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, 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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Thursday, November 10, 2016

BC Classic rematch is a must for the Pegasus

The $12 million Pegasus at Gulfstream now has a chance to become the instant classic Frank Stronach designed it to be. To achieve this goal, "the world's richest race" must find a way to stage a rematch between Arrogate and California Chrome on Jan, 28. Anything less and it's just another Saturday feature. California Chrome is being pointed toward the race, which will be the last of his career. Arrogate is the challenge. His connections are not among the dozen $1 million subscribers. Even if Gulfstream has to give him a scholarship, it must be done.

MIAMI, Nov. 10--Memo to Frank Stronach: You have to make Arrogate-California Chrome happen again in the Pegasus. This should be your over-riding priority for the next two months.

Skepticism has abounded about whether "the world's richest race" will actually happen on Jan. 28 and what it will look like if it does. If Gulfstream can arrange an encore of the Breeders' Cup Classic, the race will be an instant classic, the goal since its inception.

People will be talking about horses rather than money. The purse was a creative way to capture attention in the racing community and media. However, it means nothing to fans. Even-money pays the same $4 on a snowy January night at Penn National as it will on sunny (hopefully) Jan. 28 at Gulfstream.

Round two of Arrogate-California Chrome will excite the masses. I don't know if it will excite them enough to go for the $100 general admission charge. This really needs to be rethought. But it will put eyeballs in front of TV screens, which will matter when it's time to go back to NBC to negotiate the 2018 renewal.

Anything less than a Breeders’ Cup rematch and it's just another Saturday feature. With only one of the two stars, it's a non-appealing walkover. What was it, about half a furlong back to the third-place finisher in the Classic? Who is there, who wasn't in the Classic, who could be taken seriously against Arrogate or California Chrome?

It looks like California Chrome is a sure thing. His people are among the original $1 million subscribers. Arrogate's connections are not. They are the ones who have to be courted and cajoled.

There should be plenty of berths in the starting gate up for negotiation. One is owned by Stronach. It probably was ticketed for Shaman Ghost, whose status is uncertain after his scratch from the Classic. The upset winner of the Woodward is a nice horse but he adds nothing in the way of star power.

The $1 million buy-in for Arrogate’s Juddmonte gang is tip money but they are in a position to play hardball. So even if Stronach has to give Arrogate a scholarship, it has to be done.

The first call should go to the pizza guy in Illinois, who bought one of the dozen berths on speculation. He doesn't own a single horse to run around the track for the minimum $200,000 purse or a share in the $400,000 consolation stakes, so he should be amenable to a reasonable offer.

About that $200,000 guarantee; this is another thing that has to be re-imagined. It could create a sham situation, where those who own the 12 slots but don't have a credible contender dig deep into their barn, or even claim some cheap horse to run around the track, to get back what they can from their investment.

It was a savvy move in August to drop the participation reward $50K from $250,000 to moderately buck up fourth and fifth money. However, the guarantee for sixth to 12th has to go in the future, so that place and show rewards can be bolstered.

As it is now, the $1.75 million for second constitutes only a small profit after expenses and the $1 million for third represents a negative return when the traditional 10 percent each for the trainer and jockey are deducted.

The minor awards need to be kicked up to about $2.5 million and $1.5 million. With the $7 million top prize etched in stone, $1million would still be available to divvy up among the fourth and fifth finishers. There should be no rewards for lesser placings. Participation awards are as bad an idea in racing as they are in youth sports.

Not everything stays in Vegas

"What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas" is one of the most clever ad slogans ever. But there is an exception. Bad feelings about ill treatment go home with visitors.

There used to be a welcome mat around town for horse players, especially since the advent of simulcast pari-mutuels, which took the gamble out of racing and guaranteed casinos a profit.

This is no longer the case. In addition, the extraneous perks that made Sin City such a delight are fading faster than Runhappy in the Mile.

Inexpensive rooms and entertainment are relics of the past. Cheap buffets no longer exist. Some cost as much as $30. It’s going to get worse. Nevada legalized recreational marijuana on Tuesday. You can just see people toking up before attacking the all-you-can-eat lines.

The MGM properties on the Strip now charge up to $10 a day for parking, a trial balloon for all of Las Vegas, I fear.

I was a regular at the once horseplayer-friendly Orleans, home of the World Series of Handicapping each spring, for many years. For a change of pace, the past few years I switched my tack to the newer South Point, which still rolls out the red carpet for racing fans. Unfortunately, I procrastinated making my Breeders' Cup weekend reservations and got shut out at South Point.

I foolishly opted for a return trip to the Orleans. I was quickly and constantly reminded that I left the Orleans for reasons beyond South Point's newness. There now seems to be a contempt for horse players at the Boyd property.

In a stupefying decision, Racing Forms, which were $2 (you have to buy three to cover the major tracks) at the Orleans, are now $3 apiece the night before. The rationalization is the extra dollar discourages players from picking up a Form at the Orleans then going somewhere else the next day.

Right, people are going to make a special stop at the off-the-Strip hotel to save a buck. Measure this against betting revenue lost from guests at the hotel, who can't handicap overnight. The casino’s cut from one extra $10 bet the next day would cover the surcharge.

It’s not the dollar. It’s the attitude it conveys.

Simulcasts were piped into the guest rooms for years. No more. It’s not that there is no space on the closed-circuit system. The channels that used to carry racing now lie vacant.

Drinks used to be free without hassles while you were playing. A few years ago, the Orleans instituted a ticket system. You have to ask for one when you make a bet or the cocktail server can't bring you a drink. Fair enough. There are free-loaders, who sit in the race and sports book all day without making a bet.

The tickets could be used at any bar 24/7. This was eventually revised so they could only be used at the bar nearest the race book. This came in handy when the cocktail servers were slammed. Now they can be used only through the server.

On Breeders' Cup Day, one harried server was assigned the entire race and sports book, which seats a couple of hundred. Slower service translates to fewer drinks.

It doesn't end there. A ticket formerly got you your drink of choice. Now if you want a premium beer--Corona or Heineken--or a brand-name liquor, it's three tickets.

These are fringe issues. On Breeders' Cup day, half the screens in the racebook area had football games, so a lot of seats were filled by sports fans, who didn't move, pushing out horse players.

You had to search the top row of monitors to find the racing signals. It was worse on Sunday when NFL games were displayed on all the prominent monitors in the race book. You couldn't see and play, say Aqueduct and Santa Anita, because the sets showing them were so far apart on opposite sides of the room. Churchill Downs was isolated down in a corner.

Meanwhile some NFL games were on two or three monitors in the race book even though the sports book area has ample TV's to show every game.

The worst was yet to come. For more than an hour on Saturday, covering the second and third races at Santa Anita, the computers went down and there didn't seem to be any urgency to fix the problem. Scores of players were shut out.

Regulars said this is a common occurrence at the Orleans, due to antiquated equipment. Indeed. I bet a few games the night before I left. When I went down to cash in the “24-hour” sports book in the morning en route to catching my flight home, they were down again.

Did I mention there are five restrooms spread around the casino—all a hike from the race book--and three went out of service for all or part of Saturday?

Las Vegas is still the greatest but the sour feeling of this weekend at the Orleans, which will be my last there, will not stay in Vegas.

Written by Tom Jicha

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