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, May 24, 2013


NY Times idea of a racing czar is a bad pipedream


The New York Times is up to its usual tricks, dumping on racing. Two days after the Preakness, The Times ran a piece suggesting that what racing needs is a strong, central leader. It's a warm, fuzzy idea until it is put under the microscope of how this has worked in other sports. Baseball and football have potent commissioners, yet have drug issues as scandalous as those in racing. Worse, neither of these commissioners demonstrate any regard for the people who make their sports go, the fans.

MIAMI, May 24, 2013--It didn’t take the New York Times long to resume its jihad against racing. Two days after Orb failed to win the Preakness, William C. Rhoden launched another broadside.

I don’t monitor Rhoden’s work. Equidaily.com does keep a close eye on him and The Times, which has dredged up every piece of negative news it could uncover about racing, even if it had to travel to off-the-beaten-track bullrings in the Southwest to find it. The headline on Equidaily’s summary of the piece is telling: “NY Times’ # 2 racing gadfly Rhoden takes his annual shot at racing.”

Among other things, Rhoden opines, “The racing industry is trudging toward an uncertain future.” As opposed to what? The newspaper industry?

Given the thrust of the piece, it’s not surprising it would appear in The Times, a champion of large, centralized government. Rhoden writes, “The industry must appoint a single leadership figure to standardize rules and regulations covering every facet of the industry.”

From where would this messiah come? The Wizard of Oz and Merlin, who could magically wave a wand and make things happen, aren’t available.

Practically speaking, it would have to be someone from racetrack management. More significantly, he would have to be paid by racetracks directly or by gouging fans with another bite in the takeout. The latter would almost certainly require legislative approval from every racing jurisdiction. Good luck with that. Thank goodness.

In either case, this czar would be beholden to track owners.

Let’s take a look at how this approach has worked in other sports. The most frequently mentioned problem by racing’s detractors is performance enhancing drugs. Baseball has had an omnipotent commissioner for a century. The specter of Bud Selig's authority didn’t deter Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and a multitude of other steroid-fueled players from making a mockery of the sport-- just like some thoroughbred trainers are doing.

Selig looked the other way because he felt the barrage of drug assisted offense was good for the game; i.e., the owners.

The NFL has the most powerful commissioner in sports. Yet it looked the other way for years at steroid and amphetamine abuse. Same reason: Fans love those big hits by players with super-human physiques.

How many times did you hear commentators casually remark, “He got his bell rung.” Only recently has it been conceded that this translates to the likelihood of a concussion, which leads to premature dementia and death.

The lifespan of an NFL player is something like 12 years less than the average American. The NFL and its strong commissioner didn’t bother to deal with this reality until it was confronted by what could turn into a gazillion dollar lawsuit from former players.

What about concern for fans?

Selig has presided over the most fan-unfriendly developments in the history of baseball. You can buy tickets to take the family to a Sunday afternoon game only to be told it has been moved to Sunday night for TV. Instead of getting home for dinner, the final pitch will be thrown around midnight. This makes the ETA for arriving home before the start of a new school and work week an hour with a small number.

All that matters is, thanks to Selig, it’s ever onward and upward for the TV revenue owners cut up.

Football is only slightly better. Consider the ramifications of the celebrated Snow Bowl, the playoff game between Oakland and New England played in a blizzard on Jan. 19, 2002.

The calendar dictates that playoff games fall in the dead of winter. So the NFL can’t be blamed for what happened that Saturday night. But what has happened since is unconscionable.

Until then, the NFL did its best to schedule late season prime-time games in warmer weather cities or those with domed stadiums. Once the Snow Bowl racked up record TV ratings, this philosophy was spun 180 degrees.

Now the league goes out of its way to schedule December and January prime-time games in places like Green Bay, Chicago and New England, in the hope it can re-create the Snow Bowl ratings magic. So what if this puts the fans in the stands in danger of frostbite, pneumonia or a heart attack trying to shovel out their car after the final gun, then driving home in treacherous conditions.

The NFL doesn’t even respect its most important games enough to stage them under the most advantageous competitive conditions possible. The first round of the playoffs last season had a couple of wild card games on Saturday. One was in Houston, the other in Green Bay. The NFL designated the latter for prime time, all the better for the possibility of another winter wonderland. The higher the ratings, the more the NFL can demand when its TV contract comes up for renewal.

Two weeks later, the two conference championships were played the same day. One was in Atlanta with its domed stadium. That was made the early game. The other was after dark outdoors in New England.

This coming February, the Super Bowl will be played outdoors at the Meadowlands. The conditions could be so brutal, the league has made contingency plans to move to an alternate date in case the Metropolitan area is shut down by a major storm.

With enhanced security, fans will be asked to be in their seats as much as three hours before kickoff. Throw in the extended halftime show and they could be sitting in arctic conditions for as much as seven hours.

Is this being done to give fans in the nation’s largest market a chance to see sports biggest event? Of course not. The average person has no shot at a ticket. It’s a gift to the owners of the Jets and Giants for building a new billion dollar stadium. Those owners will be sitting in heated skyboxes, blissfully liberated from the pain and suffering of the freezing masses in the stands.

You can thank a powerful commissioner for that.

The Breeders Cup, one of the best things to happen to racing, tried to take a leadership position in cleaning up the drugs mess by issuing a phased-in edict that Lasix would not be permitted in the championship races.

This effort or the Breeders’ Cup will die after this year because horsemen’s organizations have indicated they will not grant simulcast rights if the ban on Lasix isn’t lifted.

A strong central figure to restore racing to prominence is a warm fuzzy thought but one that works only in the minds of those in the Ivory Tower of The New York Times.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Friday, May 17, 2013


There is Orb and there is everyone else in the Preakness


Orb stands so far above the rest of the 3-year-old class that it's difficult to single out which of his eight rivals represents the biggest threat to him in the Preakness. All Orb has to do is run his race without experiencing horrendous racing luck to head to Belmont Park with a big shot to end the Triple Crown draught.

MIAMI, May 17, 2013--The Preakness would be a hell of a race if Orb wasn’t in it.

This thought occurred to me Sunday morning when I was putting together my contribution to the weekly Inside Horse Racing Triple Crown Poll. Orb at No. 1 was easy. The Kentucky Derby winner has been atop my poll since the Florida Derby.

The challenge came when I pondered who to make Nos. 2, 3, 4, etc. A mischievous instinct tempted me to slot Orb at No. 1 and “Everyone Else” at No. 2. Alas, I knew this wasn’t going to fly with John Pricci, who encourages provocative thought and expression…to a point.

But this is how I assess the 3-year-old picture at this point.

Big favorites go down every day. A horrid trip, a poorly judged ride, a bad day physically could undermine Orb. But it will take something extraordinary to deny him the second jewel of the Triple Crown. If each of the nine Preakness entrants brings his “A” game, is there any doubt who wins? Not with me.

Apparently this is also true of several major players in the game. The three horses closest to Orb at the end of the Kentucky Derby want no more of him Saturday. Todd Pletcher started five in the Derby as well as at least one in just about every significant 3-year-old stakes in the East, South and Midwest this winter. He’s sending no one to the Preakness.

Orb beat every top 3-year-old in Florida this winter, either at Gulfstream or in Kentucky. He vanquished Violence in the Fountain of Youth when Violence was the most accomplished 3-year-old around. In the Florida Derby, Orb ran past Itsmyluckyday, who was coming off decisive scores in the Gulfstream Derby and Holy Bull. He didn’t get a shot at Verrazano until the Run for the Roses.

Look at how horses who spent the winter in Florida did when Orb wasn’t around: Revolutionary won the Louisiana Derby, Overanalyze took the Arkansas Derby, Verrazano extended his unbeaten streak in the Wood Memorial and Java’s War upset the Blue Grass. Combined with Orb's Florida Derby, this represents a clean sweep of the 100-point races east of the Mississippi and west of Dubai.

So the question becomes is there any reason to think Orb won’t bring his “A” game? Not off his final workout. Low key Shug McGaughey, who would describe Secretariat’s Belmont as a nice race, said Orb’s work took his breath away. Others said it was more impressive than his pre-Kentucky Derby workout at Churchill Downs, which was assessed by many as the work of Derby week.

So if you want to price shop and play against Orb, it will not be on the basis of any sound handicapping principle. A sobering thought for those of that mind is the Preakness is by far the most formful of the Triple Crown races.

Seven of the last dozen Preakness winners have been the betting favorite. One of the five who didn’t come through was the ill-fated Barbaro. Kentucky Derby winner I’ll Have Another went off second choice to Bodemeister last year. IHA became the eighth Derby winner in the past 16 years to repeat in Baltimore. Seventeen of the last 27 odds-on favorites in the Preakness have won. Those are winning percentages the late Oscar Barrera would admire.

Only two Preakness winners in the past 29 years have gone off at double digit odds. One was Bernardini in Barbaro’s Preakness. The other was Shackleford in 2011.
So those looking to score big while betting small are up against the odds in more ways than one.

On the other hand, you could come up with the horses to fill out the exacta, tri and super by pulling names out of a hat and feel good about your chances.

An indication of this came from Pimlico oddsmaker Frank Carulli, who said he made Mylute the 5-1 second choice because the Preakness crowd will heavily back his jockey Rosie Napravnik. No disrespect to Rosie or Mylute, who very well could be that good. But is this what handicapping the Triple Crown has been reduced to?

The more likely second choice will be Illinois Derby winner Departing, who sat out the Kentucky Derby pointing for this race. He’s from the people who thwarted history with Blame, denying Zenyatta an undefeated career in the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Classic.

But before getting carried away with the “now” horse, keep in mind that the two horses closest to Departing at Hawthorne were Fordubai and Siete de Oros. His other stakes win came in the Texas Heritage. When Departing tried classier company in the Louisiana Derby, he was a non-menacing third.

Four others command respect as much for their trainer as their accomplishments. D. Wayne Lukas has three—Will Take Charge, Oxbow and Titletown Five—with the first two each having run a race strong enough to hit the board at Pimlico. Bob Baffert jumps on the Triple Crown trail with Govenor Charlie, who was kept out of the Derby with a minor ailment. The misspelled Guv’s big credit is the Sunland Derby, where he had less behind him than Departing did in Chicago.

If there’s a sleeper, it’s Goldencents, whose 17th-place finish in the Derby was too bad to be true. Doug O’Neill’s charge rebounded from a dull San Felipe to run huge in the Santa Anita Derby. Maybe he can turn it around again and give O’Neill another Preakness triumph.

Itsmyluckyday also is a better horse than he showed in Louisville and has worked well since. Nothing wrong with Elvis Trujillo but he’s not Johnny Velazquez, who takes over in the saddle.

It comes down to this. Something good has to happen for one of the other eight to spring an upset. All Orb needs do is run his race.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Friday, May 10, 2013


Calder-Gulfstream conflict turns ugly early


Two months before Calder and Gulfstream are scheduled to begin racing head-to-head, the first shots were fired in what could turn into a scorched earth conflict with no winners. South Florida horsemen withdrew permission to export Calder's simulcast signal, which in only four days cost the track millions in revenue. It also cost horsemen a 20% purse reduction. A temporary settlement on May 9 kicked the can down the road. Meanwhile, Gulfstream got permission to open on June 25, which qualifies it as a year-round simulcast host. Calder, of course, is appealing.

MIAMI, May 10, 2013--The imminent head-to-head conflict between Gulfstream Park and Calder Race Course figured to turn ugly and it did, sooner than many expected.

Calder horsemen fired a shot across the bow of the Churchill Downs-owned track at the end of April. Their racing contract and a temporary extension with Calder having expired, the Florida HBPA withdrew permission for Calder to export its simulcast signal out of state.

(A veto right over where a simulcast signal can be transmitted and received was given horsemen when simulcasting across state lines was first approved. In my opinion, it needs to be revisited, since it has turned into what amounts to a tool of extortion. Perhaps mandatory arbitration would be an alternative.)

The anticipated result materialized. Calder all sources handle plunged more than 50%.

The track’s response also could have been anticipated. Since purses are a product of handle, Calder general manager John Marshall announced a 20% reduction.

The major hangup was the FHBPA’s insistence that a new contract allow horsemen to ship a horse to race at another track (Gulfstream is the only one within a thousand miles in the summer) and come back to his stall at Calder.

Marshall has been adamant this is not going to happen. Who can blame him? It costs a fortune to maintain a stable area the size of Calder’s--even one whose condition has drawn significant criticism. Horsemen pay no rent during the live racing season. Permitting a horse, which it is paying to house, to race at Gulfstream, which is trying to put Calder out of business, would be like an army allowing the enemy’s troops to sleep in its barracks.

Horsemen have a reasonable counter-argument. With Calder planning to run only three days a week (Friday through Sunday) and almost certainly carding fewer races each day, it will be difficult to find starts. Gulfstream’s Saturday-Sunday agenda of about 16 races per weekend will create additional opportunities.

The horsemen also are armed with precedent. They have always been allowed to ship back and forth.

Gulfstream turned up the heat by promising to allow horses on its grounds to race at Calder without penalty.

Nevertheless, the local horsemen have to know that under the circumstances Calder isn’t going to relent on such a crucial point. So why force the issue at the risk of substantial financial loss two months sooner than necessary?

One theory is Florida horsemen thought they could use the Kentucky Derby simulcast as a hostage.

In the past, horsemen’s organizations have tended to support each other by denying permission to have their races sent into a state where local horsemen are not letting their signal out. Florida horsemen might have been hoping that their Kentucky brethren would give them leverage by refusing to let Calder take the Derby signal.

For whatever reasons, including a contract Churchill Downs has with its horsemen to inoculate the Derby from this kind of action, the Calder blackout didn’t happen.

This theory gained credibility on May 9. Five days after Calder conducted business as usual on Derby Day, the FHBPA and Calder announced a new interim agreement had been achieved. The provisions in effect at the start of the season would be extended through the end of May. Calder immediately rescinded the 20% cutback.

In jargon currently in vogue in Washington, the two sides kicked the can down the road. Come June, there will be a clearer picture of where the situation stands. Could the Belmont Stakes simulcast, with the possibility of Orb bidding for a Triple Crown, be the new target? A lot of New York horsemen work side by side each winter with the Florida regulars.

In the midst of the dispute, Gulfstream announced that it had gained approval from the state to reopen for one day, June 25. Calder says it will appeal the ruling. This might seem like much ado about very little, a normally dark Tuesday. However, there are bigger stakes.

By making June 25 a part of the season that ended April 5, then re-opening July 1 (the day the new fiscal year starts in Florida) Gulfstream gained the right to be considered a host track for simulcasting year-round. Instead of having to buy simulcast signals from Calder from April through November, Gulfstream can negotiate directly with senders, then remarket the signals to other Florida pari-mutuels in competition with Calder. (Tampa Bay Downs is using the same tactics on June 30-July 1 to qualify as a year-round host.)

The ability to control lucrative simulcast signals is as much a factor in Gulfstream’s decision to race year-round as the attempt to buck up the struggling mall adjoining the track.

By all indications, Gulfstream is past the point of turning back. Head strong Frank Stronach seems determined to make his track a year-round operation, even if it means financial losses for an extended period.

Gulfstream president Tim Ritvo says more than a million dollars has been invested in building a new drainage system and a more sand based racing surface to deal with the biblical summer rains in South Florida. A new team in the racing office has been assembled. Gate crews have been hired. Snowbird trainers, who normally leave town with the end of the traditional Gulfstream season, have been cajoled into leaving behind some racing-ready stock.

Deteriorating relationships between Churchill Downs and Calder horsemen has a significant number of the latter just waiting for a cue that Gulfstream is a certain go to make a permanent change in their base of operations. Moreover, Ritvo was formerly one of them, a Calder-based trainer. They have a comfort and trust level with him.

This suggests that a financial settlement to Churchill Downs is the most viable avenue toward preventing the looming head-to-head showdown. Bottom-line oriented Churchill Downs Inc. was amenable to this a couple of years ago when Gulfstream made its incursion into December. It appears the only thing standing in the way this time is Stronach coming up with the right number.

Calder would still have to race 80 days annually to preserve its right to operate a casino, the company's priority. This could be readily accomplished by racing two or three weekdays during the months Gulfstream is not conducting its prime winter meet.

Marshall and Ritvo acknowledge that conversations above their pay grades are ongoing toward a settlement. Anyone with concern for Florida racing has to hope these talks will be fruitful.


Written by Tom Jicha

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