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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Monday, July 21, 2014

NJ hellbent on adding sports betting to tracks

New Jersey is not letting a rebuff from the courts derail its plan to add sports betting to the menu at race tracks and casinos. Marijuana is against federal law, too, but the government is looking the other way at that. The belief is the same thing will happen if and when New Jersey begins taking bets on games, possibly as soon as the first week of the NFL season.

MIAMI, July 21, 2014—NFL training camps open over the next few days. Ditto college football. By the 2014 kickoff, the upcoming season could become a landmark one.

In spite of a rebuff by the United States Supreme Court last month, New Jersey is moving full speed ahead to legalize sports betting at race tracks and casinos. The hope is bettors will be able to play on their favorite teams at Monmouth Park and other venues by the first week of the NFL season in September.

Sports betting in the Garden State appeared dead when the Supremes declined to hear an appeal against rulings by two lower courts that a 2011 referendum to permit sports betting, overwhelmingly approved by voters and supported by Gov. Chris Christie, was in violation of the 1992 Pro and Amateur Sports Protection Act.

The flies in the ointment were the usual suspects: the NCAA, NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL. In their characteristically disingenuous court briefs, they contended that gambling on their games in New Jersey would tarnish the integrity of their sports.

We all know there is no one betting on these games now.

It’s easier than ever thanks to the internet. You no longer have to meet Vito in a smoky bar to make a bet. You can do it from your living room with a click of a mouse.

When the NFL allows the networks to promote the hell out of fantasy football, are they seriously suggesting that the stakes are marbles or match sticks?

Do you think the NCAA is unaware that the reason it gets billions for TV rights to March Madness is that almost everyone in America is following the fate of their brackets?

Whether intentionally or not, the courts left open a loophole. The state of New Jersey could not license sports gambling but it didn’t have to enforce state laws against it. In other words, New Jersey could do what several states have done with marijuana; look the other way.

Indeed, the way the federal government has handled medical marijuana and now recreational pot in Oregon and the state of Washington is being counted upon by New Jersey to clear the way for sports gambling. Federal laws with severe penalties against wacky weed are still on the books but the feds have done nothing to enforce them. President Obama laughed recently while on a fund-raising swing in Colorado when a young pot smoker offered him a toke.

NJ State Sen. Raymond Lesnick charged right through the opening left by the courts. He introduced a bill a few weeks ago to allow private citizens—i.e., the people who own race tracks and casinos--to operate sports betting operations.

Lesnick’s fellow lawman Al Caputo spoke in support. “We are in deep need of innovative ideas to combat the continuous downturn in New Jersey’s gaming industry in both Atlantic City and at our racetracks.” A couple of Atlantic City casinos have gone bankrupt in the past few weeks. Sports betting might bring some folks back to the shore, which now has nothing to offer that isn’t available closer to home in the heavily populated neighboring states of New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland.

Lesnick’s bill squeaked through the New Jersey State Senate 35-1. The Assembly concurred 63-6-2. New Jersey clearly wants to bet (or bet against) their Giants and Jets.

It is not irrelevant that Lesnick and Caputo are both Democrats, as are the majority of their colleagues in the New Jersey legislature. In what figures to be a tough election year for Democrats, with former Newark mayor Cory Booker up for re-election to the U.S. Senate, it’s doubtful President Obama and his Justice Department would want to do anything to make it more challenging by angering New Jersey voters by picking on their state while letting the pot states slide.

The timing of the latest push is not coincidental. Even though voters approved sports betting more than two years ago, lawmakers and Gov. Christie did not want to ruffle NFL feathers until the Super Bowl was held in the Meadowlands.

Those who suggest that the NFL might move to take the Giants and Jets out of the state in retaliation are higher than the folks in Oregon and Washington. That little playpen in Secaucus the two teams built cost more than a billion dollars.

Where would the Jets and Giants go? The Bronx and Queens, where baseball stadiums hold only half as many fans? That’s assuming they would be welcomed. Maybe the Giants could go back to the Yale Bowl?

Dennis Drazen, consultant to the New Jersey Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, is all for sports betting at the tracks. “This is a $500 billion industry and most of it is illegal,” Drazin was quoted as saying. “It would literally save Monmouth Park and save thousands of jobs.”

A significant difference between sports betting and slots, the most recent savior of racing, is that slots players rarely cross over. Horse players bet sports, and vice versa.

The Meadowlands, with its proximity to New York City, could benefit even more although there would probably be incredible pressure brought to bear not to have betting on the NFL closer than a long Eli Manning-to-Victor Cruz pass.

Tailgaters could have a beer, a brat and a bet before entering the stadium. It’s a delicious and intoxicating thought.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Florida allows Churchill to keep Calder casino, fire 241 racing employees

Florida racing is better off with Gulfstream in command and Churchill Downs out of the picture. But it's not right that CDI can make believe it still is involved in racing to keep its casino. While it is raking in the slots cash, CDI is laying off 241 employees, who worked in Calder racing. The only potential bright spot is Hialeah might be closer to getting back into the game.

MIAMI, July 16, 2014--Florida has become infamous for barrel racing, flag racing, a quarterhorse “meeting” involving about a half dozen horses racing twice a day, all owned or connected in some way to the owner of a bush league operation, and a jai alai fronton in which a father and son played all the matches against only each other.

All of these were used as flimsy justifications—thankfully, not all of which have succeeded--for the introduction of poker rooms and simulcasting.

Then there’s Tampa Bay Downs running programs on June 30 and July 1, the final and first day of the state’s fiscal year, to establish itself as a year-round racing venue and qualify to be a host simulcasting site.

These creative contortions of law would be amusing if they were not so infuriating. Is anybody in charge in Florida? Nominally, yes. In reality, no, most of the time.

However, the low rent shams are put to shame by the travesty being allowed to be committed by Churchill Downs Inc. at Calder.

The latest abomination is the revelation that 241 employees, according to the Blood-Horse, will be laid off as a result of racing ending at Calder. While these people are heading for the unemployment line, CDI continues to rake in big bucks in its slots parlor.

How can the state let this happen?

When legalization of slots was being debated, the prime argument was gaming would save horse racing and the jobs the sport generates. Now CDI has its racino, but no longer has anything to do with racing and 241 people are out of work. All of this with the state’s blessing.

There will be a two-month meeting at Calder in October and November, solely to fulfill CDI’s obligation of running at least 40 dates to keep its slots license. You can bet case money that lobbyists will be working lawmakers hard to have even this obligation stricken. In any case, CDI will have nothing to do with the fall meet. It will be entirely under the control of Gulfstream.

Calder will not even open its building except to a few racing officials. Fans will be confined to tents. It’s still mighty hot in mid-autumn in Miami.

The widespread belief is that when the fall session ends, the Calder building will be demolished. But the racino will still be there. In fact, it will probably be expanded once the grandstand is out of the way. So much for saving racing.

Florida racing is better off with Gulfstream in control. With the head-to-head conflict with Calder eliminated, Gulfstream had the fullest fields in the nation this past weekend. Saturday’s 11-race card drew 126 entries. Sunday’s 10-race program had 122 entrants.

For the past few years, CDI has treated horse racing like skunk spray. To add insult, giant neon letters on the Calder grandstand, visible from the Florida Turnpike, read “Calder Casino.” Not a mention of horse racing. Even while it was still a full-time race track, Calder’s advertising was totally geared to the casino.

It’s not a stretch to suspect that CDI welcomed being put out of business by Gulfstream. Why is it this is obvious to everyone but the state, which has adopted a Sgt. Schultz stance: “I see nothing.”

I’m not a legal expert but I would think the 241 employees being laid off at Calder could make a case that without racing, CDI should not be allowed to operate a casino. At the very least, this could prove embarrassing in an election year to Gov. Rick Scott, whose political mantra has been putting Floridians to work.

For all his eccentricities, Frank Stronach is dedicated to racing. He’s an Eclipse winning owner and breeder, who loves the game and races his stock all over the U.S. and Canada. In spite of his schemes to surround Gulfstream with a mall, a water theme park, a giant horse head statue and goodness knows what else, racing has always been Stronach’s priority and the track the focal point of the property. Gulfstream has a casino but its advertising is heavily tilted toward horse racing.

The only potential positive that could emerge from the murder CDI is being allowed to get away with is it offers a glimmer of hope that Hialeah could get back into the game. Almost simultaneous to the announcement of the Gulfstream-Calder settlement, Hialeah announced a $60 million renovation of its facility, including a new high tech simulcasting center.

This is the second stage of improvements to bring the fabled track back to what it once was. Hialeah already had been spruced up for the opening of its racino and card room, which was made possible by a winter quarterhorse meet.

But Hialeah president John Brunetti has been unwavering in declaring his intention to restore top class thoroughbred racing, which has been absent for more than a decade.

An opening seems to be emerging. Gulfstream’s Tim Ritvo said his track is not about to give up any of the 190 dates it fought so hard to obtain. However, Ritvo said Gulfstream is willing to work with Brunetti to bring Hialeah back into the picture. The 40 Calder dates are the ones that would be in play.

A positive sign that Ritvo’s statements are more than public relations rhetoric is Gulfstream allowing Hialeah, about 14 miles away, to pick up its simulcast signals. Gulfstream does not have to do this.

Brunetti , whose track is located in a heavily Hispanic area, has powerful allies in Tallahassee among Miami’s Latin legislative caucus. He has made it clear he intends to call on them next spring when the legislature reconvenes. All they would have to do is work through a bill to free CDI from its obligation to conduct 40 days of racing and award the 40 days to Hialeah.

Don't under-estimate Brunetti. He got the legislature to pass a bill that allowed him to get a slots parlor even though the original amendment that opened the door to expanded gambling was written to specifically exclude Hialeah.

It would be galling to see CDI rewarded for bad behavior but that plane has left the gate.

Another alternative is for Hialeah to lease some or all of the Gulfstream-at-Calder dates.

Gulfstream-at-Calder-at Hialeah, anyone?

Stranger things are winked at all the time in Florida.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Wednesday, July 09, 2014

It’s not fair: East has big races but titles are won in California

Shared Belief once again demonstrated the potential to become one of the most exciting horses in years with a dominant score in the Los Alamitos Derby. If he runs the table in the Pacific Classic and Breeders' Cup Classic, he could not only grab the 3-year-old title from California Chrome but also capture Horse of the Year. He could do all this without ever leaving California. That isn't right.

MIAMI, July 9, 2014--Here we go again.

Beholder has won a pair of Eclipse Awards without winning a stakes east of California. It’s not inconceivable she could capture a third in 2014 under the same circumstances.

The dazzling sophomore stakes debut of Juvenile Eclipse champion Shared Belief in Saturday’s Los Alamitos Derby suggests that overtaking California Chrome for 3-year-old honors is within reach. If it happens, he, too will do it without ever racing outside the Golden State.

Jerry Hollendorfer said after Shared Belief crushed his rivals in the Los Al Derby (nee Swaps Stakes) that he has no intentions of putting his star on a plane. Why should he? Shared Belief is a gelding so it’s all about earnings and there’s plenty of easy money to be made in California.

The Los Al Derby was a $500,000 event. Del Mar’s Pacific Classic against older horses, the next stakes Hollendorfer has targeted, carries a $1 million purse and it’s on an artificial surface. Shared Belief is 4-for-4 on fake dirt. The Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita is worth $5 million. On top of that, there is a $1 million bonus awaiting a horse who sweeps that triple.

If Hollendorfer opts for a BC Classic prep at Santa Anita, there’s the Awesome Again, whose $250,000 pot amounts to pocket change.

It’s a formidable gauntlet, especially for a horse who missed the first half of his 3-year-old season with recurring foot issues. But after Saturday, who’s to say Shared Belief is incapable of pulling it off?

He answered the biggest question surrounding his unbeaten record, now five-for-five: could he be as effective on real dirt as synthetics? Another eased up victory—no horse has yet been able to seriously challenge him in the stretch—with a 105 Beyer, a point below his career best while racing a mile and an eighth for the first time, puts that to rest.

The next test is a mile and a quarter in the Pacific Classic, the same distance as the Breeders’ Cup Classic. But his sire, Candy Ride, won Del Mar’s biggest race at 10 furlongs.

All sports have become star-driven, so should the dynamic son of Candy Ride continue to roll, he could do more for racing than even California Chrome’s run at the Triple Crown. Being a gelding, Shared Belief could be around for years. Perhaps more importantly, he’s partially owned by Jim Rome, whose talk show audience is dominated by young males, the demographic racing has to attract. And Rome loves to talk up his horse.

If both stay sound, a showdown with Derby-Preakness champion California Chrome seems inevitable. It, too, will almost certainly be at Santa Anita. Art Sherman has said California Chrome will have one race before the Breeders’ Cup Classic, either the Awesome Again or a prep at his Golden Gate base.

The only downside is even if Shared Belief runs the table, which would make him odds-on for both the 3-year-old championship and Horse of the Year, he will have done it without ever leaving the West Coast.

Tonalist could add the Jim Dandy and Travers to his Belmont Stakes and Peter Pan scores and further burnish his resume with a win in one of NYRA fall races against older horses. None of this will matter if he doesn’t go west and beat Shared Belief on his home court.

Think Princess of Sylmar last year. She seemed a lock for an Eclipse after consecutive wins in the Kentucky Oaks (Beholder was among those behind her), Coaching Club American Oaks, Alabama and Beldame, vanquishing multiple Eclipse winner Royal Delta, among others. If the Princess had stayed in her stall back east, she would have been a strong favorite to be voted queen of her division.

But on Santa Anita’s concrete speedway, more appropriate for NASCAR than a horse race, she had no shot against hometown speedball Beholder. There went the Eclipse.

Four of the seven dirt races (excluding the Marathon, a now discontinued novelty) were won by Californians. A fifth, She’s a Tiger, used her speed to finish first in the Juvenile Fillies only to be disqualified. She won an Eclipse anyway.

Sprint winner Secret Circle took home an Eclipse after only two wins, both at Santa Anita.

Only three of those winners have run outside California since (New Year’s Day was retired after the Juvenile). None have won. She’s a Tiger was seventh in the Eight Belles at Churchill. Goldencents was second and seventh in stakes at Belmont. On her home track at Santa Anita, Beholder won a small stakes. Then she came east for the Ogden Phipps, where she was a well beaten fourth.

This underscores the inequity of anchoring the Breeders’ Cup in one place, especially one with the pronounced bias of Santa Anita, then using the results as the decisive factor in determining championships. It’s like making Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium the permanent home of the Final Four.

Written by Tom Jicha

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