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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Thursday, July 07, 2016

Racing in 2016 is not a man’s world

Projecting ahead to the second half of the 2016 season, there is a perhaps unprecedented situation in which the most exciting horses in the three key divisions--3-year-olds, older and turf--are females.Beholder and Tepin have already vanquished Grade 1 males and Songbird would be favored against any or all the leaders of her generation. This is to say nothing of the best story of all, Lady Eli, who is training again after coming back from near death.

MIAMI, July 7--Exactly when the first half of the racing season ends and the second half begins is a matter of opinion. The calendar says July 1. Others consider the 4th of July weekend. Perhaps the most popular viewpoint is the kicking off point is the opening of Del Mar and Saratoga, this year on July 15 and July 22, respectively.

By any of these points, we are going into the second half of 2016 in a unique situation. The best horses in the three glamour divisions--3-year-olds, older, and turf--arguably are fillies and mares.

In two of the cases, the arguments are almost indisputably strong.

Songbird has yet to compete outside her gender in her undefeated eight-race career. Unfortunately, she is not expected to this year. Is there any doubt that if she did, she would be a solid favorite against any of the Triple Crown champions--Nyquist, Exaggerator and Creator--or in a stakes with all of them?

But she will not hide out on the West Coast, as has her predecessor as best female in the West, who we will get to shortly. Her connections have plotted a three-race East Coast invasion--the Coaching Club American Oaks and Alabama at Saratoga and the Cotillion at Parx--before heading home for the Breeders' Cup at Santa Anita.

Depending on how this goes and the status of California Chrome, we can live in hope that an audible will be called and she will go in the Classic rather than the Distaff.

Beholder, who has won three Eclipses without winning a race outside Southern California, has already stepped up against the boys and demolished them in last summer's Pacific Classic. She can do it again in August after a prep against the talent deficient members of her gender in the Clement Hirsch.

The wild card again is California Chrome. History indicates Beholder's connections will skip the race but maybe they'll reverse themselves. On her best race, she might be able to give the 2014 Kentucky Derby champion all he can handle and maybe more.

Then there's Tepin. She vanquished world class males in the 2015 Breeders' Cup Mile and off her scintillating win in the Princess Anne, her eighth in a row, who's going to beat her? Flintshire is the only one on the horizon who would rate a serious chance but it's unlikely they'll face off. Tepin shines up to a mile and an eighth while Flintshire is best over longer ground.

There's another super filly on the horizon, whose story is the stuff of books and movies. Lady Eli has come back from the brink of death and is working toward a comeback start.

Pondering a Breeders' Cup showdown between Lady Eli and Tepin, who cares what males might be in the race.

Exchange Betting will be slow build

Poker players have a saying: Look around the table. If you can’t figure out who the pigeon is, it’s you.

This is the feeling I get as Exchange Betting rolls out at Monmouth and, inevitably, other American race tracks. There is going to be a long learning curve before most horse players become versed and comfortable with the intricacies of this new form of wagering in the U.S.

There are benefits for the player. Primarily, you can get fixed odds on your selection. No longer will you have to agonize that the horse you thought was value at 5-2 a minute to post has dropped to 6-5 after the gate opens.

A downside to me is Exchange Betting further tilts the sharks vs. minnows playing field, which has become pronounced to the extent that it discourages casual and new fans. The wise guys always have and always will have an edge. Exchange Betting increases this advantage.

Back in the day when betting was limited to the track and crowds of 20,000 during the week and double or more than that on weekends were the norm there was enough unsophisticated money in the pools that you could get a decent price on a logical horse. Now this is rare.

Casual fans have largely disappeared from tracks and ADW’s allow big players, many of whom never go near a track, to dominate. So mid-level players have to buck the computer syndicates, the sheets specialists and the inside information crowd to try to make a score.

Exchange Betting exacerbates this situation. Pari-mutuel wagering by definition pits bettors against each other. Exchange Betting makes this more personal, a one-on-one proposition. In essence, casual players will be betting that they can out handicap and outsmart the computer syndicates and sharks, because when it comes to serious money, this is who will be the most heavily involved.

Anything can happen in a single race or a single day but over the long haul there is little question which side is going to come out way on top.

We’ve gotten a sneak preview of this with daily fantasy betting on other sports. Something like 95 percent of the winnings is taken down by about 5 percent of the players, the ones who have computer algorithms and other data not generally available to the guys playing for fun.

Also, I can’t see how anything that has the potential to keep millions of dollars out of the traditional betting pools, which support purses, can be good for the game. Maybe I’ll change my mind as I become more familiar with Exchange Betting but for now I’ll stick to the system I’ve always known.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, June 30, 2016

Jackpot 6 bets are breeding grounds for player mistrust

Jackpot bets have captured the imagination and betting dollars of the racing world. However, it has to be asked at what price over the long haul. Outrageous scenarios recently at Golden Gate and Churchill Downs have chipped away at what little trust is left among fans.You can only leave fans feeling they have been screwed so many times before they get disgusted and walk away from the game...

On a happier note, Gulfstream Park is losing race-caller Larry Collmus to New York full time but it is lucky to have a rising young star, Pete Aiello, already in place.

MIAMI, June 30, 2016--It’s time to take a hard look at jackpot bets, the ones that demand a single winning ticket for the bells and lights to go off.

These life-changing jackpots buttress race track bottom lines when the potential payoffs reach seven figures but at what expense? While the jackpot is slowly building, tens of thousands, then hundreds of thousands of dollars are taken out or circulation where they could be churning repeatedly.

When the jackpot is finally taken down by a single player, the windfall is unlikely to be reinvested at the windows. Any race track executive will acknowledge it’s more in a track’s interest to have, say, a thousand players win $100 than one player winning $100,000. But they refuse to extend this thinking to jackpot bets.

Then there is the potential damage to the credibility and integrity of the sport, essential elements to its long term health. It’s said that there are a thousand ways to lose a bet. A couple of abominations in recent weeks—only the latest examples--have added two more, undermining the trust of fans, even those who don’t play the rainbow chasing wagers.

The debacle at Golden Gate on June 12 left players nationwide feeling as if they had been screwed. On a day with perfect weather, jockeys refused to ride a couple of turf races in the Rainbow Six after riding on the grass earlier in the card without incident. Rules dictated that these races on a mandatory payoff day be declared “all’s.” This created a payoff more akin to a daily double when an almost $2 million jackpot swelled to about $6 million as players poured in $4 million more in shooting for a six-figure or more payoff.

Think they’ll ever get involved with a Golden Gate rainbow bet again?

The Northern California outrage pales compared to what Churchill Downs did a week ago. Churchill’s version of the Rainbow 6 had a jackpot of approximately $750,000 on the night of June 23. Storms delayed the start of the card but eventually everything went on as usual until the final race.

With rain and lightning in the area, Churchill officials opted to cancel the race. Safety first, for horses, jockeys and fans; who can argue with that? But there were unusual circumstances, which demanded more patience than Churchill was willing to show.

A pair of tickets was alive for the entire jackpot. Whoever was holding them never got a shot. With the race canceled, the Single Six was called off. Consolations were paid and the pool went over to the next day, much to the advantage of Churchill Downs, which maintained a huge jackpot going into the weekend.

Getting back to the safety issue, Churchill has been operating for 142 years. During that span, there have been only 21 weather cancellations. Some were for frozen tracks or extreme heat. None involved a situation such as that on June 23.

In South Florida, we have Biblical rainfalls on a regular basis and lightning threats dozens of times a year during racing cards. Gulfstream just waits it out. Churchill wasn’t willing to wait even a few minutes. You don’t have to be paranoid to conclude that the opportunity to carry over an enormous jackpot figured into the quick trigger finger.

During the winter of 2015 at Gulfstream, there was a questionable DQ in the last race on a Saturday. If the first horse under the wire had stayed up, someone would have won more than a million dollars. When he was taken down, that money carried over. Even fans who weren’t involved were asking out loud if the potential carryover figured into the decision.

I truly believe the call, which could have gone either way, was made on what the stewards thought they saw. But I can’t blame those who feel otherwise. When I worked for a big company—even now when I work for JP—I always wanted to please my boss. Two of the three stewards work for Gulfstream and there is no question Gulfstream was happy when the jackpot lasted for another day.

The point is fans already are skeptical about the integrity of the game because of the drug issues. Incidents like the ones I’ve described further chip away at trust in the sport. In the short term, rainbow jackpot bets serve the track’s fiscal interests. Long term you have to wonder how many bizarre incidents players will tolerate before walking away for good.

Farewell, Larry Collmus

Larry Collmus’s resignation as Gulfstream’s winter race caller came as a surprise to few. It might have come sooner than expected but it was inevitable.

Firmly ensconced after two years as the voice of NYRA, the Triple Crown and the Breeders’ Cup, Collmus, 49, doesn’t need to knock himself out jumping from New York seven months a year to another four-plus months at Gulfstream.

Tom Durkin, who Collmus followed in New York (no slight to Collmus but no one can replace Durkin), worked the bulk of the year for NYRA then moonlighted in the winter in South Florida for a few years. He eventually gave it up for the same reason as Collmus. Life is short. It’s pointless to grind yourself into the ground when you've achieved a status that allows you to enjoy some of the finer things in life that success affords.

Gulfstream is fortunate to have an excellent young replacement, Pete Aiello, already in place. A formal announcement could be made before you read this.

Aiello, who broke his South Florida maiden calling quarterhorse races at Hialeah, made a positive impression when he was hired as the race-caller for Gulfstream’s summer season. His calls are crisp and accurate and, as he has become more comfortable in the role, he has injected some personality into them without overwhelming the race.

Aiello was so impressive that Oaklawn, one of the prime meets of the winter season, hired him as its announcer last season. He’ll have to relinquish that post to stay at Gulfstream year round. The Arkansas track’s loss is Gulfstream’s gain.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, June 23, 2016

Track operators are an endangered species

The grand old men of race track ownership are all being threatened by actuarial tables. Frank Stronach is 83. Richard Duchossois is 94. Charles Cella of Oaklawn is approaching his 80th birthday. Dr. Edward Allred, who renovated Los Alamitos into a thoroughbred track is 80. John Brunetti, who long has harbored dreams of restoring thoroughbred racing to Hialeah, is 85. Who is going to replace these men and maintain racing? This is a question racing must deal with.

MIAMI, June 23, 2016--The graying of the fan base has been decried as the biggest threat to the future of racing. Actually, there is a bigger, related problem: the graying of track ownership. New fans can be found and recruited more easily than wealthy individuals with the means and desire to run racetracks.

Dr. Edward Allred helped alleviate one of many recent crises in Southern California racing when he renovated his Los Alamitos quarterhorse track for thoroughbred racing. This filled the void left by the closure of Hollywood Park. Dr. Allred, who recently celebrated his 80th birthday, said something recently that should send chills up the spine of everyone in racing.

In a letter to employees, reprinted by the Racing Form, he wrote, “I love what I’m doing and I love (Los Alamitos) and the people who work and race there. It is my strong desire to keep Los Alamitos Race Course operational as long as horsemen support the racing program and so long as I am able to oversee the operation.”

Then came the terrifying “but.” “It is unlikely upon my passing or serious disability that another group could be found that could acquire the track for racing purposes.” So Los Alamitos filling the gap left by Hollywood could be just a band aid solution.

In an interview with the Paulick Report, Allred reiterated this point. “When I go, no one will buy this as a race track. They couldn’t afford to.”

Then he added something that should sound an alarm to the entire racing community. He and Los Alamitos are not isolated cases. “No one could afford to buy Santa Anita as a racetrack, either. You’re talking $2 million to $3 million an acre. You can’t afford to race there.”

The Stronach Group (i.e., Frank Stronach) operates Santa Anita as well as both Maryland tracks, Golden Gate and Portland Meadows. He has been great for racing but he is 83.

Stronach’s son Andy is involved in the family business and his daughter Belinda is known to enjoy racing. However, even if the children want to keep their father’s dreams alive, the daunting death taxes they would be confronted by might make it challenging. Cashing in their chips could become an alluring option.

The saving factor for racing is there might not be any buyers. To clarify, there might not be any buyers interested in maintaining horse racing. Gulfstream has a casino spread over two floors, which could be enticing to buyers. So would the vast acreage surrounding the track, some of the most valuable real estate in Florida, if not the entire United States.

One of the reasons South Florida horsemen are so vehemently opposed to decoupling, which seemingly will keep coming up in the legislature until it passes, is the fear that without the obligation to race, a new owner could come in, keep the casino and shut down racing.

This is what Churchill Downs did with Calder. Decoupling also would spell the end of the sham 40-day Gulfstream West meeting, which was created so that Churchill Downs could meet state requirements to maintain its casino license. Demolition of the Calder grandstand is ongoing. Soon the property will not be suitable as a race track even if someone wanted to revive the sport there.

Tropical Park, which Calder replaced upon the death of its colorful owner Saul Silberman, was transformed into a county park more than 40 years ago. For all practical purposes, Hialeah is gone, too. Race tracks disappear in Florida, just as they have in California.

The resurrection of Hialeah as a thoroughbred venue is on the wish lists of many racing fans. As recently as two years ago, Hialeah owner John Brunetti told the New York Times that Hialeah deserves to be in thoroughbred racing.

Alas, Brunetti is 85 and his sons, Steven and John, want no part of resurrecting the thoroughbred sport. They are happy with the revenue generated by the casino built into the fabled grandstand. Word is they plan to reschedule Hialeah’s 40-day sham casino-maintaining quarterhorse meet in 2017 from tourist heavy December, January and February to June and July, when even locals flee the summer heat as much as they can.

This might seem illogical until you consider that the legislature will meet in April and May. If decoupling passes next year, Hialeah could keep its casino without being obligated to run the quarterhorse meet. This would effectively spell the end of horse racing of any kind at “the world’s most beautiful racetrack.”

Charles Cella, owner of Oaklawn Park, will be 80 in August.

Richard Duchossois, the largest single stock holder in Churchill Downs, is 94. Duchossois, whose board considers CDI a casino company, is believed to be the only reason his pet property, Arlington Park, is still in operation as a race track.

In another era, any of these men might have been expected to become involved in the bidding for a re-privatized New York Racing Association. The fact that they all have passed has made it easier for Gov. Cuomo to maintain his stranglehold on New York racing.

Think about this: NYRA handled $2.243 billion last year, approximately 20 percent of the wagering nationwide, but it hasn’t been able to attract one potential buyer.

There is no reason to believe the situation will be any different if and when mortality puts The Stronach Group tracks, Oaklawn , Arlington and Los Alamitos on the block. As Dr. Allred pointed out, the land on which they sit is worth multiple times more for almost any purpose other than racing.

This fiscal reality is what led to the demise of Hollywood Park, Bay Meadows and several lesser tracks. It is what is inevitably going to lead to the shutdown of Aqueduct.

So instead of fretting over how to attract young blood to replace today’s older fans, the industry ought to have an aggressive plan to find and recruit new racetrack owners. Absent them, there will be no need to worry about where the next generation of racing fans will come from. They will have no place to go.

Written by Tom Jicha

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