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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Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Future bettors send it in, Apollo laughs

Every year a new colt, unraced at 2, inherits the mantle of the one who is going to defy the curse of Apollo by winning the Kentucky Derby. Futures bettors send it in on him. This year's model is regally bred Khozan, two for two at Gulfstream, Last year it was Constitution, who won his first three. Two years ago, it was Verazzano, four-for-four to start his career. A little further back it was Curlin. Yet the curse remains unbroken... Meanwhile, out West, the posse has finally caught up with A.C. Avila.

MIAMI, March 3, 2015--It wouldn’t be Kentucky Derby season with a flavor du jour. Khozan is this year’s. All it took was a couple of blowout wins at Gulfstream. He broke his maiden on Jan. 24, winning a seven-furlong dash by 3 ½, which was merely a sign of things to come. Coming back in a one-mile allowance on Feb. 22, he freaked by 12 ½.

This is all it took for him to vault him to the top echelon among individual horses in the third stage of Kentucky Derby Future wagering. His 13-1 odds placed him behind only American Pharoah at 8-1, Dortmund at 9-1, Carpe Diem at 10-1 and Withers winner Far From Over also 13-1, with about $600 more bet on him. Breeders’ Cup champion Texas Red was 14-1 and Upstart was 15-1.

American Pharoah is the Eclipse champion 2-year-old, a two-time Grade 1 winner. Dortmund has won four in a row, including a couple of stakes, one of them a Grade 1. Carpe Diem, expected to make his 3-year-old debut Saturday in the Tampa Bay Derby, is two-for-three, including a win in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Futurity and a second in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. I’m at a loss to explain the heavy support for Far From Over but he’s at least a graded stakes winner.

Like Khozan, Upstart won two races at Gulfstream this winter (despite what the stewards ruled). They weren’t a maiden special and an entry-level allowance. They were the Holy Bull and Fountain of Youth.

The dates of Khozan’s two wins are significant. They are both this year. He is the latest “second coming” to defy the curse of Apollo. It is 133 years since Apollo became the most recent 3-year-old, who didn’t race as a juvenile, to win the Derby. So, we are not talking about a small sample.

Not insignificantly, Apollo paid $129 to win, about $100 more than a $2 wager on Khozan in the Derby future will get you. Moreover, those who took the price on Apollo knew he was going to run in the Derby.

This puts Khozan in the hoofprints of Constitution a year ago and Verrazano in 2013, coincidentally also both from the Todd Pletcher barn. Constitution won his first two starts on Jan. 11 and Feb. 22, then capped his South Florida winter by running away with the Florida Derby, which appears to be Khozan’s next target. Constitution didn’t make the Kentucky Derby and didn’t win again until this year’s Donn.

Verrazano went Constitution one better. He won his first four races, two at Gulfstream (notice a pattern?) then the Tampa Bay Derby and Wood Memorial. He ran 14th in the Kentucky Derby.

The greatest example of all that the curse of Apollo is nothing to scoff at is Curlin. He broke his maiden at Gulfstream then galloped in the Rebel and Arkansas Derby. But the best he could do in Louisville was third.

He went on to win the Preakness, the Jockey Club Gold Cup twice, the Dubai World Cup and was twice Horse of the Year. But the Run for the Roses was too tough a challenge too soon.

Some year an unraced 2-year-old will win the Derby. Those who make light of the curse of Apollo, which, of course, is not a curse but a reflection of the necessity to build a foundation, will laugh and say, “See, I told you so,” as if one exception in more than 130 years makes a point.

Maybe Khozan will be the one. He certainly has the breeding as a half to two-time Eclipse champion Royal Delta and Grade 1 winner Crown Queen, who was four-for-four (all on turf) last year.

But unless you refuse to believe that we study history to avoid previous mistakes, you should demand more than 13-1 on it happening.

You call this justice?

The sordid saga of Masochistic continues in spite of an egregiously tardy ruling by the California Horse Racing Board. Last Friday, the CHRB finally suspended trainer A.C. Avila for 60 days and fined him $10,000 for what appears to have been an outrageous case of stiffing a horse to set up a betting coup.

The fine and suspension, which should not have taken a year, is the maximum the CHRB can assess. Incredibly, a hearing officer reportedly recommended 30 days and $5K. That this is the case is what’s wrong with racing. If Richard Dutrow can get 10 years, it’s an insult that Avila gets only 60 days. Dutrow’s alleged offenses involved taking edges to win races. Avila, from all indications, did the opposite.

Regular readers know this has been a crusade of mine because it was so blatant. One of the first lessons journalists have drummed into them is you can never assume anyone read yesterday’s story. So a brief recap: Masochistic made his career debut on March 15, 2014 in a Cal-bred maiden race at Santa Anita. He ran fifth at 8-1. Post-race tests found the presence of 40 times the legal limit of acepromazine, a tranquilizer.

Moreover, in a report to the CHRB, the stewards expressed concern that Masochistic’s jockey, Omar Berrio, “prevented his horse from giving his best race.” We live in litigious times, so people have to be careful how they phrase things. But if you can’t read between those lines, the educational system has failed you.

Masochistic next surfaced in an open maiden race on the Kentucky Derby undercard, a day when you can bet tens of thousands of dollars without totally killing the price. Off a fifth place at 8-1 in a Cal-bred maiden race, Masochistic opened odds-on before drifting up to 2-1. He won by 14.

The 4-year-old, who beat only three of eight Cal-bred maidens in his debut, then won twice more. He didn’t lose until running second in the $200,000 Los Alamitos Mile.

The day after the ruling came down, Masochistic made his 2015 debut at Santa Anita, with Avila listed as his trainer, and won for fun in a non-winners of “two-other-than” optional claimer. His next stop, according to Avila, is the Churchill Downs Stakes on the Kentucky Derby undercard. Talk about returning to the scene of the (alleged) crime. Talk about gall, Avila has indicated he intends to appeal the penalties.

His next hearing shouldn’t be in front of racing officials. If the entire incident doesn’t warrant a criminal investigation, we might as well strike race-fixing laws from the books.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Tuesday, February 24, 2015

TVG-HRTV merger offers opportunity to get it right

The merger of TVG and HRTV offers the opportunity for the combined operation to meld the best of both networks into the superior, fan-friendly channels horse players deserve. The ideal would be more HRTV and less TVG. No matter what decisions are made, they can't be worse than those made by the stewards at Gulfstream Park this past Saturday.

MIAMI, Feb. 24, 2015--Dueling horse racing channels never made sense. There simply isn’t enough audience for it to be cut in two. It’s a wonder TVG and HRTV have managed to co-exist and survive this long. Their affiliation with advanced deposit wagering operations obviously has been the life-saver.

This doesn’t mean the merger of TVG and HRTV is a good thing. Let me clarify. It doesn’t mean it will be a good thing for consumers—i.e., horse players. Mergers aren’t designed to benefit the public. They are negotiated to serve the bottom line of the companies being combined.

How the TVG-HRTV merger will play out remains to be seen. There is only one certainty. People will lose jobs. They always do. Combining operations to avoid duplication is a cornerstone of mergers and acquisitions.

The discouraging aspect of this merger is that TVG is buying out HRTV. This means TVG executives will be making the decisions on who stays and goes as well as the creative direction of the channels. Familiarity gives TVG’s incumbents the inside track.

This could be a double whammy. There are good people at both networks but as a whole, HRTV’s on-air talent is stronger than TVG’s. Jeff Siegel, Laffit Pincay, Brad Free and Caton Bredar (who previously worked for TVG), to name just a few, outshine their counterparts at TVG. It will be a shame if they get lost in the shuffle.

More significantly, HRTV’s approach is far superior. From its outset, TVG’s target has been casual and new fans. TVG commentators talk down to the audience, as if they were taking a novice to the track and feel compelled to explain the most basic fundamentals. The hope is channel surfers might happen upon TVG and stay.

The goal to expand the audience beyond the hardcore is praise worthy. Alas, it is delusional as well as insulting to real horse players, the core audience. I’m a casual fan of golf and tennis. The grand slam events of both sports get my attention. But I don’t watch a minute of the mundane coverage on The Golf Channel or Tennis Channel. I’d bet this makes me fairly typical. Likewise, viewers who aren't racing fans are not going to sit watching races just because they are there.

To construct a network business plan on getting and holding non-horseplayers because they happened upon a horse racing channel is like hoping to hit a Pick 6 with a single combination.

HRTV’s commentators recognize they are talking to dedicated players, betting serious money. They conduct themselves as if they are old friends swapping informed opinions.

Also, many of HRTV’s peripheral shows surrounding the races are valuable tools. There isn’t a better show to set up a day’s racing than The Player, hosted by Siegel and Aaron Vercruysse, who personify treating viewers as knowledgeable friends rather than rubes. Weekend table-setters Against the Odds and The Edge are must-see TV for me. Pursuit of the Crown and Pursuit of the Cup put the relevant seasons into sharp focus.

TVG’s strongest talking points are the workout shows during the run-up to the Derby and Breeders’ Cup. It is also more conscientious about displaying potential exotic payoffs and will-pays. Minor tracks get more attention during the non-prime racing hours, too.

Not using the merger to mine the best of both worlds and rethink the way TVG presents itself will be an opportunity missed and a disservice to racing fans.

All we ask is consistency

The Fountain of Youth was another big race whose aftermath was not dominated by a discussion of brilliant and disappointing performances but controversy over a stewards’ call.

The disqualification of Upstart was not a terrible takedown. He did come out in the stretch and bump Itsaknockout.

The problem is the maddening inconsistency of the Gulfstream stewards—all stewards, for that matter. Earlier in the card, House Rules blatantly came over and took away the path of Sheer Drama in the Rampart Handicap. Fortunately for House Rules, Sheer Drama got herself together again to come on and nose out Wedding Toast for the place.

The inquiry sign went up but the stewards ruled there would be no change because, it was explained, the incident did not cost Sheer Drama a placing. The stewards decided she was going to finish no better than second. Under this logic, if Wedding Toast had won the place photo, House Rules would have had to come down.

After the incident in the Fountain of Youth, Upstart found another gear and wound up crossing the wire almost three lengths in front of Itsaknockout. That there was contact is indisputable. Whether it cost Itsaknockout a placing is a matter for debate and conjecture. Luis Saez on Itsaknockout did a fine acting job making it look as bad as possible.

Watch the replay and you’ll see Upstart and Itsaknockout were on even terms in the final turn. Upstart was the quicker of the two. In only a few strides he put a couple of lengths between them. Although Itsaknockout was coming on again when the stretch contact occurred, he never got closer than Upstart’s saddle cloth. As soon as Upstart felt him there, he rebroke and drew away, just as he had on the turn.

So an argument could be mounted that Itsaknockout was not going to finish better than second anyway. By the Rampart precedent, Upstart should have been left up.

Moreover, there were extenuating circumstances. Just as Upstart was seizing the lead from the fatigued Frosted, who looked like the winner at the top of the lane, Frosted came out and bumped Upstart, pushing him toward the center of the track, where Itsaknockout was coming hard. But Upstart didn’t get the benefit of the doubt that House Rules, who had no excuse, did, even though Upstart went under the wire almost twice as far ahead as House Rules.
The Rampart and Fountain of Youth were close calls, jump balls as Todd Pletcher put it after the FoY. The final race on the card, a maiden event on the turf, was not.

The stretch run was so similar, it was eerie. At almost the exact same point, Danish Dynaformer, who finished first, came out and, according to the chart, “bumped repeatedly” with Dreaming of Gold, who finished second. The inquiry sign went right up again.

Racing writers in the press box were marveling about the improbable similarity of the two races. One (not me) said, “If this race was on dirt and the silks were the same colors, you could have easily thought it was another replay of the Fountain of Youth.”

There was one significant difference. Danish Dynaformer, who won by only a neck, was left up.

Two races, with almost the exact circumstances, produced different outcomes. To be precise, the stewards produced two different results. The last race non-DQ was as bad a call as I have seen in years. To have it happen a half-hour after a takedown in a much more significant race is intolerable.

It's not as if Gulfstream's stewards don't have a history of making baffling decisions with standards that change from day to day and, in the case of this past Saturday, from race to race. A controversial decision almost exactly one year ago, which thwarted a $1.66 million Rainbow Six jackpot, was the talk of racing for weeks. In the aftermath, a lot was said but nothing was done.

When jockeys screw up, the stewards have them in to explain what happened and why.Gulfstream's Tim Ritvo and P.J. Campo owe it to their customers to invite the stewards to explain themselves.

All players ask is consistency. Is that too much?

Written by Tom Jicha

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Tuesday, February 17, 2015

‘Super Saturdays’: Too much of a good thing one week, too little the next

Super Saturdays have become the wave of the present. Attendance and handle zoom into the stratosphere, so they are not going away. But the prestige of other major stakes, which used to be solo headliners, is disappearing. Also, other Saturdays are treated as if they don't matter.

MIAMI, Feb. 17, 2015--A multiplex of movies, some very good, played over President’s Day weekend. As far as the mainstream press was concerned, there was only one worth talking about, the one in which people had the most interest: Fifty Shades of Grey.

Horse racing’s version will occur Saturday at Gulfstream. Eight stakes, seven graded, are carded. But the headlines and bulk of the reporting will be devoted to only one, the Fountain of Youth. This time of year, Kentucky Derby prep season overwhelms any other races that don’t have Shared Belief and California Chrome facing off.

The FoY is Florida’s first 50-points to the winner qualifying race. The first four finishers in the Holy Bull—Upstart, who also was third in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile; Frosted, who was favored in the Holy Bull off his second in the Remsen; Mucho Macho Man winner Bluegrass Singer and Juan and Bina--are coming back. So is sixth-place finisher Frammento, a late-runner Nick Zito says is his main Classic hopeful.

Among the new shooters in the eight-horse field is It’s a Knockout from Todd Pletcher’s typically overloaded 3-year-old brigade. Unbeaten in two starts, including a more than five-length win going a mile in an optional claimer, It’s a Knockout will be trying two turns for the first time. As a son of Belmont Stakes winner Lemon Drop Kid, the mile and a sixteenth distance should not be an issue.

It might be a sign of the strength of the FoY field that several of the leading contenders in Saturday’s other major Derby prep, the Risen Star at the Fair Grounds, are shipping to New Orleans even though they are based in South Florida. This includes International Star, winner of the LeComte; Keen Ice, fifth in the Holy Bull; J.S. Bach, a galloping maiden winner around two turns at Gulfstream for Pletcher, and Imperia, the runnerup in the Kentucky Jockey Club, who is making his 2015 debut after being prepped at Palm Meadows by Kiaran McLaughlin. War Story and Tiznow R.J., second and third in the LeComte, also will try International Star again.

Not even the seasonal debut in the Mac Diamida of Main Sequence, unbeaten in four U.S. starts and a double Eclipse champion as outstanding turf runner and best older horse, will steal much attention from the FoY. The other six stakes will be lucky to get a sentence apiece in the media.

This is one of the downsides of Super Saturdays. Traditional events, such as the Davona Dale, Rampart, The Very One and Canadian Turf, which used to command a solo Saturday showcase, get lost in the shuffle. The most distressing example is NYRA burying the Met Mile on the Belmont Stakes undercard.

Meanwhile, non-Super Saturdays have become little more than a mundane day at the races. On Jan. 24, the Holy Bull was the headliner of a five-stakes program. The following Saturday, the ungraded $75,000 H. Allen Jerkens, essentially a novelty event at two miles, was the feature. On Feb. 7, the Donn topped a six-stakes card. This past Saturday, the Hurricane Bertie, a 6 ½ furlong sprint for fillies and mares that wound up with a field of five, anchored an otherwise uninspiring card.

It’s difficult to quarrel with the results of Super Saturdays. Attendance and handle soar. So they are here to stay.

But would this coming Saturday’s stakes bonanza have been any less special if one or two of the stakes had been shifted to dress up last Saturday’s card?

I couldn’t see any fan complaining, “They call this a Super Saturday? There are only seven stakes.”

Why NYRA, why?

The weather-related cancellations of racing at Aqueduct on Sunday and Monday were the 11th and 12th from 34 scheduled racing dates in January and February. If you were planning to go to the track during the past month and a half, there was better than a one-in-three chance there would be no racing. The negative ratio could increase. Racing is scheduled to resume Thursday but single-digit temperatures are forecast for Thursday and Friday.

Fans who bought $9 Racing Forms to handicap in advance already are out more than $100 for races that never took place.

Often overlooked in speculation about the reasons for the rash of breakdowns during winter racing is the fact that not only is racing frequently called off, training is also curtailed. Some of the worst, stormiest days this winter have been on Mondays and Tuesdays, so there has been little notice of lost training days.

Thus, horses don’t have the level of fitness they would under better conditions. The combination of lesser stock and limited conditioning is an invitation to bad things happening.

What is it going to take for NYRA to pull the plug on racing during the worst two months of winter? Does Mother Nature have to personally “unlike” it on Facebook for NYRA to get the message that it’s not a good idea.

To pre-empt a comment certain to come from contrarians, Oaklawn Park also lost racing Monday as well as a few other days at the start of its season. But there is a vast difference between Oaklawn and Aqueduct.

Winter is Oaklawn’s assigned season. Come April, the tents come down and the circus moves to other towns in the Southwest. NYRA has the whole year at its disposal, so going dark in January and February is no big deal, especially when Aqueduct can remain open for simulcasts from Gulfstream, the Fair Grounds and Santa Anita.

What’s more, brutal weather is the exception in Hot Springs. In the Big Apple, it is the expectation. Not even global warming is going to change that.

Written by Tom Jicha

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