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, May 19, 2015

NYRA Making Its Own History

A decision by the New York Racing Association based on business considerations, with customer comfort as a guise, will make Belmont Park on June 6 the first racetrack in history to turn away customers. In an era where tracks try to attract a few more fans by concocting every promotion imaginable, almost all of which have little to do with racing, NYRA is willing to say you're not welcome to 20,000 to 30,000 fans, attracted by, of all things, racing. A crowd in excess of 100,000 will make things uncomfortable, but this is not what this is about. NYRA is trying to guarantee it can sell 90,000 tickets in advance for years when a Triple Crown is not at stake.

NEW YORK, May 19, 2015--History will be made at Belmont Park on June 6.

This isn’t a Joe Namath style guarantee that American Pharoah will complete the first sweep of the Triple Crown in 37 years. That’s where my heart is but the Triple Crown has been won 11 times. What’s going to happen at Belmont on June 6 will be a first. Never before has a racetrack anywhere turned away customers.

The insanity of NYRA’s decision to cap Belmont Stakes Day attendance at 90,000 is almost beyond words in stupidity and deserves condemnation from every facet of the racing industry. Tracks stage T-shirt days, food truck days, $1 beer days and every other manner of promotion in an effort to get people through the gate.

Thanks to American Pharoah, NYRA has the opportunity to draw more fans than have ever witnessed racing in New York—and the lure will be a horse in search of historical achievement, not gimmicks. More than 102,000 turned out last year hoping to see California Chrome break the Triple Crown drought.

To put into perspective how many more are within reach for American Pharoah’s bid, California Chrome drew 123,469 to last year’s Preakness. American Pharoah lured 131,680 this year. With the promise of the strongest field in recent memory, a record 170,000-plus showed up at Churchill Downs on Derby Day.

NYRA professes that its decision is based on customer comfort. Nonsense. People didn’t clear the parking lots in Louisville or Baltimore for hours after the last race. They knew this would be the case when they made the decision to attend. It didn’t discourage them.

To clarify, certainly an untold number opted against bucking the throngs and traffic. But a record number at both venues decided this was a special opportunity worth the aggravation. This is how it should be. Let people decide instead of making a paternalistic decision that you know what is better for them than they do.

With Belmont’s mammoth building and enormous backyard it is a failure of planning if NYRA can't devise ways to accomodate them. Granted NYRA doesn’t open the infield. This raises the question, why not? If Churchill and Pimlico can install temporary betting windows and portable toilets, why can’t Belmont?

Parking and public transportation would be nightmares but they are in Louisville and in the vicinity of Pimlico. This didn’t discourage record turnouts for the Derby and Preakness. Again, warn the fans then let them make their own decision. A post-race concert, which NYRA is staging, is one way to spread out the exit strategies of fans.

New York, “the Big Apple,” takes pride in doing things bigger and better than any place else. NYRA’s Belmont Stakes cap is a concession that in this instance it is content to be the Little Raisin.

Truth is, the 90,000 limit is not based on customer consideration. It is a business decision by the Toy Man. Belmont Stakes Day tickets have been on sale for months. The cap wasn’t announced until a few days before the Preakness. Maybe advance sales weren't matching expectations. Nothing drives demand more than scarcity. So an incentive to buy early, before the potential of a Triple Crown bid was sealed, was devised. Absent a Triple Crown possibility 90,000 is a pipe dream.

From strictly a business perspective, it is in NYRA’s interest to turn away tens of thousands of fans this year. It would incentivize fans to buy early in subsequent years, months before anyone knows who would even contest the Derby-Preakness-Belmont series. The idea is to guarantee 90,000 every year even at the expense of alienating fans this year.

I watched the Preakness at the Meadowlands simulcast facility. When American Pharoah crossed the wire, many were saying aloud that they were going to Belmont on June 6. When I burst their bubble with news of the cap, I was called a bleepin' idiot, who didn't know what I was talking about. Fortunately I had the proof on my i{Phone. The reaction of some of them--young guys who are racing's No.1 demographic target--wouldn't have been acceptable in Fifty Shades of Gray, let alone this column. NYRA has ticked off a lot of people, likely more when race day arrives.

Another indication that business comes before fans is NYRA’s announcement right after the Preakness that tickets for the Belmont would not be available at the Belmont Park box office. They must fear being overwhelmed by the 2,000-3,000 fans, who show up on normal race days.

For as long as they remain available, Belmont tickets can only be purchased through Ticketron, which should do business wearing a mask. I went to the site and the markup is $4.50 on a $15 general admission ticket. That’s 30%. Way to treat your fans, NYRA.

There is still time for NYRA to do the right thing and reverse itself while protecting its business in future years.. An easy face-saver is at hand. “In light of the fact that there is such overwhelming interest in American Pharoah’s attempt to capture racing’s most elusive prize and the fact that we didn’t announce the cap until late in the game, we are suspending the limit for this year only. However, for future Belmont Stakes, the 90,000 cap will be in place.”

It owes this to horsemen, fans and every track in America that knocks themselves out with promotions in the often futile hope that they can attract new fans.

I have a final question. Let’s be optimistic and assume American Pharoah completes the first Triple Crown sweep since 1978. In the winner’s circle Bob Baffert announces his champion is going to get a two-month break and be pointed toward the Travers. Does NYRA institute a cap at Saratoga, too? It would be odds-on that the biggest crowd ever to descend upon the Spa would want to be there.

If NYRA gets away with it on June 6, you can bet on it.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Preakness Suffers From Middle Child Syndrome

MIAMI, May 12, 2015--The Preakness' suffers from middle child syndrome. From the moment juveniles start coming to the fore each summer at Saratoga and Del Mar, owners, trainers, the media and fans begin speculating about which ones might be "Derby horses." No one talks about "Preakness horses" until the herd has been culled just before the Run for the Roses.

These late developers and non-Derby qualifiers almost never win the second jewel of the Triple Crown. It's only been done twice since 2001. Both were the result of extraordinary circumstances.

Super filly Rachel Alexandra, who opted for the Kentucky Oaks over the Derby, outfinished Mine That Bird, who never won another race after his Derby upset in 2009, and Bernadini won the ill-fated 2006 renewal in which then unbeaten Barbaro suffered his fatal injuries.

This year’s candidates include Divining Rod, winner of a weak Lexington, Tesio winner Budhisattva and Tale of Verve, with only a maiden win. Any of them remind you of Rachel Alexandra or Bernadini?

Meanwhile, owners and trainers, who reach for justifications to run in the Derby and finish up the track, stretch just as hard to find reasons not to run back in Baltimore.

Todd Pletcher, who runs more horses in the Derby than anyone, almost never brings one back in the Preakness. Reportedly,Materiality and Stanford from the three Pletcher ran in Louisville are still under consideration for the Preakness. If Materiality goes he has a shot off his nightmate trip in Louisville but it will be out of character for Pletcher to drop him into the entry box on Wednesday.

It appears that the only other Derby starter other than the Big Three-American Pharoah, Firing Line and Dortmund—who is going to run back is Danzig Moon. Anyone afraid of him?

For sure, the Preakness would get a few more of the top tier of 3-year-olds if it were run a month or longer after the Derby. But is it worth upsetting a century and a half of tradition to pick up a few Derby also-rans? If not for tradition, the middle jewel of the Triple Crown wouldn't be run at the spithole that is Pimlico. Tim Ritvo is likely to do the right thing within the next few years and move it to Laurel.

I am not advocating it and it isn't going to happen but if the Triple Crown were fair and based on contemporary racing, one of the three races would be at Santa Anita. Three of the last four Derby winners and the first three finishers this year are Southern California based.

It isn’t just the Preakness that gets short changed with the two-week turnaround. The Kentucky Oaks got Alciabides winner Lovely Maria, Louisiana Oaks champion I’m a Chatterbox, Gulfstream Oaks victor Birdatthewire and Santa Anita Oaks winner Stellar Wind .The Black Eyed Susan is getting none of them.

The lack of the cream of the crop coming back from Derby weekend to run in the Preakness supporting stakes is another thing that grates the folks at Pimlico.

It's not like being the middle component of the Triple Crown doesn't have a big upside. Barring injury, which thankfully has not often reared its ugly head, the Preakness always gets racing's newest star, the Derby winner, the only horse still alive to capture the Triple Crown.

Pimlico will get its hundred thousand-plus fans Saturday. Forbes magazine reported that in the first four days after American Pharoah lived up to his billing in Louisville, ticket prices for the Preakness skyrocketed 39 percent, an indicator of the heightened interest in this year's race.

What’s wrong with that? If American Pharoah comes up short Saturday, Belmont ticket prices are likely to plunge more than 39 percent.

Remember when a super Met Mile looked like it could serve as a life saver in the event a Triple Crown wasn’t on the line? Shared Belief is out for the year. Honor Code got beat in Louisville. Palace Malice lran third in his
return on Sunday. Tonalist is a really nice horse but he’s not a crowd magnet.

NYRA has to hold its breath rooting for American Pharoah to keep a Triple Crown possibility alive for the Belmont. The difference is only tens of millions of dollars, which could affect the color of the ink when the year-end financials are tabulated.

The most curious decision of Triple Crown season is NYRA’s capping of the Belmont Stakes crowd at 90,000, especially in light of the record of more than 170,000 at Churchill Downs and the possibility of another record
crowd, well over 100,000 at Pimlico.

Last year more than 102,000 showed up at Belmont for California Chrome’s bid for a Triple Crown. Some of them are still waiting at the Belmont station for their Long Island Railroad ride home. NYRA has been saying for months that working with the LIRR, this problem has been resolved. Obviously it hasn’t been.

Then again, the easiest way to create a demand for something is to limit the supply. The Belmont Stakes cap forces the hand of those wavering about buying tickets. If they wait for the Preakness result, they could be shut out. Those shut out this year are more likely to purchase early in subsequent years.

You have to like American Pharoah’s chances in Baltimore. Bob Baffert has said he considers the Preakness the easiest of the Triple Crown races.

American Pharoah’s stock rose Saturday without him leaving the barn. Madefromlucky toyed with four opponents in the Peter Pan. He loafed toward the rear until starting his move on the far turn. At the top of the stretch, he still had only one horse beaten. But once in gear, he ran past the pack as if they were tied to a pole.

In his two previous starts, in the Rebel and Arkansas Derby, Madefromlucky was not in the same zip code with American Pharoah. So much for the theory that the Derby winner was beating nothing in the preps.

The game is still about betting, so it’s hard to get excited about an odds-on favorite.But there are plenty of races to make decisions for the pocket. For the good of the game, I’ll be rooting hard Saturday for American Pharoah.I’ll be surprised if I’m disappointed.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Derby’s a brief antidote to all that ails racing

Racing has its problems but a dying sport? Hardly. The TV ratings for Saturday's Kentucky Derby were spectacular, substantially higher than TV's most popular shows. The interest is there. Racing's challenge is to find a way to sustain it beyond the Triple Crown.

MIAMI, May 5, 2015--The Kentucky Derby is a beautiful thing. No matter what else ails racing—there is plenty—but on the first Saturday in May, everything is beautiful.

It’s more beautiful when a potential superstar like American Pharoah lives up to the hype and comes through like a champion. He’s the kind of horse who can capture the attention and hearts of America, just what racing needs.

Apparently he’s well on his way to doing that. For those who dismiss racing as a dying sport, I would point to the TV ratings for this year’s Derby. The preliminary rating for Saturday’s telecast was 10.8, the highest in 23 years.

To put the 10.8 rating into perspective, the final day of the Masters, the “tradition unlike any other,” which CBS begins pumping as soon as Santa is back at the North Pole, pulled an 8.7 rating.

The Derby shines even brighter when compared to the most popular prime time shows. For the week of April 20-26, the most recent available, the only program that out-rated the Derby’s 10.8 was the “I am woman” Bruce Jenner interview by Diane Sawyer. It registered 11.1.

The second highest rated program was The Big Bang Theory, the most popular comedy on TV, at 8.9. 60 Minutes registered 6.7. Grey’s Anatomy, the episode in which Dr. Dreamy cashed it in, did 6.5.

So the Derby ratings were superior to everything but a once-in-a-decade sensationalistic special. Moreover, the Derby aired pre-prime time when the audience level is substantially lower, especially on a glorious day like it was in most of the country on Saturday.The amazing thing is it sustained this rating in spite of the show being much too long. Three and a half hours around one race--the Turf Classic was barely acknowledged--is too much. NBC tried hard and succeeded often but couldn't avoid long stretches of nothingness. A rundown of the major preps would have been useful, especially for casual racing fans, who make up the bulk of the audience.

The Derby has established it’s a ready-for-prime-time player. The only question is when this is going to happen. The Breeders’ Cup Classic is in prime time and it captures only about 20 percent of the Derby’s TV audience. NBC has to be salivating at the prospect of having the No. 1 show of the week in prime time during the May ratings sweeps month.

Churchill Down has lights, so darkness is not an issue and the rest of the terrific supporting card would still be run in daylight. Repositioning the Derby post from 6:40 to 8:40 would make the race more accessible to a wider TV audience and would eliminate the necessity to begin the marathon Derby card at 10:30 a.m.—7:30 on the West Coast.

Getting back to American Pharoah, I mentioned in my Derby preview that I was concerned about his longevity because of the leg injury, which took him out of action for six months. As I wrote, Bob Baffert has not been characteristically forthcoming about the injury.

Baffert also has been exceedingly low key about American Pharoah racing with a bar shoe, a fact that was under-emphasized in the racing media. As a member, I’ll share blame. Truth is, I was caught unaware until a few minutes before post-time on Saturday. Given the aggressiveness of those who comment on this site (God bless them), I have to think I wasn’t the only one. Not one commentator I read brought it up in assessing the race.

In any event, this is an indication that whatever was wrong hasn’t been completely alleviated. It would be a shame to have a superstar have his career cut short due to injury, or worse. Racing needs another big star. It doesn’t need another Barbaro.

Pletcher bashers are know-nothings

Three more out-of-the-money finishes in the Derby are sure to bring out the worst among the Todd Pletcher bashers. Pletcher’s Derby cumulative record is now 1-43, which is misleading and unfair. He has entered multiple starters on many occasions but he has taken part in only 15 Derbys and won with Super Saver in 2010.

This is still a dismal less than 7% but the Derby is arguably America’s toughest race to win even for some of the greatest trainers ever to walk a shedrow. Charlie Whittingham didn’t capture his first Derby until he was 73. Bobby Frankel never won one. Bill Mott is still looking for his first. Anyone want to knock them?

It’s a challenge to even get to the Derby, so the fact that Pletcher has been able to get so many 3-year-olds to Louisville on the first Saturday in May should be a badge of distinction.

But the people who put others on a pedestal solely for the opportunity to knock them off love to put down Pletcher for his Derby resume. All praise to Bob Baffert for winning the race--running one-three in fact-- that every horse person covets. But let’s take a look at the entire Derby weekend.

On Friday, Baffert started only two, Callback and Enchanting Lady, in the Eight Belles. Callback was second at 5-1. Enchanting Lady checked in ninth at 5-2. (Surprise! The longer Baffert ran better.)

The same afternoon, Pletcher took the third, an allowance, with Curalina. Three races later Feathered won the Grade 3 Edgewood. In the 8th, the Grade 2 Alysheba, Protonico outran 9-5 Honor Code.

Pletcher’s Sweet Whiskey ran off the board in the LaTroienne, as did Eskenformoney and Angela Renee, both 21-1 shots, in the Oaks. But three wins, two in graded stakes, on one of racing’s biggest afternoons is a career highlight for most trainers.

Saturday brought more of the same. Baffert’s day began with Cat Burglar running second at even-money in the fourth race. In the fifth, his Gimme De Lute and Lord Nelson were third and fourth, respectively. The winner? Pletcher’s Competitive Edge.

In the seventh, the Grade 1 Humana Distaff, Pletcher’s Dame Dorothy out-gamed Eclipse champion Judy the Beauty. He also got a third with Sandiva in the Grade 1 Distaff Turf Mile and a second with Jack Milton in the Grade 1 Turf Classic.

Baffert fired the weekend’s biggest dud, Bayern. The Breeders’ Cup Classic winner ran last of six at 4-5 in the Grade 2 Churchill Downs.

However, Baffert won the Big One, earning all the praise he is getting.

Anyone who uses only the Derby to knock Pletcher is one of those people you never want to get stuck sitting next to at a bar or simulcast site.

Uniformity? What a joke

Anyone hoping for nationwide uniform rules, especially as they relate to race day medication, is probably also waiting for Godot.

Racing can’t get it together even with minor things. Lovely Maria’s win in the Oaks kept me alive in the Oaks-Turf Classic-Derby Bet 3. Then Ken Ramsey got into a snit with Chad Brown and scratched all three of his entrants in the Turf Classic, including Stephanie’s Kitten, who I keyed.

Would I get a consolation or was I moved to the favorite (Finnegan’s Wake), who happened to win. No one in my party knew, because every track has its own rules. A similar situation occurred last year in Las Vegas. No one there, including the director of the race book, knew. In fact, he guessed wrong.

There was no on-screen announcement on the closed-circuit feed and no Pick 3 will pays involving the scratched horses.

It turned out I got a consolation, a pretty skimpy one, $19.60 for a buck. I didn’t find out the payoff on the screen. I had to run the ticket through the machine. It was almost like a scratch off lottery ticket waiting to see what I had coming.

Is it asking too much for all tracks to have one uniform rule, whether it be consolation or move to the favorite? Probably.

Written by Tom Jicha

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