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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Thursday, April 07, 2016

Derby preps lack usual luster but there are prices to be had

The Kentucky Derby shapes up as Nyquist against the world after last Saturday's demolition of Mohaymen in the Florida Derby. This weekend's trio of final major preps will decide little beyond who might be second choice in Louisville but the lack of standouts makes them attractive betting races.

MIAMI, April 7, 2016--The Kentucky Derby is too big to be rendered anti-climactic by any other race. But the normally prestigious final round of preps has fallen into this category. Nyquist’s demolition of previously unbeaten Mohaymen in the Florida Derby has taken a lot of the oxygen out of the pre-Derby atmosphere. However reports of an elevated white cell count keeping him in his stall at Keeneland will lend encouragement to the connections of Derby wannabes and those shopping for a price horse.

Still, unless the situation lingers--elevated white blood cell counts are not unusual after a ship, as Nyquist did from Florida to Kentucky--no matter what happens in this weekend’s Blue Grass, Wood Memorial and Santa Anita Derby as well as next week’s Arkansas Derby, Nyquist will enter the starting gate at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May as one of the strongest Derby favorites in years. The standard in the era of 20-horse fields is the $2.40-1 Big Brown went off in 2008.

Nevertheless this weekend’s tripleheader of Derby preps provides some great betting opportunities with potential live price horses all over the map. Isn’t that what it’s all about?

A couple of all stakes Pick 4’s, which, thanks to their wide open nature, also could pay handsomely. An all-NYRA Pick 4 opens with the Gazelle. The Bay Shore, Wood Memorial and Carter Handicap follow. The Bay Shore, Keeneland’s Madison, which is Breeders’ Cup caliber, Wood Memorial and Blue Grass make up the Kentucky-New York Pick 4.

The Wood Memorial, Blue Grass and Santa Anita Derby will anchor a telecast on the cable NBC Sports Network from 5-7 p.m.

John Pricci will have his customary extensive analysis of the weekend stakes Friday. I will share some comments from trainers and jockeys on an NTRA conference call earlier this week as well as my own observations from this winter at Gulfstream.

Undefeated Gotham winner Shagaf is the horse to beat from the fence in the Wood Memorial. Some might downgrade his chances, especially at a short price, because of relatively light numbers. Chad Brown said this would be a mistake. “His speed figs haven’t been super impressive but he hasn’t done anything wrong.” Brown noted that the lightly raced colt has been making steady progress, physically and mentally and he sees more room for improvement.

Shagaf’s uncoupled stablemate, Flexibility, also has a big shot, in Brown’s estimation. Off a couple of seconds to Mohaymen followed by an impressive score in the Jerome, he looked like the class of the New York winter 3-year-olds until a misfire in the Withers.

The Withers might have been a case of too many races in too short a period, Brown said. Flexibility was due for a layoff between that race and the Wood in any event. “The plan was the (Kentucky) Derby would be his second race off a short layoff.”

If Flexibility’s tank was on fumes, he’s bounced back well, according to the trainer. “His energy level is terrific. I’m real happy with the way he’s coming into the race.”

This hasn’t been Todd Pletcher’s finest winter for 3-year-olds but he’s back home and it would be imprudent to toss his chances with Outwork, whose only defeat in three races has been to stablemate Destin in the Tampa Bay Derby. He was a little short that day in his first try around two turns but the Tampa surface builds conditioning.

The overflow field of 14 plus two AE’s for the Blue Grass is a sign that beyond Nyquist, the 3-year-old division is currently lacking star power. Pletcher will have the likely favorite in Zulu, who chased Mohaymen home in the Fountain of Youth after a couple of sprint wins. However, off Mohaymen’s collapse in the Florida Derby that doesn’t look as impressive as it did a week ago.

Dale Romans likes the chances of his pair, Brody’s Cause and Cherry Wine. Brody’s Cause is a prototypical horse for course. He became a Grade 1 winner at Keeneland in October when he took the Breeders’ Futurity. Four weeks later he put in a big late run to finish third in Nyquist’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.

Romans has no explanation for Brody’s Cause’s dull seventh in his seasonal debut in the Tampa Bay Derby. “He was training like a monster. I’ve never had a horse train so well then run so poorly. Maybe he needed the race.” Romans is hoping the return to his favorite track will turn around Brody’s Cause. “I know he ran third in the Breeders’ Cup and won a Grade 1 here.”

Romans is also high on Cherry Wine, who was talked up as a Derby sleeper after a flashy allowance win around two turns at Gulfstream. Romans thought enough of him to ship to Oaklawn for the Rebel. His fourth place finish was better than it looked, the trainer says. “It was sneaky good.” After breaking from an outside post in a bulky field, Cherry Wine got shuffled back to last down the backstretch. He was forced to split horses at the top of the lane and weave his way through traffic but he was charging hard at the end.

The Santa Anita Derby is a rematch of Danzing Candy, who wired the field in the San Felipe for his third straight win, and Mor Spirit, who closed fast to get the place. That was a mile and a sixteenth, 110 yards shorter than the Santa Anita Derby. It didn’t appear Mor Spirit was going to get to Danzing Candy if they were still running but Bob Baffert has a way of getting them up for the big ones. Unfortunately, a forecast of heavy rain for Saturday could change its impact on the Derby picture, especially if some improbable mud-lover jumps up and upsets the field.

However, the story Saturday at Santa Anita is the 3-year-old who won’t be in the Santa Anita Derby, super filly Songbird. She’ll be 1-10, maybe 1-20, in the Santa Anita Oaks. She also would have been odds-on against the boys in the Derby.

Asked if he thinks Songbird could beat the colts, Smith, who rides Danzing Candy, said, “Without a doubt.” Smith has ridden great distaffers Zenyatta, Azeri and Royal Delta. Songbird is more advanced than any of them, he says. “She’s the most promising 3-year-old I’ve ever been on. That includes the boys.”

Romans, whose Go Maggie Go upset the Gulfstream Oaks last Saturday, jokingly suggested Songbird should have taken the supposedly tougher assignment. “Songbird should go in the Santa Anita Derby, get some points, then run in the (Kentucky) Derby and leave the (Kentucky) Oaks alone.”

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, March 31, 2016

Two big horses not holding back in Florida Derby ‘prep’

Major stakes leading up to the Kentucky Derby are called preps for a reason. Trainers use them to advance along the Derby trail. They are plum prizes but not the big one, so they are treated accordingly. Not this year's Florida Derby. Eclipse champion Nyquist is in it to win it because of a million dollar bonus. Mohaymen will hold nothing back, his trainer Kiaran McLaughlin says, because it is a Grade 1 and he wants Mohaymen to have that on his resume.

MIAMI, March 31, 2016--The Florida Derby, Louisiana Derby, Arkansas Derby, Santa Anita Derby, Blue Grass Stakes and Wood Memorial are called Kentucky Derby preps for a reason. As rich and prestigious as each is, horsemen treat them as stepping stones to the ultimate prize on the first Saturday in May.

This season’s Florida Derby is going to be the exception. The most ballyhooed “prep” in anyone’s memory is a prize target in its own right. Bettors can make their selection and put down their money confident that there will be no holding back with the Kentucky Derby in mind.

Doug O’Neill, who trains undefeated Breeders’ Cup and Eclipse champion Nyquist, and Kiaran McLaughlin, who’ll send out also undefeated Mohaymen, have made this clear. Lest there be any misunderstanding, each is pointing his star 3-year-old toward the Triple Crown. Show me a horseman who says any race outranks the Kentucky Derby and I’ll show you a liar or a fool. However, Saturday’s race carries its own significant rewards.

For Nyquist, it’s a paycheck that would exceed first-place money in any of the Triple Crown races. Thanks to a $1 million bonus created a year ago by Gulfstream and Fasig-Tipton, Nyquist, as a graduate of F-T Gulfstream, would bank $1.6 million with a win—the $600,000 first-place purse plus the $1 million bonus. The Kentucky Derby prize amounts to about $1.2 million. The Preakness and Belmont hang out about $900,000 to their winner.

Nyquist’s bonus is an all-or-nothing proposition. Win and take home the extra million. Run second and all you earn is the Florida Derby’s $200K place money.

O’Neill says he isn’t bringing his colt 3,000 miles to take on the only challenger mentioned in the same breath as Nyquist solely for the bonus. Right!

Anyone who follows sports knows whenever someone says, “It’s not about the money,” it’s about the money.

Judge for yourself. O’Neill could have opted for any of five other Derby preps, all of which offer the same $1 million pot as the Florida Derby. None feature Mohaymen. Nyquist would have been odds-on in any of them. But there is no million dollar bonus attached to them.

Instead, Nyquist was flown cross-country to take on Mohaymen on what amounts to his home track. So you know it’s all in for Team Nyquist.

O’Neill says the timing of the Florida Derby, five weeks out from the Kentucky Derby, is as much a factor as the extra million. Funny how the connections of every other serious 3-year-old decided that a six-week, four-week or three-week gap before the Derby is preferable to taking on Mohaymen.

Less than a decade ago, there were predictions that scheduling the Florida Derby five weeks before the first Saturday in May would cost the Gulfstream race major Derby contenders because it was too far out. This is how much training techniques have changed in a short period.

In an example of income inequality, Mohaymen, though the probable favorite, will be running for $1 million less because, as a Keeneland sales graduate, there is no bonus for him. Nevertheless, McLaughlin said, there will be no holding back. “This is a Grade 1 and we don’t have a Grade 1 yet.” Mohaymen has won four stakes in a row but all were Grade 2.

McLaughlin has been in this position as recently as two years ago. His Cairo Prince went into the Florida Derby as the horse to beat off three wins in four races. Two of them were the Grade 2 Nashua and Holy Bull, which are also on Mohaymen’s credit sheet. Cairo Prince ran fourth and was injured in what turned out to be the final race of his career. He never got his Grade 1. So McLaughlin comes from the get your Grade 1’s when you can school of thought.

The possibility of emptying his horse in the race in a gut wrenching showdown against a champion before the Kentucky Derby is of no concern to McLaughlin. To the contrary, he’s looking forward to a tough race. “We don’t mind a stern test. It will be tough on both of us. It will be nice to have a tougher test than we’ve had. It will show us where we are.”

In a mild surprise, eight other 3-year-olds jumped into the Florida Derby. By no reasonable handicapping principle do any of them have a chance against the big two. Only Fellowship has won as many as two races and he has run a distant third twice this winter to Mohaymen. Six others have only a maiden win. Only one is still winless in seven career starts.

I’ve voted Nyquist No. 1 in the HRI poll every week this year but I’m backing Mohaymen Saturday. My logic is in the poll I voted for what each has accomplished. Nyquist is the champion until beaten. In the Florida Derby I’m betting what I think will happen.

Mohaymen is coming out of four straight two-turn wins, the last two over the Gulfstream surface. He has a win at nine furlongs. Nyquist has had one seven furlong race in five months and is coming cross country to race over a track on which he has no experience. There have always been questions about his distance limitations. He has not won beyond a mile and a sixteenth, which is also the furthest distance his sire, Uncle Mo, handled successfully.

If Nyquist can overcome Mohaymen under these circumstances and remain unbeaten, we might be looking at another Triple Crown winner. I think an encore to American Pharoah is a live possibility but my money is the potential champion is named Mohaymen.

Romans staying put

Dale Romans says it isn’t so. He was quoted this week in a Chinese newspaper bad-mouthing American racing and saying he’d like to try his hand at training in Hong Kong. “Every single sentence in that story was said in a different context,” Romans said.

Romans said he was speaking hypothetically when he was asked if he’d like to train in Hong Kong. “Sure I’d consider it. The only thing you have to worry about over there is training. They take care of everything else for you.”

The season is shorter and a strict limit on the number of trainers licensed—only 12 can be expatriates--means each trainer makes a fortune, Romans said. “But I’m not looking to go anywhere.”

Romans has what he thinks could be a live longshot in the Florida Derby,Takeittotheedge. The son of Broken Vow won at first asking at Gulfstream on March 5. “That maiden race was really impressive. He just galloped along with his ears pricked.”

Stepping up against Mohaymen and Nyquist is a tall assignment but Romans, who sent out Keen Ice to shock American Pharoah in the Travers, figures it’s worth a shot. “This is the time of year when you don’t want to go in an allowance race with a 3-year-old then wonder what might have been (in a stakes).”

Coming out of a seven-furlong sprint, Romans expects Takeittotheedge will set the pace in the Florida Derby. If the two big horses become overly concerned with each other and let Romans colt go, you never know what could happen.

“Speed is always dangerous,” Romans said, “and this is a really good horse.”

Another chance for Airoforce

The Spiral Stakes has had more names than P. Diddy but only one Kentucky Derby winner, Animal Kingdom. This year's renewal on Saturday offers a chance for redemption for Airoforce, considered a major Derby contender coming into this year.

Not that long ago, Airoforce was mentioned in the same conversations as Nyquist and Mohaymen off his outstanding juvenile season. He won the Bourbon on Keeneland’s dirt, ran a close second in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf then returned to the dirt to take the Kentucky Jockey Club over the Kentucky Derby surface. The second, third and fourth place finishers were Mor Spirit, Mo Tom and Gun Runner.

Then Airoforce ran a dismal 10th in his 2016 debut in the Risen Star. His trainer Mark Casse was so disappointed, he declared his colt off the Derby trail. His presence in the Spiral means he is back on it.

“I’m still not sure what happened (in the Risen Star),” Casse said. “At the half-mile pole, he threw his head up. Julien (Leparoux) just let him gallop along from there. We haven’t found a whole lot to give him an excuse. But he did cough a lot after the race.”

Airoforce has trained so well in the aftermath that Casse is giving him another chance to earn his way to Louisville. What’s more, both his two most recent breezes have been on the synthetic track at OBS. “So the Spiral makes sense.”

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, March 24, 2016

Don’t doubt the Uncle Mo’s will go the distance, Amoss says

Uncle Mo is turning out to be as brilliant a sire as he was a race horse. But he never won beyond a mile and sixteenth, so there are questions about the stamina of his offspring, including Breeders' Cup and Eclipse champion Nyquist as well as Mo Tom, the favorite for Saturday's Louisiana Derby. Each of them will stretch to a mile and an eighth in their final Derby preps and Tom Amoss, trainer of Mo Tom, predicts they will pass these tests and the one on the first Saturday in May with no problems.

MIAMI, March 24, 2016--Nyquist didn’t leave many unanswered questions during his brilliant juvenile campaign. He broke his maiden at five furlongs, won stakes at 6 ½ and seven furlongs, stretched out around two turns and won a Grade 1 then overcame a horrendous trip to complete his undefeated season in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.

However there is one question he didn’t get an opportunity to confront, What will happen when he’s challenged by the Classic distances, although it was pointed out by many with only slight exaggeration that he was so wide around both turns in the BC Juvenile that he might have covered a mile and a quarter.

Skepticism about Nyquist’s distance limitations traces to his lineage. His sire, Uncle Mo, was as dominant a 2-year-old as Nyquist was. But Uncle Mo never won beyond a mile and a sixteenth. His four-race unbeaten streak was snapped the first time he attempted nine furlongs in the Wood Memorial. Later he bombed out entirely in the mile-and-a-quarter BC Classic. Moreover, Uncle Mo’s sire, Indian Charlie, is regarded as producing offspring at their best at not much more than a mile.

Tom Amoss has advice for those who harbor doubts about Uncle Mo producing horses who can win at Classic distances. Relax. “I think Uncle Mo is going to turn out to be one of those sires like Storm Cat and Tapit,” he said on an NTRA conference call. “I really think he’s brilliant.“

The facts so far back him. Uncle Mo was the leading first crop sire last year with seven stakes winners, including Eclipse champion Nyquist. As 2-year-olds, his sons and daughters didn’t get a chance to try extended distances but Amoss is confident they will acquit themselves well as sophomores, including at Classic distances. “I think they are going to excel and that’s a question we’re going to put to put to bed after the first Saturday in May.”

Amoss has first-hand knowledge about the get of Uncle Mo. He conditions Mo Tom, the likely favorite for Saturday’s Louisiana Derby, who, to this point, looks to be the best Uncle Mo not named Nyquist. Even though Mo Tom ran third to Gun Runner in the Risen Star, he’s the morning line favorite over Gun Runner in the Louisiana Derby.

Amoss hasn’t always been an Uncle Mo fan. Serving in his moonlighting duty as a TVG analyst for the Breeders’ Cup workout show, he graded one of Uncle Mo’s works an F. “I didn’t like the way he was going.” A livid Mike Repole, owner of Uncle Mo, came on the show and graded Amoss’ opinion an F, Amoss recalled with a laugh.

Amoss wasn’t high on Uncle Mo’s son Nyquist’s chances in the BC Juvenile, either. It wasn’t his pedigree but his style of running that bothered him. Nyquist’s smashing victory made him a convert. “He’s a great horse.”

Amoss not only likes the chances of his Uncle Mo colt on Saturday in Louisiana, he’s strong on Nyquist in the titanic Florida Derby showdown with Mohaymen on April 2. “(Nyquist) has been pretty quiet in his 3-year-old year. The only race he’s run is the one-turn race at Santa Anita (the San Vicente). So, he hasn’t made a lot of noise. But I think he’s going to make some noise when he runs in the Florida Derby.”

He isn’t among those who question the wisdom of Nyquist taking on another undefeated colt like Mohaymen in their final Derby prep, especially with a $1 million bonus at stake. “When I first saw he was going to Florida for that race, I didn’t understand it. Now that I understand there’s a million dollar bonus on the line for him should he win it, it makes a lot more sense. I’m not a believer that your last Derby prep should be the easiest race. I’m a believer that competition toughens your horse and makes him better for the next start.”

The thought that Nyquist and Mohaymen could be even tougher on Kentucky Derby Day than they have already shown has to be a frightening prospect for Amoss and others pointing for the first Saturday in May.

You might think Mohaymen and Nyquist would scare away any pretenders. But put up a million dollar purse and you can be sure some no-shot pretenders will help fill the starting gate in pursuit of the generous minor awards. At least four others have indicated an intention to run in the Florida Derby. It's a stretch to say three of them have any business in a Grade 1 stakes.

Only one, Fellowship, has semi-legitimate credentials. He has run third twice behind Mohaymen at the meeting and is likely to fill out a very small trifecta again.

The other three are hoping to grab some easy money by picking up the pieces. Majesto is one race removed from breaking his maiden in his fourth start at the meeting. Ifyousnoozeyoulose was claimed for $50,000 when he broke his maiden last month. He then ran last in an optional claimer sprint for his new connections. Sawyers Mickey is still a maiden after seven starts but did manage a third in the John Battaglia.

Peter Walder, who will saddle both Ifyousnoozeyoulose and Sawyer’s Mickey, wouldn’t mind another show performance. “Third place gives you $100,000.” This is the equivalent of winning a $150,000 stakes. It also provides 20 Kentucky Derby qualifying points, the same number Nyquist was awarded for winning the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and possibly enough to get into the starting gate.

Racing, like life, isn’t always fair.

Written by Tom Jicha

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