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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Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Two Series Enhance Racing’s TV Profile

Without TV, it's impossible for a sport to be taken seriously by the masses. The Jockey Club Tour on Fox and the new documentary-style series 'Horseplayers' are steps in the right direction even if they are works in progress.

MIAMI, Jan. 22-2014--First impressions might be lasting but they should be open to reconsideration and revision.

When Gulfstream announced it was relocating the Donn Handicap, the premier event of the winter season for older horses, to Sunday, Feb. 9, from its original position the day before in order to help launch a new racing series on the Fox Sports Network, the kneejerk reaction was, here we go again with a sport showing little regard for its fans in order to accommodate television.

Indeed, Gulfstream president Tim Ritvo acknowledges that he has heard from customers, who say they had made travel plans to attend the Donn, then get on a plane for home Sunday.

However, the more I thought about it, the more I came around to the old expression, “You can’t make an omelet without cracking some eggs.”

Baseball and football. with their resources, tradition and vast fan bases, can afford to alienate fans with customers-be-damned schedule changes. Racing isn’t in this position. It has to tread carefully and weigh risk against reward. This is why Gulfstream deserves a pat on the back for shuffling its deck to get the series off to a strong start.

The Donn would have done more for Gulfstream on Saturday than it will on Sunday. Nevertheless, Ritvo said, “We’re hoping the exposure on TV outweighs anything we might lose because of the change.” Oh that more racetrack executives had that attitude.

Sports—all entertainment, or that matter—is driven by star power. The series launch couldn’t ask for more. The Donn has the makings of a hum-dinger. New Eclipse winner Will Take Charge is definitely pointing to the race. The joke last weekend was, getting the race on TV cinched that D. Wayne Lukas would be there.

Revolutionary, third in last year’s Kentucky Derby and a smashing winner of his recent 2014 debut, is also probable. So is River Seven, who set a track record in winning the Haran’s Holiday. Word from the West Coast is Doug O’Neill is planning to ship in Private Zone.

What’s more, Groupie Doll’s people announced last week that she will make one final start in the Hurricane Bertie, which is now on the Donn undercard. Each telecast of the Jockey Club Tour will include at least two big races. The co-feature for the Feb. 9 launch is listed to be the Gulfstream Turf Handicap but rest assured Groupie Doll’s finale will find its way onto the show.

Most of the other telecasts have only the major attraction penciled in right now. The Dubai World Cup is on deck for March 29, followed by the Blue Grass on April 12, the Man O’War May 11, the United Nations July 6, the Eddie Read and Coaching Club American Oaks on July 20, the Saratoga Special (the most curious selection) on Aug. 10, the Sword Dancer on Aug. 17 and the Woodbine Mile on Sept. 14.

A glaring absence is the lack of any races from a Churchill Downs-owned track. (The Kentucky Derby and Oaks have separate TV deals).

'Horseplayers' too busy

“Horseplayers” is harder to find than the winner of a bottom level maiden claimer at Beulah. The new series on the characters who frequent handicapping contests is on the Esquire Network, which used to be called the Style Network. Look up in the hundreds on your cable dial.

The premiere was busier than a groom in the morning, to the detriment of the show. It’s a challenge to every TV pilot to introduce characters, explain relationships and lay the groundwork for what is to come while maintaining a compelling narrative. “Horseplayers” came up short in these areas.

The protagonists are people who have had success or are striving to achieve it in big money handicapping contests. New York based Team Rotondo—Peter Sr., his son Peter Jr. and their pal Lee Davis—dominated opening night. However, other than the fact that they like to play horses and think they are the best around we didn’t get to know them very well. They seem to have some interesting personal stories, not the least of which is how Peter Sr. met and married a 22-year-old. In the show’s defense, this is a series, so maybe that is to come.

Christian Helmers, the West Coast element, is more of a mystery. We found out he’s a young guy with a beautiful girlfriend but little more. It’s said some gamblers have ice water in their veins. Helmers appears to have Freon. He was seen making two huge scores at the 2012 Breeders’ Cup without even cracking a smile. Again, maybe we’ll learn more about him down the road, too.

The fact that the girlfriends of Rotondo and Helmers were the only women given prominent screen time and were treated as accessories won't endear "Horseplayers" to 52% of the population.

The frequent jumps from coast to coast also were jarring. If this is an attempt to bring in viewers who are not avid racing fans, which it obviously is, the documentary-style show could benefit greatly from a narrator to smooth over the many transitions.

A lesson I learned during my three decades as a TV critic is just as you don’t judge a book by its cover, you don’t judge a series by its pilot. I’ll reserve judgment until I get to see a few more episodes. But for now, I fear “Horseplayers” will have a difficult challenge sustaining an audience beyond avid fans of the sport.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Eclipse Awards another indictment of Keeneland’s Polytrack

Keeneland used to be a home of champions. Since an artificial surface was installed in 2006, it has become home to oddball results. The winners of its most important main track stakes are nowhere to be found among the Eclipse finalists, which has become the norm. In the past seven-plus years, not one of the winners of the Grade 1 Blue Grass, Alcibiades, Ashland, Breeders' Futurity and Spinster has doubled on Eclipse night.

MIAMI, Jan. 15, 2014--The annual presentation of the Eclipse Awards Saturday brings still another reminder of racing’s dirty little secret.

It’s the sacred cow status of Keeneland since it installed a synthetic track. Nine Eclipse categories have no surface restrictions. Of the 24 finalists (three have double nominations; Wise Dan has a third for turf), only three competed on Keeneland’s Polytrack. One was Wise Dan, when the Shadwell Mile was taken off the grass. None won. Wise Dan suffered his only defeat when he ran second, Groupie Doll was third in the TCA and Palace Malice was second in the Blue Grass.

Keeneland’s Polytrack has become the home of results out of synch with the rest of racing.

There is far more evidence that Keeneland has become an outlier among American racetracks since putting down fake dirt for the 2006 fall meeting.

Fourteen graded stakes were run on the kitty litter in 2013, including the relocated Shadwell Mile. Not one of the winners is among the final three in any Eclipse category.

As they say in the TV infomercials, but wait, there’s more. Keeneland annually presents six Grade 1’s, three in the spring, three in the fall. Groupie Doll last year and Informed Decision in 2009 both won the Madison en route to a female sprint Eclipse. The winners of the other five—the Alcibiades, Ashland, Blue Grass, Breeders Futurity and Spinster—have produced zero Eclipse champions since God’s brown dirt was abandoned.

Since the fall of 2006, 38 thoroughbreds have won these five nominally top tier events. Not one has been voted an Eclipse. Over the past three years, only Groupie Doll and Stephanie’s Kitten, who took the Alcibiades in 2011, have even been Eclipse finalists.

Nevertheless, it is considered heresy to even suggest that any be downgraded to a level more appropriate for the influence they have had on the sport. After all, this is Keeneland.

I have a better idea than downgrading the stakes. To bastardize some of the most famous words to come out of an American President's mouth, “Mr. Thomason, tear up that track.”

Eclipse categories lack clarity

As long as we’re on the subject of Eclipse Awards, a familiar debate has been reignited.

Gary West, one of America’s most respected turf writers, wrote a column arguing that Wise Dan would be a poor choice for Best Older Horse, because his successes were all on turf, which has a category of its own. In his view, Mucho Macho Man or Game or Dude must be awarded the prize.

Since Wise Dan won this award last year, West is in the minority. Moreover, Mizdirection, who never set foot on dirt, is a finalist among female sprinters, a category many consider a main track prize. Obviously, the majority viewpoint is turf counts.

This doesn’t make West wrong, as anyone who has supported a losing political candidate will attest. West is doing the right thing, passionately arguing his position in the hope it will become the majority stance in the future. Alas, he went over the top, making it personal. He labeled others who don’t see things his way "narcissists." He’s better than that.

Nick Kling, whose opinions are frequently expressed in Horse Race Insider, presented a cogent response to West in the Troy (NY) Record. Kling opined that as long as there are no specific rules, it is up to each voter to make a decision.

I have to come down on Kling’s side. I voted for Wise Dan for best older horse last year and I did it again this year. He was 6-for-7, all stakes, four of his wins in Grade 1’s, including the Breeders’ Cup Mile.

But if Game on Dude had won the Breeders’ Cup Classic, which would have given him a comparable record, I would have voted for him for Horse of the Year and Older Horse, because all things being equal, dirt is still America’s primary surface. But as it is, no one had a year close to the equal of Wise Dan’s.

This underlines the subjectivity of the Eclipse voting. Is an Eclipse champion the horse with the most stakes wins; the best winning percentages in graded stakes; the most Grade 1 wins; a Breeders’ Cup champion?

When this year’s winners are announced, there will be some who fit into each of those categories. But there also will be non-winners (no horse outstanding enough be an Eclipse finalist should ever be called a loser), who fit within those parameters.

Racing is not alone in having debates of this kind. Every few years, when a pitcher has an extraordinary season, there are factions in baseball who argue that since pitchers have the Cy Young Award, they should not be considered for MVP. Occasionally they are over-ruled by the majority.

The Baseball Writers of America Association has had plenty of opportunities to clarify the standards. Instead, voters have been instructed to follow the same guidelines that also should be the rule for the Eclipse Awards. Use your own best judgment.

And don’t denigrate those who have a different opinion.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Friday, January 10, 2014

Sham is not a race to be regarded lightly

Santa Anita's Sham Stakes comes up early in Derby prep season but the last three renewals have produced future Breeders' Cup winners. Back in Florida, Gulfstream has a couple of wide open stakes but the return of Revolutionary, third in last year's Run for the Roses, in an allowance might be the most significant race of the day.

MIAMI, Jan. 10, 2013--It doesn’t take long for Kentucky Derby season to pick up momentum. From now through May, barely a weekend will go by without a noteworthy 3-year-old stakes.

General a Rod and Noble Moon have enhanced their candidacies with wins in the Gulfstream Derby on New Year’s Day and Jerome at Aqueduct last weekend, respectively.

A new sophomore or two to keep an eye on will likely identify himself in Saturday’s Sham Stakes at Santa Anita. Only six will go, but short fields are the norm for this early season event. Nonetheless, a lot of quality has come out of this stakes. The mile race hasn’t produced a Classics winner but future Breeders’ Cup winners have emerged from the last three renewals—Goldencents, Secret Circle and Tapizar. Secret Circle was also a Breeders’ Cup winner going in. So despite its early placement on the calendar, the Sham is not a race to be regarded lightly.

As often is the case this time of year, the field is dominated by newly turned 3-year-olds coming off impressive maiden wins, two in their career debuts. But the most intriguing of the bunch, Ontology, took eight starts to find the winner’s circle.

However, give the son of Tapit a big asterisk. After running second in his MSW debut, he was thrown into deep water in six straight stakes on dirt, synthetics and turf. Nevertheless, he managed seconds in the Oak Tree Juvenile and Hollywood Juvenile. He also has plenty of two-turn experience, a factor never to be under-estimated when assessing this type of race.

Thanks to the presence of first-out winners Top Fortitude and Midnight Hawk, he might be a bit of a price. Midnight Hawk, another Bob Baffert bullet, might have a little more to offer since his runaway win came at the demanding 7 ½ furlong distance at Hollywood, after a rough start and racing greenly. Top Fortitude won his debut by almost three lengths at 6 ½ furlongs.

Caveat emptor: Both victories were on Hollywood’s Cushion surface.

Kristo broke his maiden for John Sadler on Santa Anita’s dirt track.

Doug O’Neill’s I’ll Wrap It Up has missed the board only once in five tries.

Jerry Hollendorfer, who somehow was overlooked by Eclipse voters, sends out the only two-time winner, Life Is a Joy, a minor stakes winner at Fresno and second in the Cal-bred King Glorious.

Back east, Gulfstream has a pair of highly competitive Saturday stakes, the Grade 2 Fort Lauderdale, a mile and a sixteenth on turf, and the Grade 3 Hal’s Hope, a one turn mile on dirt. But an allowance race early on the card with a connection to last year’s Derby might prove to be most noteworthy event.

Revolutionary, third in the 2013 Kentucky Derby, returns to the races for the first time since a fifth-place finish in the Belmont Stakes. Prior to the Triple Crown, he had wins in the Withers and Louisiana Derby, so he could be a serious presence in 2014.

The regally bred offspring of War Pass and the AP Indy mare Runup the Colors will be attempting to return to his winning ways in the second race, a high caliber optional claimer at a mile, which could turn into a prep for the Feb. 8 Donn Handicap.

Revolutionary is not being given a “gimme.” The seven-horse field also includes Honorable Dillon, who won the 2013 Hutcheson, and Reveron, winner of the 2012 Gulfstream Derby and runnerup in the Florida Derby. However, the latter’s two most recent efforts off an 11-month layoff haven’t been close to that quality. Then again, there’s the third race off a layoff angle to be considered.

Defending champions are back in both the Fort Lauderdale and Hal’s Hope.

Mucho Mas Macho—not to be confused with the similarly named MMM horse, who is expected back in next week’s Sunshine Classic—upset last year’s edition at 41-1. Having not won since, he could be almost that price again.

Favoritism could come down to Summer Front, back from the West Coast after missing by a nose to Silentio in the Citation, or Slumber, who won back-to-back races at Saratoga a year apart, then came up short in a pair of Grade 1’s to end his 2013 season.

Without much pace, Howe Great, who loves the Gulfstream turf, is an interesting price opportunity. The Team Valor representative wired the Palm Beach Stakes (with Dullahan and Csaba in his wake) on this lawn a couple of years ago.

The Hal’s Hope brings back the last two winners, Csaba (2013) and Jackson Bend (2012). Csaba’s affection for South Florida is renowned and Jackson Bend has fired Grade 1 winning efforts around one turn.

But this is a race in which it might pay to shop. Marty Wolfson has Simmstown gunning for three in a row and four out of five. When Wolfson gets them good, they stay good and he's lethal any time there's added money on the line in Florida.

Strike One makes his stakes debut for under-rated Brendan Walsh off a pair of Churchill wins.

Neck ‘n Neck, a leading 3-year-old in 2012, is third off a layoff for Ian Wilkes.

Uncaptured, who left Kentucky in the fall of 2012 as one of the Derby horses to watch, didn’t live up to that billing but did get home first in a leg of the Canadian Triple Crown.

Not to be overlooked is Lea, whose connections can’t seem to figure out his best surface. His last three have been on synthetic, dirt and turf. But he opened his season with a solid win on a wet main track (there has been a lot of rain this week in the Miami area) and he’s first time Bill Mott. Deuces have been spent less wisely.

Written by Tom Jicha

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