Linda Toscano and Scott Zeron team up to score improbable Jug/Jugette sweep
by James Platz
Linda Toscano made her first pilgrimage to the Little Brown Jug in the fall of 1989. That day, Goalie Jeff and Mike Lachance swept three-wide on the backstretch to take command and win the third elimination. In the final, the son of Cam Fella, tabbed the betting favorite, led gate-to-wire to capture the 44th edition of the 3-year-old pacing classic before a crowd of 50,792. The Hall of Fame trainer-to-be left the Delaware County Fairgrounds in awe of the spectacle and aspiring to one day win the event and hoist “The Jug.”
“The Little Brown Jug, the Hambletonian—that’s the pinnacle,” said Toscano. “They are the races I grew up watching when I first started in the business. Going there, watching it, and saying to myself, ‘Man, that’s a cool place to win a race.’ I’ve always wanted to win it.
“It’s also one of the most difficult races to win in harness racing. Post position plays such a huge part. Luck, drivers, everything does.”
A Jug victory had eluded Toscano in six prior attempts. What’s more, she nearly bagged the Jugette in 2008 when Sprig Hanover forced a race-off, but the filly was defeated that evening by Good News Lady by the narrowest of margins. Racing at the storied central Ohio oval had produced one disappointment after another.
Faced with the reality that her chances of a victory were slipping away with each passing year, Toscano broke through in historic fashion, adding another memorable chapter to the history of the fair. With Scott Zeron at the lines, she picked up a Jugette win with Ucandoit Blue Chip, then returned the next day to capture the Little Brown Jug with Richard and Joanne Young’s homebred It’s My Show.
“Having the trips work out and winning them both, that’s a dream. You can’t dream that big,” she said.
The common thread connecting both victories is Zeron, who has steered Toscano’s horses for several years. Entering this year, he had one previous Jug win to his credit. Zeron collected the coveted Grand Circuit hardware in 2012, guiding Michael’s Power to victory in his first Jug drive. He is still the youngest reinsman to win the Little Brown Jug.
“People are in the Hall of Fame that haven’t won the race. Ignorance is bliss when it came to the first one,” said Zeron. “I knew the Little Brown Jug was a big deal; I just didn’t know how big of a deal it was.”
Before adding his second Jug triumph, Zeron and Toscano partnered Sept. 20 to claim victory in the $305,000 Jugette, for sophomore pacing fillies. Admittedly, neither expected to visit the winner’s circle with Ucandoit Blue Chip; they felt Toscano’s other entry, Odds On Hail Mary, offered a better chance at victory.
“In the Jugette, the other horse I went for was the more probable winner. It just unfolded with two great trips for this one to win the Jugette,” Zeron said of Ucandoit Blue Chip.
And therein lies the beauty—and frustration—that is harness racing. The unexpected nature of the business yields painful defeats but also thrilling victories. Equally unexpected was the arrival of Ucandoit Blue Chip in Toscano’s barn at the start of the filly’s career. Sired by Keystone Velocity, the sophomore is out of Camluck mare Molly Can Do It, the trainer’s first Breeders Crown winner dating back to 2002.
“Honestly, the only reason I’m training Ucandoit is because of her mom,” Toscano said. “When (owner Bill Elliott) bought her, she’s New Jersey-bred. When I looked at her, she looked exactly like her mom. I said, ‘I live in New Jersey, she’s a Molly Can Do It, why not?’ She’s been very good to me as far as New Jersey Sire Stakes are concerned. We never dreamed as big as the Jugette; that was kind of an afterthought.”
The safer route would have been to stay in New Jersey, but with the filly eligible to the Jugette, Elliott approached Toscano about taking a shot at racing in Delaware.
“Canadians love the Jug and Jugette. When she was racing well and making money, he decided to take a shot,” the conditioner said. “I thought it was the right thing to do. We knew we could get her around the half-mile track. She has gate speed. I thought it was the right way to go.”
Drawing the outside post five in the first elimination, Ucandoit Blue Chip used a :28 last quarter to win and advance to the final. Odds On Hail Mary finished fourth in the second elimination and qualified for the final, but was scratched. Once the gate folded in the final, Zeron and Ucandoit Blue Chip sat behind pacesetter Zanatta throughout the mile before kicking home in :27.2, finishing nearly two lengths in front to win the Jugette’s 53rd renewal in 1:50.2. The Jugette victory was the first for the owner, trainer and driver.
For as much as Toscano loves Delaware and the Jug, the challenging nature of the race can make it a tough sell. With the eliminations and final on the same day, it requires a lot from those equine athletes entered. And while the purse is lucrative—$641,550 was up for grabs in 2022 —a plethora of open stakes are available to connections looking for less taxing opportunities.
“When the money was going down, it was hard to justify going two heats just under a month before the Breeders Crown,” Toscano admitted.
The powers that be at the Little Brown Jug Society worked with the Ohio legislature and Ohio Harness Horsemen’s Association to boost the overall purse of this year’s race to $1 million in hopes of breathing new life into the event and attracting more entries. The plan worked. After having only 11 colts drop in the box in 2022, this year’s edition boasted 18 entries—including the Toscano-trained It’s My Show—requiring three eliminations.
“He’s a gelding. We want to maximize his earning potential and, at the same time, we know we’re going to bring him back next year. We didn’t really need to worry as much about how a defeat would hurt his chances of Horse of the Year or 3-Year-Old (divisional honors),” Toscano explained.
“Richard Young doesn’t own many horses, and it’s a homebred. This is an absolute pinnacle race, and it’s a million dollars. After watching the final of the Kentucky (Championship Series, four days before the Jug), I said to him, ‘Why don’t we take a shot for the million?’ He did not have to be talked into it. We both called Scott to ask what he thought, and he said, ‘Let’s go!’”
In the aforementioned Kentucky Championship Series final, divisional heavyweight Confederate cruised to an easy victory at the Red Mile for Diamond Creek Racing. While he skipped the Jug, Cannibal, also owned by Diamond Creek, dropped in the Delaware entry box.
“Obviously, racing two heats in one day, you need a lot of things to go right. Nobody really can anticipate how a horse is going to be racing twice in one day. So, a lot of unknowns,” said Zeron.
Squaring off with Cannibal in the third elimination, Zeron and It’s My Show sat third as the field twice passed the grandstand. Despite turning in a :26.3 last quarter, they finished in second, 1½ lengths behind the favorite.
“Obviously, when you lose the first one, you feel pretty defeated on the whole day, really,” said Zeron. “Then again, I’ve never participated in a Jug where there were three divisions, which meant there would be a trailer in the final. And that’s a huge curveball, right? So, when it came to strategy, Linda and I talked for 45 minutes after the elimination heading into the final.”
As part of the discussion, Toscano made an equipment change on the homebred, opting for a blind bridle in the $850,000 final.
“I didn’t think he was quite finishing as good as I thought he could. It’s easy to say that, yes, there were cheap second quarters and they were going really fast at the wire, but I thought that maybe he was kind of waiting a little bit,” she explained. “I thought we have an opportunity here just to change something up. Sometimes, you just change the perspective. He’s been racing in an open bridle pretty much every start. I thought this would be a good time to surprise him a little and put a blind bridle on him.”
The veteran trainer can’t say for sure that the equipment change was the difference maker. Regardless, It’s My Show and Zeron went on to claim victory in dramatic fashion on the third Thursday in September.
Drawing post five, Zeron followed favored Seven Colors and Dexter Dunn racing off the pace while Moment Is Here and Cannibal battled side-by-side throughout the mile. Coming out of the last turn, Seven Colors sprinted by the leader and appeared to have a clear path to victory in the 78th edition of the Jug, but the “Money Man” and his Sweet Lou gelding had other plans, digging in late in the lane to put a neck in front in 1:49. The finish will go down as one of the most exciting in the history of the race.
“It’s huge because it’s not a catch-drive. I drive all of Linda’s horses,” Zeron said of winning the Delaware feature for the second time. “Heading into the Jug, she said, ‘This is pretty much my last bucket list item to knock off.’ That was what made it so exciting crossing the wire. It was probably his best race of his whole year, and it was his second race in a day.”
With the victory, Toscano became the third female trainer to win the prestigious event, joining Caroline Lyon and three-time Jug winner Casie Coleman. She also becomes the first to win the seven-figure Jug, and only the third trainer in the last 25 years to sweep the Jug and Jugette in the same week, joining Ron Burke and Brett Pelling. Just as Zeron was happy to win for Toscano, she was equally pleased to share the victories with her driving counterpart.
“He’s an old soul. We obviously think very similarly as far as our principles as far as this business is concerned,” she said. “This was as personal as it was professional. He’s an incredible talent. He’s an incredible human being. It meant more to do it with him than it would have meant to do it without him.” HB
James Platz is a freelance writer living in Indiana. To comment on this story, email us at email@example.com.