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, February 15, 2013

Points would have KO’ed 4 recent Derby winners

Animal Kingdom gives his assessment of the new Derby Point System
Photo by Toni Pricci
Animal Kingdom assessing the new Derby Point System
As the start of phase 2 of Kentucky Derby points qualifying looms, Churchill Downs says it's pleased with the way things are going. Perhaps it shouldn't be. Under 2013 points standards, it is likely that at least four of the 14 most recent Derby winners--Mine That Bird, Giacomo, War Emblem and Charismatic--would not have made the cut. During this period the only serious Derby contender to come to mind who was bumped by the earnings rule was Drosselmeyer.

MIAMI, February 14, 2013--Churchill Downs is “very comfortable” with its new Kentucky Derby points system, Senior Director of Communications Darren Rogers told The Blood-Horse recently. With the second phase of the points system looming next week, the 2013 debut of Animal Kingdom at Gulfstream on Feb. 9 was a reminder of why Churchill should be at least a little bit uncomfortable.

It’s entirely possible Animal Kingdom would not have made the cut for the 2011 Derby if the qualifying criteria had been what it is in 2013.

Guesstimates are it will take 40 to 50 points to earn a spot in the 2013 starting gate. This seems reasonable. Eight preps between Feb. 23 and March 24 award the winner 50 points. The big seven final preps are worth 100 points to the winner and 40 apiece to the runnersup. That’s a potential 22 horses with at least 40 points, probably more, as 13 Triple Crown candidates had at least 10 points through the first stage of the qualifying process. (Goldencents and Shanghai Bobby lead with 24.)

There almost certainly will be at least a few horses earning big points in both rounds and injuries always take their toll late in the run-up to the first Saturday in May, so some horses might squeak in with fewer points. But a horse with 50 points wouldn’t necessarily have it knocked.

By 2013 standards, Animal Kingdom had 50 points entering the Derby. All were earned in the Spiral Stakes, a race that has changed its name more often than Diddy. Perhaps Animal Kingdom’s pre-Derby campaign would have been managed differently under a points system. Then again, Animal Kingdom went into the Spiral still eligible for an entry level allowance.

Allowing that Animal Kingdom would have been more likely than not to make the Derby field, this was definitely not the case with 2010 Derby champion Mine That Bird. He had only 13 points by 2013 methodology.

Giacomo, hero of the 2005 Derby, would have been an unlikely qualifier with 36 points.

There is no uncertainty with a couple of horses who went into the Belmont Stakes with a shot at the Triple Crown, War Emblem in 2002 and Charismatic in 1999. War Emblem would have had zero points because his triumph in the Illinois Derby would have counted for nothing, thanks to the outrageously political decision by Churchill Downs to snub the race. Charismatic would have had only 10 points from his fourth-place finish in the Santa Anita Derby.

That’s four Derby winners, two of whom also won the Preakness, in the past 14 years who wouldn’t have cracked the field and another who would have been on the bubble. The only significant horse I can recall who didn’t make the starting 20 under the earnings criteria was Drosselmeyer in 2010.

Just Saying: Dustin Hoffman is just saying something that needs to be heard. The two-time Academy Award winning actor told The New York Post that he was “beyond disappointed” and “shocked” that the horse racing drama “Luck” was abruptly canceled by HBO in March 2012.

The reason offered by HBO was the death of a third horse during the making of the drama set in the colorful milieu of horse racing. Trust me, this was an excuse looking for a way to happen.

In my previous life, I was a TV critic for 30 years. I know how the business works and how disingenuous the people in it can be. A crack by Ted Harbert to TV writers during my time on the beat is illustrative. Harbert, a highly regarded executive, programmed the ABC network and later ran NBC studios, among several big jobs he has held.

He was asked the difference between being the public face of ABC, who had to explain and defend his network programming decisions to critics, and the less visible position at NBC behind the scenes supervising production of shows. “I don’t have to lie to you guys as much,” Harbert quipped shamelessly.

“Luck” wasn’t drawing a crowd. Its well publicized premiere in January 2012 attracted only about a million viewers, a paltry number for HBO, which was spoiled by audiences 10 times as large during “The Sopranos” heyday. Nobody expected “Luck,” or any series, to be another “Sopranos.” However, HBO was hoping for an audience closer to the more recent “Game of Thrones,” which is generally north of 4 million.

Worse for “Luck,” the trend line was discouraging. The subsequent weekly audiences were in the ballpark of about a half-million. With Hoffman heading the cast, which also included established stars Nick Nolte, Jill Hennessy, Dennis Farina, Richard Kind and Jason Gedrick (as well as Gary Stevens and Chantal Sutherland), “Luck” was an expensive show to make. The ambitious racing footage also blew up the bottom line.

HBO, which had ordered a second season based on the quality of the series, needed an escape hatch. You don’t embarrass a Dustin Hoffman by pulling the plug on him, especially when you’re a network that prides itself in saying it is above ratings.

Protests by the nutbags at PETA, an organization generally ignored and ridiculed, provided HBO the opportunity to seem high minded and compassionate toward animals when all it really cared about was a face-saving way to get out of a commitment it had made.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Friday, February 08, 2013

For NYRA. No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

MIAMI, February 8, 2013--NYRA's attempt to deal with the perception that drugs are more influential than ability and horsemenship in the outcome of races by extending the pre-race cut-off date for certain medications resulted in a significant decrease in horses shipping in from neighboring states.

As a result, NYRA had to drop six racing days from its winter schedule. No big deal. But a reluctance by horsemen from more permissive states to participate in New York could have a serious impact on the showcase Saratoga meeting this summer. The solution, a uniform national medication policy, is nowhere on the horizon.

No good deed goes unpunished may be an exaggeration—but not by much.

NYRA took a step this year toward dealing with a perception that pharmaceuticals are more influential in the outcome of races than equine ability and horsemanship. The pre-race cutoff time for certain medications was extended by several days. The reward for doing the right thing: field size decreased by an average of one horse per race, leading to six racing days being dropped during February and March.

A decline from an average eight-horse field to seven might not seem to be a big deal, certainly not enough to start eliminating racing days. The math says otherwise. An eight-horse field produces 56 exacta combinations and 336 trifecta possibilities. A seven horse field drops these numbers to 42 and 210. The comparisons are starker in three- and four-race horizontal wagers. These declines translate to a substantial loss in handle for the track as well as payoffs to winning bettors.

The primary reason for the shorter fields is a 75 percent drop in ship-ins from neighboring states, which aren’t as stringent in their medication rules. If racing were serious about dealing with the drug issue, other Mid-Atlantic states would have fallen in line with NYRA’s new policies. At least they are thinking about it. A meeting of Mid-Atlantic states as well as Illinois and Massachusetts to discuss uniform medication policies was held Feb. 6. But all they did was talk.

The ideal would be uniform medication rules nationally but this will happen the day after Congress balances the budget and pays down the national debt.

Racing jurisdictions aren’t partners, they’re competitors. Every horse that doesn’t ship to New York might help fill a race at its home track. Besides, there is probably a little “who died and left you boss?” attitude toward following New York’s lead. So NYRA suffers for attempting to do the right thing.

Scratching a few days during the winter is hardly a cause for consternation. Four-day (or less) weeks should be the norm during winter. But what is there to lead anyone to believe this won’t be a continuing problem year-round? Shippers aren’t as important during the Belmont spring meet when snowbird horses return to swell the local population and 2-year-olds from local outfits hit the track. However, the situation could have a negative impact on the showcase meeting of the year at Saratoga.

A sizable contingent of Kentucky horses bring quantity and quality to stakes, allowance, high-class claiming races and maiden special weights at the Spa. Shippers from other Mid-Atlantic states also show up on Union Avenue in greater numbers than they do on Hempstead Turnpike.

If enough out-of-town outfits decide they don’t want to play by the tougher New York medication rules, race, there are two alternatives. One is awful, the other not so bad. To replace the higher class races under the current schedule, more bottom-level New York-bred beaten claimers will have to be carded. The other option is to cut back to five days a week. Saratoga has become the only major track in the country that still races six.

Del Mar bit the bullet and reduced its agenda to five days and still is able to card only eight, sometimes seven, races on weekdays.

The other Southern California tracks struggle to card four days a week, even during the prestigious Santa Anita winter meet. The horse shortage is so acute out West that a pair of Grade 2 races, the San Antonio and Robert B. Lewis went to the post with four-horse fields and the Strub had only six break from the starting gate the first week in February.

Imprudent scheduling was a contributing factor. It defies logic to schedule the Strub for 4-year-olds a day before the San Antonio for older horses. Combine the two fields and there would have been an attractive San Antonio.

The entire three-race Strub series, designed to attract the previous year’s top 3-year-olds and ease them into their new division as older horses, needs to be re-examined. At the very least, one of the two-turn races should be eliminated. A seven-furlong Malibu, the traditional opening day feature when the horses are still 3-year-olds, leading into a two-turn race in January for new 4-year-olds would maintain tradition while bowing to current reality. It would also steer 4-year-olds into races like the San Antonio, where they belong.

In fact, one of the foursome in the San Antonio, Basmati, is a four-year-old. In a race that turned out to be a farce, he was the only one to seriously take it to Game On Dude, who towered over the field to such an extent that he went off at the legal minimum of five cents on the dollar and still created a minus win pool.

Basmati attempted to push Game On Dude down the backstretch while Clubhouse Ride and Make Music for Me appeared to be content to vie for the best of the minor awards while getting undeserved black type. (Scenarios such as this are something the graded stakes committee should look into, just as they do when graded races are taken off the turf.)

Basmati wound up the only starter not to earn black type—another example of no good deed going unpunished.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Monday, February 04, 2013

Florida Racing’s Future: Same Old Politics?

MIAMI, February 3, 2013--Chicago Mayor and former Obama White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel has a cynical political credo: Never let a good crisis go to waste. In other words, exploit an unfortunate situation to get something you couldn’t get under normal circumstances.

The urgency to enact tighter gun control laws in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., tragedy is an example. The National Rifle Association and Second Amendment absolutists make meaningful gun control all but unattainable. However, public dismay with the horrendous mass slaughters in Connecticut and elsewhere has generated new momentum for the effort to try to outlaw at least military-style weapons.

Under normal circumstances, Hialeah Park is dead as a thoroughbred race track. Gulfstream and Calder have carved up the calendar to ensure there are no open dates and Hialeah president John Brunetti said he has learned his lesson and will never again attempt to run a meet in conflict with either of the other two tracks. However, a looming crisis in South Florida racing could provide the impetus to resuscitate Hialeah through the back door.

At the tailend of the 20th century, state regulators became disgusted by the annual acrimonious battles between Miami-area racetracks and deregulated the dates. Tell us when you plan to run and we’ll rubber stamp it became the new state policy.

Ownership of Gulfstream and Calder has changed since then and their alliance teeters on the brink of disintegration. Gulfstream has filed to run year-round starting with the opening of its traditional winter season in December 2013. Unless this request is amended by the deadline at the end of February, a scorched earth showdown between the two tracks seems inevitable.

It almost happened in 2011, when Gulfstream decided it wanted to open in December rather than the customary first week in January. Calder initially refused to budge. It warned its horsemen, who make up almost half the fields for Gulfstream races, that any horse who left the stable area to race at Gulfstream would not be welcomed back. Gulfstream countered that it would build new stalls to accommodate horsemen stuck in this predicament.

Bellicose threats raged right up to the 11th hour and 59th minute when, miraculously, an agreement was reached. Gulfstream would open in December and Calder would be compensated by getting a few weeks in April, which had made up the tail of the winter season.

For Calder, this was akin to a department store giving up the month before Christmas for a month at another time of year. Churchill Downs Inc., Calder’s parent, obviously got something, probably something substantial. If it didn’t, it owes stockholders an explanation. However, the quo for the quid has never been disclosed. All that matters is, when the moment of truth came, Churchill Downs Inc. caved.

This emboldened Gulfstream owner Frank Stronach. Less than two years later, he is not satisfied with a bigger piece of the pie. He wants the whole pie. Calder/CD I have two options. Dig in and take a stand or fold again.

This brings us back to Hialeah. If neither Calder nor Gulfstream blink, chaos will ensue. The two tracks are only eight miles apart and the national shortage of horses is especially acute in South Florida outside the winter months when barn areas are swollen with snowbird horses.

Calder has had to cut back from six days a week to five, then four. Even with the lesser regimen, races with five or six horses are the rule. Two tracks racing head to head will split this inventory. Even with Gulfstream running only on weekends during what are now its off months, there wouldn’t be close to enough horses to go around.

This is not to mention the necessity to maintain two staffs of racing officials, gate crews, mutual clerks and the scores of other employees behind the scenes of a day at the races. Many who now fill these roles move seamlessly from Calder to Gulfstream and back.

The billion dollar Florida thoroughbred industry, the hundreds of farms it supports and the thousands of jobs it creates will be put into jeopardy. The state could not allow this to happen. The only solution would be for the state to get back into the business of assigning non-conflicting dates.

This is where Hialeah and its president John Brunetti will be waiting to take advantage of the crisis. Brunetti has been running a short quarterhorse meeting the past three winters for the sole purpose of qualifying for a casino license. But he aches to get back into thoroughbred racing, his true love as an owner, breeder and fan. You can expect him to go the legislature with a plea that state needs to find a place for Hialeah in any new racing calendar.

Brunetti, whose race track is located in an overwhelmingly Hispanic area, will be well armed with the support he has built within the potent Latin caucus in the legislature. Their numbers aren’t sufficient to get bills passed independently but they have enough strength to be able to swap votes with legislators from elsewhere in the state with local pet projects of their own.

Another argument Brunetti has used in the past might resonate well with Florida lawmakers, who can be embarrassingly parochial. He’s the guy who lives in Florida and has worked tirelessly to preserve a treasured landmark. Meanwhile, Gulfstream is owned by an absentee Austrian and Calder is controlled by an out-of-state conglomerate, which, despite its revered name in racing, seems to have become more concerned with casinos. It’s a low road approach but this has always been the most trafficked avenue in battles over Florida racing dates.

Rahm Emmanuel would be proud.

Written by Tom Jicha

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