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 19, 2014

It’s never on Sunday for Gulfstream stakes

Florida (and other jurisdictions) once had high hopes that Sunday would become the equal of Saturday in drawing fans to the track. It hasn't happened. Gulfstream is giving up on forcing the issue. Its winter stakes schedule--67 races, 37 graded--doesn't include a single Sunday stakes.

MIAMI, Aug. 19, 2014--Sunday has never delivered the punch Florida’s racing industry hoped and predicted it would when it lobbied for years to lift the prohibition against it. Now, there is little chance it ever will.

NYRA senior vice president of racing operations Martin Panza has been preaching the gospel of big event days, primarily Saturdays. Gulfstream’s Tim Ritvo and P.J. Campo are disciples. Saturdays will be super at Gulfstream this winter. Sundays not so much.

Gulfstream has scheduled 67 stakes—37 graded. Every one will be run on a Saturday. A half-dozen Saturdays will feature at least five stakes. Only three Saturdays—Jan. 31, Feb. 14 and March 7 will be limited to one stakes.

Eight stakes will be presented on Florida Derby Day, March 28. This has been the norm in recent years.

This year there will be other days as stakes laden. The Fountain of Youth, the final major prep for the Florida Derby on Feb. 21, also will be supported by seven stakes.

The Donn Handicap and Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap, both Grade 1 events, will be among six stakes on Feb. 7.

The meet will get off to a Super Saturday start on Dec. 6, the first day of racing after the abbreviated session under tents at Calder, with this year’s Claiming Crown program of eight stakes.

The Gulfstream Derby, which has been run on New Year’s Day, has been shifted to Saturday Jan. 3 and rechristened the Mucho Macho Man. (No offense to an exceptional horse but I think Gulfstream Derby has more cachet.) It will be the headliner of five stakes for newly turned 3-year-olds. Sprinters will have the Spectacular Bid and turf sophomores get to run for black type in the Dania Beach. Filly sprinters can go in the Old Hat and distaff turfers have the Ginger Brew.

Gulfstream will renew four stakes formerly contested at Calder in December. The Tropical Park Oaks and Tropical Park Derby are penciled in for Dec. 20. The W.L. McKnight and La Prevoyante will follow a week later.

Some overnight stakes are expected to be carded to add pizzazz to Sundays but that’s it.

Gulfstream gave Sundays every opportunity to become the equal of Saturdays. The 2011 Florida Derby was run on a Sunday, with the Gulfstream Oaks the previous day, in an attempt to create a Kentucky Oaks-Derby two-day event. It didn’t happen.

Last winter's Donn Handicap was unselfishly relocated to a Sunday to help launch the new series of races on Fox Sports. Attendance and handle didn’t approach a typical Saturday Donn Day.

As long as can be remembered, the winter meet featured a stakes race on most Sundays. The attendance and handle for these Sundays was virtually identical to the Sundays with no stakes carded.

So the decision was made to load up Saturdays and make Sunday just another day.

Although Sundays haven’t been as big as Saturdays at most tracks around the country—there is a reason Saratoga give-away days are always on Sunday--Gulfstream has unique issues, according to Ritvo. South Florida is a tourist mecca and many travelers schedule return flights back home on Sunday. Thanks to airport security lines, travelers have to get to the airport by late afternoon even for an early evening flight.

Perhaps even more important is the fact that for the first eight or nine weeks of the winter season, Gulfstream has to buck the NFL on Sunday. The games are available on TV throughout the plant but it’s not the same as the comfort of a home, particularly if you are following numerous players and games for your fantasy league.

Sunday is also traditionally a family day in the Hispanic community, a day to take the wife and kids to a park or beach or have relatives and friends over for a backyard gathering.

This combination of circumstances has pushed Gulfstream into the vanguard of tracks emphasizing big days over a well distributed stakes schedule.

Chuck Streva will be missed

Racing lost a good man last week and I lost a great friend. Chuck Streva, for decades the chart caller at Calder and Gulfstream as well as the producer of the morning line at both tracks, died after a long illness. He was 56.

In a business known for its cattiness, petty jealousies and back stabbing, Chuck was a rarity. I never met or heard of a person who didn’t like him or had anything bad to say about him. Even as he was fighting for his own life, his first question would always be about some problem or issue he remembered from your life.

For the past few years, the standard greeting in the press box was, “How’s Chuck?” or “Have you heard anything from Chuck.”

He was so conscientious and had such a strong work ethic that whenever he had the strength, which for the past year or so wasn’t often, he would come out to the track to work.
Chuck was born into a racing family. His grandfather, Dave Wilson, was one of the first to come up with speed figures as an essential tool for handicapping and was one of the widely followed public handicappers in the game. He passed on his secrets to Chuck, who would share his figs with anyone who asked and made daily selections in the Miami Herald. Chuck’s uncle, Jack Wilson, was the Racing Form’s lead chart caller for decades, the go-to guy for the Triple Crown races and Breeders’ Cup. But for his atttachment to South Florida and his family, Chuck would have been his successor. He was that good.

Jay Privman might have said it best in a tweet on the Racing Form site when he learned of Chuck’s passing. “You are going to hear a lot of great things about Chuck Streva in the coming days. Believe them. They are all true.”

Written by Tom Jicha

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Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Arlington Million could be nearing the finish line

A million dollar purse no longer carries the cachet it once did. Saturday's Arlington Million, once an eagerly sought prize on both sides of the Atlantic, attracted only seven entrants. With bottom-line obsessed Churchill Downs Inc. calling the shots, this might be all the excuse needed to shut down what once was the biggest post-Triple Crown event of the year.

MIAMI, Aug. 12, 2014--A million dollars doesn’t buy what it used to in racing (or anywhere else). When the Arlington Million was introduced in 1981 the purse was the story. The first seven-figure pot in American racing made headlines on both sides of the Atlantic. (The Breeders’ Cup wouldn’t come along until three years later.)

The magic word “Million” led NBC to sign on for live coverage and promote the event heavily. This was a big deal in pre-cable days because once the Triple Crown was over TV didn’t have much interest in horse racing.

These days, million dollar purses are not quite commonplace (although if Martin Panza continues on his current pace at NYRA, they will be) but there are enough of them that they are not even much of a drawing card, per se, anymore.

If there was any doubt of this, the pre-entries for Saturday’s renewal of the Million dispelled them. Only seven horses signed on, four from the U.S. and three Euros. Thankfully for the event, one of the Euros is Breeders’ Cup Turf winner Magician.

In spite of $15,000 in fees to enter, there is no guarantee or even probability that all seven will start. Hardest Core was also pre-entered in the supporting American St. Leger and could skip both for the Sword Dancer at Saratoga on Sunday.

Six starters would be the fewest in the history of the Million. Arlington shares some of the blame. The eye-catching purse 33 years ago hasn’t been increased since.

The Million-Sword Dancer conflict underlines another problem plaguing racing. In spite of a shortage of horses and an even bigger shortage of top class horses, there is no inter-track cooperation of any kind in scheduling stakes. Monmouth’s centerpiece race, the Haskell, and Saratoga’s Jim Dandy have been running on back-to-back days for years.

Given Saratoga’s compact season, in the heart of the prime summer dates at most tracks, it’s impossible to avoid some conflicts. But races of the magnitude of the Haskell and Jim Dandy, the Arlington Million and Sword Dancer should have separation beyond 24 hours. This could be beneficial to horses, who might be “one work away” or need extra time from their last race or in advance of their next goal.

NYRA knew when the Million would be scheduled, yet it penciled in the Grade 1 $500,000 Sword Dancer for the same pool of horses the very next day. It will be the first important stakes of the meeting for older males on the turf so there is no reason it couldn’t have been run a couple of weeks earlier. Likewise, it wouldn’t kill Monmouth to run the Haskell in mid-July.

It’s not being overly alarmist to speculate we might be seeing the final days of the Million. Remember tight-fisted Churchill Downs owns Arlington. The Million might be staying alive solely on the strength of personality of 92-year-old Richard Duchossois, who rebuilt Arlingon into a palace and remains an influential stockholder in Churchill Downs Inc.

Even with Duchossois, who won’t be around forever, as its champion, a less than stellar field for the Million might be all the excuse CDI needs to pull the plug on what once was the most publicized race of the year outside the Triple Crown.

A new track for Breeders’ Cup

Horsemen and the Breeders’ Cup have to be breathing easy that it is still two years before Del Mar will be hosting the championship races. The newly installed turf course, expanded solely to satisfy BC requirements that it handle 14-horse fields, has been a nightmare this summer.

Four horses broke down and had to be euthanized in the first nine days of the season, which began July 17. As a result, races were taken off the grass course on Sunday, July 27, to allow an extra day to deal with the problem before racing resumed on Wednesday. The day after turf racing returned, July 31, another horse broke down. Turf racing was suspended until Aug. 9.

Five races were conducted on the grass course without incident this past weekend. But you have to think one more fatal breakdown and Del Mar might have to bag turf racing for the season.

Even if it doesn’t come to that, turf racing is being substantially reduced for the balance of the meeting. There will be no turf sprints, nor claiming races. Grass races will be curtailed by about one-third, according to officials.

With Los Alamitos, which has no turf course, in line to follow Del Mar before Santa Anita reopens on Sept. 26, scores of turf specialists will be confined to their stalls for almost two months. So expect as heavy an agenda of turf racing as the Great Race Place course can handle this fall. But with the Breeders’ Cup five weeks into the season, Santa Anita has to balance the needs of horsemen with grass horses against having the course in the best shape possible for the championship events.

Meanwhile, Santa Anita and the Breeders’ Cup might be playing with fire on the main track. The old track was ripped up after the marathon winter-spring meet ended. It has been replaced with a new kind of dirt, El Segundo sand, which is said to resemble that used years ago at Santa Anita and Hollywood.

The new surface is expected to be ready for workouts in early September but it won’t be seriously tested until racing resumes. Track officials are confident there won’t be any issues but you never know with a new surface. Del Mar didn’t expect the problems it has encountered on its new turf course.

You have to wonder if the Breeders’ Cup would have been awarded to Santa Anita for the third straight year if BC officials knew their races would be contested on a track barely more than a month old.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Inflated purses, joke weights and Guillot detract from banner Whitney Day

Whitney Day at the Spa was great as always. It would have been even better if Eric Guillot, who put a big stain on last year's Travers with his irresponsible accusations, didn't train the winner, the purses were more rational and the Whitney didn't try to pass itself off as a handicap. Meanwhile out west, California stewards continue to dither over what to do about a horse, who was drugged in his debut, then won by 14 at Churchill on Derby Day after opening odds-on.

MIAMI, Aug. 5, 2014--Whitney Handicap Day was another banner day of high quality racing but there are some things that still bug me a few days after the fact.

All hail Moreno, a gutsy horse who proved he belongs in the conversation of best older horses. This debate was reopened by the inexplicable dud thrown in by Palace Malace.
Four straight graded wins, including the Grade 1 Met Mile, is enough for Palace Malice to retain the top spot for now, in spite of the Whitney. However, like the other hopefuls, including Moreno, Palace Malice might have to win a prestigious race in the fall and the Breeders’ Cup Classic to seal the divisional and Horse of the Year deals.

Getting back to Moreno, I applaud the horse but abhor the fact that Eric Guillot was celebrated with him. I can neither believe nor accept there have been no sanctions after the trainer, in a fit of irresponsibility after last summer’s Travers, tried to take down the sport that provides his livelihood as well as that of tens of thousands of others. At the very least NYRA should have denied him Saratoga stalls.

By virtue of its total non-response, NYRA has forfeited the right to ever penalize any jockey for a frivolous claim of foul.

As for the Whitney, it provided the latest evidence that handicap racing is both a misnomer and an anachronism. Palace Malice went into the Whitney on a four-race winning streak, all graded stakes, and was assigned the same 124 pounds he carried in the Met Mile, one of the most coveted stakes in the game. Granted, he was going another eighth of a mile but this is a horse who as a 3-year-old won the Jim Dandy at nine furlong with 123 pounds and the mile-and-a-half Belmont with 126 pounds.

Even more absurd than Palace Malice’s impost was the 124 given to Will Take Charge, who had one win in five 2014 starts, carrying 123 pounds in each. I would love to hear an explanation for how four straight graded stakes wins, including a Grade 1, bring about not even a single pound increase but one win in five starts, a Grade 2, does.

That said I’ll join the chorus that no Grade 1 race should be a handicap. Moreover, in an era when tracks are hurting for star attractions, we should do nothing to discourage a big horse from running—not that the kind weights routinely assigned do that.

Also, the fact that the Whitney purse was elevated to $1.5 is an abomination. That’s $250,000 more than the Travers, which packs the joint every summer. The race would have gotten the same field for $1 million or even $750,000. Maybe half a million.

I applaud Martin Panza’s efforts to create new event days but every Saturday at the Spa is an event day. Just throwing money at a race won’t do it. How many extra fans do you think showed up because the Whitney had an inflated purse?

But it wasn’t just the Whitney. By goosing the purses of a couple of optional claimers to $105,000 and $100,000 and staging a trio of maiden races for $98,000 apiece, NYRA might as well have hung out a banner for legislators: “Hey, look at us. We have more money than we know what to do with.”

In case NYRA hasn’t noticed, New York State seems to be chronically on the verge of bankruptcy. Several other states that fortify racing with slots dollars have begun to chip away at those subsidies. It’s only a matter of time until schools or bridges or some influential politician’s pet project come up strapped for cash before they begin looking at the money the state pours into NYRA purses. (I know, it’s the law. Laws get changed every day.)

After Whitney Day, I wouldn’t want to be a NYRA executive asked to explain why racing can’t surrender some or all of those dollars for more pressing social needs.

More to the moment, if NYRA is so flush with cash, why did it jack up admission prices this season? Of course, we know the answer: “because it could.” Based on past attendance figures, the amount NYRA will garner from the increases at the gate could have been covered by more rational purses last Saturday.

For shame, California

As long as I’m on a rant, racing officials in California are more derelict in their duties concerning the connections of a horse named Masochistic than NYRA has been with Guillot.

I’ve touched on this before. To refresh memories, Masochistic made his career debut on March 15 in a maiden allowance for Cal breds at Santa Anita. He ran fifth of eight at 8-1. The Racing Form comment was, “Angled in, no rally.”

However, it appeared to the stewards and fans who pay attention that jockey Omar Berrio didn’t allow Masochistic to run to his best ability. The stewards called him in to talk about it but took no action. In their defense, it’s near impossible to prove a rider’s intent.

In Berrio’s defense, maybe he knew or could feel what he had under him. Post-race testing found the tranquilizer Acepromazine at nearly 40 times the normal dosage. The stewards ordered the $1,120 Masochistic earned forfeited and paid to the sixth place finisher.

Coming off that one dull maiden start against Cal breds, Masochistic was entered in an open maiden allowance on the Kentucky Derby undercard. The ship made no sense, even more so in retrospect since Masochistic returned to California after the race. The purse at Churchill Downs was $60,000. The same day, Santa Anita carded a $56,000 maiden special for Cal breds, a much less challenging race with zero shipping expenses.

Nevertheless, Masochistic opened at odds-on, which takes an incredible amount of money on Derby Day. But you can bet (and cash) an incredible amount on the day when more money is bet than any other.

The ship made a lot of sense when the gates opened and Masochistic ran to the betting action, crushing the field by 14 lengths. People in the know must have scored out more than anyone in Kentucky that day other than the owners of California Chrome.

This is when the California stewards should have called in Berrio, trainer A.C. Avila and Masochistic’s owners to explain what happened on March 15.

My new heroes area couple of owners I know nothing about, David Frankham and Brian Carmody. When they noticed Masochistic was entered in the same race on July 31 as their horse, Smogcutter, they ordered their trainer, Dan Blacker, not to bring him to the paddock. They weren’t going to run against what they perceived to be a cheater. (Masochistic won laughing again.)

In a letter published by the Paulick Report, they wrote, “It is unconscionable that a violation this egregious is left unresolved 4 ½ months later, while the trainer A.C. Avila is allowed to continue training without any ruling by the (California Horse Racing Board). As owners we believe wholeheartedly that we have an obligation of fairness to the betting public. If the governing bodies do not enforce and uphold that obligation and trust, then we will rightfully continue to lose the betting public and owners alike.”


The CHRB has finally scheduled a hearing for Avila on Aug. 12 and, according to the San Diego Tribune, the Berrio investigation is still open.
Almost five months after the fact, the CHRB has been shamed into doing its job—or at least giving the appearance of doing its job.

Written by Tom Jicha

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