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, March 22, 2013

Juvenile Stakes Poor Precursors to Derby Success

The new Kentucky Derby points system has taken a lot of heat, deservedy so. Supposedly changes will be made for year two. If Churchill Downs wants to do something dramatic, it should cease awarding points to any juvenile race. The one exception should be the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, whose prize should include an automatic qualifying berth in the Derby. If this isn't also the Eclipse champion, he, too, merits an automatic pass. Being a champion of a generation should matter. The total exclusion of turf races in the points system also needs to be re-examined. Animal Kingdom is as much a grass horse as he is a dirt horse and Barbaro went into the Derby with more starts on turf than dirt.

Miami, March 22, 2013--The Kentucky Derby points system, which ends its second phase this weekend, has been a more inviting target for barbs than Sarah Palin, including some from me. Inasmuch as Churchill Downs is promising that tweaks are going to be made, I have a few suggestions.

The allotment under fiercest attack deserves it. The Breeders’ Cup Juvenile should be in a category of its own. The notion it is no more important than the Royal Lodge Stakes in England, the Grey Stakes in Canada, the Delta Jackpot on a bullring or a roster of other late-season 2-year races is wrong-headed.

The BC Juvenile should be a win-and-you’re-in. Many years, the winner is also the 2-year-old champion. Only one BC Juvenile winner has doubled in the Run for the Roses (Street Sense in 2006) but this is still a significant achievement, worthy of a berth in the Derby. I’ll take it a step further. If the BC Juvenile winner is not also the Eclipse winner, the champion, too, should be seeded into the Derby.

There would still be 18 or 19 other spots up for grabs. How many Derby winners do you suppose might be excluded, who wound up 19th or 20th on the points scale?

Conversely, I wouldn’t award points to any other 2-year-old stakes or even the runnersup in the BC Juvenile. Coincidentally (or perhaps not) the only 3-year-old in the Top 10 of the latest HRI poll, who was an outstanding 2-year-old, is Shanghai Bobby, the 2012 BC Juvenile winner and Eclipse champion.

As for shutting out the rest of the juvenile stakes, why not? Most recent Derby winners—e.g, I’e Had Enough, Animal Kingdom, Mine That Bird, Big Brown—have been on few Derby radar screens for their juvenile prowess.

It serves no purpose to go back too much further as horses are trained so differently now. Four or five races is considered a demanding campaign, so any analysis of form is based on samples too small to be meaningful.

Two-year-old stakes are fine conversation starters during racing’s hot stove period but rarely are precursors of Kentucky Derby success.

There is especially a tendency to get overly excited about late season 2-year-old stakes, especially those around two turns. There is no greater example of this than the Remsen, the first significant mile-and-an-eighth for 2-year-olds.

This year, as in many others, the Remsen is turning out to be an uber-negative key race. The top three finishers—Overanalyze, Normandy Invasion and Delhomme—catapulted toward the top of many preseason Derby rankings. Four months later, they might not even make the Derby field.

Overanalyze was fifth in a very ordinary (except for Vyjack) Gotham. Normandy Invasion was fourth in the Risen Star, which is also suspect since it was won by a 130-1 shot. Delhomme was 11th in the Rebel and is reportedly off the Derby trail.

Those who made the Remsen leap overlooked a basic handicapping rule. A race that produces a three-horse blanket finish probably is a race in which none are very special. This is true at every level.

Another consideration is the history of the stakes. The Remsen has been the source of a litany of 2-year-olds who have disappointed as 3-year-olds. In 2011, the top three were O’Prado Again, Souper Speedy and El Padrino.

The Remsen’s best recent year was 2010 when Honor and Serve outran Mucho Macho Man. MMM went on to finish third in the Derby but Honor and Serve didn’t win again until an allowance at Saratoga the following summer. For the record, the show spot in that Remsen went to Mountain Town.

Buddy’s Saint was all the rage after winning the 2009 Remsen. He ran ninth in his 3-year-old debut, the Fountain of Youth, then was never heard from again. The horses who finished closest to him in that Remsen were Peppi Knows and Citrus Kid.

The first three in 2008: Old Fashioned, Atomic Brain and American Dance.

The point is someone has to win this nine-furlongs-in late-November stakes. The really promising 2-year-olds are pointed toward the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile a few weeks earlier. The Remsen winner could be just beating the best of what’s left.

The Kentucky Jockey Club took a lot of heat at the end of last year because the Beyer figs identified it as an exceedingly slow race. The 3-year-old performances of the place and show horses, Frac Daddy and Dewey Square, have verified the figs.

Maybe the KJC winner, Uncaptured, can reverse this trend in the Spiral on Saturday. But given the price he is likely to go off, coming directly from a farm to a stakes, the value is in betting that he won’t.

The exclusion of all turf races from Derby points consideration also needs to be re-examined. Theoretically, this seems fair, since the Derby is a dirt race. Ergo, horses who perform well on that surface should get preference.

But Animal Kingdom is more than anything a grass horse and Barbaro was a two-time stakes winner on turf before he set foot on the main track in a race. Moreover, he went into the Derby with three turf races to two on dirt.

I’m not calling for all turf stakes to be treated equally on the points scale. But how about three grass races for 3-year-olds, one at Gulfstream, one at Santa Anita and one at the Fair Grounds, being given some Derby points consideration.

A seeming turf specialist, Rydilluc, could be a sleeper going toward this year’s Derby. His connections are putting all their eggs in one basket, the Blue Grass, which is often kind to turf-type horses.

I wish he had been included as a separate entry in the final Derby future pool, because if he runs in the Blue Grass the way I think he will, his price on the first Saturday in May will be appreciably shorter than it would have been in the futures pool.

Written by Tom Jicha

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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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