03/18/2013 10:34AM

Jay Bergman: Trainer Linda Toscano gears up for another huge year in harness racing

Derick Giwner
Trainer Linda Toscano's stable has earned more than $10 million in purses over the last two years.

What is she going to do for an encore?

Trainer Linda Toscano enjoyed an incredible year in 2012. Not only did her aged trotter, Chapter Seven, garner Horse of the Year honors, but her 3-year-old colt pacer and trotter, Heston Blue Chip and Market Share, both were division champions.

Throw in a victory in the Hambletonian and two Breeders Crowns, and you’d have to say that the bar has been elevated to an incredible height. But success hasn’t gone to Toscano’s head. Actually, she sounded as grounded as ever in discussing her outlook for the 2013 campaign this week.

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She’s quite excited about racing Heston Blue Chip, Market Share and Bettors Edge this year.

“They all raced late in the season last year,” she said. “I’m pointing them to qualify sometime in May.”

Market Share returns as a 4-year-old fresh off a $2 million season. He’ll replace Chapter Seven, now off to stallion duty at Blue Chip Farms following an incredible campaign, in the aged trotting ranks.

Heston Blue Chip topped the $1 million mark during his 3-year-old season, which included 14 wins in 18 starts. The son of American Ideal has been brilliant on all track sizes and ended the season even better than he started, winning in a career-best time of 1:48 in the Matron at Dover.

Bettors Edge was another “sleeper,” if you will. He was the proverbial also-ran type who just kept grinding out check after check. Eventually, the gritty son of Bettors Delight found the winner’s circle with more regularity and earned $573,797, with six wins in 25 starts.

Toscano certainly will have a solid one-two punch in the aged pacing ranks this year, but while the big boys are in training, she has a string of quality horses looking to step up. In that group will be Forever Just and J K Fine Art. The pair will move to Yonkers this weekend to tackle the top aged pacers in training.

Forever Just is ready for Saturday’s first leg of the George Morton Levy Series, while J K Fine Art will go in the Blue Chip Matchmaker on Friday night.

“Both of them are just really good over the half-mile track,” said Toscano, acknowledging that neither has shown the talent yet on the big track. In her defense, J K Fine Art, a homebred 4-year-old by Art Major, won her first career start as a 2-year-old in 2011 from post 8 at Yonkers in 1:56 2/5.

Forever Just captured a New York Sire Stakes division at Yonkers last year in 1:52 4/5.

The makeup of Toscano’s stable has stayed pretty much constant, with roughly 28 babies in training and the rest spread out between 3- and 4-year-olds. In the group of 3-year-olds, there’s hope that the successor to Heston Blue Chip might turn out to be Doctor Butch. A winner in 8 of 12 starts as a juvenile, Doctor Butch took a 1:52 mark in winning at Tioga Downs and captured the $175,000 New York Sire Stakes final at Yonkers in 1:53 1/5.

“He impressed me last year when he finished second behind [trainer Robin Schadt’s Odds On Equuleus] at Lexington,” Toscano said.

Doctor Butch paced his mile in 1:50 that October afternoon, with a final quarter in an exceptional 26 1/5 seconds.

Since Doctor Butch was bred in New York, Toscano expects to put him on the same program she mapped out for Heston Blue Chip last year. That means he’ll likely race in all the important New York Sire Stakes events. He was named to the Meadowlands Pace, one of just four races that eluded Heston Blue Chip a year ago.

Toscano has been around 2-year-olds for too long to go running her mouth about any of them at this time of year. “I’m hoping one of two of them turn out to be special,” she said.

There is certainly every reason to believe that more than one or two will turn out all right. Toscano traditionally has gotten the most out of horses because she has always made the horse’s health and future the top priority. That approach has brought her some of the best-bred pacers and trotters and gives her a leg up on many in the business.

In 2012, she became the first woman to train a Hambletonian champion in Market Share. Though the son of Revenue S did win all five of his starts as a juvenile in 2011, he was not considered at the top of the 3-year-old class early in the season. While not flashy, Market Share’s determination was the difference in winning the sport’s most coveted prize and then going on to capture the $1 million Canadian Trotting Classic at Mohawk.

Is there a Hambletonian horse in the Toscano stable this year?

“I have a couple of trotting fillies,” Toscano said, “but no colt right now. Who knows? God willing, maybe one will show up.”

Perhaps Toscano’s greatest attribute is never getting too high or too low. She’s been through the pacing – and now trotting – wars and has managed to stay on an even keel from the beginning of the season to the very end.

That end in 2012 produced a personal-record $6.7 million in earnings for her stable in just 440 starts. It did, of course, help to have three horses earn seven figures each. In 2011, Toscano’s stable earned $3.7 million, her best year to that point. Clearly, she has gotten the attention of a significant ownership group that has benefitted from the relationship.

With the real stakes season just a few months away, Toscano is glad to have some quality weekend raceway stock.

“It’s nice to have some out there to help with the stakes payments,” Toscano said.

One would think with a stable that has earned more than $10 million in the last two years, there would be plenty of money available for stakes payments, regardless of how well Toscano’s horses race in March.