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 Sentinels horse racing writer since 2007 as a staff member, and continues to this day as a free-lancer.

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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Churchill Downs and CDI are two different worlds

Churchill Downs is a treasure. However, its parent company, Churchill Downs Inc., has done more to undermine the sport than any PETA video could ever do.

MIAMI, April 23, 2014--Churchill Downs becomes a magical name again Saturday as the spring meet opens and the countdown to the Kentucky Derby gains intensity.

It’s a grand setting: the twin spires, the pageantry and color, the song, the fashions and hats, celebrities on Millionaires Row, the majesty and excitement of some of the world’s finest thoroughbreds in action.

This is as much a mirage as a Kim Jung Un birthday celebration. You have to look past the spectacle and focus on what goes on behind the scenes.

Those in and around the game appreciate the vast difference between Churchill Downs, the fabled home of the Derby, and Churchill Downs Inc. (CDI), the cold, bottom-line driven corporation, which has repeatedly demonstrated it has little regard for racing.

That CDI sold the most revered race name in the world to a second-tier fast food company is all you need to know. But there’s so much more.

CDI is now primarily a casino company. This is where its efforts and investments go. Racing is just something to be tolerated in states that demand a slots parlor be attached to a functioning race track.

The latest outrage is the raising of the takeout just before Derby week. Win-place-show goes from 16 to 17.5 percent. Multiple horse wagers jump from 19 to 22 percent. We can only hope bettor boycotts being organized to protest are successful. It might be hard to skip Derby Day but after that ignoring Churchill's races aren't much of a sacrifice.

The company has no shame that it had to resort to gimmickry to legally do it. Kentucky has a handle threshold, $1.2 million. Above it, the lower takeout is dictated. Below it, the takeout can be raised. Churchill got below it by including its first ever short fall meeting, which had no tradition or familiarity with fans and failed to approach the handle levels of the customary spring and late fall sessions.

CDI excused its money grab by saying part of the increased revenue—roughly half will go to CDI’s bottom line—will be put into purses, so that it can compete for horses with tracks in states with racinos.

This would include Louisiana and Florida. Let’s talk about those. Horsemen at the Fair Grounds have had to go to the state legislature to get a bill passed to force CDI to reinvest 10 percent of its racino profits into maintenance of the facility, which is deteriorating from neglect. The situation is so dire that the Louisiana State Racing Commission has delayed renewing CDI's operating license and will hold a special hearing on May 1 to review the matter.

In spite of having more than 600 slot machines at the track, the turf course has been unusable more often than not the past two seasons due to poor drainage. The infield video screen broke and wasn’t repaired. Rep. Helene Moreno, according to, the digital component of the New Orleans Times Picayune, toured the barn area and was critical of the sub-standard conditions. One stall had an eight-inch dip in the middle.

The responses of Austin Miller, CDI’s senior vice president of gaming operations, are revealing of the company attitude. Miller said if the turf course isn’t suitable for racing, horses and horsemen should adapt. “They all train on dirt. They should be able to run on dirt.”

A contributing factor to the troubled grass course, according to horsemen, is the annual Jazz Festival. Thousands of music fans are allowed to trample the course because it’s a big money-maker for CDI.

As for the video screen, Miller said hardly anyone watches it anyway, since most betting is done by customers inside the plant.

Miller said the barns cited by Rep. Moreno are the exception, that most are well maintained. Rep. Moreno countered that one of the barns Miller cited, Al Stall’s, is in exemplary condition because Stall goes into his own pocket to keep it that way.

The situation in Florida is even more distressing. CDI-owned Calder Race Course is under siege by Gulfstream’s aggressive move to race year-round, head to head. The situation is somewhat reminiscent of Russia’s incursion into Crimea. It was made easy for Gulfstream because so many welcomed the change.

Many of Calder’s top outfits—Marty Wolfson, David Fawkes, Eddie Plesa Jr., et al--have moved across town due to what they feel is years of mistreatment and sub-par conditions at Calder. One of the last straws was the introduction of per diem rent for grooms and hot-walkers.

Clearly Calder is continuing to race only to maintain its slots license. Field size is a joke. This past Sunday, eight races drew 48 starters. Two fields had four horses apiece.

Graded stakes have been canceled on short notice. The turf course is in pathetic shape even though there hasn’t been a race on it since January. The third, fourth and fifth floors of the building are closed.

What used to be the elegant Turf Club has been shut down. A replacement has been created in a corner of the first floor of the grandstand, where the poker room formerly was. Poker players have been relocated to the adjacent slots facility, which has all the most modern amenities and comforts. This is where CDI spends its money now.

CDI’s priorities also can be gleaned from its role in the shutting down of Hollywood Park. CDI bought the Southern California facility in the hope/belief that slots would be approved by the California legislature. When that didn’t happen, CDI sold the track to a land development company, indifferent to the fact that this doomed one of the most celebrated race tracks in America.

A big reason there has been so much speculation that the Breeders’ Cup might be anchored permanently in Southern California is the difficulty dealing with CDI. It’s not coincidental that Keeneland is making a major push to bring the Breeders’ Cup back to Kentucky. This might be the Commonwealth’s only hope.

Frank Stronach has made several offers without success to buy Calder. All of racing would be better off if the billionaire Stronach took it a step further and bought all of the CDI racetracks. No matter what else might be said about him, Stronach cares about racing. This hasn’t been able to be said about Churchill Downs Inc. since the current regime took over, a reality that even the first Saturday in May can’t camouflage.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Lessons to be learned from the Derby trail

History teaches many of the same lessons during each year's Kentucky Derby prep season. Alas, it seems few learn them.

MIAMI, April 16, 2014--We study history to learn from the past and hopefully not make the same mistakes. So what have we learned from this year’s Triple Crown prep season?

The foremost lesson is a reiteration. Getting involved in Kentucky Derby Futures betting is a fool’s venture. It got even more foolish this season when Churchill Downs moved the first pool into November 2013.

The smartest guy in the room is the one who makes one large preemptory bet on the field within minutes of the pool opening. (I assume it is one guy or one syndicate because the M.O. has been the same since Churchill introduced futures betting.)

By driving the price below even-money he discourages those making lesser plays from taking the only logical bet. Not many $2 or even $20 players want to tie up their money for six months on an odds-on proposition. Besides, this doesn’t provide ego satisfaction or bragging rights. Isn’t that what futures betting is all about?

The first pool field wager is especially golden this season. At most, only Cairo Prince and Ride on Curlin of the 23 individual horses in the November pool will make it to the starting gate.

But there are no sure things. I remember a dreary Tuesday January afternoon in Las Vegas in 1993. A new race book, the Sport of Kings, a free-standing building across from Convention Center, was trying to pull players from the big hotel books by promising to book any bet, no matter how large. There wasn’t much going on this day. Only a few minor tracks were in action.

To drum up business, an announcement came over the loud speaker that the book was offering an enticing prop, 6-1 on any horse from the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winning that spring’s Kentucky Derby. At the time, the winter book favorite, Gilded Time, was 7-1 around town. Getting him and a dozen others while giving up only one odds point seemed to be a grand bargain. There weren’t many people in the place but everyone there must have sent it in because betting was closed in a matter of minutes—while I was still in line looking to get my piece of the action.

Come May, the bet didn’t seem so golden. Only one of the Breeders’ Cup 13, Sea Hero, started in the Derby and he was 13-1. But he was all those who made the bet needed. I don’t remember the exact sequence but the Sport of Kings went bust either just before or after that Derby.

This segues nicely into another lesson reinforced this season. The Breeders’ Cup Juvenile is a super-sized negative key race when it comes to the Derby. Street Sense, who won the 2006 Juvenile and 2007 Derby, is the only horse to pull off this challenging double. Not a single horse from the 2012 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile even made it to the 2013 Derby starting gate.

This season's percentage is only slightly better. We Miss Artie, Dance With Fate and Medal Count, who finished 7th, 8th and 11th in the Juvenile, are among the Top 20 in Derby qualifying points. The latter two needed big races in their final chances last Saturday to make the cut. What’s more, Dance With Fate remains uncertain to run. Good for Peter Eurton, who recognizes that Polytrack form from the Blue Grass doesn’t transition well to the Derby on real dirt.

Kiaran McLaughlin hopefully learned a lesson that will be picked up by his colleagues. If you have one of the leading Derby hopefuls, don’t play brinksmanship by protecting them like a white heavyweight. McLaughlin, one of the sharpest trainers in the game, sat on Cairo Prince for nine weeks after a dominant win in the Holy Bull. He was super confident his colt, who he feels should have been undefeated at the time, would at least run third in what would be his final Derby prep, the Florida Derby.

Cairo Prince, perhaps showing his rust, managed only a fourth-place finish, so McLaughlin had to sweat whether his 24 points would be enough. It wasn’t until Run on Curlin outnodded Bayern for second in the Arkansas Derby, the last prep on the Derby trail, that Cairo Prince was locked into No. 20.

As it turns out, Cairo Prince would have gotten in anyway as No. 21 as Constitution has been sidelined with an ankle injury, which opens a spot for Uncle Sigh.

With Constitution out, it’s a crap shoot who will be the second choice behind California Chrome. Hoppertunity? Wildcat Red? Wicked Strong? It might even be Cairo Prince.

Maybe Churchill Downs, which created the points system to get the best “now” horses into the Derby, could learn something from the second season of the new system. Relegating prestigious 2-year-old stakes, including the BC Juvenile, to 10 points is defensible in light of recent history.But once the calendar turns, there needs to be a jump to an intermediate 20-points to the winner category for productive early-in-the-year races, such as the Holy Bull, Sham, Robert B. Lewis and Southwest, before the big leap to 50 and 100 point races. Cairo Prince wouldn’t have been on the fence if this had been in effect this season.

McLaughlin’s suggestion (made before the Florida Derby) that a couple or three spots be reserved for selection via committee, ala the Breeders’ Cup, merits consideration. McLaughlin’s concern that something unforeseeable, such as an untimely minor illness on the eve of a major prep, a horrid trip or losing a rider shouldn’t keep a genuine contender out of the Run for the Roses.

Of course, not putting all your Derby eggs into one prep basket could achieve the same end. It will be interesting to track in future seasons how well this lesson has been learned.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, April 03, 2014

Social Inclusion owner: No price on a dream

Social Inclusion, might be sold between the Wood and Derby. However, his owner, Ron Sanchez, said any deal will have him keeping a substantial interest.

MIAMI, April 3--Ron Sanchez is convinced Social Inclusion is a once in a lifetime horse. He’s putting his money, a boatload of money, where his mouth is in Saturday’s Wood Memorial.

Reports of him turning away $5 million for 75 percent of Social Inclusion are too low, he says. “The biggest offer, which came from outside the U.S. (Coolmore? the sheiks?) is $8 million for 75 percent of the horse. This places Social Inclusion’s value at more than $10.6 million. The biggest money winner in the history of thoroughbred racing is Curlin at just north of $10.5 million.

We are talking about a horse who has won only a maiden sprint and a five-horse entry-level allowance race at Gulfstream. Sanchez is confident that Saturday night we will be talking about racing’s newest Grade I winner and the favorite for the Kentucky Derby. He’s aware that if he’s wrong, the big money offers could disappear.

One of the reasons he can be so bold is that he is Rontos Racing. Sanchez, who has been in racing for almost a quarter-century—he started in 1991 in his native Venezuela and the last four years has raced in the U.S.--doesn’t have to answer to partners.

“I’m a risk taker. Not everything in life is about money. We’ve had a dream for 25 years (to have a horse in the Kentucky Derby). We are going to try to make that dream come true. If we win, we’re in the Derby. That’s a dream of everybody. I’m going to take the risk.”

Because of this, money has not been the major impediment to closing a deal. “I want to keep a piece of the horse and breeding rights.” The 25 percent figure being reported also is too low. “I want to keep at least half.”

He also wants to keep the horse under the care of veteran South Florida trainer Manny Azpurua. When Sanchez bought Social Inclusion for $60,000 at Keeneland, he said to Azpurua, “I think we have a Derby horse.”

Sanchez has been connected with Azpurua, a Venezuelan countryman, for the past three years. His first U.S. trainer was Jose Garoffalo, who also will be going to his first Derby with Wildcat Red.

“Manny is 85 and old school. I have a lot of respect for him. He is a legend in Venezuela,” Sanchez said in an NTRA conference call.

He has been telling potential buyers that it makes no sense to take the horse away from Azpurua. “If you change training methods, the horse will probably bounce.”

However, asked if keeping Azpurua as Social Inclusion’s trainer could be a deal-breaker, Sanchez hedged. “You never know.”

First things first, Sanchez said. “We are going to focus on the Wood to get the points. No points, no Derby.” He didn’t say it, but you could probably add, “No deal.”

Contessa seeks reversal of Gotham, Withers

Sanchez is not the only one who thinks the Derby favorite could come out of the Wood. This is also the opinion of Gary Contessa, who will saddle Uncle Sigh. “I think it’s the best field assembled for any of the preps.”

Contessa is, of course, hoping that Uncle Sigh, who has dropped a couple of tight decisions to Wood rival and fellow New York bred Samraat, is the one who emerges as New York’s big horse going to Louisville.

With a little better racing luck, Contessa feels, Uncle Sigh could have gotten his picture taken both times. In the Withers, the trainer said, Uncle Sigh was stuck outside. In the Gotham, he was between In Tune and Samraat in the crucial stages. “We were sandwiched. Corey Nakatani couldn’t use his whip. If he could have gone to the whip, we could have turned the tables on Samraat.”

Uncle Sigh also was at a hidden disadvantage in those two races. He stayed in New York and had his training interrupted by the brutal weather. “It was very hard to develop a horse in New York this winter,” Contessa said.

Samraat commuted to South Florida between starts and trained under ideal conditions during an extremely mild winter. Contessa, who also went back and forth between Aqueduct and Gulfstream, said he would have followed Samraat’s lead if he knew how ugly the Big Apple weather was going to be. “I didn’t think I was going to miss as many days of training as I did. If I could do it over, I would have had Uncle Sigh in Florida on Dec. 1. I think (Samraat’s trainer) Rick Violette should be applauded.”

Contessa appreciates that Uncle Sigh, who is named for a “Duck Dynasty” character, has more than Samraat to beat in the Wood. “I’ve been blown away by Social Inclusion. He could be any kind of horse.”

The key to the Wood, in Contessa’s estimation, is, “Somebody has to hook Social Inclusion.” Ideally for Uncle Sigh, that would be Samraat. “I would love to see that.”

‘Chrome’ owner thinking Triple Crown

Talk about counting your Triple Crown before even the Santa Anita Derby hatches, Steve Corbin, owner-breeder of California Chrome, considers Saturday’s signature Derby at the Great Race Place a forgone conclusion.

“When we win the Santa Derby, we’ll be on top of the points list. Notice I said ‘when.’ I have no doubts he’ll win the race.”

California Chrome is one of those feel good stories that racing needs more of. He is the first horse bred by Corbin, who already is having the time of his life and will celebrate his birthday on Kentucky Derby Day. California Chrome was born on Super Bowl Sunday. Corbin won a bet that would happen.

California Chrome, the 6-5 morning line favorite for the Santa Anita Derby, made a shambles of the San Felipe, crushing Midnight Hawk and others by more than seven lengths at a mile and a sixteenth. Now he goes nine furlongs en route to the mile and a quarter at Churchill Downs.

Corbin is super confident his Cal-bred will only get better as the distances increase. “I don’t think you’ve seen the top of this horse. He’s just a very special colt. Maybe at a mile and a quarter, he’ll win by 12 or 15.”

Corbin is not only looking past the Santa Anita Derby, he feels the Kentucky Derby is a mere steppingstone to the ultimate prize, the Triple Crown. His big concern, he says, is that his dream might be shattered in the Preakness or Belmont by a colt who hasn’t danced all the Triple Crown dances. “To me going to just the Preakness or Belmont is cheating. If you’ve got a horse you think can do it, put him in the first race and keep him in the second and third races.”

Too bad more owners and trainers don’t think like that.

If racing, reeling from the Steve Asmussen controversy, ever needed owners like Corbin and Sanchez, this is the year.

Written by Tom Jicha

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