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, November 19, 2015

Jockey appeals make a mockery of rules

Suspensions are a primary tool to control over-aggressive or outright reckless race-riding. But jockeys are allowed to make a mockery of the system by lodging appeals, then withdrawing them and serving the time when it is convenient. This can't be allowed to continue. Speaking of rulings, the NY Gambling Commission is scheduled to finally release its report on the investigation of Steve Asmussen, which was settled in Kentucky almost a year ago.

MIAMI, Nov. 19, 2015--The debate over disqualifications is never ending. A comment by a reader on the disqualification of Trouble Kid in last Saturday’s DeFrancis Dash ignited a series of passionate responses. Among those weighing in was Richard Migliore, who has adeptly made the transition from rider to racing commentator.

I won’t re-litigate the DeFrancis here. The points and counter-points are still posted for anyone who wants to reference them.

My position, as I have often written, is that unless a foul is flagrant and indisputably affects the outcome of the race, as opposed to say a surging horse crossing over too soon in front of a fading leader, the result should stand for betting purposes with the rider being assessed an appropriate fine or suspension.

Events of the past few days undermine the second half of my position. Jose Ortiz committed a foul in the Sanford Stakes on July 25, veering out than lugging in. His mount, Magna Light was dropped from first to third and Ortiz was given five days. (The fact that Uncle Vinny, who was not involved in the incident and was not going to win, was moved up to first, is another flaw in the system.)

Ortiz didn’t serve the days during the lucrative and prestigious Saratoga meet. He appealed-- reaffirming justice delayed is justice denied—and has chosen to drop his appeal and serve the days this week when racing is in pretty much a lull period. This makes a mockery of the system.

On the West Coast, Santiago Gonzalez and Felipe Valdez each got three days for infractions in recent races. They, too, are appealing and likely will pursue their appeals until it is convenient to drop them and serve the days.

This can’t be allowed to continue. Various remedies have been attempted. One was to make riders serve their time during the period a foul was committed the following year. In other words, Ortiz would serve his five days during next season’s Saratoga meeting. This is impractical at most venues, which don't have boutique meetings.

Another attempt at fine-tuning the system is to double the customary number of days, then waive half of them if there is no appeal. I would take this a step further. If the normal suspension is five days, make it 20 (essentially a month instead of a week) and waive 15 if there is no appeal. Appeals of convenience would be curtailed.

This might run contrary to the American justice system but we are not dealing with a court of law. This is sports. The decision of the judges, umpires, referees, etc., should be final.

As long as riders know they can take a shot at shutting off a rival and if they are caught, they will get a penalty that can easily be manipulated to their advantage, there is no real deterrent to reckless riding.

The optimum solution is for appeals to be heard quickly, preferably by the next racing day. Riders, who commit fouls, are routinely summoned to the stewards’ stand to review the film. If they want to appeal, they should be compelled to make their case then and get an immediate ruling.

At last, Asmussen ruling due

Speaking of justice delayed, the New York State Gambling Commission is scheduled to release on Monday its long delayed report on allegations made by the activist fringe group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) against Steve Asmussen.

Allegations that Asmussen and his top assistant Scott Blasi abused horses under his care were made in March 2014 in a nine-minute video edited from seven hours of tape, compiled over three months in 2013, in part at Saratoga.

The nine minutes were damning, catching Asmussen’s long-time assistant Scott Blasi making comments about mistreating horses, using illegal aliens in the barn and joking about electrical devices being used on horses. Asmussen fired Blasi but rehired him four months later.

The Kentucky Horse Racing Commission held its own investigation. Almost a year ago, it exonerated Asmussen and Blasi, saying they broke no rules and horses in the barn were well cared for.

The New York probe has inexcusably dragged on. Its findings twice were put on the commission agenda only to be withdrawn. As a result, Assmussen, the second winningest trainer in history, was deleted from last year’s Hall of Fame ballot. The Hall has said it will not allow a vote on Asmussen’s candidacy until allegations against him are settled.

Logic would suggest New York also will largely or totally exonerate Asmussen, who has a history of violations but not in recent years as the stock under his care has improved dramatically.To rule otherwise would be an insult to its counterparts in Kentucky and raise the question why procrastination allowed a trainer guilty of serious allegations of mistreatment of horses was allowed to continue to race in New York while they dithered.

Toteboard chicanery

A recurring topic at the political debates has been how to deal with alleged currency manipulation by the Chinese. I have no idea how this works in the world of high finance.

However, I suspect it is akin to something that happened at Del Mar last Saturday. Early in the day, a player made five $1,000 punches on Tale of a Champion in the first race. The horse opened 3-5, undoubtedly inducing thousands in additional wagers from fans, who respected that much money showing up for a horse, who on form should have been an outsider.

Two minutes to post, the big bettor canceled the $5K win bets. Tale of a Champion shot up to 10-1 and ran like it, finishing last.

This should not be allowed to happen. The ability to cancel a bet has been a welcome innovation in recent years. This was obviously an abuse of the privilege. Whether it was part of some kind of betting coup might never be known.

This should be a learning experience for tracks, ADW’s and simulcast venues. A limit to when a ticket can be canceled is a necessity. Within five minutes of its purchase might work. Under no circumstances should it be allowed within two minutes to post.

A lot of fans probably felt, with some justification, they were screwed by what happened. One more layer of cynicism is the last thing racing needs.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, November 12, 2015

Decoupling could benefit thoroughbreds

Florida horsemen are marshalling their forces to combat another effort in the Florida legislature this spring to decouple the necessity to run dog racing and jai alai to maintain a racino. This could be a misguided effort. Gulfstream and Tampa Bay Downs have given no indication they would curtail racing if decoupling passes and the anticipated end of dog racing and jai alai would give horses a monopoly in pari-mutuel wagering. Rather than fight decoupling, thoroughbred efforts should be concentrated on tailoring any bill to the advantage of horse racing.

MIAMI, Nov. 12, 2015— The Florida legislature’s regular session doesn’t convene until March but the thoroughbred industry is already marshalling forces to fight a faux boogyman.

Bill White, an outstanding trainer and president of the Florida HBPA, wrote a guest editorial in the Blood-Horse slamming the concept of decoupling, which would relieve pari-mutuel facilities of the necessity of conducting live horse or dog racing and jai alai games in order to have card rooms and slot machines. A website,, has been created with the same goal.

Analyzed closely, decoupling represents no threat to the thoroughbred industry at this time or the foreseeable future. The state has only two thoroughbred tracks, Gulfstream and Tampa Bay Downs, and neither has given any indication decoupling would result in a curtailment of racing. Indeed, Frank Stronach’s Gulfstream is the only Florida pari-mutuel with a casino that still puts much, if not most, of its promotional dollars into racing.

Decoupling is being pushed by greyhound and jai alai interests, who have seen the live audiences for their products diminish to a laughable extent. A strange bedfellows’ coalition of dog tracks and animal rights activists, former mortal enemies, are the driving forces behind decoupling. Isle of Capri (nee Pompano Harness Track) has made it clear that it maintains the trotters and pacers only because it is a requirement to keep its prosperous casino.

Few people knowledgeable about the situation don’t appreciate that decoupling is inevitable. It’s just a matter of when and the coming legislative session is a live favorite.

This is why the thoroughbred industry should give up the fight to stop it and concentrate its efforts on having the eventual bill tailored to its advantage. It shouldn’t be difficult or complicated. The state has unfailingly acknowledged the importance of thoroughbred racing. Racing and breeding supports an estimated 20,000 jobs and maintains vast green spaces throughout the state as well as being a tourism magnet.

Step one is to use these factors to insert a clause that exempts Gulfstream and Tampa Bay Downs from decoupling. Calder is already out of the game. It’s not a stretch to speculate that Churchill Downs is about to demolish the Calder grandstand because it expects decoupling to happen as soon as this spring. This would end the necessity to continue the sham Gulfstream West meeting.

A wish list possibility is this could bring Hialeah back into the mix with a short meeting along the lines of what is now Gulfstream West, since Gulfstream benefits from the two-month buffer zone between the summer meeting and its prime winter dates.

Step two would be to fight for safeguards that decoupling won’t be paired with state-sanctioned additional free-standing casinos. There is a sizable and vocal constituency in the state opposed to the expansion of gambling, especially casino gambling. Align with these people to argue that decoupling represents a contraction of gambling, since dog racing, jai alai and probably harness racing would disappear. Meanwhile, an influx of new casinos would turn Florida into Las Vegas South.

As long as no new casinos are allowed, decoupling actually could create a net gain for the thoroughbred industry. Card rooms and slots are already a fact of life in South Florida. But tourists who want to engage in pari-mutuel wagering would have only horses as an option.

Fighting decoupling in its entirety is a losing battle. Working to have it tailored to benefit horse racing is a winning strategy.

Racing’s best go west

Day-to-day racing in Southern California has deteriorated to an alarming degree. Even with cutbacks to four days per week for a substantial part of the year and abbreviated eight-race weekday programs, cards are dominated by short fields of bottom-level claimers and state-bred career maidens. However, at the top of the game, Santa Anita will be where the action is early in 2016.

No fewer than six Eclipse winners are expected to be in action at Santa Anita. By contrast, there might not be any champions at the start of the Gulfstream season. However, off past performances, the daily racing cards will be the most interesting and challenging in the country.

The Great Race Place will live up to its name in almost every division. Presumptive juvenile champions Nyquist and Songbird will be prepping for the spring classics, as will Swipe, whose placing at the Breeders’ Cup Classic was the fourth straight time he was closest under the wire to Nyquist.

California’s older division has been especially forlorn the past few years. It doesn’t appear that will be the case this coming winter. Former Horse of the Year and 3-year-old champion California Chrome is back in the U.S. and training forwardly, as John Pricci noted earlier this week.

At some point, the 2014 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner will probably renew his rivalry with former 2-year-old champion Shared Belief, who is on the road to recovery from the fractured hip he suffered at Charles Town last spring. He recently checked back into Jerry Hollendorfer’s Northern California barn. He should be back in serious training before the calendar turns. At his best, he was the nation’s best.

One of the ironies of 2015 was that American Pharoah was based in Bob Baffert’s Santa Anita barn but his only appearances on the track were for workouts and celebratory parades. He went from Oaklawn (twice) to Churchill Downs to Pimlico to Belmont to Monmouth to Saratoga and finally to Keeneland.

Two horses, who, in American Pharoah’s absence, dominated last winter’s 3-year-old stakes then ran 2-3 in the Kentucky Derby, Firing Line and Dortmund, could make things interesting for California Chrome and Shared Belief.

Late season developer Smooth Roller, who upset the Grade 1 Awesome Again for his third win in four starts, ought to be recovered from the minor injury that forced him to be scratched from the BC Classic.

Some will argue that the best horse in the country is a mare, Beholder. She’s the opposite of American Pharoah. She never leaves Southern California. With the 2016 Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita, there is no reason for her to travel in the coming year, when she could capture a fourth Eclipse without ever winning a race east of Pasadena.

Maybe her connections will do the sporting thing and take a shot at the male heavyweights in the Big Cap.

The nation’s best sprinter, Runhappy, also will be in Southern California after being yanked from trainer Maria Borell’s barn the day after his scintillating performance in the BC Sprint and turned over to owner James “Mattress Mac” McIngvale’s sister-in-law.

Love the horse but the connections are a big root against.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, November 05, 2015

Make BC a one-day festival again…and other thoughts

Can something be regarded as an afterthought if it happens first. Breeders' Cup Friday would fall into this category. It is strictly a money-making deal with little connection to the grandeur of Saturday. But as long as it's going to be retained, there are ways to improve it while bolstering Saturday's card, too. In an unrelated idea, racing's Hall of Fame should step outside the box and induct American Pharoah this summer. He's going in anyway, so why wait?

MIAMI, Nov. 5, 2015--The extensive gaps between Breeders’ Cup races allows time for thoughts and reflections. J.P. and I were kicking around ideas all afternoon. By the way, I second his opinion that Florent Geroux is America’s next riding superstar. Here are some other notions that struck me last Friday and Saturday:

The second BC day (Friday) is as bad an idea as baseball’s second All-Star game, which the national pastime had the sense to drop. In a perfect world, Breeders’ Cup would follow suit. It isn’t as if the stakes-fortified day before the featured races wasn’t a horse player magnet before it was officially dubbed a BC event.

This isn’t going to happen because of the familiar reason: money. Breeders’ Cup gets to charge premium prices well beyond what the tariffs were when Friday was just the eve of the big day. Handle also gets a boost from the Breeders’ Cup brand.

As long as the second day is going to be around, there are ways to make it better. Breeders’ Cup has been trying without success to find an acceptable theme for the day. Ladies Day was deservedly laughed off when it wasn’t being pilloried as sexist.

Perhaps because of this, Friday in 2015 was theme-free. The four Breeders’ Cup events were divided between the old (Distaff and Dirt Mile) and new (a couple of juvenile turf races).

The latter pair might be on the right track. How about a Breeders’ Cup Stars of Tomorrow Day, borrowing a format created at Churchill Downs and widely copied.

Keep the two juvenile turf races and add a couple of juvenile dirt sprints. The Juvenile Sprint was hastily discarded after 2012 when only five horses showed up at Santa Anita and a D. Wayne Lukas maiden beat a nondescript bunch.

However, there was a huge mitigating factor. It was the year Breeders’ Cup decreed there would be no Lasix in juvenile races. Now that the white flag has been waved on that front, it’s time to not only restore one 2-year-old sprint but to stage one for each gender.

Would anyone argue that there aren’t more juveniles ready to run six furlongs than there are those prepped for a two-turn race? Without the Lasix prohibition, both dashes could wind up over-subscribed.

They wouldn’t have to be million dollar stakes. Half that amount would suffice and it’s readily available by cutting the purse for the two turf races by 50 percent to make them all equal.

To retain the Breeders’ Cup patina (and admission prices), the established Juvenile Fillies and Juvenile could anchor the Friday card at their current purses.

This would create six Breeders’ Cup endowed races instead of the four this year and allow the Dirt Mile and Distaff to rejoin the major events on Saturday. Both days would be more attractive.

More BC ruminations

The most spirited debate when Eclipse ballots go out will be in the female turf category. Should it be Tepin, who put down males in the Mile for her third Grade 1 of the year, or Stephanie’s Kitten, one of the most consistent, hard knocking mares in years, who concluded her career with scores in the Grade 1 Flower Bowl then the Fillies & Mares Turf, in which her victims included Euro “super filly” Legatissimo. An argument could be mounted that Stephanie’s Kitten was best in the Beverly D, too.

My gut is Tepin will get the nod because “she beat males.” When is this nonsensical reasoning going to stop? As I’ve pointed out many times, the only reason females beating males is a big deal in North America is because it is so rarely attempted. It’s ho-hum commonplace in Europe.

Found, a 3-year-old filly, beat the best male grass horses in the world, including Arc winner Golden Horn, in the Turf. Lady Shipman just missed in the Turf Sprint against a gate full of males.

Goldikova beat males three times in the Mile, Miesque did it twice and Royal Heroine won the initial Turf. Very Subtle and Safely Kept have won the Sprint.

In the U.S., Rachel Alexandra vanquished males the only three times she tried and Havre de Grace beat males in the Woodward. Wayne Lukas, who won the Kentucky Derby with Winning Colors, never hesitates to run juvenile fillies against colts when he has the stock to do it. Wesley Ward has enjoyed great success doing it every spring.

So, could we stop acting amazed and affording too much credit every time it happens?

I’ll also be curious to hear what those, who spent three years knocking Wise Dan as one-dimensional, have to say since all of Tepin’s stakes wins have been at a flat mile.

Southern Californians have won three of the past four Kentucky Derbys—I’ll Have Another, California Chrome and American Pharoah—and there’s no disputing that this is where the top talent has been again in 2015.

Juvenile winner Nyquist might have questionable breeding for a mile and a quarter but there is no question he towers over his rivals at this point. Despite a horrid post and wide trip, he crushed his rivals in the Juvenile.

Moreover, Swipe, the West Coast colt he has now beaten four straight times, was clearly the best of the rest. This doesn’t even take into account how Ralis shipped East to win the Hopeful against Saratoga’s best, although he was a bust in the BC Juvenile.

But the real best of the West is super filly Songbird, who ran more than a second faster than the boys and did it without too much apparent exertion. She raced highly regarded Rachel’s Valentina, who still appears to be an exceptional talent, and Frizette winner Nickname into the ground.

The “will Songbird skip the Oaks for the Derby?” conversation has already started.

Another Eclipse debate is going to be in the older dirt male division. Do you give it to Liam’s Map, whose troubled trip win in the Mile was jaw dropping, or Honor Code, who won the Met Mile and Whitney, running down Liam’s Map in the final strides of the latter.

This will be the deciding factor on many ballots but not among the “what have you done for me lately” crowd (of which I might be a member in this instance). Since the Whitney, Honor Code has run third in the Kelso and BC Classic. Liam’s Map ran away with the Woodward then captured the Dirt Mile despite an almost impossible trip. I’ll be doing more thinking on this in the next month.

Finally, a plea to do something totally outside the box. American Pharoah’s triumph in the Classic completed a racing grand slam that might never be duplicated. It’s said there are no sure things in racing. Not true. It is absolutely certain that the Triple Crown champion will be inducted into racing’s Hall of Fame the first year he is eligible.

Do we really have to wait? Couldn’t we make an exception for the colt, who has done more good for racing than any horse since Secretariat, and put him in next summer. This would be an extraordinary departure but American Pharoah is as extraordinary a horse as most of us have ever seen.

Let’s celebrate him while he’s still fresh in everyone’s memory.

Written by Tom Jicha

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