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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Thursday, July 21, 2016

Delaware ‘Cap is Bayern redux

Another big race has ended in controversy over an objection/claim of foul. I'm a Chatterbox did essentially the same thing in last Saturday's Delaware Handicap that Bayern did in the 2014 Breeders' Cup Classic. She took out three horses by breaking inward. The stewards left the result "as is." This was as wrong Saturday as it was in 2014. DQ's and non-DQ's continue to be a source of controversy, which harm trust in the integrity of the sport. Something has to be done.

MIAMI, July 21, 2016--Instant replay has destroyed the enjoyment of sports. Introduced by the NFL to “get it right” on potentially game-changing erroneous calls, it has devolved into a parody of itself. Interminable delays while deciding whether a receiver’s loose shoelace touched the white boundary on a three-yard pass in the middle of the field in the first quarter have become commonplace. Whatever became of the 90-second time limit?

Instant replay has now infected the NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball. Its use in the latter has become as abused as it is in football. Even announcers concede that managers sometimes take a shot because they have nothing to lose. Meanwhile a game, whose hierarchy acknowledges it runs too long, grinds to a halt.

The one sport in which replays have been not only useful but essential in making decisions is horse racing. But I’m beginning to have my doubts about that.

Perhaps the worst call ever made, given the magnitude of the event, was Bayern not being disqualified in the 2014 Breeders’ Cup. The Blood Horse, a superb source of racing information but not renowned for its hard-hitting commentaries, described what happened thusly: “Bayern mugged Shared Belief shortly after the start of the $5 million Longines Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. 1) and got away with it…”

Saturday’s Delaware Handicap was Bayern redux. I’m a Chatterbox, starting from post four, broke inward then continued heading left, “mugging” the three horses inside her and she got away with it, too.

These kinds of calls and no-calls happen all the time. Thankfully, they attract widespread notice only when a major race or a jackpot carryover is involved. But each time they do, the comments made by horse players suggest they broaden suspicions about the game.

One fan this week suggested the Delaware decision would have been different if I’m a Chatterbox wasn’t trained by Delaware stalwart Larry Jones. It was also noted in 2014 that Bayern was trained by Bob Baffert, the pride of Santa Anita. A questionable call at Gulfstream last year generated numerous complaints that the stewards--a majority of whom are Gulfstream employees--were protecting the Rainbow Six jackpot.

Racing has enough suspicion, a lot of it unfounded. It doesn’t need this.

A reasonable alternative is to adopt the strategy used in the professional sports leagues. Have a group of officials or former officials in a central location, not affiliated with any track or social buddies with the people they are ruling on, adjudicate possible fouls. At least there is a chance there would be more consistency in what is and isn’t an infraction.

If the Delaware stewards could look at replays of the track's showcase race and conclude that there was no interference, serious interference, then we might as well adopt the greyhound racing system that whoever crosses the finish line first is the winner. I exaggerate, of course, but only a little.

Crist will be missed

Racing is the poorer for the retirement of Steven Crist. In many ways, it will have a more enduring impact than the retirement of a star horse. Champions come and go. Steve has been one of the sport's and its fans' greatest champion for decades.

He is one of the most literate, insightful, analytical journalists ever to cover the game. His unique and highly successful way of attacking multiple race wagers earned him Harvey Pack’s acclamation as “The King of the Pick Six.”

He also is a really good guy, who despite his status as one of the best of the best, always had time to talk racing.

Steve belongs in the pantheon of other giants of his profession, such as Joe Hirsch and Red Smith. They both have major stakes named for them. NYRA should get busy immediately trying to identify a race worthy of Steve’s name. Ideally, it should be at Saratoga, which he made more interesting and entertaining for years with his daily blogs.

There would have to be a caveat. No matter how small the field, it could never be taken out of the Pick Six.

Human faces on the game

John Pricci pointed out in his recent column that the mano y mano between 12-time Saratoga training champion Todd Pletcher and Chad Brown, runnerup the past five seasons, will be an avidly followed story this summer. A win by Brown could go a long way toward propelling him to his first Eclipse Award, which he openly covets.

Racing is always looking for ways to put human faces on the game. The relatively compact Saratoga season is the perfect meeting to serve as a trend-setter. NYRA has taken a positive step in labeling this competition the H. Allen Jerkens championship. Now it should relentlessly publicize the competition,including updates by Larry Collmus every time either wins a race. If some other trainer pushes into the title race, include his stats and ranking, too. Releases should be dispensed to the media on a daily basis.

Hopefully, it wouldn’t take long before the public would catch on and begin to pick sides. Anything that could generate additional debate and conversation has to be good for the game.

None of this would cost a dime, so there’s no reason not to give it a shot.

Lighten dark Monday

Gulfstream is missing an opportunity, has been since it became a summer track.

During the Saratoga meeting, the Miami-area track should revise its weekly agenda to drop Thursday and replace it with Monday.

Saratoga is the only major track in the country that races six days a week, including usually dark Monday. The Spa attracts a huge simulcast handle. It also allows a half-hour to 35 minutes between races, so horse players nationwide look for something to bet during the lulls. Gulfstream would be a far more appealing option than Delaware and Parx, the major Monday tracks.

It seems beyond debate that Gulfstream would generate more simulcast handle on Saratoga Mondays than it does on Thursdays. It’s probably too late to revise the Gulfstream schedule this year but it is something that should be looked at for the coming years.

Where are DD will pays?

Something was missing from the Del Mar on-screen tote last Saturday. Daily double will pays were absent. The column where they had appeared was used for exacta reverse prices, which would have come up in the sequence in any case.

Knowing who is being bet is essential information, especially for races like last Saturday's sixth when six of the nine entrants were first-time starters. For a track that has rolling daily doubles, omitting it is inexcusable and unacceptable.

(I monitored Friday and Sunday on TVG, so I can’t speak of those days, although I have no reason to doubt it was different. If it was, let me and readers know in the comments section.)

Written by Tom Jicha

Comments (19)


Thursday, July 14, 2016

Del Mar and Saratoga are racing’s most wonderful time of the year

Looking to find that longshot that will change your life with a longshot Kentucky Derby future books wager? Pay attention to the 2-year-old races at Del Mar and Saratoga. In spite of the theory that the most promising Classics hopefuls are beginning their careers later, the five most recent winners of the Derby have run in the summer of their juvenile seasons at either Del Mar or Saratoga. This is only one of many reasons why the upcoming glamour meetings are a highlight of every racing season.

MIAMI, July 14--Want a first look at next spring’s Kentucky Derby winner? Keep a close eye on the juvenile races at Del Mar, which opens Friday, and Saratoga, whose season launches one week later.

Conventional wisdom is the most highly regarded young horses are starting their careers later and later, some not until they are 3-year-olds. As often is the case, the conventional wisdom doesn’t hold up under scrutiny.

The five most recent winners of the Run for the Roses, six of the past seven and seven of the past nine have run at one of the two glamour summer meetings.

Del Mar is on a three-year roll. Nyquist won last season’s Best Pal Stakes then doubled down in the Del Mar Futurity. American Pharoah was fifth in his career debut but Bob Baffert had enough faith in his future Triple Crown winner to run him back as a maiden in the Futurity where he crushed the field. California Chrome won the Graduation Stakes then ran sixth in the Futurity.

Saratoga was the summer place to be for future Kentucky Derby winners the previous two years. Orb ran third in his debut in an MSW. I’ll Have Another ran at both Del Mar and Saratoga. After a second in the Best Pal out west he shipped east for the 2011 Hopeful, where he looked nothing like a future double Classic winner, running sixth.

Animal Kingdom interrupted the streak going backwards. He didn’t make his debut until September 2010 at Arlington, only a few weeks after the Del Mar and Saratoga meetings ended. This does little to bolster the argument that the good ones are starting much later. Animal Kingdom is the exception to another streak I pointed out during Triple Crown season. Every Kentucky Derby winner since Animal Kingdom has entered the Churchill Downs starting gate undefeated as a 3-year-old. Animal Kingdom ran second in a Gulfstream turf race.

Super Saver, who would win the 2010 Derby, ran second in a Spa MSW in 2009.

It’s mandatory to keep an eye on all juvenile races. Big Brown, the 2008 Derby winner broke his maiden in a juvenile turf race at the Spa.

The opportunities to catch the stars of tomorrow add to the allure of the premier summer meetings but there are myriad other reasons to anticipate Saratoga and Del Mar like a kid waits for Christmas.

The most exciting horses in training are expected to be in action. Songbird is coming East to put her unbeaten record on the line in the Coaching Club American Oaks on July 24 and perhaps the Alabama four weeks later. Waiting for her on at least the first of those occasions is the streaking Carina Mia, who devastated her opposition in the Acorn after doing the same in the Eight Belles on Derby Day.

The connections of super turf mare Tepin are targeting the flat mile Fourstardave on Aug. 13 for her return to U.S. racing after showing the Euros how its done at Royal Ascot. The Spa's turf course might be as much a challenge as her male opposition. She came up short in both starts at the Spa last summer. Elsewhere she has not lost in two years, winning 10 in a row on both sides of the Atlantic.

It would be great if Tepin wound up in the same starting gate as Flintshire but the French import, who is undefeated in two Grade 1 starts in the U.S., is pointing toward a defense of his title in the $1 million Sword Dancer on the Travers undercard. The mile and a half distance is more suited to the Euro.

Out west another extraordinary filly, three-times Eclipse winner Beholder, is probable for the Clement Hirsch on July 30. But the race everyone is anticipating is her potential faceoff against California Chrome in the Pacific Classic on Aug. 20. Beholder is the defending champion. She demolished the boys last year. This year she faces The Man.

The 2014 Kentucky Derby winner is expected to tune up in the San Diego Handicap on July 23. This is a strange decision given the mercenary proclivities of Team Chrome. NYRA reportedly offered to kick up the purse for the Whitney on Aug. 6 from $1.25 million to $1.5 million, more than the San Diego and Pacific combined, if California Chrome showed up.

If the Beholder-California Chrome showdown comes to pass, Del Mar could have its biggest day since Cigar brought his 16-race winning streak to town in 1996 (and was upset).

Del Mar might have gotten this year’s Derby winner Nyquist but for an enduring glaring hole in its stakes schedule. There isn’t a race of any significance for 3-year-olds on dirt. Almost all the sophomore stakes are on grass.

There’s no gender discrimination where the surf meets the turf. Major dirt stakes for 3-year-old fillies are also among the missing.These are inexplicable and inexcusable omissions for one of the two ranking tracks of summer.

California’s loss is the East Coast’s gain. Nyquist is scheduled to make his return from the Preakness, where he suffered his first career defeat, in Monmouth’s Haskell on July 31. The hope is if all goes well, he’ll encore in the Travers on Aug. 27.

The Travers is the focal point for Belmont Stakes champion Creator, who’ll prep in the Jim Dandy on July 30. Preakness winner and Derby runnerup Exaggerator is also a possibility, setting up the possibility of a rubber match among the winners of the Triple Crown races.

The only thing better would be if Songbird detoured into the Travers. But her owners seem adamant about not putting her in against colts this year.

Oh well, racing fans can’t get everything they want. But Saratoga and Del Mar come close.

Written by Tom Jicha

Comments (13)


Thursday, July 07, 2016

Racing in 2016 is not a man’s world

Projecting ahead to the second half of the 2016 season, there is a perhaps unprecedented situation in which the most exciting horses in the three key divisions--3-year-olds, older and turf--are females.Beholder and Tepin have already vanquished Grade 1 males and Songbird would be favored against any or all the leaders of her generation. This is to say nothing of the best story of all, Lady Eli, who is training again after coming back from near death.

MIAMI, July 7--Exactly when the first half of the racing season ends and the second half begins is a matter of opinion. The calendar says July 1. Others consider the 4th of July weekend. Perhaps the most popular viewpoint is the kicking off point is the opening of Del Mar and Saratoga, this year on July 15 and July 22, respectively.

By any of these points, we are going into the second half of 2016 in a unique situation. The best horses in the three glamour divisions--3-year-olds, older, and turf--arguably are fillies and mares.

In two of the cases, the arguments are almost indisputably strong.

Songbird has yet to compete outside her gender in her undefeated eight-race career. Unfortunately, she is not expected to this year. Is there any doubt that if she did, she would be a solid favorite against any of the Triple Crown champions--Nyquist, Exaggerator and Creator--or in a stakes with all of them?

But she will not hide out on the West Coast, as has her predecessor as best female in the West, who we will get to shortly. Her connections have plotted a three-race East Coast invasion--the Coaching Club American Oaks and Alabama at Saratoga and the Cotillion at Parx--before heading home for the Breeders' Cup at Santa Anita.

Depending on how this goes and the status of California Chrome, we can live in hope that an audible will be called and she will go in the Classic rather than the Distaff.

Beholder, who has won three Eclipses without winning a race outside Southern California, has already stepped up against the boys and demolished them in last summer's Pacific Classic. She can do it again in August after a prep against the talent deficient members of her gender in the Clement Hirsch.

The wild card again is California Chrome. History indicates Beholder's connections will skip the race but maybe they'll reverse themselves. On her best race, she might be able to give the 2014 Kentucky Derby champion all he can handle and maybe more.

Then there's Tepin. She vanquished world class males in the 2015 Breeders' Cup Mile and off her scintillating win in the Princess Anne, her eighth in a row, who's going to beat her? Flintshire is the only one on the horizon who would rate a serious chance but it's unlikely they'll face off. Tepin shines up to a mile and an eighth while Flintshire is best over longer ground.

There's another super filly on the horizon, whose story is the stuff of books and movies. Lady Eli has come back from the brink of death and is working toward a comeback start.

Pondering a Breeders' Cup showdown between Lady Eli and Tepin, who cares what males might be in the race.

Exchange Betting will be slow build

Poker players have a saying: Look around the table. If you can’t figure out who the pigeon is, it’s you.

This is the feeling I get as Exchange Betting rolls out at Monmouth and, inevitably, other American race tracks. There is going to be a long learning curve before most horse players become versed and comfortable with the intricacies of this new form of wagering in the U.S.

There are benefits for the player. Primarily, you can get fixed odds on your selection. No longer will you have to agonize that the horse you thought was value at 5-2 a minute to post has dropped to 6-5 after the gate opens.

A downside to me is Exchange Betting further tilts the sharks vs. minnows playing field, which has become pronounced to the extent that it discourages casual and new fans. The wise guys always have and always will have an edge. Exchange Betting increases this advantage.

Back in the day when betting was limited to the track and crowds of 20,000 during the week and double or more than that on weekends were the norm there was enough unsophisticated money in the pools that you could get a decent price on a logical horse. Now this is rare.

Casual fans have largely disappeared from tracks and ADW’s allow big players, many of whom never go near a track, to dominate. So mid-level players have to buck the computer syndicates, the sheets specialists and the inside information crowd to try to make a score.

Exchange Betting exacerbates this situation. Pari-mutuel wagering by definition pits bettors against each other. Exchange Betting makes this more personal, a one-on-one proposition. In essence, casual players will be betting that they can out handicap and outsmart the computer syndicates and sharks, because when it comes to serious money, this is who will be the most heavily involved.

Anything can happen in a single race or a single day but over the long haul there is little question which side is going to come out way on top.

We’ve gotten a sneak preview of this with daily fantasy betting on other sports. Something like 95 percent of the winnings is taken down by about 5 percent of the players, the ones who have computer algorithms and other data not generally available to the guys playing for fun.

Also, I can’t see how anything that has the potential to keep millions of dollars out of the traditional betting pools, which support purses, can be good for the game. Maybe I’ll change my mind as I become more familiar with Exchange Betting but for now I’ll stick to the system I’ve always known.

Written by Tom Jicha

Comments (6)


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