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, October 11, 2013

Titles should reward achievement, not lack of failure

Some opinion-makers are predicting that Wise Dan's second in the Grade 1 Shadwell Turf Mile, which was transferred to the main track, will cost him his chance at a second Horse of the Year title. There's something wrong with a system in which it can be more rewarding for the game's stars to play it safe and not run.
MIAMI, Oct. 11, 2013--Star power drives sports at the highest level. Thoroughbred racing analysts constantly decry the game’s lack of it. Injuries and premature retirement to breeding sheds are primary culprits.

Not to be overlooked is the counter-productive practice of punishing racing’s biggest names in year-end polls for showing up and losing while giving them a pass for not leaving their barn.

Point of Entry has raced twice this year, winning once in February at Gulfstream and once at Belmont in June. Nevertheless, he has been consistently in the top five in the weekly NTRA poll, ahead of several horses who have two or three times as many stakes victories.

Groupie Doll did not make her first start of the year until Aug. 10 at Ellis Park, where she ran third in an extremely moderate Grade 3. She didn’t win for the first time until Sept. 9 at Presque Isle Downs in an extremely generously endowed Grade 2, with a former $4,000 claimer in closest pursuit. Then she lost again at Keeneland in the Grade 2 Thoroughbred Club of America.

In spite of this, almost all year she has ranked ahead of Dance To Bristol, also an older female sprinter, who merely won seven races in a row from February through August, including the Grade 1 Ballerina. Obviously, if you have a reputation, protecting it by staying in the barn is a prudent policy.

Keep in mind many of the NTRA voters also participate in the Eclipse voting.

Then there’s Wise Dan. Few would have faulted the connections of the reigning Horse of the Year if they had scratched him last Saturday when a monsoon struck Keeneland just before the Shadwell Turf Mile, leading to the race being taken off the grass. (Why is the question? The Arc was run over a much heavier course on Sunday and no one thought anything of it.)

Conscious that a lot of folks would have been disappointed if the nominal biggest star in the game took a pass, owner Morton Fink and trainer Charles Lopresti opted to let Wise Dan run. It wasn’t the first time they had done this. A biblical rain fell on Churchill Downs on Derby Day. Nonetheless, Wise Dan stayed in the Woodford Reserve Turf Classic while Point of Entry scratched. Yet Fink and Lopresti have been unjustly criticized for cherry-picking their spots.

The decision to run last Saturday wasn’t entirely altruistic. Wise Dan had almost as splendid a record on fake dirt as he does on grass. Moreover, it was a Grade 1 (and stayed that way despite the surface switch), the purse was $750,000 and the field wasn’t nearly as formidable as some of those in other marquee races over the past couple of weeks.

The official sign had barely been posted on Silver Max’s upset win when racing’s opinion-makers began to predict that the second place finish would cost Wise Dan his chance at a Horse of the Year encore. His three Grade 1 and two Grade 2 wins this season apparently no longer matter, even if he rebounds to make it six-for-seven in the Breeders’ Cup Turf Mile.

It’s not an arguable point that many of these pundits, smarting all season that Wise Dan won the title in 2012 against their wishes, have been aching for an opportunity for payback.

If Game on Dude wins the Breeders’ Cup Classic to cap an undefeated season, he should be a unanimous choice for Horse of the Year. This would have been true even if Wise Dan had won last Saturday. A close defeat or a solid try despite a troubled trip also should be sufficient for Game on Dude to take 2013’s gold medal.

However, if he throws in a clunker like last year, the title should be up for grabs and Wise Dan should not be written off for running second under far from ideal circumstances when his undefeated record could have been preserved by keeping him in the barn.

The criteria should be what have you done, not what did you fail to do.

FTBOA an ungrateful bunch

The Florida Stallion Stakes, inaugurated in 1982 at Calder, will be run for the final time there Saturday. In an appalling display of lack of gratitude and loyalty, the Florida Thoroughbred Breeders and Owners Association are moving the six-race series to Gulfstream next year.

Gulfstream should not be faulted for aggressively pursuing the Stallion Stakes, which will be renamed the Sire Stakes. It was a coup for the Stronach Group and Gulfstream president Tim Ritvo to be able to land what has been one of the premier attractions of Florida summer racing for many years.

It didn’t hinder their effort that Calder, since it got its casino, has treated racing as a necessary evil.

However, without the nurturing of Calder over the years, the Stallion Stakes wouldn’t be the magnificent showcase for Florida horses and stallions that it has become. Most recently, FSS graduates Big Drama and Awesome Feather went on to win the 2010 Breeders' Cup Sprint and Juvenile Fillies, respectively.

This year's edition could produce a couple of Breeders' Cup hopefuls, the colt My Brown Eyed Guy and the filly Scandalous Act, each of whom dominated the first two stages of the series. How well they handle the stretchout from six and seven furlongs to a two-turn mile and a sixteenth will go a long way toward deciding whether they make the trip to Santa Anita. Both are owned by Gilbert Campbell and trained by Kathleen O'Connell.

Calder’s support of the state’s breeding industry has gone well beyond a handful of rich stakes races. It has provided a stage for tens of thousands of Florida-breds to launch their careers and establish themselves. These opportunities encouraged investment in Florida-breds, which reaped hundreds of millions of dollars for breeders.

This should count for something. Obviously it doesn’t to the FTBOA.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Guillot needs to be punished for frivolous claim

Investigators have totally rejected Eric Guillot's claim that Luis Saez used an electrical device to urge Will Take Charge to victory in the Travers. Saez's exoneration should not be the end of this sorry saga. Guillot should face substantial sanctions for lodging a frivolous claim of foul, just as a jockey would be.

MIAMI, Oct. 9, 2013--The total exoneration of Luis Saez should not end the sorry saga of Eric Guillot’s outrageous allegation that the jockey used a buzzer to urge Will Take Charge to victory in the Travers. Guillot needs to be punished.

Investigators for the state of New York took a month to find the irresponsible charge leveled by the trainer of Travers runnerup Moreno wholly unsubstantiated. Anyone who examined the video of the race—this included Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey-- could have come to the same conclusion in five minutes. You have to wonder if the state took so long merely to look like it was putting more effort into the investigation than was necessary.

Jockeys, who lodge frivolous claims of foul, are subject to fines or suspensions. The same should apply to Guillot. He brought dishonor to the sport and tarnished the name of a rising star in the jockey ranks. There even would have been criminal implications for Saez. This is another example of sensational charges producing over-sized headlines and the retraction being buried.

Saez has the option of a civil suit for the damage done to him. Jose Santos reportedly won a substantial settlement from the Miami Herald, which printed a story that he might have used an electrical device aboard Funny Cide in the 2003 Kentucky Derby. (A confidentiality clause was part of the settlement.) That charge, too, was found to be baseless.

NYRA should also extract a pound of flesh from Guillot, who, unlike a newspaper, makes his living from the sport. A hefty fine, a lengthy suspension or a refusal to grant him stalls in the future should be among the options.

In addition to being wrong, Guillot made his allegations in a disrespectful manner. A college degree or even a GED diploma is not a requirement to become a trainer or lodge a claim of foul. But the gravity of what Guillot alleged should have demanded more care be put into his claim, even if it required outside assistance. There was, after all, $400,000 at stake, the difference between first and second in the $1 million Travers. A lawyer could have done what was necessary in a couple of billable hours.

Guillot’s claim was comically inept in punctuation, spelling and tense. He didn’t even get the name of the horse he was claiming against right. If his beef was written on a cocktail napkin in the wee hours after a night of commiserating, it couldn’t have been more inappropriate.

“I Eric Guillot am filing a complaint for our lost in the race called the Traver’s (sic) at Saratoga on Aug 24th 2013—My horse Moreno was beat a nose on the wire by horse named Take Charge Indy (actually Will Take Charge)—After suffering biggest defeat in our career—my brother Chip who was here cooking Cajun food had recorded races on NBC line for family once he got home and watched replay on NBC on big plasma TV he said it was obvious the kid had trouble celebrating cuss of black device in right hand switching too left hand and tucking under left shoulder under saddle pad! We feel this has crossed every integrity line of horse racing and would like this investigated an resolved!”

Breeders' Cup needs to OK Lasix this year

John Pricci asked a question in a recent column that should not have to be raised. Will the 2-year-olds in this season’s Breeders’ Cup show their best form without Lasix?

That this is an issue is a product of pure stubbornness on the part of Breeders’ Cup. The ban on Lasix was supposed to be in effect for all Breeders’ Cup races in 2013 after only being the rule for juvenile races a year ago.

It was a disaster, leading to a 20 percent drop in entries for the 2-year-old races, a corresponding decline in wagering and the eventual abandonment of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Sprint, which drew only five horses and was won by a maiden, who hasn’t been heard from since.

In a rare display of unity, national horsemen’s organizations told the Breeders’ Cup, starting in 2014, no Lasix, no simulcasting. Whether horsemen should have this omnipotent veto power over the engine that now drives the sport is an issue for another day. They do and they used it.

Breeders’ Cup could have stood its ground this year. But fearful of slim fields and handle throughout the two-day festival, they went for a face-saving compromise. The ban would remain only in the 2-year-old races.

So we have a situation where owners, trainers and horseplayers will have to guess how the juveniles will perform in a situation that most, if not all, have not faced before and will never face again.

This makes no sense other than as a balm to Breeders’ Cup’s pride. Theirs was a noble effort but it failed. Breeders’ Cup should acknowledge this and lift the ban before Nov. 1, so that juveniles can race under the conditions that will prevail for the rest of their careers and that will be the rule in all other Breeders’ Cup races.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Friday, October 04, 2013

Horse of the Year is down to Dan or the Dude

Super Saturday raised as many questions as it provided answers as to 2013 divisional honors. But it did clarify one big thing. By process of elimination, Horse of the Year is down to Wise Dan and Game on Dude, with their performances at the Breeders' Cup the decisive factor.

The big winners on Super Saturday never left their stalls. The ten Grade 1’s raised as many questions as they provided answers for various divisional honors. But they did clarify the grand prize. Either Game on Dude or Wise Dan will be 2013 Horse of the Year.

If only one wins at the Breeders’ Cup, he should be a unanimous choice. (I was going to add a caveat that Wise Dan would have to avoid being upset in Saturday’s Shadwell Mile at Keeneland. On second thought, even if he were beaten, then comes back and wins the BC Turf Mile and the Dude falls in the Classic, Dan still has the strongest resume in North America.)

If Wise Dan and Game on Dude both win on Nov. 2, Game on Dude will get the nod. All things being equal, an outstanding dirt horse will outpoll the leading grass horse every time. This is as it should be. Dirt is the dominant surface in American racing.

If they both go down to defeat, Game on Dude will capture the Eclipse for the same reason.

It’s a process of elimination. There are no other reasonable candidates even if both fall the first weekend in November.

Princess of Sylmar might have had a shot if she added the Breeders’ Cup Distaff to her stunning triumph over two-time champion Royal Delta in the Beldame. (That the Princess won isn’t stunning. The ease with which she ran past Royal Delta is.)

Six wins in seven races, including four straight Grade 1’s and two over older rivals, are awesome credentials. It would be the exact equal to Wise Dan (again assuming he wins Saturday but not at the BC) and would be superior to the Dude’s five-for-six (if he fails again in the Classic). The “what have you done for me lately?” factor also would work in her favor.

However, it’s unlikely she would be rewarded after avoiding racing’s biggest stage while in perfect health and peak form, which seems to be the case. Her owner, Ed Stanco, changed his mind after saying the Alabama would be her 2013 finale. Maybe he will do it again when he ponders what could be on the line. Let’s hope so.

If you really want to reach, you could make a case for Laughing, whose win in the Flower Bowl made her 2013 scorecard a perfect 4-for-4. If she were to win her fifth straight in the BC Filly & Mare Turf at the expense of Beverly D champion Dank and other top Euros, you couldn’t blame her connections for arguing, “Hey, what about us?”

But if some voters bristled at giving the 2012 title to Wise Dan because all his wins were on grass, how do you rationalize giving it to a mare, who raced exclusively on turf and never outside her gender?

This appears to be a moot point. Like Princess of Sylmar, Laughing is not nominated to the Breeders' Cup and in all likelihood is not going to Santa Anita.

Anyone else would be a candidate solely of contrarians. Let’s say Will Take Charge takes the BC Classic for his third straight win. His overall record for the year would be only 5-for-10. Moreover, do we really want to anoint a colt, who finished 8th in the Kentucky Derby, 7th in the Preakness and 10th in the Belmont, as Horse of the Year?

The road to an Eclipse shouldn’t go through Moreno, who was second in WTC’s two most recent victories. This is illustrative of the fact that WTC didn’t come to prominence until attrition had taken its toll on his generation. Granted, he nailed Preakness champion Oxbow on the wire in the Rebel during the spring but this doesn’t outweigh 8th, 7th and 10th in the Triple Crown events.

Palace Malice has supporters but he will go into the BC Classic 2-for-9. A win in the Classic would be enough to take the still-up-for-grabs 3-year-old honors, but that’s all.

If neither Will Take Charge nor Palace Malice manage to hit the board in the Classic, Orb, who is mercifully done for the year, could still sneak away with the 3-year-old title. We can debate that if and when the time comes.

Every year it seems there is one horse who goes home with nothing on Eclipse night despite an extraordinary season. Little Mike was the unfortunate odd one out last year. Grade 1 wins in the Woodford Reserve, the Arlington Million and Breeders Cup Turf would be enough to clinch the Turf Eclipse and make a case for Horse of the Year in many seasons. Poor Mike got nothing because he did it in Wise Dan’s year.

Beholder looks like the 2013 model for being very good in a season someone else was great. A few hours after Princess of Sylmar disposed of Royal Delta, Beholder toyed with a solid field of older fillies and mares in the Grade 1 Zenyatta. It was her fourth win in six starts, to go with a pair of seconds.

Those are Eclipse credentials most seasons. Not in the year of Princess of Sylmar, who outfinished her in the Kentucky Oaks. It won't even matter if Beholder wins the BC Distaff.

Maybe racing should create a separate trophy for situations like this. It could be called the Sham Award.

Written by Tom Jicha

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