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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Friday, October 04, 2013

Horse of the Year is down to Dan or the Dude

Super Saturday raised as many questions as it provided answers as to 2013 divisional honors. But it did clarify one big thing. By process of elimination, Horse of the Year is down to Wise Dan and Game on Dude, with their performances at the Breeders' Cup the decisive factor.

The big winners on Super Saturday never left their stalls. The ten Grade 1’s raised as many questions as they provided answers for various divisional honors. But they did clarify the grand prize. Either Game on Dude or Wise Dan will be 2013 Horse of the Year.

If only one wins at the Breeders’ Cup, he should be a unanimous choice. (I was going to add a caveat that Wise Dan would have to avoid being upset in Saturday’s Shadwell Mile at Keeneland. On second thought, even if he were beaten, then comes back and wins the BC Turf Mile and the Dude falls in the Classic, Dan still has the strongest resume in North America.)

If Wise Dan and Game on Dude both win on Nov. 2, Game on Dude will get the nod. All things being equal, an outstanding dirt horse will outpoll the leading grass horse every time. This is as it should be. Dirt is the dominant surface in American racing.

If they both go down to defeat, Game on Dude will capture the Eclipse for the same reason.

It’s a process of elimination. There are no other reasonable candidates even if both fall the first weekend in November.

Princess of Sylmar might have had a shot if she added the Breeders’ Cup Distaff to her stunning triumph over two-time champion Royal Delta in the Beldame. (That the Princess won isn’t stunning. The ease with which she ran past Royal Delta is.)

Six wins in seven races, including four straight Grade 1’s and two over older rivals, are awesome credentials. It would be the exact equal to Wise Dan (again assuming he wins Saturday but not at the BC) and would be superior to the Dude’s five-for-six (if he fails again in the Classic). The “what have you done for me lately?” factor also would work in her favor.

However, it’s unlikely she would be rewarded after avoiding racing’s biggest stage while in perfect health and peak form, which seems to be the case. Her owner, Ed Stanco, changed his mind after saying the Alabama would be her 2013 finale. Maybe he will do it again when he ponders what could be on the line. Let’s hope so.

If you really want to reach, you could make a case for Laughing, whose win in the Flower Bowl made her 2013 scorecard a perfect 4-for-4. If she were to win her fifth straight in the BC Filly & Mare Turf at the expense of Beverly D champion Dank and other top Euros, you couldn’t blame her connections for arguing, “Hey, what about us?”

But if some voters bristled at giving the 2012 title to Wise Dan because all his wins were on grass, how do you rationalize giving it to a mare, who raced exclusively on turf and never outside her gender?

This appears to be a moot point. Like Princess of Sylmar, Laughing is not nominated to the Breeders' Cup and in all likelihood is not going to Santa Anita.

Anyone else would be a candidate solely of contrarians. Let’s say Will Take Charge takes the BC Classic for his third straight win. His overall record for the year would be only 5-for-10. Moreover, do we really want to anoint a colt, who finished 8th in the Kentucky Derby, 7th in the Preakness and 10th in the Belmont, as Horse of the Year?

The road to an Eclipse shouldn’t go through Moreno, who was second in WTC’s two most recent victories. This is illustrative of the fact that WTC didn’t come to prominence until attrition had taken its toll on his generation. Granted, he nailed Preakness champion Oxbow on the wire in the Rebel during the spring but this doesn’t outweigh 8th, 7th and 10th in the Triple Crown events.

Palace Malice has supporters but he will go into the BC Classic 2-for-9. A win in the Classic would be enough to take the still-up-for-grabs 3-year-old honors, but that’s all.

If neither Will Take Charge nor Palace Malice manage to hit the board in the Classic, Orb, who is mercifully done for the year, could still sneak away with the 3-year-old title. We can debate that if and when the time comes.

Every year it seems there is one horse who goes home with nothing on Eclipse night despite an extraordinary season. Little Mike was the unfortunate odd one out last year. Grade 1 wins in the Woodford Reserve, the Arlington Million and Breeders Cup Turf would be enough to clinch the Turf Eclipse and make a case for Horse of the Year in many seasons. Poor Mike got nothing because he did it in Wise Dan’s year.

Beholder looks like the 2013 model for being very good in a season someone else was great. A few hours after Princess of Sylmar disposed of Royal Delta, Beholder toyed with a solid field of older fillies and mares in the Grade 1 Zenyatta. It was her fourth win in six starts, to go with a pair of seconds.

Those are Eclipse credentials most seasons. Not in the year of Princess of Sylmar, who outfinished her in the Kentucky Oaks. It won't even matter if Beholder wins the BC Distaff.

Maybe racing should create a separate trophy for situations like this. It could be called the Sham Award.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Friday, September 27, 2013

Super Saturday is too much of a good thing

Saturday's racing on both coasts is spectacular. Ten Grade 1 races are scheduled, more than on either of the Breeders' Cup days. This could be too much of a good thing. Fall racing would be more exciting if these races were spread out over September and October, as they used to be.

MIAMI, Sept. 27, 2013--Super Saturday isn’t hyperbole this weekend. Ten Grade 1 races are on tap, five apiece at Belmont and Santa Anita. This is more than Breeders’ Cup Saturday.

There should be 11. The Kelso, a Grade 2, is worthy of a bump up.

What a great day. What a shame.

These races each deserve their own place in the sun, a day when it’s all about them. At most they should share a bill with one other major stakes.

It’s insulting that the first confrontation between Eclipse champion Royal Delta and streaking 3-year-old filly leader Princess of Sylmar is buried as the fifth race on an 11-race Belmont card. We all know why. Even with casino money cascading in beyond the most wildly optimistic expectations, it’s more important to build a big Pick 6 pool than to give a proper platform to one of the most anticipated showdowns of the year.

It used to be when the horses returned from Saratoga that the fall session at Belmont was known as the “championship meet,” because so many divisional titles were decided in stakes spaced out during September and October. Now it’s more like the “championship day.” Make it two days, since the meeting’s other three Grade 1 stakes will be lumped together next Saturday. Once upon a time horses could start in more than one of these championship events, such as the Futurity and Champagne, Matron and Frizette.

No more. The Futurity will be run Sunday, the Champagne six days later. Same for the Matron and Frizette. It’s not inconceivable that a horse could double up in six days but with Richard Dutrow out of the picture, it’s beyond highly unlikely.

The culprits for the compacting of the best of racing are the Breeders’ Cup the first weekend in November and the new school of training. Social Security checks go out more frequently than most thoroughbreds.

There’s probably no remedy for the latter unless some free-thinking young trainer starts to win races in bunches with horses who race every couple or three weeks like in the old days. Racing is as much a copycat business as my old beat of television.

The Breeders’ Cup is another story. I’ve advocated several times that the self-anointed World Championships move back on the calendar to Thanksgiving weekend. Black Friday is an unofficial national holiday. More people are off work than any other Friday of the year and a lot of people are looking for something to do or watch while their spouses go nuts at the mall.

One drawback is the late date comes with the threat of miserable weather and early nightfall in most of the United States. However, it’s become increasingly evident that Breeders’ Cup is hell bent on anchoring itself in Southern California. Santa Anita is in the midst of a three-year run as host track and Del Mar isn’t spending millions to widen its turf course without at least a wink-wink deal that it’s getting into the Breeders’ Cup rotation. So neither of the potential negatives are an issue.

There are myriad reasons why not maintaining the Breeders' Cup as a movable feast would be bad for racing, and ultimately the Breeders’ Cup. However, as long as it seems inevitable, we might as well look for positives. A big one would be the opportunity for Belmont, Santa Anita and Keeneland to space their most prestigious stakes throughout the fall and still leave time for what is considered to be the proper layoff prior to the Breeders’ Cup.

I’ll be as chomping at the bit to bet Saturday's cavalcade of super stakes. But I would enjoy it just as much, probably more, if the marquee races were spaced so that I could be betting the best horses in the world all during the fall. As it is, we’re looking at full cards of second-tier and state-bred stakes on both coasts by the second half of October.

One other bitch about this Saturday. With all the Grade 1’s and the time difference between coasts, you would think NYRA and Santa Anita could have found a way to tie together some of them in a crossover multiple wager bet. The final two Grade 1’s at Belmont, the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic and the Jockey Club Gold Cup, have scheduled post times of 5:17 and 5:49 respectively. The first two Grade 1’s at Santa Anita, the Chandelier for 2-year-olds and the Rodeo Drive for fillies and mares on the turf, go at 6 p.m. (Eastern) and 6:34.

It took NYRA years to come up with a less inviting multiple race wager than the Grand Slam, which a lot of simulcast sites don’t even handle. It finally managed to bottom itself with the Thursday Pick 4, combining the last two in New York with the first two at Penn National, a track that might as well be Assiniboia Downs to Big Apple players.

Yet with an opportunity to link four championship caliber races on the biggest day of the fall outside the Breeders’ Cup, NYRA and Santa Anita did nothing. Why?

Written by Tom Jicha

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Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Juvenile Stakes as Classics Predictor? Be Very Afraid

The first Kentucky Derby future book came out last week and the temptation to jump in is great, but recent history teaches it would be foolhardy to base a wager on 2-year-old form.

The last three colts to wear the garland of roses went into their 3-year-old campaigns with only a maiden win.

We note this as there are several races for juveniles on Belmont's Super Saturday card and out west--especially the following weekend, when the best 2-year-olds debut types unleashed by Todd Pletcher and Shug McGaughey at Saratoga will test each other in the prestigious Grade 1 Champagne Stakes.

A cautionary tale follows:

MIAMI, Sept. 23--Shanghai Bobby returned to the races last Friday and had to work hard to beat a moderate field. This was a week after the Wynn in Las Vegas rolled out the first 2014 Kentucky Derby future book. The coincidental confluence of events should be instructive to those tempted to project fall form to next spring and try to make a score or feed an ego by identifying the next Derby winner eight months in advance.

Three words of advice: Don’t do it!

The only exception to getting down early would be if you are part of the connections of an extraordinary young horse, who has not yet revealed his full scope to the general public. See Doug O’Neill and I’ll Have Another.

Shanghai Bobby was all the rage last fall. Before the leaves stopped falling, the son of Harlan’s Holiday had won all five career starts, including the Hopeful, Champagne and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, an imposing triple.

Until his return at Belmont, Shanghai Bobby had not won again. He ran only twice at Gulfstream, then went to the sidelines after finishing fifth in the Florida Derby.

Shanghai Bobby is merely the latest example of a trend that should be foreboding to those contemplating Derby future bets. Winning a major 2-year-old stakes should stand on its own as a noteworthy achievement. But as far as being a predictor of the Triple Crown Classics, it has become close to meaningless.

I compiled a roster of what I consider to be the nine major fall races for juveniles and their 2012 winners: Futurity and Remsen (Overanalyze); Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and Champagne (Shanghai Bobby); Breeders’ Futurity (Joha); Front Runner (Power Broker); Kentucky Jockey Club (Uncaptured); Nashua and Cash Call Futurity (Violence).

Not one of the precocious half-dozen winners hit the board in the Derby, Preakness or Belmont. Only Overanalyze managed to make the starting gate. He ran 11th in the Derby, 7th in the Belmont.

Moreover, Overanalyze is the only one to win one of the seven 100-point Derby preps, the Arkansas Derby. In fact, he was the only one to hit the board in the spring races deemed most important by the people who set the qualifying standards for the Run for the Roses.

Where were the horses, who would become the stars of the 2013 spring classics, in the fall of 2012?

Orb was a three-race maiden until he broke through on Nov. 24. Oxbow, who broke his maiden the next afternoon, was also a three-race maiden. Both entered 2013 eligible for an entry level allowance. Palace Malice won in his second start at Saratoga on Aug. 4 then wasn’t seen again until January.

Golden Soul, the surprise runner-up in the Derby, didn’t break his maiden until Dec. 30 at the Fair Grounds. That was two days after the Derby’s third-place finisher, Revolutionary, got his first win over Aqueduct’s winter oval.

So maybe the place to look for Derby horses is not the major juvenile stakes but late-in-the-year maiden races.

This was not a one-year outlier. I’ll Have Another ended his juvenile year with a maiden win from three starts. Animal Kingdom, the 2010 Derby winner, also went into his 3-year-old campaign with only a maiden win.

Interestingly, the most accomplished 2-year-old in recent years to go on to victory in the Kentucky Derby was one of the most shocking winners in history. Mine That Bird, sent off at 50-1 in Louisville, was a three-time stakes winner, albeit in Canada, as a 2-year-old.

In light of all this, it shouldn’t be surprising that the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, which theoretically draws the best of the 2-year-old crop, has produced only one Kentucky Derby winner, Street Sense. Last year’s BC Juvenile, on the first Saturday in November, didn’t have a single participant make it to the starting gate on the first Saturday in May.

The upcoming Champagne is one of the most anticipated in years, inasmuch as there is no clear-cut standout, as there has been so many times. Strong Mandate was breathtaking in winning the Hopeful with the kind of late run that puts visions of mint juleps and roses dancing in your head.

Honor Code also put in a Silky Sullivan-like surge breaking his maiden at the Spa. After all the years Shug McGaughey jonesed for a Derby winner, could he be sitting on two in a row?

Havana was touted from Long Island to Lake George prior to his Saratoga debut as the second coming and he delivered, winning his debut gate to wire, earning a triple digit Beyer, the only one for a juvenile to date. It doesn’t require a vivid imagination to see him opening up down the Belmont backstretch then having to hold off Strong Mandate and Honor Code as they make their late charges.

Not to dismiss the West Coast horses but so far no colt or gelding has stamped himself as possibly one of the ones. But O’Neill or Bob Baffert is eligible to uncork a budding star at any time.

It should make for a scintillating couple of months of juvenile racing. Enjoy them on their own merits. Just don’t read too much into them.

Written by Tom Jicha

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