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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Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Gulfstream Control Good for Florida Racing; Elsewhere Adios Synthetics

The long pending agreement that turns over control of South Florida racing to Gulfstream and The Stronach Group is a good thing for racing because it gets Churchill Downs Inc. out of an important racing state. The downside is CDI is being rewarded by being allowed to keep it's casino after running racing into the ground.

The landmark agreement that turns over control of South Florida racing to The Stronach Group was described by Gulfstream President Tim Ritvo as a win-win situation. Indeed Gulfstream and Frank Stronach are winners. Gulfstream is now the unchallenged leader of Florida racing and with Santa Anita controlling the bulk of Southern California dates, Stronach now rules over two of the nation's racing centers.

Could NYRA be next? Stronach has been in the mix before and could be again when NYRA becomes privatized in the next two years.

The only downer in the agreement is that Churchill Downs Inc. doesn't deserve a win in this situation. The deal means it has gotten away with murder: The death of Calder as a race track has been sealed, just as Hollywood Park's fate was sealed when CDI sold it to a land development company.

Racing will continue at Calder for 40 days a year in the fall for the next six years, the minimum Florida demands to keep a casino license. But rest assured that efforts will be made during the interim period to have that requirement modified to free CDI from any involvement in racing.

Terms of the agreement include Calder ceasing all simulcasting immediately. Rumors are rampant that the Calder grandstand will be razed and racing will be conducted under temporary facilities each fall.

CDI also is turning over it's interest in HRTV to the Stronach Group.

Trainer Phil Combest said it best. "Churchill Downs has long made it clear that horse racing is only a means to an end for them. They're a casino company now."

No More Kitty Litter

The decisive repudiation of the era of synthetic racing was struck last week when Keeneland and Del Mar were awarded Breeders’ Cups.

The 2015 renewal went to Keeneland and the 2017 event to Del Mar. It’s not coincidental that Keeneland will rejoin the mainstream of American racing by restoring a conventional dirt strip this fall and Del Mar will follow suit in time for next summer’s racing season.

The awarding of the Breeders’ Cup was the sport’s way of saying, “Welcome back.”

This will leave only second and third tier tracks with fake dirt ovals. The arguable exception is Arlington Park but the Chicago area oval emphasizes turf for its major races. Moreover, if Churchill Downs Inc. wasn’t so tight, it, too, would probably convert back to real dirt.

Even Meydan in Dubai, whose sheiks answer to no one, has gone back to conventional dirt.

The anticipated fallout of the abandonment of the well intentioned flirtation with artificial surfaces is the outcry that the safety of horses is being overlooked. A sufficient body of evidence has been established that there are fewer breakdowns on synthetics but the numbers aren’t so overwhelming that they require the reinvention of the game. Extending this argument, all racing should be on turf, the safest surface of all. Alas, it’s just not practical.

To get back to the Breeders’ Cup, it’s long overdue that Keeneland be selected as a site. It didn’t happen sooner because spacious Churchill Downs, an hour away, was the preferable Kentucky venue because of its capacity and proven ability to handle Breeders’ Cup size crowds. Unfortunately, the casino-obsessed bean counters at Churchill Downs have taken it out of the Breeders’ Cup rotation.

The feeling persists that the Kentucky breeding community, the heart and soul of the thoroughbred sport, is being thrown a bone, that the 2015 Breeders’ Cup will be a one-shot stop at Keeneland, just as it has been at Monmouth, Lone Star and Woodbine.

The Breeders’ Cup didn’t even allow Keeneland a singular day in the sun in making the announcement. It had to add that the following two renewals will be back in Southern California. Between the Keeneland and Del Mar stops, Santa Anita will host the 2016 Breeders’ Cup, its fourth shot in five years and sixth in eight years. Del Mar will make it five Southern California Breeders’ Cups in six years and seven in ten years.

Various representatives of Breeders’ Cup have made it clear that if they have their way, the BC will be anchored permanently in Southern California. Barry Weisbord, publisher of Thoroughbred Daily News and a BC board member, is an outspoken proponent of Southern California as the permanent home of the BC. He told the Paulick Report, “I’m not a proponent of coming to Keeneland in November and have made my feelings well known to fellow board members.”

You could almost anticipate Weisbord, who reportedly is pondering a run at the BC Chairman position, doing a rain dance outside Keeneland in 2015 and running around the paddock with a thermometer in his hand to remind everyone how much warmer it is in Southern California.

Weisbord is an unabashed elitist. In the Paulick Report piece, he said, “I’ve had a lot of opportunities to travel throughout the world and see horse racing at places that scream elegance, sell elegance and are most successful. That’s what separates racing from other sports. The more elegance we can deliver the better off we are.”

He wasn’t talking about accommodating the $2 bettors in the grandstand.

What’s more, it’s not the elegance of the dining rooms for the swells but the horses who can be delivered that determines the success of Breeders’ Cup. Once it becomes apparent that the Breeders’ Cup is just another year-end Southern California event, it will lose the support of a lot of horsemen east of the Great Divide. In some cases, it already has.

NYRA has been out of the Breeders’ Cup rotation because of its own political and financial problems. But a lot of those have been alleviated and it demonstrated on Belmont Stakes Day that it can run a Breeders’ Cup caliber event. It also has something Santa Anita and Del Mar don’t—a boatload of casino money, as well as an imaginative leader in Martin Panza.

If NYRA can throw $8 million at the Belmont card, it surely can come up with a few million more to stage a rival Breeders Cup-type event, should this become necessary to break the Southern California stranglehold, especially with a couple of years to get ready.

Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that because two Breeders’ Cups will inevitably lead to no Breeders’ Cups.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Saratoga returns to quality over quantity

Martin Panza, who put together the spectacular Belmont Stakes card and is inaugurating the Stars & Stripes Festival next weekend, also wants to restore Saratoga to its proper place as the home of the finest racing in America. Toward that end, the NYRA executive is shortening cards by eliminating cheap races, which have detracted from the image of the Spa in recent years. Also, those trumpeting the TV ratings of the World Cup as a sign that soccer is the next big thing in America, should take a moment to compare the tune-in to that of the Belmont Stakes of "that dying sport of racing."

MIAMI, June 25, 2014--Martin Panza for Racing’s Man of the Year.

NYRA’s senior vice president for racing operations keeps outdoing himself. He created the greatest non-Breeders’ Cup card ever on Belmont Stakes Day.

On July 5, he’s laying the groundwork for a new international turf event, a worthy complement to the Arlington Million carnival, with the first Stars and Stripes Festival.

His next venture might be his boldest and most laudable of all. He’s endeavoring to return Saratoga to what it used to be.

Panza announced Monday that quality will trump quantity at the Spa when the season opens July 18. About 15 to 20 fewer flat races will be presented in an effort to “try to bring back what Saratoga used to be,” the gold standard for the finest in quality racing.

This hasn’t been the case in recent years. The priority degenerated to jamming in as many races as possible to build the bottom line. It didn’t matter that many were woeful collections of cheap, formless, chronic losers, whose only merit is there are so many of them it was easy to fill fields.

Employing refreshingly candid language, Panza said, “I’m not writing all those cheap claimers.” He singled out non-winners of two on the turf and bottom level maiden claimers on the turf. “If they want more races, then that’s what you have to run.”

In recent years, these races, more appropriate for snowy weekdays on Aqueduct's inner track, not only diluted the quality racing that used to be Saratoga’s hallmark, they were strategically placed within the Pick 6 to enhance the likelihood of a carryover.

Panza’s plan is to run only nine races on Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, although the latter two afternoons also will feature a jump race to open the card. However, the up-and-down set will be segregated from the traditional program with a 12:25 post time, 35 minutes ahead of the normal 1 p.m. first post. The jumpers also will be omitted from the Pick 5, which will start with the first flat race.

Panza is remaining flexible on Friday, Saturday and Sunday cards. Ten races will be the target on Sunday. However, an extra race or two might be added to extend the program to accommodate the time slots set aside for three live Fox Sports telecasts.

Saturday, which draws the biggest on-track crowds and simulcast participation, also will feature additional races, according to Panza.He can't be faulted for that. Racing is a business. If there are enough “extras” that fill, he said, they also will be used on Friday.

Twilight cards on Friday have been eliminated at the behest of local restaurants, who contend the later final race negatively impacts their dinner business.

Ten or 11 race Friday cards could be a win-win compromise. Fans would still be released to downtown Saratoga an hour sooner than they would be with twilight racing. Meanwhile the extra race or two could be an incentive for those driving up from New York City or other distant locales to get an early start on their weekend at the Spa. An opportunity to catch the final four or five races is more inviting than rushing to make the final two or three—especially when the last race isn’t the garbage heat it has been.

Perhaps paving the way for another dramatic revision to the Saratoga season, Panza responded to questions about the potential negative impact to the total handle from fewer races by pointing out that Del Mar produced more revenue after reducing its weekly agenda from six days to five.

Given the declining foal crops and overly conservative training methods in vogue, a five-day week at Saratoga has had its advocates for several years. Saratoga remains the only major thoroughbred meeting that sustains a six-day agenda. But this is a debate for another year.

Panza isn’t promising an overnight transformation. “Rome wasn’t built in a day,” he said. The racing programs at Saratoga have been deteriorating for too many years to restore their former glory in one season.

But the mere fact that he is making the effort to take steps in that direction makes him the Man of the Year. If he gets it done, he’ll be the Man of the Millennium.

World Cup is no Belmont Stakes

Soccer enthusiasts are going ga-ga over the attention the World Cup, especially Team America, has generated in the United States.

“Footbol” buffs and trend searching media are swooning over the 18.2 million viewers who tuned in to the U.S. 2-2 tie with Portugal on Sunday. This made it the most watched soccer game in U.S. TV history. This is a harbinger of soccer joining football, baseball and basketball as a major American sport, they argue.

Some of the same folks will tell you that thoroughbred racing is a dying sport. But let’s look at the facts.

All Sunday’s World Cup game would have needed was another 2.4 million viewers to match the 20.6 million in the TV audience for the Belmont Stakes--and this wasn’t the all-time high for the third jewel of the Triple Crown. That distinction is held by the 2004 Belmont, when 21.9 Americans tuned in to watch Smarty Jones go for the Triple Crown.

Funny, I don’t hear any soccer fans saying the World Cup needs to be tinkered with and fixed.

Colorado track offers no drugs bonus

I won’t be so vain to suggest last week’s column triggered an action that could be the start of something big and wonderful for racing. So let’s just say sometimes great minds think alike.

Arapahoe Park in Colorado is initiating a program that will pay a $1,000 bonus to the winner of a race who goes to the post medication free. This includes Lasix, Bute, flunixin and keteprofen, all of which are legal in Colorado.

This takes my suggestion a laudable step further to pay a bonus (or write Lasix-free races) to horses who race without the anti-bleeding medication.

“The future of racing is going to be race-day medication-free and we at Arapahoe Park want to be ahead of the curve,” said Bruce Seymore, executive director of Mile High Racing and Entertainment, the parent company of Arapahoe Park.

From his mouth to God’s ears.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Wednesday, June 18, 2014

A positive approach to Lasix-free racing

It borders on disgraceful that every horse who competed in the 10 stakes on the stellar Belmont card ran on Lasix. These are the thoroughbreds who will eventually find their way to breeding sheds. Obviously not every one of them needs Lasix. Restrictive attempts to curtail its usage have failed. A new approach, which offers rewards for running medication-free, might be just the thing to start momentum rolling in a positive direction.

MIAMI, June 18, 2014--Belmont Stakes Day was one of American racing’s finest hours. It also was one of its most distressing in spite of memorable performances by Tonalist, Palace Malice, Close Hatches and Bayern, among others,

The card was hailed as the greatest assemblage of equine talent ever on a non-Breeders’ Cup program. More than a hundred of America’s most talented horses entered 10 stakes, six of them Grade 1. The bummer was every one of them raced on Lasix.

It almost defies the laws of probability that not one of the nominally best thoroughbreds in America went to the post without the controversial pharmaceutical. The same day, Ascot also conducted its biggest afternoon of racing. Not a single Euro raced with Lasix.

Why did every American thoroughbred race with Lasix while not a single Euro did? Because they could in the U.S. and couldn't in Europe.

The bloodlines of Europe’s finest intersect repeatedly with those on our side of the Atlantic. Many of Europe’s champions were bred on U.S. farms. So there is no plausible explanation for why all our championship caliber horses—just about all our horses, for that matter--are purportedly bleeders yet none of theirs are.

There are, of course, Euros who bleed. Some are treated the old fashioned way, with rest and TLC. The others wind up being shipped overseas to race in the drug permissive U.S.

Even though you would never know it from the Belmont Stakes card, or that at any other track in America, there are American horses who do not really require Lasix. If there aren’t, we ought to shut the whole thing down. Unfortunately, the way things are now, we’ll never know how many fall into this category.

There might be a way to start to find out. What the trans-Atlantic contrast underlines is that Lasix is being used in America for reasons beyond its stated purpose of controlling exercise-induced bleeding. I have been told by countless trainers that they uniformly administer Lasix out of fear that if they don’t, their competition will have an edge. Some owners demand it for this reason.

The Breeders’ Cup tried to introduce some sanity to the situation. It decreed that in 2012 Lasix would not be permitted in its juvenile stakes; the following year the ban would be extended to all the championship races. The hope was that thoroughbreds at the highest levels, the ones who wind up going to the breeding sheds, could be weaned off Lasix.

Attempting to go it alone was misguided. It made no sense to force horses, who run all their other races under one set of rules, to adapt to different conditions for one race a year. Also, the engine that drives racing is gambling. This introduced an element of uncertainty for bettors, which has a negative impact on wagering.

The experiment never was given a chance. Entries for the 2-year-old races the first year plunged, so much so that the Juvenile Sprint, a rich prize you would think would have attracted scores of candidates, was abandoned.

Facing the universal ban the following year, horsemen rebelled, some threatening to boycott the entry box. They also indicated that if the ban wasn’t lifted for future renewals, they would withdraw their permission to simulcast. No simulcasting, no Breeders’ Cup.

There might be another way. In place of the vinegar approach, how about trying some honey? Tracks should experiment with carding races open only to horses willing to run Lasix-free. This would liberate horsemen, who administer the drug solely out of fear that their competitors might have an advantage.

Lasix is not cheap. Trainers and owners struggling to make ends meet might welcome a way to reduce expenses.

A reason often offered for the short fields, which have become the bane of the sport, is the dehydrating effect of Lasix. Horses, who run on it—essentially every horse--are said to be unable to come back as quickly. This, of course, is the opposite of what was claimed when Lasix legalization was being debated.

As few as one or two additional starts annually per horse could contribute to a stronger profits-and-loss scenario for a barn. Lower foal crops can be directly attributed to reduced demand as owners get out of the game because of its cost. Anything that mitigates this would be a step in the right direction.

Since there would be a limited number of Lasix-free races, at least at the start, horsemen who objected to money from the purse fund going into these restricted races would face the scorn of public opinion. Besides, the multitude of races would still be run under current race day medication rules. If it became initially difficult to fill such races, another way to achieve the desired end would be to enhance the purse for those running Lasix-free, in the same way state-bred horses are rewarded for running in open races.

If horsemen persisted in their objections, perhaps someone like the Jockey Club could find a way to finance the purse enhancements for Lasix-free entrants. Hay-oats-and-water proponents have spent a fortune in vain trying to change hearts and minds. A program such as this could produce tangible evidence that Lasix is not essential to competing successfully.

It’s worth a try, isn’t it?

Written by Tom Jicha

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