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, December 09, 2014

Does Graded Stakes Committee pay attention?

This year's Pennsylvania Derby had the winners of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Breeders' Cup as well as the likely 3-year-old champion and Horse of the Year. Last year's renewal had the one-two finishers in the Grade 1 Travers, the winner of the Grade 1 Clark Handicap and the 3-year-old champion. Yet is is still a Grade 2. Saturday's Bayakoa was won by an odds-on filly, who had never won a stakes. Last year's was also won by a filly capturing the only graded stakes of her career. It, too, is a Grade 2. Something is wrong here.

MIAMI, Dec. 9, 2014--I have no idea what the pay scale is for the American Graded Stakes Committee. To an outsider, it resembles one of those mob positions, where if you are connected you get a paycheck for doing nothing.

It’s not fair to say the AGSC did nothing this year. But it is fair to say they did the next closest thing. Eight stakes were elevated to Grade 3 and six were dropped a notch from Grade 2 to Grade 3. This is out of 463 stakes. The committee met for two days last week in Kentucky to do what must have taken about as long as it does to place an order at the bar and wait for the drinks to arrive.

More significantly, no stakes were upgraded from Grade 2 to Grade 1. None went down a level in those divisions, either. Were they paying attention?

This season’s Pennsylvania Derby was a Grade 2.

Bayern, winner of the $1 million event, was one race removed from winning the Grade 1 Haskell. He came out of his victory at Parx and doubled down with his game, if controversial, triumph in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, America’s most prestigious race outside the Triple Crown.

California Chrome, the Kentucky Derby and Preakness champion, was among those who chased Bayern home. California Chrome bounced back to run third in a photo in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, then capture the Grade 1 Hollywood Derby, his fourth Grade 1 of the season, to put himself into position to be named 3-year-old champion and Horse of the Year.

Thus, this season’s Pennsylvania Derby boasted the winners of three of the four most important races in America, the win and show horses in the Breeders’ Cup Classic and the likely 3-year-old champion and Horse of the Year.

But this wasn’t enough for the Graded Stakes Committee to make it a Grade 1.

Any stakes can luck into one exceptionally strong field. So let’s go back a year. The one-two finishers in 2013 were Will Take Charge and Moreno. They entered after running one-two in the Travers, the Grade 1 Midsummer Derby.

The race prior to that, Will Take Charge finished a fast closing second in the Jim Dandy to Belmont Stakes champion Palace Malice. Moreno was third.

Will Take Charge came out of the Pennsylvania Derby to miss by a dirty nose to Mucho Macho Man in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. He closed his season by beating older horses in the Grade 1 Clark Handicap, which vaulted him to the Eclipse Award as outstanding 3-year-old.

So in its two most recent runnings the Pennsylvania Derby has had two champion 3-year-olds, a Breeders’ Cup Classic winner and a probable Horse of the Year. But it’s still a Grade 2.

Let’s put this into perspective. This past Saturday, the Bayakoa was run at Los Alamitos. The Grade 2 Bayakoa.

The odds-on favorite and winner was Tiz Midnight, who had never won a stakes. Indeed, she had finished in the money in a stakes only once, a second in a five-horse field. The runnerup was Warren’s Venda, who was zero-for-seven in 2014 and was coming out of three-state bred races with one third-place finish to show for it. The other four in the field had two ungraded stakes wins in the United States among them.

Last year’s winner of the Bayakoa was Broken Sword, the first stakes of her career and only graded stakes win so far.

The Bayakoa will be a Grade 2 again next year, same as the Pennsylvania Derby.

There are dozens of such inequities in the American grading system every year. The Pennsylvania Derby and Bayakoa are merely exceptionally egregious examples.

When Keeneland still had a synthetic track, I made it an annual crusade to point out the absurdity of its major Grade 1 dirt races maintaining their status in spite of their winners doing nothing on non-synthetics the rest of the year.

There has to be a better way. If not, let’s at least have more conscientious people in charge.

To everything a season

The value of a defined season was underlined Saturday, opening day of the 2014-15 prime winter season at Gulfstream.

With a two-month break from the summer season, thanks to the “Preserve Churchill Downs’ Calder Casino” meeting, fans turned out as if it were a gala holiday. Attendance figures with no admission charges or turnstiles are merely a guess. However, anecdotally I can tell you from being there, this was an unusually big crowd.

I co-host a racing/sports talk show with Hank Goldberg from Gulfstream on Saturdays from 11 a.m.-1 p.m. on 640 AM (shameless plug). So I get to the track not much after 10 a.m. There already was a goodly crowd on hand staking out choice positions near the walking ring. A steady wave of customers kept coming in well before first post.

The revealing figures were the handle. On-track handle was up 36 percent over last year when the summer season melted without a break into the prime dates. This translates to at least a couple thousand more customers. Overall handle was up 13.1 percent, despite the loss of about two dozen tracks in the Mid-Atlantic area, which were blacked out because of a stalemate over simulcasting rates. I can’t understand why any receiving track feels entitled to a bigger cut than the track putting on the show.

The focus that the intermission in Gulfstream’s agenda gave the opening of the winter season is the only good thing to come from the “Gulfstream West” season. Churchill officials made it clear that they want their casino but resented the necessity to open their door to horse players.

All but the first floor of the grandstand were shut down to customers. A scarcity of betting machines made getting shut out a constant threat. No restaurants were open, so it was concession stand fare or nothing.

Media were allowed access to the sixth floor press box but were denied conveniences like the single SAM machine, which had been there for years. It was promised but vetoed by a Churchill executive for apparently no reason but spite for the bad press Calder and Churchill have gotten.

Instead of the humorously misleading Autumn Turf Festival, as it was dubbed, the meeting should have been called the "Make the Best of a Bad Situation Meeting," which Gulfstream officials did. Field size was strong, thanks largely to allowing low level claimers access to the turf course.

The handle surpassed that of the combined Gulfstream-Calder total a year ago when the tracks raced head to head. (Even Calder seemed to benefit from having one clearly defined season.)

Former NYRA head Charles Hayward rightly pointed out in his Thoroughbred Commentary blog that Gulfstream did an admirable job of upgrading the barn area, which Churchill had neglected for years.

But Hayward went way off the rails in also lauding “significant improvements” to the grandstand and the upgrading and reconditioning of the turf course.

Other than Gulfstream using banners to cover any mention of Calder, there were no improvements to the building, which Churchill agreed to allow limited access to only at the 11th hour.

Also, there was more white sand visible on the turf course than at Frank’s Beach at Gulfstream.

I guess you had to be there.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Tuesday, December 02, 2014

California Chrome is Horse of the Year, no ifs, ands or buts

California Chrome is the Horse of the Year. There are no counter arguments. The Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner clinched the title when he made the Hollywood Derby his fourth Grade 1 triumph of the year. No horse has more, although Main Sequence and the filly Untapable also have four. And if a tie-breaker is needed, which it isn't, California Chrome is the only contender with wins on dirt and turf. Case closed.

MIAMI, Dec. 2, 2014--The Horse of the Year debate didn’t begin when California Chrome flashed home the winner of the Hollywood Derby Saturday. It ended.

California Chrome was in the Horse of the Year conversation before his turf debut. It’s hard to exclude a horse who won the first two jewels of the Triple Crown and the most important race for 3-year-olds on the West Coast.

California Chrome’s workmanlike victory in his first start on grass, granted against modest competition, effectively trumps arguments on behalf of any of the other contenders. The 3-year-old championship is a foregone conclusion.

Three horses won four Grade 1 stakes apiece in 2014: California Chrome, Main Sequence and the filly Untapable. Main Sequence’s victories were all on turf, including the Breeders’ Cup Turf, a formidable resume enhancer. Until Saturday, his blemish-free four-for-four U.S. record made him the favorite for Horse of the Year.

Main Sequence now will have to settle for Turf Champion and probably Older Horse. However, I have become a convert and joined the choir of those singing out for this award to be given to the top older dirt horse. In this case, that would be four-time stakes winner Palace Malice. It makes no sense to have an Eclipse for top older turf horse but not one for dirt, North America’s primary surface.

Untapable’s wins were all against her own gender. The one time she tried the boys she got buried in Monmouth’s Haskell by Bayern, who is about to become the seventh straight winner of the Breeders’ Cup Classic to not win Horse of the Year. Bayern was probably not going to be Horse of the Year, not with all the controversy about how he won the Classic, but his supporters were building a case for the 3-year-old championship. California Chrome put that to rest this past weekend.

California Chrome’s resume includes the Kentucky Derby. Things being relatively equal, the one race that is part of Americana trumps all. California Chrome also is the only one to win on dirt and grass. Game, set, match.

How ironic is it that the Eclipse voters, who have been jonesing for a dirt horse to take racing’s top prize after a couple of years of Wise Dan, will get their wish because of California Chrome’s clinching win on turf.

Ironies abound with California Chrome. One of the dumb ass moves by his owners, Dumb Ass Partners, was to make outrageous demands of Del Mar to parade their Derby winner on the track on Pacific Classic Day. They came back Saturday with no guarantees and California Chrome’s presence pulled in the biggest crowd of the new Bing Crosby season.

Another Eclipse clinched

Racing life does go on after the Breeders’ Cup, thank goodness. Another title was clinched when Take Charge Brandi dominated the Delta Princess Stakes the week before Thanksgiving.

I’m guessing I was not the only Eclipse voter who was not enthused about giving the 2-year-old filly title to Take Charge Brandi, who stole the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies after a couple of fifths and an eighth. But when she did it again at Delta Downs, she put away any potential pretenders.

God bless Wayne Lukas. Even with the title in his pocket, The Coach said he might take a shot with her in the Hollywood Starlet at Los Alamitos on Dec. 13. D. Wayne has always been one to run them when they are good, not wait for a spot a couple of months down the road. Too bad there aren’t more like him.

Don’t Tell Sophia just missed thrusting herself more prominently into the older filly and mare discussion when she came up a half-length short of catching Frivolous in the Falls Handicap after a runnerup finish to Untapable in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff.

The championship still might have gone to Close Hatches, who won three straight Grade 1’s before tailing off.

But if Don’t Tell Sophia had been able to make the Grade 2 Falls City her fourth stakes win of the year to go with the Grade 1 Spinster and a pair of ungraded stakes at Oaklawn, her connections could have mounted an argument that she beat Close Hatches in two of their three meetings. Now it’s case closed.

Farewell synthetics

Another hot topic of conversation was also effectively put to rest this past weekend. Synthetic tracks, for all practical purposes, have joined the DeLorean, vinyl records and photo kiosks in history.

When Del Mar reopens for its summer meet in July, it will have a new conventional dirt main track, supposedly consisting of the same sand used at Santa Anita.

Keeneland went back to traditional dirt at its fall meeting. This leaves only Arlington, Woodbine, Turfway and Presque Isle as artificial dirt holdouts.

Turfway, a winter track, and Presque Isle, an excuse for a casino, are irrelevant in the big picture. Arlington is keeping its synthetic surface because Churchill Downs Inc. is no longer making major investments in race tracks. When the official is posted on the glorious life of Richard Duchossois, who made Arlington a palace of racing and is a major CDI share-holder, Churchill is likely to unload the track as fast as a buyer can be found. Moreover, the really important races at the Chicago-area track are on grass.

Woodbine officials acknowledged they are considering rejoining the mainstream of North American racing by reverting to conventional dirt. Recent history teaches that as soon as a track acknowledges it is “considering” a return to real dirt, it’s a sure thing to happen. It’s too late for Woodbine to make the conversion in time for the 2015 season but if there was a future book for 2016, real dirt would be a shorter price than the 3-5 on the field in last weekend’s first round of Kentucky Derby futures.

(Just wondering, what is the mentality of tying up betting capital for almost six months on a 3-5 shot?)

Synthetics were a well intentioned over-reaction to a rash of breakdowns but they changed the nature of racing while only marginally correcting the problem they were designed to alleviate. They will not be missed.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The sooner NY winter racing ends, the better

NYRA loses about a million dollars a week during the winter racing season. Yet there are those who would argue it must be continued. Why? To serve as a social welfare program for inferior horses? A spring-through-fall season also would facilitate closing Aqueduct, which is going to happen. Belmont wouldn't need such extensive winterizing if it didn't have to deal with the worst months of the year.

MIAMI, Nov. 25, 2014--What am I missing?

Winter racing at Aqueduct is said to be essential. Why? A couple of weeks ago, NYRA CEO Chris Kay said at the latest meeting of the NYRA Reorganization Board that winter racing lost $11.9 million in 2013-14. The subject came up again last week at a session on the future of NYRA.

So for whom is winter racing essential? Surely not NYRA. Kay said NYRA, which had been hemorrhaging cash for years, showed a $1.5 million surplus last year. I was not a finance major but simple math tells me that a $1.5 million surplus could become an eight-figure surplus without the winter losses. Kay might not even have to raise prices at Saratoga and gouge fans at Aqueduct concession stands.

Some expenses—electricity, water, heat, maintenance, etc.—go on even when there is no racing. But these costs wouldn’t come close to $11.9 million.

Horsemen, particularly those with lesser stock, understandably support winter racing. It’s when they earn most of what they make for the year. But NYRA is supposed to be a business, not a social welfare program.

If a barn can’t cut it during the spring, summer and fall, it might not belong on such a competitive circuit. There’s always winter racing at Parx and Laurel. Tampa Bay Downs is another alternative.

The New York breeding industry cherishes winter racing. Supposedly almost half the state-bred races all year are run at Aqueduct. But thanks to the VLT money, the breeding industry is making enormous strides quality wise. New York-breds are winning open races all over the nation. They shouldn’t need the crutch of grinding it out against short fields of inferior competition in dreadful weather.

Dayatthespa showed her heels to a world class field at the Breeders’ Cup. This past Saturday, Lubash shipped south to win the Tropical Turf Handicap as the 8-5 favorite. The lesser caliber of New York-breds, who need the winter to earn their keep, probably belongs at Finger Lakes anyway.

NYRA’s season used to end about the second week in December then resume around the middle of March. If a similar plan were adopted, with the gap shortened to say the Sunday before Christmas to the first week in March, the dark period would be about 10 weeks or about 40 scheduled racing days. Five to ten of these are typically lost to weather.

Are so few dates worth the expense and effort to maintain a track in frozen and muddy conditions for the worst three months of the year? We’re talking maybe 30-35 dates, hardly an earth-shattering loss for horsemen, some of whom take their main strings to Florida under any circumstances. This doesn’t take into account the many days when training has to be curtailed or canceled because of brutal conditions.

Rick Violette, the leader of New York horsemen, spends a portion of his winter at Gulfstream. When he had a legitimate Derby contender with Samraat last winter, he had the colt commute to South Florida to train between New York stakes engagements.

Gary Contessa, another NYRA staple who spends part of each winter in South Florida, said he wished he had done the same thing with his 3-year-old Uncle Sigh, who dropped close decisions to Samraat in the Withers and Gotham. “It was very hard to develop a horse in New York this winter,” he said last spring. “If I could do it over, I would have had Uncle Sigh in Florida on Dec. 1. I think Rick Violette should be applauded.”

In other words, Aqueduct in the dead of winter is not a place fit for man or beast.

The benefits of ending winter racing would well outweigh the negatives. NYRA would actually have a season again. The reopening in March would be a much anticipated special event, as it used to be. It is so long since this was the case, many New Yorkers don’t appreciate how valuable this is.

One of the few upsides to the eight-week Gulfstream West meeting, whose sole purpose is to enable Churchill Downs to keep its Calder casino license, is that it is creating a buffer between Gulfstream’s summer meeting and the traditional championship season, which opens a week from Saturday. It will probably draw one of the bigger crowds of the season. I don’t know this would be the case if summer racing segued seamlessly into the prime dates.

A revenue stream would still exist for NYRA, thanks to simulcasting. On frigid winter days with the wind howling off Jamaica Bay, there are sometimes more horses on the track than patrons outside watching. Almost everyone is in front of a TV monitor. If bettors are going to watch races on TV, they might as well watch and bet on larger fields of more talented horses from Florida. This would also keep some New Yorkers, who work the concession stands, bars and restaurants at Aqueduct, employed during the dark period.

Allow NYRA to establish off-track satellites in bars and restaurants around the city and the revenue shortfall would be minimal while expenses would decrease tremendously.

Aqueduct is going to be shut down eventually. State politicians are salivating about taking over the property. It’s only a matter of when. The biggest drawback is Belmont Park is not winterized.

Steven Crist wrote in a recent Racing Form column that when he was a NYRA executive two decades ago estimates were it would cost in excess of $600 million to winterize Belmont. Figure with inflation this would balloon to the rich neighborhood of a billion dollars now.

It would be lunacy to spend so much for the privilege of losing a million dollars a week. If the season didn’t open until early March and ended in December, this expenditure wouldn’t be necessary. Some modifications would still be needed at Belmont but nothing on the scale of a full winterization.

Shorter seasons with fewer races are becoming obligatory everywhere due to the scarcity of horses. Ending winter racing in New York is a relatively painless way to deal with this new normal.

Written by Tom Jicha

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