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, August 17, 2017

What to do with Arrogate a horseplayer’s dilemma

Arrogate was regarded as the best horse in the world less than a month ago and it was all but impossible to find anyone who would argue with that assessment. Then he fired a bummer for the ages at 1-20. He'll be prohibitively short again Saturday in the Pacific Classic. The old Arrogate is worth any price. But will we see the old Arrogate? No one, including Bob Baffert, especially Bob Baffert, has an explanation for what happened in the San Diego Handicap.This adds intrigue to a race that looked until July 22 to be a million dollar public workout.

Can’t play him, can’t play against him, although the latter might be the more prudent course.

This is the dilemma facing horse players regarding Arrogate in Saturday’s $1 million Pacific Classic. Based on his overall body of work, Arrogate should be 1-20, as he was in the San Diego Handicap a month ago. Based on his San Diego dud, beaten more than 15 lengths, he should be 20-1.

Almost every horse throws in a clunker now and then. Arrrogate’s effort on July 22 went far beyond this. It was downright horrendous, so terrible it raises questions about his physical and mental state. Is there some undetectable ailment bothering him? Has he soured on racing?

Bob Baffert dove on his sword, saying he might have sent out a short horse, who was racing for the first time since his had-to-be-seen-to-be-believed triumph in Dubai. This was a trainer, who uncharacteristically doesn’t have a clue what happened, protecting his horse’s reputation. If there is one thing Baffert doesn’t do, it’s send out short horses. Nobody drills his stock harder. Moreover, he said many times before the San Diego that Arrogate was ready to do his thing.

Second verse, same as the first: Baffert said Arrogate is back to his old self after his final Pacific Classic workout on Monday, four furlongs in 47.60. “He just cruised around. We’re set.”

You have to think Baffert believes this. Arrogate, at least before the San Diego, was headed for a career at stud as the horse Baffert said in Dubai is the greatest since Secretariat. This would include his Triple Crown winner American Pharoah.

Anything less than one of Arrogate’s stellar efforts on Saturday could send him to the stud barn severely tarnished goods. He’ll still be in demand but it won’t be the same. Moreover, another disappointing race almost surely will be his last. It’s doubtful the sheiks would risk a third strike on his resume.

They shouldn’t. If Arrogate can’t crush the modest bunch he’s scheduled to face, it would make little sense to keep him in training for the Breeders’ Cup Classic, where the opposition, including the constantly improving Gun Runner, will be a lot more daunting.

There is an appealing alternative: “the other Baffert,” Collected.” It’s not like we haven’t seen that show before.

The new stoopers

The advances of technology generally come with a new set of problems. Self automated betting terminals are the greatest innovation since all-denomination, all-pools betting drove $2, $5 and $10 win-place-show windows into extinction.

Unfortunately they have also created a new breed of stoopers, the desperate band of down-and-out losers, who used to pick up discarded mutual tickets then check them against the results in the hope someone threw away a winning ticket.

SAM machines have taken most of the work out of this, a point driven home during my week at Saratoga. I’ve been a habituate of the Top of the Stretch since my first visit many years ago. These days the only way to bet in this area is via a SAM machine.There are no human tellers.

The new stoopers tie up these machines by taking stacks of discarded tickets and running them through the machines one by one, where the legend “ticket not a winner” pops up again and again.

I’ve seen these people doing the same thing at Gulfstream but not in the numbers I experienced at the Spa, where SAM machines are not plentiful near the Top of the Stretch. Worse, these inconsiderate losers don’t care if there are long lines of anxious bettors, who they might shut out.

I don’t know what the solution would be. Perhaps something like some cell phones where you get three tries at your password, then it locks. Maybe after “ticket not a winner” goes up three times in a row, the machine could freeze until an attendant unlocks it. But this might be a solution worse than the problem when it comes to bettors getting shut out.

Another idea might be for a flashing red light to activate until someone puts in a legitimate winning ticket or voucher. Unfortunately, from what I experienced at Saratoga, these new stoopers are shameless.

The floor is open for suggestions.

It had to be said

Stuart Janney closed the annual Jockey Club Round Table with an indictment of racing’s inability to clean its own house.

Hallelujah! What took so long?

Keying off the recent scandals in Pennsylvania, where trainer Murray Rojas was found guilty by a federal jury of 14 charges of drugging horses and related offenses, Janney said, “What happened in Pennsylvania recently is disgraceful and sad…Uncontradicted testimony described widespread, in fact nearly universal cheating, regulators asleep on the job and a corrupted and ineffectual testing system.”

One of Rojas’s colleagues, a several times leading trainer at Penn National, testified under oath that about 98 percent of the trainers at the track cheat.

The dispiriting aspect of this is Janney is the first racing figure of note to take off on this. Cyber racing sites, such as Horse Race Insider, have become the new conscience and watchdog of racing.

Janney said that what happened in Pennsylvania gives all of racing a black eye. “It suggests strongly that similar problems lurk in many other jurisdictions.” You think?

He also blasted the HBPA, whose actions in the Rojas case merit all the scorn that can be mustered. “What about the HBPA’s role in all this? Could we have expected them to marshall their resources to represent all the horsemen who have been wronged by cheaters? We all know that the HBPA’s Legal Defense Fund was used to help fund Murray Rojas’ defense. Their stated reason is a disgrace and will end up producing the exact result that they so wished to prevent, the intervention by the federal government to clean up racing.”

It also leads—my words, not Janney’s—to a perception that horsemen not only condone cheating, they support it.

What someone of Janney’s stature said is long overdue. Alas, I can’t help thinking of the irreverent adage, “When all is said and done, more will be said than done.”

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, August 10, 2017

High and low points of a week at the Spa

The Saratoga experience remains scintillating with the only downer NYRA, which gets tens of millions of dollars from the Aqueduct casino, not sharing any of the windfall with fans. To the contrary, it continues to nickel and dime (or $5 and $10) customers with unjustified price hikes. Meanwhile, Gun Runner is the latest champion to prove that Saratoga's reputation as the Graveyard of Favorites is more myth than reality.

NYRA displayed an internet poll on who would win the Whitney on the infield tote board during last Saturday’s card. Keen Ice was the overwhelming favorite with something like 53%. Gun Runner had, as I recall, 29 percent. The rest was spread among the others.

My immediate reaction was "Oh please, let it be so." Any price above even-money on Gun Runner would be stealing money. Alas, these internet opinions, like most such exercises, were worth what they cost to express: nothing.

When the only opinions that matter were registered at the mutual windows, Gun Runner was 3-5, as he deserved to be, and Keen Ice was approximately six times as long at about 3-1.

Gun Runner justified the public confidence with a business-like romp. Keen Ice did what he usually does, closing just well enough to encourage his fans that next time will be the one when he wins for the fourth time in four years.

A jubilant Steve Asmussen seemed ready to take on Arrogate, the only horse ranked higher than Gun Runner in the NTRA poll. Arrogate crushed Gun Runner by about 15 in last season's Travers. The margin decreased to only two lengths when they next met in Dubai.

"We're getting closer," Asmussen crowed. He had a point if you overlook one small detail. The margin in the Middle East was as close as it was because Arrogate broke behind the field and spotted Gun Runner, who had clear sailing, double digit lengths. Arrogate still ran past Gun Runner so easily that Florent Geroux couldn’t believe it.

A trainer should brag on his horse, especially one as exceptional as Gun Runner. But the only way Gun Runner ever beats Arrogate is if the Arrogate of the San Diego Handicap, not the one of the Travers, Breeders' Cup, Pegasus and World Cup shows up.We'll get an indication of which way Arrogate is headed in the Pacific Classic next weekend.

Gun Runner's triumph put another puncture wound in the myth of Saratoga being the Graveyard of Favorites, which is more urban legend than reality. Sure, Triple Crown winners American Pharoah, Secretariat and Gallant Fox were toppled at the Spa. Going way back, Man O War went down to a horse who gave coinage to the term Upset.

However, year in and year out the percentage of winning favorites at the Spa is among the highest in the nation and also stands up on the grandest stages. In addition to Gun Runner's tour de force, the week I spent there saw favorites win four of the five features. Carina Mia took the Shine Again; Green Mask won the Troy and Hard Study get home first in the Birdstone. The lone non-favorite feature winner was Bricks and Mortar in the Hall of Fame. He was the 4-1 third choice.

Earlier in the season, Abel Tasman was a prompt favorite in the Coaching Club American Oaks and Lady Eli came through in the Diana.

Cigar had his 16-race winning streak snapped at Del Mar and Arrogate imploded there this season but no one calls Del Mar the Graveyard of Favorites. Some perspective, please.

It was a great week at the Spa, as it always is. Some highlights and lowlights:

Wednesday—There are few feelings as exhilarating as making the turn off Exit 14 of the Northway onto Union Avenue. Unfortunately, the reality of Christopher Kay’s stewardship provided an instant slap in the face.

The first parking lot encountered, the one by the backstretch rec hall, used to be part of the free general parking. Now it is $10 weekdays, $12 Saturdays except Whitney and Travers Day, when it is $15. This was the first of several such developments.

Carina Mia did take care of business but it wasn’t easy as one racing publication headline indicated. She was all out to beat Chad Brown barn-mate Going for Broke by a neck. The Shine Again was a prep for bigger races in the fall but Carina Mia will have to be a lot better to compete with the caliber of fillies and mares she is destined to face.

Todd Pletcher hasn’t been dominating the juvenile races this season and last as he had in years past but he unveiled a potential goodie, March X Press, in the day’s finale, a turf sprint. March X Press was left so badly, if she hadn’t uncorked a breath-taking surge from last to first, there might have been a stewards’ inquiry of the start. Put this New York-bred on your horses to watch list.

Thursday—Not a happy nor otherwise noteworthy day. Fall Colors broke down in the jump race and had to be euthanized and Munjaz suffered a similar fate in the featured Birdstone. They were the third and fourth fatal mishaps of the early season. Amazingly PETA pickets have yet to appear.

Friday—If there is a bigger money-burner in racing than Switzerland, it escapes me. In her first three starts, she went off at 2-5 at Gulfstream, 4-5 at Keeneland and 2-5 at Belmont. He came out of them still a maiden. He did it again at Saratoga, going off at 4-5 and failing to hit the board.

It’s my custom to buy a copy of the next day’s Post Parade past performance magazine for $5 every day as I leave the track. “That’s $6,” the woman at the stand said, looking at my $5 bill as if it had EPV.

“Why? It’s $5 every other day.”

“It’s $6 on Saturdays,” she said with disdain. There’s a simple reason why NYRA bumped up the price. It’s because it can.

Saturday—NYRA’s security staff became the TSA. In addition to the usual screening of coolers for bottles, fans had to pass through metal screening devices after emptying their pockets of anything that might set them off.

It’s hard to quarrel with enhanced security these days but this made little sense since these measures were in force only on Saturday. What is NYRA’s thinking? We’ll allow terrorists to take out 15,000-20,000 people on other days but not 30,000 on Whitney Day?

Chairman Kay is missing an opportunity. NYRA might as well sell every picnic table on big days rather than the limited number now up for sale. The security guards have their own little racket going. I got to the Top of the Stretch at 11 a.m. during a drenching rain storm. There wasn’t a soul in sight but every table was already taken. I went to the back yard and it was the same deal.

Coincidentally (or not) almost every table was covered by the same bright red table cloth. A woman, who heard me bitching out loud and seemed to know what she was talking about, contributed, “I was here at 6:30 and they were all taken. The guards do it before the gates open for fans who give them big tips.”

Sunday—Hopefully, we have seen the last of Mohaymen. How a horse with such unlimited potential went so bad so fast remains a mystery and probably will remain that way. Kieran McLaughlin admitted he entered him as an MTO in a Saturday turf race, hoping to fall into an easy spot if the race came off the grass, which the weather forecast indicated was a strong possibility.

The predicted rain tailed off by post time and Mohaymen’s race stayed on the grass. McLaughlin’s fallback was the restricted Alydar Stakes with a five-horse field on Sunday but it was to no avail. Mohaymen wound up getting distanced, which had to be an embarrassment to his connections. Afterward, McLaughlin indicated Mohaymen was being sent off the track to a farm. Let’s hope he stays there until someone who wants to breed the multiple stakes winner steps up.

Rick Violette unveiled a 2-year-old filly to be watched, Honey Graeme, in a salty maiden dash. The tipoff the first-timer had ability came in the daily double possibilities, where she was in a virtual deadheat with a touted Pletcher filly, History Supreme, who had gone off 4-5 in her debut.

The same pattern held in the race betting. History Supreme went off a slight favorite with Honey Graeme the close second choice. The race wasn’t this close. Honey Graeme went right to the front, fought off a succession of challengers and drew off at the end.

One of the peripheral fun aspects of Saratoga is trying to identify 2-year-olds with a future. Honey Graeme looks to be one of those.

Monday—NYRA tried to extend Whitney weekend by staging a T-shirt giveaway on a weekday. There might have been more people than on a normal Monday but judging from the mountains of huge cardboard boxes still unopened at the Top of the Stretch distribution area, the turnout didn’t approach what was hoped for.

The latest fleecing of customers came when NYRA announced that advance grandstand admission for Travers Day could be obtained for a “bargain” $10, instead of the $15 tariff on the day of the race. So in a short span under Kay, Travers admission has increased from $5 to $10 to $15.

This is outrageous when NYRA is being endowed with tens of millions of dollars from the casino at Aqueduct. It has been an unwarranted windfall for NYRA and horsemen but fans, who make the wheel turn, have not gotten a single benefit.

Nevertheless, I can't wait to get back next year.

Saratoga, Aug. 10, 2017

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, August 03, 2017

Gun Runner can restore some normalcy to a crazy season

Champions and would-be champions have been disappointing at an alarming rate the past few months. Arrogate threw in the biggest clunker. Derby and Preakness winners Always Dreaming and Cloud Computing, respectively, came up wanting in the Jim Dandy last Saturday. Songbird has not returned to her dominant ways as a juvenile and 3-year-old. Drefong kissed off Mike Smith in the Pat O'Brien. In this atmosphere, Gun Runner will have every chance to improve his status in the Whitney on Saturday. But the way things have been going this year, it's caveat emptor.

The highest level of racing has become like the highest level of government: totally chaotic.

Horse of the Planet Arrogate decided to take the day off in his first start after seeming invincible in the three richest races in the world. If ever a horse were entitled to forgiveness for having one bad day, it's Arrogate.

But I was at Saratoga the day Lady's Secret suddenly decided she didn't want to race anymore and I was watching on TV when Life at Ten did the same thing in the Breeders' Cup Distaff. Arrogate's San Diego Handicap looked eerily similar. He didn't just get beat, he didn't run at all.

Arrogate's latest workout convinced Bob Baffert that the old Arrogate is back but a workout is not a race. As I recall, Baffert was just as high on Arrogate's works going into the San Diego. We'll find out in the Pacific Classic.

Songbird has been like Madonna this season, still good but no longer indisputably No. 1. Stellar Wind has become her Lady Gaga.

Drefong decided last Saturday in his return to the races from last November's smashing win in the Breeders' Cup Sprint that he wants to be a solo act this year. He dumped his partner Mike Smith right after the start of the Pat O'Brien.

The 3-year-old division reminds me of a line from a Grade B movie of long ago, "The D.I," starring Jack "Dragnet" Webb, Playing a Marine drill instructor frustrated by the lack of cohesion of his latest squad of recruits, Webb's character barked, "You guys aren't even a mob. A mob has a leader."

In the wake of upsets in last weekend's JIm Dandy and Haskell, this year's crop of sophomores isn't even a mob. The five most recent important races for 3-year-olds have been won by five different horses, a pattern that also showed itself last spring.

The most encouraging aspect of last weekend was the emergence of Good Samaritan as possibly this season's Arrogate, a previously overlooked late season developer, who could wind up exceeding the stars of the Triple Crown trail
Good Samaritan was off radar screens because he had previously been exclusively a turf horse. Bill Mott explained that it wasn't because Good Samaritan seemed superior on grass. It was because the colt was crying out for distance and the best opportunities were in the infield. Mott said he and Good Samaritan's people were waiting for the right spot for his main track debut and it turned into quite a coming-out party.

Racing lives off precedence and there is a grand one for a young turf horse morphing into a dirt superstar--Cigar. The Travers will be a revealing indicator if Good Samaritan is on his way to that kind of career or whether he was just a one-race flash in the pan, who took advantage of the Jim Dandy falling apart in front of him.

Gun Runner, who jockey Florent Geroux says keeps getting better, can restore some normalcy to the older horse division and perhaps launch a campaign to overtake Arrogate in Saturday's Whitney. The No. 2 horse in the NTRA weekly poll and the No.3 in the Longines World Poll will have no excuses against a demonstrably inferior group of six opponents.

Then again, Arrogate loomed a layover in the San Diego and Songbird had to run her guts out to take the Delaware Handicap against a band of fillies with nothing approaching her credentials.

The most logical challenger to Gun Runner, Keen Ice, will be trying to win his second race in four weeks after winning only twice in 22 months. Significantly, his only two wins since his maiden-breaker have come over a mile and a quarter. The Whitney is a mile and an eighth. He's just as strong a proposition to hit the board as Gun Runner is to finish first but winning is another matter. It would take similar circumstances to the Jim Dandy, the race going to pieces in the stretch.

Keen Ice has tried Gun Runner in Dubai and the U.S. several times without success. However, he pulled Saratoga's biggest upset of this millennium, racing past American Pharoah in the 2015 Travers, so he'll probably be only in the 3-1 range. Not a dime of my money will contribute to that.

Chilean Tu Brutus will take some action off the 118 Beyer--arguably the phoniest number in the history of the Figs-- he was given in the Excelsior when he finished second to Send It In.

War Story comes in off a win in the Brooklyn but he wasn't beating any Gun Runners that day. On the other hand, he's trained by miracle worker Jorge Navarro, who upset the Vanderbilt with El Deal last week. This was no surprise to regulars of Gulfstream and Monmouth, who are used to Navarro moving up horses like almost no one else.

Dean Reeves, owner of Canadian invader Breaking Lucky, who chased Gun Runner home in the Foster and Clark, summed up the situation. "I'm hoping that crazy things happen on Saturday."

That's what it will take.

Big day at Gulfstream

If you're at a simulcast site Saturday, you might want to pay some attention to the card at Gulfstream.

The first round of the 2017 Sire Stakes anchors the program. This series for Florida-breds produced Three Rules last year and champions Big Drama and Awesome Feather to name just a couple of important horses who have emerged in previous years.

Of more immediate importance. Gunnevera is scheduled to make his return to the races in a prep for the Travers. With the 3-year-old division in such disarray. the late running colt is not a horse to overlook, especially at a mile and a quarter.

Saratoga Springs, Aug. 3

Written by Tom Jicha

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