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, March 21, 2014

Asmussen charges must be dealt with immediately

Racing has a tendency to bury its head in the sand when it comes to scandals, hoping that in time the issue will go away. This cannot happen in the latest allegations against Steve Asmussen. The stakes are just too high.

MIAMI, March 19, 2014--This week's column theme was going to be an update on the Kentucky Derby trail as it reaches the crucial stages. But sometimes events overtake intentions.The sensational allegations published in The New York Times, with the assistance of PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), against Steve Asmussen cannot pass without comment.

The charges against Asmussen are disgusting--if proven. This qualifier should not be taken lightly. Certainly there is what seems to be damning evidence, including video, but the source is agenda driven and so is The New York Times. That said, if proven, without mitigating circumstances, Asmussen should suffer penalties as severe as can be allowed. A lifetime ban should not be out of the question.

But before leading a torch light and pitchfork brigade, I want to hear everything.

We have to keep in mind that PETA is a bunch of lunatics not above terrorist tactics. It is dedicated to ending not only horse racing but rodeos,circuses and horse-driven carriages in Central Park. All horseback riding, too.

PETA wants everyone too become vegetarians. They want to outlaw leather shoes and the clothes that will keep us warm. It has engineered similar smears against every industry it wants to shut down, in short, every industry in which animals are involved.

Likewise, The New York Times has launched its holy war against horse racing, publishing scandal-mongering stories in proximity to major events (Triple Crown, Breeders’ Cup, etc.) It knows PETA’s tactics and goals, yet used it as a source.

Not only that, the paper granted anonymity to the accuser. What has happened to the basic tenet of justice that a person, in this case Asmussen, has a right to confront his accuser?

The story also potentially destroyed, or at least severely damaged, the career and reputation of young jockey Ricardo Santana by making it seem that his success is due to riding with a buzzer, even though absolutely no evidence was produced other than an off-handed comment.

But, certainly, the cavalier conversation on the subject between Hall of Famers Wayne Lukas and Gary Stevens does not cast a favorable light, even in jest.

Lest I seem naive, I want to point out I was one of the few to point out the problems with Asmussen's Hall of Fame candidacy (see HRI archives).

This is not the first time Asmussen has been accused of serious improprieties and he has served countless days on the sidelines because of them. He still deserves a chance to defend himself, the sooner the better.

I commend the Hall of Fame for tabling his nomination until this matter is adjudicated. But I also question the timing of the publication of the charges against him as Hall of Fame voting is taking place. It seems clear the intent is to hurt him and racing.

Most of the events described in the video took place seven or eight months ago. Why the delay? Why now? You can bet that if his nomination didn't come up when it did, the video would have been perfect Derby week fodder.

If this forces racing to step up and finally take meaningful action to clean up the game, it could be worth this latest embarrassment. The question is how.

First and foremost, no more slaps on the wrist. First offenses should carry stiff penalties, up to and including suspension of entry rights to owners of horses who come up positive. Make owners absolute insurers, just as trainers are. Many, if not most, owners have no idea what goes on in the barn, even with horses that cost millions of dollars.

This would force them to investigate a trainer's reputation that goes beyond win percentages and numbers of Grade 1s won.

A second offense should bring at least one year on the sidelines--and I wouldn't be reluctant to extend this to owners, too.

A third strike and you're out for good.

If racing doesn't take actions such as these, the movement to involve the federal government will gain unstoppable momentum. This would be a disaster. Activist groups such as PETA would apply enough political pressure to compel congressional investigations every other week.

The sport cannot ignore the reality that there are far more well intentioned animal lovers who could be swayed by tactics such as PETA's than there are racing fans. When push comes to shove, what politicians care about most is how many votes they can glean from any situation. Racing would finish a distant second.

Now on to our regularly scheduled column.

A variety of Derby prep winners

Gulfstream’s Holy Bull and Fountain of Youth; Santa Anita’s Sham, Robert B. Lewis and San Felipe; the Le Comte and Risen Star at the Fair Grounds; Oaklawn’s Smarty Jones, Southwest and Rebel; the Tampa Bay Derby and the El Camino Real at Golden Gate have something in common besides being points-awarding Kentucky Derby preps.
They’ve all been won by different 3-year-olds.

Throw in the Sam F. Davis at Tampa and the Gulfstream Park Derby, which should offer qualifying points, and you have two more distinct winners. The Sunland Derby and Spiral Stakes this weekend, the final two races of the 50-point phase two of Derby qualifying, could produce two new shooters.

To put it another way, no Derby hopeful has been able to win more than one stakes at the traditional proving grounds. To be fair, the ranking horses on both coasts, Candy Boy and Cairo Prince, have each only had one race in 2014. But this is not the case for most of the rest.

Samraat has wins in the Withers and Gotham. (Noble Moon won New York's other 3-year-old prep, the Jerome.) But it’s hard to get enthusiastic over Samraat in the light of history. Apollo won the Derby without racing as a 2-year-old, albeit more than a century and a quarter ago. There has never been a Derby winner who prepped exclusively over Aqueduct’s inner track against the lesser stock who winter in the Big Apple.

Every Derby season is a war of attrition as much as competition. This year is no exception. Many of those who are still in training have disappointed. Honor Code is the latest to stub his toe, going down by 10 lengths in a five-horse allowance race in his belated season debut at Gulfstream a week ago.

The winner, Social Inclusion, looks like he might be special. However, he did have things his own way as lone speed on a track that has favored this style all season. Also, other than Honor Code, who clearly wasn’t fully cranked and didn’t have the best of trips, the other three were over-matched sacrificial lambs.

Reportedly, there have been offers as high as $5 million for 75% for the colt. If his owners don’t jump at that, they ought to be committed.

Last Saturday brought more of the same. Tapiture, Strong Mandate and Kobe’s Back were the headliners in the Rebel but Bob Baffert’s Hoppertunity, with only a maiden win in three starts and coming off a seven-length defeat in the Risen Star, ran them all down.

Strong Mandate and especially Kobe’s Back might have been exposed as horses who won’t want any part of ten furlongs. Strong Mandate has distance breeding but Cigar had turf breeding. He has now lost ground or position between the stretch call and finish in his three two-turn races. He also backed up in the stretch of the one-mile, one-turn Champagne, which was his longest career race at the time.

D. Wayne has a knack for getting horses to fire their best shots on the first Saturday in May and you know he will be there but Strong Mandate is going to have to come up big in the Arkansas Derby to pique my interest in him in Louisville.

However, it’s too early to abandon the Tapiture ship. He showed a lot of guts blasting his way out of a trap on the rail--which might have gotten him DQ’ed if he had won--then rallying between horses to just miss while being pinballed between a wobbly Strong Mandate and Hoppertunity. Other than the winner, Tapiture was the only one doing any serious running at the end.

Meanwhile Cairo Prince has seen his status as Derby favorite soar without ever leaving the barn, even though his 2014 stakes resume isn’t any stronger than 17 or 18 others. His win in the Holy Bull was flattered when show horse Intense Holiday won the Risen Star but the second, fourth and fifth finishers have all been off the board in their next start. There probably will be two more by Sunday night.

This is something to keep in mind as you ponder jumping into the final Derby futures pool next weekend.

3 cheers (1 boo) for NYRA

A chill could be felt through the phone line when NYRA CEO Chris Kay said during a conference call to trumpet the super-sized Belmont Stakes Day that prices would be in line with the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.

Speculation has been rampant that a cheap seat would run three figures and the most coveted locations could approach four figures. A long-time race-going friend predicted grandstand admission would double from $10 to $20 and entrance to the clubhouse would be at least $50. I took the over.

What a pleasant surprise—shock would be more like it—that the price scale unveiled this week is far more reasonable. Most commendable is that the grandstand will remain $10. This is taking care of the little guy, something racing rarely does. Also praiseworthy is the modest increase for the clubhouse, from $20 to $30.

More good news: some grandstand reserved seats on the second floor have actually been reduced from $120 to $95. Third floor grandstand seats can be had for $20 to $65. According to NYRA, 30 percent of the seats will cost less than last year or remain the same.

The heaviest reserved seat tariff will be “only” $300, still quite a hit but a bargain by prime sports standards in New York.

In another piece of welcome news, NYRA has backed off its intention to raise admission at Belmont on mundane race days from $5 to $8 for the clubhouse and $3 to $5 for general admission.

Not all the news is good. That same increase for Saratoga will take effect with opening day in July.

Why the status quo at Belmont but an increase at the Spa? Simple, because NYRA can. Driving away even a handful of price-conscious fans from Belmont would make the cavernous facility even more depressing.

Saratoga remains the summer place to be. It probably has more once or twice-a-season fans than any track in America other than, perhaps, Keeneland or Del Mar, which also host short boutique seasons. So an increase isn’t likely to keep very many people away.

Still, it’s likely that there will be a noticeable drop in total attendance because there will be substantially less “spinning” on giveaway Sundays, unless NYRA steps up the caliber of the premium items to make them worth the effort at $5 apiece.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Asmussen for Hall of Fame a tricky call

Steve Asmussen's nomination for racing's Hall of Fame raises many of the same issues baseball's Hall of Fame electorate faced with Barry Bonds and other steroid cheaters. Are statistics enough for election or should other factors be considered.

MIAMI, March 12, 2014--The nomination of Steve Asmussen as one of the finalists for induction into racing’s Hall of Fame has put voters into the same position the Baseball Writers Association has dealt with when considering the candidacies for Cooperstown of Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Roger Clemmons, et al.

On the numbers, Asmussen belongs. He is the second winnigest trainer of all time with more than 6,700 victories and counting. Asmussen, 48, has averaged more than 300 winners for the past three years, so Dale Baird’s record of 9,445 is within reach.

Asmussen set a record with 555 wins in 2004, breaking Jack Van Berg’s mark that had stood for 28 years. Asmussen topped himself in 2008 with 621 wins then did it again the following year with 650. He has led America nine times.

He conditioned Curlin to a triumph in the Preakness and Horse of the Year titles in 2007 and 2008. He added a third Horse of the Year laurel with Rachel Alexander in 2009. He won Eclipse Awards as outstanding trainer in 2008 and 2009.

It’s hard to imagine a nominee with stronger credentials.

But then, it’s even more difficult to come up with stronger career baseball credentials than Bonds. But a Hall of Fame in any sport is about more than statistics, or should be. This is why Bonds and other steroid users haven’t come close to election to baseball’s Hall and probably never will.

They have been stigmatized as cheaters, just as Asmussen has been in racing. He has had scores of violations. Many are relatively minor, trace overages in an era of zero tolerance or failure to clear a horse’s system within the advertised time.

But he was suspended for six months by Louisiana in 2006 when one of his horses came back with 750 times the legal limit for the potent pain killer mepvicaine. He also drew a six-month suspension in Texas when one of his horses tested positive for lidocaine.

Asmussen has denied many of the allegations. In the Louisiana case, he made the sensible argument that no one in his right mind would administer a drug 750 times over the limit on race day. He suggested that someone jealous of his success might have sabotaged him in a stable area with lax security.

Lending credence to this defense is the fact he has so many strings all over the map, there is no way he could be on top of the situation in every venue. But racing holds trainers responsible for anything that goes on in their barns, even if they were thousands of miles away.

All of this has made him one of the poster children for media anxious to put down racing as drug-ravaged. The New York Times, in one of its regular cheap shots at racing, made him a focus for a pre-Breeders’ Cup hatchet job. HBO’s Real Sports did a piece on his numerous suspensions.

If Asmussen is elected to the Hall, these pieces will be dusted off, repeated and updated. Since other media use the Times as their compass, there will be enough bandwagon-jumping to start a parade.

Coincidentally, Asmussen is nominated for the Hall on the same ballot as the late Chris Antley. This would represent another ripe target for those out to disparage racing as a bottomless pit of pharmaceuticals.

Antley had a sparkling career as a rider. Included was an unmatched streak of winning at least once for 64 consecutive racing days in 1989 and Kentucky Derby wins aboard Strike the Gold and Charismatic. The photo of Antley, dismounted from Charismatic and giving aid and comfort to the horse, who broke down while pursuing the Triple Crown in the 1998 Belmont Stakes, put a lump in many throats.

But Antley’s life and career were marred by drug abuse. He had his license suspended several times for positive tests for cocaine and marijuana. He quit riding in 1997 to deal with his narcotics demons. He came back two years later but on March 19, 2000, he rode what would turn out to be his final race at Santa Anita. He asked the California stewards for time off to deal with personal issues.

The next time his name was heard was when he was found dead in his home on Dec. 2, 2000, at age 34. The cause of death was ruled an overdose of a cocktail of drugs. One was to deal with weight loss, a common malady among race riders, another juicy target for scandal mongers.

Is an admitted drug abuser and by extension a law-breaker someone you want in your Hall of Fame?

So Hall of Fame voters face a conundrum. Do they cast their votes for a couple of inarguably qualified individuals on the basis of their records or do they take into consideration the scandals that have sullied their careers.

The Baseball Writers Association has obviously decided that statistics aren’t the sole criteria to be considered when casting Hall of Fame ballots. It will be interesting to see how racing’s electors handle the situation.

The New York Times, HBO and others in the media will be watching.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Friday, March 07, 2014

Derby Top 10? I can’t find that many

The Kentucky Derby shakeout is in its final phase but only a few have stepped up to the extent that they strike me as legitimate prospects for the Run for the Roses

MIAMI, March 7, 2014--A somewhat depressing reality struck me as I was producing my roster of Kentucky Derby contenders for this week’s HRI poll. It was a challenge coming up with 10 I believe could win the Run for the Roses.

Finally having accepted that Shared Belief is not going to make the Derby, my list of leading prospects topped out at about six or seven and some of those were a reach. The list grew even slimmer with the revelation Thursday that Bob Baffert’s exciting prospect Bayern has a foot bruise. It’s late in the game for a setback, especially for a colt with only two races and zero Derby points.

Cairo Prince is a worthy No. 1 but this could change next weekend if Honor Code comes back big in the Rebel. To reiterate a point, I believe in results and Honor Code is one up on Cairo Prince. But we are into March and we still haven’t seen Honor Code, so he is a shaky proposition.

Candy Boy is the Cairo Prince of the West. When he and Shared Belief met in the Cash Call Futurity, Candy Boy made an Arazi-like middle move to the lead but couldn’t sustain it to the wire. Gary Stevens harnessed that turn of foot in the Robert Lewis, waiting until mid-stretch to give Candy Boy his signal. When he did, Candy Boy blew past a pair of Bafferts, Chitu and the heralded Midnight Hawk.

Unfortunately, Candy Boy will stay in the barn Saturday when the San Felipe is run. This was supposed to be the big test for Bayern, who has blown away a couple of fields. Now it doesn’t much matter in the big picture who wins the San Felipe, unless someone freaks.

Tapiture looks genuine off his dominant performance in the Southwest, his first start since a big win in the Kentucky Jockey Club as a stakes-placed maiden.

Strong Mandate also caught the eye closing on Tapiture after an eventful trip in which he might have lost more ground than his margin of defeat. But D. Wayne’s colt has a knack for running into trouble. Nevertheless, a kick like his has to be respected as the distances extend and maybe he’s due some racing luck.

That’s about it for genuine contenders from where I sit.

Samraat and Uncle Sigh have put on great shows in the Withers and Gotham but until they beat someone of note other than each other, the name Vyjack keeps ringing in my ears.

A similar situation exists in Florida. Wildcat Red and General a Rod have taken it to each other in the Gulfstream Derby and Fountain of Youth, leaving their opposition behind. But I am absolutely convinced that Wildcat Red has no shot at a mile and a quarter and I have doubts about General a Rod.

This is why I don’t share the enthusiasm for Top Billing that many others do. Sure, he had a tough post in the Fountain of Youth and he was racing against a fierce speed bias. But he really wasn’t making up significant ground late on two horses, who should have been vulnerable.

Because he is in the hands of Shug McGaughey, who remains high on him, I can’t dismiss him. If Surfing USA wins or runs close in the Tampa Bay Derby Saturday, Top Billing gets extra points for the ease with which he dispatched the Todd Pletcher charge in a Gulfstream allowance.

Intense Holiday did more in the Risen Star to expose the Louisiana contingent than to elevate his own status. Prior to his win at the Fair Grounds, he had been dusted repeatedly by a herd of other ranking 3-year-olds in Florida.

To me, the others are all Mine That Bird. If they win, I’ll just shake my head and start thinking about the Preakness.

Breeding on hold to racing's benefit

The marquee races for older horses this weekend are illustrative of how much more interesting the sport would be if talented 3-year-olds didn’t go to the breeding shed after their Triple Crown season. Injuries are part of the game but more burgeoning stars are sent to stud as a matter of choice than necessity and racing is poorer for it.

Fans on both coasts are looking forward to the Santa Anita Handicap, a rematch of the Breeders’ Cup Classic duel between Mucho Macho Man and Will Take Charge.

Mucho Macho Man was third in the 2011 Kentucky Derby. This would have been enough for some outfits to send him to the breeding shed. Kudos to Reeves Racing, which kept him on the track not only for his 4-year-old season, culminated by the Breeders’ Cup Classic, but now into his *6-year-old year.

Late developing Will Take Charge had a poor Triple Crown season but by the fall he had thrust himself into the Eclipse picture in two divisions with wins in the Travers, Pennsylvania Derby and Clark. Those were enough for the 3-year-old championship and if the BC Classic was one jump longer, he might have stolen Horse of the Year from Wise Dan.

Again, this was more than enough to earn a life of making love. But his part owner, Willis Horton, loves to see his horses run, so he is back for a 4-year-old campaign and his rivalry with MMM has generated enough buzz that Fox Sports 1 has added the Big Cap to its Jockey Club Tour agenda. There is no chance this would have happened if the Big Cap was headed by Blingo, Rousing Sermon and a suddenly off form Game on Dude.

Saturday’s Gulfstream Handicap has taken on unexpected luster of its own, all of it attributable to leading 3-year-olds of last season coming back as older horses. Belmont Stakes champion Palace Malice is the big name. Unlike some other one-hit wonders, who have won the demanding mile-and-a-half, Palace Malice dressed up his resume by adding the Jim Dandy and running second in the Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup. This is more than enough to get many horses retired.

Palace Malice might not even be favored given the local popularity and achievements of Itsmyluckyday. Last year at this time, he was one of the top Derby prospects off victories in the Gulfstream Derby and Holy Bull and a second to subsequent Kentucky Derby hero Orb in the Florida Derby.

The Run for the Roses was a debacle for both. But Itsmyluckyday bounced back two weeks later with a second to Oxbow in the Preakness. His career was put into jeopardy when he was pulled up with a pelvis fracture in Monmouth’s Pegasus. But Eddie Plesa nursed him back to health and he has been working this winter as if he will have something to say about the older horse division.

Not to be dismissed is the vastly improved Falling Sky. Winner of the Sam F. Davis as a 3-year-old, he has come into his own this winter. He extended Revolutionary (also back this season after running third in Louisville last May) to the limit before giving way by a half-length in a one-mile allowance then rebounded with a stakes record win in the Gulfstream Sprint Championship.

Normandy Invasion, second in the 2013 Wood and fourth in the Derby, launched his 4-year-old campaign recently with a track-record performance in a one-mile allowance. The Gulfstream Handicap came up too quickly for him but he also figures to be prominent in the handicap division.

I can’t remember a year when so many former top 3-year-olds returned. Let’s hope it’s the start of a trend.

*correction made 030814 at 1:36 p.m.

Written by Tom Jicha

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