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.

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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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Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Preakness deprives racing of three weeks attention

The masses have a limited attention span for racing, generally the five weeks from the Kentucky Derby to the Belmont Stakes. Cloud Computing's upset in the Preakness ended any Triple Crown hopes. But the likelihood that neither Cloud Computing nor Derby winner Always Dreaming will enter the Belmont virtually eradicates the hope for widespread interest in the third jewel of the Triple Crown. The most conversation worthy element could be the presence of Japanese standout Epicharis.

Preakness Day provided a scintillating afternoon of racing. Whether it was a great day for racing is debatable.

Cloud Computing’s upset of the second jewel of the Triple Crown effectively cut the legs out from under the Belmont Stakes. The current thinking is neither Preakness champion Cloud Computing nor Kentucky Derby winner Always Dreaming will answer the call.

All sports have become largely star dependent. Without the winners of the first two jewels, the Belmont will be bereft of star power. Of the five big horses going into the Triple Crown—Irish War Cry, Gunnevera, McCraken, Always Dreaming and Classic Empire—only the latter is expected to show up.

Racing captures the masses’ attention for only five weeks each year, during Triple Crown season. This year it is losing three of those weeks. NYRA will put on another great day of undercard races but these hold little interest to the event-seekers, who swell a crowd of 60,000 to 90,000. The TV ratings for the Preakness were about half that of the Derby. Without a Triple Crown possibility and well known horses they could drop in half again for the Belmont.

Chances are better that Chad Brown might decide to send Cloud Computing to the Belmont, although the trainer’s statement that he thought the six-week gap between the Wood Memorial and Preakness while catching the Derby participants on two weeks rest played a significant role in Cloud Computing’s victory. It would be inconsistent to reverse this thinking and throw his colt to the herd of well rested horses, albeit of limited achievement, pointing to the Belmont.

You should live so long before Todd Pletcher runs another of his serious horses back in two or even three weeks, unless another Derby triumph forces his hand.

In spite of his Juvenile Eclipse credentials, it will be a challenge to build a promotional campaign around Classic Empire, whose 3-year-old efforts have been a first, second, third and fourth in four starts. The fact that he was caught late at a mile and three-sixteenths won’t enhance his promotability for a classic that is the length of the stretch and then some further than the Preakness.

This isn’t to say Classic Empire can’t win the Belmont. Perusing his potential challengers, he might be the horse to beat on class alone. Of the top 10 horses in the latest NTRA 3-year-old poll, the only other potential Belmont horses are Lookin at Lee, beneficiary of a golden rail in the Derby to grab second but a non-winner in eight starts since last summer at Ellis Park, and Lexington winner Senior Investment, who closed for third in the Preakness. This might be enough to make him second choice on June 10.

It could be the big attraction will be somewhat of a novelty act, the Japanese invader Epicharis, whose main claim to fame was a close second to Thunder Snow in the UAE Derby. For those with short memories, Thunder Snow is the colt who went bat crap crazy right out of the Churchill Downs starting gate. He’ll seek to restore his reputation Saturday in the Irish Two Thousand Guineas. A strong showing could add to the luster of Epicharis, who suffered his only defeat in the Dubai race.

You have to wonder if Epicharis is coming to the U.S. because his connections feel the Belmont is the right spot for him or whether it’s to chase the $1 million bonus NYRA has put up for a Japanese horse (only a Japanese horse), who captures the Belmont.

There’s a method to NYRA’s bonus madness. With Epicharis in the field, Japanese bettors are expected to send in tens of millions of dollars in wagers even though the race will take place very early on a Sunday morning in the Far East. The Japanese wagered $40 million on last year’s Arc.

American tracks have been avidly pursuing this windfall for the past several years. Gulfstream sent a contingent of executives to Japan last winter in a vain attempt to recruit a Japanese horse for the Pegasus. They can be counted upon to do the same next winter. If Epicharis wins the Belmont, then goes back home, a showdown with Arrogate in the Pegasus would rival last January’s California Chrome-Arrogate confrontation.

This is a dream scenario. In the real world, the 3-year-old division is desperately in need of another Arrogate, who was under the radar at this time last year. Maybe undefeated Mastery will recover from surgery for a condylar fracture and come back to be Bob Baffert's newest superstar. But I keep hearing retirement is the more likely course of action.


Uniformity in medication rules has been an aggressively pursued and admirable goal for as long as I can remember. Barr-Tomko notwithstanding, there is no indication the sport is any closer to that than it was when first proposed.

In the meantime, how about uniformity in an eminently achievable area closer to racing fans’ hearts—mutual payoffs?

Last Saturday brought maddeningly frustrating examples on both coasts of how different jurisdictions handle scratches in multi-race bets. Consolation payoffs? Refunds? Being moved to the favorite?

Full disclosure: I was involved in each of these. However, none involved serious money. It's the unnecessary lack of consistency that is enervating.

I made some advance daily doubles and pick 3’s for the early Preakness Day races before leaving Gulfstream last Friday. I had the winner of the first race with four in the second in both doubles and pick 3’s.

Two of them scratched after the betting opened, so I figured I would get consolation daily doubles, the policy at most tracks. Instead I got my money back. This would be understandable with overnight scratches but this was a special case, since betting had been open all day Friday.

I figured I would still be alive for consolations pick 3’s with the first race winner, second race scratches and my third race choices, one of which won. But there was no consolation payoff, which also would be the case at most tracks. Apparently my two scratches were moved to the favorite in the middle leg. This is the widespread policy for pick 4’s but not pick 3’s anywhere else that I am aware of.

Speaking of pick 4’s, there was a scratch at the gate in the final leg of Santa Anita’s pick 4. Most everywhere, the track announcer would have explained to the public that bettors holding that horse would be moved to the post-time favorite as well as what would happen to daily doubles and pick 3’s. Regulars know how it works but keeping the public up to date is crucial on big days like Preakness Saturday because so many patrons are infrequent race-goers. There was plenty of time for an announcement as the horses were backed out of the gate. Alas, not a word on the multi-race bets was made.

This is another example of how not to win friends for racing and influence return visits.

Movable figs

I’ve been a fan of the Beyer figs ever since they were introduced in the defunct Racing Times. I don’t use them as the final word but I consider them a useful handicapping tool.

Lately, my enthusiasm has waned as Beyer figs have been subjectively changed between races far too often.

The latest example is Multiplier, who was initially assigned an 89 for his Illinois Derby victory. A week or so later, the 89 was revised upward to a 94. Multiplier had not run and put up another big figure. Neither had the second- and third-place finishers. It was a totally subjective decision.

The elevated number gave Multiplier the third highest last-race fig in the Preakness. At 89, he would have been in a tie for the sixth highest last race fig in a field of 10. Coincidentally, Multiplier ran sixth.

Moving up Multiplier’s Illinois Derby also entailed increasing second-place finisher Hedge Fund from 89 to 94 since he finished only a head behind. This gave Hedge Fund the highest last race Beyer in the Sir Barton on the Preakness undercard. Hedge Fund went off at even-money and ran out of the money. Granted there were other factors, primarilyHedge Fund being from the Pletcher barn. But the highest Beyer surely influenced the price.

Late after-the-fact revisions are an attempt to enhance the credibility of the figs. But to at least one player, they are having the opposite effect.

Written by Tom Jicha

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