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 24, 2016

Don’t doubt the Uncle Mo’s will go the distance, Amoss says

Uncle Mo is turning out to be as brilliant a sire as he was a race horse. But he never won beyond a mile and sixteenth, so there are questions about the stamina of his offspring, including Breeders' Cup and Eclipse champion Nyquist as well as Mo Tom, the favorite for Saturday's Louisiana Derby. Each of them will stretch to a mile and an eighth in their final Derby preps and Tom Amoss, trainer of Mo Tom, predicts they will pass these tests and the one on the first Saturday in May with no problems.

MIAMI, March 24, 2016--Nyquist didn’t leave many unanswered questions during his brilliant juvenile campaign. He broke his maiden at five furlongs, won stakes at 6 ½ and seven furlongs, stretched out around two turns and won a Grade 1 then overcame a horrendous trip to complete his undefeated season in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.

However there is one question he didn’t get an opportunity to confront, What will happen when he’s challenged by the Classic distances, although it was pointed out by many with only slight exaggeration that he was so wide around both turns in the BC Juvenile that he might have covered a mile and a quarter.

Skepticism about Nyquist’s distance limitations traces to his lineage. His sire, Uncle Mo, was as dominant a 2-year-old as Nyquist was. But Uncle Mo never won beyond a mile and a sixteenth. His four-race unbeaten streak was snapped the first time he attempted nine furlongs in the Wood Memorial. Later he bombed out entirely in the mile-and-a-quarter BC Classic. Moreover, Uncle Mo’s sire, Indian Charlie, is regarded as producing offspring at their best at not much more than a mile.

Tom Amoss has advice for those who harbor doubts about Uncle Mo producing horses who can win at Classic distances. Relax. “I think Uncle Mo is going to turn out to be one of those sires like Storm Cat and Tapit,” he said on an NTRA conference call. “I really think he’s brilliant.“

The facts so far back him. Uncle Mo was the leading first crop sire last year with seven stakes winners, including Eclipse champion Nyquist. As 2-year-olds, his sons and daughters didn’t get a chance to try extended distances but Amoss is confident they will acquit themselves well as sophomores, including at Classic distances. “I think they are going to excel and that’s a question we’re going to put to put to bed after the first Saturday in May.”

Amoss has first-hand knowledge about the get of Uncle Mo. He conditions Mo Tom, the likely favorite for Saturday’s Louisiana Derby, who, to this point, looks to be the best Uncle Mo not named Nyquist. Even though Mo Tom ran third to Gun Runner in the Risen Star, he’s the morning line favorite over Gun Runner in the Louisiana Derby.

Amoss hasn’t always been an Uncle Mo fan. Serving in his moonlighting duty as a TVG analyst for the Breeders’ Cup workout show, he graded one of Uncle Mo’s works an F. “I didn’t like the way he was going.” A livid Mike Repole, owner of Uncle Mo, came on the show and graded Amoss’ opinion an F, Amoss recalled with a laugh.

Amoss wasn’t high on Uncle Mo’s son Nyquist’s chances in the BC Juvenile, either. It wasn’t his pedigree but his style of running that bothered him. Nyquist’s smashing victory made him a convert. “He’s a great horse.”

Amoss not only likes the chances of his Uncle Mo colt on Saturday in Louisiana, he’s strong on Nyquist in the titanic Florida Derby showdown with Mohaymen on April 2. “(Nyquist) has been pretty quiet in his 3-year-old year. The only race he’s run is the one-turn race at Santa Anita (the San Vicente). So, he hasn’t made a lot of noise. But I think he’s going to make some noise when he runs in the Florida Derby.”

He isn’t among those who question the wisdom of Nyquist taking on another undefeated colt like Mohaymen in their final Derby prep, especially with a $1 million bonus at stake. “When I first saw he was going to Florida for that race, I didn’t understand it. Now that I understand there’s a million dollar bonus on the line for him should he win it, it makes a lot more sense. I’m not a believer that your last Derby prep should be the easiest race. I’m a believer that competition toughens your horse and makes him better for the next start.”

The thought that Nyquist and Mohaymen could be even tougher on Kentucky Derby Day than they have already shown has to be a frightening prospect for Amoss and others pointing for the first Saturday in May.

You might think Mohaymen and Nyquist would scare away any pretenders. But put up a million dollar purse and you can be sure some no-shot pretenders will help fill the starting gate in pursuit of the generous minor awards. At least four others have indicated an intention to run in the Florida Derby. It's a stretch to say three of them have any business in a Grade 1 stakes.

Only one, Fellowship, has semi-legitimate credentials. He has run third twice behind Mohaymen at the meeting and is likely to fill out a very small trifecta again.

The other three are hoping to grab some easy money by picking up the pieces. Majesto is one race removed from breaking his maiden in his fourth start at the meeting. Ifyousnoozeyoulose was claimed for $50,000 when he broke his maiden last month. He then ran last in an optional claimer sprint for his new connections. Sawyers Mickey is still a maiden after seven starts but did manage a third in the John Battaglia.

Peter Walder, who will saddle both Ifyousnoozeyoulose and Sawyer’s Mickey, wouldn’t mind another show performance. “Third place gives you $100,000.” This is the equivalent of winning a $150,000 stakes. It also provides 20 Kentucky Derby qualifying points, the same number Nyquist was awarded for winning the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and possibly enough to get into the starting gate.

Racing, like life, isn’t always fair.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, March 17, 2016

They might be called Derby preps, but winning matters

Everyone looks for hidden clues and telltale signs this time of year to predict who might develop into the Kentucky Derby winner. The key might be not to overlook the obvious. Winning is what matters. The four most recent Derby winners went into the race 10-for-10 as 3-year-olds. Six of the past 10 had unblemished sophomore records—seven if you toss Animal Kingdom’s second on grass.

MIAMI, March 17, 2016--Destin looked like a colt with a big future winning the Tampa Bay Derby last Saturday. However recent history teaches that Destin’s future does not include wearing a garland of roses on the first Saturday in May.

Mor Spirit seemed to be everyone’s third or fourth choice in Kentucky Derby conversations until last weekend. The same history indicates Saturday’s second in the San Felipe dooms his chances in Louisville. Exaggerator became a toss even before his third on Saturday when he ran second in the San Vicente.

Mo Tom made an eye-catching late move off a tough trip in the Risen Star. Alas, close isn’t good enough. Draw a line through him. This takes care of 40% of this week’s HRI Top 10.

When it comes to digging out a Derby winner, the place to look is in the winner’s circle of the preps. Close counts less than it does in horseshoes. The combined 3-year-old record of the four most recent Derby winners is 10 races, 10 wins.

American Pharoah took the Rebel and Arkansas Derby to arrive at Churchill Downs two-for-two at the beginning of his sophomore campaign. California Chrome won three stakes—the Cal Cup Derby, the San Felipe and the Santa Anita Derby--prior to the Derby. Orb won a Gulfstream allowance then the Fountain of Youth and Florida Derby. I’ll Have Another preceded his Derby triumph with scores in the Robert B. Lewis and Santa Anita Derby.

Going back another year, there’s an asterisk attached to Animal Kingdom’s only loss as a 3-year-old, the last time an eventual Kentucky Derby winner went into the race with less than a spotless sophomore record. He ran second on the turf before winning the Spiral in his only other 3-year-old start.

Kick the grass race and the past five Kentucky Derby winners are 11-for-11 on main tracks as 3-year-olds prior to Louisville. Granted, another asterisk is necessary, inasmuch as the Spiral was on a synthetic track.

This works both ways. Juvenile champion Street Sense won the Tampa Bay Derby but was second in the Blue Grass when the race was run on Polyturf.

The last Derby winner to come into the race off a defeat on conventional dirt was Super Saver in 2010. He ran third in the Tampa Derby and second in the Arkansas Derby.

Big Brown, two-for-two in 20008, and Barbaro, three-for-three in 2006, also arrived in the Blue Grass with perfect records as 3-year-olds. So over the past decade six Kentucky Derby winners—seven if you count Animal Kingdom’s Spiral-- have gone into the race undefeated on main tracks during their sophomore campaigns.

The point is, searching prep races for hidden moves or unreported trouble or coming to the conclusion that a horse is being brought slowly up to the Derby might be an exercise in futility. There’s no substitute for success. This sample is relatively small but it’s sizable enough to be taken seriously.

In my opinion, the streak’s run over the past five years is especially revealing since training methods have changed so dramatically. Horses, especially serious ones, race so infrequently that they are rarely “given one.” They are out there to win almost every time.

With Mohaymen, Nyquist, Shagaf, Danzing Candy and Suddenbreakingnews still sporting unblemished records as 3-year-olds, odds are better than not that this streak of perfection will extend another year.

Decoupling dead, Calder, Hialeah live another year

The Florida legislative session ended last Friday with no action taken on decoupling. As expected there was an 11th hour attempt to tack a decoupling amendment onto another bill but it failed.

Ergo, in addition to greyhound and harness tracks having to continue running races and jai alai frontons being forced to keep the pelotas bouncing, there will be at least one more Gulfstream West meeting at Calder and horses, albeit quarterhorses, will run at Hialeah another season,so that both venues can maintain their slots and poker rooms.

Thankfully, Florida’s lawmakers meet only two months a year. To quote Mark Twain, “No man’s life, liberty or property is safe while the legislature is in session.” Normally, the session is in March and April. It was moved up to January this year to get it out of the way before the presidential primary.

So decoupling is 1-to-9 to come up again next year but it will probably be at least late next April before anything is done on the issue, since gambling matters traditionally aren’t settled until minutes before the gavel comes down.

Speaking of Hialeah, I checked out the new simulcasting center last Saturday. The facility on the second floor of what used to be the clubhouse is actually spiffier than it was during the track’s heyday. It’s the equal of any race book I’ve experienced in Las Vegas.

A couple of dozen hi def big screens are side by side on the walls. This is in addition to about a hundred carrels with individual monitors. A bank of windows with tellers are only a few steps to the rear. Self service machines are plentiful enough that I never had to wait behind more than one person—and I bet late. Most important as summer looms, it has been enclosed and air conditioned.

Outside, the grounds are as breathtaking as ever. It’s still invigorating to walk into the place. If you're in the Miami area, in the mood for simulcasting, and have never been to "the world's most beautiful racetrack," make it a point to go.

There was a darkly amusing downside to the day. The carrel I rented for a deuce wound up next to an older gent, who was as Damon Runyon as you get. During the course of the afternoon, he volunteered he was into the IRS for $300K and there are loan sharks looking for him because he stiffed them for $96K.

I don’t know how much to believe but he certainly acted like a desperate character. He was chasing solvency by trying to hit superfectas and Hi-5’s on $4 and $6 tickets. "I can't get out betting win tickets."

All he got was frustrated and angry as well as colorfully profane. After one beat, he exclaimed, “I hope my brother and sister go blind and get hit by a bus.” (He never made it clear why he was angry with his siblings.)

The topper came when he finally bet his case few bucks and wound up ripping up tickets again. As he said goodbye to me, he added, “I wish my mother had died before I was born.”

He sounded like he meant it.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, March 10, 2016

American tracks need to adjust big stakes to new Dubai reality

The Gulfstream Handicap offered a half-million dollars last Saturday to a field of less than top-of-the-line older horses. Santa Anita’s Big Cap is hanging out a million dollars this coming Saturday for a similar caliber field. America’s best older horses are in Dubai, where they will be every year in March now that Meydan has a conventional dirt surface. Gulfstream and Santa Anita need to adjust their stakes schedules to deal with this.

MIAMI, March 10, 2016--It’s time for America’s winter race tracks to recognize a new reality and react accordingly.

The Gulfstream Handicap last Saturday drew a field of seven. Four were from the Todd Pletcher barn and they weren’t the stable stars. The winner, Blofeld, now 4, hadn’t won since he was a 2-year-old. The only graded stakes win by any of the other three was Itsaknockout’s 2015 Fountain of Youth, courtesy of a much disputed disqualification. For this, Gulfstream put up a half-million dollars.

Saturday’s Santa Anita Big Cap, one of America’s most revered events for older horses, will get a few more but also is lacking star power. Effinex is the big name, a Grade 1 winner. The second biggest name is…Take your pick: Imperative, Hard Aces, Donworth, General A Rod, Cyrus Alexander, Melatonin, Point Piper and Class Leader. Any of these induce you to cancel other plans in order to get out to the track Saturday? Nevertheless, they will race for one million dollars.

There’s a simple explanation. America’s best older horses are in Dubai for the March 26 World Cup. This includes the top four older horses in this week’s NTRA poll--California Chrome, Mshawish, Frosted and Hoppertunity.

This isn’t an anomaly. Now that Meydan has forsaken its synthetic track (good riddance), it is a trend. Put up $10 million and offer a real race track and you are going to get America’s best year after year. It’s time for Gulfstream and Santa Anita to accept this and adjust their stakes schedules for older horses.

In a way, Gulfstream has already done this. The Donn, the new main stage for older horses, is run in early February, plenty of time to make it and the World Cup.

The Gulfstream Handicap has been diminished in prestige from the days it was the track’s premier event for older horses and reduced in distance from a mile-and-a-quarter to a mile-and-an-eighth to its current one-turn mile. The only thing that hasn’t been reduced is its purse parity with the Donn, which used to be its prep. (Extra points if you remember why the flip happened.) The two stakes are no longer close to equal. Dubai is the prime culprit.

The caliber of field the Gulfstream Handicap now attracts should be reflected in the purse. Any money saved could be used to fortify less well endowed stakes. There are six stakes the next three weekends with $75,000 purses. Take $150K from the Gulfstream Handicap and bump each $25,000 and they take on added luster. There’s still something special about the term “hundred-grander.”

Adjusting the scheduling of The Big Cap might be a tougher sell. It has been an early March fixture as long as I can remember. But something needs to be done if it’s to retain its status as a world class event. It needs to be moved up at least a couple of weeks to mid-February.

The San Antonio was run Feb. 6. Hoppertunity, arguably the best of Santa Anita’s weak older horse division, won and is headed to the Middle East rather than the Big Cap. Nobody is talking about a Big Cap-World Cup double.

It’s not as if racing hasn’t jettisoned tradition time and again. Remember important fall stakes each having its own day to shine, instead of getting lost on Super Saturdays. How about the Met Mile on Memorial Day? The Gotham, Wood Memorial and Kentucky Derby at two-week intervals? San Anita recently dumped the tradition rich Strub Series.

If the Big Cap doesn’t want to risk becoming the Mid-size Cap, Santa Anita must adjust to the times and re-schedule it so that owners and trainers don’t have to make the choice between it and the World Cup. As this year illustrates, this isn’t a close call.

Time is not on handicappers’ side

Timing is everything in life and horse racing. Farz missed by about two hours last Saturday having the accolade “former Gulfstream track record holder” attached to him forever. If the Gulfstream card had been reconfigured differently, he would have had it.

Farz, racing in the ninth race optional claimer for non-winners of one, ran a mile-and-three-sixteenths on grass in 1:51.81, almost a second and a half faster than the 1:53.19 standard going into the day. Unfortunately for him, Olordo ran 1:51.54 in the fifth race The Very One, a Grade 3.

Mark Berner, a former clocker at NYRA tracks, has written some insightful, well documented pieces for HRI recently on the inaccuracy of times on grass courses because of rail placement and run-ups. These two races serve as Exhibits A and B to underscore his points.

The rail was out 96 feet for both Saturday races. Maybe this explains the times for these two races being misleading jokes. Not only did Olordo make a shambles of the old record, the first four finishers were within two lengths, so they all broke the mark. The ninth race was a bigger Farz (I couldn’t resist). The first six were within three lengths, so they all eclipsed or almost equaled the old record, too.

The first place to look when multiple horses break records on the same day is the condition of the course. Gulfstream’s turf is hard but it was not a paved highway. Grand Tito ran a mile-and-three-eighths on grass in the Grade 3 Mac Diarmida in 2:12.55, almost two seconds slower than the course record. The likely difference: the rail was out only 24 feet. It seems to be impossible to get an accurate time when the rail is not at zero.

This is not meant as a critique of Gulfstream’s timing system. The same issues arise at every track with varying rail placements on the turf course. Ergo, there should be no recognition of any track record set when the rail is not at zero.

More significant for players, you can bet that at some point this spring or summer, a handicapper/analyst will note that Olordo set a track record in winning The Very One. Some of those who finished close might get similar praise.

Caveat emptor.

Written by Tom Jicha

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