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 Sentinels horse racing writer since 2007 as a staff member, and continues to this day as a free-lancer.

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Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Gulfstream Taking a Gamble by Putting Racing First with Donn on Sunday

Gulfstream Park is putting the sport ahead of its bottom line in moving the Donn Handicap from Saturday to Sunday, Donn coming up a terrific race headed by Will Take Charge, in order to help launch 'The Jockey Club Tour on Fox.' It is also kicking in another $50K to lure a representative field to take on Groupie Doll in her career finale, which will open the Fox telecast.

MIAMI, Feb. 5, 2014--Gulfstream is taking one for the team this weekend. The Donn Handicap is being moved from its original date on Saturday to Sunday to accommodate the launch of "The Jockey Club Tour on Fox."

This should not be dismissed as no big deal, especially in light of how other tracks have done nothing to support the latest initiative to get more racing on TV. (There is not a single race from a Churchill Downs-owned track on the schedule. Their bad, or Fox's?)

The Donn traditionally produces one of the biggest days of the winter season at Gulfstream, often behind only Florida Derby Day. In moving it to Sunday, Gulfstream is risking a major hit to its bottom line.
Gulfstream President Tim Ritvo is hopeful this won’t be the case, but it is a roll of the dice. “Saturday will not do as well (without the Donn) but Sunday will be better than usual. We’re hoping the combination will equal or be better than what we would do on a normal weekend.”

The only precedent came a few years ago when Gulfstream experimented with moving The Florida Derby to Sunday with another stakes loaded day, including the Gulfstream Oaks, on Saturday. The idea was to see if it could create a Kentucky Oaks-Kentucky Derby-like two-day event.

The weekend handle was about what a Saturday Florida Derby and normal Sunday would have generated, according to Ritvo. But it is perhaps revealing that it became a one-and-done trial. The Florida Derby went back to Saturday and has been anchored there since.

What’s more, the Florida Derby is long established as a major event, which transcends racing, on the South Florida social calendar. The Donn is eagerly anticipated by racing fans but not the general population.

This is why Gulfstream deserves accolades for taking the chance with the Donn for all the right reasons. “We’re hoping the exposure on TV outweighs what we might lose on the change.”

Sunday racing was touted as the panacea that would reverse the downward trend in Florida racing when it was being debated in the Florida legislature. I can’t recall if it was the panacea to usher in a new golden age before or after the minors bill was the panacea that would usher in a new era of prosperity. Both definitely preceded slots, the panacea du jour.

Thankfully, it’s not three panaceas and you’re out for racing.

For some reason, or many reasons, Sunday racing has never caught on in a big way in Florida—or anywhere else in the United States. This is why many big stakes are not on the "Jockey Club Tour" agenda. Many tracks have been unwilling to move their marquee events from Saturday to Sunday.

Theories for the disappointment Sundays have become are as myriad as handicapping techniques. King NFL is a prominent one for almost half the year. Every track shows the games on monitors throughout their plant—some even have contests linking football and racing-- but this is no match for the comfort of home with a big screen TV.

Besides--the NFL’s disingenuous protests notwithstanding--more money probably changes hands on Sunday in football game bets and fantasy leagues than at the nation’s racetracks. So gambling thirsts are sated without a trip to the track.

Ken Dunn, the only man to run Calder and Gulfstream, says a higher power than even the NFL should not be overlooked. “Sunday is a church day for an awful lot of people.” Many extend this to the commandment to keep holy the Lord’s day. A gambling and drinking establishment does not fit within this parameter. (Christianity is not the only religion, but it is the dominant one in numbers).

Dunn, who also was a top executive at Arlington and Atlantic City, said experience teaches him Sundays will never be as strong as Saturdays, no matter what inducements tracks offer to attract customers. “At Calder, we created a family picnic area. We had pony rides, face painting and games for kids. It boosted attendance for a while but it quickly became old hat. Racing is never going to make it with families. It’s great to expose it to them but they are not going to come to the track every week.”

Probably because Sunday is such a family oriented day, “The male of the household has a more difficult time getting away on a Sunday than on Saturday,” Dunn said.

Speaking from anecdotal experience, Dunn, an avid golfer, said it is the same at local courses. “It’s much easier to get a tee time on a Sunday than it is on a Saturday.”

Dunn and Ritvo are on the same page with another factor that’s especially peculiar to South Florida during the winter. “Sunday is a travel day here,” Ritvo said. Tourists who visit for a week or weekend tend to head home on Sunday.

Indeed, since changing the date of the Donn, Ritvo said he has heard from disappointed fans, who told him they had made plans to be in Florida for the Donn on Saturday then fly home the next day.

Those who can’t make it are going to miss a sensational race. Eclipse champion Will Take Charge tops an anticipated big field expected to include Revolutionary, River Seven and Lea. There will be more on the Donn on Friday.

As a bonus, two-time Eclipse winner Groupie Doll will make the final start of her career in the Hurricane Bertie. Gulfstream is biting another bullet by kicking in an extra $50K to the purse if Groupie Doll runs but it really isn’t to assure her presence. She has been set for a while. The track is hoping to entice a few more contenders to take on the champ so that the race is meaningful and competitive for TV.

Both races, in addition to the Gulfstream Turf Cup, will be part of the telecast on Fox Sports 1 from 5-6:30.

Dunn applauds Gulfstream’s selflessness in making this possible. “I can’t tell you how many meetings I sat through where we tried to get more races on TV but there was little willingness to make a short-term sacrifice for long-term gains.”

Written by Tom Jicha

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Friday, January 31, 2014

You never know where next hot Derby horse will come from

A trio of stakes for 3-year-olds are on the Saturday agenda. None of the hot contenders are scheduled to go in the Hutcheson, Sam F. Davis or Withers but this time of year a major new shooter could come from anywhere.

MIAMI, Jan. 31, 2014--New Year’s Day, the high-weight in the Experimental Handicap released this week, didn’t make it to, well, New Year’s Day, before going to the sidelines.

Shared Belief, co-second high-weight, is dealing with hoof problems. He has had his planned season debut in the Robert B. Lewis on Feb. 8 delayed at least a month.

Havana, rated equal to Shared Belief, must have issues, too. The blueprint now is to launch his 3-year-old campaign in the seven furlong Swale on March 1 instead of the two-turn Fountain of Youth a week earlier.

Honor Code, fourth in the Experimental rankings, bruised his ankles. He also will skip the Fountain of Youth, which had been penciled in as his first step toward Louisville.

It’s hard to take the Experimental seriously when it ranks Cairo Prince six pounds below Honor Code on 2-year-old form. They were a nose apart in the Remsen, when Cairo Prince conceded six pounds to Honor Code, had a tougher trip and still might have won but for a poorly judged ride.

But the Experimental does identify the horses expected to be the major players as Derby season dawns.

The developments with the leaders illustrate how quickly the Derby picture can be scrambled. A week ago, Top Billing was just another promising colt still eligible for an entry level allowance. One eye-popping last-to-first win last Saturday has vaulted him onto most Top 10 (if not Top 5) lists. Poor Commissioner. He beat Top Billing in a Gulfstream allowance and nobody is talking about him.

So you never know at this time of year when the next would-be star is going to materialize. This needs to be kept in mind while assessing the three stakes for Derby-age horses on Saturday’s docket: the Hutcheson, the Sam F. Davis and the Withers.

It would appear unlikely a major new shooter for the spring classics will emerge. The seven furlong Hutcheson is composed mostly of horses whose future is around one turn. The Sam F. Davis, a mile and a sixteenth around two turns, has only one horse with more than a single win, and that was in a restricted Canadian stakes. The co-favorites in the Withers are New York-breds trying open company for the first time.

Probable Hutcheson favorite Wildcat Red is in the race only because a minor sickness knocked him out of last week’s Holy Bull. The way Cairo Prince ran, it might have been a fortuitous illness.

Wildcat Red crossed the finish line first in his first three starts (although he was disqualified in one), then ran second in the Gulfstream Derby. But the first three were sprints and he was passed in the stretch for the first time attempting a mile. Turning back to seven furlongs, he should be right in his comfort zone.

If there are to be horses to come out of the Hutcheson and go on to longer distances, they likely will be from the loaded (what’s new?) Todd Pletcher barn. Vinceremos broke his maiden at a mile, gamely overcoming an adventuresome trip. Todd thinks enough of him to have cross-entered him in the Sammy Davis.

The Todd Squad’s other contender, Trail Blaze, was the talk of New York when he broke his maiden. But he was off the board at 6-5 in the Spectacular Bid. It wasn’t an easy trip so he’s eligible to come back big.

The runnerup in the Bid, C. Zee, is attempting more than six furlongs for the first time in his fourth career start.

Mighty Brown won a small stakes at Tampa at the Hutcheson distance then misfired in a special event in Ocala. However, the sales company track in Central Florida can leg up horses for top efforts subsequently.

Wesley Ward’s Pablo Del Monte looked like a prospect when he won his first two starts going short. But he has been a non-factor in two attempts at a mile, one on turf. Perhaps significantly, his two wins were on synthetics.

If Todd opts for the Davis with Vinceremos, he will likely be an underlay solely because of his connections. Pletcher has another impressive maiden breaker, Harpoon, entered. He was second three times before breaking through and was within three lengths of Cairo Prince when the new leader of the division broke his maiden at Belmont.

Asserting Bear from the potent Reade Baker outfit has the strongest credentials outside of maiden breakers. He has been in the money in three restricted Canadian stakes, all at more than a mile. Baker must feel there is more to be gotten. He’s putting blinkers on. A caution: Asserting Bear tries real dirt for the first time.

Another Woodbine-based colt, Matador, was last behind Asserting Bear in his most recent start but he did win the restricted Cup & Saucer, albeit on grass. He, too, will be on conventional dirt for the first time.

New York-bred Noble Cornerstone could be the sleeper. He galloped first time out at Aqueduct then ran a fast closing second in a 12-horse , $250,000 stakes at Remington. Blinkers come off and a rejuvenated Kent Desormeaux comes in to ride.

New York-breds figure to dominate the open Withers at a mile and a sixteenth. Samratt, a son of Noble Causeway, looks like he could be any kind. He’s three-for-three, capped by an almost 17-length front-running laugher at a mile and 70 yards. He might not need an edge but he has been training at Palm Meadows, which often is an advantage over horses who have had to deal with New York’s winter, which has been especially brutal this year.

Uncle Sigh, also bred in the Empire State, is coming off a ridiculously easy win, too, a 14 ½- length maiden romp at a mile and 70. Gary Contessa said if no one else takes it to Samratt, his son of Indian Charlie will.

The stranger danger in the six-horse field is Honorable Judge, shipping in off an open allowance win at Parx.

The Withers is one of four stakes on the Saturday Aqueduct card. This might seem a bit much for the first day of February but battalions of sports fans will be in town for this big football game across the river on Sunday.

How could any racing fan not like a team called the Broncos?

Written by Tom Jicha

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Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Racing has a fickle partner in TV

The Jockey Club Tour on Fox Sports should be a boon to racing. Any TV exposure is. But racing's movers and shakers should be aware that history teaches that TV, especially fledgling networks, drops niche programming as soon as it has enough shows with mainstream appeal.

MIAMI, Jan. 29, 2014--Getting into bed with a TV network is like being George Clooney’s latest flame. Great while it lasts. Just don’t fantasize about happily ever after.

Racing should keep this in mind as it justifiably celebrates the launch of the Jockey Club Tour on Fox Sports. When you don’t have an abundance of suitors, you can’t fret over “Will you still love me tomorrow?”

A story from my 30 years as a TV critic illustrates what racing can expect. The best handicapping I ever did wasn’t at a racetrack. It was predicting the impact Miami Vice would have on South Florida.

The town fathers were apoplectic when NBC announced the new series starring Don Johnson and Phillip Michael Thomas. They were terrified the tourism industry would be irreparably harmed by ripped-from-the-headlines plots.

Drug wars had made the area resemble the Wild West, only with better weapons. Dadeland, an upscale showplace mall, had recently been the site of a ferocious gun battle waged with military assault rifles.

The Miami Vice pilot was screened for TV critics during a Los Angeles press tour. It was brilliant. The lead on my column for the Miami News was, “’Miami Vice’ will be the greatest thing ever to happen to Miami.” The paper put it on Page 1.

“Miami Vice” didn’t become an instant nationwide hit. It was scheduled against “Falcon Crest,” a popular prime-time soap bolstered by the extraordinary lead-in it inherited from still white hot “Dallas.”

But “Vice” was huge in Miami. There was no such thing as too much Miami Vice in the paper. I wrote about the episodes, the music, the fashions and profiled every actor in the ensemble. My stories were available on several wire services, so they were being seen beyond Miami.

I became as popular on the set as pastels. The night the pilot aired for America, there was a lavish screening party at a Miami Beach hotel. I got to sit behind the ropes with the cast. When I temporarily ran out of story ideas and didn’t show up on the set for more than a week, I got a call asking if I was mad about something.

Don Johnson sent me a message that I didn’t have to have a story in mind to come out to the set. He said it was OK to come over and just hang out. He also invited me to his Star Island mansion some Saturday night to watch movies with his friends.

America finally discovered “Miami Vice” during summer rerun season when the CBS soap operas went on hiatus. Millions of faithful fans, who had been hearing about “Miami Vice”—video recorders were still fairly rare—tuned in to see what they were missing. Miami Vice was on its way.

A frenzy erupted in the publishing business to get Johnson and company on the covers of national news and entertainment magazines.

As Season Two approached, my paper naturally wanted a major takeout on what to expect. I called over to the people who had treated me the previous year as if I were “The Bachelor” and they were in the harem hoping to gain favor.

Numerous calls went unreturned. Eventually I got aggressive, leaving Johnson and others a sharp message reminding them that I was there when nobody else was and how it was bad form on their part to not even return my calls.

I finally got a pithy message from Johnson’s rep. “That was last year. We’re hot now.”

To bring this full circle, Fox Sports 1 needs help now. It is the new kid on the national cable sports network block. The major broadcast networks, ESPN and the Turner empire cleverly tied up the professional sports leagues and major college conferences to long-term deals. So Fox Sports has to scramble to fill 168 hours a week without resorting to miniature golf and curling from Canada. Enter the relationship with racing.

However, the major sports deals will eventually expire and Fox, out of necessity, will probably overpay to grab some of them. As these sports begin to show up on the network, horse racing will be pushed aside. In effect, it will get the “That was then. We’re hot now” brush off. Pretty much what happened with ESPN.

This is not a phenomena restricted to sports, although it has manifested itself in a slightly different way on broadcast networks. When Fox arrived in the early ‘90s, it relied to a large extent on series geared toward African-American audiences: True Colors, Roc, Martin and In Living Color, to name a few.

Simple explanation: The black audience was being egregiously underserved by ABC, CBS and NBC. So Fox prudently went after that segment of America.

However, once the network created a few hits and was accepted by mainstream America on even footing with the then Big Three (snagging the NFL was a major coup), the shows with predominantly black casts began to diminish. Try finding one now.

The lesser UPN and WB networks, which came along in the mid-‘90s, adhered to an identical strategy. UPN got off the ground with black-targeted series such as Moesha, The Parkers, All of Us, Girlfriends and Everybody Hates Chris.

The first series on WB was The Wayans Brothers. Parent ‘Hood and Sister, Sister followed.

The two newbies eventually merged into the CW and the shows with African-American casts were jettisoned one by one until there were none, as the new entity discovered greater success targeting the 18-and-under crowd, also underserved in prime time.

TV critics get to meet with network executives in Los Angeles twice each year. At every one of these sessions while I was still on the beat, the CW executive in charge said the network’s primary goal was to break out beyond teens by creating series with appeal to a more general audience. Thus far, success in this area has been limited. If and when it happens, it will be adios teens.

So racing and its fans should enjoy the honeymoon with Fox Sports while it lasts. It is hoped that this time the future of niche programming will last, not disappear.

Written by Tom Jicha

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