Katie Toska puts her horses first, even on awards nights

by Chris Lomon

If Katie Toska happens to be a no-show at dinnertime or on an awards night, there is a good reason for her absence.

When her name was called at the Michigan Harness Horseman’s Association banquet two years ago, Toska wasn’t there to accept her Caretaker of the Year award (Carlee Evans was the other recipient).

What was it that kept her away from the festivities?

In this instance, it wasn’t what, but rather who.

“I had work to do in the barn and with the horses, so I wasn’t able to go,” Toska said. “It was as simple as that. We had to race the next day, so I needed to have the horses ready. A lot of people reached out to me wondering where I was, and I told them why I wasn’t there. For me, the horses always come first.”

This, fittingly, was one of the reasons she was selected for the caretaker honor.

In the life of the long-time horsewoman, horses have been and will be the top priority.

Toska, the granddaughter of trainer Jerry Toska, has been in the business for over 20 years.

Her adoration for horses, specifically, standardbreds, dates back to her childhood days in the American Midwest.

“My aunt came to live with us in my mom’s house in Toledo and I always knew my grandpa had a barn, but I never had a chance to go there,” Katie said. “One day, my aunt asked me if I wanted to go with her and clean stalls, so that’s what I did. I thought I would do it for a weekend.”

After two days of being around the horses, Katie was smitten.

A certain horse happened to catch her attention early on in her caretaking career.

“The first horse that I ever got to touch and talk to every day was a pacer called JL Bgs Image,” she said. “He had a great personality. I loved him and I wanted to keep him forever. He was the one who taught me the first lessons of the business.”

There have been other horses she has bonded with over the years, but for Katie, simply being around the horses every day is reason enough to keep her coming back each morning.

Helpful advice on how to tend to the pacers and trotters has been plentiful.

“I learned a lot from so many people, but I remember my grandfather telling me, ‘Take care of the horses and they will take care of you,’” she said. “And it is true.”

Special Strides is a perfect example of that approach.

“We bought him for 500 dollars,” said Katie of the son of Camotion—Belize. “The guy told us there were no guarantees with the horse. He had a lot of issues, but Grandpa told me to put cold water on him and work on his legs every day; just take care of him. So that is what we did. I did a lot of research on what we could do to help him. Whether he raced or not wasn’t the priority; getting him well was.”

Months after his rehabilitation began, Special Strides was back on track.

“We paid $500 for him, and he made us about $10,000,” Katie said. “We just took the time and didn’t rush things. Everybody loved him when he raced because he tried so hard, and they knew he had a lot of hurdles to overcome. We still have him. He is a great reminder that horses are very resilient and that if you are willing to put in the time and have patience good things can happen.”

Currently, there are seven horses — five racehorses, and two retirees — under Toska’s care.

One in particular, Summer Lovesginger, has become a favorite.

“I like to call her my problem child,” said Katie of the 5-year-old daughter of Fred and Ginger—Bolero Toki. “She wasn’t halter-broke, so I went over to the owner’s place and walked three of their horses. She was probably the worst one of the bunch. She didn’t want anyone touching her, or looking at her; she was a pain in the butt.

“She ended up becoming a good racehorse, but no one wanted her because she was such a handful. She would rear up and she didn’t want the harness on her. She went to the Amish to get broke and the man who was looking after her said, ‘If you can get her to go in a straight line, she will be alright.’”

This January, at Northville Downs, the bay mare was better than alright.

In rein to Justin Irvine, Summer Lovesginger pulled off a 20-1 upset, crossing the line a 1 ¾-length winner in a time of 1:56.2.

“We just kept on working with her,” Katie said. “Other trainers gave me some advice on what we could do to help her along. People would tell me not to give up and we didn’t.”

Does this mean Katie has the magic touch with the so-called problem horses?

“I don’t know if I do or not,” she said. “But I do get the nice, well-behaved ones every now and again.”

Whether they are hard-headed or open-minded is of no matter to Katie.

Simply having the opportunity to work with the horses is her biggest reward.

“Seeing them every morning and knowing they are happy is the biggest thing for me,” she said. “I love to take care of them, and I want them to look good so that they are shining.”

When she isn’t tending to their needs, Katie can be found, time permitting, creating works of art.

No need to ask what the subject matter is for her creations.

“I have a little artsy side to me,” she said. “I love to draw and paint horses. I always give them away. It is relaxing for me, and I enjoy it a lot. Sometimes you need that time just to exhale and enjoy the quiet. But I love being with the horses.”

It is why, on occasion, Katie might be a little late at the dinner table or miss out on a special evening.

She will always have a legitimate reason why.

“If work needs to be done at the barn, that’s where I will be,” she said.