lambs. If California Chrome and his Breeders’ Cup conqueror Arrogate both start, it won’t matter who else shows up.

However, Arrogate’s oil rich connections are not among the 12 subscribers, who put up a million apiece to buy a guaranteed slot in the gate. No one doubts that if they want to come to Gulfstream, a way will be found.

Frank Stronach owns a starting berth, presumably ticketed for his Woodward winning Shaman Ghost. Stronach has so much of his personal prestige on the line, it would be more important to arrange a California Chrome-Arrogate rematch than to take a shot with his colt.

It will be unfair to judge the Pegasus as less than a success if fewer than 12 start. The Donn Handicap, the Grade 1 it replaces, drew only eight last winter. Santa Anita’s Big Cap, the winter’s other premier race for older horses, attracted nine. The Breeders’ Cup Classic also had only nine starters as did the Pacific Classic. Saratoga’s Whitney had only six. Only five loaded into the gate for the Jockey Club Gold Cup.

Quality outranks quantity. The Pegasus will be a better race with fewer than a dozen starters. It’s hard to conjure more than half that number that have even a puncher’s chance against the Big Two.

It would be a shame if some no-shot horse, in for the guaranteed $200,000 consolation prize, does something goofy to compromise or eliminate one of the favorites. Bayern doesn’t fall into the filler category but it should not be forgotten what he did to California Chrome and Shared Belief in the 2014 Breeders’ Cup Classic.

An interesting sidelight is either California Chrome or Arrogate will be named 2016 Horse of the Year when the Eclipse ballots are tabulated. Gulfstream bills its winter session “the championship meeting” but the winner will be the first reigning HoY to compete at Gulfstream since St. Liam in the 2007 Donn Handicap.

Coincidentally, another Horse of the Year also ran and won the same afternoon at Gulfstream. Curlin, who would go on become HoY in 2007 and 2008, broke his maiden on the undercard. It would be the only time he competed at Gulfstream.

Another SoCal abomination

The latest abomination in California racing, not ruling last Saturday’s Jimmy Durante a no-contest after debris in the first turn scattered and/or spooked most of the field, isn’t infuriating because it happened. Heinous decisions by Southern California stewards have come to be expected.

It’s the pervasive attitude of the people in charge of the game that the bettors, without whom there is no racing, aren’t a low priority, they are a no priority. Among other things, this “if you don’t like it, too bad” thinking is how fans are raped for inexcusably exorbitant takeouts to service the bottom lines of the tracks and the owners.

To get back to the Jimmy Durante, Saturday was an atypical blustery, rainy day at Del Mar. At some point just prior to the stakes or after the field was sprung in the two-turn event, several good-sized protective pads that cover drains came loose and blew onto the course. They went unnoticed until the field raced toward them in the first turn.

This had the same chaotic effect on the riders that suddenly seeing something in the roadway does on drivers. Some scattered, some figuratively hit the brakes.

Drayden Van Dyke, who rode the eventual winner, Journey Home, was quoted as saying, “This was the craziest race I’ve ever been in.” Hall of Famer Mike Smith, said, “It was pretty scary…My horse jumped one. I know other horses altered course.”

The Racing Form chart gave first turn trouble calls to 10 of the 13 horses.

Clearly, California Horse Racing Board Rule 1514 should have come into play. “The stewards may declare a race ‘no contest’ if mechanical failure or interference during the running of the race affects the majority of the horses.” Ten of 13 constitutes a majority the way I was taught math.

The stewards opted to do nothing because they didn’t think it was appropriate to make it a no contest, according to Scott Chaney, “Had the race been declared a no contest, all wagers would have been refunded and no purse money would have been paid.”

In other words, the people who nominally (laughably) are supposed to protect the public were intent on protecting the track’s cut of the pool and the owners’ slices of the purse but had no regard for the bettors.

Business as usual at SoCal tracks.

Written by Tom Jicha

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