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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Wednesday, April 30, 2014

‘California’ vs. Team Florida in Derby

MIAMI, April 29, 2014--California Chrome is the one to beat for the Roses but he'll have to outrun a strong contingent that wintered in South Florida.

The 2014 Kentucky Derby comes down to California Chrome and everyone else.

The California-bred comes into the Run for the Roses with only one knock. He’s a California bred. No Cal bred has won the Derby since Decidedly in 1962. This might not be the equal of the Apollo jinx but it is a fairly strong non-recommendation.

Otherwise, California Chrome offers everything you would want in a Derby horse. He’s at the top of his game, a winner of four straight. From a couple dozen major Derby preps, only three horses have won twice.

California Chrome is one of them. (Samraat, the terror of Aqueduct’s winter track, and Vicar’s in Trouble, who won the relatively minor LeComte before taking the Louisiana Derby, are the others.)

California Chrome’s romps in the San Felipe and Santa Anita Derby over superior competition outweighs those.

Although his breeding doesn’t scream distance, veteran trainer Art Sherman says California Chrome can run all day. “He has no wasted motion. A mile and a quarter should be no problem for him.” The way California Chrome drew away in the stretch as the distances extended lends credibility to Sherman’s faith.

California Chrome is tractable. He likes to race close to the pace but can take back a bit if Victor Espinoza decides this is the way to go. This could be crucial in a race in which the early fractions are expected to be hot and contested.

He’s also a great story, the first horse for an owner who bred him, with a trainer who has kicked around for more than a half-century. Racing could use a heart-warming antidote to the Steve Asmussen contretemps.

But most people like to try to beat the favorite so there are other places to look for a winner. I agree with something Mike Maker said during a Derby conference call. Maker, who will saddle Vicar’s in Trouble, General a Rod and Harry’s Holiday, acknowledged that California Chrome is a deserving favorite but added, “I’m not sure the Florida horses aren’t the strongest.”

Indeed, Gulfstream-based 3-year-olds were potent on the Derby trail. Vinceremos shipped over to Tampa to win the Sam F. David. Ring Weekend, who has opted out of the Derby, took the same cross-Florida route to capture the Tampa Derby.

Intense Holiday went to the Fair Grounds twice. He ran over the Louisiana contingent in the Risen Star, with eventual Rebel winner Hoppertunity, in his
wake, then chased home Vicar’s in Trouble, who fell into a dream trip on the lead in the Louisiana Derby.

Danza was still eligible for an entry level allowance when he shipped from Gulfstream to Oaklawn to upset the Arkansas Derby.

Wicked Strong was a disappointment in South Florida but shipped north to win the Wood Memorial and became the new darling of the beat-the-favorite crowd. This is based on the belief that all he needed was to get away from speed-favoring Gulfstream, where he had the only two out-of-the-money finishes on his resume. If the pace is as hot as expected, he will be running down a lot of horses in the long Churchill stretch.

Moreover, two of Gulfstream's best, Florida Derby winner Constitution and Holy Bull hero Cairo Prince, won't make the Derby but ultra game Wildcat Red and General a Rod will. There was no tougher place to win a stakes this winter.

I’ll use Wicked Strong in my pick 3’s and 4’s but I prefer Intense Holiday, who has gotten better with each race. He came south with a maiden win at
Monmouth, his only in-the-money finish from five starts as a 2-year-old. He immediately became Grade 2 placed with an OK third in the Holy Bull before
his two big races at the Fair Grounds.

All winter I’ve felt that Wildcat Red and General a Rod have distance limitations. I still feel that way but it wouldn’t shock me if either hit the board for a minor share.

Danza got a dream run up the rail in the Arkansas Derby. He doesn’t have Calvin Borel aboard, so how likely is that to happen again in a 20-horse field?

If the best horses were in Florida, those in California weren’t far behind. As noted, Hoppertunity shipped east to win the Rebel. Then he ran second to California Chrome in the Santa Anita Derby. Candy Boy’s poor effort in that race is a mystery but he was considered the best in the West until California Chrome emerged, so he has the talent to bounce back at a nice price.

I’ve discounted NYRA winter warriors Samraat and Uncle Sigh all season. I’ll either be vindicated or look foolish Saturday.

The same goes for synthetic specialists Dance With Fate, We Miss Artie, Medal Count and Harry’s Holiday.

Ride on Curlin has been close in several stakes but appears to lack the punch to get the job completely done.

For the good of racing, let’s hope that Steve Asmussen-trained Tapiture doesn’t repeat his Churchill Downs victory in the Kentucky Jockey Club. The negativity an Assmussen win would generate would turn racing’s grandest day into a dark one.

In multi-race wagers, I'll have a lot of California Chrome, a goodly share of Intense Holiday and Hoppertunity and a few small savers on Candy Boy and Wicked Strong. In exactas, I'll box California Chrome, Intense Holiday and Hoppertunity and put California Chrome on top and bottom of the other four I mentioned.

May the sun shine bright.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Churchill Downs and CDI are two different worlds

Churchill Downs is a treasure. However, its parent company, Churchill Downs Inc., has done more to undermine the sport than any PETA video could ever do.

MIAMI, April 23, 2014--Churchill Downs becomes a magical name again Saturday as the spring meet opens and the countdown to the Kentucky Derby gains intensity.

It’s a grand setting: the twin spires, the pageantry and color, the song, the fashions and hats, celebrities on Millionaires Row, the majesty and excitement of some of the world’s finest thoroughbreds in action.

This is as much a mirage as a Kim Jung Un birthday celebration. You have to look past the spectacle and focus on what goes on behind the scenes.

Those in and around the game appreciate the vast difference between Churchill Downs, the fabled home of the Derby, and Churchill Downs Inc. (CDI), the cold, bottom-line driven corporation, which has repeatedly demonstrated it has little regard for racing.

That CDI sold the most revered race name in the world to a second-tier fast food company is all you need to know. But there’s so much more.

CDI is now primarily a casino company. This is where its efforts and investments go. Racing is just something to be tolerated in states that demand a slots parlor be attached to a functioning race track.

The latest outrage is the raising of the takeout just before Derby week. Win-place-show goes from 16 to 17.5 percent. Multiple horse wagers jump from 19 to 22 percent. We can only hope bettor boycotts being organized to protest are successful. It might be hard to skip Derby Day but after that ignoring Churchill's races aren't much of a sacrifice.

The company has no shame that it had to resort to gimmickry to legally do it. Kentucky has a handle threshold, $1.2 million. Above it, the lower takeout is dictated. Below it, the takeout can be raised. Churchill got below it by including its first ever short fall meeting, which had no tradition or familiarity with fans and failed to approach the handle levels of the customary spring and late fall sessions.

CDI excused its money grab by saying part of the increased revenue—roughly half will go to CDI’s bottom line—will be put into purses, so that it can compete for horses with tracks in states with racinos.

This would include Louisiana and Florida. Let’s talk about those. Horsemen at the Fair Grounds have had to go to the state legislature to get a bill passed to force CDI to reinvest 10 percent of its racino profits into maintenance of the facility, which is deteriorating from neglect. The situation is so dire that the Louisiana State Racing Commission has delayed renewing CDI's operating license and will hold a special hearing on May 1 to review the matter.

In spite of having more than 600 slot machines at the track, the turf course has been unusable more often than not the past two seasons due to poor drainage. The infield video screen broke and wasn’t repaired. Rep. Helene Moreno, according to, the digital component of the New Orleans Times Picayune, toured the barn area and was critical of the sub-standard conditions. One stall had an eight-inch dip in the middle.

The responses of Austin Miller, CDI’s senior vice president of gaming operations, are revealing of the company attitude. Miller said if the turf course isn’t suitable for racing, horses and horsemen should adapt. “They all train on dirt. They should be able to run on dirt.”

A contributing factor to the troubled grass course, according to horsemen, is the annual Jazz Festival. Thousands of music fans are allowed to trample the course because it’s a big money-maker for CDI.

As for the video screen, Miller said hardly anyone watches it anyway, since most betting is done by customers inside the plant.

Miller said the barns cited by Rep. Moreno are the exception, that most are well maintained. Rep. Moreno countered that one of the barns Miller cited, Al Stall’s, is in exemplary condition because Stall goes into his own pocket to keep it that way.

The situation in Florida is even more distressing. CDI-owned Calder Race Course is under siege by Gulfstream’s aggressive move to race year-round, head to head. The situation is somewhat reminiscent of Russia’s incursion into Crimea. It was made easy for Gulfstream because so many welcomed the change.

Many of Calder’s top outfits—Marty Wolfson, David Fawkes, Eddie Plesa Jr., et al--have moved across town due to what they feel is years of mistreatment and sub-par conditions at Calder. One of the last straws was the introduction of per diem rent for grooms and hot-walkers.

Clearly Calder is continuing to race only to maintain its slots license. Field size is a joke. This past Sunday, eight races drew 48 starters. Two fields had four horses apiece.

Graded stakes have been canceled on short notice. The turf course is in pathetic shape even though there hasn’t been a race on it since January. The third, fourth and fifth floors of the building are closed.

What used to be the elegant Turf Club has been shut down. A replacement has been created in a corner of the first floor of the grandstand, where the poker room formerly was. Poker players have been relocated to the adjacent slots facility, which has all the most modern amenities and comforts. This is where CDI spends its money now.

CDI’s priorities also can be gleaned from its role in the shutting down of Hollywood Park. CDI bought the Southern California facility in the hope/belief that slots would be approved by the California legislature. When that didn’t happen, CDI sold the track to a land development company, indifferent to the fact that this doomed one of the most celebrated race tracks in America.

A big reason there has been so much speculation that the Breeders’ Cup might be anchored permanently in Southern California is the difficulty dealing with CDI. It’s not coincidental that Keeneland is making a major push to bring the Breeders’ Cup back to Kentucky. This might be the Commonwealth’s only hope.

Frank Stronach has made several offers without success to buy Calder. All of racing would be better off if the billionaire Stronach took it a step further and bought all of the CDI racetracks. No matter what else might be said about him, Stronach cares about racing. This hasn’t been able to be said about Churchill Downs Inc. since the current regime took over, a reality that even the first Saturday in May can’t camouflage.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Lessons to be learned from the Derby trail

History teaches many of the same lessons during each year's Kentucky Derby prep season. Alas, it seems few learn them.

MIAMI, April 16, 2014--We study history to learn from the past and hopefully not make the same mistakes. So what have we learned from this year’s Triple Crown prep season?

The foremost lesson is a reiteration. Getting involved in Kentucky Derby Futures betting is a fool’s venture. It got even more foolish this season when Churchill Downs moved the first pool into November 2013.

The smartest guy in the room is the one who makes one large preemptory bet on the field within minutes of the pool opening. (I assume it is one guy or one syndicate because the M.O. has been the same since Churchill introduced futures betting.)

By driving the price below even-money he discourages those making lesser plays from taking the only logical bet. Not many $2 or even $20 players want to tie up their money for six months on an odds-on proposition. Besides, this doesn’t provide ego satisfaction or bragging rights. Isn’t that what futures betting is all about?

The first pool field wager is especially golden this season. At most, only Cairo Prince and Ride on Curlin of the 23 individual horses in the November pool will make it to the starting gate.

But there are no sure things. I remember a dreary Tuesday January afternoon in Las Vegas in 1993. A new race book, the Sport of Kings, a free-standing building across from Convention Center, was trying to pull players from the big hotel books by promising to book any bet, no matter how large. There wasn’t much going on this day. Only a few minor tracks were in action.

To drum up business, an announcement came over the loud speaker that the book was offering an enticing prop, 6-1 on any horse from the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winning that spring’s Kentucky Derby. At the time, the winter book favorite, Gilded Time, was 7-1 around town. Getting him and a dozen others while giving up only one odds point seemed to be a grand bargain. There weren’t many people in the place but everyone there must have sent it in because betting was closed in a matter of minutes—while I was still in line looking to get my piece of the action.

Come May, the bet didn’t seem so golden. Only one of the Breeders’ Cup 13, Sea Hero, started in the Derby and he was 13-1. But he was all those who made the bet needed. I don’t remember the exact sequence but the Sport of Kings went bust either just before or after that Derby.

This segues nicely into another lesson reinforced this season. The Breeders’ Cup Juvenile is a super-sized negative key race when it comes to the Derby. Street Sense, who won the 2006 Juvenile and 2007 Derby, is the only horse to pull off this challenging double. Not a single horse from the 2012 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile even made it to the 2013 Derby starting gate.

This season's percentage is only slightly better. We Miss Artie, Dance With Fate and Medal Count, who finished 7th, 8th and 11th in the Juvenile, are among the Top 20 in Derby qualifying points. The latter two needed big races in their final chances last Saturday to make the cut. What’s more, Dance With Fate remains uncertain to run. Good for Peter Eurton, who recognizes that Polytrack form from the Blue Grass doesn’t transition well to the Derby on real dirt.

Kiaran McLaughlin hopefully learned a lesson that will be picked up by his colleagues. If you have one of the leading Derby hopefuls, don’t play brinksmanship by protecting them like a white heavyweight. McLaughlin, one of the sharpest trainers in the game, sat on Cairo Prince for nine weeks after a dominant win in the Holy Bull. He was super confident his colt, who he feels should have been undefeated at the time, would at least run third in what would be his final Derby prep, the Florida Derby.

Cairo Prince, perhaps showing his rust, managed only a fourth-place finish, so McLaughlin had to sweat whether his 24 points would be enough. It wasn’t until Run on Curlin outnodded Bayern for second in the Arkansas Derby, the last prep on the Derby trail, that Cairo Prince was locked into No. 20.

As it turns out, Cairo Prince would have gotten in anyway as No. 21 as Constitution has been sidelined with an ankle injury, which opens a spot for Uncle Sigh.

With Constitution out, it’s a crap shoot who will be the second choice behind California Chrome. Hoppertunity? Wildcat Red? Wicked Strong? It might even be Cairo Prince.

Maybe Churchill Downs, which created the points system to get the best “now” horses into the Derby, could learn something from the second season of the new system. Relegating prestigious 2-year-old stakes, including the BC Juvenile, to 10 points is defensible in light of recent history.But once the calendar turns, there needs to be a jump to an intermediate 20-points to the winner category for productive early-in-the-year races, such as the Holy Bull, Sham, Robert B. Lewis and Southwest, before the big leap to 50 and 100 point races. Cairo Prince wouldn’t have been on the fence if this had been in effect this season.

McLaughlin’s suggestion (made before the Florida Derby) that a couple or three spots be reserved for selection via committee, ala the Breeders’ Cup, merits consideration. McLaughlin’s concern that something unforeseeable, such as an untimely minor illness on the eve of a major prep, a horrid trip or losing a rider shouldn’t keep a genuine contender out of the Run for the Roses.

Of course, not putting all your Derby eggs into one prep basket could achieve the same end. It will be interesting to track in future seasons how well this lesson has been learned.

Written by Tom Jicha

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