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, July 29, 2014

Bayern creates a wonderful dilemma for Baffert

The racing season doesn't end with the posting of the official at the Belmont Stakes. This past weekend set the stage for a scintillating fall, with the dazzling Bayern and workmanlike Wicked Strong throwing their hats into the 3-year-old-division ring, although any 3-year-old will have to do extraordinary work to overtake California Chrome. Also, in spite of not hitting the board in the Haskell, Untapable remains a formidable force looking ahead to the major distaff races.

MIAMI, July 29, 2014--So what does Bob Baffert do now? The Haskell was supposed to be a prep for the Kings Bishop, which was to be a stepping stone to the Breeders’ Cup Sprint and a potential Eclipse Award as the nation’s top sprinter. The conventional wisdom was running short was Bayern’s forte.

Baffert is looking at bigger game now. The seven furlong Kings Bishop appears out of the question. “I don’t think I’ll back him up now,” the trainer said. He has to be at least thinking about the Travers, although it comes up pretty quickly for the ultra conservative training methods that have come into vogue. Then again Baffert loves big stages and there’s none bigger between now and the Breeders’ Cup.

The Pennsylvania Derby, a few weeks later, would be another possibility. It’s a million dollars against 3-year-olds, one of the few remaining options to run against Bayern’s own generation for huge money. The Super Derby could be an easier alternative, although if Baffert is shooting for Eclipses, it doesn’t have the cachet of races north of the Mason Dixon line.

Will Take Charge, who bombed in all three Triple Crown races, nevertheless used a Travers-Pennsylvania Derby double as stepping stones to an Eclipse Award. A Haskell-Pennsylvania Derby double could be steps in the same direction for Bayern.

With California Chrome, the 3-year-old leader in the clubhouse, and the undefeated Eclipse champion Shared Belief pointing for California races as their Breeders’ Cup preps, the prudent move would be to point Bayern toward races in the East.

If Bayern is to challenge for a 3-year-old Eclipse and possibly even Horse of the Year, he has to beat California Chrome and Shared Belief in the Classic. Beating them once in the ultimate showdown would probably be sufficient, so there is little incentive to try to do it twice.

This assumes Bayern doesn’t trip up along the way. This is true of all the 3-year-old pretenders. The only way anyone dethrones California Chrome, who really doesn’t have to do anything more, is to run the table, including the Classic.

The notion that Bayern is not a mile-and-a-quarter horse is based on his failures in the Arkansas Derby and Preakness. But the Oaklawn race was only the third of his life and early trouble took him totally out of his game in Baltimore.

He dispelled a lot of the stamina doubts Sunday. His pedigree says 10 furlongs is within his scope. His sire, Offlee Wild, is by Wild Again, who outgamed Slew O Gold and Gate Dancer in the first Classic, and his dam is by Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew. Bayern’s dam sire is Kentucky Derby winner Thunder Gulch.

All this praise for Bayern isn’t meant to take anything away from Wicked Strong, who re-emerged as one of the leaders of his class in the Jim Dandy. But his win was workmanlike while Bayern’s was dazzling. Blinkers added a new dimension to Wicked Strong, helping to put the former dead closer right into the race. But if Bayern shows up at the Spa on Aug. 23, I don’t think Jimmy Jerkens will want Wicked Strong pushing him early, although Tonalist, who might not have been fully cranked for the Jim Dandy, would love that scenario.

No disgrace for Untapable

So Untapable couldn’t keep up with the boys in the Haskell. Ergo, fillies and mares are inferior to colts and geldings. You are sure to hear this nonsense in the coming days.

No one in the field could keep up with Bayern, including colts with impressive resumes. They included the winners of the Fountain of Youth, Pegasus, Long Branch and Spectacular Bid and the third-place finishers in the Preakness and Belmont.

Yet the only one being put down is Untapable. “She’s no Rachel Alexandra.” Yeah, so? This could be said of every filly since Rachel as well as most of the colts.

Untapable split the males, finishing in front of as many as finished in front of her. Bayern was in a class of his own but Untapable, who had legitimate trouble, was less than two lengths out of second. Social Inclusion, third in the Preakness and Wood Memorial, was about the same distance behind her. Medal Count, third in the Belmont, was more than 14 lengths in arrears of Untapable.

She probably won’t see colts again, at least not as a 3-year-old, but I wouldn’t diminish her chances against Close Hatches, Princess of Sylmar and Beholder in the BC Distaff. For the record, none of those stellar fillies have even dared to challenge the supposedly strong sex.

Del Mar does the right thing

There are racing rarities and there are things that never happen. One of the latter occurred Sunday at Del Mar. A couple of races were taken off the turf.

This happens at the seaside resort as often as…well, it just doesn’t.

The track is always fast and the turf always firm. Hardly a man is now alive who can remember when the conditions were different. Whoever wrote that song “It Never Rains in California,” could have been a Del Mar racing fan.

Weather didn’t force the shift in surfaces. Four tragic breakdowns, two during Saturday’s card, in less than two weeks on the newly installed grass course was the culprit. The widened course, seeded with a different strain of grass, was as hard as the I-5 freeway.

Kudos to Del Mar management for taking decisive action before further tragedies occurred. It would have been easy to wait one more day, with two darks days looming. Del Mar did the right thing.

There’s a bigger point. Track maintenance is more important than track composition when it comes to a safe surface. Statistically, turf is safer than even the synthetic surfaces California rushed to embrace after a rash of breakdowns. That haste led to a waste of tens of millions of dollars and a drastic transformation of the sport in converting to the artificial surfaces, which will be swept into the dustbin of history before next summer’s session.

But as long as there is racing, stuff will happen. Dance With Fate, whose multiple stakes wins included the Blue Grass, had to be euthanized last week after a rein broke during training hours and he threw his rider and broke away. Ultimately he ran into the outside rail, suffering irreparable injuries.

The only perfectly safe racing is no racing. The goal has to be to take steps to make it as safe as possible. Del Mar deserves a pat on the back for doing this.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Monday, July 21, 2014

NJ hellbent on adding sports betting to tracks

New Jersey is not letting a rebuff from the courts derail its plan to add sports betting to the menu at race tracks and casinos. Marijuana is against federal law, too, but the government is looking the other way at that. The belief is the same thing will happen if and when New Jersey begins taking bets on games, possibly as soon as the first week of the NFL season.

MIAMI, July 21, 2014—NFL training camps open over the next few days. Ditto college football. By the 2014 kickoff, the upcoming season could become a landmark one.

In spite of a rebuff by the United States Supreme Court last month, New Jersey is moving full speed ahead to legalize sports betting at race tracks and casinos. The hope is bettors will be able to play on their favorite teams at Monmouth Park and other venues by the first week of the NFL season in September.

Sports betting in the Garden State appeared dead when the Supremes declined to hear an appeal against rulings by two lower courts that a 2011 referendum to permit sports betting, overwhelmingly approved by voters and supported by Gov. Chris Christie, was in violation of the 1992 Pro and Amateur Sports Protection Act.

The flies in the ointment were the usual suspects: the NCAA, NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL. In their characteristically disingenuous court briefs, they contended that gambling on their games in New Jersey would tarnish the integrity of their sports.

We all know there is no one betting on these games now.

It’s easier than ever thanks to the internet. You no longer have to meet Vito in a smoky bar to make a bet. You can do it from your living room with a click of a mouse.

When the NFL allows the networks to promote the hell out of fantasy football, are they seriously suggesting that the stakes are marbles or match sticks?

Do you think the NCAA is unaware that the reason it gets billions for TV rights to March Madness is that almost everyone in America is following the fate of their brackets?

Whether intentionally or not, the courts left open a loophole. The state of New Jersey could not license sports gambling but it didn’t have to enforce state laws against it. In other words, New Jersey could do what several states have done with marijuana; look the other way.

Indeed, the way the federal government has handled medical marijuana and now recreational pot in Oregon and the state of Washington is being counted upon by New Jersey to clear the way for sports gambling. Federal laws with severe penalties against wacky weed are still on the books but the feds have done nothing to enforce them. President Obama laughed recently while on a fund-raising swing in Colorado when a young pot smoker offered him a toke.

NJ State Sen. Raymond Lesnick charged right through the opening left by the courts. He introduced a bill a few weeks ago to allow private citizens—i.e., the people who own race tracks and casinos--to operate sports betting operations.

Lesnick’s fellow lawman Al Caputo spoke in support. “We are in deep need of innovative ideas to combat the continuous downturn in New Jersey’s gaming industry in both Atlantic City and at our racetracks.” A couple of Atlantic City casinos have gone bankrupt in the past few weeks. Sports betting might bring some folks back to the shore, which now has nothing to offer that isn’t available closer to home in the heavily populated neighboring states of New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland.

Lesnick’s bill squeaked through the New Jersey State Senate 35-1. The Assembly concurred 63-6-2. New Jersey clearly wants to bet (or bet against) their Giants and Jets.

It is not irrelevant that Lesnick and Caputo are both Democrats, as are the majority of their colleagues in the New Jersey legislature. In what figures to be a tough election year for Democrats, with former Newark mayor Cory Booker up for re-election to the U.S. Senate, it’s doubtful President Obama and his Justice Department would want to do anything to make it more challenging by angering New Jersey voters by picking on their state while letting the pot states slide.

The timing of the latest push is not coincidental. Even though voters approved sports betting more than two years ago, lawmakers and Gov. Christie did not want to ruffle NFL feathers until the Super Bowl was held in the Meadowlands.

Those who suggest that the NFL might move to take the Giants and Jets out of the state in retaliation are higher than the folks in Oregon and Washington. That little playpen in Secaucus the two teams built cost more than a billion dollars.

Where would the Jets and Giants go? The Bronx and Queens, where baseball stadiums hold only half as many fans? That’s assuming they would be welcomed. Maybe the Giants could go back to the Yale Bowl?

Dennis Drazen, consultant to the New Jersey Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, is all for sports betting at the tracks. “This is a $500 billion industry and most of it is illegal,” Drazin was quoted as saying. “It would literally save Monmouth Park and save thousands of jobs.”

A significant difference between sports betting and slots, the most recent savior of racing, is that slots players rarely cross over. Horse players bet sports, and vice versa.

The Meadowlands, with its proximity to New York City, could benefit even more although there would probably be incredible pressure brought to bear not to have betting on the NFL closer than a long Eli Manning-to-Victor Cruz pass.

Tailgaters could have a beer, a brat and a bet before entering the stadium. It’s a delicious and intoxicating thought.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Florida allows Churchill to keep Calder casino, fire 241 racing employees

Florida racing is better off with Gulfstream in command and Churchill Downs out of the picture. But it's not right that CDI can make believe it still is involved in racing to keep its casino. While it is raking in the slots cash, CDI is laying off 241 employees, who worked in Calder racing. The only potential bright spot is Hialeah might be closer to getting back into the game.

MIAMI, July 16, 2014--Florida has become infamous for barrel racing, flag racing, a quarterhorse “meeting” involving about a half dozen horses racing twice a day, all owned or connected in some way to the owner of a bush league operation, and a jai alai fronton in which a father and son played all the matches against only each other.

All of these were used as flimsy justifications—thankfully, not all of which have succeeded--for the introduction of poker rooms and simulcasting.

Then there’s Tampa Bay Downs running programs on June 30 and July 1, the final and first day of the state’s fiscal year, to establish itself as a year-round racing venue and qualify to be a host simulcasting site.

These creative contortions of law would be amusing if they were not so infuriating. Is anybody in charge in Florida? Nominally, yes. In reality, no, most of the time.

However, the low rent shams are put to shame by the travesty being allowed to be committed by Churchill Downs Inc. at Calder.

The latest abomination is the revelation that 241 employees, according to the Blood-Horse, will be laid off as a result of racing ending at Calder. While these people are heading for the unemployment line, CDI continues to rake in big bucks in its slots parlor.

How can the state let this happen?

When legalization of slots was being debated, the prime argument was gaming would save horse racing and the jobs the sport generates. Now CDI has its racino, but no longer has anything to do with racing and 241 people are out of work. All of this with the state’s blessing.

There will be a two-month meeting at Calder in October and November, solely to fulfill CDI’s obligation of running at least 40 dates to keep its slots license. You can bet case money that lobbyists will be working lawmakers hard to have even this obligation stricken. In any case, CDI will have nothing to do with the fall meet. It will be entirely under the control of Gulfstream.

Calder will not even open its building except to a few racing officials. Fans will be confined to tents. It’s still mighty hot in mid-autumn in Miami.

The widespread belief is that when the fall session ends, the Calder building will be demolished. But the racino will still be there. In fact, it will probably be expanded once the grandstand is out of the way. So much for saving racing.

Florida racing is better off with Gulfstream in control. With the head-to-head conflict with Calder eliminated, Gulfstream had the fullest fields in the nation this past weekend. Saturday’s 11-race card drew 126 entries. Sunday’s 10-race program had 122 entrants.

For the past few years, CDI has treated horse racing like skunk spray. To add insult, giant neon letters on the Calder grandstand, visible from the Florida Turnpike, read “Calder Casino.” Not a mention of horse racing. Even while it was still a full-time race track, Calder’s advertising was totally geared to the casino.

It’s not a stretch to suspect that CDI welcomed being put out of business by Gulfstream. Why is it this is obvious to everyone but the state, which has adopted a Sgt. Schultz stance: “I see nothing.”

I’m not a legal expert but I would think the 241 employees being laid off at Calder could make a case that without racing, CDI should not be allowed to operate a casino. At the very least, this could prove embarrassing in an election year to Gov. Rick Scott, whose political mantra has been putting Floridians to work.

For all his eccentricities, Frank Stronach is dedicated to racing. He’s an Eclipse winning owner and breeder, who loves the game and races his stock all over the U.S. and Canada. In spite of his schemes to surround Gulfstream with a mall, a water theme park, a giant horse head statue and goodness knows what else, racing has always been Stronach’s priority and the track the focal point of the property. Gulfstream has a casino but its advertising is heavily tilted toward horse racing.

The only potential positive that could emerge from the murder CDI is being allowed to get away with is it offers a glimmer of hope that Hialeah could get back into the game. Almost simultaneous to the announcement of the Gulfstream-Calder settlement, Hialeah announced a $60 million renovation of its facility, including a new high tech simulcasting center.

This is the second stage of improvements to bring the fabled track back to what it once was. Hialeah already had been spruced up for the opening of its racino and card room, which was made possible by a winter quarterhorse meet.

But Hialeah president John Brunetti has been unwavering in declaring his intention to restore top class thoroughbred racing, which has been absent for more than a decade.

An opening seems to be emerging. Gulfstream’s Tim Ritvo said his track is not about to give up any of the 190 dates it fought so hard to obtain. However, Ritvo said Gulfstream is willing to work with Brunetti to bring Hialeah back into the picture. The 40 Calder dates are the ones that would be in play.

A positive sign that Ritvo’s statements are more than public relations rhetoric is Gulfstream allowing Hialeah, about 14 miles away, to pick up its simulcast signals. Gulfstream does not have to do this.

Brunetti , whose track is located in a heavily Hispanic area, has powerful allies in Tallahassee among Miami’s Latin legislative caucus. He has made it clear he intends to call on them next spring when the legislature reconvenes. All they would have to do is work through a bill to free CDI from its obligation to conduct 40 days of racing and award the 40 days to Hialeah.

Don't under-estimate Brunetti. He got the legislature to pass a bill that allowed him to get a slots parlor even though the original amendment that opened the door to expanded gambling was written to specifically exclude Hialeah.

It would be galling to see CDI rewarded for bad behavior but that plane has left the gate.

Another alternative is for Hialeah to lease some or all of the Gulfstream-at-Calder dates.

Gulfstream-at-Calder-at Hialeah, anyone?

Stranger things are winked at all the time in Florida.

Written by Tom Jicha

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