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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Friday, April 10, 2015

Arkansas Derby might be rare case of ‘It’s not about the money” being the truth

The Arkansas Derby figures to be a well endowed public workout for American Pharoah, "a spectacular, spectacular horse," in the words of Justin Zayat, who manages his father's racing operation. For the others, the final major Kentucky Derby prep is an opportunity to grab enough of the minor share points to earn a berth in the Churchill Downs starting gate.
MIAMI, April 10, 2015--It must be nice to have a track put up $1 million for your final workout before the Kentucky Derby. This is the position Zayat Stables is in with American Pharoah in Saturday’s Arkansas Derby.

The Eclipse champion juvenile didn’t work up a sweat in demolishing the field in the Rebel. Justin Zayat, manager of his father’s racing operation, pointed out during an NTRA teleconference this week that American Pharoah works out faster than he was forced to run in the Rebel. This could be the case again in the centerpiece race of the Oaklawn season.

Skeptics have noted that American Pharoah was allowed to gallop uncontested on the lead, which is why he ran slower than in some of his morning breezes. Zayat’s response is that was because no one wanted to be a sacrificial lamb. “He’s a spectacular, spectacular horse. Honestly, that’s the reason he’s never been challenged.”

No one from Team Zayat is concerned that someone could foul things up by going on a suicide mission early against the champ on Saturday, according to Zayat. “We’ve rated him in the morning. He’s not a headstrong horse trying to pull you the whole way. He has shut off and relaxed. If there’s a horse, who wants to go out there and try to duel with him on the lead, he could easily sit off that horse.”

For naysayers, who complain American Pharoah hasn’t beaten anything, Zayat noted that as a 2-year-old he easily handled Texas Red before that one went on to win the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. He also twice put away Calculator, who rebounded to win the Sham Stakes by more than four lengths despite racing wide.

There’s a practical reason why it’s unlikely any of American Pharoah’s rivals will empty the tank trying to take him on early. The Arkansas Derby is one of the rare occasions in sports when someone who says, “It’s not about the money,” might be telling the truth. For the other not so magnificent seven who passed the entry box, it’s primarily about qualifying points for the Kentucky Derby.

American Pharoah is safe with 60 and the 40 for second will get any of the other Arkansas Derby horses into the Derby starting gate. This includes Bridget’s Big Luvy, whose win in Laurel’s Private Terms on March 21 didn’t carry Derby qualifying points.

Jeremiah Englehart, who trains Bridget’s Big Luvy for Tom O’Grady, says the Arkansas Derby is all about earning a spot in the Run for the Roses. Englehart said he has known since the eighth pole of the Private Terms, in which Bridget’s Big Luvy went unchallenged wire to wire, that the pursuit of Derby qualifying points would become the priority.

“Tom’s a Louisville guy. He lives there with his family. He has a big party the Thursday evening before the Derby that a lot of people know about. So I knew all along when (Bridget’s Big Luvy) was coming down the stretch what our plans were going to be.”

Englehart, who trained Ria Antonia to upset the 2013 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies, is realistic about his chances of earning the 100 points that go to the winner. “I’ve been a big fan of American Pharoah for a long time, so I understand how nice of a colt he is. I’m kind of honored to be able to run against him. We’re the newcomer in the race. I was expecting him to run well in the Private Terms. He did and I’m expecting him to run his race this time. Is it going to be good enough to win? I’m not sure.”

Some in the Arkansas Derby don’t even need to finish second. The 20 points for third should be good enough for American Pharoah’s Zayat stablemate Mr. Z, who has 14, and The Truth or Else, who has 11. Anything less and their prospects are dicey.

Mr. Z might not even run, Zayat says. In addition to American Pharoah, the barn has El Kabeir safely into the Derby field, so the only reason Mr. Z was entered was for his trainer D. Wayne Lukas, according to Zayat. “He’s the greatest trainer of all time. If he tells us he thinks Mr. Z is a legitimate Kentucky Derby horse, we’ll run. I honestly don’t think he can hold a candle to American Pharoah.”

Far Right (22), Made From Lucky (20) and Bold Conquest (17) could be in the running with the 10 points for fourth. The cutoff right now is 30 even after the defection of Prospect Park on Thursday. But history teaches attrition and owners, who exercise discretion over valor, will take others out of consideration.

Ron Moquett, who trains Southwest winner Far Right, said he has been scoreboard watching the Derby points standings on a regular basis. He also appreciates what his horse is up against trying to beat Amercian Pharoah. “I’ve been hearing words like Seattle Slew. If that’s the case, we’ll be reading about the horse who ran second to (the new) Seattle Slew.”

You get the feeling that the connections of any of the Arkansas Derby challengers would gladly settle to be that horse.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Wednesday, April 08, 2015

This year’s Derby is good enough for pay-per-view

Three weeks out, this year's Kentucky Derby is so loaded with talent that it shapes up as one of the most exciting and unpredictable in years. The current big four of Dortmund, American Pharoah, Carpe Diem and Materiality have all shown that on their best days they are almost unbeatable. A case could be made for a half-dozen others including UAE Derby mystery horse Mubtaahij trained by MIchael de Kock, who is on a very short list of the best trainers in the world. The Oaks is also coming up big with I'm a Chatterbox, Stellar Wind, Condo Commando and Birdatthewire all seemingly at the top of their game.

MIAMI, April 8, 2015--This year’s Kentucky Derby is coming up so rich in talent and unpredictability it is a race to anticipate with the same zeal as boxing fans are exhibiting toward the long delayed Floyd Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao showdown the same night.

Horse players have it over fight buffs in one big way. They can take the $100 it will cost to see the fight on pay-per-view and bet it on the Derby, which will be free on NBC.

I like Mayweather in the fight. At this point, I don’t know where I would put $100 on the Derby. I’d probably spread it around.

Two undefeated horses—Dortmund and Materiality--and two others with only one blemish on their credit sheet—American Pharoah and Carpe Diem are the headliners. International Star, who swept the Fair Grounds three-stakes series, is unbeaten as a 3-year-old and he has done it with late charges down one of the few stretches longer than Churchill Downs.

Who knows how good Mubtaahij is. I know how good Michael de Kock is. If he thinks the UAE Derby winner has a shot, that’s good enough for me.

Last weekend did little to unscramble the Derby picture. I pushed Dortmund over American Pharoah in the HRI poll after his sixth straight win. However, if American Pharoah puts on a show in Saturday’s Arkansas Derby, as I expect him to, I’ll probably flip flop them again.

It has been said that only Bob Baffert knows which of his two stars is better. Baffert said even he can’t say. He was asked during an NTRA conference call last week if he had ever worked Dortmund and American Pharoah together. “No! Never! Not at all!”

The Derby could be the only time we get to see these two in the same starting gate. If one of them wears the blanket of roses, I can’t see Baffert trying to ruin his Triple Crown possibility by running the other against him again even though they have separate ownerships.

I acknowledge all kinds of caveats to this. If the outcome is decided by a photo, if one is compromised by an horrendous trip or some other extraordinary circumstance, there could be a rematch in the Preakness. However, if the Derby is truly run and Dortmund or American Pharoah is a clear winner, I don’t expect to see both of them in Baltimore and certainly not in the Belmont should a Triple Crown be on the line.

Carpe Diem could ruin the Baffert party without anyone rekindling memories of MineThat Bird. The only horse to ever finish in front of Carpe Diem, Texas Red in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, won’t be in Louisville. Other than that Carpe Diem has never had a horse within two lengths of him at the wire in his other four starts, including his workmanlike polishing off of Saturday’s Blue Grass. He’s already won three times around two turns. If ever a horse was bred for the Triple Crown series, it is this son of Giant’s Causeway and the Unbridled’s Song mare Rekindled Dreams.

It appears Kiaran McLaughlin has figured out what happened to Frosted in the Fountain of Youth he appeared to have won at the top of the stretch. However, I can’t put the Wood Memorial on the same level as Dortmund’s Santa Anita Derby or Carpe Diem’s Blue Grass. El Kabeir didn’t fire his best shot (or maybe he did and it wasn’t good enough) and Daredevil didn’t fire at all. Beating Tencendur, who was one-for-one against New York bred maidens and zero-for-three against open company doesn’t elevate Frosted to my top tier of Derby contenders. I’m not saying he’s a toss but with so many others I consider superior, as of now that’s what I’m going to do.

The Oaks is a beauty, too

After Saturday, the Kentucky Oaks is almost as inscrutable. A big downside of the trend toward Super Saturdays, especially during Derby prep season, is the tendency to overlook outstanding performances in important stakes, which formerly commanded a showcase day of their own.

I’m a Chatterbox looked like this year’s Untappable in sweeping the Fair Grounds distaff series. But an hour before Frosted stole the spotlight in the Wood, Condo Commando reinforced her status as an elite filly with another cakewalk in the Gazelle.

She has one inexplicably poor race in the Frizette last fall on a sloppy track. Yes, she was the “splash-tastic” winner of the sloppy Spinaway at Saratoga but all slop is not the same. That the Frizette was her first try at a distance as long as a mile after winning a couple of sprints by more than 25 lengths caused some to dismiss her as a freakish sprinter. She has put that theory to rest, galloping in three straight two-turn stakes.

Stellar Wind was even more impressive in the Santa Anita Oaks, which got lost as a supporting player to Dortmund’s Santa Anita Derby. The filly purchased privately by Hronis Racing after a big maiden-breaker in Maryland has looked like the second coming of Zenyatta in a pair of West Coast races. Saturday, she crushed a solid field of fillies, drawing away after a sweeping last-to-first surge around the far turn.

Also overwhelmed by Materiality’s impressive Florida Derby a week ago was the rapidly developing Birdatthewire’s convincing win in the Gulfstream Oaks. She was so rank and awkward around the first turn into the backstretch that her trainer, Dale Romans, and a lot of others watching thought Irad Ortiz had lost his irons. Ortiz got her act together and she, too, circled the field to win going away.

There’s a traditional Kentucky Oaks-Kentucky Derby daily double. Anyone thinking about jumping into that pool better be prepared to spread.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Friday, April 03, 2015

NY gives little respect to its winter hero

El Kabeir did little wrong this winter in New York. He galloped in the Jerome and Gotham and ran a solid second in the Withers. Nevertheless, the NYRA morning line for the Wood Memorial rates him no better than third choice behind a couple of 3-year-olds who return to Aqueduct from a winter in Florida, Daredevil and Frosted, each looking for his first victory of the season. The Wood is the most attractive betting race of Saturday's three major Derby preps. Dortmund will be an overwhelming favorite to remain undefeated in the Santa Anita Derby and Carpe Diem might be an even shorter price in the Blue Grass.
MIAMI, April 3, 2015--It’s one thing for much of the racing world to look down on winter racing in New York. What can you say when New York’s own downgrades its cold weather product? This is the conclusion to be drawn from the morning line, set by NYRA, for Saturday’s Wood Memorial.

El Kabeir has only one hiccup on his 2015 resume, a second in the Withers Stakes. An argument could be made that he might have been so involved in a stretch slugfest with Classy Class, in which El Kabeir prevailed, he was caught unaware that Far From Over was sneaking up from behind. So you could see Far From Over being favored over El Kabeir but FFO won’t be in the Wood. He was knocked off the Triple Crown trail this week by a leg injury.

Other than the Withers, El Kabeir boasts decisive wins in the Jerome and the Gotham. It’s not as if he is a dead of winter development, either. His final race of 2014 was a hard fought win in the Kentucky Jockey Club. In his prior race he was second to Blofeld, who has yet to be outrun by anyone. (Todd Pletcher said he is close to a comeback race.)

Nonetheless, in a field of seven NYRA’s linemaker makes El Kabeir no better than the 3-1 third choice to a couple of horses who have spent the winter in Florida and return to the Big A still looking for their first win as a 3-year-old.

The 9-5 favorite, Daredevil, was a distant second to Ready for Rye in the Swale. In his prior race, he was 11th in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, beaten so far that if he had tried to come back in a race this winter at Aqueduct, he would have been compelled to qualify with a 52-second half-mile workout.

The linemaker must be ignoring what has happened recently and gone back to last October’s Champagne, when Daredevil thrashed El Kabeir by almost 18 lengths on a sloppy track. Then again, a morning line is not so much a reflection of relative ability as the perception of how the public is expected to bet.This is still not glowing testimony of what New Yorkers think of their winter star. Maybe it’s a reflection of getting burned in the spring by winter standouts Vyjack and Samraat the past two years.

Frosted, the early 2-1 second choice, is winless in a pair of 2015 starts. Upstart ran away from him in the Holy Bull. Next he seemed to be in command at the top of the lane in the Fountain of Youth only to stop more abruptly than an assembly line worker when the 5 o’clock whistle sounds.

Kiaran McLaughlin, who had him checked from toe to tail, said he has no idea what happened. Frosted’s in-the-money stakes finishes notwithstanding, he still has only a maiden win. Yet NYRA’s line rates him better than a three-time stakes winner, who prepped in New York.

I agree with the line. Daredevil’s return was better than it lucked. Ready for Rye, a brutally quick sprinter, freaked in the seven-furlong Swale and Daredevil wasn’t pushed to close the gap late. Todd Pletcher said after the race that it set up Daredevil perfectly to stretch out in his next start.

Saturday’s other two Derby preps have clear standouts, which diminishes them as betting propositions. Here’s an interesting man-to-man betting prop: who will be a shorter price, Dortmund in the Santa Anita Derby or Carpe Diem in the Blue Grass. More than 3-5 on either would be an overlay.

Dortmund will be facing the same bunch he beat with authority in the San Felipe at 4-5. He has shown he can win on or off the pace. In his previous three races, he went off at 2-5 once and 3-5 twice. Even-money in his debut was a steal. The only horse to warm him up, Firing Line, went out of town to avoid him and demolished the Sunland Derby field.

Ocho Ocho Ocho, who had a troubled trip in the San Felipe after three straight wins, also beat it to Kentucky to get away from Dortmund. With his California speed, he might be a good underneath bet in the Blue Grass. More about that race shortly.

A groundswell of support has developed for late-running Prospect Park, who closed for second in the San Felipe. But fans traditionally fall in love with late-movers as the Kentucky Derby approaches. One thing to keep in mind: someone had to be second in the San Felipe. I suspect Prospect Park will be severely under-laid on Saturday.

Let’s go to the scoreboard; Dortmund--likely about 1-2--five races, five wins, three stakes. Prospect Park--possibly 5-2 or less--five races, two wins, no stakes. An improving colt in the spring is always capable of springing an upset, especially when the favorite is looking ahead to the race after this. However, you ought to get paid better than Prospect Park’s supporters will if you beat an undefeated multiple stakes winner, who handled you last time out.

Then there’s the caveat emptor horse, One Lucky Dane, because you can never dismiss “the other Baffert.” Earlier this week, the trainer told a national phone conference that One Lucky Dane has turned the corner and “I expect a big race from him.”

It’s difficult to conjure a scenario in which Carpe Diem doesn’t make a spectacle of the Blue Grass. The only time he hasn’t gotten the big money in four starts was a second in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile when Texas Red unleashed an Arazi-like close. Texas Red is temporarily out of the picture.

Carpe Diem won his debut at 5 ½ furlongs in a runaway at Saratoga. Juveniles by Giant’s Causeway are not supposed to do this, Pletcher pointed out this week. What they are supposed to do is thrive at longer distances.

Other than the BC Juvenile, Carpe Diem is perfect in two-turn races. This includes a tour de force romp in the Breeders’ Futurity. It’s obvious he loves the new Keeneland dirt strip. His 3-year-old debut in the Tampa Bay Derby was another gem, so he has transferred his juvenile form to his 3-year-old season. For overkill, Pletcher said he had a sensational workout last week.

Pletcher calls him “the whole package” and has plotted his season so that the Kentucky Derby will be his third race after his 2-year-old to 3-year-old layoff.

Those looking for a sleeper to fill out an exacta or tri could do worse than using Frammento (as well as Ocho Ocho Ocho). In the winner’s circle after his Catholic Cowboy won the Claiming Crown in December, Nick Zito was asked if he had a Derby prospect. He immediately singled out Frammento, then just a maiden winner. Significantly, that breakthrough win came at Keeneland.

Zito said the colt was a slow developer, who would get better as the distances got longer. His best race since then was his last, a closing third in the Fountain of Youth. Zito has been telling friends the colt by Midshipman is really coming into his own. This still might not be good enough to beat Carpe Diem at this point. But, a I said about the San Felipe, someone has to be second.

Written by Tom Jicha

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