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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Tuesday, August 11, 2015

NYRA wants guarantee but fans don’t get one

It remains uncertain whether American Pharoah will run in the Aug. 29 Travers at Saratoga. Bob Baffert has been sending mixed feelings. However, by instituting a crowd cap of 50,000, NYRA is assuring the biggest Travers crowd in a dozen years whether or not the Triple Crown winner shows up. Meanwhile, fans are being essentially forced to buy tickets in advance not knowing whether they will get to see the champion.

MIAMI, Aug. 11, 2015--NYRA is up to a new old trick with its attendance cap of 50,000 for the Travers. There is no guarantee American Pharoah is going to show up but Christopher Kay wants a guarantee that he’ll get an American Pharoah turnout.

The NYRA CEO did the same thing with the Belmont Stakes. The 90,000 cap for the Belmont wasn’t put into place after American Pharoah won the first two jewels of the Triple Crown. It was announced only a few days after the Kentucky Derby, when the possibility of a Triple Crown bid was still only a fond hope.

The limit was disingenuously billed as a service to fans, a move to avoid the nightmarish experience more than 100,000 fans experienced at the 2014 Belmont. If this was true, it was an indictment of management being unable to come up with a crowd control plan despite having a full year to do so.

It’s not as if more than 100,000 hadn’t attended previous Belmonts. It happened three straight times between 2002 and 2004 as War Emblem, Funny Cide and Smarty Jones tried to complete the elusive sweep. More than 120,000 supposedly were on hand for Smarty Jones’ bid. But Kay's NYRA admitted it was incapable of handling a crowd bigger than three-quarters as large.

In fact, the cap was an attempt to guarantee paid attendance of at least 90,000 just in case there was no Triple Crown on the line. “Buy your tickets now or you could be shut out of an historic event.”

There has never been a crowd of 90,000 in years without a Triple Crown possibility. The closest was 85,811 in 2012 and comes with an asterisk. I’ll Have Another scratched the day before the race, so many big event race-goers showed up unaware there was no chance history would be made.

Attendance for previous Belmonts without a Triple Crown on the line averaged just a bit more than 50,000. So the business built on gambling decided it didn’t want to gamble on the crowd.

The same tactic is being utilized for the Travers. Ahmed Zayat’s hope that American Pharoah would run in the Travers was barely out of his mouth when NYRA announced the 50,000 cap, urging fans to buy tickets immediately to avoid being shut out.

Although the 60,000 barrier was exceeded for the Travers in 2001 and 2003, there hasn’t been a crowd of 50,000 since. Last year it was 46,557, down from 47,597 in 2013. The latter was the biggest attendance since 48,899 showed up in 2004.

Just as a Triple Crown bid was uncertain when the Belmont cap was announced, it is far from a certainty that American Pharoah will run on Aug. 29. Zayat made it clear the decision is entirely up to Bob Baffert.

The trainer has been sending mixed signals. “We’re trying to make it but he’s going to have to really convince me,” Baffert told the NYRA publicity department Monday . “I have to be all in and feel really confident, because if he comes here I know he’s going to have to run hard. It’s a tough demanding racetrack. But he’s handled everything thrown at him so far. He’s been such a special horse and has this following now. I want to make sure I do the right thing.”

Unsaid was how the Travers fits into having American Pharoah ready for his ultimate goal, the Breeders Cup Classic on Oct. 31. There is a nine-week gap between the two races, not the ideal scenario. It would likely necessitate another race in the interim, probably the Awesome Again at Santa Anita, his home base, on Sept. 26, since Zayat has said he has no interest in the Pennsylvania Derby. After the Belmont, Zayat and Baffert said they wanted only two races before the Breeders Cup.

With the cap in place, NYRA doesn’t care whether American Pharoah comes. The tickets will be sold. Situations such as this inspired the phrase caveat emptor (let the buyer beware).

Mixed emotions about Calder's demolition

The old saying goes, “Mixed emotions is watching your mother-in-law drive your Cadillac off a cliff.”

I experienced a similar feeling during the past week with news that Churchill Downs Inc. plans to demolish the Calder grandstand after the casino-saving Gulfstream West meeting this fall.

Calder was much too antiseptic and charmless to be beloved. But because of its eight-month season, I spent more time there than at any other track and I made some great friends.

Marketing director Mike Cronin invented the Summit of Speed to keep Calder on the map during the summer. His savvy and personable boss, Ken Dunn, is sorely missed running racetracks. Publicity director Michele Blanco was as deservedly treasured by Churchill Downs Inc. as she was disgusted with it. It got to the stage that Michelle left the only business she had known from growing up on the backside in a racing family. The late linemaker/chart caller Chuck Streva, one of the truly good guys, worked all the tracks but fondly called Calder "home." He was taken much too early from us. Publicist Jack Will knows more about racing and racing people than anyone I have ever known. Also not to be forgotten is Damon Runyon track handicapper Dirk “Dr. Doom” Ackerman, who hung the nickname (affectionately I think) Tiny Terror on me. After Dirk passed away, I adopted it as my fantasy stable name in tribute to his memory.

Those were just a few of the people who brought warmth to the cold Calder building.

On the other hand, it feels good to be rid of the remnants of CDI, as miserable a bunch of people as you would expect from this company. However, it’s infuriating that CDI is being allowed by the state to retain its casino even though it is out of the racing business in Florida.

Also, Gulfstream is doing such a better job serving the sport and its fans. This was driven home again Saturday. The first stage of the annual Florida Sire Stakes (nee Stallion Stakes) showed a 35% increase in total handle and almost a 26% increase on track over its last renewal.

It has been this way since Gulfstream went to an almost year-round schedule. The brand is better known and valued nationwide by fans, and horsemen have responded enthusiastically to being treated as if they are valued, not tolerated.

Given the problems confronting summer tracks elsewhere, most notably Chicago and, to a lesser extent New Jersey, racing is only going to get better during the warm weather months and the premier winter season is second to none.

I’m still not a fan of year-round racing at one venue (the Gulfstream West meeting will endure only until the state decouples racing from casinos). But under Tim Ritvo's team, Gulfstream is doing it as well as it can be done.

So whatever warm feelings I have for Calder, they are mitigated by being rid of Churchill Downs as well as the knowledge that South Florida racing is in so much a better place.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Tuesday, August 04, 2015

NYRA hits new lows in customer abuse

Nothing appears beneath NYRA when it comes to squeezing every penny out of fans. The latest outrage is charging handicapped fans $7-$15 to park in a lot that is otherwise free. Meanwhile, any thoughts that there ever will be meaningful inter-track cooperation on anything significant is a fantasy,demonstrated by Saratoga, Monmouth and Mountaineer each staging rich races for 3-year-olds within 24 hours.

SARATOGA SPRINGS, Aug. 5, 2015--NYRA has concocted its most vile means yet to squeeze a few extra bucks out of fans at Saratoga.

My family stages an unofficial reunion every summer at the Spa. A couple of years ago, there were so many of us, all wearing colorful shirts designed by my creative niece, that the Albany ABC affiliate took notice and did a feature story on the news on us.

One member of my family now has to get around by electric scooter. When she parked her van, outfitted with a carrier on the back, in the handicapped section of the lot, which is supposed to be free, an attendant came galloping over to inform her, “Handicapped parking has to be paid for this year.” The tariff is not cheap: $7 weekdays, $10 weekends and $15 on Travers Day.

This is not trackside parking. This is the first lot you come to off the Northway on Union Avenue. It is more than a quarter-mile from the nearest admission gate.

The attendant was embarrassed and apologetic but said the money had to be collected. My relative was so incensed that she went to customer service as soon as she got into the track. The women there didn’t believe it and thought it was a mistake by the people at the lot. “Let me call my boss.” Her boss, also apologetic, said the order came down from the top.

My relative is pondering an Americans With Disability Act complaint. I hope she follows through.

The abuse of customers doesn’t end there. Sunday, my mother, who will be 90 in a few months, had a small umbrella to shield her from the scorching sun at the Top of the Stretch. (All the shade areas were occupied.) A security officer came over and said she had to take it down for safety reasons.

This was not a beach umbrella, more like something you would carry in the rain. Nevertheless, it had to go, she was told. We were not near the rail, where a gust of wind could have blown it onto the track. We were sufficient distance from the fence that it would have taken Hurricane Andrew to do that.

Right nearby, there were about 20 huge Coors Light umbrellas, some right next to the rail, in the cubicles NYRA has fenced off as a revenue generator. The difference: NYRA gets hundreds of dollars to rent them. Supposed safety must not be an issue when the bottom line is.

How’s this for more penny-pinching? On Wednesday, the restrooms nearest the Top of the Stretch were locked before the last race. On Friday, the ladies room was locked with two races to go. (A monsoon struck on Thursday, so I skipped the track for the friendly OTB in Lake George.)

I didn’t know the attendants, who sit there looking for tips, were paid so much that knocking them off an hour early is a major savings for NYRA.

These outrages happen because Saratoga for the most part is such an addictive experience that management is confident people might complain but they will keep coming back.

I plead guilty.

Cooperation is a drean-on fantasy

American Pharoah is so awesome that he covers up a lot of racing’s ills.

The notion that racetracks will ever cooperate on anything beyond the trivial is nothing more than a wonderful fantasy. The every man for himself philosophy, which has prevailed longer than the electronic starting gate, was driven home again this past weekend. Saratoga, Monmouth and Mountaineer ran huge money races for 3-year-olds, which only served to cannibalize each other.

Saratoga put up $600,000 for the Jim Dandy and wound up with a four-horse field. Not only did this detract from the spectacle of the event, it put a hurting on the bottom line. Superfecta and show betting had to be canceled and the multiple race pools took severe hits from the dearth of possible combinations.

The nemesis of the Jim Dandy, of course, was the $1.75 million Monmouth was hanging out for the Haskell. Even with American Pharoah looming unbeatable, second money was almost the equivalent of winning the Jim Dandy. This directly swiped Competitive Edge and Upstart, who were cross-entered, and perhaps another one or two, who might have showed up for the Travers prep.

Monmouth made its showcase race even more attractive by jacking up the purse by $750,000 only a day or two before entries were taken. Why is baffling. It already had the Triple Crown champion locked up and the enhancement could have bolstered the purse of 250 overnight races by $3,000 apiece.

The explanation was the extra $750K was consolation for Monmouth’s inability to close the deal on a multi-million series designed to attract American Pharoah. Makes you wonder if the Pharoah’s connections knew about the richer endowment when they made the decision to come to New Jersey. But nobody else did.

Not to be outdone, NYRA announced it will raise the purse of the Travers to $1.6 million if American Pharoah shows up on Aug. 29.

The $750,000 West Virginia Derby only aggravated the situation. Why Mountaineer, which runs almost year-round, chose Saturday to put up the richest purse of the year is another mystery. It surely didn’t get value. The field it attracted could have been lured for a third or less of the purse.

Thank goodness Del Mar doesn’t have a significant dirt race for sophomores, something that has always been an inexplicable hole in its schedule.

The fierce scrimmage for top tier horses could have been avoided with some inter-track cooperation. NYRA is more or less locked into running the Jim Dandy four weeks before the Travers. But Monmouth has all summer to run the Haskell.

On one hand, it’s understandable that the New Jersey track would want to stage its biggest event when there is no other racing in the New York City area. But a July 4th Haskell has potential advantages to offset this.

It would be a stage-setter for summer racing on the tourist rich Jersey shore, rather than an attraction so late in the meeting that any momentum it generates is mitigated. It also would be a perfect fit for contemporary training techniques; about four weeks after the Belmont with approximately the same gap to the Jim Dandy.

Another facet of the inter-track rivalry also erupted in the last week. NYRA announced it is dropping the simulcast signals of Churchill Downs controlled tracks in the usual dispute over pricing. With the exception of the Arlington Million card on Aug. 15, this is a ho-hummer for most fans. However, it is inexcusable that two behemoth corporations can’t come to agreement for the good of the game and more importantly, fans.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Haskell has big horse but Spa has ‘Dandy’ of a race

American Pharoah will be the center of attention in Monmouth's Haskell this weekend but the best race for 3-year-olds will be the Jim Dandy Saturday at Saratoga. Grade 1 winners Frosted, Materiality and Texas Red are expected along with Holy Bull winner and Florida Derby runnerup Upstart and Bill Mott's star on the rise Japan. On Wednesday, Mott will attempt to extend his remarkable record of success on his birthday.

SARATOGA SPRINGS, July 28, 2015—Monmouth has America’s best 3-year-old this coming weekend but Saratoga has the best 3-year-old race.

I’m not going to behave like a politician and say I was for something before I was against it. I wrote a couple of weeks ago that an outstanding horse outweighs an outstanding race. I’m not going to back off that. This weekend will provide the collaborating evidence.

NYRA would trade every formerly free picnic table now for rent in the backyard for the opportunity to cap attendance (which Monmouth isn’t going to do) for an American Pharoah appearance in Saturday’s Jim Dandy rather than see The Triple Crown winner draw the biggest crowd in New Jersey racing history to Monmouth’s Haskell on Sunday.

But the Haskell looms a non-competitive exhibition while the Jim Dandy is arguably the best 3-year-old race since the Kentucky Derby. Wood Memorial winner Frosted is scheduled to make his first start since pushing American Pharoah to his completion of the Triple Crown in the Belmont.

Breeders’ Cup Juvenile champion Texas Red, who didn’t make the Kentucky Derby due to an injury, is using the Jim Dandy as his prep for the Midsummer Derby, the Aug. 29 Travers.

Materiality, who pushed his unbeaten record to three in the Florida Derby. will attempt to get back on track after disappointing showings in the Kentucky Derby and Belmont. It’s probably not prudent to overlook anything coming out of the Todd Pletcher barn these days.

He seems to win even when he doesn’t. The multiple Eclipse winner came up with three big scores over the past week without getting to the wire first. Uncle Vinny got kissed into top money for an incident that didn’t affect him in any way in the opening day Sanford at the Spa.

Magna Light led the field all the way but, as 2-year-olds are wont to do, started acting like a goofball. veering out several paths in mid-stretch then coming back in late. He might have been clear enough to avoid penalty when he came out but he definitely caused Percolator, his closest pursuer, to check and lose the place when he veered back in. This opened the door for Pletcher’s Uncle Vinny, coming down the middle of the track, to finish second without really menacing Uncle Vinny. So instead of running third, Uncle Vinny had a graded win handed to him.

Two days later Pletcher got put up again in the Coaching Club American Oaks when front-running I’m a Chatterbox came out and brushed Curalina in the shadow of the wire. The DQ was justifiable but it happened so close to the finish it wouldn’t have been the worst “as is” if the stewards had taken that route.

Pletcher’s roll extended to being on the right side of a non-disqualification in the 2014 Delaware Handicap. You might not have heard of this because Delaware kept it on the down low. Princess of Sylmar’s $150,000 second place earnings had been held up for more than a year because of an overage of betamethasone. The permissible corticosteroid is used to treat inflammation from joint disease and arthritis but cannot be in a horse’s system on race day.

Pletrcher and Princess of Sylmar’s owners fought the ruling on complicated grounds regarding the clarity of the rule. Delaware state officials finally decided to drop the charges and release the purse.

Pletcher has not had a drug ruling since 2010. Ergo, he is worthy of being given the benefit of the doubt. But less prominent trainers couldn’t be blamed for wondering if they would have been given the same consideration.

Getting back to the Jim Dandy, another multiple Eclipse winner, Bill Mott, will have an intriguing new shooter to the top ranks of the 3-year-old division. Japan broke through with his first stakes triumph in the Easy Goer on the Belmont Stakes undercard. The place horse, Stanford, figures to be the favorite for Pletcher in Friday’s Curlin Stakes.

After the Easy Goer, Mott said he might have run Japan in the wrong race, suggesting he thought Japan was worthy of taking on American Pharoah in the Belmont. Coming from someone as accomplished and low key as Mott, this is quite an endorsement, certainly enough to consider taking a decent price in a stakes that doesn’t include American Pharoah.

Mott, who won four races in the first three days of the meet, will be the center of attention on Wednesday, his 62nd birthday, because of a streak that has become a closely monitored diversion at the Spa.

Seven straight times and in 15 of the past 20 Saratoga seasons he has won a race on his birthday (July 29 fell on a dark day in some years, including 2014). Mott said he is amused and amazed at the attention it has gotten.

Last time his birthday fell on a race day, 2013, he had five starters and won with the final two. He has no margin of error this year. He'’ll have only one chance, First Charmer in the seventh race, a maiden special for New York breds.

First Charmer is 12-1 on the morning line but Mott’s streak has been so thoroughly reported in the Racing Form and local Saratoga papers, it will be a surprise if he goes to the post at even half that price.

Written by Tom Jicha

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