my secret summer life

“A racetrack is a place where windows clean people.” -Danny Thomas

Note: I apologize for the long delay in updating. A few weeks ago I suffered a personal tragedy; unsurprisingly, it’s taken up a lot of my physical and emotional energy. I’m not prepared to write anything meaningful about it yet, but I didn’t want to go any longer without posting. Instead, I’ll write about the other thing that’s been taking up a lot of my time: the start of my sixth season as a pari-mutuel clerk at the Saratoga Race Course. I’m sure I’ll write about the track at least a few more times, so I thought I’d start with a primer for readers who don’t know about my secret summer life.

The summer after I graduated from high school, I was desperate for work. I had spent nearly two years as a professional sweater folder, conning anyone who could hold a pen into opening a GAP charge card. I was done with the GAP, but nobody else wanted me: the economy was bad and I would leave for college in two months. My mother saw an ad in the paper for jobs at the Saratoga Race Course, a place that had been a source of seasonal irritation for my entire life. The population of our small city triples every August, packed with transplanted trainers and grooms and, noisiest and most numerous, tourists. Overdressed women in elaborate hats, men uniformed in polo shirts, khaki shorts, and dock shoes. Friends’ families would rent out their houses and leave town; we’d stay and grumble about the traffic and the jacked up prices. I’d been to the track a couple of times, but save the horse-drawn carriages that clomped past our house every evening, I had never given horses a second thought.

But I really was desperate for work, so I went to a New York Racing Association hiring event in early July, meager resume in hand. I was trying to get a job as an usher, or working the admissions booth. But they told me the only jobs left were pari-mutuel clerks – the bet takers – and security guards. The latter was definitely out, and I was skeptical about the former. I didn’t have a lot of experience with cash, and it sounded intense: I would be responsible for all the money I handled, with any losses coming out of my pocket. A few weeks later I would learn this first-hand, a $200 mistake leaving me with a frightfully small paycheck. $200 was dwarfed by horror stories in the bays: $8,000 stolen from a woman while she was in the restroom, or the flirty woman ten windows down from my own who didn’t hit the total button and wound up fired, owing the track thousands. Potential financial disasters didn’t even cross my mind when they called to offer me the job; I was just happy to be employed.

The Saturday before opening day, I joined dozens of other trainees in a big, dusty barn with two long rows of betting machines. I’ve met a fair number of tellers – exclusively men – with long gambling histories, guys who took jobs at the track to help curb their addictions. These men came to training with a thorough knowledge of horse betting, but for most of us, the terminology was a foreign language to be mastered. There’s win, of course, and second and third are place and show, respectively. There’s the exacta, when you pick the first and second place finishers in a single race. The trifecta, infinitely harder to hit, adds the third place horse. There’s the beloved daily double – the winners of two consecutive races – and the nearly impossible pick 6, where picking winners in six consecutive races is like picking a winning lottery ticket. You take these terms and add thousands of dollars – plus the noise, the heat, the crowds, and a near-desperate bid for tips – and you have the daily life of a pari-mutuel clerk. It’s not particularly glamorous, but it’s not your average summer job either. 

There’s no surefire way to pick a winning horse. Professional handicappers take a thousand things into account, from a horse’s ancestry to precise turf conditions. Some people bet on jockeys, or trainers, or the horse’s stable or owner. Twenty minutes before each race, the horses are brought to the paddock for a public viewing. I’ve had customers who could pick a winner based on the look of a horse – his legs, or the way he carries himself. A lot of people bet on odds alone, waiting until just before the race for the final numbers. They rush the windows and slap hundreds down in the seconds before the starting bell. Some people just pick names. It’s as good a method as any, really. And some people, mostly women, pick their lucky numbers. If you had put down $2 on the numbers 5, 9, 13, and 10 in today’s final race, you’d be $159,373 richer. There’s no real secret to winning, as far as I can tell. That’s why they call it gambling: there are too many factors to be sure of anything, and luck is the biggest factor of all.

I’ve already done a lot of writing about the Saratoga Race Course; some of it will probably make it onto this blog in the coming months. It’s easy to explain how betting works, or to describe my customers, as ridiculous as many of them are. But it’s hard to do the atmosphere any justice in a few paragraphs. There’s a dixieland band on one side of the park and a jazz combo on the other. There’s the announcer’s steady, booming voice and the collective chatter of thousands of bettors. It smells like cigar smoke, spilled beer, fried chicken, fried dough, and just a hint of horses. There’s the park itself, where a new coat of white paint is a consistent substitute for a thorough cleaning, where New Yorkers in faded muscle shirts stand next to Kentucky horse owners in straw boaters and white seersucker suits. And the money – cash everywhere, in stacks and bill folds, thrown away carelessly and, occasionally, won back by a nose. The cheers during the race are deafening: everyone seems to have their life savings on the line.

As horse racing is fades from the national consciousness, the Saratoga Race Course actively promotes an air of manufactured nostalgia. It stands in a weird sort of contrast with the remnants of a culture that will never be revived. “I’ve been coming here for a hundred years,” a little old man told me the other day. He smiled as he handed me a few faded bills. “Well actually, I’ve been coming here since 1935.” It was close enough. I feel like I’ve been working there for a hundred years, but it’s really only been six. I’ve watched the daily attendance steadily decline, the direct result of rising gas prices and a sign of the sport’s decreasing popularity. Many of my regular customers seem vaguely dissatisfied with the way things have been going, like gambling is a chore rather than a pastime. But they keep coming, betting, and, luckily, tipping.

For me, it’s been an opposite progression: what began as a summer job – a stressful chore – has become a source of fascination and, strangely enough, inspiration. For the past few years I’ve firmly declared that each season would be my last, but I don’t really see the necessity anymore. The work is interesting and the money is decent. And the people – the people really are something. The slick-talking Southerners, the red-faced Irish Bostonians, the Italians with half their shirt buttons undone, a dozen chains resting on thick chest hair. A lot of guys call me things like ‘sweetheart’ and ‘doll.’ A few have called me ‘toots.’ There are men who have asked for my hand in marriage; there are men who have asked me to take off my top. Some of my coworkers are just as ridiculous as the people on the other side of the windows, like the woman who sat next to me for an entire season a couple years ago. She was missing a few teeth and she would grin and shout, “Tip me, you bastards!” until customers hastily shoved money in her direction. I could fill a book with stories about these people. Maybe I will. 

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3 Comments

Filed under personal, the racetrack

3 responses to “my secret summer life

  1. kbitanga

    That was lovely! I’m glad you found a summer job that ended up being something more meaningful. Might I add the way you described everything just flowed so well and description was perfect-neither too lengthy nor too short.

  2. Jack

    I’d love to visit sometime

  3. Tim

    I commend Lissa on her excellent description of the Saratoga scene. I met Lissa while working at “the track”, and we have had some laughs. I probably fit into many of the decriptions she has given (except the marriage proposal). I am a true fan of horse racing, so this summer gig is a lot of fun for me. I “get” to go to the track every day and watch a lot of very exciting races. Along with this are the people. Most of the customers feed off of your attitude at your window, and I like to have a lot of fun with mine. I also seem to attract the kind of bettors who are serious about trying to win a lot of money. They like to bet big (hundreds to thousands of dollars at a clip), and when they do well, I have been shown appreciation top the tune of hundreds of dollars in “subways” ( a “tip” is when someone says “the three horse in the fifth race can’t lose).
    I actually met some of my closest track friends who were customers. One such patron has been betting with me for many years, and recently bought percentages of some really good horses. This has resulted in a whole different aspect ofthe experience. One of his horses last year won the top race of the meet for her class – the Grade I Spinaway Stakes. This year he has a horse that won one of the top races for three-year-olds – the Grade 2 Jim Dandy Stakes, and will next run in the most prestigious race of the summer, The $1,000,000 Travers Stakes. His horse, Macho Again, will likely be the favorite, and has a very good chance to win. “Macho” ran second to Big Brown in the Preakness Stakes, and finished fifth in the Belmont Stakes. For me to be able to be a part of this is hard to describe if you are not a fan of horse racing.
    I would also like to add an aspect of track season that Lissa left out, which is the night life. Saratoga becomes a people-watchers paradise for six weeks. I take off every Friday to change roles and become a patron. I have had some bad days at the windows, and days ahen I have left with thousands of dollars of other peoples’ money. The day then continues well into the night as “the boys” and I go out to celebrate or drown our sorrows. One of my friends bought a BEAUTIFUL condo a couple of years ago, and many Saturday mornings greet me with the sunrise filtering through the giant oak tree next to my favorite couch on one of his decks.
    Right now I am looking forward to the excitement that will come next weekend as we prepare to watch Macho Again compete in “the “Mid-Summer Derby”.

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