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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Friday, December 06, 2013

Gulfstream-Calder battle reaches fever pitch

Gulfstream and Calder have been running against each other all summer and fall but they have not had a showdown like the one Saturday when Gulfstream presents the eight-race, million-dollar Claiming Crown and Calder counters with three legitimate stakes, two Grade 3 and one listed.

MIAMI, Dec. 6, 2013--Conventional wisdom was the Gulfstream-Calder war would never come to pass. There would be an 11th hour settlement. Even if there wasn’t, the conflict wouldn’t last longer than the U.S. invasion of Grenada before cooler heads prevailed.

The conventional wisdom—I was part of it—was wrong. Five months later, the conflict has taken on the feel of Vietnam, a conflict with no end in sight.

Strong-willed Frank Stronach is determined to make Gulfstream the realization of his long-stated obsession that race tracks, like other businesses, should be able to operate whenever they see fit. Florida, with no regulation of racing dates, offers the perfect venue. With pockets as deep as the Pacific, Stronach has demonstrated a willingness to spend whatever it takes to win this war, including drastically overpaying summer purses and building new stalls for 360 horses.

By most indicators, he is succeeding. Thanks to a superior national brand, Gulfstream out-handles Calder by as much as four-to-one when they race head-to-head. Horsemen, who were based at Calder for decades, switched their base eight miles east in shocking numbers. Gulfstream snatched the Stallion Stakes and Florida Million Day, former centerpieces of Calder’s season.

Nevertheless, Churchill Downs Inc., parent of Calder, has dug in its heels, refusing to be bullied out of existence. A major motivation is the necessity to run 80 days to keep the Calder and Tropical licenses and the slots license tied to them. So it has cut expenses to such an extent that it could continue the conflict indefinitely.

CDI better be prepared to do that. Gulfstream president Tim Ritvo said last week he plans to extend his track’s weekly agenda to at least three days next summer, maybe more. “We started with two days because we didn’t know how many horses would come over from Calder. Now that we’ve gotten more than even we hoped, we can fill more races. Horsemen have told us they need more than two days a week to get races for their horses.”

NYRA’s decision to run on Mondays through the winter provides Calder with an opportunity it would be unwise to pass on. Rather than operate Friday through Sunday, a switch to Saturday through Monday would give it a day when it could be the second most popular simulcast signal in the nation.

NYRA being open on Mondays figures to lure bigger crowds to simulcast venues. With roughly a half-hour between Aqueduct races, players will be looking for something else to bet. Calder, with its glorious winter weather and familiar trainers and jockeys, would be a natural to fill that void against the likes of Parx and Turf Paradise.

The status quo alternative is to buck Gulfstream, the Fair Grounds, Santa Anita and Oaklawn on Fridays.

Getting back to this Saturday and extending the Vietnam analogy, it is the equivalent of the Tet offensive. Outside the three occasions when Gulfstream hosted the Breeders’ Cup, there has never been a day in South Florida racing like it. Both tracks have offered competing stakes on many Saturdays but the majority were stakes in name only, with high caliber allowance horses dominating over-matched claimers.

Calder is presenting three legitimate stakes, the Grade 3 Tropical Turf Handicap and My Charmer and the listed Fred W. Hooper.

Across town, Gulfstream stages the eight-race, million dollar Claiming Crown for the second time. Last season it produced one of the biggest days of the season.

Last December’s Claiming Crown was a precursor to the monster 2013 enjoyed by Ken and Sarah Ramsey. They entered six of the seven races (one more has been added this season) and won four with a second and a third.

A few weeks ago, Ramsey was asked how many he hoped to win this year. “All of them,” he said in characteristic fashion. He won’t do that. He has entries in only five; four favorites and a second choice.

Ramsey's red-and-white silks could sweep the late pick 4 with Deanallen’s Kitten in the Tiara; defending champion Brother Bird, a half to Mine That Bird, in the Iron Horse; Major Marvel, who missed by a head last year, in the Emerald and Bernie the Maestro, who won the 2012 Rapid Transit and attempts the Jewel this season.

One thing you know when you bet a Ramsey horse. You have the owner as a partner. You have to love a guy who wants to win every time as badly as he does.

The December page of the 2013 Gulfstream calendar has a photo of Team Valor’s Howe Great winning the Palm Beach Stakes. I smile every time I look at it.

Gulfstream has an elevated stand near the finish line, which is used by the media to watch feature races because it offers quick access to the winner’s circle. Some owners, including Ramsey, also occasionally watch races from this perch.

When the Palm Beach entries was drawn, Howe Great wound up in one of the most enviable positions in racing. A confirmed front runner, he was the lone speed.

Ramsey had Coalport, who needed someone to soften Howe Great on the front end to have any chance. It was obvious this wasn’t going to happen. The colorful Ramsey started cursing his fate from the moment he arrived on the stand--probably long before that--throughout Howe Great’s uncontested gallop on the lead and until the horses went under the wire.

The Palm Beach was a relatively minor early season stakes but you would have thought it was the Kentucky Derby or Breeders’ Cup Classic from Ramsey’s reaction. “I’ll never run against that horse again without a rabbit,” was one of his printable outbursts.

I’m smiling as a write this and I'm going to smile again when I write down Ramsey’s name on my Eclipse ballot as owner and breeder of the year.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Wednesday, December 04, 2013

NYRA will rue its decision to raise admission, parking prices

Things are looking up for NYRA. Slot revenues at Aqueduct have exceeded the most optimistic forecasts. For the first time in years, a positive bottom line for the racing operations is anticipated in 2014. With all this good news, NYRA is rewarding its fans by raising admission and parking prices at Belmont and Saratoga.

MIAMI, Dec. 4, 2013--Real life experience is always more valuable than book learning.

Pricing matters. Raise it, even by what seems an insignificant amount, and you are going to lose sales. This point was driven home to me while I was still early in elementary school.

My family’s livelihood came from my father’s newsstand in upper Manhattan. (It was also where I had my first introduction to bookmakers. But that’s a story for another day.) My first recollection of what my father did was when the Daily News and Daily Mirror were 4 cents apiece.

I remember when they raised the price to a nickel. It seemed a welcome development beyond the extra revenue. By that time I was giving my father an occasional break when school allowed. It was a huge pain in the ass to give a penny change for each sale.

But a big downside immediately showed itself. In spite of the higher prices—actually, because of them--our family’s income took a substantial hit. Hard as it might be to believe now, that penny made a difference to a lot of people. The number of papers my father sold declined sharply.

To some readers, who could easily handle the increase, it was a matter of principle. They felt they were being squeezed and resented it.

These examples are relevant in light of NYRA’s announcement that it plans to raise admission prices next year at Belmont and Saratoga. It is absolutely mind-boggling and unacceptable that grandstand admission is jumping from $3 to $5; clubhouse $5 to $8.

NYRA’s photogenic president Christopher Kay labels the increases modest. In what universe is a 67 percent increase for the grandstand and 60 percent for the clubhouse modest? That’s huge and almost unheard of in any business, especially one that is struggling in vain to retain customers.

The biggest challenge for any race track is ever dwindling low attendance, which has been on a death spiral for years. NYRA is down 9 percent this year. Even Saratoga, which massively promoted its 150th anniversary this past summer, was down.

There’s no telling how steep the decline at the Spa really was. Saratoga’s attendance has been bogus for years, artificially inflated by thousands of spinners on giveaway Sundays, who could be seen walking away from the track, their arms laden with goodies, before the horses were in the paddock for the first race.

Kay’s remedy to reverse the slide? Raise prices.

This is a kick in the soft spot for the loyalists left. The only possible rationale for the increase, which all business principles teach will cost NYRA customers, is that they will make enough money shafting those who do come to the track for an extra few bucks a day to make up for those who find other ways to bet the horses--or not to bet them anymore.

Parking is also going up, although to what extent hasn’t been disclosed. To a racing fan, the price of parking is merely an adjunct to the admission gate. It’s all part of the cost of a day at the races. If there is a business anywhere that has corrected a slump by raising its prices, its identity remains secret.

The reason for the increases is what’s really galling. It’s unmitigated greed. Aqueduct will remain free because of its racino, which is generating profits beyond the wildest imagination of the most optimistic forecasters. But unlike other tracks that have to get by without slots, Belmont and Saratoga might as well have slots because they share equally in the proceeds under the NYRA umbrella. There is no separate Aqueduct revenue, Belmont revenue and Saratoga revenue. It is all NYRA revenue.

Instead of rewarding those who have stuck with it for this windfall, by cutting prices and/or reducing takeout, NYRA is socking it to them.

Whatever happened to Kay’s goal to enhance the race track experience? My experience doing anything has never been enhanced by paying more. This is an especially strange strategy from a former executive at Toys R Us, which became the industry leader by selling its goods at bargain basement prices.

Kay told the Blood Horse that he hopes to reduce the drop off at Saratoga by broadening the marketing reach to include the entire Northeast corridor. I can envision the campaign. “It might cost you a small fortune in gas and tolls to drive hundreds of miles to Saratoga but we’ll make it up to you by soaking you more for admission.”

Because of the ancillary expenses of a trip to the Spa, as well as its atypical ability to draw younger fans who are more budget conscious than older horse players, Saratoga might be the most sensitive to price increases.

Here's something else that Kay probably didn't consider. At $5 a pop, rather than $3, those giveaway trinkets won't be so alluring to spinners. Lose several thousand on each of the giveaway days and there's no way Saratoga attendance doesn't continue its downward trend.

For the first time in years, NYRA expects to have a positive bottom line in 2014, exclusive of VLT profits. If this projection is based on increased revenue from higher admission and parking prices, while ignoring the reality that fewer people in the stands means fewer dollars bet at the windows, NYRA and Kay are in for a most unpleasant surprise when the books are audited this time next year.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Friday, November 29, 2013

Be thankful for another great weekend of racing

Thoroughbred racing is the never-ending season. Four weeks after the nominal championship at the Breeders' Cup, a terrific Thanksgiving weekend of racing all over the map could shake up the rankings in several divisions.

MIAMI, Nov. 29, 2013--Thoroughbred racing is unique in many ways. Not the least is it has a never-ending season. Viva la difference!

When the final official at the Breeders’ Cup was posted, media group think established several givens. Will Take Charge had overtaken Orb as top 3-year-old. Groupie Doll had defended her female sprint title. New Year’s Day and She’s a Tiger have the inside track to the juvenile championships. Mucho Macho Man might have surpassed Game on Dude as the leading contender for the Eclipse for older horses.

Only four weeks later, it’s, “Wait a minute. Not so fast.” There’s still a terrific Thanksgiving weekend of racing that could shake up the picture.

Game on Dude can move back to the head of the older class with a winning performance in the Clark at Churchill Downs. Why this is even necessary is an interesting argument. Not to take anything away from Mucho Macho Man but how a horse with two wins from five starts could be in the conversation with a winner of three Grade 1’s during a five-for-six season, is mystifying.

The Clark also gives Will Take Charge an opportunity to state his case as outstanding 3-year-old. Or weaken it. There’s no disputing D. Wayne Lukas has the “now” 3-year-old. But aren’t Eclipses supposed to be for a body of work over the entire year? A win in the Clark would give him his second Grade 1 to go with a pair of Grade 2’s as well as a near miss in the Breeders’ Cup Classic against older horses. The latter seems to be his strongest talking point.

Not to be overlooked is Goldencents, who is taking on the big boys (and girl) in the Cigar Mile. His credentials compare favorably to Will Take Charge. The Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (against older) was his second Grade 1. (He also won the Santa Anita Derby in the spring.) If he gets the job done at Aqueduct Saturday, he will be the only 3-year-old with three Grade 1’s on his resume. He also had a second in a Grade 1.

Anything less than wins or photo finish losses by Will Take Charge and Goldencents and the ball is back in Orb’s court.

Orb will not have won since May but neither did last season’s champion, I’ll Have Another. Orb still has the big kahuna, the Kentucky Derby, on his credit sheet as well as the Grade 1 Florida Derby and Grade 2 Fountain of Youth.

As disappointing as his Preakness and Belmont were, it should not be overlooked that Will Take Charge was well up the track behind him in all three Triple Crown races and Goldencents trailed him home in the Derby and Preakness.

If Mucho Macho Man is an outlier candidate as top older horse, it is totally baffling how Groupie Doll can be considered the leader for best female sprinter. Have we time-traveled back to 2012? In 2013, she had only a weak win at Presque Isle Downs before her encore in the BC Distaff Sprint. If she can back that up with a win over males in the Cigar Mile, I withdraw my objections. If not, I can’t understand how anyone could offer her for championship consideration.

Dance To Bristol won seven of 10 starts, including a Grade 1. She competed from January through November, the epitome of a season-long body of work.

For that matter, why not Mizdirection? Her repeat in the Turf Sprint (against males) was her fourth win in five starts. All were on grass but where does it say outstanding female MAIN TRACK sprinter? One of Groupie Doll’s two wins was on kitty litter, which more resembles turf than dirt.

Honor Code (my fix) might have run the most impressive race of the Saratoga meeting in breaking his maiden. He followed it up with a troubled second in the Champagne. He has every right to be considered for top juvenile colt if he can put in another big one in the Remsen.

I don’t like the idea of She’s a Tiger backing into the juvenile filly title off two non-winning races but I can’t see anything in the Demoiselle or Golden Rod to overtake her. But you never know.

College football is one year away from making horse racing a lone wolf. The first genuine NCAA playoff will isolate horse racing as the only major sport whose championships are decided at the ballot box rather than on the field of competition.

Maybe it’s time for racing to join the mainstream. Instead of subjective votes for the various categories, a point system-- say 10-7-5 for Grades 1, 2 and 3 with lesser awards for lesser placings—should be instituted to settle titles in the various categories. Horse of the Year could still be decided by a vote among the various champions; the best of both worlds.

If nothing else, this would encourage the stars to show up more often. What could be bad about that?

Written by Tom Jicha

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