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, December 10, 2015

Racing invites new ideas but probably will ignore them

A program at this year's racing convention in Arizona invited people involved in the game to contribute 45 ideas in 45 minutes. The limited time frame allotted is likely indicative of the attention the suggestions are likely to get from racing's powers-that-be. But suggestions were made that deserve serious scrutiny. The guess is HRI readers also have some of their own.

MIAMI, Dec. 10, 2015--The racing industry came up with a novel idea for its annual convention in Arlzona, a gathering notable for the lack of novel ideas it has produced over the years.

Five people from various facets of racing were challenged to come up with nine ideas apiece. The panel included Steve Byk of radio’s “At the Races”; Darryl Kaplan of “Trot” magazine; Steve Koch, executive director of the TRA Safety and Integrity Alliance; Peter Rotondo, vice president of media and entertainment for the Breeders’ Cup; and Amy Zimmerman, director of broadcasting for The Stronach Group.

Do you notice a glaring absence? None of these people primarily speaks for the fan. Where was a representative of HANA? How about Andy Asaro? Or John Pricci? My guess is the swells didn’t want to hear their ideas.

That this was primarily public relations theater, which based on past performance was going to be paid little heed, can be gleaned from the session’s title, “45 Ideas in 45 Minutes.”

If a panelist had, hypothetically speaking, come up with an idea so brilliant it would propel horse racing past the National Football League in popularity, it was still going to get 60 seconds, the same allotment as the suggestion that racing bid to be included in the Olympic Games.

Not all the ideas were new, which doesn’t mean they don’t warrant further discussion. Byk brought up uniform reporting of payoffs (50 cents, $1 and $2, depending on the wager). JP and I have been championing this for years.

When I heard about this exercise, I composed a list of some of my own ideas before I read the ones offered to see how my thinking coincides with those invited to speak. So there is some duplication.

Near the top of my roster is one that feeds off the uniform payoff reports. Fractional betting has proven its popularity beyond dispute. The $1 Pick 6 at the Breeders’ Cup substantially outhandled last year’s $2 minimum. Fifty-cent pick 4’s at NYRA tracks outhandle $2 Pick 6’s. With most betting now being done via self automated machines and computers, there is no reason to continue to enforce arbitrary minimums.There also is no longer a defense for breakage.

Uniformity among tracks is a must if for no other reason than to alleviate confusion among simulcast bettors. What explanation can there be for Frank Stronach’s Laurel to offer 50-cent pick 3’s but not to extend this to Stronach’s Gulfstream and Santa Anita, where $1 is the minimum. Also, $1 daily doubles can be made at Laurel and Gulfstream but not at Santa Anita. I'd love to hear the explanation.

I’m also in accord with a suggestion from Koch. He brought up the idea of a centralized group of officials, who would rule on inquiries and objections from around the nation. Hiring people with vast experience in racing would take it out of the hands of what are at many venues political hacks or friends of track management.

The NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball have such a system in place, but what do they know?

Despite the “let’s get it right” justification in team sports, those making the decisions still err on occasion. So bad calls would still occur but hopefully less frequently. If nothing else, this would remove cries that decisions at the local level are made to create or protect jackpot payoffs.

Zimmerman came out in favor of extending this to full transparency, allowing cameras into the stewards stand while potential disqualifications are being deliberated. This is another one that was on my list.

If I had been asked, I also would have suggested:

Curtailing (or ideally ending) rebates by raising the simulcasting rate for facilities with no connections to a race track, essentially internet sites, to a level where it is not fiscally viable to offer kickbacks. Lots of businesses offer better deals to big customers but these discounts do not directly come out of the pockets of the general public. When the rebate guys punch a horse down from 2-1 to even money, because their klckback compensates for the lower price, the $2 player gets screwed of half his profit.

This also would curtail the suspicion that computer players are able to bet after the gate has been sprung. Tracks are adamant this is not the case. They would have been just as adamant before the Breeders’ Cup Fix Six scandal.

You would have to be Social Security age—alas, many players are--to remember an old supermarket game in which people could win money or prizes matching tickets based on old races shown on TV once a week. Bring it back. Self interest is a great motivator to get people interested in racing.

Some might find the sport so exciting that they would visit a track for the real thing. Along these lines, tickets should be redeemable for admission, parking, a program or some other perk at the local track.

An innovation at Saratoga last summer, a low buy-in handicapping contest, should be widely imitated. This gives people with limited disposable income a chance to experience the thrill of the big money tournaments.

If attracting a younger demographic and newcomers to the game is a serious goal, a day at the races has to be made more affordable. Every time a track offers dollar sodas, hot dog and beers, attendance swells. Apparently nothing is learned.

A buck might be too low to generate satisfactory revenue but $3 beers and $2 sodas and hot dogs would still produce nice profits. Why is it tracks can’t understand that they will make more money selling a customer three beers at $3 apiece or two hot dogs at $2 than selling none of either at $6 each? Perceived value is crucial in marketing. (Gulfstream has $2 beers at certain bars and it must be doing well because it has endured season to season.)

In a related issue, something has to be done about the Racing Form now costing more than $10, depending on where and when it is purchased. I’ve unfortunately been involved in the closing of a couple of newspapers, so I understand the financial challenges print publications face. But $10 is a killer.

The less expensive Equibase program is a step in the right direction but the way the game is played now, with simulcasting from all over, a lot of players need two or even three of these. This wipes out any savings.

Las Vegas racebooks have a no-frills “Players Edition,” with only past performances, for a $5 cover price. I’m sure the race books subsidize this but if they can do it, so can tracks, especially those with casinos attached.

Another lesson to be learned from casinos is reduced takeout keeps people in the game longer. Except for the hardcore, racing fans are seeking entertainment and fun. The longer they get to play, the more likely they are to return. Unfortunately, this is probably a non-starter until rebates are ended.

Horse Race Insider readers regularly impress with their contributions in the comments section. Surely some of you have ideas of your own. The floor is open.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, December 03, 2015

Gulfstream opens its winter season with a player’s delight

Gulfstream kicks off its championship winter season Saturday with the Claiming Crown, an event that fulfills bettors fondness for full fields with plenty of price opportunities. The nine races have drawn 121 entries with the smallest field being 10. A couple of new rainbow-chasing bets, a rolling Hi 5 and a second Pick 5 on the opening five races of each card, have been added to the betting menu.

MIAMI, Dec. 3, 2015—“There’s no beginning, there’ll be no end…” is not only a verse from the old pop ballad Love Is All Around, it’s a description of America’s national racing scene.

Year-round racing has eradicated any sense of a roundly recognized opening and closing day of the season. The Eclipse Awards might be the only entity that recognizes a Jan. 1-Dec. 31 season. Every locale has its own parameters.

Few are bigger than opening day of Gulfstream’s championship season Saturday. Thanks to the positioning of the Claiming Crown as the inaugural event, it might be one of the best betting days of the year. The series dedicated to the blue collar heroes of racing has grown to nine races worth more than a million dollars cumulatively in purses.

Bettors love full fields and few days deliver better than the Claiming Crown. The shortest field is 10 for the Iron Horse. Fourteen or more passed through the entry box for five of the nine stakes, each worth in excess of $100,000.

The name is somewhat deceptive. To qualify, a horse must have run for a designated claiming price during the previous two seasons. But the fields are littered with shrewd claims, who advanced upward to the stakes ranks.

“The Rapid Transit is good enough to be a Grade 3,” said P.J. Campo, director of racing for The Stronach Group and Gulfstream general manager. Indeed, defending champion Grande Shores is likely to be no better than third choice behind multiple New York stakes-winner Stallwalkin’ Dude, who was third in the Grade 1 Vosburgh, and Trouble Kid, who knocked out a loaded field in the Gallant Bob on the Pennsylvania Derby undercard then finished first in the DeFrancis Dash, only to be disqualified.

Campo, a former racing secretary at NYRA, is loving life since coming to Gulfstream. “I’ve learned more in the last two years here than I did in my 15 years in New York.” Where he formerly concerned himself with filling races, he now has to oversee the racing program, a casino and The Village, the mall built around the racetrack. A water park is soon to come.

A couple of Claiming Crown defending champions also are back: Loverbil, winner of the 2014 Express, and St. Borealis, who got the money a year ago in the Tiara.

Gulfstream has resuscitated the Claiming Crown, an admirable concept, which was in its death throes as it drifted around the country. The key was scheduling it as the focal point of opening day. In spite of almost year-round racing, the start of Gulfstream's winter meeting endures as an anticipated event.

This is the final year of the Claiming Crown’s four-year contract with Gulfstream but Campo is confident a new deal will be worked out. “The timing (in late December when tracks up north are shutting down for the winter) is good and everyone loves to come to Florida.”

Another key factor is Gulfstream has streamlined the nominating process so that owners and trainers don’t have to put up fees until a few weeks before the event. At one point, nominations had to be made during the summer. The connections of claimers don’t even know if a horse will still be in their barn that far down the road.

The Claiming Crown epitomizes Gulfstream’s refusal to rest on its laurels. There was no shortage of potential life-changing jackpot pools when Tim Ritvo came up with the Rainbow Six, a unique concept in which the full pool was distributed only when there was a single winner. Some jackpots have exceeded a million dollars and drawn the attention of bettors nationwide. Detractors, including some of the most prominent names in the gambling world, scoffed but the Rainbow Six not only is an indisputable success, it has been widely emulated.

A couple of new wagers with the potential for breath-taking payoffs have been added to the menu: a rolling Hi 5, starting with the first race, and a second Pick 5 on races 1-5. Both had test rollouts at the Gulfstream West meeting. A third experiment at GPW, a $5 quiniela on the final race of each day’s card, will not be continued.

Gulfstream has reached out to its sister tracks in Maryland and NYRA to bring in a couple of the industry’s most respected closed-circuit analysts, Gabby Gaudet and Andy Serling. While closely identified with New York racing, Serling knows the Gulfstream terrain. Before his NYRA duties kept him in the frozen north, he used to be a Gulfstream winter regular as a bettor. Those who got to know him offered a player’s ultimate accolade: “He’s got a really good opinion.”

A not insignificant side benefit of NYRA granting Serling a leave of absence during January and February is an agreement between the tracks to make every effort to stagger post times so that the most popular winter signals in the East don’t wind up having races break from the gate in frustratingly close proximity. Players, including this one, have been pleading for this accommodation for years.

Campo said he’ll also make an effort to bring Stronach owned Santa Anita into this pattern. Given California’s notorious, “We are the center of the universe” attitude, this might be easier said than done.

The Claiming Crown is only the start for Gulfstream. Multiple stakes, many of them graded, are scheduled for most Saturdays.

There also is the traditional rollout of Classic hopefuls. Orb came to Gulfstream a one-for-four maiden winner in 2013. He won all three Gulfstream starts, including the Fountain of Youth and Florida Derby, en route to capturing the Kentucky Derby. Big Brown had won only one race, on the grass at Saratoga, before he took the Florida Derby path to the Churchill Downs winner’s circle in 2008.

For the first time in memory, Todd Pletcher, 12-time Gulfstream training champion, is coming south for the winter without one of the big-time prospects for the spring classics. “Don’t worry,” Campo said. “He’ll come up with some.”

History backs this. Materiality and Constitution each came to Florida as an unraced maiden and left Gulfstream as Florida Derby winners. Coincidentally, both won their debuts on Jan. 11.

Until last weekend, it appeared the strength of the Derby generation was going to be based on the West Coast. Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner Nyquist, Swipe, the colt who has chased him home four straight times, and Exaggerator, winner of the Delta Jackpot, are all stabled at Santa Anita.

However, the undefeated Mohaymen ran his record to three-for-three with an eye-catching score in the Remsen on Saturday. The same day, Airoforce, whose only blemish in his first three starts, all on grass, was a second in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf, came from off the pace to win his main track debut in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes.

Both will be at Gulfstream this winter with the April 2 Florida Derby circled on their calendar.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, November 26, 2015

The (Derby) future is now; avoid Spa winners

The first round of Kentucky Derby futures is this weekend with another ridiculous pool added--the sire of the Derby winner. Nyquist is a deserving early favorite for the Run for the Roses but he'll have to prove a son of Uncle Mo can get 10 furlongs. Exaggerator also looked promising in winning the Delta Jackpot last weekend. However, he is bucking a trend that indicates Saratoga might be the launch pad for future champions but not Kentucky Derby winners.

MIAMI, Nov. 26, 2015--Nyquist is a deserving de facto favorite for next spring’s Kentucky Derby. At the comparable stage of their careers, his juvenile accomplishments are similar to American Pharoah in some areas, superior in others.

Both won the Del Mar Futurity and the Front Runner Stakes. But Nyquist broke his maiden at first asking while American Pharoah ran fifth in his debut. Nyquist prepped for the Futurity with a win in the Best Pal. Racing’s newest Triple Crown winner went straight from his first start into the Futurity. Nyquist followed up on the Front Runner by capturing the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, the most important race for 2-year-olds. American Pharoah was sidelined with an injury after the Front Runner.

Nevertheless I won’t be investing in Nyquist in this weekend’s first round of Kentucky Derby future wagering. I won’t be investing in anything six months out. But if I was, it wouldn’t be on Nyquist. I’ll have to be shown that an offspring of Uncle Mo can get 10 furlongs.

(To digress slightly, is there a dumber bet than the new future wager on the sire of the Kentucky Derby winner? Next, there’ll be a future on the winning post position, which, come to think of it would be preferable to the current ones because there wouldn’t be an “all others” at odds-on.)

For those who can’t resist futures, another logical contender at this point, Exaggerator, is up against the tide of history. After Exaggerator captured last Saturday’s Delta Jackpot, it was noted he had won this past summer’s Saratoga Special. This led me to what I think is an astonishing factoid.

One of the joys of each Saratoga season is the rollout of highly regarded 2-year-olds. The potential is there for a future champion to emerge on any given day. Many have. What hasn’t come out of Saratoga’s big three stakes—the Special, the Stanford and the Hopeful—very often are Derby winners.

It will be 32 years next spring since Swale wore the roses after winning one of the Spa’s juvenile stakes. The 1984 Derby and Belmont winner grabbed the trophy for the Saratoga Special the previous summer.

American Pharoah ended a 37-year drought between Triple Crown champions. The last one to do it was Affirmed in 1978. Amazingly, Affirmed also is the last horse to win the Kentucky Derby after winning the Hopeful, the most prestigious of Saratoga’s stakes for 2-year-olds. He took the Sanford and Hopeful in 1977.

This doesn’t mean a future Derby winner can’t come out of Saratoga. Just don’t look in the Spa's winner’s circle. I’ll Have Another ran sixth in the 2011 Hopeful. Orb was third in an MSW in 2012 and Super Saver was second in an MSW in 2009.

The most recent Derby winner to take a race at Saratoga as a juvenile is almost a trick question. It was Big Brown in 2007…but his MSW victory was on the turf. I went bleary-eyed trying to find the last Derby winner who had won on the dirt as a 2-year-old at Saratoga. Suffice it to say, it hasn’t happened in this millennium.

RIP Calder

This weekend marks the end of the casino-preserving meeting at Calder dubbed Gulfstream West. Let’s hope there never is another one. This could come to reality if the Florida legislature approves decoupling pari-mutuels and slots and poker operations this coming spring.

In any case, this season will be the last with the Calder grandstand in place. Demolition, which has already begun on the interior, will begin in earnest after the final race on Saturday.

Meanwhile, racing fans have been subjected to some of the most abusive conditions imaginable. Like most players, I’ve used the mother Gulfstream facility (as has the boss) for my action the past two months. This despite each of us living closer and with easier access to the live racing at Calder. It’s that bad.

Last Saturday, duty forced me to go for the first and only time this season to cover the pair of graded stakes. It was the worst day I ever spent at a racetrack. (No sour grapes. I made a very small it-beats-losing profit on the four races I endured.)

To be clear, none of this is Gulfstream’s fault. It is doing the best it can under extreme circumstances, which Churchill Downs Inc., owner of Calder, has made as impossible as it can.

The building has been totally shut off to the public. Last year, the first floor was open for shelter from the heat and rain. This season, there are a couple of tents on the track apron for the public, with SAM machines and a few tellers. Another under-sized tent, without betting facilities, was constructed near the paddock for owners and trainers. A single over-burdened clerk with a hand-held device is the only avenue to bet for the people who put on the show.

When it’s not raining as it was Saturday, the only relief from the blazing heat are a few under-sized fans. “You should be here when it’s 90 degrees,” someone offered, rolling his eyes.

Meanwhile, the tents for the public became so over-crowded with people trying to stay dry in monsoon conditions it was almost impossible to push through to the betting machines.

Churchill also shut off the infield toteboard/video screen. “They wanted to charge a small fortune for us to use it,” an insider revealed. Gulfstream rolled in a couple of big screen video monitors on the apron to complement the TV sets in the tents.

Churchill is an equal-opportunity abuser. The media is treated as shabbily as the fans. Another ramification of the building being shut off is I had to write my story in what is now the bare bones racing office. The wi-fi is so spotty and undependable I finally threw up my hands and raced home, 30 miles, to file my story. The upside was it got me out of the joint earlier than usual.

The outrageous aspect of this is Churchill is the one benefitting the most from this sham meeting. Gulfstream would spare itself a world of inconvenience and expenses if it didn’t have to move everything across town for two months. This is the price it had to pay to get Calder to stop racing head-to-head.

Without the Gulfstream West meeting, Churchill couldn’t keep its slot license under current law. That this has been allowed to happen is a disgrace.

Written by Tom Jicha

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