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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Wednesday, September 21, 2016

PARX in National Spotlight: No Males for Songbird; Nyquist Seeks Title

Songbird, who goes for 11 in a row Saturday in the Cotillion, won't risk her undefeated record against colts this year, according to her trainer Jerry Hollendorfer. Meanwhile, Nyquist's trainer, Doug O'Neill, said the Pennsylvania Derby might be the Kentucky Derby winner's last shot to regain his status atop the 3-year-old male division. Both camps say the two outstanding sophomores have the $12 million Pegasus on Jan., 28 at Gulfstream in their long range plans.

MIAMI, Sept. 21, 2016--Songbird goes into Saturday’s $1 million Cotillion with 10 straight wins. Her average victory margin is more than five lengths. She’s won on her home court, on a neutral court and on the home courts of her biggest rivals.

Nevertheless, her trainer, Jerry Hollendorfer feels she still has things to prove. Unfortunately, it might be a while, if ever, before she gets to answer the biggest question: How does she shape up against the best male horses of her generation?

The Cotillion figures to be a stroll in the Parx for Songbird. She has never raced at the Philadelphia area track but Hollendorfer is not the least bit concerned. She travels better than Marco Polo. She shipped to Kentucky for the Breeders’ Cup and put on a show. Hollendorfer sent her cross country to Saratoga and he says she blossomed there.

Not that he had to brag on her. The results of the Coaching Club American Oaks and Alabama say all that needs to be said.

The former was nine furlongs, the latter a mile and a quarter. So she’ll be turning back in the mile and a sixteenth Cotillion with the speedy Kentucky Oaks winner Cathryn Sophia with a big win over the track a prime challenger.

No sweat, Hollendorfer says. “I’m not a believer that it’s going to make a difference, especially with this horse. She has natural speed.”

Even if Songbird wins by a pole, there is no chance she will try the boys in Breeders’ Cup Classic, Hollendorfer said emphatically. “That is out of the question. We’re looking at the Distaff.”

This could entail a showdown with Beholder, who has dominated the West Coast female division for the past four years, and Stellar Wind, who turned the tables on Beholder in the Clement L. Hirsch and was a close and troubled second in the Distaff as a 3-year-old last year. It will be one of the most eagerly anticipated races of Breeders’ Cup weekend but not nearly so much as a Songbird incursion against males would be.

It’s not that Hollendorfer is philosophically opposed to running a filly against colts. “I’ve done it before. I won the California Derby with a filly (Pikes Place Dancer in 1996).”

He’s just not in any hurry.The first time Hollendorfer will consider Songbird stepping out of her gender is the $12 million Pegasus at Gulfstream on Jan. 28, early in Songbird’s 4-year-old season. “It’s in the back of our minds but we’re not pointing to it.”

Songbird’s owner, Rick Porter, is not one of the original dozen who anted up the $1 million entry fee but this won’t be an issue in Hollendorfer’s estimation. “There will be some slots on the table.”

Indeed, a Pegasus starting gate berth changed hands for the first time this week when NYRA board member Earle Mack bought out a group headed by Sol Kumin and James Covello for a price said to be very close to $1 million.

According to the Daily Racing Form, Mack, who doesn’t appear to own a Pegasus caliber horse, said he has a partner but wouldn’t disclose whether this person has a solid contender.

Hollendorfer said the decision whether to go in the Pegasus or any other stakes against colts will depend upon the circumstances. “If California Chrome and those other monsters continue to run the way they have, we wouldn’t be so anxious.”

3YO title on line

Songbird is such a dynamic racehorse that her appearance in the Cotillion has stolen a good deal of the luster from the nominal feature, the $1.25 million Pennsylvania Derby, even though it carries potential season-ending championship implications.

The Pennsylvania Derby and the 3-year-old Eclipse contest appear to come down to Exaggerator and Nyquist, who is coming back off a brief freshening for a growth spurt. Nyquist has the big one, the Kentucky Derby, along with the Florida Derby and San Vicente on his credit sheet. Exaggerator turned the tables in the Preakness and also has the Santa Anita Derby and Haskell on his resume.

Nyquist’s trainer, Doug O’Neill, said the Pennsylvania Derby might be Nyquist’s last shot to vault to the top of his division. “I can’t see how we could win the Eclipse without winning this one...unless we win the Classic.”

He dismisses the chances of Arrogate, who ran a race for the ages in the Travers. ”I think he came along too late.”

History supports this opinion. The Travers was Arrogate’s first stakes, so even doubling down in the Classic might not be enough. It was only two years ago that Bayern won the Haskell, the Pennsylvania Derby and the Classic yet finished third behind California Chrome and Shared Belief in year-end balloting.

O’Neill is confident he has Nyquist back to where he was when he went undefeated through the Kentucky Derby. A respite at San Luis Rey training center away from the stress at a race track has done wonders. “We’re looking at a better version of Nyquist.”

The Derby winner has grown about two hands, according to O’Neill. He also has filled out into his bigger body. “He was getting a little light on us.”

O’Neill volunteered to take the rap for Nyquist’s disappointments in the Preakness and Haskell. “The Preakness was all me.” He told Mario Gutierrez to go to the front, not Nyquist’s preferred style, because he feared other horses would come over in front of him and trap him down inside. Monmouth’s reputation for having a golden rail led O’Neill to give Gutierrez the same instructions in the Haskell,

There will be no encore in the Pennsylvania Derby, O’Neill said. “The only way we’ll find ourselves on the lead is if they hand it to us. There are some fast horses in there, so that’s not going to happen. We’re going to let the race unfold, have a target and go get them late.”

The goal is to go from Pennsylvania to the Breeders’ Cup Classic and eventually the Pegasus. “When Paul (Reddam, Nyquist’s owner and a $1 million Pegasus subscriber) wrote that check, the thinking was we would have a stall in the gate.”

The media event for the Pegasus scheduled for this week has been postponed with a new date still not announced. But the race is still a go.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, September 15, 2016

Lots of questions still surround $12 million race

To the surprise of many, it appears the $12 million Pegasus will actually happen on Jan. 28 at Gulfstream. A media event is scheduled for next week to promote what will be the world's richest race. It should be a lively session with many questions still to be answered, including whether this is a good thing for racing, inasmuch as owners are being asked to put up the entire purse. But Frank Stronach deserves credit for characteristically thinking big for the benefit of racing

MIAMI, Sept. 15, 2016--Frank Stronach wants to make racing great again. You have to like him for that.

Some of his ideas are better than others but they have one thing in common. He swings for tape measure home runs. He doesn’t bunt. And promoting racing is always his priority.

His latest grandiose scheme, the world’s richest horse race, the $12 million Pegasus scheduled for Jan. 28 at Gulfstream, has generated widespread attention and publicity.That’s a positive. However, much of the early conversation centered around whether the Pegasus would actually happen. A poll in the BloodHorse last spring asked if the race would come to reality. Sixty-nine percent of respondents weighed in on the negative side.

The hang-up for many is the way the Pegasus is being funded—a dozen owners anteing up a million dollars apiece for a berth in the starting gate. This is a worse investment than diamond mines in the Aqueduct infield.

The winner will earn a world record $7 million. Only one of the others will show a profit. Second is worth $1.75 million. The remaining 10 will suffer substantial six-figure losses. Third pays $1 million. When you subtract the customary 10 percent apiece for the trainer and jockey, it’s a losing proposition. All the other starters, no matter their final position, will get $250,000.

This doesn’t take into account the cost of keeping a horse in training for three months after the Breeders’ Cup and shipping to Florida.

These expenses might be covered by Stronach’s promise of a cut of the mutual handle as well as a share in media and sponsorship revenue. The problem is the latter two will produce nothing. Only the Triple Crown races get meaningful TV rights fees. The norm is to use whatever sponsorships can be sold to pay to get the race on TV.

As for the handle, if it approaches the level of the Breeders Cup Classic, somewhere between $25-$30 million, each of the shareholders would be lucky to net $100K after Stronach's expenses are deducted. They also get an option to buy into future Pegasus stakes.

The naysayers apparently were wrong. A media event tied to the Pegasus has been scheduled for next week. It’s doubtful a press conference would be called to announce the idea had cratered. That would be done via press release on a Friday night before a holiday weekend.

The press conference comes about a week after the deadline for the original subscribers, who reportedly put up $250,000 last spring, to come up with the final $750K—four months before post time. That the $12 million goal has been reached is likely to be the big announcement.

Many questions still need to be raised at the presser. Is Stronach committed to a second Pegasus if the first isn’t as successful as hoped? Remember, there were oceans of empty seats for the first Super Bowl—and a ticket cost only $12.

Gulfstream doesn’t charge admission, even on Florida Derby Day, because of its casino but reports are there will be a hefty entrance fee for Pegasus Day. What will be done to accommodate casino players? Shutting them out on a weekend day in the height of tourist season could cost more than admissions will generate. It also encourages slots players to sample one of the other half-dozen casinos in South Florida, not a prudent marketing strategy.

Suppose a dozen horses can’t be coaxed into the starting gate. Will the holders of unused shares lose their future rights? In a related area, will there be safeguards to ensure that hopeless candidates don’t enter just to get back at least $250,000 of their ante?

Why has the distance been set at a mile and an eighth? Gulfstream is a nine-furlong oval, so horses in the outside four posts will be severely compromised by the short run into the first turn.The most important race at any Stronach-owned track, the Preakness, is contested over a mile and three-sixteenths. Why not the same for a race Stronach hopes to grow into one of the most important on the globe. The extra 110 yards before the first turn would mitigate the impact of drawing an outside post.

Not to impugn or challenge the integrity or competence of the Gulfstream stewards but the track employs two of the three. Stronach could have one of the top contenders in Woodward winner Shaman’s Ghost. Shouldn’t a trio of outside judges be brought in just in case there is a foul claim involving the house horse?

Finally, is the concept of the Pegasus good for racing? Mike Repole has already been quoted as saying he won’t participate because he doesn’t like the idea of horsemen putting up the entire purse. This sets an incredibly bad precedent.

Some of these questions could and should be dealt with at the press conference. The only way to answer the others is to take a shot and run the race. Stronach deserves plaudits for doing that.

Gender equality

Believe it or not, Kentucky Derby prep season starts Saturday with the Iroquois at Churchill Downs. This is the first of the 10-4-2-1 points stakes through the end of this year. The only exception is the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, where the points double.

It’s a little early to take the points seriously. Last year’s Iroquois winner, Cocked and Loaded, didn’t win again until Aug. 4 of this year when he took a $40K claimer sprint at Saratoga.

Churchill released the roster of 35 Derby qualifying races this week. There’s one addition and one deletion. The Sam F. Davis at Tampa Bay Downs is in as a 10-pointer to the winner and Woodbine’s Grey stakes is out.

It’s difficult to quarrel with either decision. The Sam F. Davis, the prep for the Tampa Bay Derby, has sent 12 starters to the Derby in the past decade, including Belmont Stakes runnerup Destin this year.
The Grey Stakes has had six or fewer starters in three of its four most recent renewals.

It’s heartening that field size is becoming a consideration. It’s something I wish the Graded Stakes Committee would use in its deliberations. I recently advocated reducing the grade by one classification for any stakes that has fewer than six entrants and five starters for two consecutive years.

Churchill also has set aside a berth in the Derby for the high point-earner in a pair of stakes in Japan. As long as this has been done, I would like to see the same opportunity afforded to the top point-getting filly—but only one—in the corresponding Kentucky Oaks points rankings.

This filly would almost certainly come from one of the big six races that carry 100-40-20-10 windfalls—the Fair Grounds Oaks, Gulfstream Oaks, Santa Anita Oaks, Ashland, Gazelle and Fantasy. It usually takes an exceptional filly to win one of those. If more than one filly wants to try the boys, points earned in earlier Oaks qualifiers could be used as a tie-breaker.

Great fillies such as Rachel Alexandra, Zenyatta, Havre de Grace and Tepin have eviscerated the notion that females are the weaker sex in racing. I'm confident Songbird will do the same as soon as she gets the chance. There should be a road to the roses for those who want to try it. Chances are they wouldn’t take advantage, just as Songbird’s connections vowed not to do this past spring, but the mere possibility would generate conversation.

By next spring, there might be a female in the White House. Shouldn’t there be at least one filly in the Derby?

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, September 08, 2016

Frosted’s uncool Woodward has racing fans hot

Joel Rosario's ride aboard Frosted in last Saturday's Woodward has raised questions about what the jockey was doing in the stretch when, at best, he rode Frosted over confidently in finishing third in a race he seemed poised to win. Rosario and the NYRA stewards owe it to the public and the sport to provide better explanations than the ones offered so far.

MIAMI, Sept. 8, 2016--I can't say I told you so but I can say I told you so one race too soon.

Prior to the Whitney, I pointed out that consistency isn't Frosted's forte. I warned Frosted couldn't be counted on to replicate his devastating Met Mile because he had never put together back-to-back wins.

Frosted made me look bad with another dominant score in the Whitney. He didn't revert to his typical form until Saturday's Woodward. The way he did it has conspiracy buffs in a frenzy.

Rather than accept Frosted isn't a win machine and hasn't won a race in a photo finish, they've concocted wild theories. The looniest is Joel Rosario pulled him to please NYRA, which wanted a big payoff in the first weekend of its new Pick 5 wager. This is too ridiculous to merit a response.

Whatever the reason or motivation it didn't seem Rosario was all out to win. As they say in the political arena, the optics are really bad. It didn't appear Rosario persevered as Frosted was making what looked like a winning move in mid-stretch.

It wasn't only the optics that were bad. As Larry Collmus called the race, he said Frosted is "still under a hand ride in the middle of the track as he edges up to the leaders...With a furlong to go, he is head and head for the lead...a very confident ride here."

The Racing Form chart was on the same page:

"Frosted remained confidently handled advancing mildly five wide through the far turn under his own power, angled eight wide into upper stretch...had the rider apply the mildest of hand rides rallying to latch onto the top trio a furlong from home...drifted in under overconfident handling and light cross-reined encouragement and was out-gamed to the finish by a pair." (Shaman Ghost and Mubtaahij)

Rosario said he didn't go to the whip because Frosted doesn't react well to it. Then, why was he carrying it? It's not unprecedented for riders to go to the post without a whip aboard horses who recoil from it.. Also, why wasn't Rosario's hand ride more vigorous and less "confident"?

It's unthinkable a rider with Rosario's reputation would pull a horse in a $600,000 stakes, a Grade 1 no less, being nationally televised. The downside far outweighs any upside. I can't even imagine what any upside could be. Owners with the caliber of star horses jockeys strive to get on were watching.

There also was no reason for Rosario to measure the finish in an attempt to keep weight off Frosted in upcoming events. His next start will be in a Breeders' Cup race, either the Mile or Classic, neither of which is a handicap.

In all likelihood, Rosario just made a poor decision and put in a less than stellar ride. Jockeys make mistakes all the time. Unfortunately for Rosario, he made his, if that is what it was, on the biggest of stages.

It's unfortunate that whatever happened with Frosted will linger from a Saratoga season of brilliant performances: Songbird's total dominance of her generation in the Coaching Club American Oaks and Alabama; Flintshire reinforcing his status as the best of America's turf horses; Arrogate's otherworldly Travers and even Frosted's Whitney.

The only way to eradicate any suspicions is for NYRA, its stewards and Rosario to provide a better explanation to what happened than those that have been offered.

Speaking of explanations

If and when Rosario gets around to offering a more acceptable explanation for the Woodward, let's hope it's more credible than the one presented for Middle Atlantic super trainer Ramon Preciado's multiple drug offenses.

Preciado was suspended for numerous clenbuterol overages. He adopted the familiar someone else tampered with my horses defense. Lo and behold, an alleged culprit has materialized, a 25-year-old female groom, Marian Vega.

According to multiple sources, including the Racing Form, Preciado's barn foreman went to Vega's dorm one afternoon and noticed a bottle of clenbuterol. It must have been in plain view because, according to the Form story, when he asked her about it, she reportedly slammed the door in his face.

The foreman went to the racing commission and two days later investigators went to Vega's dorm. In spite of knowing she was under suspicion, she still had the drug in her room.

The Form story reported that in an affadavit filed, Vega said she administered the drug beyond permissible guidelines to "all of" Preciado's horses over a long period of time. According to the story, she worked for Preciado only from October to April. (Preciado has been an almost 30 percent trainer for the past three years, sometimes transforming cheap claimers into graded stakes winners in a remarkably short period.)

Vega reportedly said she did it because she hated Preciado, who didn't pay her promptly and often humiliated her. (What better way to get even than to give his horses drugs that would help them win races at a Hall of Fame pace?)

Vega has been charged with one count of rigging a horse race, which carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison. Can anyone remember someone, let alone a young first-time offender, doing time for a drug overage?

How cynical do you have to be to wonder if this young lady is merely taking the fall?

Written by Tom Jicha

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