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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Monday, February 04, 2013

Florida Racing’s Future: Same Old Politics?

MIAMI, February 3, 2013--Chicago Mayor and former Obama White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel has a cynical political credo: Never let a good crisis go to waste. In other words, exploit an unfortunate situation to get something you couldn’t get under normal circumstances.

The urgency to enact tighter gun control laws in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., tragedy is an example. The National Rifle Association and Second Amendment absolutists make meaningful gun control all but unattainable. However, public dismay with the horrendous mass slaughters in Connecticut and elsewhere has generated new momentum for the effort to try to outlaw at least military-style weapons.

Under normal circumstances, Hialeah Park is dead as a thoroughbred race track. Gulfstream and Calder have carved up the calendar to ensure there are no open dates and Hialeah president John Brunetti said he has learned his lesson and will never again attempt to run a meet in conflict with either of the other two tracks. However, a looming crisis in South Florida racing could provide the impetus to resuscitate Hialeah through the back door.

At the tailend of the 20th century, state regulators became disgusted by the annual acrimonious battles between Miami-area racetracks and deregulated the dates. Tell us when you plan to run and we’ll rubber stamp it became the new state policy.

Ownership of Gulfstream and Calder has changed since then and their alliance teeters on the brink of disintegration. Gulfstream has filed to run year-round starting with the opening of its traditional winter season in December 2013. Unless this request is amended by the deadline at the end of February, a scorched earth showdown between the two tracks seems inevitable.

It almost happened in 2011, when Gulfstream decided it wanted to open in December rather than the customary first week in January. Calder initially refused to budge. It warned its horsemen, who make up almost half the fields for Gulfstream races, that any horse who left the stable area to race at Gulfstream would not be welcomed back. Gulfstream countered that it would build new stalls to accommodate horsemen stuck in this predicament.

Bellicose threats raged right up to the 11th hour and 59th minute when, miraculously, an agreement was reached. Gulfstream would open in December and Calder would be compensated by getting a few weeks in April, which had made up the tail of the winter season.

For Calder, this was akin to a department store giving up the month before Christmas for a month at another time of year. Churchill Downs Inc., Calder’s parent, obviously got something, probably something substantial. If it didn’t, it owes stockholders an explanation. However, the quo for the quid has never been disclosed. All that matters is, when the moment of truth came, Churchill Downs Inc. caved.

This emboldened Gulfstream owner Frank Stronach. Less than two years later, he is not satisfied with a bigger piece of the pie. He wants the whole pie. Calder/CD I have two options. Dig in and take a stand or fold again.

This brings us back to Hialeah. If neither Calder nor Gulfstream blink, chaos will ensue. The two tracks are only eight miles apart and the national shortage of horses is especially acute in South Florida outside the winter months when barn areas are swollen with snowbird horses.

Calder has had to cut back from six days a week to five, then four. Even with the lesser regimen, races with five or six horses are the rule. Two tracks racing head to head will split this inventory. Even with Gulfstream running only on weekends during what are now its off months, there wouldn’t be close to enough horses to go around.

This is not to mention the necessity to maintain two staffs of racing officials, gate crews, mutual clerks and the scores of other employees behind the scenes of a day at the races. Many who now fill these roles move seamlessly from Calder to Gulfstream and back.

The billion dollar Florida thoroughbred industry, the hundreds of farms it supports and the thousands of jobs it creates will be put into jeopardy. The state could not allow this to happen. The only solution would be for the state to get back into the business of assigning non-conflicting dates.

This is where Hialeah and its president John Brunetti will be waiting to take advantage of the crisis. Brunetti has been running a short quarterhorse meeting the past three winters for the sole purpose of qualifying for a casino license. But he aches to get back into thoroughbred racing, his true love as an owner, breeder and fan. You can expect him to go the legislature with a plea that state needs to find a place for Hialeah in any new racing calendar.

Brunetti, whose race track is located in an overwhelmingly Hispanic area, will be well armed with the support he has built within the potent Latin caucus in the legislature. Their numbers aren’t sufficient to get bills passed independently but they have enough strength to be able to swap votes with legislators from elsewhere in the state with local pet projects of their own.

Another argument Brunetti has used in the past might resonate well with Florida lawmakers, who can be embarrassingly parochial. He’s the guy who lives in Florida and has worked tirelessly to preserve a treasured landmark. Meanwhile, Gulfstream is owned by an absentee Austrian and Calder is controlled by an out-of-state conglomerate, which, despite its revered name in racing, seems to have become more concerned with casinos. It’s a low road approach but this has always been the most trafficked avenue in battles over Florida racing dates.

Rahm Emmanuel would be proud.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Friday, February 01, 2013

Florida Racing on Verge of Chaos

Gulfstream's plan to race year-round starting in December 2013 is a futile attempt to save an ill-advised adjacent shopping mall. Unless Gulfstream backs off, the result is likely to be a scorched earth showdown with Calder and its parent, Churchill Downs, Inc., which will undermine the future of racing in Florida.

Frank Stronach is a visionary. He doesn’t think outside the box. He refuses to acknowledge there is a box. His visions are always on a grand scale. Alas, sometimes too grand.

Occasionally, he needs to be reined in. This happened at Santa Anita, where one of his schemes involved demolishing the downhill turf chute, one of the most unique and picturesque courses in the world. Thankfully, he allowed himself to be talked out of that.

The same needs to happen with parts of Stronach’s ambitious plans for Gulfstream, the key element of which is year-round racing. This could amount to shooting himself and South Florida racing in the foot.

Stronach’s long-held dream has been to morph race tracks into one-stop destinations for entertainment and commerce. It’s not far removed from the fabulously successful transition Las Vegas made from no frills hotel-casinos to mega resorts with world class restaurants and high end shopping malls.

Under the right circumstances, this might be the way of the future. However, not every brainstorm winds up a home run. New Coke, Facebook’s IPO and Tim Tebow as a New York Jet all struck extraordinarily successful people as potential grandslams.

Stronach has not sufficiently thought through the Gulfstream expansion plan. The Village, the mall surrounding the track, is the equivalent of a bounce house across the street from Disney World. Gulfstream and The Village are located down the block from the glamorous Aventura Mall. The Village is an outdoor, strip-style mall. Aventura is enclosed and air-conditioned. Ever been to South Florida during the endless summer?

Predictably, The Village is a lonely place outside racing season, when Gulfstream serves as a magnet. Two popular bars adjacent to the track’s walking ring went toes up during the break between the end of racing last April and the reopening in December.

Year-round racing is sending good money after bad, an attempt to rescue the mall, without consideration of the ramifications for racing.

Calder has been running the summer dates since it opened 40 years ago. If not for Calder, there would be no summer racing. Nevertheless, Stronach apparently feels Calder should step aside for him. To be fair, it’s not as if Stronach isn’t leaving anything for Calder. Gulfstream’s plan calls for summer racing only on Saturday and Sunday. Calder can have weekdays, if it likes.

It’s inconceivable that Calder’s parent, Churchill Downs, Inc., will lie down without a fight. (Then again, it was inconceivable that Calder would roll over for Gulfstream’s incursion into December.) The alternative is the two tracks going head to head for customers and horses. It’s debatable which is in shorter supply during the summer.

There is no chance either track can make a go of it under these circumstances. There is every chance both will have to throw in the towel. It’s a matter of conjecture what happens then to South Florida racing outside the winter tourist season?

Even the prime dates could suffer. Consider the most successful meets in America: Keeneland, Saratoga, Del Mar. Their common denominator is relatively short meetings that give them the aura of an event. Winter racing at Gulfstream isn’t far removed from this. Racing year-round, the event transforms into monotony.

Stronach also is addressing another repercussion of The Village in a grand manner without thinking things through. To make room for The Village, the old Gulfstream, one of the most comfortable, fan-friendly facilities in the sport, had to be bulldozed. In its place is a building designed to accommodate a casino, a massive simulcast room, several classy restaurants and a grand showroom, which recently hosted the Eclipse Awards.

The only thing it’s not ideal for is fans interested in actually watching races via binoculars, not flat screens. There are little more than 1,000 seats facing the race track. Among other things, this meant the Breeders’ Cup would never return.

Stronach’s solution is characteristically grandiose and typically short-sighted. He says he plans to flank the current building with extended grandstands and two luxurious hotels, which will afford a direct view of the race track to more than 50,000 fans. He must never have been to Belmont on any day a Triple Crown isn’t on the line.

Hialeah president John Brunetti, whose family fortune comes from the construction business, said he has seen Gulfstream’s plans and dismisses them as just big talk. “For Frank to do everything he wants, he’d have to build up to Dania (about five miles to the north).”

Caught in the middle, as usual, are the horsemen, who could be herded into one of those “What were we thinking?” decisions. Gulfstream is making the argument that it will handle more than Calder, and thus offer better purses during the summer, because it handles more now. Of course, it does. Put Calder in January and February and Gulfstream in July and August and the outcome could be vastly different.

Many South Florida horsemen have it in for Calder, especially under the Churchill Downs regime, for what they regard as a heavy-handed, take-it-or-leave-it attitude toward them, exemplified by charging backstretch personnel rent for subpar living quarters. Their yen to cut Calder down to size could cloud their thinking into throwing away a historically dependable racing home for what can fairly be described as an experiment at Gulfstream.

Gulfstream’s casino is open year-round now. It hasn’t helped The Village. It’s folly to think a couple of days a week of sub-par racing will turn things around for the mall. But Stronach seems hell bent to do it anyway.

Part II Monday: Brunetti, Waiting in the Wings

Written by Tom Jicha

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Friday, January 25, 2013

Make Mine the Real Thing

Miami, Fla., January 24, 2013--Relationships begin with a getting to know you ice-breaker. Hopefully, this column is the dinner and drinks that will lead to a long term connection.

I’ll start with issues and opinions I find most compelling at the moment. However, the game plan is to be eclectic and wide ranging. Racing is the main thrust but my interests stretch beyond that, as I’m sure yours do, too. If this is to be lasting and enjoyable for both of us, I need to hear from you on your likes and dislikes, comments and suggestions. If you want to take a shot, that’s OK, too.

Here goes.

I have the same regard for synthetic race tracks as I do for synthetic breasts. They might look real but you know they’re not. Some might not mind either but I suspect most prefer the real thing. Keeneland used to be on my bucket list. Now it’s on my spit list.
I would un-grade any race on kitty litter (a term I wish I had coined), because it has little relationship to traditional racing. Dullahan is the poster horse. He is a perfect three-for-three (all Grade 1’s, no less) on artificial surfaces. He is nothing-for-six on dirt.

Synthetics are fine for training purposes. Some horses get legged up on wood chips. But there are no graded races on wood chips.

Steve Crist reported in the Daily Racing Form that at least one major track with a synthetic surface is considering a return to the real thing. Process of elimination suggests Arlington or Del Mar. The only other major tracks with synthetics are Keeneland, which has a vested interest in the stuff, and Hollywood Park, whose racing future is almost day to day.

Hopefully this is a swing of the pendulum like the one when stadiums jumped on the artificial grass bandwagon only to see many jump off after a few years of sky-high hops and injury-shortened careers. Racing also is learning fake dirt could be substituting one set of problems for another.

If ever there was an example of fixing something that wasn’t broken, the new Kentucky Derby points system is it. The rationale for the change, according to Churchill Downs CEO Robert Evans, is “to create new fans for horse racing.” Exactly how a series of three dozen races, with varying complex rewards, is fan friendly defies logic. Try explaining to a casual fan why the Sam F. Davis at Tampa Bay Downs, the Grey Stakes in Canada and the Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn are on the same points level as the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Or that a mile turf race in England gets points but the Illinois Derby does not.

Anyone want to bet that the next time the Breeders’ Cup is at Churchill, the Juvenile will get a points bump.

Evans said the new system will ensure the finest group of 3-year-olds will earn places in the starting gate. Does anyone recall a serious contender being excluded under the old system?

Some tweaks were necessary. That the first two finishers in the slots-swollen Delta Downs Jackpot, contested on a bull ring, were assured a berth in the Kentucky Derby was an aberration. This could have been resolved by simply excluding any race run on a track with a circumference of less than one mile.

Current thinking is it will take about 40 points to crack the Derby field. This could be conservative. Seven major final preps (the Florida, Santa Anita, Arkansas and Louisiana Derbys, the Wood Memorial, Blue Grass and, in another misguided international goodwill gesture, the United Arab Emirates Derby) will award 100 points to the winner and 40 points to second. Theoretically this could produce 14 of the 20 starters, although injuries and good sense will likely reduce that number. In fact, the fourth-place finisher in any of these races will earn as many points as Shanghai Bobby did for winning the BC Juvenile.

Another eight stakes, most prelims for their track’s major prep, will bestow 50 points to the winner. So if I had a Derby horse, I wouldn’t consider 40 points to be safe.

There are upsides to the change, starting with the Delta Jackpot being cut down to size. Also, a sprinter like Trinniberg will not make the cut. On the other hand, there might never be another filly in the Run for the Roses, as races for distaffers will not earn Derby points. In the wake of the Eight Belles tragedy, this might have been a secret goal of Churchill.

To get back to racing being more fan friendly, there are means to this end that don’t require round tables or focus groups to analyze to death. Foremost, simulcasting is the backbone of the sport. Is it asking too much to avoid simultaneous races at major tracks?

It’s impossible to avoid this entirely with so many tracks operating. However, NYRA, Gulfstream and Santa Anita should never have races going on at the same time during the winter. Likewise, Churchill, Santa Anita/Hollywood and NYRA should avoid conflicts in the spring and fall.

Simple solution. The major circuits agree to a system where one runs on the hour and half-hour, another goes at 10 and 40 minutes after the hour and the third goes at 20 and 50 minutes after the hour. This would allow some wiggle room for inquiries. Other venues could decide where to fit into the grid for maximum advantage to their bottom lines.

Supposedly, a new system is on the verge of being introduced that will deal with this. It can’t arrive soon enough

Written by Tom Jicha

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