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, January 01, 2014

Saying goodbye and looking ahead

Thoughts, complaints and suggestions to improve racing in 2014 and beyond

Miami, Jan. 1, 2014--Clearing the decks of random thoughts to get a fresh start on the new year:

How sadly ironic is it that fewer than three days after Calder unveiled its 2014 stakes schedule, it had to cancel the LaPrevoyante Stakes last Saturday for lack of interest. Stakes are canceled everywhere from time to time for lack of entries, usually inconsequential dirt races. If there ever has been a graded stakes on the turf jettisoned, I can’t recall it. “This was a business decision based entirely on economics,” Calder general manager John Marshall said. How Churchill Downs is that? Looking ahead, the 2014 stakes schedule amounts to more of a wish list than a game plan.

Speaking of wishful thinking, it would be great if someone who cares about racing made Churchill Downs Inc. an offer it can’t refuse to rescue the most cherished name in racing from the bottom-line vultures who have alienated everyone in the game; horsemen, media and, especially, fans.

The legislation that gives horsemen’s organizations the power to deny simulcast rights to racetracks on any whim has to be amended or repealed. Among other abuses, it is being used to keep the Breeders’ Cup from experimenting with a ban on race day medications. Tracks and the Breeders' Cup should be able to operate within reason without fear of being extorted by horsemen acting like thugs. The law was passed when no one had any appreciation of how simulcasting would become critical to the existence of the sport.

Go to any track on any racing day and just about every horse on the card will be running on Lasix. This means that every horse in North America is a bleeder or the drug has uses that have nothing to do with its supposed benefit.

I’m still waiting for the hammer to come down on Eric Guillot for his meritless claim that Luis Saez used an electrical device in the Travers. If Guillot doesn’t suffer serious sanctions for his irresponsible behavior, no jockey should ever be fined for a frivolous claim of foul. Those impact only one race. Guillot struck at the integrity of the game on one of its biggest stages.

The computer geeks who concocted the infamous Fix Six at the 2002 Breeders’ Cup, are out of jail. Why not give them a chance to redeem themselves by putting them to work on the Obamacare website.

I’ve always wondered how much simulcast business Del Mar loses because of its atypical 2 p.m. first post, which is 5 p.m. in the East. We might get an indication with the new fall meet. The onset of dusk after daylight savings time ends will dictate an earlier first post.

Saying goodbye to Hollywood Park, any race track, is sad but I won’t miss the addition of Betfair to the track’s name. The first time I saw BHP in a workout line before the amended name became commonplace, I had no idea what it referred to. I thought it was a training center. Same goes for the new BSR for Fairplex/Pomona. The Racing Form should serve the public, not the egos of corporate racetrack owners. Think of where this could lead: NYRABel, TSGSA and CDICrc (or the even more absurd CDICD).

Dear fellow racing media: Please consign “on the other side of the pond” to the trash compactor of history. It was cute the first 750,000 times it was written but it has become the cliché of choice of lazy journalists.

If you do that, I promise to no longer report the quotes of owners and trainers, who say they see no reason why their 3-year-old, bred to be a sprinter and built like a sprinter, can’t get the Derby distance.

A Triple Crown winner would be great for myriad reasons, not the least of which is it would put a stop to all the cockamamie columns and letters suggesting ways to revise the best thing racing has going for it.

Nothing motivates people to get involved more than self interest. There has to be a way for the Breeders’ Cup to join with a brewer, car company or supermarket chain to distribute free lottery-type scratch-off cards tied to the results to bring people to racing’s second biggest day? (Nothing tops the first Saturday in May.)

NYRA CEO Christopher Kay is the undisputed winner of the double-talk of 2013 award. Speaking at the year-end University of Arizona symposium, the camera-ready executive said, “Attendance doesn’t spend money, people do.” Huh? Is this guy a member of the National Rifle Association? If I’m interpreting him correctly, you have to wonder why NYRA continues to have giveaway days at Saratoga, which goose attendance figures by including thousands of people who aren’t even on the grounds for the racing program.

My wish list for 2014 will be fulfilled if a way can be found to get Hialeah back into the South Florida thoroughbred rotation.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Friday, December 27, 2013

Eclipse selections and the reasons why

With all due respect to the Breeders' Cup, it is not a one race season to determine championships, especially this year.

MIAMI, Dec. 27, 2013--I respect the Breeders’ Cup. I anticipate it for weeks. I love the spectacle. I applaud its intentions to identify the best of the best.

All things being equal, the winners of Breeders’ Cup races should wear the crown of at least a divisional championship. However, all things are not always equal or even fairly equal, especially this year.

This struck me as I was filling out my Eclipse Awards ballot. The majority of horses I voted on top did not win on Breeders’ Cup weekend. One of those that did was an agonizing decision I wavered on until I hit the button to submit my choices.

Here’s the way my ballot looked and the reasons I came to the conclusions I did.

2-year-old male—New Year’s Day. This was the category in which I changed my mind repeatedly right up to the moment of truth. No horse excited me more than Shared Belief. However, I couldn’t get past the fact that all three of his wins came on synthetic tracks. If he had even one win on conventional dirt, my decision would have been different. Arguments that Hollywood’s Cushion Track plays more like conventional dirt than any of the synthetics almost convinced me to ignore my own prejudice, based on the history of synthetic stars becoming busts on conventional dirt. But Hollywood was still a synthetic. Taking this into consideration, the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner is the obvious choice.

2-year-old female—She’s a Tiger. I’m not overly excited by any of them and had to settle for a filly who lost her last two starts, albeit the BC Juvenile Fillies by DQ. Two of her stakes wins were on synthetics but she did cross the wire first on Santa Anita’s main track and broke her maiden on conventional dirt. Streaming impressed in the Hollywood Starlet but again, it was on a fake dirt track.

3-year-old male--Will Take Charge. Until he ran down Game on Dude in the Clark I was prepared to vote for Orb. The Kentucky Derby is still America’s race. The Triple Crown is what 3-year-old racing is all about and WTC ran 8th, 7th and 10th, all three times behind Orb. But Orb did nothing after the Classics while Will Take Charge closed with a flourish.

3-year-old female—Princess of Sylmar. I’m not going to punish the filly who won all the big races for her generation because her owners had the courage to ship west and take on Beholder on her home course, which was a paved highway, ideally suited to her style, on Nov. 1.

Older male—Wise Dan. I’ll get into the reasons when I discuss my Horse of the Year vote. Basically, I don’t believe you can be HoY without being best in class.

Older female—Royal Delta. She wasn’t the horse she was last year but she won a pair of Grade 1’s and was second to Princess of Sylmar in another. No challenger won more than one Grade 1.

Male sprinter—Points Offthebench. The ill-fated gelding won four straight, the last two Grade 1’s. His only serious challenger, Sahara Sky, won only one Grade 1 and didn’t race after May.

Female sprinter—Cluster of Stars. I was leaning toward Dance to Bristol for her season-long body of work, seven wins, including a Grade 1, in 10 starts. But even though she didn’t win a Grade 1, I couldn’t get past the fact that Cluster of Stars was 7-for-7, including a crushing victory the only time they met. In spite of her Breeders’ Cup victory, I’m mystified anyone could seriously suggest Groupie Doll is worthy of a second Eclipse. Her only win in four other starts was at Presque Isle Downs with a former $4K sprinter closest to her at the wire.

Male turf—Wise Dan. Do we even need to discuss this?

Female turf—Dank. I have an aversion to voting for Euros, who start only once or twice in North America, but I couldn't ignore what she did. She came, she saw and she conquered the best America had to offer twice.

Horse of the Year—Wise Dan. This shouldn’t be debatable.

The most laughable knock on him is that he is only a miler and ducked tough competition.

Really? His connections announced where he was going months in advance. He went everywhere they said he would, including the Turf Classic at Churchill Downs. Point of Entry was also pointing for the Derby Day stakes, run at a mile and an eighth, supposedly a more advantageous distance for Point of Entry. When a monsoon turned the course into a swamp, Wise Dan stayed in but Point of Entry came out. Who ducked who?

Wise Dan also stayed in the Firecracker when that was contested in horrid conditions. No one could have blamed his connections if they scratched out of the Shadwell Turf Mile when it was moved to a soaked main course at the last minute. But he ran and suffered his only loss of the year when a quality wet track specialist at the top of his game, Silver Max, got loose on the lead.

Wise Dan won graded races in April, May, June, August, September and November. He won at Keeneland, Churchill Downs, Saratoga, Woodbine and Santa Anita.

The anti-Wise Dan crowd seems to have settled on Mucho Macho Man as the alternative. Mucho Macho Man was two for five, both wins at Santa Anita, within a five-week period.

I’d love to see Mucho Macho Man win an Eclipse in 2014 because of his South Florida connections and the inspiring story of Kathy Ritvo. But there is no case to be made for 2013.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Friday, December 20, 2013

BC Classic rematch will have to wait…but not for long

Racing fans are eagerly awaiting a rematch between Mucho Macho Man and Will Take Charge, who finished a nose apart in the Breeders' Cup Classic. For a brief period, it seemed like it could happen in the Donn Handicap at Gulfstream on Feb. 8. Now it is more likely to occur in the Big Cap at Santa Anita a month later.

MIAMI, Dec. 20, 2013—The Donn Handicap has traditionally been the premier race of the winter season east of the Rockies for older horses. For a while, it appeared there was a chance the 2014 renewal on Feb. 8 was going to be an early candidate for Race of the Year.

D. Wayne Lukas’ announcement that he is targeting the Donn for Will Take Charge’s seasonal debut raised a delicious possibility. The Donn also was a candidate for the return to the races of Mucho Macho Man, according to his trainer, Kathy Ritvo, spouse of Gulfstream president Tim Ritvo.

Not only would this be a Breeders’ Cup Classic rematch, it is potentially a confrontation between Eclipse Award winners. Will Take Charge’s victory over Game on Dude in the Clark Handicap makes him the solid favorite to be named outstanding 3-year-old.

Mucho Macho Man’s triumph in the BC Classic, with Will Take Charge and Game on Dude behind him, gives him a shot to overtake the Dude as top older horse.

The new Gulfstream, with its limited seating capacity, would have a difficult time containing all the fans who might turn out for an early season showdown of the horses who finished a nose apart in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. But Tim Ritvo would love the opportunity to try to squeeze them in.

Alas, the faceoff is still likely to take place in the first quarter of the year but it probably won’t be in the Donn. The Santa Anita Handicap is the likely spot, according to Ritvo, who trained Mucho Macho Man before he took the job running Gulfstream. He’s also got an inside line to Kathy as the last person to talk to her every night and the first person she sees every morning.

Tim is still in line to get the BC Classic’s first two but probably in separate stakes. Mucho Macho Man is now pointing toward the Sunshine Millions Classic on Jan. 18, a few hours before the Eclipse winners are announced at Gulfstream.

While it’s disappointing to the racing world, this is a sensible approach. Why wring out your horse in a potential gut-wrenching first race of the season for $500,000 when you can face Florida-breds only for $400,000.

Ritvo offered another prudent reason for using the Sunshine Millions, which Mucho Macho Man won in 2012, to ease him into his 2014 campaign. “It’s six weeks from there to the Santa Anita Handicap. The Donn is only four weeks. Kathy likes that spacing better. Both trainers, Kathy and Mr. Lukas, are going to do what’s best for their horse.”

The Sunshine Millions as a prep for the Big ‘Cap has successful precedent. Ron the Greek ran second to Mucho Macho Man in 2012, then went west to bury the Big Cap field.

This doesn’t mean Ritvo wouldn’t love to have the MMM-WTC showdown at his track. Suppose there was an indication that a significant bump to the Donn purse could lure both into the race? “That would have to come from the corporate side,” he said. “It would look self-serving (as Kathy’s spouse) if I suggested it.”

Frank Stronach has demonstrated a willingness to spend freely but this is an unlikely scenario for a simple reason. Stronach also owns Santa Anita.

Would Tim resort to pillow talk to try to get Kathy to change her mind. “She wouldn’t listen to me anyway,” he said with the smile of a long married man. “She never does.”

More means less racing reportage

Racing reportage continues to slide off the media map. The Miami Herald, for decades the dominant newspaper not only in the Miami area but the entire state of Florida, is the latest publication to downgrade racing coverage.

It has not staffed a major race (or minor one) since the Summit of Speed in July. Not even the opening day of the premier winter season at Gulfstream and the eight-stakes Claiming Crown were deemed worthy of dispatching a staffer or free-lancer.

(Disclosure: I cover stakes for the South Florida Sun Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale. But the one-time fierce rivalry between the two papers has dissolved to the extent that the papers have agreed to allow access to some of each other’s reporting to control expenses.)

The turn of events in Miami isn’t as distressing as in New York, where the Post and Daily News exiled scaled-down racing coverage to the internet. The Herald has used wire services and releases from the Gulfstream press department to report the results of Saturday stakes the past couple of weeks. But there have been no advances, which used to be featured regularly and arguably are more useful to racing, since it alerts fans of what’s coming up.

The lack of staff reporting on stakes could be considered collateral damage in the war between Calder and Gulfstream. The Herald continues to publish entries and charts of both tracks. With head-to-head conflicts every Friday, Saturday and Sunday, as well as Hialeah’s quarterhorse meeting, the agate takes up a full page, which has squeezed out column inches formerly devoted to racing stories.

I’m told this is a fluid situation, which could change at any time. The new year brings a new budget, which might provide resources for a free-lance reporter, which the Herald has utilized the past few years.

The presence of star horses with well recognizable names, such as Mucho Macho Man and Will Take Charge, wouldn’t hurt.

Written by Tom Jicha

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