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She's What Horse Racing Needs

linda-toscano.jpg

Published: August 5, 2011 8:54 am ET

Last Comment: August 5, 2011 11:21 pm ET | 6 Comment(s) | Jump to Comments

Horse racing in North America is down but not out. If it is to rise again, and attract a new generation of fans and bettors, it could do much worse than embracing as a human model someone with the talent and integrity of trainer Linda Toscano. Universally respected and widely admired, accessible and friendly, hardworking and humble, Toscano embodies what horse racing can be, what it ought to be, if it could only get its act together.

It's a particularly timely moment to tell Toscano's story because, 33 years after she earned her trainer's license, she is on the verge of her sport's Holy Grail. Toscano's latest fast horse, a 3-year-old trotter named Chapter Seven, is one of the favorites Saturday afternoon in the 86th edition of the Hambletonian, harness racing's most famous race. The $1.5 million affair will be contested this year at the Meadowlands Racetrack in East Rutherford, New Jersey (live coverage in HD on NBC at 3 p.m. ET). It's the Kentucky Derby of the sport--and the first time Toscano has made it this far.

It hasn't been for a lack of trying. Toscano has trained more than 1,000 horses in her 35-plus years in the business. She's won some of the other big races in the sport and her horses annually compete at the highest levels. But the Hambletonian is a whole other thing. "When the horse qualified for the finals last week, Linda just let out a huge sigh," said her husband, Brad McNinch, who helps Toscano train and race their lengthy string of horses all over the East Coast. "Some of the pressure is already off."

Indeed, much of the pressure already is off. Toscano is a breast cancer survivor, which puts the art and science of horse racing into clear perspective. Ken Jacobs, one of Toscano's most prominent and successful owners these days, says he'll never forget how upfront and selfless Toscano was nearly a decade ago when he first asked her to train some horses for him. "I wanted an honest trainer," Jacobs said. Toscano told him instead, "Ken, I don't know that I can give your horses the time they deserve because of breast cancer." Later, when Toscano was stronger and cancer-free, she called Jacobs back and said "Ken, I'm able to do that now."

Like flavours of the month, racehorse trainers come and go. One year's wonder becomes the next year's missing person. Sometimes the stars get caught cheating. Sometimes they get in trouble with the law. Sometimes they lose their good horses and owners in other ways. It is the nature of racing. Anyone who has read Jaimy Gordon's brilliant novel, Lord of Misrule, knows this to be true; horse racing churns up people the way good horses churn up track. But not Toscano. "She is always looking to learn," Jacobs said, "which is unusual given all the success she has had. She doesn't think that she's made it. That's a rare trait. She's just a unique person."

Born in Brooklyn, the city girl was uprooted to the relative (especially back then) pastoral life of Long Island when she was 13. To ease the transition, her parents got her horseback riding lessons. It was the old familiar equation: girl plus horse equals love. It didn't hurt, either, that her father often took her to the races--both to see the Thoroughbreds and the trotters. By 1975, around the height of the sport's popularity in the United States, Toscano was a groom at the old Roosevelt Raceway. She earned her stripes rubbing horses for training legends Buddy Regan and Hall of Famer William "Buddy" Gilmour before striking out on her own in 1984.

Harness horses are "tough, kind and versitile," Toscano told me this week from her barn near Englishtown, N.J. "And I love the sport because it gave a girl who loved horses a chance to make a living playing with the creatures she loved." Her horses now race all over the East Coast, and in Ontario and Kentucky, and her owners are legendarily loyal to her. "We've known Linda for about 25 years," said Alan Katz, one of the brothers of 3 Brothers Stable, one of Toscano's leading owners. "We probably would have been out of the business a long time ago if it was not for her honesty and integrity."

John Campbell, the sport's iconic driver and a member of its Hall of Fame, goes back with Toscano to those Roosevelt days. "She knows her horses," he told me Monday. "And she loves horses. She still does. I know whatever she is telling me [about a horse he's about to drive] there is a reason for it." Mike Lachance, another Hall of Famer, says the same thing. "She started with the right people," Lachance told me Tuesday. "She had a good foundation there. And she always loved what she is doing. You can see how hard she works, how her whole barn works, on and off the track. All that experience and hard work over all those years is paying off."

Campbell and Lachance know of what they speak. Campbell has won the Hambletonian a record six times. Lachance has won it four times and will go for number five on Saturday riding behind Chapter Seven. With Lachance at the helm, the nice colt roared forward from behind in his elimination race last Saturday night to finish second by less than one length. And on Tuesday the horse drew a good post-position--fourth from the rail. Richard Gutnick, one of Chapter Seven's owners, says the horse wouldn't be where it is today without Toscano's dedication and patience.

"When the horse had pneumonia this year," Gutnick told me, "she sensed something was wrong. If you looked at the horse you wouldn't have known it known it yet she sensed something was wrong and had the vets look at it. If it wasn't for her quick reaction the horse would have been in trouble." Gutnick couldn't be more happy for his conditioner as the race draws near. "She is just a wonderful person," Gutnick says. "I've been in this business for 28 years and I've never found a trainer as honest as her. She will tell you like it is. She tries to protect her owners. And no other trainer has ever protected her owners the way she does."

Toscano's moment in the sun is timely for other reasons as well. The Hambletonian's host track, the Meadowlands, is about to emerge from decades of torpor at the hands of the New Jersey Sports And Exposition Authority. The Garden State has transferred control of the track to Jeff Gural, a New York real estate magnate who is a passionate owner, breeder and racetrack operator within the sport. Many in the industry are looking to Gural, a devoted horseman, to reestablish "The Big M" as the nation's premier harness racing venue. And Gural, who is part-owner of a filly under Toscano's care, could do worse than looking toward trainers like her to lead the way toward a rejuvenated business model.

"I think Linda represents the majority of hard working trainers who succeed by working hard, obeying the rules, and by being dedicated to the welfare of the horse," Gural told me Tuesday by email. He understands that one of the many current challenges to the sport is the perception that its human participants are not always on the up and up. No one has that concern about Toscano. I could not find a single owner, past or present, who has anything bad to say about her, on-or off-the-record. And, trust me, as you'll see below, I looked.

Being a prominent woman in an industry (still) largely dominated by men cannot be easy. But over the years Toscano has threaded the needle. Casie Coleman, one of North America's leading harness trainers, of a younger generation, says she "looks up to" Toscano as "a great trainer regardless of her sex." Jean Brown, a scion of Blue Chip Farms, one of the leading breeding farms in the sport, calls Toscano "an inspiration to men and women alike." Paula Wellwood, part of one of North America's racing dynasties, goes even further. Wellwood told me Monday:

Linda is a very motivated and courageous lady in a male dominant sport. It is not always easy for us in this business and the best thing about Linda that she has perfected is she has developed a tough skin without losing her passion towards the sport and the people involved in it. She is a role model for everyone, especially the females, in this business.

No publicity-hound, Toscano cringed at the idea that I would write an article about her on the eve of the big race. And she generally eschews the male-female storyline that inevitably surrounds her involvement in big races. At a press conference Tuesday announcing the post positions for the race, she said: "They always ask me the gender thing. I don't think there is a person that does this for a living, man or woman, that wouldn't want to get to the Hambletonian. It's not an easy task to get to. So I think it's fun to be a girl, but I think it would be fun to be a guy in the Hambletonian too."

All she wanted to do was talk about Chapter Seven. So I let her. "Everything had to go right" for the horse to be here, she said. "And so far everything has. The horse has risen to the occasion" when he needed to. "All year long the owners kept saying to me, 'Do what you can, but take care of the horse. We want to race in that race [the Hambletonian] but don't hurt him.'" That caring sentiment, too, represents the best of horse racing. Trainers who care about their horses attract owners who care about their horses. And that's also how a beleaguered industry can begin to recover from decades of benign neglect.

No female trainer has ever before won the big race. And at morning line odds of 7-2 Chapter Seven is no shoo-in. The Hambletonian is wide open this year. There are no super-horses, as there have been in recent years, and any one of the ten finalists could rise up to win. For all of the horses, it will take that ever-changing, immeasurable blend of talent, skill and racing luck to prevail. And of course there are other admirable trainers, drivers and owners whose horses will line up at the gate Saturday afternoon. But a great many otherwise neutral observers are rooting for Toscano, one of the sport's truly good guys who just happens to be a woman.

* * *

Finally, an important disclosure: The reason I write so definitively about Toscano is because she is my trainer, too. We've had a few horses with her for nearly five years now (none nearly as good as Chapter Seven, alas) and in that time I have been able to see close-up her professional skills and personal qualities. Even though my partners and I are but a small part of her barn, we root for Linda and her horses every day. And on Saturday I will be rooting for her and Chapter Seven with all my heart.

(Submitted by Andrew Cohen, in co-operation with Daily Racing Form)

August 5, 2011 - 11:21 pmThis lady sounds too good to

Lynne Magee SAID...

This lady sounds too good to be true! What a wonderful example she is for the rest of us in the industry. I had always believed that a properly bred, raised, trained and managed horse could compete against horses on chemicals with health issues any day. Lately, I've been wondering if my beliefs were somewhat askew and thinking that it was time to reassess even being in the business. After reading this story about Ms. Toscano, I'm convinced that she and others who believe in clean, fair racing can still rise to the top. She is an inspiration. The harness people everywhere should be proud of her.

August 5, 2011 - 3:08 pmWishing you all the best in

Wishing you all the best in the Hambletonian!! You certainly deserve to be there..

August 5, 2011 - 12:40 pmWhatever the out come is,

Whatever the out come is, this lady has already WON! Wow what a story, so glad that the article was written. What an inspiration! Victory would be sweet for Linda and Chapter Seven! Cheering for for ya all the way!

August 5, 2011 - 11:15 amToo true!! I worked for

Too true!! I worked for Linda and Brad for five years in the mid 90's and there is not a more desrving couple that should lift the Hambletonian trophy on saturday than these two hard working people!!!Go team Toscano!

August 5, 2011 - 11:04 amI have heard only great

I have heard only great things about Linda from people who know her and have watched her barn develop some great horses, which is a testament to both her patience with a young horse and her overall training abilities. I will be cheering for her and Chapter Seven who I think will win the Hambo from what I have saw of him. Go get em Linda !!

Gary Blackburn

August 5, 2011 - 10:24 amGreat article. Linda has

Jack Darling SAID...

Great article. Linda has been a class act throughout her career and deserves all the accolades. This whole team makes a great role model for harness racing when you consider the driver, trainer,owner and horse. It will be a very popular win if this group can put it all together in the Hambletonian.


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