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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Friday, December 13, 2013

Grading Committee’s work is indefensible

The American Grading Committee treats Keeneland like a sacred cow while downgrading Calder's only Grade 1, the Princess Rooney, despite a stellar roster of competitors and winners. Its timing is also bad, doing this while elevating three Gulfstream stakes.

The American Graded Stakes Committee is the latest to kick Calder while it’s down.

The Princess Rooney, Calder’s only Grade 1 and the centerpiece of the Summit of Speed, has been downgraded to Grade 2. This arbitrary act is totally unjustifiable by traditional standards. The only conclusion is other considerations came into play. Draw your own conclusions.

Let’s look at the five most recent renewals of the Princess Rooney. Starship Truffles, winner of this past summer’s Princess Rooney, is the weakest of the bunch, a filly who got good at the perfect time. But runnerup Judy the Beauty came out of it to win the Turf Club of America and run second in the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint.

The Princess Rooney’s 2012 winner, Musical Romance, entered it as champion of the 2011 Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint. Prior to her win at Calder, Musical Romance ran second to Eclipse winner Groupie Doll in the Grade 1 Humana Distaff. Groupie Doll came out of that race to win three more stakes in a row, including the 2012 Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint.

Sassy Image, the 2011 Princess Rooney winner, came into it after taking the Winning Colors and Humana Distaff, in which Musical Romance was second. Also trailing Sassy Image home was Champagne D’Oro, who had Grade 1 wins in the Test and Acorn.

The 2010 winner, Jessica Is Back, rebounded with a third in the Grade 1 Ballerina. The show horse in that Princess Rooney, Dubai Majesty, won three of her next four, including the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint.

Game Face, who captured the 2009 Princess Rooney, next won the Honorable Miss at Saratoga. Prior to the Calder race, she had taken a couple of other graded stakes.

So in five years, the Princess Rooney has one less than stellar winner. If this necessitates a drop in grade, there would be scores of downgrades every year, not the 11 overall in the latest rankings, two from Grade 1.

Not one Hollywood Park stakes has been downgraded even though it is unknown which will even be contested in 2014.

Moreover, never let it be said that there are no sacred cows in racing. Not a single Keeneland race has been touched even though its roster of stakes winners is almost weightless since the track installed an artificial surface.

Nothing illustrates this better than the Blue Grass. Once a leading Kentucky Derby prep, its first three finishers over the past five years have been (2013) Java’s War, Palace Malice, Charming Kitten; (2012) Dullahan, Hansen, Gung Ho; (2011) Brilliant Speed, Twinspired, King Congie; (2010) Stately Victor, Paddy O’Prado, First Dude; (2009) General Quarters, Holdmeback, Massone.

Dullahan is the only winner to take another race of consequence, the Pacific Classic, also on a synthetic track, just as his only victory before the Blue Grass, the Breeders’ Futurity, was on fake dirt. Maybe it's time for a new category, Grade 1 Synthetic, just as we have Grade 1 Turf.

For the record, the Breeders’ Futurity and its filly counterpart, the Alcibiades, are two additional Grade 1 Keeneland stakes with a lackluster parade of winners, especially on dirt, since the track changed surfaces.

Palace Malice came out of this past spring’s Blue Grass to win the Belmont and Jim Dandy and finish second in the Jockey Club Gold Cup.

That’s pretty much it. Java’s War has not won another race. Brilliant Speed won a turf stakes. Stately Warrior won the Ontario Derby, also on kitty litter. General Quarters won the Woodford Reserve on turf.
The other Blue Grass in-the-money finishers have faded into obscurity. Yet nothing at Keeneland gets touched by the Graded Stakes Committee. Indefensible.

While the Graded Stakes Committee was giving the back of its hand to Calder, it was rewarding Gulfstream with the elevation of three stakes from Grade 3 to Grade 2—the Sabin, Holy Bull and Swale.
A cynic might interpret this as another segment of the racing industry picking sides in the ongoing conflict between the two South Florida tracks. However, two of the three Gulfstream stakes inarguably merited a kick upstairs. It's just the timing that raises eyebrows.

The last three Sabins have been won by Royal Delta and Awesome Maria twice. Enough said.

The Holy Bull went last winter to multiple stakes winner Itsmyluckyday, who went on to run second in the Florida Derby and Preakness. Algorithms, considered the leader of his generation until he was injured, got the money in 2012. Dialed In went on to win the Florida Derby in 2011.

The Swale is more of a borderline call. If it was going to be raised, it should have been last year, after Trinniberg went on to win the Breeders’ Cup Sprint, in addition to the Bay Shore and Woody Stephens.

This past spring’s winner, Clearly Now, has only a first in the Grade 3 Bold Ruler since, although he has been stakes-placed four other times.

The Swale’s case weakens when 2011 is included. Travelin Man’s subsequent credentials include only the ungraded Sir Shackleton twice and an allowance, all at Gulfstream.

Raising the Swale to Grade 2, now the same level as the Princess Rooney, gives ammunition to cynics who interpret it as another segment of the racing industry picking sides in the Battle of South Florida.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Saturday, December 07, 2013

Out-of-towners enjoy a big day in South Florida

Eleven stakes races were run Saturday in South Florida, the eight Claiming Crown events at Gulfstream as well as a pair of Grade 3's and a listed stakes at Calder. It was the most ever in one day in South Florida and shippers dominated, winning eight of them.

MIAMI, Dec. 7, 2013--People come to the Miami area for the sun and surf. Horses from all over the East and Midwest came for the cash on Saturday, the biggest stakes day ever in terms of numbers.
Eleven added-money races, eight Claiming Crown heats at Gulfstream and two Grade 3’s and a listed stakes at Calder were the most ever in one day locally. South Florida based horses generally do well in these situations. Not Saturday. Horses shipping in took home the money eight times.

It didn’t seem as if this was going to be the case early on. The first two Claiming Crown events, the Iron Lady and Glass Slipper, were won by Carolina Lizard and Centrique, respectively. Both had made their most recent starts at Calder.

Carolina Lizard was the day’s shocker at 35-1. If you had the presence of mind to use her in Gulfstream’s one-day-only, 10-cent Ultimate Eight, it wasn’t that difficult to come up with the rest for a $60,000 payoff.

The longest prices in the rest of the sequence were a pair of 5-1 shots. Three odds-on horses did their jobs as well as 8-5 and 7-2 shots.

Marty Wolfson, who’s lethal in South Florida stakes, ran 1-2 in the Glass Slipper but that was it for the home team at Gulfstream.

John Henry will always be the claim of the ages but Ribo Bobo is a 21st century version. Claimed by Jason Servis for $6,250 last March, the same price he had lost him for one race previously, Ribo Bobo won for the 10th time in 11 starts in 2013 in the Express. His only loss was in his most recent start at Penn National when he was beaten by multiple stakes winner Ben’s Cat.

Only someone having the kind of year Ken Ramsey is enjoying could win a pair of $125,000 stakes and have it described as a disappointing afternoon. Ramsey led Deanaallen’skitten, last seen at Aqueduct, into the winner’s circle for the Tiara and Major Marvel, who had won his sixth in a row at Churchill Downs, for the Emerald.

But this was only half as many as a year ago, when he won four Claiming Crown races and had a second and third in two others.

Ramsey tried to one-up himself with five starters but his Be Brave ran sixth behind Parx shipper Goodtimehadbyall in the Rapid Transit; Brother Bird was a distant seventh in the Iron Horse won by Indiana ship-in Point Finish and Bernie the Maestro was a disappointing sixth as the favorite in the Jewel, won by Aqueduct shipper Nevada Kid, ridden by Luis Saez. Earlier in the afternoon Saez had won the Fred W. Hooper with Csaba at Calder eight miles to the west.

Csaba saved the day for the locals as Speaking of Which, coming in from the Big A, and Valiant Girl, last seen at Keeneland, took the Tropical Turf Handicap and My Charmer, respectively.

For Csaba it was his ninth win in 12 Calder starts, including all three this year. "He’s a monster here,” jubilant trainer Phil Gleaves said.

You think?

Written by Tom Jicha

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Friday, December 06, 2013

Gulfstream-Calder battle reaches fever pitch

Gulfstream and Calder have been running against each other all summer and fall but they have not had a showdown like the one Saturday when Gulfstream presents the eight-race, million-dollar Claiming Crown and Calder counters with three legitimate stakes, two Grade 3 and one listed.

MIAMI, Dec. 6, 2013--Conventional wisdom was the Gulfstream-Calder war would never come to pass. There would be an 11th hour settlement. Even if there wasn’t, the conflict wouldn’t last longer than the U.S. invasion of Grenada before cooler heads prevailed.

The conventional wisdom—I was part of it—was wrong. Five months later, the conflict has taken on the feel of Vietnam, a conflict with no end in sight.

Strong-willed Frank Stronach is determined to make Gulfstream the realization of his long-stated obsession that race tracks, like other businesses, should be able to operate whenever they see fit. Florida, with no regulation of racing dates, offers the perfect venue. With pockets as deep as the Pacific, Stronach has demonstrated a willingness to spend whatever it takes to win this war, including drastically overpaying summer purses and building new stalls for 360 horses.

By most indicators, he is succeeding. Thanks to a superior national brand, Gulfstream out-handles Calder by as much as four-to-one when they race head-to-head. Horsemen, who were based at Calder for decades, switched their base eight miles east in shocking numbers. Gulfstream snatched the Stallion Stakes and Florida Million Day, former centerpieces of Calder’s season.

Nevertheless, Churchill Downs Inc., parent of Calder, has dug in its heels, refusing to be bullied out of existence. A major motivation is the necessity to run 80 days to keep the Calder and Tropical licenses and the slots license tied to them. So it has cut expenses to such an extent that it could continue the conflict indefinitely.

CDI better be prepared to do that. Gulfstream president Tim Ritvo said last week he plans to extend his track’s weekly agenda to at least three days next summer, maybe more. “We started with two days because we didn’t know how many horses would come over from Calder. Now that we’ve gotten more than even we hoped, we can fill more races. Horsemen have told us they need more than two days a week to get races for their horses.”

NYRA’s decision to run on Mondays through the winter provides Calder with an opportunity it would be unwise to pass on. Rather than operate Friday through Sunday, a switch to Saturday through Monday would give it a day when it could be the second most popular simulcast signal in the nation.

NYRA being open on Mondays figures to lure bigger crowds to simulcast venues. With roughly a half-hour between Aqueduct races, players will be looking for something else to bet. Calder, with its glorious winter weather and familiar trainers and jockeys, would be a natural to fill that void against the likes of Parx and Turf Paradise.

The status quo alternative is to buck Gulfstream, the Fair Grounds, Santa Anita and Oaklawn on Fridays.

Getting back to this Saturday and extending the Vietnam analogy, it is the equivalent of the Tet offensive. Outside the three occasions when Gulfstream hosted the Breeders’ Cup, there has never been a day in South Florida racing like it. Both tracks have offered competing stakes on many Saturdays but the majority were stakes in name only, with high caliber allowance horses dominating over-matched claimers.

Calder is presenting three legitimate stakes, the Grade 3 Tropical Turf Handicap and My Charmer and the listed Fred W. Hooper.

Across town, Gulfstream stages the eight-race, million dollar Claiming Crown for the second time. Last season it produced one of the biggest days of the season.

Last December’s Claiming Crown was a precursor to the monster 2013 enjoyed by Ken and Sarah Ramsey. They entered six of the seven races (one more has been added this season) and won four with a second and a third.

A few weeks ago, Ramsey was asked how many he hoped to win this year. “All of them,” he said in characteristic fashion. He won’t do that. He has entries in only five; four favorites and a second choice.

Ramsey's red-and-white silks could sweep the late pick 4 with Deanallen’s Kitten in the Tiara; defending champion Brother Bird, a half to Mine That Bird, in the Iron Horse; Major Marvel, who missed by a head last year, in the Emerald and Bernie the Maestro, who won the 2012 Rapid Transit and attempts the Jewel this season.

One thing you know when you bet a Ramsey horse. You have the owner as a partner. You have to love a guy who wants to win every time as badly as he does.

The December page of the 2013 Gulfstream calendar has a photo of Team Valor’s Howe Great winning the Palm Beach Stakes. I smile every time I look at it.

Gulfstream has an elevated stand near the finish line, which is used by the media to watch feature races because it offers quick access to the winner’s circle. Some owners, including Ramsey, also occasionally watch races from this perch.

When the Palm Beach entries was drawn, Howe Great wound up in one of the most enviable positions in racing. A confirmed front runner, he was the lone speed.

Ramsey had Coalport, who needed someone to soften Howe Great on the front end to have any chance. It was obvious this wasn’t going to happen. The colorful Ramsey started cursing his fate from the moment he arrived on the stand--probably long before that--throughout Howe Great’s uncontested gallop on the lead and until the horses went under the wire.

The Palm Beach was a relatively minor early season stakes but you would have thought it was the Kentucky Derby or Breeders’ Cup Classic from Ramsey’s reaction. “I’ll never run against that horse again without a rabbit,” was one of his printable outbursts.

I’m smiling as a write this and I'm going to smile again when I write down Ramsey’s name on my Eclipse ballot as owner and breeder of the year.

Written by Tom Jicha

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