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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Thursday, April 28, 2016

Songbird’s absence makes Oaks a super betting race

Super filly Songbird will be missed in the Kentucky Oaks but her defection has created the best betting race of Derby weekend with a half-dozen or more possible favorites and a herd of live price horses. Even better, the Oaks is tied, as always, to the Derby in a double bet and with the Derby and Turf Classic in a pick three. The payoffs could be, as The Donald says, Y-U-U-U-G-E.

MIAMI, April 28, 2016--The Kentucky Derby stands alone. It’s the race people analyze for months and scrutinize like no other. Those of us at HRI will be doing a lot of that next week. But even with its 20-horse field the Derby isn’t the best betting race of the first weekend in May this year.

Everyone has a different definition of what makes a great betting race. Mine is a race in which the favorite, if you like it, is a generous price--in the 4-1 or better range--and, if you have a contrarian view, there are prices galore on live alternatives.

The unfortunate illness that took super filly Songbird out of the Oaks has put the Friday feature into this category. Songbird has been so overwhelming there was little interest in the Oaks most of the winter. Never really tested, she was 7-10 in the futures betting seven weeks out. It’s a matter of conjecture how low she might have gone at post-time. She would have been a "can't bet her, can't bet against her" proposition.

Moreover, the Oaks is linked to the Derby in a two-day double bet and is part of a pick 3 with the Derby and Turf Classic, the race immediately preceding the Run for the Roses. So the potential will-pays on those wagers would have been diminished, too.

Now so many fillies want a piece of the Oaks that the point system, which limits the field to 14—how’s that for gender bias?—has become a factor and all the bets connected to the Oaks have become significantly more alluring.

Steve Asmussen would like to get five in if he could. “We wouldn’t be considering all these fillies if Songbird was running,” the newest member of the Hall of Fame conceded.” I feel very strongly about our fillies and how we’re coming in. The deletion of Songbird puts us in that position.”

Asmussen especially talked up Terra Promessa, Taxable and Royal Obsession. Terra Promessa is on a four-race roll, including the Honeybee and Fantasy. “She’s a Curlin filly, who has developed nicely. She is starting to be more aggressive in her races.” Taxable, second in the Fantasy, has an Oaks pedigree. She’s out of a half-sister to Oaks winner Summerly with Tapit on top. Royal Obsession was second in the Gazelle and will benefit from nine furlongs, Asmussen feels.

Asmussen has a sentimental root for Todd Pletcher’s bred-in-the-purple Rachel’s Valentina (Bernadini-Rachel Alexandra), the Spinaway winner who was second to Songbird in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies and, more recently, the Ashland in her 3-year-old debut. “Just knowing she’s Rachel’s daughter, she would be the most obvious to me.”

Lewis Bay, who made the Gazelle her third win in her last four races, will have to be reckoned with next Friday along with Cathryn Sophia, the only filly to beat her in this streak.

Cathryn Sophia, the sensation of the Gulfstream winter season, was being pointed for the Eight Belles around one turn after tiring to third in the Ashland, her first attempt at two turns. Nevertheless, when Songbird came out, trainer John Servis had second thoughts and is now pointing toward the Oaks.

The Ashland reminded me of last summer’s Travers. The riders of Cathryn Sophia, Rachel’s Valentina and Carina Mia, another graded stakes winner, got so involved pushing each other--ala Frosted and American Pharoah--that Weep No More, who was in another county down the backside, was able to fly out of the clouds and run past them all. Then again, who’s to say Weep No More, a Mineshaft filly who has won all three of her two-turn races, can’t do it again?

Dale Romans joked a few weeks ago that he wished Songbird would go in the Derby and leave the Oaks alone for his Gulfstream Oaks winner Go Maggie Go. It didn’t quite work out exactly that way but the rapidly improving daughter of Ghostzapper will get her shot at the Oaks without having to deal with Songbird.

The quality and wide-open nature of the Oaks is underscored by the likelihood none of these fillies will go favored. Doug O’Neill might not have only the Derby favorite in Nyquist. His Land Over Sea has a big shot at being the public’s choice in the Oaks.

This despite the fact that her big win in the Fair Grounds Oaks broke a five-race losing streak. Simple explanation: all five of those races were against Songbird. She finished second in three of them and third in another. Land Over Sea's eye-catching five-length win from the back of the pack might have been her way of saying, “Thank you” to O’Neill for finally getting her away from Songbird.

“She’s progressing really well,” O’Neill said on an NTRA conference call. “This is a filly that ran well first time out as a July 2-year-old and here we are in late April of her 3-year-old season and she’s just a bigger, stronger, mentally tough filly. Not having to knock heads with Songbird worked, so we’re hoping we can follow up the Fair Grounds Oaks win with a Kentucky Oaks win.”

She’ll have to beat a salty bunch to do it but none of them are named Songbird.

Preciado, Ziadie game the system

Last week I commented on how Rafael Bejarano is the latest jockey to make a mockery of the appeals process for suspensions. Bejarano drew three days for a riding infraction in February during the lucrative Santa Anita winter season. By appealing, he delayed serving his days until last week at Los Alamitos, where purses are substantially lower and high quality mounts a jockey wouldn’t want to risk losing are much less plentiful. This should not be tolerated.

Suspect trainers Ramon Preciado and Kirk Ziadie, whose stratospheric winning percentages and sudden improvements of horses would make Hall of Famers feel inadequate, have made what Bejarano did look like putting off paying a parking ticket.

Two weeks ago, Preciado,was told he was no longer welcome at Parx after ringing up a total of 270 days in suspensions for a string of drug violations at the Philadelphia track and Delaware Park. He thumbed his nose at the stewards on what was supposed to be his last weekend at Parx by winning seven straight races. This brought his winning percentage to just shy of 50 percent. Nothing suspicious about that.

But Preciado might not be finished. He is appealing his penalties.

Ziadie was told he was not welcome at Calder for two years from 2009-2011. The track finally let him back and it was just like old times. He had 18 positives in four years while achieving a strike rate of about 40 percent. Andy Beyer pointed out in a column a few years ago that over a five-year period, Ziadie won first time off a claim at an astonishing 47 percent rate.

The Florida Department of Pari-Mutuel Wagering finally had seen enough by last December. It suspended Ziadie for six years. Now he, too, is appealing.

There is a way to stop this abuse of the system. If serial offenders such as Preciado and Ziadie are found by racing officials to be guilty of what they are charged, their cases should be referred to the justice system. There are harsh laws against interfering with the results of a sporting contest. Drugging race horses surely falls into that category.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, April 21, 2016

It’s up to players to make Canterbury takeout reduction succeed

Canterbury Park is taking a bold step to reduce its takeout to the lowest blended rate in North America. The experiment, which will be monitored closely by other jurisdictions, needs the support of simulcast players nationwide to succeed.

This could be a challenge considering the unfamiliarity of Canterbury's horses, jockeys and trainers. If nothing else, players should consider support of Canterbury this season to be an investment in the future, no matter where their major plays are.

MIAMI, April 21, 2016--All hail, Canterbury for becoming an industry leader in reduction of takeout.

Canterbury Park is lowering its takeout to a blended 16.5%, a North American low. Win-place-show will be taxed at 15%. Exotics will have 18% removed from the pool before winners are paid. The blended takeout has been 20.4%.

Horseplayers have been advocating this for years. So its success or failure will be monitored closely nationwide. This is why elation must be tempered. The downside is, if the reduced rates don’t increase handle, other jurisdictions will use it as an argument against similar reductions.

Canterbury is not the ideal canary in this coal mine. Success is dependent on simulcast players taking some of their action to the Minnesota track. Widespread unfamiliarity with the track, its horses, trainers and jockeys could work against this.

On-track handle is approximately one-third of Canterbury's total wagering. This is about three times the 10% norm at most tracks. In other words, Canterbury’s handle is disproportionately a product of its on-site fans. Interest among outsiders has been limited.

What’s more, its 7:30 first post in the East on Thursdays and Fridays comes well after the end of the cards in New York, Florida, Kentucky and the Mid-Atlantic tracks. The weekend cards, which spring from the gate at 1:45 p.m. in the East, will have to buck the live racing at these jurisdictions. It’s a daunting challenge to win over bettors who have been betting these tracks for years.

Eric Halstrom, Canterbury’s vice president of racing operations, was quoted in the Racing Form acknowledging a major motivation for the lower takeout is an attempt to attract new simulcast players. “We have not been a part of everybody’s simulcast day. We’re fine with admitting we weren’t on everyone’s radar but this is a way to increase our visibility. When you go from zero to a new player, that’s a big thing. We’re taking a gamble here but we’re not opposed to taking some risk.”

Canterbury is not only risking a hit to its bottom line. To get the support of its horsemen, which was essential, it has guaranteed that even if the total handle plunges, purses will be at least the same as they were last year with a higher takeout.

Andy Asaro, tireless champion of horseplayers (slogan: “We never quit”), raised another potential pitfall. There are jurisdictions, most notably his home state of California, adamantly opposed to takeout reductions. They might do everything they can to sabotage the Canterbury experiment, starting with dropping the signal. If they do, they must be punished with a boycott.

On the positive side, it would behoove simulcast players to throw a few bucks each session at the Canterbury races. A $10 bet each time you go to the races would push Canterbury way over the top. This isn't a lot to ask. You might even show a profit. Even if you don’t win, the money could eventually come back big time if success at Canterbury forces other jurisdictions to adapt.

Appeals make penalties a joke

Rafael Bejarano is the latest to make a mockery of racing penalties. Bejarano drew a three-day suspension for a ride at Santa Anita on Feb. 11, the heart of the lucrative winter racing season. As is usually the case, Bejarano appealed, delaying imposition of the penalty.

Last week he dropped the appeal, a timely decision. He’ll serve the days during the Los Alamitos meet when the number of races, especially quality races with horses a rider wouldn’t want to give up, is down substantially from Santa Anita.

Bejarano’s first day on the ground was Sunday, when Los Alamitos was able to scrape together only eight races with a total of 49 entries on a weekend. Four of the eight went for $20,000 or less. The feature offered $50,000, less than what a maiden race goes for during the winter.

Bejarano’s “suspension” includes Thursday and Friday. Both programs, eight races each, are more of the same. Thursday’s first three races drew fields of five. This swelled to six for the next three races. Friday’s first two heats had five horses, apiece. The next three had six each. Five of Thursday’s races had purses under $20K. The feature went for $46K. The Friday feature was another 50 grander. Three races offered less than $20K. Another had a $27K purse.

In effect, Bejarano is using the Santa Anita suspension as an excuse to take a vacation during Los Alamitos, when it’s hardly worth his while to show up. This isn’t an indictment of Bejarano. It’s business as usual for jockeys.

The appeal was filed in February. The big question is why it was still in limbo more than two months later. It should have been ruled upon within a week or less. “Justice delayed is justice denied” wasn’t coined for racing suspensions but it could have been.

If suspensions are to have any meaning, the appeal process has to be changed. Swift rulings are a must. Absent this in our litigious society, jockeys (and trainers) should have to serve their time during a comparable meeting, preferably at the same track at roughly the same time of year. In other words, if Bejarano’s appeal was found to be without merit or withdrawn, he should have been forced to do the days in the heart of the next Santa Anita winter season.

Otherwise, why bother.

Songbird will be missed but not at windows

The supposedly minor illness that has knocked Songbird out of the Kentucky Oaks has created a new sub-division of bridge-jumpers, the bettors who took 7-10 in the Oaks future wagering, seven weeks out, on the supposed sure thing. They get no pity here.

Let’s hope that Songbird’s illness is indeed minor and we see this superstar filly on the track again soon, perhaps as early as the Preakness, although that might be wishful thinking.

To put a positive spin on the unfortunate situation, Songbird's absence makes Derby weekend more interesting gambling-wise. Where Songbird would have been 1-2 or less, the new favorite in the Oaks, whoever that turns out to be, will probably be in the 4-1 or more range.

The Oaks exactas, trifecta’s and supers become more alluring, too.

The Oaks-Derby double also becomes a more lucrative opportunity. A Songbird-Nyquist double might have returned a laughable payoff, 2-1 or less. Doubles with Songbird and any Derby winner probably would have paid very close to what the straight Derby price winds up, negating incentive to make the two-day play.

Now the Oaks-Derby double is more enticing than other daily double bets because the 20-horse Derby field greatly increases the number of combinations. This also goes for the Oaks-Turf Classic-Derby pick 3.

We’ll get seriously into sorting out the possibilities as we get closer to the day.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, April 14, 2016

Pharoah’s gone but Baffert’s in the Derby picture again

Bob Baffert isn't bringing an American Pharoah to the Kentucky Derby this season. But he's not coming unarmed. He feels he has a potent arrow in his quiver in Cupid, who is on target to give Baffert his seemingly annual victory in the Arkansas Derby, the final major prep for Louisville. Baffert isn't giving up on Mor Spirit, either, in spite of a disappointing effort in the Santa Anita Derby.

MIAMI, April 14, 2016--American Pharoah is gone to a life of love and leisure, leaving a huge void in Bob Baffert’s barn. The attention this spring has moved down shed row to Doug O’Neill’s barn, home of undefeated juvenile champion Nyquist.

But Baffert can never be counted out during Derby season. He could have the second betting choice in Cupid, who is favored to win Saturday’s Arkansas Derby, as well as Grade 1 winner Mor Spirit, who has never been worse than second in seven career starts.

There is an outside chance Collected, who runs in the Lexington on Saturday, will also move into the Derby picture. However, Baffert said in a conference call that he has reservations about Collected getting 10 furlongs.

He has almost no reservations regarding his other two potential Derby starters. He’s especially high on Cupid, who has won around two turns twice, including the Rebel. “He’s very fast and a beautiful long striding horse.”

The Rebel was impressive on its face but Baffert feels Cupid’s race was even better than it appeared. “He broke a little step slow, rushed up and still made the lead. He almost hit the rail and still managed to hold off fast closing Whitmore.”

The necessity to ship cross country to Arkansas from California twice, as he did with American Pharoah, gives him some pause. “When you ship then you ship twice, it can be a little bit tough on them. That’s what made Pharoah such a great horse. Horses have a small window of greatness. Pharoah had a window all year long, which is very rare.”

So far, so good with Cupid, Baffert said. “I haven’t seen him regress. If I thought I saw a little regress, I would have just run him fresh into the Derby or maybe I could have taken him to the Coolmore Lexington.” The 50 points Cupid earned in the Rebel would have afforded Baffert these options.

Mor Spirit slipped in the estimation of many after being soundly beaten by Exaggerator in the Santa Anita Derby but Baffert hasn’t lost faith in him. “I don’t like to make excuses for my horses but he didn’t get the trip we were hoping to get. We wanted to be near the lead. But Gary (Stevens) said they all left like their hair was on fire. So he hung in the middle. He basically just passed tired horses at the end. The winner ran a great race. It was disappointing but we’ll move on.”

One thing Baffert has no reservations about is using a race only three weeks out as a final Derby prep. “I think three weeks is fine. They changed (the preps) because some trainers feel like they need an extra week. I think everybody has their own way. But to me, three weeks is fine. It’s the sheet guys who sort of tell them you don’t want to run a big number this close. Your horse is going to bounce. So they go by that. I don’t really go by that.”

From Baffert’s lips to the ears of every trainer in America.

Like most others, Baffert feels Nyquist stands above the crowd. “He hasn’t done anything wrong. He has been handled great. He’s all race horse. We keep waiting to see if he’s going to get the distance but he’s so good that he just keeps on going.”

Nyquist’s stamina issues trace to his sire, Uncle Mo, who didn’t win past a mile and a sixteenth. Baffert said this might not matter. “Pedigree in America now is so diluted that it doesn’t really matter anymore. It’s how good you are. So I think you have Nyquist and a lot of horses underneath.”

This doesn’t mean he’s conceding anything. “You need some luck. We have a 20-horse field to deal with. So many things can go wrong. So we still have a long way to go.”

Songbird still the one

America’s best 3-year-old will not be running for roses on the first Saturday in May. She will be racing for lilies on Friday.

On last Saturday’s busiest day for Derby preps, the most dazzling performance was again turned in by Songbird, who cantered to her seventh straight blowout in the Santa Anita Oaks.

I opined recently that Nyquist will be one of the shortest priced Derby favorites in recent years, deservedly so. But if Songbird was in the race, Nyquist would be no better than second choice.
I’ll double down. If Songbird does her thing in the Oaks, then runs in the Preakness, as is being speculated, she will be favored over Nyquist even if he wins the Derby.

Ponder that. An undefeated, Eclipse champion Kentucky Derby winner would not be favored in the second jewel of the Triple Crown.

That’s how good Songbird is.

Another Stymie?

Ken Ramsey plans to supplement Spiral winner Oscar Nominated, who he claimed for $75,000 last fall, to the Derby even though he has never raced on conventional dirt. Why not, the colorful Eclipse-winning owner figures? “I’m optimistic. It’s not a stellar field after Nyquist.”

Depending on how the points shake out in the Arkansas Derby, a pair of maidens, Laoban, fourth in the Blue Grass, and Trojan Nation, second in the Wood, could be in the Churchill Downs starting gate.

Ramsey, who is always looking for new worlds to conquer, is targeting another. “We got a chance to make a little history. I go back a long way. I’m 80 and I remember back when Hirsch Jacobs claimed Stymie. They say Stymie is the greatest claim in history. So if Oscar Nominated goes on to win the Derby, I guess that puts me right in the history books with Hirsch Jacobs and Stymie.”

Written by Tom Jicha

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