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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Saturday, September 27, 2014

Shared Belief steals the show on a day of stars

Shared Belief was awesome again in the Awesome Again. Overcoming a nightmare trip, he was more awesome than ever in gutting out his seventh straight win. In spite of Tonalist 's facile score in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, Shared Belief heads toward the Breeders' Cup one of the biggest favorites on racing's biggest day.


If there were any doubts about the brilliance of Shared Belief, they were dispelled Saturday in a race whose title, Awesome Again, could not have been more appropriate. If anything Shared Belief was more awesome than ever.

His head margin over front-running Fed Biz was his closest call yet but it said more about him than any of his six previous daylight scores. You never really know what kind of heart a horse has until he has to gut it out in the final yards. Shared Heart has a heart bigger than California.

Shared Belief demonstrated in the Pacific Classic that he could overcome adversity. In the Awesome Again, he did things that are the stuff of legends.

Jockeys always ride to beat the favorite but what Victor Espinoza aboard Sky Kingdom did to get Shared Belief beat should be looked into by the stewards. Espinoza floated Shared Belief about eight wide into the first turn. According to Trakus, Shared Belief was pushed 24-plus feet off the rail. That’s almost a first down.

Espinoza continued to keep the undefeated favorite wide down the backside before he finally began his fade to last. This allowed the others to sneak through inside them and ensure Shared Belief would be almost as wide around the final turn.

“They tried some tactics on us,” winning rider Mike Smith said, being as charitable as possible.Smith estimated Sky Kingdom had Shared Belief stuck in the nine path.

Why would Espinoza ride as if his only goal was to get Shared Belief beaten? Here are a couple of things to consider. Espinoza was riding half of Bob Baffert’s uncoupled entry. Thanks to Espinoza, the other half, Fed Biz, was able to skim the rail on the lead and almost held on for the upset.

Then there’s the fact that Espinoza is the regular rider of California Chrome, the colt who’s trying to hold off Shared Belief for the 3-year-old title.

All of this does make you think.

How ironic it was only a week ago when Espinoza complained other jockeys in the Pennsylvania Derby were riding to thwart California Chrome.

There was an outstanding performance by a 3-year-old at Belmont, too. Tonalist moved to the head of the East’s 3-year-old class with a smart win in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. With blinkers off, he rallied from farther back than usual and split horses inside the eighth pole to get home ahead of Zivo and Long River.

The race was marred when Tonalist’s summer-long rival, Wicked Strong, was dropped by Moreno moving into the far turn. Wicked Strong was in a contending position when the mishap occurred, so there’s no telling what the outcome might have been if the Wood and Jim Dandy winner had been able to run his race. Moreno was disqualified from fourth and placed last.

This was Tonalist’s first win over older horses but it is a distinction that doesn’t have its usual cachet. With Palace Malice, Will Take Charge and Mucho Macho Man on the sidelines and Moreno and Itsmyluckyday misfiring, the older division is shallow in talent.

The attrition among older horses—Game on Dude, the pride of the West the past few years is also gone-- sets up a Breeders’ Cup Classic in which the three or four top betting choices could be 3-year-olds. Shared Belief will be a strong favorite. There’s no doubt about that.

Then there’s Tonalist and California Chrome, back home in the West. It could be four 3-year-olds heading the Classic if Baffert decides to try 10 furlongs again with Bayern. Maybe Shared Belief’s performance Saturday will coax Baffert to think better of that. The Dirt mile makes much more sense.

The potential travesty of Beholder capturing three straight Eclipses without ever winning a graded race anywhere but Santa Anita moved another step closer to fruition when she outran five foes in the Zenyatta. This race was effectively over when Iotapa, Beholder’s only serious competitor, missed her break.

Belle Gallantey won the East Coast equivalent, the Beldame, but it’s difficult to get too excited about her victory despite her more than eight length margin. John Velasquez aboard Stopchargingmaria opted to let Belle Gallantey gallop unchallenged on the lead in pedestrian fractions. The race was over by the halfway point.

If someone is to dethrone Beholder, it is more likely to be Close Hatches, who has her final Breeders’ Cup prep in the Spinster on real dirt at Keeneland on Saturday.

Saturday’s biggest disappointment had to be Itsmyluckyday in the Kelso. If Eddie Plesa was looking for an easy spot to get ready for the BC Classic, he picked the wrong race. River Rocks, going for his fourth straight, and Braedster sandwiched Itsmyluckyday most of the way, setting the race up for Vyjack, who sat a dream trip just behind the leaders and well ahead of the rest. Vyjack probably isn't going to Santa Anita. His connections are pointing for the Cigar Mile.

Stephanie’s Kitten didn’t disappoint for a change in the Flower Bowl. Johnny Velasquez kept her in the clear on the outside, but not too far outside, then pounced in the stretch to break a four-race winless streak for Ken Ramsey's filly. But you have to think there will be a couple or three Euros she might find too tough to handle at the Breeders’ Cup.

The same could be true of Turf Classic winner Main Sequence, who won his third straight Grade 1 since coming over from Great Britain. Give him and Graham Motion a lot of credit. All three wins have been in photo finishes. But he wasn’t the same terror on the other side of the Atlantic.

Private Zone is heading back to the BC Sprint after repeating in the Vosburgh. A year ago, he ran tenth at Santa Anita after winning Belmont’s premier sprint. The field he beat Saturday doesn’t suggest he’s the one to beat this year.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, September 18, 2014

Pa. Derby no walkover for California Chrome

Bob Baffert's decision to ship Bayern to the Pennsylvania Derby changes what loomed to be a richly paid workout for California Chrome into a real race. The Kentucky Derby winner will still be odds-on but the possibility of Bayern getting loose on an easy lead as he did in the Haskell adds intrigue to this weekend's most important race.

MIAMI, Sept. 18, 2014--The Pennsylvania Derby got a lot more interesting earlier this week when Bob Baffert decided to ship Bayern east for the showpiece race of the Parx season.

The race had ample aesthetic appeal with California Chrome using it as his comeback race after three months of R-and-R and his final prep for a potential Breeders’ Cup Classic showdown with Shared Belief. But it looked unbettable except as a free space in multi-race wagers. Even then, the upside figured to be minimal since everyone would have the same idea.

There was speculation Untapable might skip the Cotillion against fillies to take another shot at the colts. But that never made any sense. Untapable’s connections took the sensible option of being 1-5 against her own gender or 5-1 against California Chrome for the same purse. Moreover, the Cotillion is Grade 1, the Derby Grade 2.

This is probably the last year the Derby won’t be a Grade 1, which it should have been elevated to a couple of years ago. But the grading system is such a politically driven abomination, it is loaded with injustices. The Hopeful, a Grade 1, had three maidens in a field of seven. The first three finishers in its West Coast counterpart, the Del Mar Futurity, all went into the race maidens. I would argue that no 2-year-old race before the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile should be more than a Grade 3, if that high. But that’s a column for another day.

Meanwhile, the Pennsylvania Derby has the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner; Bayern, the Woody Stephens and Haskell winner; and Tapiture, who has won the West Virginia Derby and Matt Winn in his last two starts. Yet it’s only a Grade 2.

Even with Bayern crashing the party, California Chrome should be odds-on. However, the inevitability factor has diminished. We have seen in Monmouth’s Haskell what can happen when Bayern gets loose on an easy lead. We also have seen what happened to Wicked Strong and Tonalist in the Travers when they tried to push Bayern early.

The minor awards in the $1 million race are too lucrative for one of the lesser lights to serve as a sacrificial lamb pushing Baffert’s speedball. California Chrome, who has plenty of early lick and will be fresh, might have to do his own dirty work.

Suddenly what loomed an exhibition has the makings of a real race.

It’s always fun to try to beat the favorite but I’ll be rooting hard for California Chrome this week and Shared Belief in the Awesome Again at Santa Anita next week. This would set up the most eagerly anticipated Breeders’ Cup Classic showdown of top 3-year-olds since Sunday Silence and Easy Goer.

Goofy California is at is again

The people in California must lay awake at night pondering new ways to unnecessarily screw things up.

This is the state that banned paper grocery bags in favor of plastic and now has banned plastic. Racing had its own “paper or plastic” situation. Over-reacting (a California specialty) to an atypical spate of breakdowns in 2008, the state decreed that racetracks (save the short meeting fairs) had to go to the tremendous expense of converting their dirt main tracks to artificial surfaces. By next summer, all but Golden Gate will have reverted to real dirt.

The latest solution to a non-existent problem is a rule that decrees jockeys cannot use their whips more than three times without pausing to see if it is having the desired impact on their mount. This creates the possibility (likelihood) of jockeys driving to the wire putting their stick away to wait for a reaction while a rival surges past.

For now, this is only a house rule at Santa Anita but the Arcadia track is the host for the Breeders’ Cup in just over a month. This is when jockeys from all over the nation, many, if not most, unfamiliar with the rule, will convene for “the world championships.”

This regulation wasn’t spurred by any particular incident or public outcry. In fact, it’s difficult to surmise what is behind it. Darrell Haire, western regional representative for the Jockeys’ Guild (this means he is supposed to be working on riders’ behalf, not signing on to new ways to make their lives more difficult), was quoted in the Racing Form as saying, “We didn’t feel we have a problem. But we didn’t think hitting a horse repeatedly without waiting for a response is acceptable.”

We didn’t feel we have a problem but we’ll pass a new rule anyway. How California.

Haire was using the regal “we.” Martin Pedroza, one of the few jockeys quoted, called the new rule “ridiculous.”

Making the new rule more superfluous was the introduction a few years ago of new softer whips that are more sound than fury. The part that strikes the horse makes a popping sound, which theoretically spurs on a horse. But it doesn’t injure the animal or break skin as some of the old ones did.

To inject an issue of the day, it’s the difference between a parent’s open-handed whack on the rump to bring an out-of-control youngster into line and the disgusting thing Adrian Peterson did to his 4-year-old.

In an ideal world, jockeys wouldn’t carry whips. But when a 100-pound rider is trying to control a headstrong 1,200-pound horse, without the rider having anything to assert himself, bad things can happen. Whips can be lifesavers for both horse and rider. More to the current point, some horses refuse to exert themselves without coaxing.

There are already sensible rules that prohibit a jockey from abusing a horse. Riders must refrain from use of their whip when their horse is clearly out of the race or has obtained a maximum placing. Violations include steep fines or suspensions.

Underlining that the new regulations are more for show than reform, there are, at least at the outset, no meaningful penalties for infractions. A rider who continues to go to the whip in an all-out drive to the wire doesn’t face disqualification and fines will be light, less than the rider’s share of the difference between first and second.

Sorry, but these are the riders I want on the horses I bet.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Wednesday, September 10, 2014

3-year-olds in Horse of Year race for a change

Three-year-old males dominate the racing scene most of the year but recently they have fallen off the radar screen when Horse of the Year has been at stake in the fall. It has been seven years since Curlin won the top prize as a 3-year-old. Shared Belief and California Chrome appear poised to break that streak.

MIAMI, Sept. 10, 2014--Three-year-olds are racing’s glamour division from the first Derby preps in January through the Haskell and Travers in late summer. The Pennsylvania Derby is pushing hard to extend this through the end of September.

However, when the championship races are run in October and November, sophomores have tended to fade from prominence in recent years. Only one 3-year-old male, Curlin in 2007, has been named Horse of the Year since 2001. (Rachel Alexandra also was 3 when she won the title in 2009.)

The drought has an excellent chance of being broken this season. With the premature retirement of Palace Malice, four-for-four in stakes until he misfired in the Whitney, the leading candidates for racing’s biggest prize are Derby and Preakness winner California Chrome and undefeated Eclipse juvenile champion Shared Belief, the only 3-year-old to beat older horses in a significant stakes.

They are on target for their first showdown in the Breeders’ Cup Classic on Nov. 1. A victory for either would clinch Horse of the Year.

But a victory by either is far from a slam dunk. Moreno and Itsmyluckyday, both 4, are making late-season bids of their own. However, with only one Grade 1 victory apiece, one of them would have to run the table of a key prep then the Classic.

They appear to have a tougher path than California Chrome and Shared Belief. None of California Chrome’s ranking contemporaries have indicated an intention to take him on in the Pennsylvania Derby on Sept. 20. Shared Belief has already beaten the best of what there is in the West and figures to be 1-9 in Santa Anita’s Awesome Again on Sept. 27.

Moreno and Itsmyluckyday have each other to contend with in the Gold Cup in addition to Grade 1-winning 3-year-olds Tonalist and Wicked Strong. Moreno is a definite for the Gold Cup at Belmont. Itsmyluckyday appeared to not be heading that way after winning the Woodward but the absence of Palace Malice and the possibility of capturing Horse of the Year has encouraged owner/trainer Eddie Plesa Jr. to reconsider.

All this being said, it would be folly to overlook the possibility of a third straight Horse of the Year crown for Wise Dan, especially if he runs in and wins an important dirt stakes, which has been mentioned as a possibility. With Wise Dan voter fatigue a factor, it would take a total meltdown by Shared Belief, California Chrome, Moreno and Itsmyluckyday for Dan to rule the thoroughbred world again.

One of the purposes of the Breeders’ Cup Classic was to identify the Horse of the Year but it has been six years since Curlin, then 4, won the Classic and the title. This looks like another streak waiting to be broken this season.

Christie flips again

I suppose some might feel I owe New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie an apology after I criticized his flip flop on allowing sports betting in his state last week (see previous column). Another way of looking at it is he owes me a thank you for the nudge, although I’m not vain enough to think he’s aware I exist.

In any case, Christie flipped again on the issue Monday. After saying it would not be right to defy federal law, after previously saying “Let them try to stop us,” Christie told New Jersey casinos and race tracks that they are free to begin taking bets on sports.

The fact that by next week four of Atlantic City’s 12 casinos will have shut down this year, at a reported cost of 8,000 jobs, undoubtedly motivated Christie’s latest change of heart.

It remains to be seen whether the gambling establishments can be up and running by this week’s NFL games but it’s a certainty they will have their sports betting windows open as soon as humanly possible.

An appeal by the various sports leagues is another sure thing. This could turn into a battle of friendly judges with the leagues finding some to support their position and New Jersey finding others to knock down any injunctions that might materialize. Apparently Christie is back in his “let them try to stop us” mode.

Speculation that the NFL might move to take the Giants and Jets out of the state and their new billion dollar stadium in the Meadowlands is so ridiculously out of the realm of possibility that it doesn’t even merit a rebuttal.

I can see where people who don’t live in or near New Jersey might dismiss this as “what’s in it for me?” But this is another of those “camel’s nose under the tent” issues. In other words, once the camel gets his nose under the tent, it’s only a matter of time until the whole camel is in the tent.

What’s happening with marijuana across the nation is an example. It started with medical marijuana being legalized in a few states. It quickly spread. Next recreational marijuana was legalized in Colorado and dozens of other states are looking at following suit.

In every case, the individual states have defied federal law without consequence.

If New Jersey is successful with sports betting, other states with budget woes (almost all of them) are sure to jump on the bandwagon.

A cynic might point out that Christie made his sports betting reversal on the anniversary of BridgeGate, the closing down of traffic lanes leading to the George Washington Bridge. The governor’s announcement was a savvy political move to push an unpleasant reminder off the top of the news.

Hopefully all the lanes of all the bridges leading from New York and other neighboring states to New Jersey will be open when the sports betting windows open. Traffic will be heavy.

Written by Tom Jicha

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