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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Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Cheating is a problem but it’s not what’s hindering racing’s growth

Every sport has its cheaters (so does Wall Street). But Deflate-Gate,the premature, injury-caused deaths of celebrated players and debilitating injuries didn’t discourage more people than ever from watching the Super Bowl. Likewise, cheating in racing is a problem but it is not what is keeping the sport from growing or even holding its own.

MIAMI, Feb. 3, 21015--Sunday’s Super Bowl delivered the highest overnight television ratings in history. The Patriots and Seahawks pulled a 49.7 Nielsen rating. This translates to almost one of every two homes in America tuned in to the game. That’s all homes, not those with a TV set turned on, a significant difference when you take into account how many folks watch in sports bars or in groups at a friend’s home. Thus their home is treated as if no one is watching the game.

When the final headcount comes in, Super Bowl 49, will probably have drawn an audience of about 115 million. That’s the game that took place in the midst of Deflate-Gate, the most overplayed faux scandal in recent sports history.

This was no surprise. A headline on the front page—1A, not the sports front—of the Sunday Miami Herald read, “Despite scandal, pro football is still the most popular sport in America.”

The same edition contained a story on Junior Seau’s selection to the pro football Hall of Fame. Seau won’t be in Canton this summer to accept his accolades. The hard hits the linebacker took did so much damage to his brain that he committed suicide at 42 years-old.

Seau’s is not an isolated story. On Dec. 1, 2012, Jovan Belcher of the Kansas City Chiefs shot and killed his 22-year-old girlfriend then went to the Chiefs training facility and shot himself fatally. He was 25. An autopsy showed Belcher suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy. In layman’s terms, it’s an affliction found in athletes with a history of repetitive brain injuries.

I could go on. The point is, in spite of these tragedies, which given the ever increasing speed and weight of contemporary NFL players are probably going to become more frequent, America loves the game. As the Miami Herald headline said, pro football is more popular than ever.

There is an inherent danger in almost all sports. Athletes, human and equine, are going to suffer severe injuries. Some will die. This doesn’t mean it has to be accepted. Everything possible should be done to prevent such tragedies. But it must be recognized, bad things are going to occasionally happen.

Jim Tressel, a national championship winning coach at Ohio State, was driven from his job. The NCAA put him on its equivalent of a no-fly list for cheating, lying about it and covering it up. Any school that hires him before December 2016 must show cause why it should not suffer sanctions. Last month, Tressel was named to the College Football Hall of Fame. He will be inducted into the game’s shrine while his sanctions are still in place.

There aren’t more than a handful of major college football programs in America that haven’t gotten caught cheating. Yet the popularity of college football hasn’t suffered an iota. More people watched the national championship game—coincidentally won by Ohio State—than any telecast in ESPN history.

In the interest of brevity, I won’t detail the well known facts of baseball’s steroids scandal. But I will note that the home run derby it created drove the game to new levels of popularity, which continue to grow even as players still are regularly identified as using performance enhancing drugs.

There is a message here. If the product is good, people will look past a few cheaters. They’ll even put death and debilitating injuries on an out-of-sight, out-of-mind back burner. This isn’t something to be proud of or to condone in any way but it’s a fact.

Irving Rudd was one of the greatest sports publicists ever. He worked for Yonkers Raceway in the pre-casino era. Harness racing was the red-headed stepchild of pari-mutuel sports back in the second half of the 20th century. It rarely got any publicity. Rudd’s signature success came when Yonkers was reopening with an all-new clubhouse.

The harness track is adjacent to the New York Thruway right over the New York City line. Millions drive past it every day. Rudd concocted an inspired way to get countless dollars of free publicity for the reopening. On the side of the clubhouse facing the Thruway is “Yonkers Raceway” in huge letters. The day before the opening, Rudd arranged to have it misspelled to Yonkers "Racewya.”

Every local TV station in the Big Apple showed footage and made fun of Rudd’s “mistake” on that night’s newscasts. And every viewer in the nation's most populated market was made aware of the Yonkers reopening. It didn't cost Rudd a dime.

Rudd used to say that his dream was to be able to run a spot whose tagline was “Nine fixed races tonight.” There wouldn’t be enough cops to control the people who would try to get in, he said with a knowing laugh.

The point is I think racing uses drug scandals and equine tragedies as a crutch for all the other issues that have reduced attendance and handle. The biggest single reason is the loss of the monopoly on the gambling dollar racing enjoyed for decades. With casinos everywhere, many of them at racetracks, it’s almost miraculous that racing is doing as well as it is. Greyhound racing is in its death throes. Jai alai is essentially dead. Look at what casino competition has done to Atlantic City.

For the first time, racing has had to learn to compete and it has not been an exemplary student. I won’t offer myself as a universal gauge but I have never met a player who said he is going to stop going to the races because of cheating. However, an unjustified hike in the takeout led horse players nationwide to successfully boycott Churchill Downs last year.

I have heard plenty of “I’m not coming back” gripes about poor customer service and accommodations and price gouging at concession stands. There is no excuse for $6 or $7 cups of beer and $5 hot dogs when the track is cutting 20 cents or more out of every dollar wagered. This is where customers feel cheated.

It should never be overlooked that a big reason Saratoga’s popularity is so enduring is that fans can bring in their own food and beverages. I would argue that most of the money they save winds up going through the betting windows.

Nine dollars for a Racing Form is another turnoff for fans old and new. Coming from the newspaper business, which has been forced to drastically cut back on the size of papers in a bid to survive, I understand why the Form has to be so expensive. Next to employee salaries, the actual paper it is printed on is the biggest expense for any publication. But the Form’s elevated price is still an obstacle to racing’s growth.

Most tracks have a less expensive past performance book but only for the local races. To enjoy the game the way it is played now with simulcast action at several tracks, at least a couple of these books are needed. This wipes out any savings from not buying a Racing Form.

Race books in Las Vegas have counters where players can peruse past performances without buying a paper. I realize the logistical problems this could create at a race track with many times more customers but it is something worth looking into. Maybe a two-minute rule to avoid people camping out all day in front of the free paper.

PETA’s allegations against Steve Asmussen—who has since been exonerated after a year-long investigation--were prominent in media that never bothers with racing last spring. It didn’t keep NBC from achieving blockbuster ratings for the Kentucky Derby. Two weeks later the usual 100,000-plus packed Pimlico for the Preakness. Three weeks after that the Belmont Stakes set attendance records despite charging inflated Broadway prices.

Give people an event that excites them and provides enjoyable entertainment and they’ll overlook a lot of what goes on behind the scenes. This should be racing's priority.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Tuesday, January 27, 2015

New NYRA rules ignore real problem: winter racing

Reacting to a disheartening number of fatal thoroughbred breakdowns, NYRA has come up with a new series of rules and regulations, one more pointless than the others. They all gloss over the real problem. Winter racing at Aqueduct attracts a disproportionate number of problem horses. The only solution is to curtail racing during the worst weather months of the year.

MIAMI, Jan. 27, 2015--The latest steps taken by the New York Racing Association, whose board is now dominated by political appointees, are examples of what happens when racing allows politically motivated individuals rather than horse people to dictate when and how racing will be conducted.

Less than a month into winter racing (with five racing dates knocked out by weather) there have been 14 thoroughbred deaths. This is a horrid, unacceptable situation demanding informed, thoughtful attention.

Rick Violette, president of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, stated emphatically after saddling Upstart to a dominating win in Gulfstream’s Holy Bull, “There is nothing wrong with the (Aqueduct) racetrack. I have 30 horses that I train over it every day.”

(Of course, his best horse is training under optimal conditions in South Florida.)

Violette was speaking as an individual but what he said is in synch with the official NYRA position. So, if it’s not the track, it has to be something else. Any horsemen and most fans can see the hastily created remedies for what “something else” might be are drastic over-reactions designed by people with limited racing expertise.

Meanwhile, the real culprit, winter racing, over populated by horses with infirmities that render them incapable of earning their keep during the prime racing months, gets a slide because curtailing it doesn’t serve political interests.

There is no relief in sight. Gov.Cuomo indicated last week that the state is not ready to privatize NY racing again, which was supposed to happen by this coming October. If you are offered a deal by the devil to live without fear of death until the state relinquishes control of NYRA, jump at it.

The most ludicrous new rule, in a tight photo, is the edict that horses will not be allowed to run back within 14 days of a race. There are, however, about a half-dozen examples of horses who fatally broke down after having run more than once within those parameters.

However, these cannot be taken in a vacuum as cause and effect. Other horses ran within the same period without negative ramifications. Some even won.

Did the horses in this sample have a history of injuries that caused them to the sidelines for lengthy periods? Were they horses being dropped drastically in claiming price, a red flag to soundness issues? What pharmaceuticals were they being treated with? Just taking the number of days between starts ignores these other potential factors.

There are ample examples of horses running back with great success far more quickly than the new rules allow. Willy Beamin won the 2012 Albany Stakes at Saratoga then came back three days later to take the Kings Bishop which, as a Grade 1, is supposed to represent the most difficult race in the sport to win.

Emollient fired a clunker in the 2013 Gulfstream Oaks but came back seven days later to win the Grade 1 Ashland. What’s more, Emollient has continued to race regularly at the highest levels. She won a couple more Grade 1 races in 2013 and another this past September, almost a year and a half beyond what NYRA would have people believe is a debilitating regimen.

NYRA has already bitten itself in the buns on this one. Eight horses, who were entered before horsemen were fully aware of the new restrictions, had to be scratched from the Jan. 25 card, resulting in two three-horse fields and two four-horse fields on a nine-race card. How many new friends among those who made the trip to the track do you suppose this made?

It could be worse on Thursday. Eleven of the 63 horses entered are ineligible under the 14-day rule, according to the Daily Racing Form. This is before normal scratches. Maybe the blizzard expected to bury the Northeast will spare NYRA the embarrassment of running the Thursday card.

Nosed out for pointlessness is the reduction of NYRA’s winter agenda by three races a week. Winter cards on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday will be reduced to eight races. This is like, instead of giving up smoking, cutting back from three packs a day to two.

It is indisputable that the fewer the races, the fewer chances for breakdowns. Continuing this to its illogical conclusion, why not seven-race cards or six or five until we get down to zero when, of course, there would be no race-related breakdowns.

Not to be underestimated for the distinction of most absurd new rule is the one that raises the minimum claiming level for maidens to $16,000 from $12,500. Only someone totally oblivious to the way claiming prices work would be impressed by this. The $16,000 claiming races will now be populated by horses who have been running for $12,500 and would be entered for $10,000 or $7,500 if it were the bottom.

The “poor performance” list is another joke. Any horse beaten by 25 lengths has to work a half-mile in 53 seconds before it can be entered in a race again. This is ridiculous on a couple of levels.

It doesn’t distinguish between a horse getting beat 25 lengths in a stakes or even a high priced claimer and one losing by 25 lengths in a bottom level maiden claiming race. Also 53 seconds is hardly a taxing standard. A horse that has to go all out to make 52 4/5 isn’t going to be any more competitive on the NYRA circuit than one that lumbers under the wire in 53.

Expectations are these rules, especially the 14-day restriction, will be re-examined and likely shelved when the better horses start showing up in the entries during the spring.

Isn’t this a de facto admission that the real problem is winter racing?

Written by Tom Jicha

Comments (18)


Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Twice caught rider faces third battery allegations; How does racing allow this to happen?

Roman Chapa, who has been suspended twice--for 19 months and five years--for using a battery is being investigated again for the same offense for a ride at Sam Houston Park last Saturday night. This is why arguing for tougher cheating rules is a joke. What's the point when someone who has been convicted of one of the most serious offenses can get a second and third chance?

MIAMI, Jan. 20, 2015--Racing can pass all the tough regulations imaginable in an attempt to keep the game honest but without stern enforcement and punishment it’s all an exercise in public relations.

Texas racing officials are investigating jockey Roman Chapa for carrying a battery in urging Quiet Acceleration to victory in Saturday night’s $50,000 Richard King Stakes at Sam Houston Park. He has been "suspended summarily" pending completion of the probe.

The investigation was triggered by a photo taken by the track photographer of Chapa and Quiet Acceleration as they crossed the finish line. The shot appears to show something in the palm of Chapa’s hand.

We all should have learned from one of the most embarrassing episodes in racing history that a photo such as this is not enough to level allegations. In the wake of Funny Cide’s victory in the 2003 Kentucky Derby, The Miami Herald, on the basis of a photo that appeared to show Jose Santos with something in his hand, ran stories raising the possibility that Santos used an electrical device in the Run for the Roses.

The photo turned out to be an optical illusion and Santos was completely exonerated. He sued the newspaper and a confidential settlement was reached. Meanwhile the damage to racing was done.

There also was the outrageous, baseless allegations by Eric Guillot that Luis Saez used an electrical device in the 2013 Travers. Like Santos, Saez was totally exonerated and Guillot eventually walked back his assertions.

As always, Santos and Saez being cleared was buried, if reported at all, by media outlets that sensationalized the allegations.

However, there are significant differences between those incidents and Chapa. Santos and Saez had sterling reputations. Chapa has already been suspended twice for lengthy periods for use of a “machine.” He was sidelined for 19 months in 1993 by Texas for being caught using a battery. Apparently he didn’t learn a lesson. New Mexico nailed him for five years in 2007 for the same offense.

There is also ample circumstantial evidence. Chapa and Quiet Acceleration won last year’s King Stakes. Since then the horse has been ridden by five different riders without finding his way to the winner’s circle. He went off at 10-1 Saturday.

The first two days of the Sam Houston meeting, Chapa won with five of eight mounts with a second and a third. Any jockey can get hot over a short period but given Chapa’s history, it’s tough to give him the benefit of the doubt.

The bigger point is why was Chapa licensed at all after the second offense? You know the old expression, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” What do you say about someone who makes a fool of you a third time? More to the point, what do you say about people who put themselves in a position to be fooled a third time?

Zapping horses also raises humane and safety issues. Nothing will get a horse to overextend himself like a jolt of electricity. It also could cause a sudden veer to the left or right, which would endanger every other horse and rider in the field.

This is such a blatant, conscious, arrogant offense, it should carry a lifetime suspension, period. No fourth chances. Those who might argue anyone can make one mistake lose their moral standing when a rider gets caught a second time.

It is inexcusable and unacceptable that any racing commission licensed Chapa again after the Texas and New Mexico suspensions.

It’s pointless to suggest new regulations to clean up the game when cheaters can operate secure in the knowledge that if they get caught, the penalties will rarely outweigh the potential gains.

A season to savor coming up

Put a bunch of opinionated horse players (is there any other kind?) in a room and almost anything said can turn into a lively discussion/debate. The other night at the Eclipse Awards, someone opined that despite California Chrome and Bayern vying for Horse of the Year, 2014’s sophomore class was a weak bunch.

A couple of others, myself included, immediately jumped in with dissenting opinions. I thought last season’s top 3-year-olds were one of the strongest groups in recent memory. A 3-year-old male hadn’t won Horse of the Year since Curlin in 2007. It was another six years back to Point Given.

Curlin had no serious competition among males of his generation. He garnered 249 of 266 votes cast. His closest competition was the filly who beat him in the Belmont, Rags to Riches. Five-year-old Invasor, 2006 Horse of the Year, was next.

Some—well at least me—feel that Shared Belief, whose only loss came when he was mugged in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, is better than either California Chrome or Bayern.

The riches among foals of 2011 goes deeper than that. The first six finishers in the Breeders’ Cup Classic were 3-year-olds—Bayern, Toast of New York, California Chrome, Shared Belief, Tonalist and Candy Boy.

Shared Belief and Toast of New York had already run away from older horses in the Pacific Classic. Shared Belief did it again in the Awesome Again. Tonalist, the Belmont winner, bested a field of the East’s best older horses in the Jockey Club Gold Cup.

Hoppertunity, who didn’t run in the BC Classic, led a 1-2-3 sweep by 3-year-olds in the Grade 1 Clark, the fall’s most prestigious handicap in the Midwest. Protonico and Florida Derby champion Constitution ran second and third, respectively.

Let’s not forget the 3-year-old filly Untapable vanquished her elders in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff.

I rest my case. The best part of this is all of these now 4-year-olds are coming back in 2015.

Hoppertunity has already launched his 2015 campaign with a romp in the Grade 2 San Pasqual.

Wicked Strong, the Wood Memorial and Jim Dandy winner, also is gearing up for another season.

The first date to circle on the calendar is Feb. 7. If all goes according to plan, California Chrome, Bayern and Shared Belief will renew their rivalry in the San Antonio. The same afternoon, a few of the East’s top 4-year-olds could show up in the Donn. TV has taken notice. These races will be the centerpieces of the new season of major stakes on Fox Sports.

Injuries and attrition will surely take their toll as the season proceeds. Candy Boy and Toast of New York have already headed overseas. Bayern has had a minor setback, which could keep him out of the San Antonio.

Nevertheless, have thoroughbred fans ever had as much to look forward to at this point of the season?

Written by Tom Jicha

Comments (18)


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