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 11, 2016

To get people into racing, turn fans into owners

Most racing fans dream of owning a horse. The cost puts this dream out of reach for all but the wealthy. Churchill Downs pioneered an idea this spring, the CD Racing Club, which allows fans to become part of an ownership syndicate for as little as $500. One of the two horses the Club owns has already won. Hundreds of members and their friends, some of whom probably never go to the track, were there to cheer her on. This mirrors a personal experience. A group of racetrack friends pooled our money and bought a $20,000 claimer, who won his first two races for us then got claimed for $40,000. We hope to get back into the game ASAP. Most importantly, each of us had an entourage of family and friends to root on our horse. They, too, can't wait for us to get back into the game. Racing has scores of new fans.

MIAMI, Aug. 11, 2016--The best way to get more people, especially young people, involved in racing is to get them really involved in racing.

This isn’t double talk. There’s nothing more involving than following a horse in which you have an ownership interest, even an extremely modest one. I speak from first-hand experience, which I will get into shortly.

Racing partnerships are nothing new. The late Cot Campbell was a pioneer with his Dogwood Stable. Outfits like West Point Thoroughbreds and Centennial Farms have enjoyed noteworthy success selling shares of horses, many of whom have developed into stakes winners, to multiple investors. However, those outfits cater primarily to high end investors for thoroughbreds with fancy pedigrees.

Churchill Downs has devised a way for people in the grandstand to feel like those in the Turf Club. The Churchill Downs Racing Club offered shares in a thoroughbred for $500 apiece with a goal to sell 2,000 for a total pool of $100,000. This would cover the cost of buying a 2-year-old and training expenses for several months.

Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas, who has always been great at promoting the game, agreed to train the horse.

Churchill made it clear that there were no expectations of a profit. Most horse owners lose money. Nevertheless, from the response, you would have thought Churchill was selling $5 bills for a buck apiece. The 2,000 shares sold out so quickly, a second offering was made.

This was just the start. When the first of the CDRC horses, Warrior’s Club, a son of Medaglia d’Oro offspring Warriors Reward, made his career debut on June 16, Club members showed up in force. They bet, too, knocking their horse down from a 15-1 morning line to 6-1 at post-time. Alas, after showing early speed, he faded to fifth.

Still, it was a promising debut with the prospect of better days ahead. Indeed, Warrior’s Club ran third in his second start, his only other appearance under silks to this point. I’ll bet there aren’t many Club members who are sorry they joined.

The second Club horse, Dial Me, did even better. After running fifth in her first start, she made it to the winner’s circle next time out at Ellis Park. “Was that a maiden race at Ellis or the Derby?” Lukas was quoted in the Paulick Report as asking. He could hear the wild cheering over the phone from Saratoga.

Actually, Dial Me, a daughter of young stallion Dialed In, didn’t exactly make it to the winner’s circle. There were so many Club members, family and friends wanting to get into the victory photo, it had to be moved out onto the track. How many of those folks do you suppose would have been at Ellis otherwise?

This is one good idea that is being embraced around the nation. Little Red Feather Racing on the West Coast announced the other day it plans to make low investment partnerships in horses available, details to come.

A Gulfstream official told me his track hopes to launch something along the lines of the Churchill Downs Racing Club by the time the prime winter meet opens.

The fun and excitement the Kentucky people are having mirrors my own experience. A group of racing writers and their friends put together a relatively small syndicate this spring to buy into the ownership game. Some were in for a couple of hundred dollars, some for a few thousand. I can’t tell you for sure how many people are in the group but I can say it’s more than a weekday crowd at Aqueduct.

Out of respect for the others, many of whom have a lot more invested than I do, I won’t get into names. The relevant point is we claimed a horse for $20,000. My share amounted to a few strands of hair in his tail. But the day he made his first start for us, my wife and I felt like the Zayats.

Call it beginner’s luck but our horse won. I’ve hit some good bets in my life. In fact, one of them financed my investment in the horse. But I was so excited that as the horses were being loaded, my wife asked how much I bet. It was only then that I realized I hadn’t bet a cent and, as friends will testify, I never pass a race. But when he surged to the front and drew out, I was shaking from excitement.

I hadn’t said anything to anyone because I was so worried about how well he would compete. This drew a chorus of “I can’t believe you didn’t tell me about the horse.” You would have thought I had been trying to keep the price down.

The next time, I had an entourage bigger than Justin Bieber—and the horse won again. The winner’s circle photo wasn’t as chaotic as that for Dial Me but we’re working in that direction. Every one of my friends and family members—a lot of whom had never been to a track--stayed for the full afternoon and made me promise I would tell them every time the horse raced, because they want to be there. They were hooked. One or two asked if they could get involved the next time we buy a horse. That was just me. Multiply that by the number of people in our syndicate.

Disaster of a sort struck in his third start for us. He ran fourth, missing third by a nose. But the sad story was our $20,000 claim got taken for $40,000. (I will hate the trainer who claimed him forever.) A sharp friend and former owner of a million dollar winner called to congratulate us on a home run. We had doubled what we paid for him and won a couple of races.

This might have been true in the big picture but my wife and I sure didn’t feel this way. It was like Family Services had snatched one of our kids.

As I write this, we’re packing for our annual trip to the Spa. Our syndicate’s bottom line is healthy so by the time we head home I’m hoping we have a new “child” to embrace. So does my battalion of family and friends.

If not, I’ll be first in line when Gulfstream rolls out its Racing Club.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, August 04, 2016

Frosted a short price to do something he’s never done

Frosted's breath-taking Met Mile has scared away all but five rivals from Saturday's Whitney in spite of its $1.25 million purse. But to capture the major share of the inflated payoff, Frosted will have to do something he has been unable to do in his three-year career: win back-to-back races. He also is winless in three starts at Saratoga.

Meanwhile, out West, Del Mar continues to struggle. Handle and attendance are down, extending a three-year pattern. The depressing part is Del Mar officials seem to have neither a plan nor the will to reverse the downward slide.

MIAMI, Aug. 4, 2016--Coming off an almost Secretariat-style romp in the Met Mile, Frosted has scared away all but five rivals for Saturday’s Whitney Stakes.

Don’t rival trainers know how to read past performances? If Frosted doubles down in the Whitney he will be doing something he has not been able to do before, win consecutive races.In fact, other than a second in the Remsen after breaking his maiden in 2014, Frosted has never finished in the money after a win.

He overcame a wide trip to rally from well off the pace to win the Wood Memorial in a manner you like to see heading into the Kentucky Derby. Alas, the best he could do in Louisville was run fourth behind American Pharoah, Firing Line and Dortmund.

Five months and five races after the Wood, Frosted ran off with the Pennsylvania Derby. But in his next start, the Breeders’ Cup Classic, he bombed out and ran seventh. Among those who got home before him was Effinex, who will be in the Whitney.

Upstart, another Whitney starter, who chased Frosted home in the Met Mile, finished in front of Frosted in the 2015 Holy Bull and Fountain of Youth. So it’s not as if he’s overmatched, either.

Shipped to the Middle East this past winter, Frosted looked like a world-beater in galloping off with the Al Maktoum Classic, Dubai’s major prep for the World Classic. However, in the planet’s richest race, the best he could do was fifth.

Another relevant point: Frosted is zero-for-three at Saratoga.

Frosted’s other-worldly Met Mile certainly earned him the mantle of favorite for the Whitney. However, those who back him will be taking a short price on a horse doing several things he has not been able to do before.

Dark Clouds at Del Mar

Del Mar needs another bad break like California needs another wildfire. Business is down where the turf meets the surf. On track handle is off more than 11 percent. Attendance is down almost 6 percent.

As Andy Asaro, activist West Coast conscience of racing, points out, this wouldn’t be that bad if comparisons weren’t to 2015, which was off from 2014, which was off from 2013.

The meeting opened with a 10 percent reduction in purses. With these numbers about a third of the way through the meeting, it isn’t a leap to fear there will be another cut before Labor Day.

The Hail Mary hope that a battle of the sexes showdown between defending champion Beholder and California’s beloved Horse of the World California Chrome would pack the joint for the Pacific Classic was dashed last Saturday when the three-time time Eclipse winning mare had her seven-race winning streak snapped as she was outgamed by Stellar Wind in the Clement Hirsch.

Richard Mandella, Beholder’s Hall of Fame trainer, hasn’t entirely ruled out another try at the Pacific Classic but his body language and curt comments in the post-race interviews suggested (in Brooklyn-ese) "fuhgeddaboudit."

Del Mar is its own worst enemy in some ways. Admission and parking prices are among the highest in the nation. The takeout, especially the almost 23 percent for exactas, drives off savvy big players and puts less money to churn in every player’s hands.

Del Mar’s stakes schedule also is devoid of creativity and common sense in the sport’s glamour divisions. The last three Kentucky Derby winners—Nyquist, American Pharoah and California Chrome—all came from Southern California-based barns to race in the East.

Not one brought the cachet of a Kentucky Derby champion to Del Mar in their 3-year-old season.

Nyquist and American Pharoah went to Monmouth for the Haskell. American Pharoah flew cross-country a second time for a Travers run. California Chrome opted for the Pennsylvania Derby.

Simple explanation: There are no stakes of consequence or alluring purse for 3-year-olds on dirt at Del Mar.

A similar absence of a major race for 3-year-old fillies contributed to Songbird, the most exciting horse in training, coming East this summer.

Why? Only the people letting Del Mar run into the ground can answer that.

7-1 on full sister to American Pharoah

Bob Baffert is renowned for winning with the longer half of uncoupled entries. He pulled another doozy Sunday at Del Mar.

Baffert sent out American Pharoah’s sister, American Cleopatra, along with stablemate Jeweled. Baffert must have cold-watered everyone in Southern California as American Cleopatra, whose debut merited a full scale advance and top of the page headline in the Racing Form, was allowed to get away at 7-1.

Meanwhile, Jeweled, on the basis of several characteristic Baffert blazing workouts, was the 4-5 favorite.

American Cleopatra did what her older brother couldn’t. After breaking on top, she rated comfortably on the pace then drew away. opening three lengths in the stretch before coasting under the wire to win by two.

Baffert said he was stunned at the price on the kin to a Triple Crown winner. As the field was warming up, he said to his wife Jill he couldn’t believe the lack of respect American Cleopatra was getting at the windows. Afterwards, in Baffert style, he quipped, “See, if you don’t brag on them, they go off at 7-1.”

Jeweled was never prominent. She checked in fourth of eight, about seven lengths in arrears of her stablemate. Under the circumstances, I’d make her a bet back next time.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, July 28, 2016

Forget the Alabama, Songbird belongs in the Travers

Songbird's romp in the Coaching Club American Oaks, dominating the best fillies in the East, established beyond any argument that she is the best female of her generation. The only thing left for her to prove is she is the best of her generation of either gender by running in the Travers on Aug. 27 instead of the Alabama on Aug. 20.

MIAMI,July 28, 2016--Fox Hills Farm and Jerry Hollendorfer have guided super filly Songbird masterfully through nine consecutive victories. They’ve kept her out West, letting her beat up on outclassed, mostly short fields seven times.

They traveled east for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies at Keeneland to establish she’s not just a regional sensation—not to mention Beholder by name--and again this past Sunday to Saratoga for the Coaching Club American Oaks, where she swatted away Carina Mia as if the best in the East was a pesky fly in her stall.

It’s time to step up and allow Songbird to prove that her greatness transcends gender. There is nothing to be gained prestige-wise in winning the Alabama, her next target, where the competition might not be as tough as it was in the CCAO.

The Travers beckons.

Songbird’s connections have been steadfast in resisting the urge to run her against colts. They were adamant that she would not run in the Triple Crown races even though her winter and spring triumphs were superior to those of the colts.

Fox Hills owner Rick Porter had a defensible rationale. To run in the Kentucky Derby, she would have had to get qualifying points against colts in a race like the Santa Anita Derby. Then if she won the Run for the Roses, the pressure to go on to the Preakness would have been immense. After an encore in Baltimore, how could Songbird be denied a chance to become the first filly to sweep the Triple Crown?

The only way the pressure would have dissipated was if Songbird lost one along the way. Porter didn’t want to contemplate that. Why should he have?

The gauntlet of four straight gut-wrenching races against colts could have been so debilitating who knows what kind of a filly would have been left. As it turns out, a minor hiccup, which knocked her out of the Kentucky Oaks, would have put an end to her Triple Crown campaign anyway.

That was then. Now is different. There are no compelling reasons not to take a shot at the Travers. Songbird already is at the Spa and her first start over the tricky surface not every horse handles, which she bounced out of beautifully, should make her even tougher for her next one.

It’s laudable that Porter and Hollendorfer say they are trying to preserve Songbird for a campaign at 4 and maybe 5. But who’s to say she will be the brilliant filly she is now?

Woody Stephens’ mantra was, “Run them when they are good.” Fillies have a tendency to inexplicably go sour. The latest example is Grade 1 winner Rachel’s Valentina, who suffered her first defeat while running second to Songbird at the Breeders’ Cup. She began her sophomore season with a solid second in the Ashland but then ran sixth and fifth in the Kentucky Oaks and Acorn.
This past week she was retired “sound and injury free.” If you accept this, the only explanation is she has lost her will to compete.

The same thing happened with Untappable. Invincible against fillies as a 3-year-old, a campaign culminated with a victory in the BC Distaff, she had no spark as a 4-year-old and 5-year-old. She won one of nine starts. In many of her defeats, she would range up to the leader as if she was going to cruise on by just like old times. But she never did. She, too, was retired this season.

Perhaps the most disconcerting example was Lady’s Secret. The multiple Grade 1 winner and Horse of the Year, beat the boys in the ’86 Whitney on her way to winning that season’s BC Distaff. The following season, she just refused to run in a 1987 Saratoga allowance race she had at her mercy. That was enough for Eugene Klein and D. Wayne Lukas to recognize it was time to send her to the breeding shed.

Also not to be forgotten is the Life At Ten mystery. A multiple Grade 1 winner, she decided at the 2010 Breeders’ Cup that she didn’t want to run, igniting a minor scandal.

So you never know with fillies.

There are other reasons for Songbird to skip the Alabama for the Travers. She would get an extra week’s rest. The Alabama goes Aug. 20. The Travers is seven days later. The money is more than double, too. The Alabama purse is $600k. The Travers hangs $1.25 million on the wire.

Distance is not an issue. Songbird has never been a mile and a quarter but she handled her first attempt at nine furlongs as if another 220 yards will not be an issue. Besides, the Alabama is a mile and a quarter, too.

The myth of colts being superior has been disproven repeatedly. Rachel Alexandra vanquished males three times, the first of them in the Preakness. Zenyatta won a Breeders’ Cup Classic and came up one stride short of repeating. Beholder demolished the best males in the West in last summer’s Pacific Classic. Fox Hill Farm’s own Havre de Grace won the Woodward at the Spa.

On the turf, Tepin put down males in last season’s BC Turf Mile, a race won three times by Goldikova and twice by Miesque. Catch a Glimpse beat colts in this year’s Penn Mile.

Songbird has already done enough to earn her plaque in the Hall of Fame. From here on out, it’s all about her place among the all-timers. The Alabama would do little to bolster her legacy. The Travers, which hasn’t been won by a filly in 101 years, would.

A birthday to take note of

About 100 trainers will start a horse at Saratoga this summer. Some will do it on their birthday. None will get the attention Bill Mott will on Friday.

July 29 is Mott’s 63rd birthday and he has an extraordinary record of celebrating his big day by sending out winners. He ran his streak to seven years straight and 15-of-19 years in 2013.

His birthday fell on a dark Tuesday in 2014. Mott failed to win in 2015 but when I asked him about it, he genially pointed out that he had only one starter. He is very aware of the streak and the following it has generated.

So give a close look to Danny’s Rush in Friday’s sixth and Dancing Duchess in the eighth.

Written by Tom Jicha

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