Doug Maura may not be the most recognizable name to casual fans of Saratoga Casino Hotel but those that have been around certainly know the nearly lifelong horseman. Maura has been involved in harness racing for close to four decades and like most veterans has had plenty of good and plenty of bad horses move through his stable. Maura operates the Checkmate Knight Racing Stable out of Glenville where he keeps a mixture of retirees, broodmares and racehorses. Housing seven horses in total these days, Maura’s stable is highlighted by Pay Me To Knight. This trotter was foaled by Maura at his farm who bred his broodmare Pay Up Now to the popular sire Conway Hall. The veteran horseman told me that he doesn’t just breed any horse. In fact, he likes to have raced a mare himself before getting into the idea of breeding them. Maura trained Pay Up Now for a time and at the time of her retirement from racing, he took her to live at his farm. From there, Doug bred the mare winding up with a yearling in 2018, one that he would name Pay Me To Knight, a combo of the names of the mare and his farm.
Pay Me To Knight debuted in 2021 at the age of three. Maura trained and drove the rookie trotter who encountered some breaking issues while going through the growing pains of the education process. The youngster made just seven starts in ’21 after getting his campaign off to a late start, debuting in September of his first racing season. Though the trotter made a few breaks and didn’t achieve any big results, Maura was encouraged. “He showed some big brushes of speed. Sometimes that speed would come after he made an early break and was really out of the race,” the veteran horseman told me. “He didn’t do much that first year but I really felt like he would turn the corner the next year.” Doug had Pay Me To Knight ready to begin the ’22 season at the Spa and although the start of his four year old campaign didn’t result in any wins, the trotter was learning and improving and did have a few second-place finishes to show for it. Pay Me To Knight broke his maiden in May of last year with Doug in the bike and after a pair of disappointing starts followed his first career victory, everything changed for Pay Me To Knight, but not in a good way.
On the morning of June 10th of last year, Doug noticed that his trotter was acting really badly. It seemed at first like a typical colic (a painful problem in a horse’s abdomen) situation but the conditions worsened as the day turned into night and after speaking with some vets, Doug was convinced to bring Pay Me To Knight to Rood and Riddle, a top-flight Equine Hospital located in Saratoga Springs, where he was told that his trotter would need to be brought into surgery. During surgery a hernia was discovered in the horse that was causing an intestinal blockage resulting in ten feet of his intestine being removed. The discovery of the symptoms and the subsequent urgency of the trip to the hospital combined with the incredible work done by those at Rood And Riddle quite literally saved the trotter’s life and although he would certainly need to take a break for a while, the plan was for Pay Me To Knight to get back to the track and do what he loves, to race.
Following a three-month layoff, Pay Me To Knight returned to the Spa oval where he qualified exactly three months to the day from when he had his lifesaving surgery. The trotter was entered into the Jim Derue Memorial Trotting Series which takes place annually in the fall at Saratoga. After not factoring in leg one of the series, Pay Me To Knight moved back into the non-winners of two race lifetime class where Maura decided to use Hall of Famer Wally Hennessey to drive. Why now use Wally when Doug himself does almost all of the driving for his trainees? “He’s Wally,” Maura told me matter-of-factly. “He’s a guy that has seen it all in this business and experienced everything there is to experience. If I’ve sat behind hundreds of horses in my day, Wally has sat behind tens of thousands. Not only is he massively talented as a driver but he’s incredibly knowledgeable about horses and always gives great feedback that can help a trainer.” Hennessey went on to pilot Pay Me To Knight to a leg-three win in the series, a score that came in a lifetime-best 1:56.3, before guiding him victory in the $15,000 Consolation of the Derue Series. Soon after, Pay Me To Knight wrapped up a four year old campaign in which he earned over $40,000 in a season that would serve as an appetizer for what was to come.
The 2023 season “started out like gangbusters” for Pay Me To Knight according to his trainer and the year has just gotten better and better for the rising trotting star. The five year old recorded seven wins by the time the beginning of May rolled around. After going on that tear, Maura was forced to move his trotter up into the Open where he debuted on May 21st. He didn’t just show up to participate either. Pay Me To Knight trotted 1:55.3 to finish a strong second while drawing the rail in his first start against the track’s top high-steppers. Just a few weeks later though, Maura shut things down for the summer with Pay Me To Knight. “I never like to have a good horse make more than like thirty starts in a year so I figured summer would be a good time to give him a break. Maybe freshen him up a bit,” Maura told me.
When Pay Me To Knight returned nearly a year to the day from when he came back from his recovery from surgery, he did so with a bit of a different look in a September 10th win that propelled him back into Open company. “I took the hopples off of him when he came back. He took a while to get gaited properly but his gait has evolved so much. He’s cleaner going and I really didn’t think he needed the hopples anymore,” Maura explained. Pay Me To Knight drew the rail for his try in the October 1st installment of the Open Trot. “I really thought he could win,” Maura admitted. “He’s really fast and has a huge heart. I’ve thought he had potential to be a good Open horse once he figured things out and he’s pretty much at that point now.” Figure it out he did as Pay Me To Knight sat the pocket to rival Summit City Sonny on Sunday and cruised by in the stretch via the passing lane to record his first Open Trot score. “It was big time rewarding to win an Open with him,” the Open winner’s proud trainer/driver told me. “It’s incredibly exciting to win an Open and obviously the rail helped but honestly, he wasn’t hit best on Sunday. I think he’s got a lot more.” In securing the Open win, Pay Me To Knight trotted in a career-best 1:55.1. Maura has won the Open before but it’s been an awfully long time. Maura’s Lunch Bucket won the Open Trot all the way back in 1992 but this win carried with it a little extra meaning. “This one was really special. He’s like my kid. I put so much time and effort into caring for him and it’s just so rewarding to see him beat the top trotters at the track,” Pay Me To Knight’s proud trainer said. And to think, a little over a year ago, Maura didn’t know if the trotter he bred and raised would even live through the night leading up to the career-saving surgery. As far as the future of Pay Me To Knight, Maura explained that every race the young trotter has ever participated in has come at Saratoga and although making a couple of trips to the Meadowlands may intrigue him some, Saratoga is home for Pay Me To Knight where his trainer hopes that he has found a home in the Open Trot.
Live racing takes place every Saturday evening starting at 5pm and continues with Sunday and Monday matinees that begin at noon. Until next week, I’m Mike Sardella wishing you the best of luck and we’ll see YOU at the finish line!