by Dave Briggs
It’s important to stress that trainer Linda Toscano has never “had even a passing thought” about being worthy of being enshrined in the Harness Racing Hall of Fame. “I’m just trying to win the next race,” she said with strong conviction.
But she, for sure, thought she blew any chance of such glory the day she had to scratch Walner out of the Hambletonian in which the colt was the presumptive heavy favorite.
“Honest to goodness, I felt like when I scratched Walner that day I blew it. Because even I would have said if I had won two Hambletonians that maybe I could get consideration (for the Hall of Fame),” Toscano said.
Maybe, just maybe, voters looked more favorably on her as a Hall of Fame candidate after she made the difficult call to do what was right for the horse.
“I couldn’t hurt him. He was so special,” she said. “It was a really, really hard decision, because I think if he was half right he could’ve won that day. But, on the other hand, I don’t regret the decision ever for one second. It was the right thing to do for him.
“Walner was probably one of the most special animals that I’ve ever seen in my life. He was just a freak of nature. I know what he could’ve accomplished that summer had he not injured himself.”
Owner Andrew Cohen said Toscano’s incredible love for animals is what drew him to her in 2007.
“I don’t know what better thing you’d want out of a trainer when you’re giving them custody and control over a very expensive asset,” Cohen said. “They are babysitting it, feeding it and doing everything with it. Some trainers are more compassionate towards their animals than others and she had always been putting the health of the animal first. She is always talking about what’s good for the horse, whether it’s racing a certain way or not racing a certain way or taking time off or training work or whatever.”
When she received the call that she was going to be a Hall of Famer, Toscano said she was speechless. “I’m very rarely speechless,” she said, laughing. “And I honestly couldn’t think of anything to say.”
Her second emotion was to question whether she deserved the honor, but her long-time partner and husband, Brad McNinch, let his emotions flow.
“Brad actually got emotional, because he has been the silent, driving force… Bottom line, we’re a partnership, he’s done as much to get me here than any person alive.”
Toscano grew up in Brooklyn and said she was “absolutely miserable” when her parents moved her to the suburbs when she was 13.
“My wings were clipped,” she said. “I was basically a city girl. I could ride the trains and the bus and I had a pass at 13 years old… I went from being virtually independent to being dependent on somebody giving me a ride to anywhere I went.
“It’s 20/20 hindsight now as an adult looking back, but my parents saw the neighborhood changing and they moved to the suburbs for their children. It was a safety move.”
Her mother tried to get her involved in a variety of activities and when riding horses was offered, Toscano jumped at the chance.
“My dad was a racetrack goer, he always went to the racetrack my whole life. He loved Del Mar, he loved Aqueduct… mostly the runners, but he loved finding a 2-year-old that he believed would be a Derby-potential horse and he followed them all the way through. That was one of his favorite things to do. Usually he liked to go to the Bluegrass in the spring at Keeneland and he always liked to spend a week at Saratoga in August, that was just something that he loved to do. My mother did, too. So when they said something about the horses, I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll take horseback riding lessons.’ My sister came along also and we became total and complete horse addicts. We did the hunter-jumper thing, we did the showing… we bought a horse shortly after that and every waking minute we were at the barn.”
Toscano, who was heavily considering a career as a vet, met standardbred people at the same barn and one day, around the time she was 19, they brought her to Roosevelt Raceway.
I wound up getting a job with Buddy Regan and I never left. It was love at first sight. I fell in love with these horse and I just never left,” Toscano said.
Other than McNinch, Toscano said the four people that had the biggest influence on her career were: Buddy Regan, John Campbell, Mike Lachance and Tim Tetrick.
“Bottom line, there’s so many people in the background, but when I first got started Regan had enough confidence in me to let me try to train a horse. John had enough confidence in me to hire me and let me run his New York operations. That kind of was the stepping stone that I needed. When Mike jumped on board, when I went on my own, everything started to gel and come together.”
Tetrick has been Toscano’s primary driver for many years.
“I was so fortunate, in that I grew up watching the likes of Billy Haughton and Stanley Dancer… and getting to integrate a little with Stanley’s operation because Regan was a Dancer disciple. I was very fortunate because there was such an incredible wealth of knowledge at the time I was getting started.”
Toscano, who has conditioned the winners of more than $53 million in her career, was named Trainer of the Year in 2012, the same year her trainee Chapter Seven was named Horse and Trotter of the Year and Market Share, another trainee, won the Hambletonian. A five-time Breeders Crown winner, Toscano has also won the Canadian Trotting Classic (Market Share 2012), Nat Ray (Chapter Seven 2012), Progress Pace (Heston Blue Chip 2012), American-National (Jet Laag 1996; Market Share 2012 and 2013), Art Rooney (Doctor Butch 2013) and many more.
Beyond a deep connection with animals, Cohen said Toscano is also very forthright with owners.
“You hear people say, trainers treat owners like mushrooms, ‘keep them in the dark and feed them s – – -’ and there are definitely trainers that I’ve come across that have that attitude. She doesn’t,” Cohen said. “She is very candid in her assessments of the horses and she’s candid when you’re buying horses with her at the sale. She’s candid with broodmares. She’s candid when it’s time to stake. She’s candid when she races them. Especially for someone like me, who is basically 1,500 miles away who can’t be at the barn or at any qualifier, it’s really important to me that when I have my weekly call with her that I can run down and get an accurate sense of what’s happening.
“She also, I think, should get credit because she has always been willing to work very intensely with small-time owners. She has in her barns $300,000 horses and she has in her barn $30,000 horses. It’s not because she’s buying extra ones at the end of a sale to give a quota… some of her owners can’t afford really expensive yearlings, so I admire her for that. Some trainers, as they rise in stature or rise in ability or success, they can freeze out smaller owners. That doesn’t happen with her, she’s very loyal, which is appreciated when you’re not a multi-million dollar owner.”
Toscano said she enters the Hall of Fame feeling incredible humbled.
“There’s not a single, solitary person in that whole building, in that Hall of Fame, that did this because they were trying to get in the Hall of Fame. There’s no way, because there’s no way that you can set your sights on doing something for that – everything has to go right, you have to work hard, the stars have to be aligned. You do it because you love it and if you love something enough and you’re good at it, sometimes you reach pinnacles that you just don’t think are remotely attainable in your brain. That’s what happened here. Not even a passing thought about the Hall of Fame. I’m just trying to win the next race.”