Paying It Forward
Older trotter Pay The Winner earns his dinner with consistent success
story by D’Arcy Egan
Flanked by his best friends, Sam and Jodi Schillaci, Pay The Winner’s ears perked when he saw a stranger with a camera. Striking a noble pose, the veteran trotter was enjoying the attention.
The 11-year-old has been a member of the Schillaci Stable since he was a yearling, which is unusual for an older racehorse. It’s very likely he’ll finish his racing career while training at Sahbra Farms, a short distance from Northfield Park. Not only has Pay The Winner been a steady performer, year in and year out, like a fine wine he’s also been getting better with age.
“‘Winner’ is a member of the family,” said Jodi, stable owner with her husband, Sam. “He’s such a sweet horse, just a good old boy. He enjoys his daily workouts, loves being groomed, and he’s always ready to race.”
So much so, Sam said, the gelding’s last full season was his career best.
Racing mostly at Northfield Park, Pay The Winner equaled his personal best 43 starts in 2018, winning eight and adding nine seconds and five thirds. His $107,515 in purses was the most he has earned in a single season. Despite Northfield’s tight half-mile track, a 1:53.4 mile there last year was his career trotting mark.
Pay The Winner has won 56 of 294 starts, and a whopping $690,752. He has faced the starter on five occasions this year, which has resulted in four third-place finishes and $7,664 in the bank.
“Pay The Winner has become the master of the Monday night Open trot at Northfield Park,” Dave Bianconi, director of racing, said. “[He is] a horse I can always count on for a great performance. He’s so good, he constantly gets saddled with an outside post. It doesn’t seem to make a difference. He can go early or late and still win.”
Pay The Winner was purchased for $37,000 as a yearling at the 2009 Standardbred Horse Sale by restaurateur and realtor Howard Berke of Bedford, N.Y., and longtime friends Matthew K. Bencic of Westlake, Ohio, and Sam Schillaci. The son of New York sire Credit Winner out of the mare Prize Chip was a bit on the small side and difficult to train, according to Berke.
“As a yearling, he didn’t want to trot and was a little rambunctious,” Jodi said.
He was gelded, and after qualifying at Northfield Park as a 2-year-old, Pay The Winner won his pari-mutuel debut in a New York Sire Stakes event at Yonkers Raceway. The precocious trotter won four of 10 starts his freshman season and collected $71,817.
“Pay The Winner was ill late in his first season at the races, and in his last start made a break coming out of the four-hole,” said Berke. “We decided to give him a lot of time off during the winter, and he raced pretty good as a 3-year-old.”
The partners, who have owned horses together for 13 years, had some good offers for the young trotter, but saw his potential and didn’t want to part with him. They started racing him in overnight races, moving up to Open and free-for-all events.
“That became the story of his life,” said Berke, who visits Northfield Park a few times each year to watch his star. “Racing 30 or 40 times a year, he’s been just super. Under the care of Sam and Jodi, he’s gotten even better the last two or three years.”
The Schillaci Stable has 55 pacers and trotters at Sahbra Farms. There’s only one “Winner,” according to Jodi, when she refers to a horse she considers a member of a family that includes a pack of barn dogs. Handlers, horses and dogs all wear blankets this time of year.
“Every single person in the barn is fond of this horse,” said Sam, who credits his wife for the stable’s success. “Jodi runs things, and I don’t know how she manages to do it. She works harder than anyone here, and she always gives 200 percent.”
Jodi is from a well-known New York harness racing family. Her brother, John Stark Jr., has campaigned stellar Standardbreds from his Saratoga farm.
Sam, who used to be in the sulky behind Pay The Winner, now relies on young driving star Ronnie Wrenn Jr. to handle the swift trotter.
Oddly enough, Pay The Winner has decided the last two years to alter his methods to win. “He used to be a come-from-behind trotter, liking it more than racing on top,” Sam said. “As he’s gotten older, he changed his racing strategy in his own mind. He began liking it more racing on top, finding it easier on the lead than coming from behind.”
For the old-timer, all that seems to matter is the winner’s circle and all of his friends surrounding the only stall he has ever called home. HB
D’Arcy Egan is a freelance writer living in Ohio. To comment on this story, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.