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, February 14, 2014

NYRA’s New Belmont Stakes Day: Feast or Famine?

MIAMI, February 14--The Belmont Stakes Day lollapalooza is a bold gambit. This will be one of the greatest days, if not the greatest day in racing history not called the Breeders’ Cup. NYRA should be applauded.

But it could be too much of a good thing. Coupled with two additional races on July 5—the Belmont Derby (nee Jamaica) and Belmont Oaks (nee Garden City)—fortified with million dollar purses during Belmont’s spring meeting, it could turn into an orgy of unjustified excess.

Come Belmont Stakes day, all will have a better idea whether or not a million-dollar purse guarantees a million-dollar field. Stakes can’t be turned into instant classics just by throwing money at them.

A rubber match between Princess of Sylmar, who should have won the 3-year-old filly championship, and Beholder, who did, would justify jacking the purse of the Ogden Phipps to $1 million. The greatest East-West showdown since Easy Goer vs. Sunday Silence also would be deserving of a day of its own. However, if only one of these great fillies makes the race, it will become such a non-event it will probably be scheduled early in the card to keep it out of the Pick Six.

The otherworldly purses are fueled by slots money. But several states and Canada have already begun to question the social justice of tens of millions going to racing that could be going to schools and infrastructure.

It’s one thing to pump up the Belmont Stakes. For more than a century, it has been an eagerly anticipated component of the Big Apple social calendar. But creating million dollar races just because you can is inviting scrutiny. Gov. Andrew Cuomo is no friend of racing and the new mayor of New York City, Bill de Blasio, is an avowed socialist.

What’s more, de Blasio made outlawing horse drawn carriages in Central Park one of his earliest goals. He says it’s inhumane. So you know where his head is when it comes to horses.

It’s a matter of when, not if, these politicians start making eyes at the slots funds allotted to horse racing.

I get the explanation that this is money that must be spent on purses--for now. It won’t necessarily be there forever, especially when such an ostentatious distribution by NYRA hands political opportunists powerful ammunition to snatch it away.

This also is a shot across the Breeders’ Cup bow. It’s a not very subtle message that enough is enough. If Southern California is awarded the 2015 Breeders’ Cup after three years at Santa Anita, NYRA is demonstrating that it is ready, willing and able to stage a competing championship event for horsemen in the East and Midwest. This is especially true if Del Mar and its synthetic main track get the 2015 nod.

Also, packing so many traditional late spring and early summer stakes onto one program could degenerate into egregious overkill. If a Triple Crown is on the line in the Belmont Stakes, you could card 12 supporting races of maiden New York bred claimers going five furlongs on the turf and there will be in excess of 100,000 people on the grounds.

With no Triple Crown at stake, anything more than half that audience will be a good day. Given the likely cost of admission for fans, it will be an exceptionally good day.

NYRA CEO Christopher Kay said during a teleconference that the prices had not been set and would be announced shortly. You have to be pretty gullible to take this at face value. With all the planning it took to put this day together, it would be irresponsible for the NYRA hierarchy not to have solid projections of what they can anticipate coming back.

When Kay said admission and seats would be comparable to the tariffs at the Derby and Preakness, it became clear he didn’t want the prices to become the story that day, which they would have.

Using the first two jewels of the Triple Crown as a gauge, fans can expect to have to come up with several hundred dollars for decent seats, more for good ones. General admission is likely to be in the $35-$50 range with the clubhouse roughly double. (Last year, it was $10 and $20). This will be just to walk in the door.

Kay is either a cockeyed optimist or delusional. He also said he envisions Belmont weekend filling hotel rooms in New York. Are there that many owners, trainers and jockeys? With simulcasting, ADWs and OTB, players have no compelling reason to travel, especially into the teeth of New York prices.

He also says he hopes to have European representation in the stakes. Good luck with that. The Belmont coincides with Royal Ascot. If NYRA does attract any Euros, it will be third stringers (who often are good enough).

Historic events such as the Met Mile as well as the Princess of Sylmar-Beholder showdown will be reduced to afterthoughts, no matter how heavily increased their purses. The Belmont will be the sole focus in the media and among fans. This will be true to a great extent even in the absence of a Triple Crown possibility. Ardent fans might relish the great afternoon of racing but to sports editors in the print and electronic media, the Belmont Stakes will be the story.

With all the great horses who run at Churchill Downs during Derby week and the lure of the richly endowed Belmont supporting card an ideally spaced five weeks later, I’d hate to be the racing secretary at Pimlico trying to put together the Preakness festival.

The creation of a super-sized Belmont Day almost comes across as an exercise in reverse psychology. “You know the first year we do something like this, there will be a Triple Crown possibility.”

We can only hope.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Friday, February 07, 2014

Loaded Donn pushes 3-year-olds into background for a week

The road to the Derby continues Saturday with the Robert B. Lewis at Santa Anita, where Midnight Hawk is expected to solidify his status as the best in the West not named Shared Belief. But the race of the weekend is the Donn at Gulfstream in which Eclipse champion Will Take Charge makes his seasonal debut against an extremely salty field.

MIAMI, Feb. 7,2014—Winter and spring belong to 3-year-olds but a short detour from the Derby trail is called for this weekend to focus on the race of the year so far, the Donn Handicap Sunday at Gulfstream.

Gulfstream’s grandest stage for older horses will kick off the “Jockey Club Tour on Fox” with an abundance of star power. The marquee name is Will Take Charge, who might have been a nose away from Horse of the Year—the distance he fell short of catching Mucho Macho Man in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

But he is far from a free bingo square in the Donn, which concludes a pick 3, pick 4, pick 5 and Rainbow 6. He hasn’t been out since running down Game on Dude in the Clark Handicap Thanksgiving weekend. What’s more, the Donn is the first step on the long journey back to the Breeders’ Cup. D Wayne Lukas obviously wants to win another Grade 1 but it’s doubtful the screws are fully tightened.

The weights surely will not be an excuse. Will Take Charge got a kindly package of 123 pounds. In an understatement, Lukas said, “I think probably at this time of year, they’re not going to load up too much on any of these horses.” The Coach didn’t need the qualifier “at this time of year.” Handicaps have become a joke as racing secretaries vie to get star horses to their track. Grade 1’s, which are supposed to identify the best of the breed, shouldn’t be handicaps anyway.

Unlike Game on Dude, who launches his 2014 season Saturday in the San Antonio Stakes--another of those California cakewalks in which he has built his reputation beating nobodies--Will Take Charge will be challenged by a deep, talented field of 10 rivals.

Revolutionary, second high weight at 119, was arguably a better horse than Will Take Charge during the time both were in training last year. They met twice. Revolutionary was third in the Kentucky Derby. Will Take Charge finished eighth. Revolutionary was fifth in the Belmont. Will Take Charge ran tenth.

Revolutionary didn’t get to prove conclusively that he was better because his connections put him away after the Belmont in order to have a top 4-year-old. He certainly looked that part in his Gulfstream return, which was more impressive than the half-length victory margin makes it look.

The Donn is far from a two-horse race. River Seven has done most of his racing in Canada but comes into Sunday’s race on a three-race winning streak, including a turf stakes at Churchill and a track record performance in the Harlan’s Holiday, his first experience on Gulfstream’s main track. In his only previous try on conventional dirt, he was a close second in the Prince of Wales, a leg of the Canadian Triple Crown.

Lea also might have better than a puncher’s chance against the champ. He’s been on the verge of becoming a serious horse throughout his career, which has been spent mostly on grass. Last summer he was second and third to Wise Dan in graded stakes. Bill Mott took over his training this winter and put him on dirt in the Hal’s Hope. Lea responded with a runaway win.

The Hall of Fame trainer once took another horse, who was not firing his best shots on turf, which seemed to be the surface he was bred for, and tried him on dirt. Cigar became the best horse in the world. It’s foolhardy to suggest Lea is the second coming of Cigar but he could be a major player in the older horse ranks this year.

The Jockey Club Tour got an unexpected bonus when Groupie Doll’s new owner, Mandy Pope, who bought her at auction for $3.1 million after the Breeders’ Cup, decided she didn’t want her new star mare to go out on an off-the-board finish in the Cigar Mile. So she was pointed to the Hurricane Bertie. Win or lose, Groupie Doll next goes to the breeding shed.

She might be a better bet against than Will Take Charge. After-thought races are never ideal situations. Moreover, her second Eclipse was awarded solely on the basis of a repeat victory in the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint. Maybe this was the race her whole season was pointed toward, because she certainly wasn’t the Groupie Doll of 2012 last year.

She opened her campaign hanging the length of the stretch to finish third against a couple of horses of moderate ability at Ellis Park. She redeemed herself somewhat with an encore win in the Presque Isle Masters but then ran third again in the TCA at Keeneland. She wound up the year fourth in the Cigar. She had some excuses, but don’t they all?

Wildcat Lily and Jamaican Smoke are both Grade 1-placed. But the one to pay most heed to might be Heart Stealer, two-for-two since joining the Marty Wolfson barn, which is lethal in local stakes.

The Fox telecast (5-6:30 p.m.) has a third stakes, the Grade 1 Gulfstream Turf Handicap, which marks the return of Amira’s Prince. Four-for-four in the U.S., he hasn’t been out since the Mervin Muniz at the Fair Grounds almost a year ago. But he is in the hands of Mott, who’s as good as it gets bringing quality horses back to the races off long layoffs.

The threats are Summer Front, who made the Fort Lauderdale last month his seventh career stakes win, and the current Shug, old Shug duo of Imagining and Boisterous. Six-year-old Imagining, in Shug McGaughey’s barn his entire career, will be gunning for his third straight win and first in a Grade 1. Boisterous, who became a millionaire under Shug’s tutelage, was sold at Keeneland last fall to Gary Barber and makes his first start for Todd Pletcher.

The weekend’s only 3-year-old race of note, the Grade 2 Robert B. Lewis, goes Saturday at Santa Anita. Midnight Hawk will be an overwhelming favorite in a field of seven and, as Trevor Denman likes to say, looking for a danger, can’t find one.

Everything out west is in a stagnant state until the status of Shared Belief is established.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Gulfstream Taking a Gamble by Putting Racing First with Donn on Sunday

Gulfstream Park is putting the sport ahead of its bottom line in moving the Donn Handicap from Saturday to Sunday, Donn coming up a terrific race headed by Will Take Charge, in order to help launch 'The Jockey Club Tour on Fox.' It is also kicking in another $50K to lure a representative field to take on Groupie Doll in her career finale, which will open the Fox telecast.

MIAMI, Feb. 5, 2014--Gulfstream is taking one for the team this weekend. The Donn Handicap is being moved from its original date on Saturday to Sunday to accommodate the launch of "The Jockey Club Tour on Fox."

This should not be dismissed as no big deal, especially in light of how other tracks have done nothing to support the latest initiative to get more racing on TV. (There is not a single race from a Churchill Downs-owned track on the schedule. Their bad, or Fox's?)

The Donn traditionally produces one of the biggest days of the winter season at Gulfstream, often behind only Florida Derby Day. In moving it to Sunday, Gulfstream is risking a major hit to its bottom line.
Gulfstream President Tim Ritvo is hopeful this won’t be the case, but it is a roll of the dice. “Saturday will not do as well (without the Donn) but Sunday will be better than usual. We’re hoping the combination will equal or be better than what we would do on a normal weekend.”

The only precedent came a few years ago when Gulfstream experimented with moving The Florida Derby to Sunday with another stakes loaded day, including the Gulfstream Oaks, on Saturday. The idea was to see if it could create a Kentucky Oaks-Kentucky Derby-like two-day event.

The weekend handle was about what a Saturday Florida Derby and normal Sunday would have generated, according to Ritvo. But it is perhaps revealing that it became a one-and-done trial. The Florida Derby went back to Saturday and has been anchored there since.

What’s more, the Florida Derby is long established as a major event, which transcends racing, on the South Florida social calendar. The Donn is eagerly anticipated by racing fans but not the general population.

This is why Gulfstream deserves accolades for taking the chance with the Donn for all the right reasons. “We’re hoping the exposure on TV outweighs what we might lose on the change.”

Sunday racing was touted as the panacea that would reverse the downward trend in Florida racing when it was being debated in the Florida legislature. I can’t recall if it was the panacea to usher in a new golden age before or after the minors bill was the panacea that would usher in a new era of prosperity. Both definitely preceded slots, the panacea du jour.

Thankfully, it’s not three panaceas and you’re out for racing.

For some reason, or many reasons, Sunday racing has never caught on in a big way in Florida—or anywhere else in the United States. This is why many big stakes are not on the "Jockey Club Tour" agenda. Many tracks have been unwilling to move their marquee events from Saturday to Sunday.

Theories for the disappointment Sundays have become are as myriad as handicapping techniques. King NFL is a prominent one for almost half the year. Every track shows the games on monitors throughout their plant—some even have contests linking football and racing-- but this is no match for the comfort of home with a big screen TV.

Besides--the NFL’s disingenuous protests notwithstanding--more money probably changes hands on Sunday in football game bets and fantasy leagues than at the nation’s racetracks. So gambling thirsts are sated without a trip to the track.

Ken Dunn, the only man to run Calder and Gulfstream, says a higher power than even the NFL should not be overlooked. “Sunday is a church day for an awful lot of people.” Many extend this to the commandment to keep holy the Lord’s day. A gambling and drinking establishment does not fit within this parameter. (Christianity is not the only religion, but it is the dominant one in numbers).

Dunn, who also was a top executive at Arlington and Atlantic City, said experience teaches him Sundays will never be as strong as Saturdays, no matter what inducements tracks offer to attract customers. “At Calder, we created a family picnic area. We had pony rides, face painting and games for kids. It boosted attendance for a while but it quickly became old hat. Racing is never going to make it with families. It’s great to expose it to them but they are not going to come to the track every week.”

Probably because Sunday is such a family oriented day, “The male of the household has a more difficult time getting away on a Sunday than on Saturday,” Dunn said.

Speaking from anecdotal experience, Dunn, an avid golfer, said it is the same at local courses. “It’s much easier to get a tee time on a Sunday than it is on a Saturday.”

Dunn and Ritvo are on the same page with another factor that’s especially peculiar to South Florida during the winter. “Sunday is a travel day here,” Ritvo said. Tourists who visit for a week or weekend tend to head home on Sunday.

Indeed, since changing the date of the Donn, Ritvo said he has heard from disappointed fans, who told him they had made plans to be in Florida for the Donn on Saturday then fly home the next day.

Those who can’t make it are going to miss a sensational race. Eclipse champion Will Take Charge tops an anticipated big field expected to include Revolutionary, River Seven and Lea. There will be more on the Donn on Friday.

As a bonus, two-time Eclipse winner Groupie Doll will make the final start of her career in the Hurricane Bertie. Gulfstream is biting another bullet by kicking in an extra $50K to the purse if Groupie Doll runs but it really isn’t to assure her presence. She has been set for a while. The track is hoping to entice a few more contenders to take on the champ so that the race is meaningful and competitive for TV.

Both races, in addition to the Gulfstream Turf Cup, will be part of the telecast on Fox Sports 1 from 5-6:30.

Dunn applauds Gulfstream’s selflessness in making this possible. “I can’t tell you how many meetings I sat through where we tried to get more races on TV but there was little willingness to make a short-term sacrifice for long-term gains.”

Written by Tom Jicha

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