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, June 09, 2016

Belmont needs support to be Test of Champions again

The Belmont Stakes used to be called The Test of Champions. It was said to be the race breeders coveted most. This is no longer true. The emphasis on speed and speed breeding has made distance racing at the highest levels almost extinct. The only way to bring back longer races is for tracks to develop a coordinated sequence of stakes that would encourage the development of true stayers.

MIAMI, June 8, 2016—Tell the truth. How excited are you about this year’s Belmont Stakes?

Without a Triple Crown on the line, the thrill is gone. It’s just another good betting race on an exceptional card. But the tingle of a classic just isn’t there, especially in the aftermath of American Pharoah’s stirring feats of just a year ago.

The Belmont was known for years as the Test of Champions and the race breeders wanted to win more than any other. Neither is still the case.

Over the past 10 years, other than the indisputable choice of Triple Crown conqueror American Pharoah, only one Belmont winner has been voted the Eclipse 3-year-old championship, Summer Bird in 2009. During the same period, Kentucky Derby winners American Pharoah, California Chrome (2014), I’ll Have Another (2012), Animal Kingdom (2011) and Big Brown (2008) have been voted best of their generation.

Exaggerator seems to be the only Belmont starter this year with championship potential. However, it’s revealing that even after his decisive Preakness win, Exaggerator still ranks behind Derby winner Nyquist in the NTRA 3-year-old poll.

The rest of the Belmont field boasts some nice horses, but there also is a maiden and two others who just broke maiden.

So much for the Belmont being the Test of Champions.

Breeders were jazzed about the Belmont when stamina was valued. That was an era when the Jockey Club Gold Cup, won five straight times by five-time Horse of the Year Kelso, was two miles and most championship-deciding stakes were at least a mile and a quarter. You can win a championship these days without running further than a mile and an eighth.

Speed is the new cherished commodity in American racing. A yearling who can shade 10 seconds for an eighth of a mile at a 2-year-old sale will bring more than one with Belmont Stakes breeding almost every time.

If the Belmont weren’t the third jewel of the Triple Crown, it arguably would have declined to outlier status, almost a novelty race. Many horsemen, D. Wayne Lukas most prominent among them, have lobbied for years to have its distance reduced in recognition of the new breeding reality. Thankfully, American Pharoah silenced the anti-traditionalists for at least the next few years.

The solution is not to reduce the distance of the Belmont, it’s to schedule more races at 10 and 12 furlongs. Breeders don’t breed for staying power and trainers don’t condition for it because there are few opportunities to make money with horses who specialize in running what used to be “the classic distances.”

Chances are none of the starters in Saturday’s race will be asked to run 12 furlongs on dirt again. A couple of trainers, who will start three of the 13 horses in the Belmont, wish this wasn’t so.

Dale Romans, who is high on both his Belmont starters, Preakness runnerup Cherry Wine and Blue Grass winner Brody’s Cause, said there are horses who might not be proficient at a mile and a half now but they could become that if they’d had more mile-and-a-half opportunities after the Belmont.

It might not hurt to have at least one before the Belmont, too, so horsemen could get a truer gauge on their horse’s scope. How about complementing the Peter Pan with a 12-furlong Belmont prep the same day. I have just the name for it, the Seattle Slew.

Donnie Von Hemel, who’ll start Suddenbreakingnews, said, “I would welcome more distance racing myself, but that doesn’t appear to be the trend in American racing.”
It’s a classic chicken-or-the-egg scenario. Racing secretaries don’t write mile-and-a-half races because they are next to impossible to fill. It’s easier for a racing secretary to take the course of least resistance and write shorter and shorter races, which tend to draw limit fields, making upper management happy.

“What I’ve seen throughout racing is just more and more sprint races,” Von Hemel said. “We’ve gone the last 15, 20 years to the five-eighths turf race going from a little bit of a novelty item at the end of a meet to a mainstay in American racing. I don’t like it myself even though from time to time I have horses that run real well in those races. But I still think distance separates good thoroughbreds. The further you go, the more that begins to tell. At five-eighths, there’s not a lot of difference between a good horse and a not-as-good horse, whereas when you go a mile and a quarter and up, I think it really starts to show who are the quality animals.”

Reversing this trend would take a coordinated, sustained effort by racetracks—I’ll pause to give you a chance to stop laughing—to write more distance races.

“The tracks would all have to get together because they compete for horses,” Von Hamel said. “They all have to decide these are the kind of races we’re going to write, so people are going to have to run where they’re at. They’re not going to be able to go somewhere else and run in a shorter race. I think it would be worth a try. But it would be a tough thing because I’m afraid if it didn’t draw big fields immediately, it would be dropped too quickly.”

The Breeders’ Cup Marathon, the last concerted effort to revive long distance racing on dirt, is the prototypical example. It was introduced in 2008 and discontinued after 2013—hardly an adequate trial-- because the fields were relatively short and not Breeders’ Cup quality.”The conditions of the race have not developed into a competition that we believe reaches the standard set by the remaining races comprising the championships,” the Breeders’ Cup declared.

One way to revive a semblance of quality distance racing would be for, say, Monmouth, to card a mile-and-a-half stakes for 3-year-olds in July. Saratoga could follow in August, maybe Arlington or Laurel in September and October, Churchill at its fall meeting and Gulfstream and the Fair Grounds early in their winter meetings. This would incentivize owners and trainers to identify and develop distance specialists. Would anyone argue that fans wouldn't love it?

Gulfstream has made a step in the right direction with the H. Allen Jerkens Stakes at two miles. But there are no distance preps to feed this event.

For that matter, why not a mile-and-a-half race in the Claiming Crown? Make the starter conditions light enough—say for horses who ran for $10K or less--and I’ll bet it would fill.

The more these types of races are scheduled, the more preps that would be written and the more horsemen would make the effort to find horses to compete in them. As Von Hemel said, it will require a concerted, enduring effort to restore distance racing back to championship caliber in America.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, June 02, 2016

Racing’s attitude problem: ‘To hell with the bettors’

No wonder horse players sometimes feel they are being played for fools. A California state official said last week during a debate on whip usage, "To hell with the bettors." At Parx, Ramon Preciado has come up with six more positives--all six horses won--but he continues to race by gaming the appeals process. Rudy Rodriguez is serving 15 days for a positive at Monmouth but can enter his horses in his brother's name. There is no point in advocating strict uniform drug rules when it is exceedingly difficult to enforce violations in any meaningful way.

MIAMI, June 2, 2016--Only a fool would expect a business overseen by someone whose attitude is “to hell with the customers” to succeed.

This is essentially what Steve Beneto, a California Horse Race Board member, said the other day. His remark came during a debate with jockey Alex Solis over whether riders should be allowed to use their whip three or four times in the final stages of a race. With all the problems afflicting horse racing, it is mind boggling that time would be wasted on such nit-picking, but that’s California.

To get back to the issue at hand, Solis said bettors, who are spending good money, have to be considered. Beneto’s retort: “To hell with the bettors.”

Bettors are racing’s customers. Anyone looking for an explanation why California racing is in a nose dive while business at Belmont, Gulfstream, Maryland, Oaklawn, Canterbury and other tracks is up--in some cases way up--need only reference Beneto’s comment.

This attitude is typical of a lot of the people in the racing game in Southern California.

When business declines in most fields, one fix is to offer sales. Thanks to the owners and trainers in SoCal, the opposite was done. Prices (takeout) were increased. Their selfish attitude is we want more money. Who cares if it has to come out of the pockets of the players. This triggered a players' boycott, which is a big part of the problems hindering California racing.

The cost of a day of racing—admission, parking, concessions--at Santa Anita and Del Mar is the highest in the nation, another major turnoff to customers.

It wasn’t that many years ago that trainer Jeff Mullins told the Los Angeles Times, “If you bet on horses, I would call you an idiot.”

So whether it’s at the highest level of state oversight, the boxes where the owners and trainers congregate, the executive offices of the track or on the backstretch, there has long been a contempt for the customers.

So California racing is getting exactly what it deserves.

Preciado thumbs nose at the game again

Ramon Preciado continues to make a farce of the medication rules. The Parx miracle worker has come up with six additional clenbuterol positives from March and April. All six horses won. The purses have been redistributed but any scores at the windows are out of reach.

The newest positives are in addition to those from 2015, which got Preciado 270 days on the ground and, of course, are being appealed.

Fed up Parx officials tried to eject Preciado from the track in April and refused to take entries from him. However, he was soon back racing because his attorney got the banishment stayed until Preciado’s appeals are heard. With creative lawyering, that could be a couple of years.

It gets worse. In an act of supreme gall, Preciado is suing Parx for denying him his rights. Unfortunately, horse players who lost money to Preciado’s hopped-up horses, have no legal recourse.

Preciado not the only one

Elsewhere in the world of racing outrages, Rudy Rodriguez, who some believe could match Preciado positive for positive, began a 15-day suspension Wednesday for a positive test result last summer at Monmouth.This is a step in the right direction--enforcing suspensions during the time of year they were committed, not during a down period in the winter.

Alas, it’s a meaningless gesture. During Rodriguez’s suspension, his horses will be allowed to run in the name of his brother Gustavo. What a joke.

Slew snub a disgrace

Nyquist’s loss in the Preakness leaves Seattle Slew the only horse to capture the Triple Crown while still undefeated.

Slew broke his maiden at Belmont. He clinched the juvenile championship running off with the Champagne. As a 3-year-old he won the Wood Memorial before completing his Triple Crown in the Belmont Stakes.

As a 4-year-old he won the Marlboro Invitational and Woodward at Belmont before running one of the most gallant races in defeat anyone has ever seen in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. He closed out one of the greatest careers in racing history by winning the Stuyvesant at Aqueduct, which NYRA turned into a farewell event, commemorative T-shirts and all.

Yet, astonishingly and disgracefully, NYRA has not seen fit to honor his memory with a stakes named for him. There are stakes at Belmont named for Paradise Creek, Pennine Ridge, Danger’s Hour, Flat Out and Poker. These are outstanding runners but they didn’t breathe the same air as Seattle Slew.

I’m going to keep up the campaign to get a stakes--an important one--named for Slew until NYRA rights one of racing’s biggest wrongs.

Past posts

It’s heartening to see Canterbury Park doing gangbusters with its new lowest in the nation takeout. The key for horseplayers is to not let up in their support now that the initial flurry of positive publicity has subsided.

However, there is one minor negative at the Minnesota track. Canterbury seems to be the latest track to emulate the Gulfstream twirl, having horses walk around near the gate until three or four minutes after the listed post. The dallying is pointless. Players figure out the routine and delay their trips to the windows accordingly.

Speaking of Canterbury, Angela Hermann, who became the only current full-time female race caller in America when she replaced Michael Wrona at Golden Gate, got her start in Minnesota as a fill-in. I got to hear Hermann a lot during my Las Vegas sojourn last month.

Hermann is concise and accurate, essentials in her field, but her monotone delivery is reminiscent of what you get on the phone these days: “All of our agents are busy. We value your call so please stay on the line until a representative is available.”

To be fair, she might just be feeling her way into the job and wants to establish herself before she puts her own mark on it. Once she gets comfortable she might add some flair. In any case, having a woman in the booth is one way to make the sport more inviting and less intimidating to female newcomers.

I still miss the Met Mile on Memorial Day.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, May 26, 2016

NYRA needed Nyquist but the vanquished champ didn’t need the Belmont

Whether Nyquist's elevated white cell count was genuine or phantom, not running the champ in the grueling Belmont Stakes is the right call. NYRA will be hurt but Nyquist's reputation won't be. There's plenty of season left to get even with Exaggerator. Meanwhile, some Las Vegas casinos are acting like racing jurisdictions that try to squeeze every cent out of players with increased takeout. Free parking will end on June 6. The response should be the same as it is to high takeout states. Boycott the money grabbers.

LAS VEGAS, May 26, 2016—Well, Christopher Kay and NYRA won’t have to worry about enforcing a 90,000 attendance cap at the Belmont Stakes this year.

Absent a Triple Crown possibility, which NYRA has been lucky enough to have three of the past four years (I’ll Have Another’s scratch wasn’t announced until the day before the race, when plans had been made) Belmont should consider it a great day if more than 60,000 people show up. (Not tickets sold, actual behinds in the seats and grass.)

It was bad enough for NYRA seeing Nyquist’s bid for a Triple Crown disappear in the Pimlico mud. A second punch to the gut came Tuesday when Nyquist was withdrawn from the third jewel of the Triple Crown with an elevated white cell count. Or so Doug O’Neill said.

This eliminated the one marketing tool left for NYRA: a showdown of the Derby and Preakness winners.

Once Nyquist lost his chance to emulate American Pharoah it didn’t make a lot of sense to subject him to the grueling mile and a half of the Belmont Stakes. The distance didn’t seem suitable to his pedigree or the way he was getting late in the Derby and managed to blow the place in the Preakness (albeit with help from Mario Gutierrez’s 10-pound bug boy ride). There will be plenty of opportunities later in the season for the juvenile champion to avenge the first defeat of his career by Exaggerator at more advantageous distances.

It was reassuring to see Nyquist still on top of the weekly NTRA poll of 3-year-olds. Getting beaten for the first time under conditions favorable to your conqueror should not be enough to outweigh a body of work as strong as Nyquist’s.

Along with the mud Exaggerator loves, these conditions include Gutierrez’s judgment, getting Nyquist embroiled in a speed duel that produced a 22 4/5 first quarter, the fastest in the history of the Preakness history, which was being run for only the 141st time.

To put this into perspective, the opening quarter of the six furlong Chick Lang Stakes earlier in the day went in 23 seconds. Ditto, a six furlong N2X won by undefeated speedball Chief Istan.

To his credit, O’Neill attempted to take the heat off his jockey by saying it was his idea to seize control of the race early. Even if this is true, it was incumbent on Gutierrez to use common sense and adapt to circumstances. Nyquist had no problem sitting just off the pace then running past the early speed in the Derby. Jockeys should have to do more than hold on to earn their 10 percent.

Goodbye, free parking

Las Vegas has its own version of raising the cost of playing (ala, racing takeouts), which end up turning off customers.

On June 6, the MGM Resorts International chain will institute the parking charges it announced to overwhelming negative public and media reaction earlier this year. Free parking is as much a Las Vegas tradition as it is a corner landing spot on a Monopoly playing board.

Las Vegas isn’t Atlantic City (thank goodness). In spite of new casino competitors all over the nation, business remains strong. Las Vegas’s philosophy used to be it would get your money at the tables and slots, so it could afford to be generous with pricing for rooms, meals and entertainment. No one can question how well it worked for decades. Dare I say, bring back the mob.

But corporate blood-suckers, who behave like mobsters, decided billions in gambling revenue isn’t enough. They demanded every department—lodging, food, entertainment, etc.—also show big profits. Now parking is being included. It will cost $10 at its inception. But this is deceptive. One afternoon I visited the Strip, then came back later for dinner at another resort and finally went to a show at still another place. Goodbye $30 starting June 6.

MGM Resorts CEO Jim Murren was quoted in the Las Vegas Review Journal asking, “The question was, do we continue to have parking be a loss leader?” It’s a loss leader that gets people into your joint, the primary essential for any business.

Toilet paper in restrooms must be a loss leader, too. Maybe charging by the sheet will be next.

There’s a potential sinkhole in this thinking. MGM properties include New York-New York, Bellagio, Aria, Vdara, Monte Carlo, Excalibur, Circus Circus, MGM Grand, Mirage, Mandalay Bay and the Delano. This leaves more than a dozen major casinos on The Strip that will not have a parking charge. Where do you suppose any driver with a brain will take his car and his patronage?

The way I see this playing out is the casinos that have not instituted a parking charge will monitor if additional traffic in their casinos outweighs what they could glean from a parking charge. If traffic doesn’t get heavier, you can count on them jumping on the paid parking bandwagon.

So just as it is incumbent on horseplayers to support the reduced takeout at Canterbury Park, where business boomed opening weekend, Las Vegas visitors should boycott the casinos with parking charges and patronize those that continue to offer free parking.

This has relevance closer to home for horse players. Tracks with casinos, such as Gulfstream, don’t charge for parking. If they see that Vegas casinos can charge for parking without harming business, it’s goodbye free parking everywhere.

You try to help…

A couple of years ago, I suggested to the people at the South Point Hotel and Casino race book that on Kentucky Derby Day they should designate one window for advance Derby wagers. I’ve become a Derby weekend regular at South Point because for the most part it does things right and treats players really well.

They have even come up with a way to maintain free past performances; booklets with one or two tracks apiece (e.g., Belmont and Monmouth, Santa Anita and Golden Gate). Racetracks should take note. Ten dollar Racing Forms do more to discourage the involvement of new fans than probably anything else. Tracks wouldn’t have to give away similar PP books but they could sell them for a buck or two each to help reduce the cost of playing the game.

Alas, South Point doesn’t see the merit in my Derby Day suggestion. Ergo, this year, like all the others I have attended, dozens of customers were shut out of betting the supporting card races as well as those at other tracks because once-a-year players, many of them locals, tied up the windows with long laundry lists of Derby bets from everyone in their neighborhood.

Many of them don’t know the drill and called out the names of horses rather than their numbers. One guy—I am not exaggerating—was at a window for 12 minutes.

A couple of days later at the adjoining sports book, one window was designated “football bets only.” There won’t be a football game for three and a half months.

I give up.

Written by Tom Jicha

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