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, April 29, 2015

At the prices, ‘the other Baffert’ is the Derby bet

This is the deepest Kentucky Derby field in memory. I couldn't reduce it to less than nine who could win without shocking me. Ergo, it makes no sense to take a short price on American Pharoah. There's a saying that you should never bet a horse to do something he hasn't done before. Dortmund, "the other Baffert" has never lost. Neither has Materiality but there's that curse of Apollo to consider.

MIAMI, April 29, 2015--I can’t remember a Kentucky Derby I anticipated more than Saturday’s. It’s the most talent laden in memory. Every season there are two or three horses, who seem to stand out, and one or two others worth a saver at a price. I had trouble narrowing this group down to fewer than nine.

The romantic and fan in me would like to see American Pharoah live up to his billing as the second coming of Seattle Slew, one of my favorite thoroughbreds ever. Can anyone explain why the only horse ever to win the Triple Crown while still undefeated-- a New York based and developed star--has not been honored by NYRA with a major stakes named for him.

How about the Peter Pan, the major New York prep for the Belmont? If you stopped a hundred racing fans and asked who this race is named for, does anyone doubt a strong majority would respond Tinker Bell’s buddy?

But I digress.

I would love to see another dazzling great like Slew for what it would mean for the game. However, a couple of things concern me about American Pharoah. The leg injury that knocked him out of action for six months has never been fully explained. The usually loquacious Bob Baffert has been uncharacteristically evasive when the subject is raised.

Also, you can’t let the fact that this is the Derby knock your horse playing sense out of whack. Estimates are American Pharoah will be in the 2-1 range. It’s insanity to take that price against this bunch.

This is one of those occasions “the other Baffert” makes sense record- and price-wise. Dortmund has never been beaten and he showed grit the others haven’t had to call upon when he came back against Firing Line after being passed and seemingly put away. He’ll likely be twice or three times the price of American Pharoah, too.

Another sign of the depth of this field is there is another Grade 1 winning undefeated colt, Materiality, who’ll be no better than third choice and possibly less than that. Then again, there’s a reason it has been 133 years since a colt who didn’t race as a juvenile won the Derby. Most recently, subsequent two-time Horse of the Year Curlin couldn’t do it.

Carpe Diem has been managed this spring like the Florida Gators’ early non-conference football schedule. He’s looked great but so do the Gators when they’re playing Bemidji State. Now Carpe Diem steps back into the Southeast Conference of racing.

The colt we’re all guessing on is Mubtahhij. Anyone else but Michael deKock training him and he’s a toss. But anyone other than DeKock isn’t training him.

If you like Dortmund, and I do, you have to consider Firing Line. He has been in a couple of photos with Dortmund and a slight twist of racing luck could put him on top this time at a big price.

For most of the Gulfstream season I was in love with Upstart. I won’t say his DQ in the Fountain of Youth wasn’t justifiable but he was the best horse that day. Then Materiality looked him in the eye in the Florida Derby before bidding him a fond adieu. Materiality should benefit from that race more than Upstart will.

At the top of the stretch in the Fountain of Youth, Frosted looked like a cinch. But he gave it up faster than a fun prom date. If the Wood Memorial is any indication, whatever was bothering him has been alleviated by throat surgery. Still, I don’t think he beat much at Aqueduct. Tencendur? Really?

International Star rang up the most Derby qualifying points but he did it at the Fair Grounds. The last time a Kentucky Derby winner came out of the bayou was Grindstone in 1996. Moreover, I know International Star wasn’t beating much. Louisiana Derby runnerup Stanford was no match for Materiality in his prior start and War Story, who stretched International Star in the LeComte and Risen Star, is a nice horse who’s a cut below the best of his generation.

Only one horse, Keen Ice, made the Derby field with fewer than 30 qualifying points, another indication of the quality of this field. So I’m not going to denigrate any of them. They'll cumulatively win a lot of stakes this summer and fall. But if any of them win, I lose. It won't be a maiden breaker.

So the moment of truth is here. My Derby win play is Dortmund.

I’m going to use Dortmund, American Pharoah and Materiality (and Mubtahhij if he’s better than 15-1) in multi-race wagers and in the Oaks-Derby double with Stellar Wind, who made a good group of California distaffers look ordinary.

If Stellar Wind is anywhere close to her 7-2 morning line, she’s the play of the weekend.

The one thing I’m not going to do is get involved with exactas or tri’s in the Derby. Some hard-to-find longshot always seems to get up into the place or show spot.

There's one other personal reason. I don't want to diminish the experience of seeing a Derby winner go under the wire by concentrating on who's clunking up for the minor awards.

(Note: This had to be published before the post draw. If any of my selections land the one hole, all bets on him are off.)

Written by Tom Jicha

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Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Top of racing loaded again but there’s trouble below

The 3-year-old crop of 2014 was exceptional. This year's group has shown the potential to be as good or better. Below the surface things are not as rosy as they will seem next Saturday.New Jersey racing is in jeopardy because its breeding program has all but evaporated. With casino subsidies being threatened in other states, this could be a preview of things to come. Like America, racing is in danger of losing its middle class.

MIAMI, April 21, 2015--We could be in the midst of another decade of champions. Another Secretariat, Affirmed and Seattle Slew hasn’t emerged but the past couple of years has produced a depth of outstanding horses.

This doesn’t have the zing it would have had before Shared Belief’s injury Saturday but even with what happened in the West Virginia Classic, positive news can be found. Most importantly, Shared Belief’s injury isn’t life threatening. It probably isn’t career ending, according to the early prognosis. The fact that he’s a gelding means we still might get to see this superstar on the race track again.

In any event, Shared Belief is only part of what was an extraordinary group of 3-year-olds last season. Their exploits outside their own division included sweeps of all the marquee races against their elders: the Jockey Club Gold Cup (Tonalist), Pacific Classic (Shared Belief), Clark Handicap (Hoppertunity) and the big one, the Breeders’ Cup Classic (Bayern). If there is precedent for this, I’m not aware of it.

The best part is these prestigious stakes were won by different horses and doesn’t include California Chrome, underling the depth as much as the brilliance of the foals of 2011. Let’s not be sexist and overlook super filly Untapable.

Less than two weeks from the start of the Triple Crown grind, another grand group is percolating. Dortmund and Materiality have never lost and they probably won’t be favored in the Kentucky Derby. This distinction is expected to fall to Eclipse champion American Pharoah, whose overpowering brilliance has people speculating whether he is the second coming of Slew. This might be going overboard at this stage but grandiose dreams are what keep horse people getting up in the morning.

We’re not going to have to wait too much longer to find out.

There’s depth in this year’s crop, too, maybe as much as in 2014. Carpe Diem, Frosted, International Star, Firing Line and Upstart have already won major stakes with the promise of more to come.

What’s amazing is racing has gotten back-to-back crops of this caliber in spite of the foal count having dropped almost in half from peak years. There’s a good news/bad news element to this. The top of the game is still strong, verified by the strong performances of the premier auctions.

The decline comes primarily from the lesser part of the breeding game, the dream-bred-to-a-dream horses. This still can produce a California Chrome. However, most wind up filling the cards at second- and third-tier tracks. The question is which will disappear first, these tracks or horses to race at them.

It’s a matter of conjecture how much more the foal crop would plunge if not for the casino-supported state breeding funds. The bad news is, as has been widely predicted, many of these states—Pennsylvania, Indiana, West Virginia, et al--are taking second looks at the millions that go to thoroughbred racing in a period when state budgets have shortfalls in the billions. Racing is going to come up an also ran whenever it comes down to schools and medical care vs. purses and breeding funds. It’s a no-lose issue for demagogic politicians.

Without gaming support, a lot of states are going to become New Jersey. You won’t see many, if any, races for New Jersey-bred 2-year-olds and 3-year-olds this summer at Monmouth. Incredible as it may seem, only 142 foals were registered in 2013.

It’s impossible to track how many have died, been injured or just aren’t fast enough to race. Divide that in half for gender separation. Logic suggests it will be difficult, if not impossible, to put together more than a handful of maiden races and it will take almost all summer for enough horses to break through to stage an entry level allowance.

Races for New Jersey bred 3-year-olds could be even more difficult to fill. Only 170 foals were registered in 2012 and a season and a half of racing has culled that herd.

For sake of comparison, New York had more than 1,400 registered foals in each of these years.

Not many players will bemoan the loss of New Jersey bred races but a strong state bred program is essential for any track. With New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland fishing for open horses from the same pool, it’s not being alarmist to speculate that New Jersey racing is in dire jeopardy of fading away.

If the casino supplements start to be withdrawn, this could be the beginning of a trend. Make that an acceleration of a trend. The demise of Suffolk Downs marked the end of racing in New England, a region that used to be teeming with race courses (Narragansett, Lincoln Downs, Rockingham Park and the fair tracks).

Last week, the Stronach Group warned it can’t and won’t continue to race at Golden Gate, the lynchpin of Northern California, under current circumstances. Several issues are at play, including the disruptive allocation of dates to fair tracks. But the core problem is short fields of poor quality that attract neither fans nor handle. Like New Jersey, California gets no assistance from casinos.

We might be getting closer to predictions that the day will come when racing will be conducted for the most part only at major venues such as New York, Kentucky, Florida and Southern California with bettors elsewhere participating via simulcast.

Fortunately racing isn’t baseball, where the big leagues are dependent on minor leagues all over the map. Rarely do horses from the sticks have any impact on the big stages.

I’m not insensitive to the mom and pop breeding and racing operations but it’s the nature of all business that the whales eventually swallow the minnows. How many Main Street shops have been put of business by Walmart? I’m not endorsing this, just recognizing it as the way things are.

Racing will seem rosy next Saturday. At the top, it is. But like America, it might be losing its middle class.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Derby points should play a creative new role

Dortmund and Materiality have never lost. American Pharoah and Carpe Diem are unbeaten this year. But one of the top Kentucky Derby contenders could have his first defeat sealed before he steps onto the track. Whoever draws the No. 1 post is all but eliminated. This should not be the fate of any serious horse. Let one of the under-achievers swallow the poison pill. An easy way to accomplish this would be to have the connections pick their posts in the order of the points they have earned.

MIAMI, April 15, 2015--It takes a pretty special horse to do what everyone expects and still impress the hell out of you. That’s what American Pharoah did in the Arkansas Derby.

There were two questions he needed to answer: Could he rate and was he beating anything?

He answered the first with elan, sitting patiently off Bridget’s Big Luvy, a horse intent on getting the lead at any cost, then blowing right past him and spread eagling the rest of the field in fast time while being geared down to the wire.

The second question will have to wait until the first Saturday in May. Off his juvenile form, when his vanquished foes included Breeders’ Cup Juvenile champion Texas Red, American Pharoah should have the right response for that, too.

It would be a shame if bad racing luck cost him the opportunity. This could befall him or any of the other key contenders at the post position draw. It has become almost a given that whoever draws the one hole might as well stay in the barn. Ask any trainer if he would rather have the one or the twenty and you’ll get a look that says, “You’re really even asking that?”

There’s a 20 percent chance one of the perceived Big Four—A.P., Dortmund, Materiality and Carpe Diem—will draw the poison pill. Throw in some other serious players, such as Frosted, International Star, Firing Line, Mubtaahij and Upstart, and the odds for disaster striking at the post draw creep toward the 50-50 level.

There is a simple remedy. The Derby points system has done its job. There aren’t any no-shot pure sprinters such as Trinniberg to compromise the chances of legitimate contenders and there is no horse of exceptional promise who will be left on the outside looking in. It might be time to utilize the points in a creative new way.

The tricked up post position by selection draw, which had a deserved short shelf life, should be brought back with a revised formula. The connections of the horse with the most qualifying points should pick a post first, followed in descending order by points earned.

Because not all Derby preps have the same degree of difficulty, the obvious favorites wouldn’t always get the first or second choice but they wouldn’t have to sweat getting the dreaded rail. That would be left for an outsider who snuck in at the bottom of the points list.

This also would add an additional conversation point to the qualifying races. Anything that gets people talking more about racing merits consideration.

This obviously can’t be utilized for this year’s running but it’s worth looking into for the future.

Decoupling moves forward

The Florida legislature has advanced bills that will achieve the long anticipated “decoupling” of pari-mutuels from racinos and card rooms. Decoupling would free greyhound and horse tracks from having to operate racing to have slots and card rooms. Florida lawmakers meet in full session only in March and April, so if it happens, it will be before the playing of “My Old Kentucky Home.”

The impact could be dramatic in South Florida. Gulfstream could be relieved of the obligation to run a two-month meeting at Calder/Gulfstream West. The sole purpose of this exercise in absurdity is to meet Churchill Downs’ racing requirement to keep its slots license at Calder.

It galls me beyond words that the bottom-liners at CDI would get exactly what they want but the game is better off without them.

A pipedream is the end of the Gulfstream West session could open the door to Hialeah getting back into the picture, since it is to Gulfstream’s benefit to have a respite somewhere on the calendar.

Alas, people close to the situation say a thoroughbred renaissance at Hialeah is the longest of longshots. John Brunetti is game but his sons don’t share his enthusiasm for racing and they discourage any venture that might have an impact on their inheritances.

It would cost tens of millions to refurbish Hialeah, starting with an entirely new barn area. The quarterhorses use temporary facilities, which would be unacceptable for the caliber of thoroughbreds we would hope to see at Hialeah.

But we can dream, can’t we?

One brave man in all NY

It’s encouraging to see there is at least one racing figure with the cajones to speak out against Gov. Cuomo’s extended takeover of NYRA.

John Hendrickson, spouse of Marylou Whitney, said he is “extremely disappointed” that the governor rammed into the state budget process a provision that will extend the state’s (read Cuomo’s) control of NYRA for at least one more year. The governor appoints the majority of the patronage loaded NYRA board, so they do whatever he tells them to do.

A plan to re-privatize NYRA was supposed to have been completed by the end of this year. Now we are looking at the start of 2017 at the earliest. But in situations like this in New York, one more year is never just one year.

VLT’s were kept out of Aqueduct for a decade while politicians wrangled over which favored campaign cash cows were going to get the franchise and how the pie was going to be cut.

Hendrickson was quoted in upstate newspapers as saying, “NYRA has completed all the tasks required by state statute. However, state government has not followed its own law. What prevents the state from extending it takeover of racing indefinitely?”

If there is an answer to this question, it has not been forthcoming.

Written by Tom Jicha

Comments (56)


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