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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Thursday, June 23, 2016

Track operators are an endangered species

The grand old men of race track ownership are all being threatened by actuarial tables. Frank Stronach is 83. Richard Duchossois is 94. Charles Cella of Oaklawn is approaching his 80th birthday. Dr. Edward Allred, who renovated Los Alamitos into a thoroughbred track is 80. John Brunetti, who long has harbored dreams of restoring thoroughbred racing to Hialeah, is 85. Who is going to replace these men and maintain racing? This is a question racing must deal with.

MIAMI, June 23, 2016--The graying of the fan base has been decried as the biggest threat to the future of racing. Actually, there is a bigger, related problem: the graying of track ownership. New fans can be found and recruited more easily than wealthy individuals with the means and desire to run racetracks.

Dr. Edward Allred helped alleviate one of many recent crises in Southern California racing when he renovated his Los Alamitos quarterhorse track for thoroughbred racing. This filled the void left by the closure of Hollywood Park. Dr. Allred, who recently celebrated his 80th birthday, said something recently that should send chills up the spine of everyone in racing.

In a letter to employees, reprinted by the Racing Form, he wrote, “I love what I’m doing and I love (Los Alamitos) and the people who work and race there. It is my strong desire to keep Los Alamitos Race Course operational as long as horsemen support the racing program and so long as I am able to oversee the operation.”

Then came the terrifying “but.” “It is unlikely upon my passing or serious disability that another group could be found that could acquire the track for racing purposes.” So Los Alamitos filling the gap left by Hollywood could be just a band aid solution.

In an interview with the Paulick Report, Allred reiterated this point. “When I go, no one will buy this as a race track. They couldn’t afford to.”

Then he added something that should sound an alarm to the entire racing community. He and Los Alamitos are not isolated cases. “No one could afford to buy Santa Anita as a racetrack, either. You’re talking $2 million to $3 million an acre. You can’t afford to race there.”

The Stronach Group (i.e., Frank Stronach) operates Santa Anita as well as both Maryland tracks, Golden Gate and Portland Meadows. He has been great for racing but he is 83.

Stronach’s son Andy is involved in the family business and his daughter Belinda is known to enjoy racing. However, even if the children want to keep their father’s dreams alive, the daunting death taxes they would be confronted by might make it challenging. Cashing in their chips could become an alluring option.

The saving factor for racing is there might not be any buyers. To clarify, there might not be any buyers interested in maintaining horse racing. Gulfstream has a casino spread over two floors, which could be enticing to buyers. So would the vast acreage surrounding the track, some of the most valuable real estate in Florida, if not the entire United States.

One of the reasons South Florida horsemen are so vehemently opposed to decoupling, which seemingly will keep coming up in the legislature until it passes, is the fear that without the obligation to race, a new owner could come in, keep the casino and shut down racing.

This is what Churchill Downs did with Calder. Decoupling also would spell the end of the sham 40-day Gulfstream West meeting, which was created so that Churchill Downs could meet state requirements to maintain its casino license. Demolition of the Calder grandstand is ongoing. Soon the property will not be suitable as a race track even if someone wanted to revive the sport there.

Tropical Park, which Calder replaced upon the death of its colorful owner Saul Silberman, was transformed into a county park more than 40 years ago. For all practical purposes, Hialeah is gone, too. Race tracks disappear in Florida, just as they have in California.

The resurrection of Hialeah as a thoroughbred venue is on the wish lists of many racing fans. As recently as two years ago, Hialeah owner John Brunetti told the New York Times that Hialeah deserves to be in thoroughbred racing.

Alas, Brunetti is 85 and his sons, Steven and John, want no part of resurrecting the thoroughbred sport. They are happy with the revenue generated by the casino built into the fabled grandstand. Word is they plan to reschedule Hialeah’s 40-day sham casino-maintaining quarterhorse meet in 2017 from tourist heavy December, January and February to June and July, when even locals flee the summer heat as much as they can.

This might seem illogical until you consider that the legislature will meet in April and May. If decoupling passes next year, Hialeah could keep its casino without being obligated to run the quarterhorse meet. This would effectively spell the end of horse racing of any kind at “the world’s most beautiful racetrack.”

Charles Cella, owner of Oaklawn Park, will be 80 in August.

Richard Duchossois, the largest single stock holder in Churchill Downs, is 94. Duchossois, whose board considers CDI a casino company, is believed to be the only reason his pet property, Arlington Park, is still in operation as a race track.

In another era, any of these men might have been expected to become involved in the bidding for a re-privatized New York Racing Association. The fact that they all have passed has made it easier for Gov. Cuomo to maintain his stranglehold on New York racing.

Think about this: NYRA handled $2.243 billion last year, approximately 20 percent of the wagering nationwide, but it hasn’t been able to attract one potential buyer.

There is no reason to believe the situation will be any different if and when mortality puts The Stronach Group tracks, Oaklawn , Arlington and Los Alamitos on the block. As Dr. Allred pointed out, the land on which they sit is worth multiple times more for almost any purpose other than racing.

This fiscal reality is what led to the demise of Hollywood Park, Bay Meadows and several lesser tracks. It is what is inevitably going to lead to the shutdown of Aqueduct.

So instead of fretting over how to attract young blood to replace today’s older fans, the industry ought to have an aggressive plan to find and recruit new racetrack owners. Absent them, there will be no need to worry about where the next generation of racing fans will come from. They will have no place to go.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Wednesday, June 15, 2016

News Was Not All Good on Belmont Weekend

California Horse Racing Board member Steve Beneto said, “To Hell with the bettors,” a couple of weeks ago. Golden Gate and its jockeys put this attitude into practice in a big way on Sunday.

The pity is, this happened at the tail end of the most glorious non-Breeders’ Cup weekend in memory, the Belmont Stakes Festival.

Instead of everyone feeling upbeat about the game, the latest screwing of the customers is the topic among those who follow and participate in racing most avidly.

You can only abuse people so long before they get disgusted and walk away. Indeed, there are already calls for a boycott of California racing as a result of this.

MIAMI, June 16, 2016--Golden Gate had a jackpot of almost $2 million Sunday in its version of the Rainbow 6. Because it was closing day, the pool had to be distributed without the “single winner” qualifier. As usually happens, this attracted enormous participation of more than $4 million from bettors nationwide.

In the midst of the wager, the jockeys decided the turf course was unsafe and they refused to ride the 10th and 12th races on the grass. This was after they had already ridden three races on the turf, including the 8th race, which was part of the jackpot sequence.

There was no change in the weather or description of the “firm” course. Maybe a new listing needs to be created, “chopped up.”

If there was a potential problem, the riders should have informed management after one of the earlier grass races, before the Rainbow 6 began. They were not oblivious to the extraordinary action taking place Sunday.

The jockeys’ decision necessitated making the 10th and 12th races “all’s.” The Rainbow 6 became a pick 4, which resulted in a tiny payout of $146.16 per winning 50-cent ticket.

The whales and syndicates, which invested tens of thousands, were royally shafted. So were smaller players who pooled resources to cover more combinations.

This abomination could have a carryover effect—excuse the term--on all such mandatory payoff pools. A reluctance to jump in with both fists might develop out of fear of an encore wherever the bet is offered.

There is shared culpability here. Golden Gate, as painful as it might have been, should have announced a total refund when it learned two of the final three races would have to be all’s. Management could not have been unaware that the turf course was problematic.

With the huge pool anticipated, no turf races should have been scheduled. They were, of course, because grass races draw bigger fields, which translates to more combinations having to be covered.

The jockeys involved have to receive sanctions. They were aware of what was at stake. The course couldn’t have been that bad. They rode it three times earlier in the day without incident. Nevertheless, they made a decision that gave the entire sport a black eye with repercussions still to be felt.

The CHRB should issue fines and/or suspensions as the least of the consequences. The chances of this happening are, of course, nil. As Beneto said, “To Hell with the bettors.”

Et tu, Gulfstream

The Golden Gate fiasco was not an isolated event this past weekend.

Hardly anyone was paying attention because of the Belmont stakes, but Gulfstream had a situation which should not have been allowed in the 11th and last race Saturday.

Key the Storm, #13, was an MTO in the turf dash. With the race still scheduled for the turf, he should have been scratched no later than the start of the late gimmicks. He was not.

Unlike the weather in NoCal, heavy summer showers were in the SoFla area throughout the afternoon.

When the windows opened for race 11, which remained on the turf, he was still in the tote; wagers being accepted on #13. Possible Will Pays were listed in all the horizontal pools. Finally, at about 22 minutes to post, there was an announcement he was scratched.

Key the Storm had to be used in all the gimmicks. He was coming off a pair of seconds in a race in which his competition was a combined 0-108. Hunch players might have used him because of the Florida and New York weather, whatever. By leaving him in, players were forced to increase the size and cost of their horizontal bets.

When he finally was scratched, there were puny consolation payoffs in the pick 3. Players who had him in other multi-race gimmicks were SOL; switched to the post-time favorite, they lost.

Double bettors who might have keyed him backward with, say, three contenders in race 10, were automatic losers on two tickets since in order to receive a consolation DD, the first half of the DD must win.

Key the Storm was scratched only after the results of the 10th race were made official.

Past posting

Other reflections from Belmont weekend:

NYRA should reconsider scheduling the Easy Goer as part of the Belmont card. It had three starters last year and five this year.

This was not unpredictable. The Belmont drew 13 and the Woody Stephens also had 13 entered. At this stage of the season, especially given the attrition rate of the Triple Crown trail, it’s debatable there are more than two dozen 3-year-olds worthy of stakes consideration on the same card, let alone enough for a third stakes.

HRI executive editor John Pricci suggested making the Easy Goer a July 4 weekend feature as a prep for the Jim Dandy and/or Haskell. I like that idea.

NYRA came up about $30K short of the guaranteed $150K True North-Met Mile double. This one hurt because the bet wasn’t as well publicized and anticipated as was the Belmont Derby-Belmont Stakes double.

If anyone can explain the value of guarantees at major tracks, where the pools are always sizable, I'd like to hear it.

Also lost in the Belmont afterglow and Golden Gate controversy was Russell Baze's surprise announcement after, ironically, Sunday's 10th race, that he is retiring.

Baze, 57, leaves the game with an incredible North American record 12,842 victories, good for earnings of just under $200 million.

To put this into perspective, for someone to challenge his victory mark, he or she would have to average a winner every day of the calendar year for more than 35 years.

With most venues down to no more than a five-day week, which comes out to 260 cards a year, it actually would entail a winner a day for just under 50 years.

But those are merely the cold numbers. A family man, Baze has been a credit to the game every day he has been on the racetrack. His talent, dedication and integrity will be missed.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, June 09, 2016

Belmont needs support to be Test of Champions again

The Belmont Stakes used to be called The Test of Champions. It was said to be the race breeders coveted most. This is no longer true. The emphasis on speed and speed breeding has made distance racing at the highest levels almost extinct. The only way to bring back longer races is for tracks to develop a coordinated sequence of stakes that would encourage the development of true stayers.

MIAMI, June 8, 2016—Tell the truth. How excited are you about this year’s Belmont Stakes?

Without a Triple Crown on the line, the thrill is gone. It’s just another good betting race on an exceptional card. But the tingle of a classic just isn’t there, especially in the aftermath of American Pharoah’s stirring feats of just a year ago.

The Belmont was known for years as the Test of Champions and the race breeders wanted to win more than any other. Neither is still the case.

Over the past 10 years, other than the indisputable choice of Triple Crown conqueror American Pharoah, only one Belmont winner has been voted the Eclipse 3-year-old championship, Summer Bird in 2009. During the same period, Kentucky Derby winners American Pharoah, California Chrome (2014), I’ll Have Another (2012), Animal Kingdom (2011) and Big Brown (2008) have been voted best of their generation.

Exaggerator seems to be the only Belmont starter this year with championship potential. However, it’s revealing that even after his decisive Preakness win, Exaggerator still ranks behind Derby winner Nyquist in the NTRA 3-year-old poll.

The rest of the Belmont field boasts some nice horses, but there also is a maiden and two others who just broke maiden.

So much for the Belmont being the Test of Champions.

Breeders were jazzed about the Belmont when stamina was valued. That was an era when the Jockey Club Gold Cup, won five straight times by five-time Horse of the Year Kelso, was two miles and most championship-deciding stakes were at least a mile and a quarter. You can win a championship these days without running further than a mile and an eighth.

Speed is the new cherished commodity in American racing. A yearling who can shade 10 seconds for an eighth of a mile at a 2-year-old sale will bring more than one with Belmont Stakes breeding almost every time.

If the Belmont weren’t the third jewel of the Triple Crown, it arguably would have declined to outlier status, almost a novelty race. Many horsemen, D. Wayne Lukas most prominent among them, have lobbied for years to have its distance reduced in recognition of the new breeding reality. Thankfully, American Pharoah silenced the anti-traditionalists for at least the next few years.

The solution is not to reduce the distance of the Belmont, it’s to schedule more races at 10 and 12 furlongs. Breeders don’t breed for staying power and trainers don’t condition for it because there are few opportunities to make money with horses who specialize in running what used to be “the classic distances.”

Chances are none of the starters in Saturday’s race will be asked to run 12 furlongs on dirt again. A couple of trainers, who will start three of the 13 horses in the Belmont, wish this wasn’t so.

Dale Romans, who is high on both his Belmont starters, Preakness runnerup Cherry Wine and Blue Grass winner Brody’s Cause, said there are horses who might not be proficient at a mile and a half now but they could become that if they’d had more mile-and-a-half opportunities after the Belmont.

It might not hurt to have at least one before the Belmont, too, so horsemen could get a truer gauge on their horse’s scope. How about complementing the Peter Pan with a 12-furlong Belmont prep the same day. I have just the name for it, the Seattle Slew.

Donnie Von Hemel, who’ll start Suddenbreakingnews, said, “I would welcome more distance racing myself, but that doesn’t appear to be the trend in American racing.”
It’s a classic chicken-or-the-egg scenario. Racing secretaries don’t write mile-and-a-half races because they are next to impossible to fill. It’s easier for a racing secretary to take the course of least resistance and write shorter and shorter races, which tend to draw limit fields, making upper management happy.

“What I’ve seen throughout racing is just more and more sprint races,” Von Hemel said. “We’ve gone the last 15, 20 years to the five-eighths turf race going from a little bit of a novelty item at the end of a meet to a mainstay in American racing. I don’t like it myself even though from time to time I have horses that run real well in those races. But I still think distance separates good thoroughbreds. The further you go, the more that begins to tell. At five-eighths, there’s not a lot of difference between a good horse and a not-as-good horse, whereas when you go a mile and a quarter and up, I think it really starts to show who are the quality animals.”

Reversing this trend would take a coordinated, sustained effort by racetracks—I’ll pause to give you a chance to stop laughing—to write more distance races.

“The tracks would all have to get together because they compete for horses,” Von Hamel said. “They all have to decide these are the kind of races we’re going to write, so people are going to have to run where they’re at. They’re not going to be able to go somewhere else and run in a shorter race. I think it would be worth a try. But it would be a tough thing because I’m afraid if it didn’t draw big fields immediately, it would be dropped too quickly.”

The Breeders’ Cup Marathon, the last concerted effort to revive long distance racing on dirt, is the prototypical example. It was introduced in 2008 and discontinued after 2013—hardly an adequate trial-- because the fields were relatively short and not Breeders’ Cup quality.”The conditions of the race have not developed into a competition that we believe reaches the standard set by the remaining races comprising the championships,” the Breeders’ Cup declared.

One way to revive a semblance of quality distance racing would be for, say, Monmouth, to card a mile-and-a-half stakes for 3-year-olds in July. Saratoga could follow in August, maybe Arlington or Laurel in September and October, Churchill at its fall meeting and Gulfstream and the Fair Grounds early in their winter meetings. This would incentivize owners and trainers to identify and develop distance specialists. Would anyone argue that fans wouldn't love it?

Gulfstream has made a step in the right direction with the H. Allen Jerkens Stakes at two miles. But there are no distance preps to feed this event.

For that matter, why not a mile-and-a-half race in the Claiming Crown? Make the starter conditions light enough—say for horses who ran for $10K or less--and I’ll bet it would fill.

The more these types of races are scheduled, the more preps that would be written and the more horsemen would make the effort to find horses to compete in them. As Von Hemel said, it will require a concerted, enduring effort to restore distance racing back to championship caliber in America.

Written by Tom Jicha

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