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, April 05, 2013

Fillies have no right to complain about Derby points

Fans of outstanding fillies Dreaming of Julia, Midnight Lucky and Unlimited Budget are complaining that the absence of Kentucky Derby qualifying points for stakes restricted to fillies unfairly keeps them out of the Run for the Roses. Not true. They could take on the boys in any number of Derby preps, just as Genuine Risk and Winning Colors did before wearing the blanket of roses. In other issues, the Breeders' Cup has gotten knocked down a few pegs and Frank Stronach has come up with another wacky idea.

MIAMI, April 5, 2013--Another week another Kentucky Derby qualifying points controversy. This time it’s the lack of points recognition for stakes restricted to fillies, which de facto keeps them out of the Kentucky Derby.

The catalyst is Dreaming of Julia’s demolition of the Gulfstream Oaks field on the heels of Midnight Lucky’s ridiculously easy romp in New Mexico and Unlimited Budget remaining undefeated in New Orleans. Also, let’s not forget Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies winner Beholder, who will be a short price Saturday to cash the biggest check from the Santa Anita Oaks.

It might be interesting to see any or all of the these stellar distaffers line up against the boys on May 4. However, if this was a goal, they could have taken on colts in any of the prep races, as Genuine Risk and Winning Colors did before bringing home the roses.

Sorry, I’m with Churchill Downs on this one.

Triple Crown conversation tends to suck all the air out of racing talk this time of year. However, there are other things going on that need addressing.

The Breeders’ Cup decision to cut the Lasix baby in half is cowardly and pointless.

Realizing that it was fighting a losing battle in trying to keep the anti-bleeding medication out of the Breeders’ Cup, the BC tried to save face by continuing its ban on Lasix in the 2-year-old races. So last year’s juveniles couldn’t race on Lasix. Nor can this year’s. However, they will be able to as 3-year-olds and older.

Try intellectually justifying that.

It’s a short price that all Breeders’ Cup races will be opened to Lasix use in 2014 and beyond, because horsemen at potential sites have indicated they will not grant simulcast permission if the Lasix ban is in effect. This could have a lot to do with the procrastination in selecting a 2014 site.

The horsemen’s revolt seems to have given the BC a case of the jitters. In addition to the Lasix compromise, the BC announced it will help defray expenses for owners by cutting the entry fee from 3% to 2% of the purse. Also, foreign entrants will be granted a $40,000 expense allotment and a $10,000 stipend will go to domestic horses.

These concessions represent quite a comedown for an organization, which only a year ago felt so omnipotent that it could change the rules of racing by unilateral decree. Suddenly it has been forced to accept that a lot of the racing world can live without the Breeders’ Cup.

God helps those who help themselves. A constant complaint in the racing business is that the sport no longer gets much attention in the mainstream media.

Gulfstream staged its customary Florida Derby post position draw and luncheon on the Wednesday before the big race. The media, local and national, was represented. Racing wasn’t. Not one trainer nor jockey bothered to show up.

For shame.

Adversity brings out the best in some people. Success brings out the worst in Barry Irwin.

Irwin embarrassed himself and racing at the biggest moment in his racing life, the aftermath of Animal Kingdom winning the 2011 Kentucky Derby. Irwin took advantage of an NBC microphone during the post-race festivities to call all trainers liars.

Unchastened by the firestorm of criticism heaped upon him, Irwin did it again after Animal Kingdom won the Dubai World Cup. Commenting on Joel Rosario’s ride, Irwin said, “As boneheaded as his ride was last time, he was brilliant this time.”

The reference was to Rosario moving prematurely, in Irwin's opinion, aboard Animal Kingdom in the Gulfstream Turf Handicap. The 2011 Derby winner ran second to Point of Entry, whose superior position on the race track forced Rosario to surge through an opening on the rail going to the far turn. It was a gutsy move that often results in a victory. But not every race has a Point of Entry in it.

If Rosario put up such a bad ride, why did Irwin, who has a self image as racing’s shrewdest person, keep Rosario aboard for the world’s richest race?

Until Irwin learns to put a governor on his mouth, he should abstain from post-race TV interviews.

Frank Stronach must lie awake at night thinking about ways to top himself in coming up with outlandish ideas.

That he could be on the verge of destroying Florida racing with his scorched earth war against Calder has been well documented, so it doesn't need more rehashing.

To refresh your memory, one of Stronach's most outrageous brainstorms came after he bought Santa Anita. He announced his intention to demolish the hillside turf chute, one of the most unique and picturesque courses in racing. Thankfully California’s militant environmentalists put the kibosh to that.

Tearing down old Gulfstream, a beautiful and comfortable facility that hosted three Breeders’ Cups, and replacing it with a structure that is magnificent for almost anything other than watching races is another candidate for the “What could he have been thinking?” Hall of Fame. That it was done to build a mall that is already gasping for air makes it more ludicrous.

However, everything else Stronach has done pales in absurdity compared to his latest idea. According to a report on Miami TV, Stronach has commissioned Chinese sculptors to build a horse statue bigger than the Statue of Liberty to be placed at Gulfstream.

The monument will be the centerpiece of a theme park. This would be in addition to the new free-standing casino, a grandstand to be enlarged to hold 50,000 fans and a pair of luxury hotels, which Stronach is also promising for the Gulfstream site.

The words of Hialeah owner John Brunetti, whose family money comes from the construction business, continue to echo. “I’ve seen Frank’s plans. If he were to do everything he says he is going to do, he will be building into Dania.” (Dania is a community about five miles north of Gulfstream.)

Brunetti said this before Stronach unveiled his massive statue and theme park plan.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Friday, March 29, 2013

Final Derby preps start with best and worst

It's effectively win or place and you're in as the big seven Kentucky Derby preps begin this weekend. The best and worst of them will be run Saturday. The Florida Derby has Eclipse champion Shanghai Bobby, Fountain of Youth winner Orb and two-time Gulfstream stakes winner Itsmyluckyday. The UAE Derby has nothing likely to be prominent in Kentucky on May 4. Breeders' Cup runner-up He's Had Enough, whose post Breeders' Cup campaign in the U.S. has been dismal, will try to sneak in the back door to Churchill Downs. Also Saturday is a full-field crap shoot in the Louisiana Derby. Still to come, the Wood and Santa Anita Derby next week and the Blue Grass and Arkansas Derby on April 13. Here is a ranking of the relative merits of each prep.

MIAMI, March 29, 2013--Not all final Kentucky Derby preps are equal, even if Churchill Downs is treating them that way when it comes to doling out qualifying points for the May 4 Run for the Roses.

Three of the final seven championship stage stakes are this weekend. They are not only “win and you’re in” but “place and you’re in,” too, since second is worth 40 points. They range from the strongest of the final preps, the Florida Derby, to the weakest, the UAE Derby, which has no business counting for any points.

Here is the way I see the relative standing of the not always magnificent seven preps.

The Florida Derby (March 30) has the most high quality depth with three of the top five horses in most Derby polls, Orb, Itsmyluckyday and Shanghai Bobby.

Orb looks a lot like the 2013 version of I’ll Have Another. He had a moderate 2-year-old campaign but showed his promise breaking his maiden in his final start of 2012. He is two-for-two as a 3-year-old, including a vanquishing of then undefeated Violence in the Fountain of Youth. Significantly, the 2013 victories have come in his only starts around two turns.

However, tread carefully in the Florida Derby. Orb has the 50 points to make the Derby field, so Shug McGaughey isn’t going to have John Velazquez wring him out.

Shanghai Bobby (24 points) and Itsmyluckyday (10) are not yet safe, so there will be no taking it easy in the rematch of the Holy Bull, which produced a Gulfstream track record.

The Wood Memorial (April 6) A showdown of unbeatens, Verrazano and Vyjack, would be the equal of the Florida Derby except for one factor. Neither needs additional points to qualify for the Derby, so it’s another case of perhaps leaving something in the tank for the first Saturday in May.

This could open the door for Normandy Invasion, back on his home track, Maryland late-developer Mr. Palmer and Elnaawi, who had a tough trip in the Gotham, to grab a substantial piece of the purse and the crucial Derby qualifying points.

Then again, the V-boys might be good enough to dominate with B efforts.

Bob Baffert’s highly touted but notably absent Power Broker could also wind up here if he doesn’t stay home for the Santa Anita Derby.

The Santa Anita Derby (April 6) features round two of Jerry Hollendorfer’s Hear the Ghost vs. the colt Bob Baffert considers his top Derby hopeful, Flashback. The latter did the hard work in the San Felipe only to be run down late by Hear the Ghost’s well timed swooping move from the back of the pack. An argument could be made that Flashback, who loomed the winner at the sixteenth pole, didn’t see Hear the Ghost coming until it was too late to fight him off.

Goldencents, Doug O’Neill’s big hope for a Derby repeat, was dueled into submission by Flashback but has run too well in his other starts to be dismissed.

Baffert is likely to have at least one other starter, Southwest winner Super Ninety Nine, who might do the dirty work on the front end for Flashback.

Unless someone replicates Secretariat’s Belmont or there are bizarre results back east, the winner of the Santa Anita Derby figures to be no better than fourth or fifth choice in Derby betting.

Arkansas Derby (April 13) Oxbow has become the wise guy horse in many circles after running his guts out in vain due to brutal trips in the Risen Star and Rebel. Having The Coach, D. Wayne Lukas, calling the shots adds to his appeal.However, it’s hard to rank a race, whose probable favorite is coming off back-to-back defeats, higher.

This is especially true when Oxbow’s main challenger could be Overanalyze, winner of the famously unproductive Remsen.

A couple more second-stringers from Team Baffert, hard trying Den’s Legacy and late arrival on the scene War Academy, also will attempt to punch a ticket to Louisville.

Louisiana Derby (March 30) This is a quantity over quality event with 14 starters, most of whom have shown flashes of brilliance without really distinguishing themselves.

Todd Pletcher’s Revolutionary is the one to beat but it’s always dicey to take a short price on a horse with his broken field, late running tendency. But if you're going to run like that, the Fair Grounds, with its stretch that goes on forever, is the place.

Another Pletcher, Palace Malice, epitomizes promise without production so far.

Baffert’s Code West, a courageous second in the Risen Star, also figures to be fighting to the end.

A victory by Titletown Five or undefeated Departing wouldn’t be as shocking as I've Struck a Nerve's 130-1 upset in the Risen Star.

Blue Grass (April 13) The winners since Keeneland installed Polytrack have been Dominican, Monba, General Quarters, Stately Victor, Brilliant Speed and Dullahan. The Hall of Fame in Saratoga isn't holding a spot open for any of them.

Dullahan did get up for third in last year’s Derby but he has never won a race on anything but an artificial surface. Brilliant Speed, despite a third in the Belmont, was essentially a turf horse.

Rebel winner Will Take Charge and Uncaptured, second off a layoff in the Spiral, will attempt to reverse the trend of turf and kitty litter specialists dominating this stakes.

There certainly will be enough turfers bidding to keep the streak going: Noble Tune, Charming Kitten and the most intriguing of all, Rydilluc. After a disappointing main track debut, Rydilluc has rattled off three dominant turf scores. Trainer Gary Contessa said the lone defeat was a product of other circumstances, not a dislike of the main track, and that Rydilluc has handled dirt as well as turf since then.

UAE Derby (March 30) A misguided attempt to foster internationalism has this among the 100-points-to-the-winner preps. It shouldn’t be.

Breeders’ Cup runner-up He’s Had Enough will try to sneak through the Derby’s back door with a win or a second. It will be a travesty if it happens. Off his 3-year-old races, there would be no way he would qualify back home.

This is not an attempt to list all the possible Derby horses or to forecast which race will produce the winner. Too much can happen in the next five weeks.
But if you like a 3-year-old not mentioned here, right after you register a comment about what an idiot I am, get on a plane to Vegas, because you will be handsomely rewarded in the futures book if you are right.

Written by Tom Jicha

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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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