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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Thursday, March 22, 2018

There could be something magic about the number 136

Maryland-Baltimore County made March Madness history last week when it upset Virginia, the first 16th seed to beat a No. 1 in 136 tries. Coincidentally, two extraordinarily talented and undefeated colts, Magnum Moon and Justify, seem poised to conquer the Curse of Apollo, which has endured for 136 years. More immediately, Saturday's first final phase Kentucky Derby qualifier, the Louisiana Derby, is more likely to produce a couple of Derby starters than the winner.

There could be something magic about the number 136 this year. Maryland-Baltimore County was the 136th No. 16 seed to attempt to take down a No. 1 seed last week. In crushing Virginia, M-BC not only knee-capped the No. 1 seed in its bracket but the top rated team in the nation.

Coincidentally, it has been 136 years since Apollo became the last horse to win the Kentucky Derby without racing as a 2-year-old. This year there are two 3-year-olds sitting on busting that jinx. All eyes this winter have been on Bob Baffert’s brilliant Justify, two-for-two and heading for the Arkansas Derby on April 14. Todd Pletcher’s Magnum Moon one-upped Justify Saturday, rolling to a decisive score in the Rebel Stakes to run his record to 3-for-3.

In his immediate wake was Solomini, second in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile to Good Magic, ahead of Bolt d’Oro, and first under the wire in the Los Alamitos Futurity. So Magnum Moon’s first stakes win was genuine.

The 50 Kentucky Derby points from the Rebel guarantees Magnum Moon a berth in the Kentucky Derby starting gate. It will be interesting to see if the ultra conservative Pletcher sends him back to Hot Springs for a potentially gut-busting showdown against Justify in the Arkansas Derby on April 14, just three weeks in advance of the big one at Churchill Downs.

The quick turnaround to Louisville is not Pletcher’s M.O. but Derby fever forces many trainers out of their comfort zone. Pletcher is not a stranger to the centerpiece of the Racing Festival of the South. He won it back-to-back in 2013-14 and ran second in 2010 with Super Saver, before he became Pletcher’s first Kentucky Derby winner.

If Pletcher feels he doesn’t want to go seven weeks from the Rebel to the Derby, there is another less challenging option, the Lexington Stakes at Keeneland on the same day as the Arkansas Derby. It’s only 20 points to the winner but this is no longer a concern for Magnum Moon and eliminates a plane trip. Keeneland is a short van ride from Churchill Downs.

Maybe the question should be whether Baffert will stick to his guns and send Justify to Arkansas when he has to finish no worse than second to clinch his Derby berth. Moreover, there is no guarantee the 40 points for the place will be enough, especially if horses from Europe, Japan and Dubai claim the spots set aside for them. This would reduce the American allotment to 17.

Right now there are seven horses with 40 or more points, three more with at least 30 and another three in the 20s. Even a third in the final round of six major Derby preps, which award 100-40-20-10 to the first four finishers would put them over the 40-point bar, generally considered to be the point of separation.

Odds are some of those atop the leader board will take down the bulk of the points in the final major preps. Also, there is bound to be the usual attrition in the final month. But, as they say, there are no sure things in racing.

Intentions could matter

Saturday’s Louisiana Derby, the first of the final round ofpreps is more likely to generate two, maybe three Derby starters, than it is to produce the winner of the Run for the Roses.

None of the 10 entrants are among HRI’s weekly Top 10 of 3-year-olds and only Bravazo cracked the NTRA’s weekly 3-year-old poll, squeaking in at No. 10. However, as many as three others—Snapper Sinclair (22 points), My Boy Jack (12) and Noble Indy (10)--could crash the 40 point party with a big effort.

So intentions have to included in handicapping considerations. The million-dollar purse is enticing but you have to wonder if D. Wayne Lukas wants Gary Stevens to empty Bravazo’s tank if that becomes necessary to win. This is especially true when you consider Bravazo could be a short price. Then again, Lukas craves the spotlight in big races and Stevens is a fierce competitor. Use your own judgment.

The track line-maker has made My Boy Jack the lukewarm 5-2 favorite, a price both he and Bravazo could be under. This is based almost solely on My Boy Jack’s more than four-length win in the Southwest at Oaklawn. But he got a golden rail trip on a day when that was the place to be. The fact that My Boy Jack was a non-competitive seven lengths in arrears of McKinzie in the Sham bolsters the feeling that the Louisiana Derby isn’t going to produce any sleepless nights for the connections of the more highly regarded Derby winners.

If you like Bravazo, you have to like Snapper Sinclair, who lost a bob of their heads in the Risen Star. But Snapper Sinclair didn’t appear to be a horse who wants more than a mile and a sixteenth and this is a mile and an eighth.

Of the others, the only one worth more than a dreamer’s chance is Noble Indy, primarily because of the Pletcher factor. Even though Bravazo and Snapper Sinclair were ripping off each other’s faces down the long Fair Grounds stretch, Noble Indy made no impact on them while running third. Pletcher is adding blinkers an effort to close the gap.

NYRA innovates

The bane of racing is the increasingly fewer starts made by horses. This is directly related to the decreasing foal crops. There is nothing more discouraging for an owner than paying the bills for a horse that runs every five or six weeks. Fewer owners leads to fewer horses being bred.

NYRA has devised a couple of innovative programs to deal with this. Starting April 2, horses can start working toward bonus awards based on the number of starts made at a NYRA track within a calendar year. Horses, who make at least five or six starts, will get an extra 5% added to their earnings. Seven to nine starts kicks up earnings by 7 ½%. Ten or 11 starts is worth an extra 12 1/2% and 12 or more starts—as if-- boosts earnings by 15%.

Maiden races count as starts but do not earn purse bonuses. Race credits travel with horses who are sold, claimed or otherwise change hands. Among other things, this could lead to more horses being left in New York for winter racing.

This is unlikely to influence Pletcher or Brown to start horses more often but it is an incentive for lesser barns, which scuffle to make ends meet. They are the ones who make the everyday cards go.

Lesser barns are also the intended beneficiaries of the “Under 20s Claiming Challenge” during the Belmont spring/summer meet. NYRA has put up $80,000 to be distributed to trainers with 20 or fewer horses based on the performances of their horses in claiming races for winners.

Points for dirt races will be distributed on a 6-5-4-3-2 basis. Turf races are worth one fewer point for each corresponding finish.

To avoid the abuse of horses or even the appearance of it, a horse can earn points only twice within a 30-day period.

The trainer at the top of the standings when the horses leave for Saratoga will win $18,000 with lesser prizes down to $3,000 for eighth place.

Anything that gets horses out of the barn and into the starting gate has my whole-hearted endorsement.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, March 15, 2018

Cal stewards take forever to make the wrong call

Stewards are paid to make decisions. It shouldn't take 20 minutes to scrutinize video and make a call, as it did in the San Felipe. What did they see in minute 19 that they didn't see in minute 12 or minute 7? The mere fact that it took so long is argument enough that what happened on the race track should have been left "as is." This is merely the most recent embarrassment to come out a Southern California stewards stand. Something has to be done and it shouldn't take 20 minutes to do it. They have to go.

If Santa Anita’s stewards are fired--as they should have been a long time ago--there is a natural landing spot for them. They could go to work for Robert Mueller, the only man in America procrastinating longer before making a decision.

This is not a political statement. I don’t have the facts the special counsel does. However, isn’t it time he do something one way or the other?

I and everyone else who watched the San Felipe does have all that is necessary to make a call on the disqualification of McKinzie. It was a horrible call, especially given the significance of the race. There was minimal contact in the final strides. Neither horse was knocked off stride. Both riders continued to go all out. There was more substantial contact initiated by Bolt d’Oro at the head of the stretch, which mitigated anything that occurred in the closing yards.

The fact that the stewards took 20 minutes is all that is necessary to amplify that this was too close to call, which should have led to a no call.

I have long argued that unless there is what the NFL calls clear and incontrovertible evidence, no action should be taken. This was the case in the San Felipe. If there was clear and incontrovertible evidence, the stewards could have come to a decision in a minute or three. You look at the pan once or twice, you check the head-on a couple of times and if you don’t see indisputable evidence a horse has been wronged, what happened on the track should stand “as is.”

Fortunately, the San Felipe, as important as it was, was merely a stepping stone toward Kentucky. Bolt d’Oro and McKinzie could meet again in the Santa Anita Derby, although a justifiably miffed Baffert said the DQ might lead to him going out of town with McKinzie.

Although it was said in the heat of the moment, this seems more than a little disingenuous. Baffert is based at Santa Anita. Is he going to declare a jihad against the track and take the whole operation elsewhere. Of course not. One horse is not a statement.

But in the case of McKinzie, it makes sense to avoid another gut-busting showdown with what is now the No. 1 ranked colt in the land. A second race like the San Felipe could drain the tanks of both of them before they get to the most important race of their lives. There is not another prep anywhere in which McKinzie would not be an odds-on favorite.

Moreover, Baffert has to find a final prep for Justify, who dazzled again in his entry level allowance tour de force Sunday. But he still has zero Derby points. This means the latest challenger to the curse of Apollo has to finish no worse than second wherever he goes.

Under the circumstances, it might seem foolhardy to stay home and take on the top colt in the land in the Santa Anita Derby. But Baffert still doesn’t fully know what he really has and he has one last chance to find out. If Bolt d’Oro is too much for Justify on April 7, he probably will be too much for him on May 5.

If Justify can’t finish at least second in what doesn’t figure to be a star-studded field beyond Bolt d’Oro, he doesn’t belong in Louisville.

Baffert still would have McKinzie and probably Solomini, who will be heavily favored in the Rebel on Saturday. This affords the trainer the opportunity to regroup with Justify and take the late summer Arrogate-West Coast route the rest of the year.

Elsewhere, the Kentucky Jockey Club looks more and more like the key race of 2017. Quip in the Tampa Bay Derby and Enticed in the Gotham became the fourth and fifth horses to come out of that race and win a Derby prep, following Bravazo in the Risen Star, Promises Fulfilled in the Fountain of Youth and Reride in a couple of stakes wins at Delta Downs and Sunland Park.

This doesn’t mean any of them are ready to topple Bolt d’Or, Mckinzie, Solomini and possibly Justify at Churchill Downs. But there are other big 3-year-old races the rest of the year where anyone coming out of the late season Churchill Downs stakes has to be given extra consideration.

Big Cap is dying

The Santa Anita Handicap has to move.

It’s really sad that what was long one of the most prestigious non-Triple Crown related stakes in racing has been relegated to almost obscurity. Once Santa Anita was packed with 50,000-plus fans for the Big Cap. Saturday, an embarrassing 17,377 fans showed up and it’s not unfair to speculate most braved rain for the Bolt d’Oro-McKinzie showdown in the San Felipe.

There are probably some who don’t even realize the Big Cap was run Saturday. I’ll bet almost everyone, who even casually follows racing, knows what happened in the San Felipe, which was supposed to be an undercard race to the Big Cap.

It has become a nationwide reality that during the winter the best older horses have gone to stud after the Pegasus (Gun Runner), are preparing for the Dubai World Cup (West Coast) or are still prepping for the major summer and fall races (all three Triple Crown winners from last year).

The Big Cap has too major a historical place in racing to be allowed to fade into relative obscurity. It can’t compete with the purses of the Pegasus and World Cup, so continuing to schedule it in March is a fool’s errand.

How about moving it to the Saturday before the Kentucky Derby? There are no other major races anywhere, so there is a void begging to be filled. It is for older horses, so it wouldn’t be competing with the Derby. The Met Mile would still be six weeks off, so you might even grab some hotshots from the East. Surround it with rich sprints and grass stakes for each gender and you would have a big day that would grab the attention of fans everywhere.

This probably would detract somewhat from the Derby’s supporting stakes but what makes the Alysheba and Woodford Reserve sacred cows? Besides, the Oaks and Derby don’t need any support. Also, there’s no love lost between The Stronach Group and Churchill Downs.

Another possibility would be the June slot where the old Hollywood Gold Cup has been repositioned.

No matter what, the Big Cap can’t be left to die where it is.

Miami, March 15, 2018

Written by Tom Jicha

Comments (4)


Thursday, March 08, 2018

Tampa Bay Derby has moved way up among the Derby preps

The Tampa Bay Derby doesn't get the media attention of longer established Kentucky Derby preps but its status has been elevated in recent years by the performance of its winners. Two eventual Derby winners have come out of Oldsmar since 2007 and four of the five past Tampa Bay Derby winners have gone on to take Grade 1 stakes later in their career. The exception, Destin, missed by a nose in the Belmont. So it would be foolhardy to downgrade the result of Saturday's renewal. On a sad note, the death of John Brunetti last week probably ends any hope that Hialeah will ever come back as a thoroughbred track.

Sometimes when you are doing research you find something surprising. Perusing recent history, I was amazed at the impact the Tampa Bay Derby, which will be renewed Saturday, has had on important racing in recent years.

Florida’s other Derby has produced a couple of Kentucky Derby winners since 2007. Street Sense became the first Tampa Bay Derby winner to double in Louisville in 2007. Three years later, Super Saver ran third in Tampa before wearing the roses at Churchill Downs.

This might not seem like a big deal until you compare it to a couple of other much more heralded Derby preps—the Wood Memorial and Blue Grass Stakes. Much has been made of the Wood and Blue Grass being downgraded from Grade 1 to Grade 2 but when you put their results against those of the Tampa Bay Derby, now also a Grade 2, they have nothing to complain about.

Since 2007, the Wood and Blue Grass winners have combined to produce a total of zero Derby triumphs. To be fair, Street Sense did run second at Keeneland after winning at Oldsmar. The last time the Wood produced a Derby winner was in 2003 when Funny Cide, who ran second in New York behind Empire Maker, turned the tables on the first Saturday in May.

The favorable comparisons don’t end with the Kentucky Derby. Every winner of the Tampa Bay Derby over the past five years has gone on to win at least one Grade 1, with the exception of Destin, who took the Marathon at last fall’s Breeders’ Cup and missed by a nose in the 2016 Belmont Stakes. Last year’s Tampa Bay Derby winner, Tapwrit, went him one better, triumphing in the Belmont.

Carpe Diem, who won at Tampa in 2015, encored in the Blue Grass when it was still a Grade 1. Verrazano in 2013 took the Wood, also when it was still a Grade 1, and later captured the Grade 1 Haskell. Ring Weekend went on to be a grass star, taking the Grade 1 Kilroe Mile among many stakes victories.

This year could bring more of the same. Though the centerpiece of the Oldsmar meeting doesn’t have the marquee names of Saturday’s other major Derby preps, the San Felipe and Gotham, the field is heavy with 3-year-olds with big-time potential.

Flameaway, a gutsy wire-to-wire winner of the Sam F. Davis, will try to go back to back and won’t have highly regarded Catholic Boy, who is heading to the Florida Derby, to beat this time. But he isn’t getting a layup. He could be in for a World of Trouble if he tries to make the front again.

Trainer Jason Servis decided to enter speedball sprinter World of Trouble, who won the seven furlong Pasco stakes by 13 ¾ lengths in near track record time. Servis has no illusions that he has a Kentucky Derby horse, but a mile and a sixteenth could be within World of Trouble’s range.

Vino Rosso could be a big beneficiary if there is a break-neck pace. He was third in the Davis in a deceptively strong effort, which saw him re-rallying late to close fast on the top two. He will try to give Todd Pletcher his fifth win in six years in the TB Derby.

Tiz Mischief, third in the Holy Bull, will start for the loaded Dale Romans, who won the Fountain of Youth with Promises Fulfilled and also will send out Free Drop Billy in the Gotham.

The Kentucky Jockey Club didn’t look like much of a race when Tiz Mischief and Enticed trailed Audible and Free Drop Billy home in the Holy Bull. It’s looking a lot better after Promises Fulfilled became the third horse to come out of the late 2017 stakes and win. It could look really good if Tiz Mischief comes up big at Tampa and Enticed, who is expected to run in New York, makes his presence felt in the Gotham.

A live sleeper is Untamed Domain, who will make his long anticipated dirt debut for Graham Motion, who won the 2011 Kentucky Derby with Animal Kingdom. Like Animal Kingdom, Untamed Domain made his 3-year-old debut in a turf race at Gulfstream.

All three Derby preps have terrific supporting cards but it's revealing a bevy of big name jockeys have chose to ride at Oldsmar—Irad and Jose Ortiz, Johnny Velazquez, Joel Rosario, Jose Lezcano, Julien Leparoux and Florent Geroux. It should be quite a day.

West Coast showdown

The San Felipe, with its showdown between Bolt d’Oro and McKinzie, will deservedly get top billing nationally, especially after Good Magic’s disappointing effort in the Fountain of Youth. I’ve always felt Bolt d’Oro was a superior horse, who had a difficult trip in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. I reluctantly gave my Eclipse vote to Good Magic out of respect for the result of their only meeting, excuses notwithstanding.

No disrespect to McKinzie but I expect my instincts to be ratified Saturday. McKinzie is technically undefeated thanks to being put up in the Los Alamitos Derby. However, he was three horses across the track with Solomini and Instilled Regard and I have a hard time believing all three of them are the equal of Bolt d’Oro.

Gotham no easy spot

If the snow goes away in New York, Romans will be hoping to cash an ambitious double with Free Drop Billy. He scratched the likely second choice out of the Fountain of Youth to steer him toward the Gotham then got the money anyway with Promises Fulfilled.

Romans said afterward he wanted to give Free Drop Billy an easier race leading into the final round of preps. If horses could read, this would be bulletin board fodder for Firenze Fire, who looms Billy’s biggest obstacle.

Romans also might have had an eye on NYRA’s decision to kick up the Wood Memorial purse from $750K to $1 million if there is a Grade 1 winner in the field. Billy qualifies as the winner of the Breeders’ Futurity. If he can beat Firenze Fire in the Gotham, there is little reason to believe he couldn’t do it again in the Wood. Discounting the value of Firenze Fire’s races over the new Aqueduct track, I put more stock in Billy’s second to Audible at Gulfstream.

Enticed, who is cross-entered in the Tampa Bay Derby (snow insurance?), also appears to be looking for a less challenging path to Kentucky. I’m not convinced he’s good enough right now to take down two Grade 1 winners.

With Audible, Promises Fulfilled and Catholic Boy headed toward what should be a terrific Florida Derby, Good Magic ticketed for the Blue Grass and Avery Island looking to the Louisiana Derby, Firenze Fire might be the only one in the way of another lucrative Dale Romans parlay in New York.

RIP John Brunetti and Hialeah

John Brunetti Sr., who died last Friday. was an enigma. He could be cantankerous and unreasonable one moment and ultimately charming the next.

He saved Hialeah in 1977, stepping up to buy the track when the only other bidder was the Donn Family, whose plan was to close the “world’s most beautiful race track” and move the dates to their Gulfstream Park. Then he spent the next two decades alienating horsemen and fans, treating both as nuisances.

He was a horsemen himself but he constantly nickeled and dimed the people who made the game go, battling over how much he owed them and habitually paying them late. Yet he was extraordinarily generous to local charities.

When he was in the process of buying Hialeah, he passed himself off as a friend of the players, because, he said, that’s where he came from. He fell in love with Hialeah while a student at the University of Miami. Then he instituted one of the highest takeouts in the nation, as much as 31 percent in some pools.

Nevertheless, I will miss him and so will racing, because as long as he was alive, there was hope, however faint, that Hialeah might come alive again as a thoroughbred mecca. The demolition of Calder raised hopes that Hialeah might be revived to give Gulfstream a necessary breather during the fall.

Randy Soth, a former Hialeah racing secretary and now general manager of the facility, said Friday, “The way he loved this place was obsessive.”

I had the opportunity to interview Brunetti a few years ago when he was launching a quarterhorse meeting, which was nothing more than a means to the end of qualifying for a casino. He made it clear he had no use for the quarterhorses and reiterated his fondest hope was to bring thoroughbreds back to Hialeah.

His sons are more bottom-line oriented and do not share his passion for racing. They argued that rebuilding the stable area, much of which had been ravaged by hurricanes and the rest of which had been torn down, was too expensive an undertaking.

I like to think John Brunetti in his feisty heyday would have over-ruled them. But his health was failing. He underwent triple heart bypass surgery in 1996 and needed a kidney transplant in 2013. More recently he had a cancerous lung removed.

When he died last week, any hope of the track of the flamingos soaring again died with him.

Written by Tom Jicha

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