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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Friday, June 14, 2013

Breeders’ Cup good intentions zero out in Triple Crown

Not a single horse from last fall's Breeders' Cup Juvenile made it to the starting gate of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness or Belmont this spring. It's probably not coincidental that this was the first BC in which Lasix was not allowed in 2-year-old races. The result was an atypically small field. Moreover, the BC Juvenile Sprint drew only 5, an embarrassment that led to the race being discontinued. The same rule will remain in effect this November. The BC is to be commended for trying to take a leadership position but it picked the wrong spot. It probably has made another misstep in awarding Santa Anita a third straight BC in 2014 with the strong possibility the BC will be back on the West Coast in 2015.

MIAMI, June 14, 2013—“The road to hell is paved with good intentions” is steeped in reality.

Breeders’ Cup had the best of intentions in attempting to show leadership when it comes to race day medications by banning Lasix in juvenile races. But those who should have had BC's back essentially said, “Go to hell.”

Moreover, the just concluded Triple Crown season turned out to be an embarrassment for the Breeders’ Cup.

It’s well known the BC Juvenile has produced only one winner who went on to double in the Kentucky Derby, Street Sense in 2006. Nevertheless, the climactic race of each 2-year-old season has a rich history of producing winners and in-the-money finishers in the following season’s Triple Crown events.

Union Rags, runnerup to Hansen in the 2011 BCJ, won the 2012 Belmont. Creative Cause and Dullahan, third in the Preakness and Belmont, respectively, also came out of that BCJ.

The 2010 BCJ produced Belmont runnerup Stay Thirsty.

The previous year’s second-place finisher, Luckin at Lucky, won the Preakness.

So on and so forth-- until this year.

Not only didn’t a single thoroughbred from the 2012 BCJ hit the board in a Triple Crown race, not one even made it to the starting gate of the Derby, Preakness or Belmont. This has to be a first.

What else made the 2012 BCJ unique? It was the first conducted under the new edict that 2-year-olds could not race on Lasix.

Coincidence? Perhaps. Maybe it’s also a coincidence that the BCJ, an event that often drew limit fields, had only nine entrants. The BC Juvenile Sprint had only five and was won by a maiden. This was such an embarrassment the race has been jettisoned. A number of no-shows can be traced directly to the Lasix prohibition.

This is germane because the same restriction will be in place this coming fall. Noticeably absent from the announcement that Santa Anita will host the two-day BC carnival in 2014 was any mention whether the Lasix ban will still be in effect. I’d take a short price on the negative.

The continuation of the edict for this fall’s 2-year-old events was a face-saving compromise. Breeders’ Cup's plan was to bar Lasix from all BC races this year. The threat of a mass boycott by horsemen, which could have reduced the rest of the card to what happened with the Juvenile Sprint, forced Breeders’ Cup to back off.

However, California horsemen, as well as those in other potential venues, indicated they would not grant simulcast permission in 2014 if the no-Lasix rule is still in effect. There has been no indication they are backing off this stand. Absent simulcasting revenue, there is no Breeders’ Cup.

Breeders’ Cup was trying to do the right thing, trying to begin to negate the perception that racing has degenerated into chemical warfare.

However, the entities that should have been BC’s allies turned out to be giving only lip service to dealing with this issue. Clearly, the people who make the game go on a daily basis don’t really want to deal with this.

With zero backing, Breeders’ Cup turned into a one-man army. Custer had a better shot.

It makes no sense to conduct races billed as championship events under conditions significantly different from all the races run the rest of the year. Most of the 2-year-olds in the BC stakes raced on Lasix before the BC, went off it for the one race, then went right back on it for subsequent races. Expect the same this November.

Breeders’ Cup might have made another ill-advised decision when it awarded the 2014 renewal to Santa Anita for the third straight year. There was a tipoff the fix was in when the California racing board awarded Santa Anita the weekend known to be the Breeders’ Cup preference.

Del Mar has been given similar dates for 2015. The San Diego area track also has announced that its turf course is being widened to accommodate 14-horse fields. The only impetus for the expensive renovation is to host the BC. BC President and CEO Craig Fravel came to his current position after serving as Del Mar President until June 2011.

Is the fix in again?

If so, it could be the end of the Breeders’ Cup as we know it. Reading between the lines of the official statement from Churchill Downs, the only other contender for 2014, as well as those from Kentucky politicians, the snub is not going down as smoothly as Black Jack in Blue Grass land.

Outspoken New York owner Mike Repole has been a loud voice in the Empire State objecting to the apparent West Coast bias, even suggesting an alternate event on the East Coast over the BC not being held at Belmont since 2005.

A concerted action by tracks and horsemen east of the Mississippi, which is not outside the realm of possibility, could transform the Breeders’ Cup into typical Southern California stakes, small fields of little betting appeal.

Santa Anita and Del Mar have much to offer as Breeders’ Cup venues. Fast and firm tracks are almost guaranteed. Hollywood star power spices the TV show. Speaking of which, the three-hour time difference from the East Coast allows for a prime-time Classic in daylight, something Kentucky and New York cannot match.

A formidable case can be made that Southern California should host the Breeders’ Cup more often than other venues. But not every year.

The NFL understands this. California, Florida, Arizona and New Orleans are the most desirable venues for the Super Bowl, not only for the game but for all that surrounds it. But the league appreciates the value of moving around sports’ biggest event, even to a ridiculous site like the open air stadium at the Meadowlands in the dead of winter.

But what does the NFL know?

Written by Tom Jicha

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Friday, June 07, 2013

One loss is no reason to jump off the Orb bandwagon

The Orb bandwagon emptied quickly after his dull Preakness but I'm staying aboard. All the factors that made the Derby winner look like a potential champion are still in place. He has the pedigree and style for the grueling mile and a half. Shug McGaughey is a master at getting horses good, then keeping them good. Joel Rosario is too fine a jockey to put in another ride like the one in Baltimore. What's more, there should be no walking on the lead in the third jewel of the Triple Crown. Orb's disappointing showing in the Preakness was a bummer for those yearning for a Triple Crown winner. But the upside is, he should be a generous 3-1 or so, rather than 1-2 or less had he won in Baltimore.

MIAMI, June 7, 2013--Every fan has a favorite horse. Mine is Riva Ridge.

I’m not saying he was the finest horse I’ve ever seen. That would be Seattle Slew, who might never have lost if the owners hadn’t shipped him anywhere for a buck, then change trainers when their misguided ventures blew up in their faces. Slew’s consistent brilliance gives him the edge in my eyes over Secretariat.

Riva Ridge was more a blue collar hero. I’m still convinced he would have been a year ahead of his more heralded stablemate in becoming the first Triple Crown winner since Citation in 1948 if it hadn’t rained on Preakness Day 1972.

I received an advance screener for the movie “Secretariat.” I have not watched it and probably never will because others have told me how it treated Riva Ridge as a non entity. Maybe it’s because three Triple Crown winners followed him onto the scene in the ‘70s, “The Decade of Champions.”

Riva Ridge might not have completed a Triple Crown but he was an Eclipse winner at 2 and 4, track record setter four times and still co-holder of the world record for a mile and three sixteenths. He was a millionaire when that was a mark of distinction.

He didn’t need to take his track with him, as long as it wasn’t wet. He won in New York, of course. But he also won the Laurel Futurity and Garden State Stakes, when those races were juvenile championship deciders, the Massachusetts Handicap at Suffolk Downs and Hollywood Derby in addition to the Kentucky Derby. He rebounded from the muddy debacle in Baltimore to win the Belmont by 7.

I see a similar thing happening, albeit under opposite circumstances Saturday. Orb won the Derby on a sloppy track, ran out of the money on a fast Pimlico surface, and is almost certain to be confronted by another off track Saturday.

Wet or dry, I’m convinced Orb will dominate the Belmont Stakes and I wouldn’t be surprised if he does it by daylight, just as Riva Ridge did.

My faith is based on several factors. The optimism after his Derby triumph that he was Triple Crown timber was steeped to a great degree in the fact that his pedigree and style screamed Belmont Stakes, the race that has tripped up so many would be Triple Crown winners. This hasn’t changed because of what happened at Pimlico.

Shug McGaughey brings horses along slowly, so when they get good, they stay good. Point of Entry, who will be odds-on to win the Manhattan one race before the Belmont, is a prime example.

There is no hotter rider in America than Joel Rosario. He might not have put in the ride of his life in the Preakness but those who blame him for Orb’s failure are way off base. While Oxbow was cruising along on a ridiculously easy lead, it seemed some of the other riders were as much determined to keep Orb pinned inside on a tiring track as they were to get the best of their mounts. Orb’s No. 1 post abetted this conspiracy. Great riders like Rosario don’t allow this to happen twice.

There should be no walking on the lead by Oxbow or anyone else this time. Ken McPeek has said publicly that he is telling Alan Garcia to go to the front from the rail with Frac Daddy. Freedom Child won the Peter Pan gate-to-wire on a sloppy track. Midnight Taboo, who has only a maiden win in three starts but was quick enough to run second at Saratoga in his 5 ½ furlong debut, seems to be in the race to assure an honest pace for Mike Repole’s more dangerous stablemates, Arkansas Derby winner Overanalyze and outstanding filly Unlimited Budget. On credentials, Midnight Taboo has no business in a Grade 1 classic at this stage of his career.

Most of all I like Orb because I still feel he is the best horse of his generation. I was on a crowded bandwagon three weeks ago. One defeat in a race with an unchallenged leader setting sundial fractions and almost everyone jumps off. Not me.

Orb’s Derby capped a remarkable five-race run, the final three wins in stakes that separate the best of the crop from the rest.

Revolutionary, third in the Derby, is the biggest threat on accomplishments. But three of the others I fear most come from among the new shooters. Freedom Child has that win in the prep over a sloppy track. Incognito's Peter Pan was better than it looks on paper and he is being sent out by Kiaran McLaughlin, who is hot enough lately to spontaneously combust. The son of Belmont winner A.P. Indy and Octave, who ran second to Rags to Riches in the 2007 Kentucky Oaks and third at 10 furlongs in the Alabama, should love the distance. Unlimited Budget is built like a colt.

Repole, a figs guy, says her numbers stand up to the colts. Females beat males so often in Europe it isn’t considered noteworthy when it happens. The big reason it doesn’t happen on this side of the Atlantic is it is more rarely attempted.

Todd Pletcher has already beaten a champion, Curlin, in the Belmont with the filly Rags to Riches. However, I would feel better about the chances of Unlimited Budget if I was convinced the decision to run her was Pletcher’s and not Repole’s. The ego-driven New Yorker said at the post position draw that he wants to win the Belmont more than the Kentucky Derby, which explains him throwing three horses at it.

Then again, as D. Wayne Lukas often says, you have to be in it to win it. No matter which horse earns the blanket of carnations, “The Coach” is the towering human figure of this Belmont. Nine of the 14 starters can be traced to him.

In addition to Oxbow and late-running Will Take Charge, a couple of former assistants, who honed their craft under Lukas, will start seven others: five for Pletcher (Repole’s three, Palace Malice and Revolutionary), Incognito for McLaughlin and Derby runnerup Golden Soul for Dallas Stewart.

I’ve never been a fan of uncoupled entries. But if Team Pletcher had been combined as one unit, as they would have been in days gone by, and Lukas’ pair also were coupled, there would be only nine betting interests and I wouldn’t collect as much as I expect to on Orb.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Tuesday, June 04, 2013

A fan-friendly platform for a would-be racing czar

The idea of a racing czar to rule the sport nationally is not going to happen. Tracks and local jurisdictions will never surrender their power. But as long as people like the ivory tower crowd at The New York Times want to daydream about a strong, central leader for racing, there are fan-friendly fixes that should be at the top of the czar's agenda. The best thing about this to-do list is almost all of them require nothing more than some common sense by racetrack management and could be put into place immediately.

MIAMI, June 4, 2013—Tears for Fears was a bit off with their hit “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.”

Response to my recent column on the likelihood of a racing czar, which was suggested in The New York Times, was as passionate and divided as some of the debates in Washington. A sizable segment of the racing community wants someone, anyone to rule their world.

It might be an appealing thought but it's as undoable as creating Utopia. Too many insurmountable obstacles are in the way to have it come to fruition. First and foremost is the plethora of individual racetracks and jurisdictions, which will never surrender their power.

With the comfort of knowing a racing czar is a pipedream, I have the ideal candidate—Me.

Fans would be my win, place and show considerations. Without them, racing is polo, a costly hobby for the rich ignored by the masses.

The best part of my candidacy is the edicts I would issue are actually easily accomplished. Well, maybe not the first one, but all the others.

A sport without stars is like an album without a hit single. Only the hardcore pay attention. Racing needs its stars to stay on the track at least through their 4-year-old campaigns. I would urge (or if I were really the czar, order) the Jockey Club not to register foals conceived by a stallion before he was 5.

Thoroughbreds generally live into their 20s, or close to it. Surrendering one breeding season for the good of the game isn’t asking too much in light of how it could enhance interest in the sport. The healthier racing is, the more everyone, including breeders, benefits.

NYRA’s rule on one part of a coupled entry being scratched after betting has begun would be adopted nationwide. That is, the other part of the entry is considered scratched, too, and runs for purse money only.

Florida bettors continue to be regularly screwed because Calder and Gulfstream refuse to bend on this issue. The latest example came in Calder’s 10th race on June 1. Trainer Stanley Gold had a coupled entry, Hand Picked and It’s a Done Deal. Hand Picked threw his rider and ran off as the field was being loaded. He was properly ordered scratched.

It’s impossible to know which of Gold’s horses fans had made the 2-1 favorite--maybe some just wanted strength in numbers--but they were stuck with It’s a Done Deal, who drifted up to 7-2. It would have taken Olympic speed to get to a window or SAM to cancel the ticket.

But there were also multi-race tickets involved. Those holding them had no opportunity to change and were SOL when It's a Done Deal was soundly thrashed.

A similar situation happened on a Sunday at Gulfstream this winter with a Frank Calabrese entry, in which what seemed to be the much stronger half was scratched. The one that did run finished up the track.

There is no excuse for the Florida tracks (and any others with the same policy) to not have adopted the NYRA rule yesterday.

Another NYRA practice, posting multi-race will-pays immediately after the just run race payoffs, also should be adopted anywhere it isn’t.

The Southern California tracks are the worst. Try to decide your options to “save” when you have to sit through post-race interviews, replays, promos for the next food truck day, commercials for area restaurants and all other manner of extraneous crap before the potential payoffs are posted. There were occasions at Santa Anita this winter when they weren’t up until inside five minutes to post.

NYRA has areas it can improve, too, starting with posting all payoffs based on $2 bets. Only a fool bets $2 Pick 4’s or Pick 3’s, because of the tax implications. In fact, there should be an advisory in track programs that as long as the confiscatory IRS tax grab persists bettors should buy the least expensive multi-race combinations allowed. Those who want to bet more per combination have the option of multiple tickets.

In harmony with this, payoffs should be posted according to what the minimum wager is (with the exception of win-place-show for tradition’s sake). If you can bet a 50-cent Pick 3 or Pick 4, the payoff based on that should be displayed. For bets with a $1 minimum, the single buck payoff should be the norm.

Multi-tasking is in vogue but it shouldn’t come into play when watching races. New York, Southern California and Florida in the winter/Kentucky in the spring and fall, should never spring the gate on a race until one in progress at another of the big three has been decided.

The number of tracks operating, especially in the warm weather months, makes it impossible to avoid all conflicts. But the big three are where most of the simulcast money is bet. Players shouldn’t have to go cross-eyed trying to follow two races at once.

At least three times on a Saturday last winter, Santa Anita’s first race of a Pick Six with a huge carryover was run simultaneous to a graded stakes at Gulfstream. The two tracks are owned by the same person, Frank Stronach.

This would be as much in the tracks’ interest as the fans. Research has shown substantially more is bet when there is spacing between simulcast races.

Only extreme provincialism and contempt for the bettors allow this to happen. The officials who can order a race held a minute or two have access to the same TV monitors as fans, so there is no excuse. If I were Stronach, who has shown zero hesitance to fire people, the first time would have brought a warning not to let this happen again. The second time would have brought a pink slip. I’ll bet there wouldn’t have been a third time.

Picking a winner is so challenging that even the sharpest handicappers are right only about a third of the time. Stewards would be instructed never to disqualify a horse, who committed an infraction that didn’t change the final placings. To anyone who says, “How would you know?” this is no more a judgment call than deciding if a disqualification is warranted.

The most disheartening situation for a player is to see his selection win easily, only to be taken down for crossing over too soon or bumping a rival en route to an easy win when the “fouled” horse holds on for second. Disheartened fans can easily become former fans.

A simple remedy exists. Fine the offending jockey the amount he made for riding the winner and strip the win from his record. This is what would have happened with a DQ anyway and you don’t have disgruntled fans.

This is only the start of my platform. I’m sure you have ideas, too. Fire away.

Written by Tom Jicha

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