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 Sentinels horse racing writer since 2007 as a staff member, and continues to this day as a free-lancer.

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Friday, March 15, 2013

Florida Turf Wars: Calder Fires First Shot at Gulfstream

The cold war between Churchill Downs-owned Calder and Frank Stronach-owned Gulfstream is getting hotter. Calder has scheduled its biggest day of the summer, the Summit of Speed, for July 6, the day Gulfstream will launch year-round racing. Calder also has repositioned three big stakes days for December, when it ordinarily would have given way to Gulfstream's premier winter meeting. Could repercussions impact next year's Kentucky Derby qualifying points at Gulfstream and Santa Anita? Ask Hawthorne, whose Illinois Derby was cut out of the mix because of a disagreement with Churchill.

MIAMI, March 15--Calder is taking it right to Gulfstream as the tracks barrel toward their head-to-head conflict in July.

Calder has positioned its biggest day of the summer, The Summit of Speed, for July 6, the first Saturday the tracks are scheduled to run opposite each other. To be fair, the Summit card, which includes four graded and one listed stakes, was run on the corresponding Saturday last year. But with the potential conflict, you have to ask if it would have been prudent to go unopposed a week earlier. As it stands, the best racing day of the summer will be overshadowed by the first head-to-head competition.

Calder also has multiple stakes days planned for three subsequent Saturdays during July and August. If nothing else, this will deplete the availability of quality runners in South Florida, which are in short supply in any case during the summer. What might be left for Gulfstream is a matter of conjecture.

Calder also has moved three big stakes days, with five graded events, from November last year to December 2013, Gulfstream’s winter season kickoff month. However, there are gaps in Calder’s November schedule, which seem to have been strategically conceived to allow these stakes to relocate back to where they have been.

This might be a sign that Churchill Downs Inc., Calder’s parent, still believes a compromise can be reached before Floridageddon. The consensus viewpoint around both tracks is that Gulfstream owner Frank Stronach will come up with the right dollar figure to get Churchill Downs Inc. to step aside on weekends, so that Gulfstream can run unopposed.

When Stronach made his move on December two years ago, Churchill huffed and puffed, bellowed and threatened, but ultimately took the money and didn’t run.

This seems to be the only immediate solution. The strong-willed Stronach is as adamant as Custer that he is going to do what he is going to do.

Since he became involved in race track ownership, Stronach has belly-ached about not being allowed to operate his business whenever the fit takes him, as he could in other fields. In laissez faire Florida, he has finally found the place where he can do it—at least in the short term. It remains unthinkable that the state will allow him to destroy a $5 billion industry.

This isn't just a South Florida issue. If the dispute lingers, there could be repercussions that impact the Triple Crown. Would Churchill downgrade Kentucky Derby points for major 3-year-old races at Stronach-owned Gulfstream and Santa Anita, costing them marquee horses? Unthinkable? Did Churchill cut out the Illinois Derby because of a beef with Hawthorne? Has the Louisiana Derby been upgraded to top tier because it is owned by Churchill? Anything is possible.

There would be legal complications to racing’s Corleones and Tattaglias carving up the territory during the year that starts July 1, because the deadline for requesting 2013-14 dates has passed. Also, Calder is obligated to run 80 days a year to keep its Calder and Tropical licenses and the casino attached to it, which Churchill has made clear is its priority.

But the state will likely be willing to bend some rules to avoid a scorched earth war. The legislature is in session, so the arbitrary cutoff for dates requests could be changed. Also, Calder could fulfill the casino mandate by racing on weekdays.

Calder’s stakes schedule is a non-issue. Gulfstream has announced nothing special for the summer, so the added-money races could be moved across town, where they would be more than welcome.

The British aren’t coming: A new headache has emerged for the Breeders’ Cup. The British have announced a Champions Weekend to start in 2014. Six Group 1 races, corresponding to Breeders’ Cup races, will be contested on Oct. 17-18. In all likelihood this will be two weeks before the Breeders’ Cup.

The chances of a top Euro running in both events, two weeks apart, would be slim and none--and slim is scratched.

I suggested a couple of weeks ago that the Breeders’ Cup should consider moving the event weekend back to the two days after Thanksgiving. That Friday is one of the few non-official holiday dates when millions of people have the day off from work. In addition, the competition from televised college football is substantially less.

Not that it would be much of a consideration considering the mutually strained relationship with NYRA but if the Breeders’ Cup ever does decide it would like to bring the championship races back to the nation’s biggest market, another obstacle has arisen. The first weekend in November is set in stone for the New York Marathon, which fills thousands of hotel rooms throughout the metropolitan area. So a later Breeders’ Cup would be a necessity.

Two apparently obvious drawbacks are non-starters. Since this would take place after daylight savings time ends, lights would be a necessity. But temporary lights have been in use for years at football stadiums. Moreover, NBC’s desire to have at least the Classic in prime time would obligate NYRA to install lights in any event.

As for the threat of bad weather, NYRA has staged a big weekend around Thanksgiving, headed by the Cigar Mile, for years without serious weather issues.

The extra three weeks a Thanksgiving weekend would create between the Breeders’ Cup and the later season climax for Euros is one more reason to consider the move.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Friday, March 08, 2013

Handicaps are a joke; it’s time for them to go

Handicap racing has become a farce. Breeders' Cup Classic champion Fort Larned makes his 2013 debut Saturday in the Gulfstream Park Handicap carrying 124 pounds. He carried 125 in winning Saratoga's Whitney, two races before he won the Classic under allowance conditions. Last Saturday, Game on Dude, who towers over everything on the West Coast, won the Big Cap with 125. Santa Anita has a new rule that highweights can't be assigned more than 126. With many jockeys unable to ride with less than 117 or 118, this makes it impossible to create a true handicap. Racing should stop the charade, retire the term handicap, and run all stakes, especially graded stakes, under allowance conditions.

MIAMI, March 8, 2013--When are we going to stop with the farce that contemporary “handicap” racing has become? This isn’t a novel thought but it is one that needs to be reiterated until something is done.

Fort Larned is making his 2013 debut Saturday in the Grade 2 Gulfstream Park “Handicap.” The reigning Breeders’ Cup Classic champion was assigned 124 pounds, one pound less than the last time he was in a Handicap, the Grade 1 Whitney at Saratoga, which he won.

An argument could be mounted that he is picking up two pounds off the BC Classic. But it would be hard to make this argument with a straight face measuring the 11 horses he beat in the Classic against his opposition this weekend.

One of his five rivals, Decaf Again, is on a 20-race losing streak. He hasn’t hit the board in his last eight starts and was seventh of eight in a $40,000 claimer less than a month ago. Is there anyone who thinks the 12-pound pull Decaf Again is getting is going to bring him together with Fort Larned?

If this truly were a handicap, Decaf Again’s trainer, Barry Rose, would have to go to a maternity ward to find someone who could make the weight.

Another starter, Discreet Dancer, offers a cautionary note for anyone thinking about sending it in on Verrazano in the Tampa Bay Derby. Discreet Dancer was last year’s Verrazano. He won his first two starts at Gulfstream for Todd Pletcher by more than 15 lengths. Then he tried two turns and his first stakes, the Fountain of Youth. He wound up a non-threatening third, beaten more than six lengths. He didn’t show up again under silks for a year.

Discreet Dancer has shown sufficient promise of brilliance to not be dismissed Saturday. His lone loss was to Juvenile Eclipse winner Union Rags, who would go on to win the Belmont. But Discreet Dancer is still a non-stakes winner, getting only nine pounds from a finalist for Older Horse of the Year.

A week previously, Game on Dude ran away with Santa Anita’s Big ‘Cap by more than seven lengths, the biggest winning margin in the 76-year history of the race. He was burdened with 125 pounds. Santa Anita has a relatively new rule that the high weight can’t be assigned more than 126 pounds.

Many top jocks, the caliber sought for big money races, can make no less than 117, 118 pounds. So if the top weight cannot get more than 126, where is the real handicap?

So why continue the charade of labeling stakes “handicaps.”

Weight used to be a measuring stick for a horse’s standing in the sport. The grading of stakes now serves this function.

Also working against the concept of handicaps is the competition among tracks for marquee horses. The heyday of handicaps was during an era almost all big money purses were offered either in New York or Southern California and air travel for horses was unheard of. So outstanding horses, such as Dr. Fager, Kelso, Forego, Affirmed and Spectacular Bid, had to accept 130 pounds or more and spot in excess of 20 pounds to some rivals or stay in the barn.

Today, tracks, many fueled by slots money, would be lining up to throw million dollar purses at superstars while promising friendly weighting. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing for a sport crying out for attention. Outstanding thoroughbreds don't generate publicity standing in their stall.

Handicaps also have outlived their usefulness for bettors. When there was only win, place and show betting, putting the grandstand on a standout was a way to create the illusion that the field was being leveled enough to encourage players to take a shot, rather than passing the race. Exactas, trifectas, superfectas and horizontal multi-race wagers now provide plenty of pari-mutuel lures.

Uniformity: Discussions of uniformity in medication rules is a hot topic. It will be great if it happens. Meantime, how about a consensus among tracks in another area: uniformity in late scratch rules in multiple race wagers?

The fourth race at Gulfstream on March 3 provided an example of why this is needed. Frank Calabrese entered a coupled entry in the $12,500 maiden claimer. One Tough Cowgirl had a single lifetime start, a second-place finish for $25K, beaten just over a length. Her entry mate, Trini Spice, was the only other horse in the field who had raced for more than $12.5K last out. She was fourth for $16K.

Normally a drop in half in claiming price off a solid race like One Tough Cowgirl’s is a red flag. But this is a move Calabrese routinely employs to win.

Midway through third race betting, well into rolling daily double wagering, with rolling pick threes and the early pick four in progress, it was announced One Tough Cowgirl had been scratched.

Anyone who had keyed One Tough Cowgirl, the day’s Best Bet for the Racing Form’s Mike Welsch, was out of luck. Trini Spice surely was competitive and wound up going off the betting favorite. But you have to think One Tough Cowgirl was the horse many had singled in horizontal bets. Nevertheless, they were stuck with Trini Spice, who finished third. Because they were an entry and one of them started, there wasn’t a consolation.

In New York, the entry would have been scratched for betting purposes. Trini Spice would have run for purse money only. Bet 3 players would have gotten a consolation payoff. Pick Four players would have been transferred to the post time favorite. In the absence of Trini Spice, this would have been Pure Treasure, who won.

For the sake of players, NYRA’s policy should be uniform nationwide.

Written by Tom Jicha

Written by Tom Jicha

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Saturday, March 02, 2013

Vyjack answers another question in Gotham; bad day for Pletcher

Saturday was another disappointing day for Team Pletcher's Kentucky Derby hopes. Overanalyze ran a dull fifth in the Gotham, putting him in jeopardy of missing the cut under the new Kentucky Derby points system. Vyjack has no such worries. He remained undefeated and showed a new dimension, racing from far back under Joel Rosario, to turn the Gotham into a tour de force. His 50 points is more than enough to earn a spot in the Derby starting gate. Meanwhile a new Derby hopeful might have emerged from the seven furlong Swale at Gulfstream. Clearly Now closed strongly to win stylishly enough to have his trainer, Brian Lynch, think about putting him back on the Derby Trial. A Pletcher colt disappointed here, too, as Forty Tales ran fifth as the even-money favorite.
March 2

By Tom Jicha

HALLANDALE, FL--The Swale used to be a significant stepping stone toward the Kentucky Derby, the co-feature on Florida Derby Day. That was in an era when trainers didn’t regard a three-race or more prep agenda as animal abuse. Triple Crown contenders would get their 3-year-old campaign started in the seven furlong Swale, then move on to a couple of two-turn stakes.

More significantly, the new Kentucky Derby points system, which dismisses races at less than a mile, hadn’t been created. All of this made this year’s Swale seem to be merely an early season gauge of outstanding sophomore sprinters.

The Swale still might turn out to be just that. But hold the phone. It took Clearly Now only 1:23.19 to perhaps vault himself back into Derby consideration. “There’s always that temptation, isn’t there?” jubilant trainer Brian Lynch said in the Gulfstream winner’s circle. “Especially the way he finished today.”

Clearly Now surged from mid-pack of the 11-horse field to take the lead in the lane, then draw away to a decisive length-and three-quarter margin, which was extending with every stride. In so doing, he remained perfect around one turn, winning for the third time in as many tries. But it’s not as if he is without two-turn credentials. He finished third in Woodbine’s Display, then came south to do the same in the Holy Bull. Granted, he was more than 13 lengths behind Itsmyluckyday and Shanghai Bobby. However, those two were breaking the course record and there were seven behind Clearly Now.

If Clearly Now does jump back on the Derby trail, it will almost certainly be in the Florida Derby on March 30, Lynch said. Itsmyluckyday and Shanghai Bobby and several other promising colts also are targeting Gulfstream’s premier event. “Wherever you go, it’s a gunfight,” Lynch said.

While Lynch allowed himself a few moments to dream the dream, he quickly came back to earth. “There’s the points system (Clearly Now has none). Also, there’s the question of whether he wants to run that far. This might be an ideal distance for him and he might be a lovely miler on the turf.”

About 1,200 miles up the coast in Aqueduct's Gotham, Vyjack continued to provide the correct answers to questions about his ability to handle a distance. Moreover, he showed a new dimension that encourages the notion that the son of Into Mischief will run as far as he has to and do it faster than those lined up against him.

In winning his first three starts at six furlongs, seven furlongs and a mile and 70 yards, Vyjack raced close to the pace. Joel Rosario, who replaced Cornelio Velazquez because of his ability to get horses to relax, did just that. Rosario allowed Vyjack to dawdle at the rear of the 11-horse field down the backstretch in the mile and a sixteenth stake. Going to the far turn Vyjack still had only three horses beaten but Rosario had put him into overdrive.

Rather than break their momentum, Rosario swung Vyjack five wide at the top of the stretch and he gobbled up foes like Pac Man. They hit the wire in 1:44.09 a drawing away 2 1/4 lengths in front.

West Hills Giant, a 33-1 shot whose only victories were in New York-bred races, held the place over maiden winner Elnaawi. However the margin and style of Vyjack’s triumph left the impression that in this bunch there was him and then everyone else.

The Todd Pletcher Derby bandwagon, which had been seemingly running downhill since late last season, hit another pothole as Overanalyze, game winner of the Remsen in November, could do no better than fifth in his season debut. The Remsen is moving toward negative key race status, as runnerup Normandy Invasion also disappointed last Saturday at the Fair Grounds.

Overanalyze's failure comes on the heels of a potential career-ending injury to Violence in last week’s Fountain of Youth and an also-ran performance by Palace Malice in the Risen Star. With points, not money, the new criteria, Pletcher’s once loaded barn of Derby contenders is in danger of running out of time and races to make the Derby cut.

With the cutoff estimated to be at about 40 points (no one knows since this is the first time), Team Pletcher is going to have to begin to step it up, starting next Saturday with Verrazano in the Tampa Bay Derby. As brilliant as he has been in two runaway wins, Verrazano has zero points. If he doesn’t grab the 50 for first in Tampa, he’ll be part of a mad scramble in the final phase of Derby preps, where circumstances might force Pletcher to run multiple entries, each in need of a win or second.

Saturday just wasn’t Pletcher’s day. His Forty Tales, sent away at even-money in the Swale, never really fired and wound up fifth, almost four lengths behind Clearly Now. The best that can be said of this from Pletcher’s standpoint is that Forty Tales was never considered a Triple Crown contender.

The 50 points earned by Vyjack effectively puts him into the Derby starting gate. This affords his connections the luxury of picking his next stop. In the aftermath of the Gotham, they indicated it would be the Wood, which could wind up loaded. However Vyjack’s people don’t have to worry about wringing him out to win, possibly compromising his chances in Louisville.
Though the way he won the Gotham, Vyjack might not have to overextend himself to go into the Derby undefeated.

Written by Tom Jicha

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