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, October 12, 2017

Three races to look forward to at the Breeders Cup

The beauty of the Breeders' Cup is every race is a beauty. But some are more beautiful than others. Three weeks out, a trio of Breeders' Cup events stand out for their competitiveness and championship implications: the Classic, the Distaff and the Juvenile. The Classic will almost certainly produce the Horse of the Year, best older dirt horse and perhaps the 3-year-old championship. The Distaff should settle the older Filly & Mare division and likely the 3-year-old filly title. The Juvenile will be an East-West showdown with an Eclipse on the line between a pair of colts, whose breeding and running styles should put them at the top of next year's Kentucky Derby contenders.

The Breeders’ Cup Classic will again serve the role it was created to perform. The winner of the final race of Breeders’ Cup weekend on Nov. 4 will be Horse of the Year.

Every year there is conjecture that if this happens and that happens, someone other than the Classic winner could be awarded racing’s biggest prize. With all the preps out of the way, there is only one such possibility this year and it is a remote one. A highly improbable result in the Classic, something like an Arcangues, coupled with a decisive score by Lady Eli in one of the grass races could shift some votes to the extraordinary filly, who came back from death’s door to the top of the game.

But this is primarily a sympathy fueled fantasy. In the real world, defending champion Arrogate, his Pacific Classic conqueror Collected (who actually has a superior record), NTRA poll leader Gun Runner or late developing 3-year-old West Coast will be Horse of the Year.

That any one of the four would be a worthy champion makes this year’s Classic one of the most anticipated in years. There’s plenty of time to dive into the PP’s but it’s never too soon to begin savoring what might be in the Breeders’ Cup.

The Classic is one of three Breeders’ Cup races I am looking forward to for more than betting purposes. The closer on Friday, the Distaff, is another that will settle at least one title, perhaps two.

Stellar Wind is the filly to beat, especially on her home court. However her undefeated season might be over-rated. She beat five opponents in the Apple Blossom, which was a packed field compared to her other two starts. Only four others went in the Clement Hirsch and she had to beat only two in the Beholder Mile.

(This affords me another opportunity to renew my suggestion that any stakes with fewer than five starters should drop a grade.)

With Forever Unbridled shipping in off her big win in the Personal Ensign at Saratoga, the Distaff will have East-West implications. Unfortunately, Forever Unbridled has been raced even more sparingly than Stellar Wind, with only a pair of 2017 starts, both wins. But in the Personal Ensign she did something Stellar Wind was unable to do in last season’s Distaff. She ran down Songbird.

Adding to the appeal of the Distaff is the presence of two crack 3-year-olds, Kentucky Oaks champion Abel Tasman and Elate. Abel Tasman got the money by the narrowest of margins when they met in the Coaching Club American Oaks. However, the way she did it, intimidating Elate on the rail for almost an eighth of a mile, left many feeling the result should have been reversed by the stewards.

Subsequent results bolster the argument that the best horse didn’t get the CCAO trophy. Elate spread-eagled the field in the Alabama, which took on more significance when runner up It Tiz Well rebounded to put away Abel Tasman in the Cotillion. Elate followed her Alabama triumph by devastating older fillies in the Beldame. The outcome of their rematch in the Distaff will be a race within the race for 3-year filly honors.

What’s more, it’s not a stretch to say Paradise Woods could steal the title if she comes up big. She buried Abel Tasman in the Santa Anita Oaks and, after two lackluster efforts, ran away with the Grade 1 Zenyatta.

It’s too bad the Distaff is relegated to the Friday card. It deserves a place on Saturday’s main stage.

Bolt d’Oro was virtually conceded the BC Juvenile, Eclipse championship and early favoritism for the 2018 Kentucky Derby off his crushing wins in the Del Mar Futurity and Front Runner.

Then Free Drop Billy, who gave every indication in the Sanford and Hopeful he would get better as the distances get longer, delivered on that promise in the Breeders’ Futurity. Of course, Bolt d’Oro, by Medaglia d’Oro out of an AP Indy mare, also is bred to go the distance and seemed to get stronger with every additional yard in the Front Runner, his first two-turn try.

Dale Romans was in this position a year ago with Not This Time, who hooked eventual Eclipse winner Classic Empire. Not This Time, called by Romans the most talented horse he ever trained, came up second best but was gaining ground late. He never got the chance to build on that due to a career-ending injury.

Maybe This Time?

Pegasus still uncertain

Getting briefly back to Arrogate, the announcement that the BC Classic will be his final race before beginning his stud career at Juddmonte U.S. is good news and bad news for the $16 million Pegasus.

The bad news is the world’s richest race loses a star attraction. The good news is this might influence some fence-sitters to ante up and take their shot, especially if Arrogate reverts to his form of a year ago and uncorks a runaway win.

Without Arrogate and the other main contenders being shown to be vulnerable—if they even come to Gulfstream off disappointing efforts--the Pegasus’s $7 million top prize would look more attainable.

The immediate aftermath of the Breeders’ Cup is going to be a crucial period for the Pegasus. Whether only four are currently signed on, as the Racing Form has reported, or there are seven, as Tim Ritvo told me, the field is still well short of the quorum demanded by its exorbitant purse structure. The days after the Breeders’ Cup are when owners and trainers will decide whether they will keep their horses in training with the Pegasus in mind or take a break to prepare for next season.

What has been unthinkable, The Stronach Group being forced to cancel the Pegasus for lack of support, is now far from a longshot.

Getting DQ’s right

Stewards have made adjudication of objections and inquiries into a maddening event for horse players. A foul at Belmont isn’t at Santa Anita. A horse might be taken down at Gulfstream but left up at Keeneland for the exact same action.

The International Federation of Horse Racing Authorities has taken an admirable step to eradicate the inconsistencies. The IFHA executive board has issued a set of reasonable and easily understood guidelines for when a horse should or shouldn’t be disqualified.

If a horse or jockey causes interference and finishes in front of the horse interfered with there shall be no disqualification if, in the opinion of the stewards, the horse who committed the offense would have finished in front of the horse fouled in any case.

However, if the horse fouled would have finished in front of the horse who bothered him, in the opinion of the stewards, there shall be a reversal.

One exception is a disqualification can be ordered if a jockey has behaved recklessly. I might quarrel with this, arguing in favor of a hefty fine or suspension rather than punishing the bettors.

However, the other suggestions make so much sense they should be adopted immediately by every jurisdiction in the world.

What do you suppose are the chances of that happening?

Miami, Oct. 12, 2017

Written by Tom Jicha

Comments (28)


Thursday, October 05, 2017

What about star power drives sports does racing not understand?

The Breeders' Cup is one of the best things to happen in racing. Unfortunately, it has led to many of the sports most tradition laden and richest stakes, such as this Saturday's Jockey Club Gold Cup, to be treated as if they didn't exist. The BC isn't to blame. It's the fault of extremely conservative training methods by some of the sport's biggest names, who act as if they owe the game nothing. But the biggest event of this weekend and the next month is the players' boycott of Keeneland to protest greedy and unnecessary takeout hikes. Follow the lead of Ken Ramsey, an owner and a player: Don't bet a dime on Keeneland.

Star power drives sports and entertainment, both of which apply to racing. Yet many of the game’s biggest stars will not have been seen for two months or more while awaiting the Breeders’ Cup.

It isn’t because race tracks haven’t offered lucrative incentives to get them out of the barn into the entries. Belmont distributed $1,450,000 in stakes money last Saturday. NYRA will give away another $1,850,000 this weekend.

Santa Anita hung out $1,500,000 last Saturday and another $200,000 on Sunday in a series of stakes geared toward corresponding Breeders’ Cup races. Another $400,000 will be distributed this coming weekend.

Keeneland’s Fall Weekend of Stars is offering $3,000,000 between Friday and Sunday.

That’s more than $8,000,000. Yet there was no sign of Arrogate, Collected, Gun Runner, Lady Eli, Stellar Wind, Forever Unbridled, Lady Aurelia, Drefong and other big names even casual racing fans would recognize. A fan who wanted to see them had to get up early for morning workouts.

This is a major contributing factor to why there were oceans of empty seats in Elmont and Arcadia last weekend and likely will be again this weekend. Keeneland is a special case. Fans go there for the place as much as the race. Its limited three-week seasons are the outdoor highlights of the year in Lexington. The next biggest thing is University of Kentucky football. (Please hold your laughter.)

Bob Baffert, Todd Pletcher, Chad Brown and Steve Asmussen, to name just a few of the sport’s big name trainers, have become incredibly rich in racing yet their actions suggest they feel they owe nothing back.

I don’t want to hear they’re doing what’s best for their horses. That’s what comes out of a horse’s rear end. If horses need two or three months off between starts we might as well shut down the game. Of course, they don't. Voodoo Song won four races in six weeks at Saratoga, capped by the Grade 3 Saranac Stakes.

Conservative training methods trace to religious adherence to the sheets and their dubious bounce philosophy. The sheets (I include all of them) are racing’s version of Moneyball. The Oakland A’s were the poster children for Moneyball, a non-traditional way of running a baseball team. You know how many pennants the A’s have won since adopting Moneyball? None.

Moneyball is useful to a point. So are the sheets. They’re the best handicapping tools to come along in years but are no way to manage horses. But this is what’s happening to the detriment of the sport.

There’s a way to combat this. If the big horses are not going to run in the major fall races, cut these events down to size. Top out the prize money at no more than $200,000—and this might be overly generous. You’ll still get the kinds of fields they are drawing now, horses owned and trained by people who are so old fashioned that they still think the purpose of racing is racing.

The Keeneland boycott is on

Ken Ramsey wins Keeneland owners titles as regularly as the Harlem Globetrotters beat the Washington Generals. So he would be a prime beneficiary of purse increases. He also bets with both fists, so any increase in takeout is money out of his pocket.

It was the latter that led him to go on an unsolicited rant on Los Angeles radio this past August over Keeneland’s announcement that it is raising the takeout on straight bets from 16% to 17.50% and the rake on exotics from 19% to 22%.

At quick glance, this might seem like a point and a half increase in the win-place-show pools and three percent in the others. No big deal. But it is a huge deal. In fact, it is almost a 10% jump in the former pools and almost 16% in the latter. This is money taken directly out of players’ pockets.

Ramsey urged bettors to rise up as one voice and resist this example of “corporate greed.” He said players should join him and not bet a dime on the Keeneland meeting, which opens Friday. He said the ones who will be hurt most are “$2 players, the backbone of the racing industry.”

The whales won’t feel a thing because they’ll continue to get their rebates. You might even say the increase on the small players is actually going to help offset the kickbacks to the heavy hitters.

Keeneland says the increased revenue (on the misguided assumption there will be an increase) will be used to increase purses. Ramsey said Keeneland has plenty of money from the enormous revenue generated by its thoroughbred auctions as well as its betting handle.

As I mentioned above, Keeneland is giving away $3,750,000 in stakes this weekend. Does this sound like a track that needs to put its hands into the pockets of its customers to bump up purses even more?

It's more likely the increase is to put Keeneland on a par with Churchill Downs, its new best friend. The two were recently thwarted in a combined bid to open sham harness and quarterhorse meetings designed solely to undermine Kentucky Downs and its low takeout structure.

Moreover, history teaches that the elevated takeout will be counter-productive. When Churchill Downs raised its rates in 2014 to the levels Keeneland is instituting, a bettors’ boycott caused handle to decline 25% outside Derby and Oaks Days. This led to a 20% decrease in purses.

The Keeneland takeout hike has united players like nothing before. HANA (Horseplayers Association of North America) is championing the boycott as are many cyber racing sites, including Horse Race Insider. It could be argued that this is the most important concerted action in racing history, bettors’ red line in the sand. If Keeneland gets away with this increase, other tracks will be emboldened to raise takeouts whenever the whim strikes them.

Keeneland is a tough meeting to pass because of the quality of its racing. You know what they say, “No pain, no gain.”

It is also an easy meet to skip because it’s only three weeks. The stakes-laden cards this weekend are alluring as ever. But there also is an outstanding card at Belmont, so there is an attractive alternative to Keeneland.

If Keeneland takes a huge hit—the ideal would be one so substantial it will cause purses to be cut—that will be noticed, too, by other tracks and maybe another boycott will never be necessary.

Miami, Oct. 5, 2017

Written by Tom Jicha

Comments (16)


Thursday, September 28, 2017

A turf specialist as 3YO champion? Not on my ballot

Racing's glamor division, 3-year-old males, is still without a clear leader. Kentucky Derby winner Always Dreaming and late season sensation West Coast probably have the inside track with a pair of Grade 1 wins apiece. Turf specialist Oscar Performance could become the only sophomore with a trio of Grade 1 scores in Saturday's Joe Hirsch Turf Classic. Some argue this would make him a candidate for the 3-year-old Eclipse. Also, there is concern in some circles that the new relaxed IRS rules will bring about the elimination of low cost exotic wagers.

Here we go again. It was only a few years ago that the hot debate in racing circles was whether Wise Dan deserved the Eclipse Award as Best Older Horse since his sparkling record was achieved on the grass. In 2015, after Wise Dan prevailed with Eclipse voters, the award was reclassified to Best Older Dirt Horse, since there already was a Best Grass Horse category.

This year the same issues could resurface in the 3-year-old male division. Always Dreaming would seem to have the inside track because all other things being equal, the Kentucky Derby is and should be the tiebreaker.

In spite of West Coast’s late-season heroics, which are not as impressive as Arrogate last year but are getting closer, he and Always Dreaming have the same number of Grade 1 wins, two. Meanwhile, Oscar Performance also has a pair of Grade 1’s, both on grass, and could ring up a third Saturday in the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic against older rivals, something neither Always Dreaming and West Coast have even attempted.

Call me a hypocrite—I prefer flexible--but I’ve shifted positions. I advocated and voted for Wise Dan under the logic that he had done more than any of his dirt rivals. I’m on the other side this time. Oscar Performance will not get my vote even if the score is 3-2-2.

Three-year-old racing is all about main track Derbys, the classic in Kentucky, its preps and follow-ups, including the Travers, the Midsummer Derby. Oscar Performance might change my thinking if he were to win Saturday then take the Breeders’ Cup Turf or Mile. But I can’t say that for sure. Right now I would still lean the other way.

West Coast could put all the arguments to rest with a win in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. However, Bob Baffert said after Saturday’s decisive triumph in the Pennsylvania Derby that West Coast might not even go in the Classic.

This is not a typical case of a trainer hedging weeks out from a big race. Baffert already has two of the three horses to beat in the Classic, Arrogate and Collected. (Gun Runner, of course, is the other.) Baffert also could start Cupid, who won the Gold Cup at Santa Anita at the Classic’s 10-furlong distance.

Right now West Coast is probably in no worse than a deadheat with Always Dreaming, who is on the shelf, for divisional honors. An off-the-board performance in the Classic, which considering who West Coast would be up against is far from a longshot, could tip the scales back toward Always Dreaming—or inject Oscar Performance into the conversation.

Unintended consequences

Talk about buzz kills. Just when I was celebrating along with other horse players the long overdue revision in IRS withholding policy on payoffs of more than 300-1, a couple of people whose opinions I respect took the fizz out of my champagne.

HRI contributor Indulto and Andy Asaro, the West Coast-based champion of players’ rights, both suggested the new regulations might have unintended consequences for small and medium bettors. Their view is the new IRS policy could signal the beginning of the end of fractional wagers—10-cent supers, 50-cent tri’s, pick 3’s, 4’s and 5’s and 20-cent Rainbow 6’s.

One of the catalysts for the low-priced wagers was to help players avoid IRS hits. The threshold for reporting was 300-1, a product of the $600 personal deduction the IRS granted tax payers for decades. The $600 deduction has been raised many times to reflect inflation but $602 (including the cost of the bet) remained the bar for “signers.” Indeed, it endures even under the new regulations.

So a player could hit a 599-1 proposition on a $1 wager and even greater odds on lesser bets and not have to report it. The new rules take into account the total cost of the wager instead of treating a winning combination as the only one that counts for tax purposes. This would seem to mitigate against the need for fractional bets.

However, lesser minimum bets turned out to have other benefits. The primary one is it brings fans with limited bankrolls into pools they otherwise would snub. This is not a debatable point. At every track where there are $1 or less pick 3’s and pick 4’s, they out-handle $2 pick 6’s by a three to four to one or more ratio.

Even with the original and for a long time only exotic, the daily double, a $1 minimum in New York far out-handles the $2 minimum version in Southern California.

The pig-headed hierarchy in California fails to accept that players aren’t spending only the minimum, they are playing more combinations and often spending more money under the perception they are getting more bang for their buck.

There’s also the issue of bringing new people into the game. The less expensive a day at the track is, the more inviting it is likely to be. Young people have less disposable income than ever due to student loan burdens and the fiscal strain of supporting a family. If they’re able to participate in a day at the races without busting their budget and enjoy the experience they are more likely to return when their financial situation improves.

Ergo, it would be incredibly short-sighted for tracks to use the relaxed IRS regulations as an excuse to increase the minimum costs of bets. This is why I'm so worried.

Miami, Sept. 28

Written by Tom Jicha

Comments (13)


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