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 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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Thursday, November 24, 2016

Give thanks for a great weekend of racing

The Eclipse championships were mostly settled at the Breeders' Cup but this weekend still offers a cornucopia of quality racing. Aqueduct and Churchill Downs have stakes laden agendas as they wind down their 2016 seasons and Gulfstream West wraps up business, hopefully for the final time, with a pair of added-money events. I see at least four opportunities to make a score without resorting to the chalk. On the not-so-positive side, the first Kentucky Derby futures bet, the worst wager in racing, launches in advance of the 2017 Run for the Roses.

MIAMI, Nov. 24--Thanksgiving has settled into its role as the anti-climactic weekend of the racing season. Most of the championships have been decided—this year more than ever. However, plenty of quality races are still out there as New York and Kentucky fire their last big shots of 2016 and Florida sets the table for the championship season at Gulfstream, which opens with the Claiming Crown a week from Saturday.

The absence of the big stars diminishes the likelihood of tough-to-beat odds-on favorites, so betting opportunities abound. I’m going to take a swing at four of these stakes, two at Churchill on Friday and a couple more Saturday at Gulfstream West (Calder). I don’t think any of my selections will go to the post as chalk.

Hoppertunity and Effinex, coming out of fourth and seventh-place finishes in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, respectively, will probably vie for favoritism in the Grade 1 Clark, but the horse to beat in my opinion is Noble Bird. The Mark Casse trainee has demonstrated hints of brilliance throughout his career; he appears at the top of his game, coming off back-to-back stakes wins for the first time; and he has shown an affinity for Churchill Downs. He won his only Grade 1 in the 2015 Stephen Foster (Hoppertunity was third) and prior to taking Keeneland’s Fayette last month, he captured the Lukas Classic under the twin spires. He also ran second in the Alysheba on Derby Day 2015.

I’m looking for a slight reversal in Friday’s co-feature, the grassy Mrs. Revere. Harmonize and Hawksmoor ran 2-3, in that order, behind Time and Motion, the best 3-year-old turf filly in America, in the QE II at Keeneland. Hawksmoor did the dirty work, pressing Catch a Glimpse then taking the lead in the stretch before Time and Motion and Harmonize ran her down late.

That was the U.S. debut for Hawksmoor, a Grade 2 winner in Europe. She goes out for the first time Friday for Arnaud Delacour, the latest super trainer to emerge from the Mid-Atlantic region.

A trainer angle also figures into Saturday’s Tropical Turf Handicap.

Christopher Clement has a pair, who will be well supported, injury plagued War Correspondent and gallant old New Yorker Lubash, who won this race in 2014 but will turn 10 in little more than a month.
Clement is masterful at bringing back horses from a layoff but War Correspondent has been a money-burner on the occasions when Clement has been able to get him to the races, which has happened only four times in 2015 and 2016. When last seen, he finished eighth as the favorite in the Tampa Bay Stakes in February.

I’m going with Rose Brier, a winner of four of six in 2016, most recently a restricted stakes at Laurel in late September. The tipping point for me is he’s conditioned by Jane Cibelli, who can really light them up in Florida. What’s more, Rose Brier’s regular rider, Trevor McCarthy, who rode five winners at Parx on Tuesday, all of whom paid at least $9, is coming south for the ride. Cibelli must have convinced him Rose Brier is live.

Strike Charmer, who ended Lady Eli’s unbeaten streak in the Ballston Spa at Saratoga, will probably be solid chalk in the co-featured My Charmer but Isabella Sings is ripe to spring an upset. Last winter, Isabella Sings almost stole the Hillsborough Stakes from Tepin before getting run down late. Todd Pletcher, who has had a hot hand at the Gulfstream West session, sent her to Florida early with this race in mind and she won’t have to hold off Tepin if she can get loose on the lead.

The best thing about the My Charmer and Tropical Turf is they are the last stakes of the Gulfstream West season and hopefully the last stakes ever run at the former Calder Race Course, which is now a vacant lot with a track. The feeling is something will be done legislatively within the next year so that racing never has to return to such a disgraceful setting. This would be something for which every racing fan could be thankful.

Worst bet in racing

The Kentucky Derby futures wager is the worst bet in racing, maybe all of sports. It was bad when it started early in the New Year. It got even worse when the first edition was advanced to November. Clearly this is a bid by avaricious Churchill Downs to siphon money from the vulnerable while memories of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile are still fresh.

If a Derby futures bet almost a half-year out is to have any sporting or entertainment value, players should be paid if their selection makes it to the starting gate on the first Saturday in May. It still would be a challenge.

Maybe it was a reminder from the racing gods to reinforce the folly of the bet when 48 hours before it opened on Thursday, prophetically named Not This Time, one of the horses who figured to take a lot of action, was retired with a soft tissue injury.

As much a godsend as the scratch was for those ready to send it in on the fast closing Breeders’ Cup Juvenile runner-up, it has to be heart-breaking for Dale Romans, who said last summer that Not This Time had the potential to be the best horse he has ever trained.

Noticeably absent from the remaining 22 individual interests, headed by Breeders’ Cup champion Classic Empire and the ubiquitous field, is South Florida summer sensation Three Rules.The winner of his first five starts fizzled at the Breeders’ Cup but he beat as many as beat him after being wide all the way. He also had a grueling van and plane trip from South Florida to California, which had to sap him somewhat.

Moreover, Gormley and Klimt, who finished behind him in the Juvenile, are included in the first Derby future field, which includes 10 other horses who have won only once.

Three Rules might not win the Derby—emphasis on might not—but barring injury he’ll have a better 3-year-old season than more than half those in the future field. Don’t let the Breeders’ Cup fool you. This colt can run.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, November 17, 2016

Gulfstream Has Eclipse Ceremony But No Honorees

Gulfstream without vociferous argument has the strongest racing program in the nation each winter. But when this year's Eclipse Awards are presented in January, it's likely that not a single horse who raced there in 2016 will be celebrated.

Also: Santa Anita stewards made another outrageous call; Unacceptable double standard for workout descriptions; Another juvenile stakes makes a mockery of the grading system; Churchill Downs puts revenue first again when it comes to the Kentucky Derby.

MIAMI, Nov 17--Racing is such a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately game.

In my opinion, Gulfstream has the finest winter racing in America. But when this year’s Eclipse Awards are presented, chances are that, as stated, not a single horse who raced in South Florida during the 2015-16 season will be honored.

There is no 2-year-old program to speak of during the prime winter dates, so a shutout in those categories is understandable. Nyquist won the Florida Derby en route to getting draped with roses in Kentucky but Arrogate’s late season brilliance seized the 3-year-old male title. Songbird moved around but never to Florida.

California Chrome, who will finally get to Gulfstream in January for the Pegagsus, is a cinch for older dirt horse and Beholder will capture a fourth Eclipse trophy without ever winning a race outside Southern California.

A.P. Indian, Drefong and Lord Nelson will vie for the sprint crown but none made it to Gulfstream. Finest City has the inside track on the female side off her Breeders' Cup score, and she never left California.

Flintshire, the likely male turf king despite ending the season with a pair of runner-up decisions, didn’t begin his campaign until June. Tepin, best of her gender on grass, trained in South Florida but both her Sunshine State races were at Tampa.

As far as I’m concerned, the Gulfstream shutout is strictly coincidental, but how ironic is it that the Eclipse ceremony again be held at Gulfstream?

Another California travesty

It fell between the cracks last week because of the emphasis on the Breeders’ Cup but there was another outrageous stewards’ decision at Santa Anita on the day after the big days. This one went beyond the officials just being wrong. It reflected badly on the integrity of racing in California.

Lofty Cause, Rafael Bejarano up, crossed the wire first in the opening race on Sunday. The inquiry sign went up immediately because Bona Fide Image and Tyler Baze went down during the running. After the typical ridiculously extended deliberations, the stewards took down Lofty Cause, deciding that he came into Bona Fide Images’ path, triggering the mishap.

In spite of looking at the replay a dozen or more times, the stewards failed to see what most at the track and watching on TV could. Lofty Cause was indeed directly in front of Bona Fide Image when the spill occurred but he was holding his own path and was in no way responsible. Bona Fide’s Image bobbled on his own.

Inept calls are commonplace with the Southern California stewards but this one was particularly egregious. The horse who was put up, Friendly Request, was ridden by Alex Solis. Yes, that Alex Solis of the California Horse Racing Board.

It might have seemed like a good idea to have a jockey’s perspective on the board but incidents like this one and Solis’ recent beef with trainer Steve Miyadi and the unacceptable conflicts of interest they create, greatly outweigh any benefits.

Surely there must be some respected retired jockeys, who could provide the same insights the still active Solis does.

Breezing? Handily?

Is it asking too much for the the Racing Form to get its workouts act together? Drilling into the Breeders’ Cup past performances at Santa Anita, it was hard to miss that the descriptions of how a horse worked is dependent on which side of the Mississippi the clocker comes from.

Horses who race in the East frequently have their works listed as breezing. West Coast horses rarely do. They are almost always categorized as handily.

As an Easterner, I’ve always considered breezing as less vigorous than handily. However, when horses from the opposite coasts come together for an event like the Breeders’ Cup or Triple Crown races, this could be a misinterpretation.

How hard could it be for the Form to get its clockers together and create a guideline for the difference between breezing and handily?

Grade 2 is a Grade 1 joke

My longstanding contention that there should be no more than a handful of graded stakes for juveniles and only the Breeders’ Cup as a Grade 1 was bolstered again last week.

The Nashua Stakes on opening day at Aqueduct drew five entrants. Only four ran. Three of them had one victory in their past performances, one of these a race restricted to Iowa-bred 2-year-olds. The fourth entrant, Hemsworth, went into the race a zero-for-two maiden with a couple of off-the-board finishes.The latter won by a pole.

The Nashua is a Grade 2 race, same as the Pennsylvania Derby, whose recent winners include Frosted, Bayern—California Chrome was an also ran--and Eclipse champion Will Take Charge. Other Grade 2 stakes include the Suburban Handicap, Brooklyn Handicap, Oaklawn Handicap, San Antonio Handicap and Fountain of Youth. I could go on.

Graded juvenile stakes on both coasts regularly go to the post with a half-dozen or fewer starters, most with only maiden wins on their resume. Who’s kidding who?

Follow the money

It was curious when Churchill Downs announced that a couple of races for 3-year-olds in Japan would produce one guaranteed starting berth in next May’s Kentucky Derby.Since this could deny a more accomplished American horse a coveted spot in the field, it raised the question why Churchill would make such a move.

All you had to do to come up with an answer was remember who was doing it. As always with CDI, it was all about revenue. Japan has a rule that bettors there cannot wager on an international race unless it has at least one Japanese runner.

The Japanese bet about $40 million on this year’s Arc. The globally storied Kentucky Derby could attract double that.

Why should we expect anything better from the corporation that sold the Kentucky Derby name to a fast food conglomerate?

Written by Tom Jicha

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