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 30, 2014

The best won’t be Horse of the Year, so…

The best horse doesn't win every race. The same goes for the Eclipse Awards. I have a strong subjective opinion on who the best horse in America was in 2014. However, results are results, so I couldn't in good conscience vote for him. I cast my ballot using the most objective standards I could.

MIAMI, Dec. 30, 2014--America’s best thoroughbred in 2014, in my opinion, Shared Belief will not be Horse of the Year. He won’t even be named best of his generation. Ergo, I am taking my Eclipse ballot to the scoreboard.

California Chrome put up the most points. He was one of only three horses to win four Grade 1 stakes this year. The other two, turf specialist Main Sequence and the filly Untapable, have worthy credentials. But their resumes don’t stand up to California Chrome’s.

Main Sequence won only on turf. I voted for Wise Dan, also a grass specialist, the past two years. All things being equal, which they weren’t in 2012 and 2013, I would give my vote to a dirt standout. That is America’s way of racing. Once again this year, although the number of Grade 1 wins is the same, all things aren’t equal.

Main Sequence’s biggest triumph came in the Breeders’ Cup Turf. California Chrome’s was the Kentucky Derby. Did you ever hear an owner, trainer or jockey say the first thing people ask when they find out what they do is, “Did you ever win the Breeders’ Cup Turf?”

In the hierarchy of American racing, California Chrome’s Preakness also outranks whatever might be offered as Main Sequence’s second biggest win.

Also, California Chrome is the only one of the serious candidates to win on dirt and turf. Granted, the Hollywood Derby was a Grade 1 in name only but it isn't as if it was the only Grade 1 that didn't merit such a prestigious ranking. This happens in all sports. A one-yard touchdown pass counts as much in a quarterback's stats as an 80-yard bomb.

I’m voting Main Sequence the consolation prizes of best turf horse and, reluctantly, best older male, even though I have joined the ranks of those calling for the latter to be re-designated as best older male dirt horse, since there is already an award for best turf horse.

I’d rather vote for Palace Malice but the critera are what they are. Palace Malice won the same number of stakes as Main Sequence but only one was a Grade 1.

All of Untapable’s wins were against her own gender. The one time she tried colts, she got crushed, although there were extenuating circumstances. However, if excuses are allowed, I could give my vote to Shared Belief, since he was mugged by Bayern and Toast of New York in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, the only defeat of his career. He beat older horses twice—three times if you consider that all his elders in the BC Classic finished behind him--and won Grade 1’s at a mile and a quarter and seven furlongs.

Some might say Shared Belief's Malibu wasn’t impressive, with a 70-1 shot second, but as Mike Smith said post-race, it isn't easy turning back from a mile and a quarter to seven furlongs. Nevertheless, he ran the elongated sprint in 1:20 69 and there were some crack sprinters in his wake. On the other hand, he never left his home state of California.

Bob Baffert has been campaigning for a split ticket, suggesting California Chrome should be 3-year-old champion and Bayern should be Horse of the Year. This is illogical. A baseball or football player can't be the Most Valuable Player in his sport but not the most valuable player in his division. The same goes for horses. I’m voting for California Chrome as Horse of the Year so, of course, he is also my 3-year-old champion.

Bayern doesn’t make my Horse of the Year ballot and, having been beaten 21 lengths in the Preakness and 20 lengths in the Travers, he’s only third among my 3-year-olds.

Not that the second and third positions on ballots matter. Voters are asked to list the top three so that there will be suspense at the Breeders’ Cup ceremonies. Otherwise, in a category such as 3-year-old filly champion, in which Untapable should be a unanimous choice, the winner would be known when the nominations are announced.

The juvenile categories also have obvious choices although there will almost certainly be a dissenting opinion here and there. Take Charge Brandi might have been a shaky leader after upsetting the BC Juvenile Fillies but she clinched the championship by adding the Delta Princess and Hollywood Starlet. Still, it wouldn’t be surprising if BC Juvenile Fillies Turf winner Lady Eli, undefeated in three starts, garners some support.

Texas Red’s Arazi-like win in the BC Juvenile probably is enough to grab the 2-year-old-male title, although American Pharoah and Dortmund will have their backers.

Close Hatches did enough in the earlier part of the season, winning four straight, three of them Grade 1, to be awarded the older female Eclipse.

Work All Week came from out of the clouds to establish himself as America’s top sprinter in the BC Sprint, his fifth win in six starts with a second. Horseplayers are probably still wondering how they let him go at 19-1 with such sparkling credentials.

Judy the Beauty won four of five, including the BC Filly & Mare Sprint, more than enough to wear the female sprint crown.

Dayatthespa won back-to-back Grade 1’s to close her campaign and make her the most likely filly & mare turf queen. But a case, albeit an unconvincing one, could be made for Coffee Clique, Crown Queen, Euro Charlene and maybe a couple of others.

The Steeplechase Eclipse should be decided by people with some familiarity to the contenders, so I abstained rather than have my vote cancel out someone with expertise in the category.

Todd Pletcher has more world class horses than any two barns but he did not win a Triple Crown race nor a Breeders’ Cup race and likely will not have trained an Eclipse winner. This mitigates his No. 1 standing in money earned, graded wins and Grade 1 wins. Chad Brown was near the top of these categories with not as much stock and far fewer starts, so he gets my vote. But I wouldn't quarrel with those who feel Pletcher deserves a seventh Eclipse.

Javier Castellano should once again take home the top jockey Eclipse.

Drayden Van Dyke won the most races by an apprentice and most came against crack Southern California competition. He should be a unanimous choice in his field.

Ken and Sarah Ramsey once again stood out among owners. As usual, they will again vie for the Breeders Eclipse with Adena Springs. The Ramseys, who got my vote in both categories, don't owe it all to Kitten’s Joy. Just most of it.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The 10 Most Fascinating People in Racing in 2014

Barbara Walters ended each year with a special naming her 10 Most Fascinating People of the past 12 months. She says this December's show was her last. So we'll pick up the concept...with a twist. Here is the first year-end recognition of the 10 Most Fascinating People in Racing.

MIAMI, Dec. 23, 2014--Barbara Walters says she has done her last “10 Most Fascinating People of the Year” special. I’m going to pick up the torch…with a twist. Here is the first 10 Most Fascinating People in Racing.

Not everyone made it for positive or praiseworthy deeds. But they all captured attention and got people talking. (The roster is alphabetical except for The Most Fascinating Person of the Year.)

Ed Allred—The owner of Los Alamitos would be deserving merely for stepping up when Hollywood Park closed and refitting his quarterhorse track to create a new venue for thoroughbreds in Southern California.

He also did something everyone talks about but few address in a meaningful way. He took a decisive approach to clean up racing’s act. Allred suspected drugs were a factor in one trainer, with dubious connections, qualifying eight quarterhorses for the $1 Million Super Derby. So he ordered the race postponed until additional testing could be done.

Then he instituted a house rule to have more revealing hair testing done for illegal drugs. “If someone gets a temporary restraining order or some BS,” he warned, “I’ll close the track.”

Steve Asmussen—The second winningest trainer in thoroughbred history was painted as public enemy No. 1 by PETA when it released a video of Asmussen’s long-time right-hand man Scott Blasi talking crap about the way the barn treats horses and cuts corners to win races.

The severely edited video, compiled over months by an undercover operative of PETA, which often has been accused of employing terrorist tactics, led to such a firestorm that Asmussen was removed from the National Racing Hall of Fame ballot even though he was considered a lock to be selected.

Subsequent investigations in New York, Kentucky and other jurisdictions have failed to come up with any wrongdoing on Asmussen’s part. Meanwhile, he just went about his work and won the Kentucky Oaks and Breeders’ Cup Distaff with Untapable, a longshot candidate for Horse of the Year.

Larry Collmus—A career that has had more pinnacles than the Himalayas reached its zenith when Collmus was named to succeed Tom Durkin as the race caller for NYRA. This capped a meteoric rise that in just a few years saw him go from Suffolk Downs to Monmouth to Gulfstream to Churchill Downs to NYRA as well as becoming the voice of the Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup.

Dumb Ass Partners—Steve Coburn and Perry Martin charmed America with their rags to riches fairytale of breeding the $8,000 mare Love That Chase to $2,500 stallion Lucky Pulpit and coming up with California Chrome, the winner of the Santa Anita Derby, Kentucky Derby and Preakness. The stable got its nickname when someone remarked that only a dumb ass would pay $8,000 for a mare that had won only one cheap race.

It all started to go sour when Coburn unleashed a bitter, sore loser’s screed in the immediate aftermath of California Chrome failing to complete the Triple Crown. Given a chance to recant and apologize the following day he refused and doubled down. Obviously coached that he was in the process of descending from beloved to despised, he finally apologized on Good Morning America.

Alas, he hadn’t learned his lesson. When word leaked that he demanded $50,000 to have California Chrome parade at Del Mar on Pacific Classic Day, he accused racing writers of being in Del Mar’s pocket. Not only did this violate the rule of never picking a fight with someone who buys ink by the gallon, he might have alienated some of the people who vote for the Eclipse Awards.

Indian Charlie, Eddie Musselman—The man whose slogan is, “We never let the truth get in the way of a good story,” has been a bane of many in racing for years as he took shots, some of them vicious, at track management, owners, trainers, jockeys and anyone else not on his good side. On his behalf, he also made personalities out of people who had no personality and a lot of his stuff was pretty funny.

But he went over the line with a cruel, tasteless slur of immigrants on the backstretch. In the era of political correctness, it was all the excuse tracks, which probably were itching for a reason to bar him, needed.

To make matters worse, he got into a brawl with Dale Romans in the Churchill Downs barn area. He and his sheet were banished. Other tracks and sales companies quickly followed Churchill's lead.

Musselman filed suit against Churchill and a settlement was reached that will allow him back on the track in 2015. It will be interesting to see how much, if at all, he is chastened.

Rosie Napravnik—Talk about going out on top. After riding Untapable to victory in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff the No. 1 active female jockey used the winner’s circle interview to announce to a national TV audience that she and her husband, trainer Joe Sharp, are expecting their first child. As a result, she said, she is retiring. This got more attention in the mainstream media than all of the Breeders' Cup races.

Hey, it was a positive mention and you take what you can get.

Napravnik, only 26, left the door open to a comeback. “I can’t promise to stay off horses forever.”

Martin Panza—It didn’t take long for the veteran of West Coast racing to make his mark in the East. Named NYRA’s Senior Vice President of Racing Operations in October 2013, he shook up the racing agenda, creating an uber Super Saturday of 10 graded stakes, six Grade 1, on Belmont Stakes Day.

He also created the Stars and Stripes Festival of five stakes, including the new Belmont Derby and Belmont Oaks designed to attract an international field. The first edition resulted in more than double the attendance and handle of the Independence Day holiday of a year ago.

Tim Ritvo—Working for the mercurial Frank Stronach is like managing the Yankees for George Steinbrenner used to be. Ritvo is Stronach's Joe Torre, someone Stronach has finally put his trust in. The former jockey and trainer keeps rising in the ranks to the point where he is now the Chief Operating Officer of racing for The Stronach Group.

Ritvo presided over the agreement to end the debilitating war with Churchill Downs and Calder then supervised the first Gulfstream West meeting, which exceeded all expectations.

Perhaps most important, he never ducked fans and the media when issues, such as a refusal of Palm Beach Downs to allow in independent clockers and the inaccurate timing of Gulfstream races, cropped up. Ritvo dealt with both within 24 hours and, in the case of the latter, went on Roger Stein's radio show this past weekend to talk about it.That's transparency.

Jim Rome—The wildly popular and outspoken radio and TV personality used to knock racing as “not a sport but a bet.” Then he got involved and became one of the game’s biggest boosters. He won back to back Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprints with Mizdirection then hit the motherlode when he became the ranking owner of Eclipse champion Shared Belief.

Rome showed his class when Shared Belief was denied his shot at 3-year-old champion and Horse of the Year by the incident out of the starting gate in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. He went on his show and said, “Bob Baffert actually said it best before the race saying, 'the horse that brings it’s A game and gets the best trip is going to win.' And he’s right. His horse (Bayern) ran a big one and got the best trip.

“Now you could argue that the reason he got that trip was because he cleared out 3 or 4 horses when he smashed into Shared Belief. But I’m not going to. I’ll just say this. We just didn’t get the trip we were hoping for…That’s racing. The stewards actually called looking for me Saturday night to explain their decision. I didn’t even return the call. I didn’t need to. No one knows the concept of scoreboard better than I do…As for Shared Belief, plenty of you want to crack on him, saying he’s over-rated and over-hyped. You’re entitled to your opinion. But I think you’re wrong. He’s a great horse, who didn’t have a great day. And he’ll be great again.”

The most fascinating person of all

What Vin Scully is to baseball and Al Michaels and Jim Nantz are to the sports they cover Tom Durkin has been to racing, the benchmark of excellence. It's too bad everyone hasn't had the opportunity to learn up close what a great guy he is outside the announcer's booth.

His career of calling every major race in America and some of the biggest around the world were well documented in the run up to his retirement in August. He will be honored with an Eclipse Award of Merit on Jan. 17, the first race-caller to be so honored.

He outdid himself in his farewell address on a stormy afternoon at Saratoga. He was greeted by chants of his name and pats on his back all the way from the announcer’s booth to the winner’s circle.

“There is one person that is completely responsible for this wonderful life that I’ve had the privilege to live in horse racing,” he began. “That person is here at Saratoga today. Right now he’s in the backyard sitting at a picnic table under two pine trees looking at this image on television. She’s at the top of the stretch leaning over the rail and she’s in a box seat or at a simulcast center in Syracuse or at a track in Ohio or in front of a computer in California. The person I owe an inexpressible gratitude is you, the racing fan, the horse player. Thank you.”

Thank you Tom.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Churchill puts up its version of Berlin Wall at Calder

The hits keep coming from Churchill Downs Inc. The latest outrage is erection of a fence to separate the section of the Calder backstretch it controls from that leased to The Stronach Group, owners of Gulfstream. Also, horsemen on the wrong side of the fence have been put on notice that they likely will have to vacate within two weeks. With area barns packed, many have no place to go.

MIAMI, Dec. 16, 2014--Churchill Downs Inc. has no regard for horse racing--save for Oaks and Derby Days. OK, we get that. But do CDI executives lay awake at night thinking of new ways to show their contempt for the game and the hard-working people who make it go? It certainly appears so.

First it was stable rent.Then rent for the hovel-like living quarters for grooms and hot walkers.

The latest harrassment is the erection of a wire fence to separate the portion of the Calder stable area Churchill controls from that it has leased to The Stronach Group, owners of Gulfstream. Construction on what amounts to racing’s Berlin Wall began without warning within hours of the end of the Gulfstream West meeting. This season benefitted no one but CDI, which got to keep its casino. The fence is CDI’s way of showing appreciation to the horsemen who made this possible.

The barrier, first reported in the, serves no purpose other than to complicate life for horsemen. Churchill said through corporate mouthpieces that it wants to begin the process of developing the section of the backstretch it controls.

CDI owns the entirety of the Calder property but is leasing barns for 430 horses to The Stronach Group, which spent freely to upgrade them, something CDI hadn’t done in years. This is part of the six-year deal, which gave Calder enough dates to keep its slots license and afforded Gulfstream unopposed racing the other 10 months of the year.

I have always wondered, why six years? This might sound like a long time but it passes quickly. What then, another negotiation? My hunch is CDI felt it could get the state to liberate it from the responsibility of being even remotely involved in horse racing at Calder while allowing it to keep its slots license.

Why not? The state is letting Churchill get away with murder now. Slots were supposed to save racing. In the case of Calder, slots have essentially destroyed it, directly eliminating more than 200 jobs in the process with countless others in jeopardy because of the latest development.

Other than racing being conducted geographically on the Calder grounds, CDI has nothing to do with it. The Gulfstream West meeting was run entirely by Stronach Group employees, from the racing office to concession stands.

CDI didn’t even want to allow access to the building. A compromise was finally struck that allowed use of only the first floor and the media box. Under the circumstances, it’s disgraceful the state has allowed Churchill to keep its slots. So CDI can’t be blamed for thinking the state eventually will bend further for them.

Meanwhile horsemen are being asked to bend over and grab their ankles. Trainers on the wrong side of the fence, about three dozen of them, are suddenly under notice that they might have to leave by Jan. 1.

Oh, and have a Merry Christmas.

These horsemen, most of whom run small operations that scrape to make ends meet, have nowhere to go. They had been led to believe they would have stalls into the spring, when the prime winter meet at Gulfstream ends. The exodus of the snowbird horsemen would make more stalls available.

Gulfstream and its satellite training facilities are packed. Another 150 stalls are being built but they won’t be ready until mid-February.Tampa Bay Downs is 200 miles away. Most of the affected trainers and their help maintain year-round homes near Calder. It would be a financial hardship, insurmountable for some, to find a second home in Central Florida.

Hiding behind federal rules which prohibit publicly held corporations from prematurely revealing plans that could affect the company’s stock price, CDI declined to offer even a hint of what its development plans for Calder might entail.

This has triggered rampant speculation. There has long been talk that CDI might want to construct a glitzy hotel/casino to complement or replace the no frills one-story structure that now houses slot machines. This proposal doesn’t pass the smell test. What tourist would want to shell out big bucks for lodging and entertainment at a facility bordering mounds of fresh horse manure?

What’s more, Calder is about 10 miles from the beach through congested city streets. Public transportation ranges from difficult to impossible. Also, Calder is not in an alluring neighborhood, to say the least. Put it this way: The hotel bordering the far turn, which opened as a Holiday Inn, has a police sub-station in its lobby.

Owner/trainer Carlo Vaccarezza told Jim Freer, who reported the “Fence-Gate” piece for the Blood Horse, that he also has heard CDI might want to build a truck stop on the land, which borders the Florida Turnpike.

A luxury hotel or a truck stop? There’s an either/or you don’t often hear.

Another suggestion is Churchill is creating this harassment to get Frank Stronach to buy the land at an inflated price. Stronach has made several attempts to buy Calder but his price was never acceptable to CDI. It’s not beneath Churchill to make itself enough of a pain in the ass to goad Stronach into paying dearly just to make Churchill go away. (My fondest dream is the entire racing industry would chip in to make CDI go away entirely.)

Whatever Churchill is up to, it seemingly will need all kinds of permits and other time consuming bureaucratic hoop-jumping before it can happen. So the urgency to get horsemen out immediately is just a case of playing the Grinch at Christmas time.

What millions?

The strangest development of the winter is the announcement that the Sunshine Millions, just a month away, is now a misnomer. The five stakes on Jan. 17 have had a cumulative $350,000 taken from their purses. The total outlay now will be $700,000.

Also odd is the races will no longer be restricted to Florida breds. Horses bred in New York, Maryland and Pennsylvania will be eligible, a peculiar coalition even for a series of races that began as Florida breds vs. California breds. If you are going to open the races to three additional states, why not go all the way and open them to all comers?

Gulfstream and the Florida Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association have more than made up for the diminished Sunshine purses by bumping up the total value of the Florida Sire Stakes next summer and fall by $600,000. The first round of six furlong races for each gender double from $100K apiece to $200K. The seven furlong second stage jumps from $200K to $300K apiece. The finales at a mile and a sixteenth get the biggest increases, $350K to a half-million dollars each.

In another long overdue innovation, a new series of races for 3-year-olds has been created, six races, three for each gender, endowed with $150,000 purses. These will further strengthen Sire Stakes days and make them genuine events during what is considered the off-season.

The first pair will be at seven furlongs. One mile turf race will follow. Mile and a sixteenth dirt races will conclude the series.

Since owners and breeders contribute so heavily to the purses, it always seemed a bit unfair that only juveniles benefited and those who weren’t ready early in their 2-year-old season were out of luck. Now owners of later developing horses will have a shot at some rich purses, too.

This could be an inspired move in another way by Florida horsemen, who support the game in the state year-round. In January, horses from fashionable outfits such as Todd Pletcher’s, Chad Brown’s and Bill Mott’s, could be expected to scoop up some of the big money. This is less likely to happen in late summer and early fall.

Written by Tom Jicha

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