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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Thursday, September 18, 2014

Pa. Derby no walkover for California Chrome

Bob Baffert's decision to ship Bayern to the Pennsylvania Derby changes what loomed to be a richly paid workout for California Chrome into a real race. The Kentucky Derby winner will still be odds-on but the possibility of Bayern getting loose on an easy lead as he did in the Haskell adds intrigue to this weekend's most important race.

MIAMI, Sept. 18, 2014--The Pennsylvania Derby got a lot more interesting earlier this week when Bob Baffert decided to ship Bayern east for the showpiece race of the Parx season.

The race had ample aesthetic appeal with California Chrome using it as his comeback race after three months of R-and-R and his final prep for a potential Breeders’ Cup Classic showdown with Shared Belief. But it looked unbettable except as a free space in multi-race wagers. Even then, the upside figured to be minimal since everyone would have the same idea.

There was speculation Untapable might skip the Cotillion against fillies to take another shot at the colts. But that never made any sense. Untapable’s connections took the sensible option of being 1-5 against her own gender or 5-1 against California Chrome for the same purse. Moreover, the Cotillion is Grade 1, the Derby Grade 2.

This is probably the last year the Derby won’t be a Grade 1, which it should have been elevated to a couple of years ago. But the grading system is such a politically driven abomination, it is loaded with injustices. The Hopeful, a Grade 1, had three maidens in a field of seven. The first three finishers in its West Coast counterpart, the Del Mar Futurity, all went into the race maidens. I would argue that no 2-year-old race before the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile should be more than a Grade 3, if that high. But that’s a column for another day.

Meanwhile, the Pennsylvania Derby has the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner; Bayern, the Woody Stephens and Haskell winner; and Tapiture, who has won the West Virginia Derby and Matt Winn in his last two starts. Yet it’s only a Grade 2.

Even with Bayern crashing the party, California Chrome should be odds-on. However, the inevitability factor has diminished. We have seen in Monmouth’s Haskell what can happen when Bayern gets loose on an easy lead. We also have seen what happened to Wicked Strong and Tonalist in the Travers when they tried to push Bayern early.

The minor awards in the $1 million race are too lucrative for one of the lesser lights to serve as a sacrificial lamb pushing Baffert’s speedball. California Chrome, who has plenty of early lick and will be fresh, might have to do his own dirty work.

Suddenly what loomed an exhibition has the makings of a real race.

It’s always fun to try to beat the favorite but I’ll be rooting hard for California Chrome this week and Shared Belief in the Awesome Again at Santa Anita next week. This would set up the most eagerly anticipated Breeders’ Cup Classic showdown of top 3-year-olds since Sunday Silence and Easy Goer.

Goofy California is at is again

The people in California must lay awake at night pondering new ways to unnecessarily screw things up.

This is the state that banned paper grocery bags in favor of plastic and now has banned plastic. Racing had its own “paper or plastic” situation. Over-reacting (a California specialty) to an atypical spate of breakdowns in 2008, the state decreed that racetracks (save the short meeting fairs) had to go to the tremendous expense of converting their dirt main tracks to artificial surfaces. By next summer, all but Golden Gate will have reverted to real dirt.

The latest solution to a non-existent problem is a rule that decrees jockeys cannot use their whips more than three times without pausing to see if it is having the desired impact on their mount. This creates the possibility (likelihood) of jockeys driving to the wire putting their stick away to wait for a reaction while a rival surges past.

For now, this is only a house rule at Santa Anita but the Arcadia track is the host for the Breeders’ Cup in just over a month. This is when jockeys from all over the nation, many, if not most, unfamiliar with the rule, will convene for “the world championships.”

This regulation wasn’t spurred by any particular incident or public outcry. In fact, it’s difficult to surmise what is behind it. Darrell Haire, western regional representative for the Jockeys’ Guild (this means he is supposed to be working on riders’ behalf, not signing on to new ways to make their lives more difficult), was quoted in the Racing Form as saying, “We didn’t feel we have a problem. But we didn’t think hitting a horse repeatedly without waiting for a response is acceptable.”

We didn’t feel we have a problem but we’ll pass a new rule anyway. How California.

Haire was using the regal “we.” Martin Pedroza, one of the few jockeys quoted, called the new rule “ridiculous.”

Making the new rule more superfluous was the introduction a few years ago of new softer whips that are more sound than fury. The part that strikes the horse makes a popping sound, which theoretically spurs on a horse. But it doesn’t injure the animal or break skin as some of the old ones did.

To inject an issue of the day, it’s the difference between a parent’s open-handed whack on the rump to bring an out-of-control youngster into line and the disgusting thing Adrian Peterson did to his 4-year-old.

In an ideal world, jockeys wouldn’t carry whips. But when a 100-pound rider is trying to control a headstrong 1,200-pound horse, without the rider having anything to assert himself, bad things can happen. Whips can be lifesavers for both horse and rider. More to the current point, some horses refuse to exert themselves without coaxing.

There are already sensible rules that prohibit a jockey from abusing a horse. Riders must refrain from use of their whip when their horse is clearly out of the race or has obtained a maximum placing. Violations include steep fines or suspensions.

Underlining that the new regulations are more for show than reform, there are, at least at the outset, no meaningful penalties for infractions. A rider who continues to go to the whip in an all-out drive to the wire doesn’t face disqualification and fines will be light, less than the rider’s share of the difference between first and second.

Sorry, but these are the riders I want on the horses I bet.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Wednesday, September 10, 2014

3-year-olds in Horse of Year race for a change

Three-year-old males dominate the racing scene most of the year but recently they have fallen off the radar screen when Horse of the Year has been at stake in the fall. It has been seven years since Curlin won the top prize as a 3-year-old. Shared Belief and California Chrome appear poised to break that streak.

MIAMI, Sept. 10, 2014--Three-year-olds are racing’s glamour division from the first Derby preps in January through the Haskell and Travers in late summer. The Pennsylvania Derby is pushing hard to extend this through the end of September.

However, when the championship races are run in October and November, sophomores have tended to fade from prominence in recent years. Only one 3-year-old male, Curlin in 2007, has been named Horse of the Year since 2001. (Rachel Alexandra also was 3 when she won the title in 2009.)

The drought has an excellent chance of being broken this season. With the premature retirement of Palace Malice, four-for-four in stakes until he misfired in the Whitney, the leading candidates for racing’s biggest prize are Derby and Preakness winner California Chrome and undefeated Eclipse juvenile champion Shared Belief, the only 3-year-old to beat older horses in a significant stakes.

They are on target for their first showdown in the Breeders’ Cup Classic on Nov. 1. A victory for either would clinch Horse of the Year.

But a victory by either is far from a slam dunk. Moreno and Itsmyluckyday, both 4, are making late-season bids of their own. However, with only one Grade 1 victory apiece, one of them would have to run the table of a key prep then the Classic.

They appear to have a tougher path than California Chrome and Shared Belief. None of California Chrome’s ranking contemporaries have indicated an intention to take him on in the Pennsylvania Derby on Sept. 20. Shared Belief has already beaten the best of what there is in the West and figures to be 1-9 in Santa Anita’s Awesome Again on Sept. 27.

Moreno and Itsmyluckyday have each other to contend with in the Gold Cup in addition to Grade 1-winning 3-year-olds Tonalist and Wicked Strong. Moreno is a definite for the Gold Cup at Belmont. Itsmyluckyday appeared to not be heading that way after winning the Woodward but the absence of Palace Malice and the possibility of capturing Horse of the Year has encouraged owner/trainer Eddie Plesa Jr. to reconsider.

All this being said, it would be folly to overlook the possibility of a third straight Horse of the Year crown for Wise Dan, especially if he runs in and wins an important dirt stakes, which has been mentioned as a possibility. With Wise Dan voter fatigue a factor, it would take a total meltdown by Shared Belief, California Chrome, Moreno and Itsmyluckyday for Dan to rule the thoroughbred world again.

One of the purposes of the Breeders’ Cup Classic was to identify the Horse of the Year but it has been six years since Curlin, then 4, won the Classic and the title. This looks like another streak waiting to be broken this season.

Christie flips again

I suppose some might feel I owe New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie an apology after I criticized his flip flop on allowing sports betting in his state last week (see previous column). Another way of looking at it is he owes me a thank you for the nudge, although I’m not vain enough to think he’s aware I exist.

In any case, Christie flipped again on the issue Monday. After saying it would not be right to defy federal law, after previously saying “Let them try to stop us,” Christie told New Jersey casinos and race tracks that they are free to begin taking bets on sports.

The fact that by next week four of Atlantic City’s 12 casinos will have shut down this year, at a reported cost of 8,000 jobs, undoubtedly motivated Christie’s latest change of heart.

It remains to be seen whether the gambling establishments can be up and running by this week’s NFL games but it’s a certainty they will have their sports betting windows open as soon as humanly possible.

An appeal by the various sports leagues is another sure thing. This could turn into a battle of friendly judges with the leagues finding some to support their position and New Jersey finding others to knock down any injunctions that might materialize. Apparently Christie is back in his “let them try to stop us” mode.

Speculation that the NFL might move to take the Giants and Jets out of the state and their new billion dollar stadium in the Meadowlands is so ridiculously out of the realm of possibility that it doesn’t even merit a rebuttal.

I can see where people who don’t live in or near New Jersey might dismiss this as “what’s in it for me?” But this is another of those “camel’s nose under the tent” issues. In other words, once the camel gets his nose under the tent, it’s only a matter of time until the whole camel is in the tent.

What’s happening with marijuana across the nation is an example. It started with medical marijuana being legalized in a few states. It quickly spread. Next recreational marijuana was legalized in Colorado and dozens of other states are looking at following suit.

In every case, the individual states have defied federal law without consequence.

If New Jersey is successful with sports betting, other states with budget woes (almost all of them) are sure to jump on the bandwagon.

A cynic might point out that Christie made his sports betting reversal on the anniversary of BridgeGate, the closing down of traffic lanes leading to the George Washington Bridge. The governor’s announcement was a savvy political move to push an unpleasant reminder off the top of the news.

Hopefully all the lanes of all the bridges leading from New York and other neighboring states to New Jersey will be open when the sports betting windows open. Traffic will be heavy.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, September 04, 2014

New drug rules? How about enforcing the existing ones first

Racing might be the only industry that bad mouths its own product. The talk all summer has been about the negative influence of race day medications. But before new regulations are considered, there has to be more of an effort to enforce the existing rules, which are now treated like an acceptable cost of doing business by too many horsemen.

MIAMI, Sept 4, 2014--Masochistic might be the most aptly named thoroughbred ever. The dubious circumstances surrounding his racing career perfectly sum up racing’s status in dealing with drugs.

Racing might be the only business whose leaders spend more time bad-mouthing their product than selling it. A summer of hysteria regarding race day medications is winding down. It was almost impossible to open a racing publication or website without being confronted by a piece on race day medications and why they should or shouldn’t have to go.

But it’s pointless to attempt to pass new rules and regulations when the ones in place are flaunted as if they are merely a nuisance, an acceptable cost of doing business? It took years and about 75 violations before Rick Dutrow was sent packing.

This brings us to the disgraceful saga of Masochistic and his connections. To briefly recap details I have reported several times, Masochistic was found to have 40 times the recommended dose of a tranquilizer when he made his debut at Santa Anita in a Cal-bred maiden special race on March 15.

He ran fifth of eight at 8-1. His jockey, Omar Berrio, was called in by the stewards and questioned about his less than all-out ride. In their notes, the stewards expressed concern that “Mr. Berrio prevented his horse from giving his best effort.”

Masochistic wasn’t seen again until Derby Day at Churchill Downs. Off one lackluster effort in a Cal-bred race, he opened at odds-on in an open special weight on a day when it takes tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of dollars to rock the tote board to that extent. Masochistic drifted up to 2-1 and ran like 1-9, winning by 14 lengths.

Then he went back to his home base in California, where he could have made more purse money in a softer spot running against his own kind. This doesn’t even take into consideration the shipping expenses to Kentucky and back.

Masochistic has scored a couple more blowout allowance wins without much urging. His dominance has been such that in his most recent start, Trevor Denman editorialized during his race call that Masochistic is too good for anything less than stakes horses.

Unbelievably, it took until mid-August before his trainer, A.C. Avila, was called in for a hearing about what went on in Masochistic’s debut. He, of course, has been allowed to keep training in the interim. Even more unbelievably, it could be several months before a ruling is issued, according to a report in the Racing Form.

Forty times the legal limit of a tranquilizer, a ride for which “stiffed” is the most appropriate term, a betting coup and it’s taking the better part of a year before a ruling is expected?

It’s enough to make O.J. Simpson exclaim, “What the f…?”

Christie like all the rest

This was going to be a turnaround week for struggling Atlantic City casinos and New Jersey’s race tracks. The opening of the NFL season was going to mark the introduction of sports betting in New Jersey. That was the promise made by Gov. Chris Christie.

Christie likes to present himself as a different kind of politician, one who doesn’t pull punches and says what he means and means what he says.

It turns out he’s no different than all the rest, which is hardly a shock. The New Jersey governor went back on his word and sold out important constituencies by vetoing a bill, passed by overwhelming majorities in the Assembly and Senate, which would have enabled sports betting.

It was considered one of the last best hopes to keep Atlantic City from devolving into the sorry state it was in before it became the East’s first mecca for casino gambling. The state’s racetracks, especially Monmouth Park, also would have benefitted.

Squeezed by neighboring states New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland and Connecticut legalizing casino gaming, New Jersey casinos are falling faster than sand castles on the beach at high tide. The Showboat closed this past Sunday. On Monday, the $2.4 billion Revel went belly up. The Trump Plaza is shutting down on Sept. 16. Earlier this year, the Atlantic City Hotel and Casino called it quits. They desperately needed a drawing card like sports betting that competitors in nearby states don’t have.

It was Christie who ignited the push for sports gambling. Knowing full well that Congress passed a bill in 1992, the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA), which prohibited the expansion of sports betting, Christie arrogantly challenged the federal government in May 2012 to stand in his way. “If someone wants to stop us, let them try.”

Given the feds non-response to several states defying the laws against marijuana, he probably would have been on solid ground.

Subsequently, the Supreme Court this past June upheld the PASPA but left open a loophole. New Jersey could not specifically legalize sports betting but it was within its states rights to repeal laws outlawing it. New Jersey legislators jumped at the opening, only to have Christie, the man who said let them try to stop us, veto it.

“Ignoring federal law, rather than working to reform federal standards, is counter to our democratic traditions and inconsistent with the Constitutional values I have sworn to defend and protect,” he said.

The flip-flop is easy to explain. Christie was facing a campaign for governor in 2012, so he played to New Jersey residents, who have indicated in straw polls that they overwhelmingly are in favor of sports gambling in the state. Now he is an undeclared candidate for President. Expansion of gambling is not necessarily a winning issue nationwide, especially with New Jersey being the only beneficiary.

What’s more, Christie has been critical of the Obama administration for looking the other way when it comes to the legalization of marijuana. He would look like a world class hypocrite if he championed ignoring the federal laws against sports gambling.

Apparently he doesn’t mind being known as only a state class hypocrite.

Written by Tom Jicha

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