Jimmy Toner right where he wants to be

October, 13, 2011
10/13/11
6:07
PM ET
LEXINGTON, KY -- Jimmy Toner could have worked for the city, serving as one of New York's finest or heading up a lifelong job in the sanitation department. Instead, he went to the racetrack.

"I had family members who were cops, family members who worked in sanitation, whatever it was, you name it, they did it," the 71-year-old trainer said. "I could have graduated high school and started for the city and that would have been it, there wouldn't have been anything outside of the box for me."

Standing near Barn 35 at Keeneland Race Course on a sun-splashed October morning as he waited for his Grade 1-winning Winter Memories to emerge for a happy gallop, it was obvious that Toner made the right choice when he decided to condition racehorses for a living. Now based in New York with strings at Belmont and Saratoga in the spring, summer, and fall, and traveling to Florida to train at Palm Meadows in the winter, he's sent out more than 500 winners who have brought in earnings of $22.4 million.

"Once you go to the track as a kid, you get around that environment and it's exciting," Toner remarked. "The travel, you get to go here, go there, it sounded great. I thought, Boy, this is really what I want to do, and that was it."

None of Toner's family ever had anything hands-on to do with horses, but thanks to a cousin who worked as a bartender at the track, Toner started hotwalking while he was still in high school. Once he graduated he got a job as an assistant to trainer Bill Mitchell, a "good mentor who was very strict and very tough." He learned to work hard and on April 20, 1960, he saddled his first winner, Battle Empress, at Aqueduct. At age 19, he was the youngest winning trainer on record in New York state.

"At that time they wouldn't allow a trainer's assistant to start horses under the trainer's name; whoever was saddling the horse if it was over seven days was the trainer of record," Toner explained. "I worked for that operation for a couple years, then in 1962 the outfit I was working for dissolved and I went to work on my own."

Just 22 years old with a string of four New Jersey-bred horses, Toner was training off a farm but knew he had to get onto the racetrack to move his operation forward. He set out to get stalls at the now-defunct Garden State Park.

"I went to Kenny Noe, who was the top racing secretary in the country then, and I said, 'Kenny, please let me on the track, I can't get stuck on the farm,'" Toner said. "He said, 'I'll tell you what, I'm going to give you stalls on one condition, please don't run any of these horses here.' I asked him, 'Can I run one so I can get eligible to claim?'" And he said, 'That's it, run one, but don't run any others.'"

Toner's training career took a brief hiatus from 1963-65, when he was drafted and served at Fort Carson and in South Korea. He came back to the U.S. a Staff Sergeant and started back as a farm trainer at Meadowbrook Farm in Ocala, Florida, working his way back onto the track again with horses for them in late '65.

The quality of Toner's stock improved markedly over the next 40 years, but he never became a big numbers guy. He trained 36 winners in 1977 (Equibase statistics only go back to 1976), but that was the most for a single season in his entire career. His second-biggest season by number of winners was 1981, when he saddled 27. In 2010, when Winter Memories won the Grade 2 Miss Grillo Stakes at Belmont before finishing second in the Grade 2 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf, he had just 12 winners from 71 starters. The year before, it was five winners -- but Grade 3 Poker Stakes victor Sailor's Cap was among them. In fact, every year except 2006 dating back to 1992, Toner has trained at least one stakes winner.

Among them are inaugural Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf victress Soaring Softly (the 1999 Eclipse Award-winning female turf champion), multiple Grade 1 winner Wonder Again, Tribulation, winner of the Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup in 1993, and Memories of Silver, Winter Memories' dam and winner of the 1996 edition of the QEII. A strong relationship with John W. Phillips, grandson of Darby Dan Farm founder John W. Galbreath, resulted in Toner receiving many of those high-quality runners.

"It seems like every year we've come up with a good horse," Toner said. "Naturally, the fillies we've had for John [Phillips] have been wonderful, and every time it quieted down a bit, there would be a horse like a Sailor's Cap to jump up and win a stake. There might have been a lull of a year or two, but that's been about it -- we've always pretty much had a decent horse in the barn to keep us going, and then Winter Memories came along."

Saddling Phillips' steel gray runner in Saturday's renewal of the Grade 1, $400,000 Queen Elizabeth Challenge Cup will definitely be the focus of Toner's time at Keeneland, but the 6-for-8 filly isn't the only offspring of a QEII winner Toner will run here this fall. The trainer also brought Tribulation's son, 7-year-old Bold Hawk, who is targeting the Grade 3 Sycamore Stakes at Keeneland on Oct. 20 off a Sept. 10 third-place finish in the Grade 2 Bowling Green Handicap at Belmont Park for owner Patricia Nicholson.

"I finally got him back to the races this summer," Toner said of the 2007 Hawthorne Derby winner. "He was meant to be something, but it's just been one thing after another with him. He's never had to run four times in a row in one year, but he was meant to be a good horse, he really was."

In spite of his long-lasting success, Toner remains affable, down-to-earth, and somewhat below the national radar. He has 16 horses in training right now, and wouldn't mind a few more good ones if they happened to be sent his way.

"It's funny, people will go to the barn and say, 'Okay, where are the rest of them, in another barn?' and I go, 'This is it, there are no more,'" he said. "I'd prefer to have more, but I don't seem to pick up a large amount. As long as we keep it in the low 20s, about 22-25 runners, somewhere in there, that's what I like to have."

The modest horseman is also somewhat baffled by his accomplishments with turf fillies at the top of the game, a humorous discovery since he is generally considered to be a master in the division.

"I don't know how I do it," he remarked, genuinely confounded. "I was talking to [late Hall of Fame trainer] Bobby Frankel the year before he died and I said, 'I wonder how it winds up that we always do well with fillies on the grass.' He goes, 'It's the way you train,' and I said, 'Okay, but that's not a conscious thing.' I've always wondered what he meant by that, because people ask me 'What's your training philosophy?' and I say, 'I don't know, I don't really have one.' I just keep them fresh and happy and go easy on them a little, you know?"

That seems to be working just fine.

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