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, July 30, 2013

The Travers has a new Big 3

The 3-year-old championship picture has taken on a new look. Verrazano has crashed the former Big 3 of Orb, Oxbow and Palice Malice with a smashing score in the Haskell, the most impressive performance by a 3-year-old this year. It still might be a big three, as Oxbow came out of the Monmouth showpiece race with an ankle injury.

SARATOGA SPRINGS, July 30, 2013--Who do you like for the 3-year-old championship? Kentucky Derby (and Florida Derby) winner Orb, Preakness winner Oxbow, who also outfinished Orb in the Belmont, or Belmont champion Palace Malice, who ratified that triumph with a dominant score in the Jim Dandy?

The answer at the end of the past weekend in many circles was “none of the above.”

It has been more than 30 years since three different winners of Triple Crown events met in the Travers, so anticipation ran high as the 2013 renewal loomed. Then Verrazano made a shambles of the Haskell, crushing, among others, Oxbow, who came out of the race with a wrenched ankle. The injury put his Travers status in doubt as well as compromising his chances for the 3-year-old championship, which is still up for grabs..

There hasn’t been a more decisive win in a 3-year-old Grade 1 this season than Verrazano’s almost 10-length Haskell romp, the largest margin in the storied race’s history. Not to diminish in any way Palace Malice’s performance in the Jim Dandy but Verrazano obliterated a better bunch in the Haskell. He not only buried Oxbow, who struggled home fourth, he ran past Bob Baffert’s latest “now’ horse Power Broker, coming off a big win in the Easy Goer; Derby runnerup Golden Soul; Gotham and Jerome winner Vyjack and Long Branch winner Micromanage.

Todd Pletcher, who’s as tight with superlatives as Jack Benny was with a dollar, said he felt Verrazano had made “a huge statement.” Pletcher said Verrazano’s Haskell was as impressive a race as a 3-year-old has run this season. There aren’t many who would argue. The 116 Beyer Fig he was given dwarfs Oxbow’s 106 in the Preakness and Orb’s 104 for the Derby.

So there’s a new Big Three for the Travers and it wouldn’t be surprising if Verrazano goes favored over the Derby and Belmont winners as well as Oxbow if he makes the race. Verrazano’s Haskell was his sixth win in seven starts over four tracks. The only blemish was his no-show 14th in the Kentucky Derby over an off track.

However, the same question hangs over him that did going into the first Saturday in May. Can he win beyond nine furlongs? Orb and Palace Malice have already put that issue to rest.

Then again, they could have gone around Monmouth’s one-mile oval again Sunday and Verrazano’s margin only would have been greater. It was the first time any colt of his generation displayed the potential to challenge elders Game on Dude and Fort Larned, among others, in the big fall races and the Breeders’ Cup.

Palace Malice used similar tactics in the Jim Dandy to those that carried the day in the Belmont. He forced the pace of Dwyer winner Moreno, took over at will, eased away and had plenty left to hold off late-running Will Take Charge. The rest were never in the race.

Palace Malice’s time, 1:47.32, was the second fastest nine-furlong Jim Dandy ever, good for a 107 Beyer.

So who do you like in the Travers and for the division title?

Bill Mott’s plaque in the Hall of Fame across Union Avenue makes notes of his remarkable achievements, most notably training Cigar to 16 wins in a row. It might have to be revised to include another streak.

Mott, the second youngest person ever elected to the Hall of Fame in 1998 when he was only 45, has an uncanny ability to win a race on his birthday, July 29. He turned the trick for the seventh straight time (dark days not included) and 15th in 20 opportunities on Monday. It’s not Woody Stephens’ five consecutive Belmonts but it has captured the fancy of the racing world.

Everyone has a birthday but, in its own way, Mott’s has become another event on the Saratoga calendar. The Racing Form made note of it in the leadup to the Spa season and it was mentioned prominently in the roundup in Monday’s Form and again after Mott kept the streak going. Dave Litfin included it in his race-by-race analysis. Tom Durkin referenced it in his calls. In-house handicapper Andy Serling commented on it for each of Mott’s five starters.

Serling took a hard-bitten (but accurate) approach, pointing out that the streak has become so avidly followed that each of Mott’s starters was being egregiously overbet. Serling astutely saw this as an opportunity for the cold-of-heart, who pay no attention to such matters, to take advantage of inflated prices on non-Mott contenders.

Mott’s followers had to hang on to the bitter end when the last of his quintet, Revenue, got home in the ninth race and paid $5.50. This repeated the 2012 pattern when Mott didn't win until the last of his three starters, Alaura Michele, captured the Nani Rose overnight stakes.

The streak will get a rest in 2014 when July 29 falls on a dark Tuesday.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Too Hot to Race? No Such Thing

New NYRA CEO Christopher Kay made a strong first impression when he swatted away suggestions that it might be too hot to race on the scheduled opening day at Saratoga. But the promise of quality moving to the fore this season went unfulfilled when five of the first seven races on opening Saturday were for state-breds and the program closed with a bottom-level sprint for bottom-level beaten claimers. Meanwhile, in South Florida all the trends are pointing toward Gulfstream winning its battle with Calder.

Saratoga 2013 got off to a great start by getting off to a timely start.

Plaudits to NYRA’s new CEO Christopher Kay for making his first significant call the right one. It’s unthinkable there were thoughts of postponing Friday’s opening day because the temperatures were stagnant in the 90s. Kay decreed the show would go on.

As a four-decade resident of South Florida, my reaction to these suggestions was the same as it has been whenever racing at the Spa has been cancelled due to unseasonably warm weather: “Are you kidding me?”

I know the authorities are having talks about the heat in California in the wake of a horse fatality. That's the right thing to do, of course. But if you're prepared in advance...

There have been literally thousands of afternoons during my years in Miami when the temperatures were approaching triple digits and the humidity was stifling enough to make those who thought it was bad at the Spa last week apologize for being wimps. I can’t recall a single occasion when this was cause for cancelling the Calder races.

A Saratoga cancellation is far more consequential than one in South Florida or downstate New York, where the merry-go-round spins day in and day out. Racing fans make vacation plans months in advance to spend time at Saratoga, drive hundreds of miles to get there and spend hundreds of dollars for lodging. Opening day is an extra special can’t-miss occasion on many race fans’ calendars. To lock them out would evoke the same feelings of disappointment and anger the Griswalds felt when they drove cross-country only to find Wally World inexplicably shut down.

(In another weird weather phenomena Friday, a mere 0.22 inch of rain in Las Vegas flooded the gaming floor at Caesar’s Palace and caused leaks in the roof at Gilley’s at Treasure Island among other havoc, according to the Associated Press. Thankfully for simulcast players, the heavy damage occurred after 7 p.m. when all of the opening day Saratoga card and most of the races at Del Mar had been run. It’s mind-boggling that a town with billion dollar properties up and down the Strip has the drainage of a New York subway system men’s room.)

Unfortunately the racing at Saratoga wasn’t as hot as the temperatures, especially on the first Saturday of the meeting. Expectations were raised that with casino money bolstering NYRA’s bottom line this would be a Saratoga meeting harkening back to the days of old when quality ruled.

This was especially true coming off a four-day break and after what many felt was the worst Saturday card in the history of Belmont Park the week before. The thinking was the lesser lights were given their final shots before the heavy hitters took center stage at the Spa.

Then the entries came out. Four of the first five races and five of the first seven were for state-breds, with bottom-of-the-barrel beaten claimers to close the show.

New York-breds Hessonite. Strong Impact and Wired Bryan might have distinguished themselves and the state breeding program winning open stakes opening weekend. By and large, however, run-of-the-mill state-breds are mediocrities or worse, who need restricted races to pay their keep.

State-bred races are what weekdays and winter racing are for. Five on the first Saturday of the Saratoga meeting? Seriously?

Also, what happened to shorter programs to get fans out on the streets and into the bars and restaurants of Saratoga before dark? Do we really need a $20K claimer (a grossly inflated price tag in many instances) to lengthen the day?

The Battle of South Florida is tilting strongly toward Gulfstream. Except for Calder’s Summit of Speed program, Gulfstream has had the stronger handle by decisive margins in their weekend head-to-head showdowns.

The situation could be taking a significant turn for the much worse for Calder. The Florida HBPA, which has not had a purse contract since the start of the season in April, is threatening to withhold permission for Calder to simulcast its races out of state if a new deal isn’t negotiated by the end of this week.

The FHBPA took similar action the first week in May and Calder retaliated by cutting purses 20 percent. At that point there was no alternative place to race for local horsemen, so a truce was called and the purse cuts were reinstated after a week.

It’s a different situation now. Horsemen have Gulfstream as an option.

If simulcasting is halted and Calder institutes another purse cut, which will be dictated by the loss of revenue, the exodus to Gulfstream could resemble the last plane out of Saigon.

In addition, an inside source said a deal is all but done for the Florida Stallion Stakes, a fixture at Calder since its inception, to relocate to Gulfstream in 2014. The rich filly and colt finales of the three-stage Stallion Stakes are the centerpieces of the Festival of the Sun each fall, one of Calder’s biggest days of each season.

There is no disputing Gulfstream has the superior brand name nationwide when it comes to simulcasting but it could be getting outside help. Driving north toward Saratoga, I was able to get a Saturday Racing Form near Laurel Park in Maryland. Past performances for seven tracks were included. Among them was Gulfstream Park. Not included was Calder. So simulcast fans had all they needed to bet the Gulfstream card but nothing for Calder, which was staging three stakes, including the opening legs of the Stallion Stakes.

You have to wonder in how many other regions this is the case.

Laurel is part of the Stronach Group, which owns Gulfstream. Just saying.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, July 18, 2013

One longshot winner led to a lifetime love affair with Saratoga

A side trip en route to a wild weekend of revelry became the catalyst for a half-century of rich Saratoga memories and it's all owed to a 2-year-old maiden longshot winner named Bugler.

MIAMI, July 19, 2013--Every great love story with a racetrack begins with a major score. Mine with Saratoga is no exception.

I can’t believe it was 50 years ago. But this is the summer for Saratoga milestone anniversaries. It was the summer I turned 18, the legal age to bet and then, not insignificantly, to drink. I was still living in New York City.

People didn’t talk about bucket lists then. But after hearing wild tales about how Lake George in the summer was the northern version of Fort Lauderdale for spring break, going there for a weekend as soon as I was old enough was atop my “to do” list.

A couple of friends, George and John, were down for it as much as I was. I had gotten hooked on the horses, very modestly, a couple of years before. “As long as we were heading upstate,” I cajoled, “why don’t we stop at Saratoga? I hear it’s a really cool place.”

So we took the NY Central on a Friday morning and got off at Saratoga, about 30 miles from our ultimate weekend destination. We pooled some money, about $10 apiece and promised we would bet only a couple of bucks a race. The only gimmick then was an early daily double.

Four races in, our cache was down to $15 and we were getting discouraged enough to ponder an early exit. Maybe Saratoga wasn't such a great idea.

I was the supposed expert so I suggested making a win bet on a 25-to-1 two-year-old first-time starter named Bugler. I couldn’t understand the price because he was a Darby Dan colt, trained by Jimmy Conway and ridden by Braulio Baeza, at the time a triple crown of top connections. (The reason was there was a hot firster sent off at 3-5. I think his name was Jacinto.) George went to make the bet.

This was the thrill of our young lifetimes right from the start. Bugler bounced out to the lead. By the time he passed us at the Top of the Stretch, he had about six, and he didn’t give up an inch of it to the wire. It wasn’t until they put up his number that a laughing-like-a-banshee George revealed he had bet the whole $15, $5 across the board. His logic was, if we lost, we would get an early start on Lake George.

We collected $196. This has to be put in perspective. It was about double what my father made for a six-day week at his newstand. The three of us combined left home with little more than half that for the weekend. (Our motel was paid in advance, as was our train fare.) Beers at the bars we hit in Lake George were only 50 cents, drinks a buck, and you could eat well for less than $10 a day. Suddenly we were flush enough to party like rock stars.

Screw the economy bus ride to Lake George. We found a limo for $5 apiece. We bar hopped with abandon. We called cabs for ridiculously short rides. The only bummer was we didn’t hook up with anyone. Didn’t even get a name or phone number.

(Just as well. Two weeks later, I had a blind date that started on the boardwalk in Rockaway and hasn’t ended yet. Pat and I will celebrate our 47th wedding anniversary in the fall. What was the line from the movie, “In every boy’s life there is a summer of ’42.” Mine was the summer of ’63.)

Saratoga was supposed to be merely a pit stop on Friday afternoon en route to Lake George. But there was no question where the three of us were heading on Saturday—and, as it turned out, Monday. Sunday racing wasn’t legal or we would have been there then, too.

We didn’t have any other big scores but we had enough winners that we were still flush enough to deep-six the train home for the first plane ride for each of us, from Albany to LaGuardia on Mohawk Airlines. Thanks to Bugler, it became the weekend of our young lives.

I’ve made the pilgrimage to Saratoga in 48 of the 50 years since. At one point I had a streak of 35 straight Travers. Pat has been at my side on all of those trips. The tradition endured even after we moved to Florida in 1972. Every August we packed the car, loaded the kids and headed 1,500 miles north to the Adirondacks.

We started taking my younger brother Greg with us as soon as he could appreciate it. He was standing alongside me for another memorable Spa moment. We were by the rail in mid-stretch one weekday afternoon in 1977 when a two-year-old (we didn’t have) flashed by. “I’ve never seen a horse run that fast,” I said to my brother. That colt was Affirmed. I still haven't seen a horse run that fast.

Eventually our younger sister, Leslie, came along, too. Our tales of the joys of Saratoga eventually convinced my parents to check it out. My father isn’t with us anymore but my mother, now 88, hasn’t missed a year at the Spa in I can’t tell you how long. She’ll be there again at the Top of the Stretch next weekend and probably a couple more weekends before the end of the meet. She picks her own horses, too.

Unfortunately, we all didn’t make it at the same time every year. However, season before last, we planned to all be there together: Pat and I, our son and daughter and their spouses and children; Greg, his wife Patti and their three grown children; Leslie, her spouse John and their three daughters and their boyfriends. There were about 25 of us, total.

Race tracks have never come to appreciate that their No. 1 marketing tool is horse players. I’ll bet a vast majority of fans broke their racetrack maidens when a friend brought them along. I know that most of the extended Jicha clan would never have made it to the Spa if I hadn't broken the ice with them. But they've all become Saratoga regulars and race fans year round.

My niece Hayley, a marketing major at the University of Miami, had T-shirts made up with neon lettering, “Jicha Family Reunion 2011.” There were so many of us wearing the shirts walking around the track, we began to attract attention. Sam the Bugler (there’s that word again) was the first to notice. He came to the Top of the Stretch to visit and serenade us. He came back the next day, too.

Word got to Channel 10 in Albany. Its crew, there to cover the races, found us and did a feature on us. It was about a three-minute piece on the air. It’s a tape we’ll all cherish as our lives go our separate ways.
We’ll be out in force again this season, ready to start a second half-century of memories.

I don’t know if any of this would have happened if it wasn’t for a colt named Bugler.

Written by Tom Jicha

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