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, August 01, 2013


Weekly poll makes the Kentucky Derby just another race


The latest NTRA poll is an exercise in what have you done for me lately. Victories by Verrazano and Palice Malice last weekend moved them to Nos. 7 and 8 in the weekly survey. But Kentucky Derby winner Orb is no better than 14th. This makes little sense when Orb has as many Grade 1's as Verrazano--one of them the big one--and Palace Malice has only one.

SARATOGA SPRINGS, Aug. 1—Polls are intended to reflect a diversity of opinion. If there is universal agreement, there is no need for a poll. However, for a poll to retain credibility, there must be some rhyme and reason to it. The latest weekly NTRA poll strains this standard.

There’are no issues at the top. Wise Dan, the defending champion, is undefeated in three 2013 starts. Until someone knocks him off, he deserves king of the hill status.

Game on Dude, the runnerup, is one better this season, perfect in four starts. Some might argue that dominating a weak older horse group on the West Coast is not that great a mark of distinction. But he did come east for the million dollar race at Charles Town and none of the heavy hitters from the East and Midwest rushed to take him on.

If there is an anti-West Coast bias, it might show up in next week’s poll should No. 3 Fort Larned notch his second win of the year in four starts in Saturday’s Whitney. How much of a shock would it be if he jumped over Game on Dude?

With the Breeders’ Cup again at Santa Anita, the West Virginia invasion will likely be the Dude’s last foray out of Southern California this season. Challengers will have to deal with that.

It’s the middle of the poll, where the top 3-year-olds reside, that a “what have you done for me lately?” attitude seems to have taken hold.

Verrazano, on the strength of his dazzling score in the Haskell, has vaulted to No. 7, one spot ahead of Palace Malice, who validated his Belmont triumph with a dominant performance in the Jim Dandy. More on this in a bit.

But the voters have some explaining to do with their placement of Orb at No. 14. Let’s look at the record.

Verrazano has a couple of Grade 1’s on his resume, the Wood Memorial and Haskell. But his only attempt in the Triple Crown series, the Kentucky Derby, brought about his lone defeat in seven starts.

The Belmont is Palace Malice’s sole Grade 1.

Meanwhile, Orb won the big one, the Kentucky Derby, as well as the Grade 1 Florida Derby. Let’s say the Florida Derby and Wood Memorial are equal in prestige, although that could set off a lively debate of its own.

This brings the Orb-Verrazano comparison down to the Kentucky Derby vs. the Haskell. Is this even a point of discussion? Seriously?

So Orb is a victim of “what have you done for me lately?” thinking because he has been taking a breather at Fair Hill, prepping for his Aug. 24 showdown with Verrazano and Palace Malice in the Travers.
Measure this against Point of Entry, who has two Grade 1 wins, same as Orb, hasn’t run since Belmont Day, same as Orb, but probably won’t run again. Nevertheless, Point of Entry is No. 4 in the poll.

The downgrading of this year’s 3-year-old class is further exemplified by the total snub of Oxbow. Apparently winning the Preakness and running second in the Belmont counts for zero. That's the number of votes Oxbow was awarded. Among others, this places him behind Groupie Doll, who has not stepped into a starting gate since the Cigar Mile last November.

A similar anti 3-year-old prejudice seems to be in vogue among distaffers. Kentucky Oaks champion Princess of Sylmar made the Coaching Club American Oaks her second Grade 1 among four victories in five 2013 starts. Yet she ranks only 11th in the poll, six places below Royal Delta, whose score over an undistinguished lot in the Delaware Handicap was her first win of the year in three starts.

Thankfully the Breeders’ Cup makes these midseason surveys similar to pre-election polls, merely a snapshot in time.


When you bitch, you have an obligation to subsequently give credit where it is due. I took exception to the opening Saturday card at the Summer Place To Be, which resembled a mid-winter card at Aqueduct with five state bred races and a couple of cheap claimers.

The racing office made up for it last Saturday. In addition to three outstanding stakes—the Prioress, Diana and Jim Dandy—all of which were scheduled months in advance, the card was made up entirely of open races, albeit a couple of them cheap claimers, which in days of old were not welcome at the Spa. This is how it should be at the citadel of racing.

Alas, this Saturday is more like opening weekend: three races for New York breds, a couple of $20,000 claimers and a maiden claimer for $25,000.

To reiterate, this shouldn’t happen when there are four weekdays to schedule races for the lesser lights. Alas, the fear is this is the new normal at Saratoga.




Written by Tom Jicha

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Tuesday, July 30, 2013


The Travers has a new Big 3


The 3-year-old championship picture has taken on a new look. Verrazano has crashed the former Big 3 of Orb, Oxbow and Palice Malice with a smashing score in the Haskell, the most impressive performance by a 3-year-old this year. It still might be a big three, as Oxbow came out of the Monmouth showpiece race with an ankle injury.

SARATOGA SPRINGS, July 30, 2013--Who do you like for the 3-year-old championship? Kentucky Derby (and Florida Derby) winner Orb, Preakness winner Oxbow, who also outfinished Orb in the Belmont, or Belmont champion Palace Malice, who ratified that triumph with a dominant score in the Jim Dandy?

The answer at the end of the past weekend in many circles was “none of the above.”

It has been more than 30 years since three different winners of Triple Crown events met in the Travers, so anticipation ran high as the 2013 renewal loomed. Then Verrazano made a shambles of the Haskell, crushing, among others, Oxbow, who came out of the race with a wrenched ankle. The injury put his Travers status in doubt as well as compromising his chances for the 3-year-old championship, which is still up for grabs..

There hasn’t been a more decisive win in a 3-year-old Grade 1 this season than Verrazano’s almost 10-length Haskell romp, the largest margin in the storied race’s history. Not to diminish in any way Palace Malice’s performance in the Jim Dandy but Verrazano obliterated a better bunch in the Haskell. He not only buried Oxbow, who struggled home fourth, he ran past Bob Baffert’s latest “now’ horse Power Broker, coming off a big win in the Easy Goer; Derby runnerup Golden Soul; Gotham and Jerome winner Vyjack and Long Branch winner Micromanage.

Todd Pletcher, who’s as tight with superlatives as Jack Benny was with a dollar, said he felt Verrazano had made “a huge statement.” Pletcher said Verrazano’s Haskell was as impressive a race as a 3-year-old has run this season. There aren’t many who would argue. The 116 Beyer Fig he was given dwarfs Oxbow’s 106 in the Preakness and Orb’s 104 for the Derby.

So there’s a new Big Three for the Travers and it wouldn’t be surprising if Verrazano goes favored over the Derby and Belmont winners as well as Oxbow if he makes the race. Verrazano’s Haskell was his sixth win in seven starts over four tracks. The only blemish was his no-show 14th in the Kentucky Derby over an off track.

However, the same question hangs over him that did going into the first Saturday in May. Can he win beyond nine furlongs? Orb and Palace Malice have already put that issue to rest.

Then again, they could have gone around Monmouth’s one-mile oval again Sunday and Verrazano’s margin only would have been greater. It was the first time any colt of his generation displayed the potential to challenge elders Game on Dude and Fort Larned, among others, in the big fall races and the Breeders’ Cup.

Palace Malice used similar tactics in the Jim Dandy to those that carried the day in the Belmont. He forced the pace of Dwyer winner Moreno, took over at will, eased away and had plenty left to hold off late-running Will Take Charge. The rest were never in the race.

Palace Malice’s time, 1:47.32, was the second fastest nine-furlong Jim Dandy ever, good for a 107 Beyer.

So who do you like in the Travers and for the division title?


Bill Mott’s plaque in the Hall of Fame across Union Avenue makes notes of his remarkable achievements, most notably training Cigar to 16 wins in a row. It might have to be revised to include another streak.

Mott, the second youngest person ever elected to the Hall of Fame in 1998 when he was only 45, has an uncanny ability to win a race on his birthday, July 29. He turned the trick for the seventh straight time (dark days not included) and 15th in 20 opportunities on Monday. It’s not Woody Stephens’ five consecutive Belmonts but it has captured the fancy of the racing world.

Everyone has a birthday but, in its own way, Mott’s has become another event on the Saratoga calendar. The Racing Form made note of it in the leadup to the Spa season and it was mentioned prominently in the roundup in Monday’s Form and again after Mott kept the streak going. Dave Litfin included it in his race-by-race analysis. Tom Durkin referenced it in his calls. In-house handicapper Andy Serling commented on it for each of Mott’s five starters.

Serling took a hard-bitten (but accurate) approach, pointing out that the streak has become so avidly followed that each of Mott’s starters was being egregiously overbet. Serling astutely saw this as an opportunity for the cold-of-heart, who pay no attention to such matters, to take advantage of inflated prices on non-Mott contenders.

Mott’s followers had to hang on to the bitter end when the last of his quintet, Revenue, got home in the ninth race and paid $5.50. This repeated the 2012 pattern when Mott didn't win until the last of his three starters, Alaura Michele, captured the Nani Rose overnight stakes.

The streak will get a rest in 2014 when July 29 falls on a dark Tuesday.




Written by Tom Jicha

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Tuesday, July 23, 2013


Too Hot to Race? No Such Thing


New NYRA CEO Christopher Kay made a strong first impression when he swatted away suggestions that it might be too hot to race on the scheduled opening day at Saratoga. But the promise of quality moving to the fore this season went unfulfilled when five of the first seven races on opening Saturday were for state-breds and the program closed with a bottom-level sprint for bottom-level beaten claimers. Meanwhile, in South Florida all the trends are pointing toward Gulfstream winning its battle with Calder.

Saratoga 2013 got off to a great start by getting off to a timely start.

Plaudits to NYRA’s new CEO Christopher Kay for making his first significant call the right one. It’s unthinkable there were thoughts of postponing Friday’s opening day because the temperatures were stagnant in the 90s. Kay decreed the show would go on.

As a four-decade resident of South Florida, my reaction to these suggestions was the same as it has been whenever racing at the Spa has been cancelled due to unseasonably warm weather: “Are you kidding me?”

I know the authorities are having talks about the heat in California in the wake of a horse fatality. That's the right thing to do, of course. But if you're prepared in advance...

There have been literally thousands of afternoons during my years in Miami when the temperatures were approaching triple digits and the humidity was stifling enough to make those who thought it was bad at the Spa last week apologize for being wimps. I can’t recall a single occasion when this was cause for cancelling the Calder races.

A Saratoga cancellation is far more consequential than one in South Florida or downstate New York, where the merry-go-round spins day in and day out. Racing fans make vacation plans months in advance to spend time at Saratoga, drive hundreds of miles to get there and spend hundreds of dollars for lodging. Opening day is an extra special can’t-miss occasion on many race fans’ calendars. To lock them out would evoke the same feelings of disappointment and anger the Griswalds felt when they drove cross-country only to find Wally World inexplicably shut down.

(In another weird weather phenomena Friday, a mere 0.22 inch of rain in Las Vegas flooded the gaming floor at Caesar’s Palace and caused leaks in the roof at Gilley’s at Treasure Island among other havoc, according to the Associated Press. Thankfully for simulcast players, the heavy damage occurred after 7 p.m. when all of the opening day Saratoga card and most of the races at Del Mar had been run. It’s mind-boggling that a town with billion dollar properties up and down the Strip has the drainage of a New York subway system men’s room.)

Unfortunately the racing at Saratoga wasn’t as hot as the temperatures, especially on the first Saturday of the meeting. Expectations were raised that with casino money bolstering NYRA’s bottom line this would be a Saratoga meeting harkening back to the days of old when quality ruled.

This was especially true coming off a four-day break and after what many felt was the worst Saturday card in the history of Belmont Park the week before. The thinking was the lesser lights were given their final shots before the heavy hitters took center stage at the Spa.

Then the entries came out. Four of the first five races and five of the first seven were for state-breds, with bottom-of-the-barrel beaten claimers to close the show.

New York-breds Hessonite. Strong Impact and Wired Bryan might have distinguished themselves and the state breeding program winning open stakes opening weekend. By and large, however, run-of-the-mill state-breds are mediocrities or worse, who need restricted races to pay their keep.

State-bred races are what weekdays and winter racing are for. Five on the first Saturday of the Saratoga meeting? Seriously?

Also, what happened to shorter programs to get fans out on the streets and into the bars and restaurants of Saratoga before dark? Do we really need a $20K claimer (a grossly inflated price tag in many instances) to lengthen the day?

The Battle of South Florida is tilting strongly toward Gulfstream. Except for Calder’s Summit of Speed program, Gulfstream has had the stronger handle by decisive margins in their weekend head-to-head showdowns.

The situation could be taking a significant turn for the much worse for Calder. The Florida HBPA, which has not had a purse contract since the start of the season in April, is threatening to withhold permission for Calder to simulcast its races out of state if a new deal isn’t negotiated by the end of this week.

The FHBPA took similar action the first week in May and Calder retaliated by cutting purses 20 percent. At that point there was no alternative place to race for local horsemen, so a truce was called and the purse cuts were reinstated after a week.

It’s a different situation now. Horsemen have Gulfstream as an option.

If simulcasting is halted and Calder institutes another purse cut, which will be dictated by the loss of revenue, the exodus to Gulfstream could resemble the last plane out of Saigon.

In addition, an inside source said a deal is all but done for the Florida Stallion Stakes, a fixture at Calder since its inception, to relocate to Gulfstream in 2014. The rich filly and colt finales of the three-stage Stallion Stakes are the centerpieces of the Festival of the Sun each fall, one of Calder’s biggest days of each season.

There is no disputing Gulfstream has the superior brand name nationwide when it comes to simulcasting but it could be getting outside help. Driving north toward Saratoga, I was able to get a Saturday Racing Form near Laurel Park in Maryland. Past performances for seven tracks were included. Among them was Gulfstream Park. Not included was Calder. So simulcast fans had all they needed to bet the Gulfstream card but nothing for Calder, which was staging three stakes, including the opening legs of the Stallion Stakes.

You have to wonder in how many other regions this is the case.

Laurel is part of the Stronach Group, which owns Gulfstream. Just saying.


Written by Tom Jicha

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