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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Thursday, September 15, 2016

Lots of questions still surround $12 million race

To the surprise of many, it appears the $12 million Pegasus will actually happen on Jan. 28 at Gulfstream. A media event is scheduled for next week to promote what will be the world's richest race. It should be a lively session with many questions still to be answered, including whether this is a good thing for racing, inasmuch as owners are being asked to put up the entire purse. But Frank Stronach deserves credit for characteristically thinking big for the benefit of racing

MIAMI, Sept. 15, 2016--Frank Stronach wants to make racing great again. You have to like him for that.

Some of his ideas are better than others but they have one thing in common. He swings for tape measure home runs. He doesn’t bunt. And promoting racing is always his priority.

His latest grandiose scheme, the world’s richest horse race, the $12 million Pegasus scheduled for Jan. 28 at Gulfstream, has generated widespread attention and publicity.That’s a positive. However, much of the early conversation centered around whether the Pegasus would actually happen. A poll in the BloodHorse last spring asked if the race would come to reality. Sixty-nine percent of respondents weighed in on the negative side.

The hang-up for many is the way the Pegasus is being funded—a dozen owners anteing up a million dollars apiece for a berth in the starting gate. This is a worse investment than diamond mines in the Aqueduct infield.

The winner will earn a world record $7 million. Only one of the others will show a profit. Second is worth $1.75 million. The remaining 10 will suffer substantial six-figure losses. Third pays $1 million. When you subtract the customary 10 percent apiece for the trainer and jockey, it’s a losing proposition. All the other starters, no matter their final position, will get $250,000.

This doesn’t take into account the cost of keeping a horse in training for three months after the Breeders’ Cup and shipping to Florida.

These expenses might be covered by Stronach’s promise of a cut of the mutual handle as well as a share in media and sponsorship revenue. The problem is the latter two will produce nothing. Only the Triple Crown races get meaningful TV rights fees. The norm is to use whatever sponsorships can be sold to pay to get the race on TV.

As for the handle, if it approaches the level of the Breeders Cup Classic, somewhere between $25-$30 million, each of the shareholders would be lucky to net $100K after Stronach's expenses are deducted. They also get an option to buy into future Pegasus stakes.

The naysayers apparently were wrong. A media event tied to the Pegasus has been scheduled for next week. It’s doubtful a press conference would be called to announce the idea had cratered. That would be done via press release on a Friday night before a holiday weekend.

The press conference comes about a week after the deadline for the original subscribers, who reportedly put up $250,000 last spring, to come up with the final $750K—four months before post time. That the $12 million goal has been reached is likely to be the big announcement.

Many questions still need to be raised at the presser. Is Stronach committed to a second Pegasus if the first isn’t as successful as hoped? Remember, there were oceans of empty seats for the first Super Bowl—and a ticket cost only $12.

Gulfstream doesn’t charge admission, even on Florida Derby Day, because of its casino but reports are there will be a hefty entrance fee for Pegasus Day. What will be done to accommodate casino players? Shutting them out on a weekend day in the height of tourist season could cost more than admissions will generate. It also encourages slots players to sample one of the other half-dozen casinos in South Florida, not a prudent marketing strategy.

Suppose a dozen horses can’t be coaxed into the starting gate. Will the holders of unused shares lose their future rights? In a related area, will there be safeguards to ensure that hopeless candidates don’t enter just to get back at least $250,000 of their ante?

Why has the distance been set at a mile and an eighth? Gulfstream is a nine-furlong oval, so horses in the outside four posts will be severely compromised by the short run into the first turn.The most important race at any Stronach-owned track, the Preakness, is contested over a mile and three-sixteenths. Why not the same for a race Stronach hopes to grow into one of the most important on the globe. The extra 110 yards before the first turn would mitigate the impact of drawing an outside post.

Not to impugn or challenge the integrity or competence of the Gulfstream stewards but the track employs two of the three. Stronach could have one of the top contenders in Woodward winner Shaman’s Ghost. Shouldn’t a trio of outside judges be brought in just in case there is a foul claim involving the house horse?

Finally, is the concept of the Pegasus good for racing? Mike Repole has already been quoted as saying he won’t participate because he doesn’t like the idea of horsemen putting up the entire purse. This sets an incredibly bad precedent.

Some of these questions could and should be dealt with at the press conference. The only way to answer the others is to take a shot and run the race. Stronach deserves plaudits for doing that.

Gender equality

Believe it or not, Kentucky Derby prep season starts Saturday with the Iroquois at Churchill Downs. This is the first of the 10-4-2-1 points stakes through the end of this year. The only exception is the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, where the points double.

It’s a little early to take the points seriously. Last year’s Iroquois winner, Cocked and Loaded, didn’t win again until Aug. 4 of this year when he took a $40K claimer sprint at Saratoga.

Churchill released the roster of 35 Derby qualifying races this week. There’s one addition and one deletion. The Sam F. Davis at Tampa Bay Downs is in as a 10-pointer to the winner and Woodbine’s Grey stakes is out.

It’s difficult to quarrel with either decision. The Sam F. Davis, the prep for the Tampa Bay Derby, has sent 12 starters to the Derby in the past decade, including Belmont Stakes runnerup Destin this year.
The Grey Stakes has had six or fewer starters in three of its four most recent renewals.

It’s heartening that field size is becoming a consideration. It’s something I wish the Graded Stakes Committee would use in its deliberations. I recently advocated reducing the grade by one classification for any stakes that has fewer than six entrants and five starters for two consecutive years.

Churchill also has set aside a berth in the Derby for the high point-earner in a pair of stakes in Japan. As long as this has been done, I would like to see the same opportunity afforded to the top point-getting filly—but only one—in the corresponding Kentucky Oaks points rankings.

This filly would almost certainly come from one of the big six races that carry 100-40-20-10 windfalls—the Fair Grounds Oaks, Gulfstream Oaks, Santa Anita Oaks, Ashland, Gazelle and Fantasy. It usually takes an exceptional filly to win one of those. If more than one filly wants to try the boys, points earned in earlier Oaks qualifiers could be used as a tie-breaker.

Great fillies such as Rachel Alexandra, Zenyatta, Havre de Grace and Tepin have eviscerated the notion that females are the weaker sex in racing. I'm confident Songbird will do the same as soon as she gets the chance. There should be a road to the roses for those who want to try it. Chances are they wouldn’t take advantage, just as Songbird’s connections vowed not to do this past spring, but the mere possibility would generate conversation.

By next spring, there might be a female in the White House. Shouldn’t there be at least one filly in the Derby?

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, September 08, 2016

Frosted’s uncool Woodward has racing fans hot

Joel Rosario's ride aboard Frosted in last Saturday's Woodward has raised questions about what the jockey was doing in the stretch when, at best, he rode Frosted over confidently in finishing third in a race he seemed poised to win. Rosario and the NYRA stewards owe it to the public and the sport to provide better explanations than the ones offered so far.

MIAMI, Sept. 8, 2016--I can't say I told you so but I can say I told you so one race too soon.

Prior to the Whitney, I pointed out that consistency isn't Frosted's forte. I warned Frosted couldn't be counted on to replicate his devastating Met Mile because he had never put together back-to-back wins.

Frosted made me look bad with another dominant score in the Whitney. He didn't revert to his typical form until Saturday's Woodward. The way he did it has conspiracy buffs in a frenzy.

Rather than accept Frosted isn't a win machine and hasn't won a race in a photo finish, they've concocted wild theories. The looniest is Joel Rosario pulled him to please NYRA, which wanted a big payoff in the first weekend of its new Pick 5 wager. This is too ridiculous to merit a response.

Whatever the reason or motivation it didn't seem Rosario was all out to win. As they say in the political arena, the optics are really bad. It didn't appear Rosario persevered as Frosted was making what looked like a winning move in mid-stretch.

It wasn't only the optics that were bad. As Larry Collmus called the race, he said Frosted is "still under a hand ride in the middle of the track as he edges up to the leaders...With a furlong to go, he is head and head for the lead...a very confident ride here."

The Racing Form chart was on the same page:

"Frosted remained confidently handled advancing mildly five wide through the far turn under his own power, angled eight wide into upper stretch...had the rider apply the mildest of hand rides rallying to latch onto the top trio a furlong from home...drifted in under overconfident handling and light cross-reined encouragement and was out-gamed to the finish by a pair." (Shaman Ghost and Mubtaahij)

Rosario said he didn't go to the whip because Frosted doesn't react well to it. Then, why was he carrying it? It's not unprecedented for riders to go to the post without a whip aboard horses who recoil from it.. Also, why wasn't Rosario's hand ride more vigorous and less "confident"?

It's unthinkable a rider with Rosario's reputation would pull a horse in a $600,000 stakes, a Grade 1 no less, being nationally televised. The downside far outweighs any upside. I can't even imagine what any upside could be. Owners with the caliber of star horses jockeys strive to get on were watching.

There also was no reason for Rosario to measure the finish in an attempt to keep weight off Frosted in upcoming events. His next start will be in a Breeders' Cup race, either the Mile or Classic, neither of which is a handicap.

In all likelihood, Rosario just made a poor decision and put in a less than stellar ride. Jockeys make mistakes all the time. Unfortunately for Rosario, he made his, if that is what it was, on the biggest of stages.

It's unfortunate that whatever happened with Frosted will linger from a Saratoga season of brilliant performances: Songbird's total dominance of her generation in the Coaching Club American Oaks and Alabama; Flintshire reinforcing his status as the best of America's turf horses; Arrogate's otherworldly Travers and even Frosted's Whitney.

The only way to eradicate any suspicions is for NYRA, its stewards and Rosario to provide a better explanation to what happened than those that have been offered.

Speaking of explanations

If and when Rosario gets around to offering a more acceptable explanation for the Woodward, let's hope it's more credible than the one presented for Middle Atlantic super trainer Ramon Preciado's multiple drug offenses.

Preciado was suspended for numerous clenbuterol overages. He adopted the familiar someone else tampered with my horses defense. Lo and behold, an alleged culprit has materialized, a 25-year-old female groom, Marian Vega.

According to multiple sources, including the Racing Form, Preciado's barn foreman went to Vega's dorm one afternoon and noticed a bottle of clenbuterol. It must have been in plain view because, according to the Form story, when he asked her about it, she reportedly slammed the door in his face.

The foreman went to the racing commission and two days later investigators went to Vega's dorm. In spite of knowing she was under suspicion, she still had the drug in her room.

The Form story reported that in an affadavit filed, Vega said she administered the drug beyond permissible guidelines to "all of" Preciado's horses over a long period of time. According to the story, she worked for Preciado only from October to April. (Preciado has been an almost 30 percent trainer for the past three years, sometimes transforming cheap claimers into graded stakes winners in a remarkably short period.)

Vega reportedly said she did it because she hated Preciado, who didn't pay her promptly and often humiliated her. (What better way to get even than to give his horses drugs that would help them win races at a Hall of Fame pace?)

Vega has been charged with one count of rigging a horse race, which carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison. Can anyone remember someone, let alone a young first-time offender, doing time for a drug overage?

How cynical do you have to be to wonder if this young lady is merely taking the fall?

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, September 01, 2016

Goodbye to Saratoga; the saddest time of year

There are few things in life more depressing than having to end the annual sojurn to Saratoga. There are signs the luster might be wearing down, due largely to Christopher Kay trying to price a day at the Spa out of the reach of many fans. But the ambiance and racing are still unparralled, so Saratoga hopefully will be able to survive Kay's leadership. While the eyes of the racing world will be mainly focused Saturday on a bonanza of stakes at Saratoga, Kentucky Downs, Del Mar and Parx, it will be worth also checking out the latest run of the sensational Three Rules at Gulfstream.

SARATOGA, Sept. 1--A state trooper with his lights on in your rearview mirror is disturbing. Exit 14 on the New York Northway in your rearview mirror is downright depressing

My fortnight at the Spa is over and I'm in my annual funk. Saratoga isn't perfect but it's still my favorite place on Earth. However, there is a price point at which even the most ardent customers of a product will begin to drift away.

Christopher Kay seems obsessed with finding out what that is at Saratoga and I fear he is moving closer to his goal. No matter what the announced attendance figures are, inflated by season-pass holders being counted even when they are not there, business is not what it used to be.

Vast sections of the grandstand went unoccupied five days a week. This includes the Friday before the Travers and the Sunday after, the biggest weekend of the year. This hasn't been the case since Saratoga was "discovered" by the masses in the late 20th century, largely thanks to super highways.

You used to have to arrive hours before post to have a shot at a picnic table. This past Sunday, 10-15 were available at the Top of the Stretch and more than that in the backyard after the first race. The only people in the last four sections of the grandstand were the security people making sure no one sat down without paying Kay's tariff, which seems to go up every season.

An item in the Racing Form noted Travers Day handle was the fourth highest ever. However, the three higher handles were in 2015, 2014 and 2013. So while it was the fourth highest it was also the lowest in four years.

John Pricci is going to get into these issues in more depth in an upcoming column, so I'll move on to what makes Saratoga still alluring enough to induce a 1600-mile drive and endure the hassles.

Drive around Middle America and you'll see Trump and Clinton placards displayed on lawns. In Saratoga the political statements read, "Whoa Cuomo," protests against what the dictatorial governor is doing to NY racing. Not just a few lawns; it's impossible to go a block anywhere in town without seeing three or four.

Racing matters in Saratoga, like no place else. The summer meeting is front page news in the local papers. In most cities these days, including the Big Apple, racing isn't news at all on the days a Triple crown event isn't being run.

You can turn on the TV in the morning and there are hours of Saratoga horse talk and handicapping. Sponsors go out of their way to tie their products to racing.

Every track has a nearby saloon where you can run into racing people--usually not more than one. At Saratoga, racing is the prime topic of conversation in just about every bar and restaurant in the area. John and I and our wives went to Longfellows, a classy joint a few miles east of the track, one night and we ran into Tom Durkin and several other race-trackers, whose names would not be familiar to most of you. Only a few feet away, acerbic Indian Charlie was swapping tales with friends.

I was dying to ask him why he calls Christophe Clement "the Puerto Rican Frenchman," but I didn't want to run the risk of being ridiculed in the next day's sheet.

Another night we went to a wonderful Italian restaurant, Nove, and ran into Richard Migliore, whose insights into horses warming up are one of the more useful handicapping innovations in recent years.

You can wait in line any night at blue collar Hattie's Chicken Shack and encounter nothing but racing folks.

Then there's the main event, the reason we make our pilgrimage every summer. In the course of our relatively short time there, we saw Songbird continue her Amazon act; Flintshire reconfirm his status as the finest turf horse in North America; Arrogate run faster than any horse in a century and a half and Lady Eli make a storied return to racing even if she fell just short of the winner's circle.

I'm counting down already to next summer.

A colt to watch at Gulfstream

Saturday's national racing agenda will be laden with major stakes, including the Woodward with Frosted at Saratoga, opening day at Kentucky Downs, closing weekend at Del Mar and a bevy of stakes at Parx, featuring Kentucky Oaks champion Cathryn Sophia in a stakes created for her as a way to avoid Songbird while prepping for the Cotillion.

Whatever track you're keying on, it's worth making it a point to turn your attention to the screens carrying Gulfstream's signal when Three Rules goes to the post in the Affirmed, the second stage of the Florida Sire Stakes series. You might be watching the best juvenile in the country to this point.

The son of Gone Astray has already rung up a couple of stakes, the open Birdonthewire and the Dr. Fager division of the Sire Stakes. But the race that really points him out is his career debut in an MSW. He blew away Gunnevera by 3 1/2 lengths going five furlongs. It was no one-shot fluke. Three Rules encored by beating Gunnevera again in the 5 1/2 furlong Birdonthewire, which he won by 5 1/2.

Out of Three Rules shadow, Gunnevera broke his maiden in his next start then shipped to Saratoga and ran away with the Saratoga Special. What does that tell you about Three Rules?

Extended to six furlongs, Three Rules set a track record in a seven-length romp in the Dr. Fager. So the farther he has been asked to run, the greater Three Rules victory margin has been. The stretch-out to seven furlongs should be right in his wheelhouse.

Astonishingly, his trainer Jose Pinchin said the colt was recovering from a popped abcess in his foot in the Dr. Fager. The foot is completely healed, according to Pinchin, so it should be interesting to see what kind of show Three Rules puts on. It's definitely worth taking a look.

Written by Tom Jicha

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