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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Wednesday, April 08, 2015

This year’s Derby is good enough for pay-per-view

Three weeks out, this year's Kentucky Derby is so loaded with talent that it shapes up as one of the most exciting and unpredictable in years. The current big four of Dortmund, American Pharoah, Carpe Diem and Materiality have all shown that on their best days they are almost unbeatable. A case could be made for a half-dozen others including UAE Derby mystery horse Mubtaahij trained by MIchael de Kock, who is on a very short list of the best trainers in the world. The Oaks is also coming up big with I'm a Chatterbox, Stellar Wind, Condo Commando and Birdatthewire all seemingly at the top of their game.

MIAMI, April 8, 2015--This year’s Kentucky Derby is coming up so rich in talent and unpredictability it is a race to anticipate with the same zeal as boxing fans are exhibiting toward the long delayed Floyd Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao showdown the same night.

Horse players have it over fight buffs in one big way. They can take the $100 it will cost to see the fight on pay-per-view and bet it on the Derby, which will be free on NBC.

I like Mayweather in the fight. At this point, I don’t know where I would put $100 on the Derby. I’d probably spread it around.

Two undefeated horses—Dortmund and Materiality--and two others with only one blemish on their credit sheet—American Pharoah and Carpe Diem are the headliners. International Star, who swept the Fair Grounds three-stakes series, is unbeaten as a 3-year-old and he has done it with late charges down one of the few stretches longer than Churchill Downs.

Who knows how good Mubtaahij is. I know how good Michael de Kock is. If he thinks the UAE Derby winner has a shot, that’s good enough for me.

Last weekend did little to unscramble the Derby picture. I pushed Dortmund over American Pharoah in the HRI poll after his sixth straight win. However, if American Pharoah puts on a show in Saturday’s Arkansas Derby, as I expect him to, I’ll probably flip flop them again.

It has been said that only Bob Baffert knows which of his two stars is better. Baffert said even he can’t say. He was asked during an NTRA conference call last week if he had ever worked Dortmund and American Pharoah together. “No! Never! Not at all!”

The Derby could be the only time we get to see these two in the same starting gate. If one of them wears the blanket of roses, I can’t see Baffert trying to ruin his Triple Crown possibility by running the other against him again even though they have separate ownerships.

I acknowledge all kinds of caveats to this. If the outcome is decided by a photo, if one is compromised by an horrendous trip or some other extraordinary circumstance, there could be a rematch in the Preakness. However, if the Derby is truly run and Dortmund or American Pharoah is a clear winner, I don’t expect to see both of them in Baltimore and certainly not in the Belmont should a Triple Crown be on the line.

Carpe Diem could ruin the Baffert party without anyone rekindling memories of MineThat Bird. The only horse to ever finish in front of Carpe Diem, Texas Red in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, won’t be in Louisville. Other than that Carpe Diem has never had a horse within two lengths of him at the wire in his other four starts, including his workmanlike polishing off of Saturday’s Blue Grass. He’s already won three times around two turns. If ever a horse was bred for the Triple Crown series, it is this son of Giant’s Causeway and the Unbridled’s Song mare Rekindled Dreams.

It appears Kiaran McLaughlin has figured out what happened to Frosted in the Fountain of Youth he appeared to have won at the top of the stretch. However, I can’t put the Wood Memorial on the same level as Dortmund’s Santa Anita Derby or Carpe Diem’s Blue Grass. El Kabeir didn’t fire his best shot (or maybe he did and it wasn’t good enough) and Daredevil didn’t fire at all. Beating Tencendur, who was one-for-one against New York bred maidens and zero-for-three against open company doesn’t elevate Frosted to my top tier of Derby contenders. I’m not saying he’s a toss but with so many others I consider superior, as of now that’s what I’m going to do.

The Oaks is a beauty, too

After Saturday, the Kentucky Oaks is almost as inscrutable. A big downside of the trend toward Super Saturdays, especially during Derby prep season, is the tendency to overlook outstanding performances in important stakes, which formerly commanded a showcase day of their own.

I’m a Chatterbox looked like this year’s Untappable in sweeping the Fair Grounds distaff series. But an hour before Frosted stole the spotlight in the Wood, Condo Commando reinforced her status as an elite filly with another cakewalk in the Gazelle.

She has one inexplicably poor race in the Frizette last fall on a sloppy track. Yes, she was the “splash-tastic” winner of the sloppy Spinaway at Saratoga but all slop is not the same. That the Frizette was her first try at a distance as long as a mile after winning a couple of sprints by more than 25 lengths caused some to dismiss her as a freakish sprinter. She has put that theory to rest, galloping in three straight two-turn stakes.

Stellar Wind was even more impressive in the Santa Anita Oaks, which got lost as a supporting player to Dortmund’s Santa Anita Derby. The filly purchased privately by Hronis Racing after a big maiden-breaker in Maryland has looked like the second coming of Zenyatta in a pair of West Coast races. Saturday, she crushed a solid field of fillies, drawing away after a sweeping last-to-first surge around the far turn.

Also overwhelmed by Materiality’s impressive Florida Derby a week ago was the rapidly developing Birdatthewire’s convincing win in the Gulfstream Oaks. She was so rank and awkward around the first turn into the backstretch that her trainer, Dale Romans, and a lot of others watching thought Irad Ortiz had lost his irons. Ortiz got her act together and she, too, circled the field to win going away.

There’s a traditional Kentucky Oaks-Kentucky Derby daily double. Anyone thinking about jumping into that pool better be prepared to spread.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Friday, April 03, 2015

NY gives little respect to its winter hero

El Kabeir did little wrong this winter in New York. He galloped in the Jerome and Gotham and ran a solid second in the Withers. Nevertheless, the NYRA morning line for the Wood Memorial rates him no better than third choice behind a couple of 3-year-olds who return to Aqueduct from a winter in Florida, Daredevil and Frosted, each looking for his first victory of the season. The Wood is the most attractive betting race of Saturday's three major Derby preps. Dortmund will be an overwhelming favorite to remain undefeated in the Santa Anita Derby and Carpe Diem might be an even shorter price in the Blue Grass.
MIAMI, April 3, 2015--It’s one thing for much of the racing world to look down on winter racing in New York. What can you say when New York’s own downgrades its cold weather product? This is the conclusion to be drawn from the morning line, set by NYRA, for Saturday’s Wood Memorial.

El Kabeir has only one hiccup on his 2015 resume, a second in the Withers Stakes. An argument could be made that he might have been so involved in a stretch slugfest with Classy Class, in which El Kabeir prevailed, he was caught unaware that Far From Over was sneaking up from behind. So you could see Far From Over being favored over El Kabeir but FFO won’t be in the Wood. He was knocked off the Triple Crown trail this week by a leg injury.

Other than the Withers, El Kabeir boasts decisive wins in the Jerome and the Gotham. It’s not as if he is a dead of winter development, either. His final race of 2014 was a hard fought win in the Kentucky Jockey Club. In his prior race he was second to Blofeld, who has yet to be outrun by anyone. (Todd Pletcher said he is close to a comeback race.)

Nonetheless, in a field of seven NYRA’s linemaker makes El Kabeir no better than the 3-1 third choice to a couple of horses who have spent the winter in Florida and return to the Big A still looking for their first win as a 3-year-old.

The 9-5 favorite, Daredevil, was a distant second to Ready for Rye in the Swale. In his prior race, he was 11th in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, beaten so far that if he had tried to come back in a race this winter at Aqueduct, he would have been compelled to qualify with a 52-second half-mile workout.

The linemaker must be ignoring what has happened recently and gone back to last October’s Champagne, when Daredevil thrashed El Kabeir by almost 18 lengths on a sloppy track. Then again, a morning line is not so much a reflection of relative ability as the perception of how the public is expected to bet.This is still not glowing testimony of what New Yorkers think of their winter star. Maybe it’s a reflection of getting burned in the spring by winter standouts Vyjack and Samraat the past two years.

Frosted, the early 2-1 second choice, is winless in a pair of 2015 starts. Upstart ran away from him in the Holy Bull. Next he seemed to be in command at the top of the lane in the Fountain of Youth only to stop more abruptly than an assembly line worker when the 5 o’clock whistle sounds.

Kiaran McLaughlin, who had him checked from toe to tail, said he has no idea what happened. Frosted’s in-the-money stakes finishes notwithstanding, he still has only a maiden win. Yet NYRA’s line rates him better than a three-time stakes winner, who prepped in New York.

I agree with the line. Daredevil’s return was better than it lucked. Ready for Rye, a brutally quick sprinter, freaked in the seven-furlong Swale and Daredevil wasn’t pushed to close the gap late. Todd Pletcher said after the race that it set up Daredevil perfectly to stretch out in his next start.

Saturday’s other two Derby preps have clear standouts, which diminishes them as betting propositions. Here’s an interesting man-to-man betting prop: who will be a shorter price, Dortmund in the Santa Anita Derby or Carpe Diem in the Blue Grass. More than 3-5 on either would be an overlay.

Dortmund will be facing the same bunch he beat with authority in the San Felipe at 4-5. He has shown he can win on or off the pace. In his previous three races, he went off at 2-5 once and 3-5 twice. Even-money in his debut was a steal. The only horse to warm him up, Firing Line, went out of town to avoid him and demolished the Sunland Derby field.

Ocho Ocho Ocho, who had a troubled trip in the San Felipe after three straight wins, also beat it to Kentucky to get away from Dortmund. With his California speed, he might be a good underneath bet in the Blue Grass. More about that race shortly.

A groundswell of support has developed for late-running Prospect Park, who closed for second in the San Felipe. But fans traditionally fall in love with late-movers as the Kentucky Derby approaches. One thing to keep in mind: someone had to be second in the San Felipe. I suspect Prospect Park will be severely under-laid on Saturday.

Let’s go to the scoreboard; Dortmund--likely about 1-2--five races, five wins, three stakes. Prospect Park--possibly 5-2 or less--five races, two wins, no stakes. An improving colt in the spring is always capable of springing an upset, especially when the favorite is looking ahead to the race after this. However, you ought to get paid better than Prospect Park’s supporters will if you beat an undefeated multiple stakes winner, who handled you last time out.

Then there’s the caveat emptor horse, One Lucky Dane, because you can never dismiss “the other Baffert.” Earlier this week, the trainer told a national phone conference that One Lucky Dane has turned the corner and “I expect a big race from him.”

It’s difficult to conjure a scenario in which Carpe Diem doesn’t make a spectacle of the Blue Grass. The only time he hasn’t gotten the big money in four starts was a second in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile when Texas Red unleashed an Arazi-like close. Texas Red is temporarily out of the picture.

Carpe Diem won his debut at 5 ½ furlongs in a runaway at Saratoga. Juveniles by Giant’s Causeway are not supposed to do this, Pletcher pointed out this week. What they are supposed to do is thrive at longer distances.

Other than the BC Juvenile, Carpe Diem is perfect in two-turn races. This includes a tour de force romp in the Breeders’ Futurity. It’s obvious he loves the new Keeneland dirt strip. His 3-year-old debut in the Tampa Bay Derby was another gem, so he has transferred his juvenile form to his 3-year-old season. For overkill, Pletcher said he had a sensational workout last week.

Pletcher calls him “the whole package” and has plotted his season so that the Kentucky Derby will be his third race after his 2-year-old to 3-year-old layoff.

Those looking for a sleeper to fill out an exacta or tri could do worse than using Frammento (as well as Ocho Ocho Ocho). In the winner’s circle after his Catholic Cowboy won the Claiming Crown in December, Nick Zito was asked if he had a Derby prospect. He immediately singled out Frammento, then just a maiden winner. Significantly, that breakthrough win came at Keeneland.

Zito said the colt was a slow developer, who would get better as the distances got longer. His best race since then was his last, a closing third in the Fountain of Youth. Zito has been telling friends the colt by Midshipman is really coming into his own. This still might not be good enough to beat Carpe Diem at this point. But, a I said about the San Felipe, someone has to be second.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Racing needs quick horses but not quick officials

The Fountain of Youth was an outstanding race. The Florida Derby was even better. But after both, the talk of the track was not the horses, who put on a great show, but the stewards, who made a questionable call in the FoY and didn't even hear the beef Jose Ortiz aboard Upstart wanted to make in the Florida Derby. This shouldn't happen.

MIAMI, March 31, 2015--Materiality should be the talk of racing. What Todd Pletcher’s colt did this winter is extraordinary. In the space of 11 weeks, he went from maiden winner to minor stakes winner to Grade 1 stakes winner. His Beyers soared from 87 to 102 to an astounding 110 for the Florida Derby. Not only did he defy the law of the bounce, he could go into the Derby with the field’s top Beyer.

But instead of speculating wondrously about how high is up for this superstar in the making, the talk of racing is another misstep by the Gulfstream stewards. Unlike the Fountain of Youth, this time it’s for something they didn’t do, which is anything.

Could somebody explain the value of a “quick official?”

As I recall, it was instituted in an effort to reduce the time between races, when that was a chronic complaint of fans. With simulcasting, this is no longer much of an issue. Need faster action? There are a half dozen other tracks with races scheduled before the next one at your home track.

Races formerly were not declared official until every rider came back, dismounted and weighed out without lodging an objection. In a supposed effort to speed things up, jockeys were told to file claims of foul with an outrider as they pulled up. Total time saved: maybe two minutes, maximum three.

There has been no significant reduction in the gap between races that I have noticed. It’s still about a half-hour at major circuits.

The downside to a quick official came into play after Saturday’s Florida Derby. Jose Ortiz aboard Upstart says he wanted to claim foul against Materiality. By the time he found someone to register his beef, he was told it was too late. This should not happen.

If Ortiz had gotten his appeal heard, it almost certainly would have been dismissed. The first two finishers did brush slightly in the stretch but Materiality and Upstart had slugged it out for a half mile with Materiality going the better throughout.

Steward Don Brumfield, a former jockey, was quoted as saying he and his two colleagues looked at the stretch run and didn’t see enough to light the inquiry sign. But Ortiz deserved his day in court, if for no other reason than showing fans that the much maligned stewards were paying attention.

The contact happened in front of the stands with the TV cameras focused on Upstart and Materiality, who had run away from the pack. Everyone saw it. There was no urgency to post the official. The Florida Derby was the final race of the day.

One theory put forth was the stewards didn’t want to have to deal with Upstart again after they had taken him down on a borderline call in the Fountain of Youth. Cynics charged the stewards were in a hurry to beat the traffic.

So just as after the Fountain of Youth, when the stewards took forever to make the debatable decision to take down Upstart, a big race at Gulfstream ends with fans and the media talking as much about the stewards as the horses. This is a disservice to two classy thoroughbreds, who put on a memorable show.

Materiality’s final time, 1:52.3, was pokey but as Todd Pletcher put it, good horses were running slow times all afternoon on a track that was dead for days. The huge Beyer in spite of the slow time verifies this.

Materiality demonstrated in his previous nine-furlong race that he has exceptional speed. He ran 1:49.1 that day. He will go into the Derby as the only starter with a pair of wins at this distance.

Materiality still has to overcome the curse of Apollo, which is not the joke some like to make it. There is a reason no horse has won the Derby without racing as a 2-year-old for 133 years. As I pointed out in a previous column, not even Curlin, who went on to two Horse of the Year titles, could overcome his rushed timetable to Louisville.

As brilliant as Materiality has been, I’m not ready to put him in the category of Curlin.

Post times mean nothing

Every city and state has frivolous laws on the books from bygone eras. In New York, you can be fined $25 for flirting. There is also a prohibition against wearing slippers after 10 p.m. In California, land of the loony laws, women may not drive in a housecoat. In the town of Blythe, you are not allowed to wear cowboy boots unless you own at least two cows. Not everything goes in Nevada. It is illegal to ride a camel on a highway.

Florida is not exempt. Unmarried women are prohibited from parachuting on Sunday. If you tie your elephant to a parking meter, you must pay as if it were a car. Not so humorous but thankfully never enforced are laws against cohabitation and—you can look this up—kissing your wife’s breasts.

Most of these laws remain on the books because no one considered it worth the effort to have them stricken. A pointless law regarding thoroughbred racing fits into this category.

Florida still has a restriction against thoroughbred races starting after 7 p.m. It was passed way back when to protect greyhound racing and jai alai, which have never been anything but ways for people to gamble when thoroughbreds aren’t running.

With lottery tickets on sale 24/7 and casinos all over, this is no longer the case, which is why greyhound racing and jai alai are in their own form of hospice care. They probably now handle more on thoroughbred simulcasts than they do their own games.

So the only reason the 7 p.m. restriction still is on the books is inertia. Nevertheless, there are times we can be thankful for it. Without it, the field for the Florida Derby might still be circling behind the starting gate. Announced post-time was 6:48. The field was actually sprung at 6:59.20.

There were no incidents that caused this other than Gulfstream’s obsession to break its own handle record for a Florida Derby, which it did, topping $27 million.

Gulfstream’s management has done a terrific job since becoming South Florida’s only thoroughbred operation. They even made a success of the sham meeting at Calder…er, Gulfstream West.

One exception is the dragging of post times. If there were any races this winter that went off within three minutes of post time, I missed them. The norm was closer to four minutes or more. The Florida Derby pushed this to the absurd limit.

Given the handle records set, it might seem nit-picky to make a case of this. But it is a short-sighted tactic. Bettors get used to tardy posts and don’t even approach the windows until well after zero is on the board.

What’s inevitable is what happened at the dog tracks. Players sat chilly until a couple or three minutes past post, so the start had to be delayed until four or five minutes late, then six or seven, to avoid shutting out dozens of bettors.

We don’t need to get to the point where Gulfstream replicates the Florida Derby experience every race, every day.

Written by Tom Jicha

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