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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Friday, October 25, 2013

BC: Great racing and great stories for TV

The Breeders' Cup does a lot of annoying little things during the year (like adding an Arabian race) but when the two event days arrive there is no finer spectacle. This year's renewal is loaded with the two elements for a great couple of days: super racing with full fields and no obvious odds-on favorites and lots of heart-tugging stories for NBC to court and hold casual fans on TV.

MIAMI, Oct. 25, 2013--Horse players love deep, full fields. Television loves touchy-feeling, heart-tugging stories. All will be well served next weekend at the Breeders’ Cup.

The 14-race carnival is going to be a bettor’s delight with more ways to part with your money than at a brothel with a casino.

Twelve of the races have at least a dozen starters pre-entered. One of the exceptions, the Distaff, might be the most anticipated race of the two days. The other, the Marathon, is almost as much a novelty event as the Arabian race shamelessly tacked onto Friday’s card.

If there is a favorite who will go to the post at less than 2-1, I don’t see it. Some might suggest Game on Dude in the Classic. But the field is quality laden, including the first four finishers from last year, surging Graydar and highly touted Euro Declaration of War. It’s also the get-out race, so there will be a lot of beat-the-favorite shopping. If there was an over/under on 2-1, I would tap out on the over.

Reigning Horse of the Year Wise Dan might have been close to odds-on had he not had his winning streak broken in the Shadwell Drenched Kitty Litter Mile. That utterly excusable blemish on his record and the presence of some well regarded Euros should push his price out of the blinking lights zone.

Groupie Doll was 70 cents on the dollar in the 2012 Filly and Mare Sprint. Off her mediocre resume this season, she should be at least five times that as she seeks to repeat.

Solely because it is a six-horse field, the Distaff could produce the lowest priced favorite of the two days. However, it’s not obvious who the public will settle upon as favorite among the Big Three—Royal Delta, Princess of Sylmar and Beholder. (My guess would be Royal Delta.) Close Hatches is also going to pull a lot of support. So it’s hard to foresee anyone going off less than 2-1.

It’s also going to be a joy for Team NBC with sufficient heart-tugging sagas to ensure there won’t be a dead spot throughout the two days. The Classic alone, the only BC race reserved for the NBC broadcast network, should provide a treasure trove of TV gold. (If the prime time telecast draws good ratings, it will be another nail in the coffin of Belmont Park’s chances to ever host the event again.)

The saga of Paynter’s comeback from the near-dead to not only race again but to be considered among the contenders in the marquee event, is the stuff of big screen movies. Should Paynter make it to the winner’s circle, screenwriters all over Hollywood will begin tapping out scripts, if they haven’t already.

Kathy Ritvo’s inspiring tale of rebounding from a heart transplant to resume full-time duties as the mother of two children and the trainer of Mucho Macho Man bears retelling. The Classic falls less than two weeks before the fifth anniversary of her life-saving surgery.

The return of D. Wayne Lukas, at age 78, to racing’s center stage, is sure to garner NBC's attention. Several years after it seemed The Coach’s time had passed, he could be on the verge of sending out a couple of champions, 3-year-old Will Take Charge and 2-year-old Strong Mandate. D. Wayne has his detractors but put him in front of a camera and racing has no finer ambassador.

Also camera-friendly Bob Baffert, Paynter’s trainer, has another comeback story with Secret Circle, who won the 2011 BC Juvenile Sprint and was on the Kentucky Derby trail the following spring until an injury sent him to the sidelines for 18 months. He goes for a second Breeders’ Cup title in the Sprint, coming back quickly off one dynamite win at Santa Anita on Oct. 14.

This time a year ago, Gary Stevens was in the seventh year of retirement, talking about racing on TV. He comes into this Breeders’ Cup back at the top of the game, looking to add a Breeders’ Cup score to his Triple Crown triumph in the Preakness aboard Oxbow, among many other stakes victories. He might even rejoin his old colleagues at NBC between mounts.

Point of Entry’s comeback from what seemed to be a career-ending injury isn’t as dramatic as Paynter’s renaissance but the tender love and care it took from Kentucky Derby-winning trainer Shug McGaughey and his staff to get him back to the races at the highest level is sure to be prominent in the run-up to the Turf.

Jim Rome works for another company but this won’t deter the NBC people from getting him on camera when his Mizdirection goes for a second Turf Sprint title. “Romey” is another stellar advertisement for the game. He loves to talk about how in spite of his voluminous knowledge of most sports, he knew almost nothing about racing until he was coaxed into it and now he is having the time of his life.

Great racing, great television; it should be a great weekend.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Wednesday, October 23, 2013

BC Distaff deserves Saturday stage

The Classic is the nominal headliner of the two-day Breeders' Cup festival. However, the most anticipated showdown this year is in the Distaff. Two-time champion Royal Delta, last season's juvenile champion Beholder and champion-in-waiting Princess of Sylmar will face off with even Horse of the Year possibly on the line. An extraordinary race such as this deserves to be on the big day, Saturday, not at the tail end of Friday's lesser card.

MIAMI, Oct. 25, 2013--Breeders’ Cup customarily doesn’t finalize the order of races until the quality and field sizes have been determined. By any reasonable standard, BC should jump out of the box and move the Distaff from Friday to Saturday.

Moreover, it should be the lead-in to the Classic. Less than two weeks out, it looms as the most anticipated race of the two days. At least two reigning Eclipse champions, Royal Delta and Beholder, and an almost certain third, Princess of Sylmar, are expected to run.

Beyond the big three, I have even seen opinions that Close Hatches could overcome Princess of Sylmar for 3-year-old honors with a victory. Not on my ballot, not if she wins by a pole.

They might have split two meetings so far but Close Hatches enjoyed an unchallenged stroll on the front in the Gazelle while Princess of Sylmar was three-wide almost all the way and still finished second. Without an easy lead, Close Hatches ran seventh in the Kentucky Oaks as Princess of Sylmar came from behind her to upset the best of her generation. She hasn’t lost and hasn't ducked anyone since.

I have the same attitude toward Beholder, runnerup in the Kentucky Oaks. A Distaff triumph would be her fourth Grade 1 of the season, equal to Princess of Sylmar, but all will have been at Santa Anita, where Beholder captured the BC Juvenile Fillies to end her 2-year-old campaign.

This is another argument against anchoring the Breeders’ Cup at one track. If she were to steal the title from Princess of Sylmar, Beholder will have captured back-to-back Eclipses, with a potential third next year, without ever winning a graded stakes outside Arcadia.

What’s more, all Grade 1’s are not created equal. The Las Virgenes, Santa Anita Oaks and Zenyatta (beating horses who shipped west to avoid facing Royal Delta and Princess of Sylmar in the Beldame) aren’t on the same planet in importance as the Kentucky Oaks, Coaching Club American Oaks, Alabama and Beldame.

No matter what happens in the Distaff, Princess of Sylmar should be the champion. You don’t win the three biggest races of your generation then run contemptuously past an older, two-time champion and not win at least divisional honors.

I say at least because if the Princess outshines the constellation of stars she will face and Game on Dude doesn’t win the Classic, she could--arguably should-- be Horse of the Year. Wise Dan, with an encore in the Turf Mile, would be the only other contender for whom a case could be made.

It’s too bad there isn’t an Eclipse Award for sportsmanship. Ed Stanco, owner of Princess of Sylmar, would be a lock. If he kept his filly in the barn, there would be no question she would win the 3-year-old filly Eclipse. He’s risking that title (although not by me) in shipping cross-country to face Beholder on her home course, which is generally kind to horses with her front-running style, especially on big days, and works against closers like Princess of Sylmar.

The Distaff’s quality stacked field deserves a better stage than the tail end of Friday, the less well attended and less watched on TV workday populated by recently invented stakes, some of which make a mockery of the term “world championships.” If the Breeders’ Cup doesn’t appreciate this, NBC should intercede and demand it.

TV routinely dictates changes in event times to suit its needs. This would be one time a network would deserve a pat on the back for pushing an event into a time slot where it can be seen by the maximum audience.

Question of the day

Which do you suppose has a higher enrollment rate, Obamacare or the new Racing Form Plus?

In spite of the well reported glitches, my money is on Obamacare. The content in Racing Form Plus is first rate but overpriced: a nickel less than $100 if you sign up at once for a full year; about $12 more for a quarterly subscription and $20 more if you buy by the month.

I’m one of those who became accustomed to reading every piece on the Racing Form website. Almost a month into the pay wall, I’ve gotten used to not having access and don’t miss it as much as I thought I would. A big reason is the amount of racing information on the web for free. This includes Horse Race Insider, of course, the Blood Horse, the Paulick Report and, horse racing’s version of the Drudge Report.

That so much information of all sorts is free on the web is the reason so few newspapers have made a success of pay walls. Many have had to revert and drop them and hope to recoup what they can from more hits on their site, which drives ad dollars.

At the same time, I understand the downsizing of the print edition but not its price. The two biggest expenses of any newspaper are the employees and the actual paper, called newsprint. Everyone I know who works for the Form multi-tasks, so it would be difficult to cut staff and maintain quality.

This left newsprint as the only area for meaningful savings. I don’t like the smaller version but I understand its necessity and expect to eventually get used to it. What I never could get used to is a day at the track without the Racing Form.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Friday, October 18, 2013

Fans in middle of Florida simulcast blackouts

A new fan-unfriendly tactic has emerged in the war between Gulfstream and Calder. Without any warning or notice, Gulfstream pulled the simulcast signals of all Stronach Group-controlled tracks on Calder's Festival of the Sun day. Calder has all but said it will do the same thing with Churchill Downs-controlled signals in the near future.

MIAMI, Oct. 18, 2013—The Calder-Gulfstream feud promised to get progressively uglier and it hasn’t disappointed. Now fans have become collateral damage.

The latest tit-for-tat came Oct. 12. Fans arriving at Calder for the Festival of the Sun program discovered they wouldn’t be allowed to wager on cross-town Gulfstream or any of the other simulcast signals under the control of The Stronach Group. This included Santa Anita, the prime reason to hang around after live racing, as well as Laurel, Monmouth and some lesser tracks.

Fans weren’t the only ones caught off guard. “Nobody sent a letter, e-mail or a phone call that we were not getting this content,” Calder general manager John Marshall said. Calder didn’t become aware of the blackout until it began to program its TV monitors and wagering system, according to Marshall. “Tote informed us that we were unable to wager on this list of race tracks.”

No communication was necessary for the Calder executive to deduce Gulfstream’s motivation. A week previously, Calder began supplying Mardi Gras Casino (nee Hollywood Greyhound Track) with its roster of racing signals. Mardi Gras is only a traffic light up the road from Gulfstream.

“Gulfstream disapproved of Calder sending content to Mardi Gras,” Marshall said. “To express that disapproval in a punitive nature, they decided to withhold content from Calder.” Gulfstream picked a juicy spot, Calder’s biggest day of the fall.

Calder’s accommodation of Mardi Gras can’t be for the money. It has to be negligible, since the dog track previously hasn’t been allowed to offer thoroughbred racing until 6 p.m. and hasn’t done much, if anything, to make the public aware of the new opportunity to bet thoroughbreds in the afternoon. Besides, anyone who wants to bet horses can just drive a mile down the road and do it under better circumstances at Gulfstream.

This was an in-your-face move by Calder, smarting that Gulfstream provides its thoroughbred signals to Hialeah Park and Magic City Casino (nee Flagler Dog Track).

The people most inconvenienced and ticked off were fans, especially those who had done some homework and formed opinions on the blacked out tracks. It’s a shorter price than Cluster of Stars will be in Saturday’s Iroquois Stakes that Gulfstream fans will endure the same blackout out of the blue of Churchill Downs signals in the near future.

Marshall all but confirmed this. “We’re thinking about giving them notice and withholding the Churchill content.”

Right now this wouldn’t be much of a jolt to Gulfstream and its patrons. Calder is the only Churchill track of note running. But in a couple of weeks Churchill Downs opens its traditional fall meeting. Fair Grounds follows shortly thereafter. That worm will turn in December when Gulfstream and Santa Anita move to center stage of winter racing. Long term, it’s advantage Churchill again for the biggest day of the year on the first Saturday in May. Hopefully, the war won’t continue to escalate to that point but these situations have a way of careening out of control. It would be in the interest of both tracks as well as the habitually overlooked fans to call off this tactic.

Fortunately, the Breeders' Cup at Santa Anita isn't in play. Separate contracts cover those simulcasts.

I’ve never understood why both tracks don’t give their signals to all the area dog tracks and jai alai frontons, especially since the introduction of racinos have brought about the elimination of admission and parking charges. Calder and Gulfstream have almost nothing to lose and at least something to gain.

Tracks get to keep a higher percentage of on-track wagering but more of nothing is nothing. Patrons at the other facilities are there because of convenience or some other reason that makes them unlikely live racing customers. Given the opportunity, they might bet a few bucks on the horses.

Then again you have to remember how many tracks dragged their heels on simulcasting, which became the backbone of the game. The same is true of lower minimum wagers, which also have proven to be a boon. If there is any industry other than horse racing more consistently unaware of the desires and needs of its customers, I’m not aware of it.

The latest Calder-Gulfstream contretemps is complicated by a serious faux pas by Calder. On Saturday, Oct. 5, the signals sent from Calder to Mardi Gras for the first time included Gulfstream’s live racing, a big no-no. Marshall acknowledged this. “That was wrong. It was communicated to Gulfstream that this was done in error. It was corrected and will not happen again.”

While apologetic over his track’s mistake, Marshall is militant in labeling Gulfstream’s back-at-you as a breach of contract. “We have a contract between Churchill Downs Inc. and The Stronach Group. It’s very specific that you have to give 10 days notice of withdrawing signals. The Stronach Group hasn’t given us any notice. It’s just more of Gulfstream’s behavior in thinking they’re not accountable to follow the rules, that they are above the rules, whether they are contractual or statutory.”

Gulfstream’s president Tim Ritvo chose not to respond. However, a Gulfstream spokesman said more than the Mardi Gras incident provoked the blackout. Calder also is in arrears of payments owed to Gulfstream from simulcasting, he said.

Meanwhile Calder is pushing the state to rule in favor of its position that Gulfstream’s Saturday-Sunday agenda does not qualify as an authentic race meet while Calder’s Friday-through-Sunday regimen does. “There is reference to three days being a live race meet,” Marshall said. “There is no reference in the statute declaring two days a week as a live meet.”

The definition of what constitutes a live meet is crucial to the dispute since it carries with it the lucrative right to be a hub for simulcasting throughout the state. Simulcast revenue is at the heart of this dispute. “This continues to be a circus with simulcast revenues and who is eligible to receive them among Calder, Gulfstream and Tampa,” Marshall said.

The law is vague and subject to liberal interpretation. Tampa Bay Downs ran programs on June 30, the final day of Florida’s fiscal year, and July 1, the start of the new year, and is claiming year-round simulcast rights even though its live season is December through the first week in May.

Marshall is hopeful new leadership at Florida’s Department of Pari-Mutuel Wagering will see things Calder’s way. Even if this happens, it could be a short-lived victory. Gulfstream has been talking about expanding to a third day of racing. If the statute is interpreted Calder’s way, the extra day would probably be added as soon as it could be included in the condition book.

Then Calder and Gulfstream could find something else to bicker over.

Written by Tom Jicha

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