In Memoriam: Milton C. Toby, 1949-2023

Milton C. Toby was a Renaissance man who embraced life and never did anything halfway. Tall, lanky and a bit Lincolnesque in appearance, his wit was dry, his humor quick, his passions intense. Toby’s interests were many, some profound, some whimsical, ranging from Star Wars, golf, Jack the Ripper, and Fiona the hippo, to travel, law, publishing, criminal justice, animals, and mysteries. Above all he loved to write—most notably about Thoroughbred racing, to the everlasting benefit of the sport.

Toby was born on October 26, 1949, to William and Laura Susan Toby of Campbellsville, Kentucky. Although raised around American Saddlebreds, Thoroughbreds became his passion. Days after graduating at 22 from the University of Kentucky with a degree in Animal Science, he accepted a sports writing job at the Aiken Standard in South Carolina. His first assignment had to do with the Belmont Stakes, and he was hooked.

A year later Toby was hired on at The Blood-Horse magazine back in his home state, just before Secretariat’s historic 1973 Triple Crown bid. The ‘70s represented a golden era for racing, and Toby was there to witness it, photograph it, and write about it. For 12 years he honed his journalistic skills, and toward the end of his Blood-Horse tenure he trekked west to supervise photography for the Olympic Games’ equestrian events in Los Angeles.

In 1986 Toby launched a freelance career that would take him around the globe and into situations not for the weak of heart. As a photojournalist, he worked while living abroad in China, Costa Rica, Colombia—writing for, among other publications, the famous (some might say, infamous) Soldier of Fortune magazine.

Returning stateside, Toby met and married Roberta Dwyer, DVM and by his mid-forties was looking for more worlds to conquer. He chose the legal profession, graduating in 1995 from the University of Kentucky School of Law. His subsequent practice would be wide-ranging and successful, encompassing equine law to death penalty litigation.

Beginning in 2003 Toby took his talents to the classroom, teaching at several Kentucky colleges and universities, and for a time chaired the Central Kentucky Bar Association’s equine law division. During these years, he also served as President of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, advocating on behalf of freelance writers, and sat on the board of the American Horse Publications (AHP).

An active and dedicated member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA), Toby served as president from 2018 until 2020. Previously, he served on and eventually led the freelance writers’ organization’s contracts committee and then the board of directors. Under his leadership, the organization celebrated its 70-year anniversary, recognized 11 young LGBTQ+ essay writers under a special grant program, and, along with the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA), sued the state of California in a first-amendment case against the restrictions of freelance journalists that reached the Supreme Court. Toby received several ASJA writing awards, including one in 2017 for the article that became Taking Shergar: Thoroughbred Racing’s Most Famous Cold Case. Dozens of ASJA members can call Toby a mentor, both formally and informally, and benefited from his quiet and steadfast support and expertise.

Milt Toby at an ASJA Conference with Katherine Martinelli.

His insatiably curious mind eventually drew him back to racing. He loved nothing more than an unsolved mystery he could sink his journalistic chops into and was especially intrigued by the juicy cold cases served up by the Sport of Kings. This is where he shined brightest. In 2011 Toby was honored with the industry’s most lucrative literary prize, the $10,000 Dr. Tony Ryan Book Award, for Dancer’s Image, The Forgotten Story of the 1968 Kentucky Derby, a meticulously researched tale of racing’s most famous doping scandal. Subsequent honors would include a 2018 Book of the Year nod from AHP for Taking Shergar, about the kidnapping of the 1981 Epsom Derby winner. Toby’s awards through the years were many, but the real winners were his readers.

By 2023, Toby had written hundreds of articles (including 125 cover stories for The Blood-Horse) and authored nine books. In his early 70s his skills remained in full bloom, and he continued to push himself. A month before passing, he delivered a one-hour Zoom lecture about copyright before an AHP conference. As always, Toby chose to blaze his own path throughout his life—as a lawyer, professor, photographer, world traveler, public speaker, blogger and, ultimately, as one of the best investigative reporters horse racing has ever known.

Next month, the University Press of Kentucky will publish Toby’s tenth book—Unnatural Ability, The History of Performance-Enhancing Drugs in Racing. It is fitting that this posthumous volume comes at the end of a remarkable half-century career, as Unnatural Ability will stand as his magnus opus, a work of extraordinary breadth, insight, and importance to the industry he so loved.

Milt Toby passed away at his home in Georgetown, Kentucky, on July 24, 2023, following a courageous battle with cancer. At his side were his wife Roberta, Echo the Doberman, and Winston the surveillance cat. He is also survived by extended family and the many friends who loved him.

No service or visitation is scheduled, although a gathering of remembrance may be announced later. Donations in his name can be made to Bluegrass Care Navigators, Lexington, KY.