Tickets, Please

- -

The last race fades to a close and fans head for the exits, thinking of winning bets, losing bets and their next libation. The few, the enterprising swim upstream heading for their day’s work. Inside the grounds, another form of life begins.

Some work for NYRA. They sweep, clean, count receipts, stack chairs.

Others work for themselves. They tie plastic bags to their belts and scour trash cans, picnic tables, the floor. Five cents a can adds up.

Still others pull out plastic grocery bags and hit the ground, any ledge, park bench, nook or cranny. Winning tickets lie in wait.

The can collectors are workers. Diligent and steady, they make about $15 a night. The stoopers are dreamers. Diligent and steady, they can make nothing or they can make the mother lode.

John, his wife and his two kids spread out across the plant. He handles the grandstand, going from the reserved seats to the windows, up the stairs, down the stairs. He makes about $80 to $100 a night. Tax free.

“Well, unless you get the big one,” John says, as he grabs a pile of tickets from under a row of seats. He doesn’t want to talk, well, he doesn’t mind talking, he just wants to keep stooping. He talks, and stoops. Talks and stoops. Tickets are out there.

“You’d be amazed how many people don’t know what they’re doing out here,” John says. “People don’t know what they’re betting. They box an exacta and don’t know they boxed them. Then the scratches, the more the better as far as I go. You never know. You never know.”

John tells of the legend. The man he knows who found a winning ticket on a Monmouth race – $1,100. That’s the big one.

“I don’t know him,” John says. “I just heard about him.”

John lives in Saratoga. He walks hots in the morning, works all summer, collects unemployment in the winter. I start doing the math; $80, $100 a day, 36 days of racing. Not bad.

I begin to stoop.

I start at the clubhouse box seats, figuring these are the heavy hitters. Tickets lie on the floor, the ledge. Some serve as coasters under sweating drinks. The ripped ones tantalize. Ragozin numbers, old Saratoga Specials, Forms and NYRA cards (the stoopers’ worst nightmare) and tickets are the only remnants of what went on here. I pick up a handful, 27 in all. I quickly realize these are not heavy hitters, lots of boxed trifectas and exactas, $6 here, $20 there.

In the background, Trevor Denman announces the fourth at Del Mar. Tractors seal the track for the night. Two couples loiter in the top row of boxes – do they know the day is over?

Next, I hit the grandstand reserved seating. Trickier. The tickets have fallen through the back of the flip seat, they’re hidden and each reach takes effort. A quick glance and they’re cheaper than the boxseats, 10 cent superfectas, $1 exactas, $2 to show on the number 4 in the first.

A kid speaking Spanish walks past, counting his money – veinte, treinta, cuarenta . . . A woman wearing a Mountain Dew T-shirt and rubber gloves eyes me. Yeah, me in tweed sportcoat, loafers and tie. She dismisses me; keeps moving, in and out like a featherweight.

I pick up another 11 tickets from the stairs heading down from the grandstands, then move to the porch at the end of the clubhouse. Whoa, they’re like confetti. I pick up a stack that would balance a wobbly table. They come in all sizes here; $50 to win on 1 in the eighth, $1 tribox in the fourth. One ticket sticks to the ground, I reach for it, try and pry it off the ground and give up. Then go back. You want them all. It’s like you’re leaving good men behind.

I run into John again. I’m embarrassed at the handful of tickets in my clutch.

“The biggest one we’ve gotten so far this year was $284,” John says. “There are some people who win big. I go home and go through them all. It’s not bad.”

I hit the picnic area on my way home. John hasn’t been here yet, tickets await. I grab as many as I can off of two picnic tables, trying not to be seen by Harry Rice and Fran LaBelle as they head home for the night. A little girl in a red dress wades through a puddle, her shoes in her hand. Music coasts over from Siro’s.

I’m a stooper.

At my car, a ticket lies on the grass next to the passenger-side door. I know this is the one.

Seven dollars to win on 6, 8, 9 in the eighth race. The guy must have been down to his last $21.

I turn to my program and scan the eighth race from Saratoga. just like John said, “Scratches, they’re the best.” Number 6, Six Gun, scratched from the eighth race. I get excited, start counting the seven bucks. Then realize the ticket’s for Woodbine.

Amateur.

Editor’s Note: Sean has 208 tickets on his desk. He’ll let you know, after he goes through them, if any of them would make John proud