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, January 06, 2015

NYRA seems to be trying to kill the Arlington Million

For no good reason, other than it can, NYRA has raised the purse of the Sword Dancer at Saratoga to $1 million. This will give it purse equity with the Arlington Million, a reason for horsemen in the East and Europe to skip the event that was racing's first million dollar race and a magnet for international competition. This underlines how hope of inter-track cooperation in any meaningful ways is a fantasy.

MIAMI, Jan. 6, 2015--The 2015 Saratoga stakes schedule released last week is Exhibit A in why there will never be meaningful cooperation between racing jurisdictions.

Continuing to spend casino money like an NFL star in a Las Vegas stripper bar NYRA Senior Vice President of Racing Operations Martin Panza has kicked up purses to astronomical levels for a number of stakes. The one that jumps off the page is $1 million for the Sword Dancer, which will become part of an even more super than usual (or need be) Travers Day on Aug. 29.

This is wrong on several levels. The Travers is such a special day that you could run ten 5 ½ furlong turf races for New York bred maidens to support it and the Spa would still be packed. OK, ten is an exaggeration. However, only a few years ago, quantity overtook quality as the NYRA priority and the Travers card began to feature to an alarming degree low level beaten claimers and NY-breds sprinting on the turf.

Panza at least has reversed this practice. However, he has gone way overboard. The Travers card not only doesn’t need another million dollar race, the fact that there is one detracts from the Midsummer Derby.

As long as we are on the topic, could NYRA please return the Met Mile to Memorial Day, its long-time traditional date. I know tradition means little these days but the Met Mile isn't needed on Belmont Day, where one of the most important stakes of the year gets lost in the festival of added-money events.

Million connotes something special in racing or at least It used to. The Sword Dancer is not such a fixture of the American turf that it deserves such status. If NYRA wanted to pump up another stakes, it should have been the Alabama, the history laden filly counterpart to the Travers. If the Alabama had been a million dollar race last summer, it might not have lost Untapable to the Haskell.

Even with Panza making it rain cash, the Alabama will offer only $600,000 this coming August--and it will anchor a Saturday program. If it were on the Travers card, it would be only the fifth most lucrative race, behind the $1.25 Travers, the Sword Dancer, the $750,000 Personal Ensign and $700,000 Forego. Proportionality is going by the wayside.

There’s a more sinister angle to making the Sword Dancer a millionaire. The stated purpose is to attract international participation. This brings me back to my original point. There’s another big grass event in mid- to late-August, which was created for exactly the same reason and became a worldwide player. The Arlington Million was a seven-figure race, the nation’s first, three years before the Breeders’ Cup broke from the gate.

Why is NYRA seemingly intent on killing a race that has done so much to promote the sport? Last summer, the Sword Dancer was run a day after the Million. This summer, they will probably be a week apart. Competing million dollar turf stakes served the purpose only of diluting the fields in both.

The Sword Dancer now has purse equality with the Million. A wise guy in the media box asked out loud, “Why doesn’t NYRA be honest about what it is up to and rename the Sword Dancer “The Saratoga Million”?

It doesn’t have to be this way. The first Saturday of the Saratoga meeting, July 25 in 2015, is headed by the Diana, a prestigious turf event for fillies and mares with a $500,000 purse, lower than three supporting stakes on Travers Day. The new million-dollar Sword Dancer would be a stronger way to get the meeting off to a rousing start. What would be wrong with the best turf females and the best turf males each seeing action for a million apiece on the first Saturday of the season?

This would give horsemen three to four weeks to come back in the Arlington Million and Beverly D. That’s what would happen if there was any kind of cooperation between tracks for the good of the sport.

Dream on.

$250K baby races in June? Really?

As long as we’re critiquing the NYRA stakes agenda, two other races, ridiculously endowed proportionate to their importance, also jump off the page.

In a bid to make Belmont week a true festival, rich stakes will be run every afternoon starting Wednesday. Great idea.

But once again, NYRA has gone too far overboard. The Astoria for 2-year-old fillies and the Tremont open to all juveniles, will be run on Thursday and Friday of Belmont week, respectively,each with a $250,000 purse.

This will make them the richest “non-winners of two” events in racing. Horsemen are starting their young horses later, so expect a representation of first-time starters and other maidens in both. The Tremont wasn't even contested between 2008 and 2014. When it returned last season, it attracted four starters--Bessie's Boy, Chocolate Wildcat, King Rontos and Shrewd Mover, who finished in that order. Heard much of them lately?

The Astoria attracted six. Fashion Alert, who turned into a nice filly, won but not much has been heard from Liatris and Lindy, who ran second and third, respectively.

Is this any reason to more than double the purse?

To put this into perspective, the Schuylerville and Sanford on opening weekend at the Spa, almost two months later, will offer only $150,000 apiece. The Adirondack and Saratoga Special on Aug. 15, when hundreds more juveniles will have begun their careers, go for $200,000 each. It isn’t until the $350K Spinaway and Hopeful on closing weekend at the Spa, three months later, that 2-year-olds will shoot for bigger purses than will be offered in the Astoria and Tremont.

“We are building our 2-year-old program out in a different direction, Panza said in a statement released with the schedule. “With the increase in purses, these are the two strongest juvenile races in the country in this time frame.”

There used to be, and still might be, minor tracks that offer the first 2-year-old races of the year on New Year’s Day. They could make the same boast. And it would make just as much sense.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The best won’t be Horse of the Year, so…

The best horse doesn't win every race. The same goes for the Eclipse Awards. I have a strong subjective opinion on who the best horse in America was in 2014. However, results are results, so I couldn't in good conscience vote for him. I cast my ballot using the most objective standards I could.

MIAMI, Dec. 30, 2014--America’s best thoroughbred in 2014, in my opinion, Shared Belief will not be Horse of the Year. He won’t even be named best of his generation. Ergo, I am taking my Eclipse ballot to the scoreboard.

California Chrome put up the most points. He was one of only three horses to win four Grade 1 stakes this year. The other two, turf specialist Main Sequence and the filly Untapable, have worthy credentials. But their resumes don’t stand up to California Chrome’s.

Main Sequence won only on turf. I voted for Wise Dan, also a grass specialist, the past two years. All things being equal, which they weren’t in 2012 and 2013, I would give my vote to a dirt standout. That is America’s way of racing. Once again this year, although the number of Grade 1 wins is the same, all things aren’t equal.

Main Sequence’s biggest triumph came in the Breeders’ Cup Turf. California Chrome’s was the Kentucky Derby. Did you ever hear an owner, trainer or jockey say the first thing people ask when they find out what they do is, “Did you ever win the Breeders’ Cup Turf?”

In the hierarchy of American racing, California Chrome’s Preakness also outranks whatever might be offered as Main Sequence’s second biggest win.

Also, California Chrome is the only one of the serious candidates to win on dirt and turf. Granted, the Hollywood Derby was a Grade 1 in name only but it isn't as if it was the only Grade 1 that didn't merit such a prestigious ranking. This happens in all sports. A one-yard touchdown pass counts as much in a quarterback's stats as an 80-yard bomb.

I’m voting Main Sequence the consolation prizes of best turf horse and, reluctantly, best older male, even though I have joined the ranks of those calling for the latter to be re-designated as best older male dirt horse, since there is already an award for best turf horse.

I’d rather vote for Palace Malice but the critera are what they are. Palace Malice won the same number of stakes as Main Sequence but only one was a Grade 1.

All of Untapable’s wins were against her own gender. The one time she tried colts, she got crushed, although there were extenuating circumstances. However, if excuses are allowed, I could give my vote to Shared Belief, since he was mugged by Bayern and Toast of New York in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, the only defeat of his career. He beat older horses twice—three times if you consider that all his elders in the BC Classic finished behind him--and won Grade 1’s at a mile and a quarter and seven furlongs.

Some might say Shared Belief's Malibu wasn’t impressive, with a 70-1 shot second, but as Mike Smith said post-race, it isn't easy turning back from a mile and a quarter to seven furlongs. Nevertheless, he ran the elongated sprint in 1:20 69 and there were some crack sprinters in his wake. On the other hand, he never left his home state of California.

Bob Baffert has been campaigning for a split ticket, suggesting California Chrome should be 3-year-old champion and Bayern should be Horse of the Year. This is illogical. A baseball or football player can't be the Most Valuable Player in his sport but not the most valuable player in his division. The same goes for horses. I’m voting for California Chrome as Horse of the Year so, of course, he is also my 3-year-old champion.

Bayern doesn’t make my Horse of the Year ballot and, having been beaten 21 lengths in the Preakness and 20 lengths in the Travers, he’s only third among my 3-year-olds.

Not that the second and third positions on ballots matter. Voters are asked to list the top three so that there will be suspense at the Breeders’ Cup ceremonies. Otherwise, in a category such as 3-year-old filly champion, in which Untapable should be a unanimous choice, the winner would be known when the nominations are announced.

The juvenile categories also have obvious choices although there will almost certainly be a dissenting opinion here and there. Take Charge Brandi might have been a shaky leader after upsetting the BC Juvenile Fillies but she clinched the championship by adding the Delta Princess and Hollywood Starlet. Still, it wouldn’t be surprising if BC Juvenile Fillies Turf winner Lady Eli, undefeated in three starts, garners some support.

Texas Red’s Arazi-like win in the BC Juvenile probably is enough to grab the 2-year-old-male title, although American Pharoah and Dortmund will have their backers.

Close Hatches did enough in the earlier part of the season, winning four straight, three of them Grade 1, to be awarded the older female Eclipse.

Work All Week came from out of the clouds to establish himself as America’s top sprinter in the BC Sprint, his fifth win in six starts with a second. Horseplayers are probably still wondering how they let him go at 19-1 with such sparkling credentials.

Judy the Beauty won four of five, including the BC Filly & Mare Sprint, more than enough to wear the female sprint crown.

Dayatthespa won back-to-back Grade 1’s to close her campaign and make her the most likely filly & mare turf queen. But a case, albeit an unconvincing one, could be made for Coffee Clique, Crown Queen, Euro Charlene and maybe a couple of others.

The Steeplechase Eclipse should be decided by people with some familiarity to the contenders, so I abstained rather than have my vote cancel out someone with expertise in the category.

Todd Pletcher has more world class horses than any two barns but he did not win a Triple Crown race nor a Breeders’ Cup race and likely will not have trained an Eclipse winner. This mitigates his No. 1 standing in money earned, graded wins and Grade 1 wins. Chad Brown was near the top of these categories with not as much stock and far fewer starts, so he gets my vote. But I wouldn't quarrel with those who feel Pletcher deserves a seventh Eclipse.

Javier Castellano should once again take home the top jockey Eclipse.

Drayden Van Dyke won the most races by an apprentice and most came against crack Southern California competition. He should be a unanimous choice in his field.

Ken and Sarah Ramsey once again stood out among owners. As usual, they will again vie for the Breeders Eclipse with Adena Springs. The Ramseys, who got my vote in both categories, don't owe it all to Kitten’s Joy. Just most of it.

Written by Tom Jicha

Comments (6)


Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The 10 Most Fascinating People in Racing in 2014

Barbara Walters ended each year with a special naming her 10 Most Fascinating People of the past 12 months. She says this December's show was her last. So we'll pick up the concept...with a twist. Here is the first year-end recognition of the 10 Most Fascinating People in Racing.

MIAMI, Dec. 23, 2014--Barbara Walters says she has done her last “10 Most Fascinating People of the Year” special. I’m going to pick up the torch…with a twist. Here is the first 10 Most Fascinating People in Racing.

Not everyone made it for positive or praiseworthy deeds. But they all captured attention and got people talking. (The roster is alphabetical except for The Most Fascinating Person of the Year.)

Ed Allred—The owner of Los Alamitos would be deserving merely for stepping up when Hollywood Park closed and refitting his quarterhorse track to create a new venue for thoroughbreds in Southern California.

He also did something everyone talks about but few address in a meaningful way. He took a decisive approach to clean up racing’s act. Allred suspected drugs were a factor in one trainer, with dubious connections, qualifying eight quarterhorses for the $1 Million Super Derby. So he ordered the race postponed until additional testing could be done.

Then he instituted a house rule to have more revealing hair testing done for illegal drugs. “If someone gets a temporary restraining order or some BS,” he warned, “I’ll close the track.”

Steve Asmussen—The second winningest trainer in thoroughbred history was painted as public enemy No. 1 by PETA when it released a video of Asmussen’s long-time right-hand man Scott Blasi talking crap about the way the barn treats horses and cuts corners to win races.

The severely edited video, compiled over months by an undercover operative of PETA, which often has been accused of employing terrorist tactics, led to such a firestorm that Asmussen was removed from the National Racing Hall of Fame ballot even though he was considered a lock to be selected.

Subsequent investigations in New York, Kentucky and other jurisdictions have failed to come up with any wrongdoing on Asmussen’s part. Meanwhile, he just went about his work and won the Kentucky Oaks and Breeders’ Cup Distaff with Untapable, a longshot candidate for Horse of the Year.

Larry Collmus—A career that has had more pinnacles than the Himalayas reached its zenith when Collmus was named to succeed Tom Durkin as the race caller for NYRA. This capped a meteoric rise that in just a few years saw him go from Suffolk Downs to Monmouth to Gulfstream to Churchill Downs to NYRA as well as becoming the voice of the Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup.

Dumb Ass Partners—Steve Coburn and Perry Martin charmed America with their rags to riches fairytale of breeding the $8,000 mare Love That Chase to $2,500 stallion Lucky Pulpit and coming up with California Chrome, the winner of the Santa Anita Derby, Kentucky Derby and Preakness. The stable got its nickname when someone remarked that only a dumb ass would pay $8,000 for a mare that had won only one cheap race.

It all started to go sour when Coburn unleashed a bitter, sore loser’s screed in the immediate aftermath of California Chrome failing to complete the Triple Crown. Given a chance to recant and apologize the following day he refused and doubled down. Obviously coached that he was in the process of descending from beloved to despised, he finally apologized on Good Morning America.

Alas, he hadn’t learned his lesson. When word leaked that he demanded $50,000 to have California Chrome parade at Del Mar on Pacific Classic Day, he accused racing writers of being in Del Mar’s pocket. Not only did this violate the rule of never picking a fight with someone who buys ink by the gallon, he might have alienated some of the people who vote for the Eclipse Awards.

Indian Charlie, Eddie Musselman—The man whose slogan is, “We never let the truth get in the way of a good story,” has been a bane of many in racing for years as he took shots, some of them vicious, at track management, owners, trainers, jockeys and anyone else not on his good side. On his behalf, he also made personalities out of people who had no personality and a lot of his stuff was pretty funny.

But he went over the line with a cruel, tasteless slur of immigrants on the backstretch. In the era of political correctness, it was all the excuse tracks, which probably were itching for a reason to bar him, needed.

To make matters worse, he got into a brawl with Dale Romans in the Churchill Downs barn area. He and his sheet were banished. Other tracks and sales companies quickly followed Churchill's lead.

Musselman filed suit against Churchill and a settlement was reached that will allow him back on the track in 2015. It will be interesting to see how much, if at all, he is chastened.

Rosie Napravnik—Talk about going out on top. After riding Untapable to victory in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff the No. 1 active female jockey used the winner’s circle interview to announce to a national TV audience that she and her husband, trainer Joe Sharp, are expecting their first child. As a result, she said, she is retiring. This got more attention in the mainstream media than all of the Breeders' Cup races.

Hey, it was a positive mention and you take what you can get.

Napravnik, only 26, left the door open to a comeback. “I can’t promise to stay off horses forever.”

Martin Panza—It didn’t take long for the veteran of West Coast racing to make his mark in the East. Named NYRA’s Senior Vice President of Racing Operations in October 2013, he shook up the racing agenda, creating an uber Super Saturday of 10 graded stakes, six Grade 1, on Belmont Stakes Day.

He also created the Stars and Stripes Festival of five stakes, including the new Belmont Derby and Belmont Oaks designed to attract an international field. The first edition resulted in more than double the attendance and handle of the Independence Day holiday of a year ago.

Tim Ritvo—Working for the mercurial Frank Stronach is like managing the Yankees for George Steinbrenner used to be. Ritvo is Stronach's Joe Torre, someone Stronach has finally put his trust in. The former jockey and trainer keeps rising in the ranks to the point where he is now the Chief Operating Officer of racing for The Stronach Group.

Ritvo presided over the agreement to end the debilitating war with Churchill Downs and Calder then supervised the first Gulfstream West meeting, which exceeded all expectations.

Perhaps most important, he never ducked fans and the media when issues, such as a refusal of Palm Beach Downs to allow in independent clockers and the inaccurate timing of Gulfstream races, cropped up. Ritvo dealt with both within 24 hours and, in the case of the latter, went on Roger Stein's radio show this past weekend to talk about it.That's transparency.

Jim Rome—The wildly popular and outspoken radio and TV personality used to knock racing as “not a sport but a bet.” Then he got involved and became one of the game’s biggest boosters. He won back to back Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprints with Mizdirection then hit the motherlode when he became the ranking owner of Eclipse champion Shared Belief.

Rome showed his class when Shared Belief was denied his shot at 3-year-old champion and Horse of the Year by the incident out of the starting gate in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. He went on his show and said, “Bob Baffert actually said it best before the race saying, 'the horse that brings it’s A game and gets the best trip is going to win.' And he’s right. His horse (Bayern) ran a big one and got the best trip.

“Now you could argue that the reason he got that trip was because he cleared out 3 or 4 horses when he smashed into Shared Belief. But I’m not going to. I’ll just say this. We just didn’t get the trip we were hoping for…That’s racing. The stewards actually called looking for me Saturday night to explain their decision. I didn’t even return the call. I didn’t need to. No one knows the concept of scoreboard better than I do…As for Shared Belief, plenty of you want to crack on him, saying he’s over-rated and over-hyped. You’re entitled to your opinion. But I think you’re wrong. He’s a great horse, who didn’t have a great day. And he’ll be great again.”

The most fascinating person of all

What Vin Scully is to baseball and Al Michaels and Jim Nantz are to the sports they cover Tom Durkin has been to racing, the benchmark of excellence. It's too bad everyone hasn't had the opportunity to learn up close what a great guy he is outside the announcer's booth.

His career of calling every major race in America and some of the biggest around the world were well documented in the run up to his retirement in August. He will be honored with an Eclipse Award of Merit on Jan. 17, the first race-caller to be so honored.

He outdid himself in his farewell address on a stormy afternoon at Saratoga. He was greeted by chants of his name and pats on his back all the way from the announcer’s booth to the winner’s circle.

“There is one person that is completely responsible for this wonderful life that I’ve had the privilege to live in horse racing,” he began. “That person is here at Saratoga today. Right now he’s in the backyard sitting at a picnic table under two pine trees looking at this image on television. She’s at the top of the stretch leaning over the rail and she’s in a box seat or at a simulcast center in Syracuse or at a track in Ohio or in front of a computer in California. The person I owe an inexpressible gratitude is you, the racing fan, the horse player. Thank you.”

Thank you Tom.

Written by Tom Jicha

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