After Glenn was laid off from U.S. Steel in 1986, he started hanging around the track every day instead of just on payday. Since then he’s worked every racetrack hustle known to a man with an empty wallet and an urge to bet the daily double. He was booted from the sidewalk in front of the State and Lake offtrack betting parlor for selling photocopied racing forms at far below the cost of real forms. When admission to Hawthorne was free and programs were $2, he would rescue discarded “books” from the garbage and peddle them outside the gates for a buck. Now the track charges $2 to get in and throws in a program.
“They ruined that hustle,” says Glenn, who doesn’t want his face shown here or his last name used. “I used to make 20 or 30 dollars a day sometimes.”
So lately Glenn has been stooping–searching the floors, the counters, the trash cans for tossed-out tickets. It’s one of the oldest hustles around. The floors of any racetrack are littered with a white confetti of betting slips, and a few of them are winners, thrown away by mistake. According to Dave Feldman’s Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda, a guy named Herb made his living at local tracks by turning over tickets with his shoe. When Sportsman’s Park was open a character known as “the Garbageman” appeared each day around the eighth race toting a plastic bag. He’d scoop up tickets from the floor, sort through them at home, then cash the winners the next day.
Sportsman’s was also the site of the greatest day in Chicago stooping history. After a race in 1990 the judges awarded second and third to the wrong horses, and the track started paying out money. By the time the mistake was corrected, hundreds of disgusted gamblers had thrown out tickets with the real winners.
“There were some sharpies who realized they’d put the wrong numbers,” remembers a handicapper who witnessed the scramble. “One guy runs through the third-floor grandstand, grabs the bag out of the trash can, ties a knot in it, runs to the next trash can, grabs that bag, and he went flying downstairs with the trash bags, presumably to take home and look through. People turned into stoopers who never were.”
Windfalls that big are as rare for stoopers as they are for gamblers. Glenn made his biggest score when he idly swept a ticket off a counter and slipped it into a betting machine. It was worth $420. Ecstatic, he cashed the ticket, bought beers for himself and a few friends, then spent the rest of the afternoon betting like a rich man. That night he went home with nothing in his pocket but a CTA pass he carries so he won’t gamble away his bus fare.
“I just like to bet,” he says. “When I win you can believe some of that money’s coming back to the track. You figure you get lucky once, you can get lucky again. It’s a better high than drugs. With this, you bet $5, you might be able to get some more money to keep gambling.”
Sometime after his big day Glenn was gazing at the bank of televisions above the betting windows on the first floor of the grandstand. They were broadcasting races from Laurel in Maryland, Turfway Park in Kentucky, Aqueduct in New York, Tampa Bay Downs in Florida. That morning Glenn had borrowed $120 from his brothers and sisters. When he was a steelworker he put one of his sisters through nursing school, so he always has a little money for the horses and a place to sleep. “I’m the black sheep of the family, but they ain’t never gonna kick me out,” he says. “When I was making $40,000 a year I’d do anything for anyone.”
By this point in the afternoon the loan had dwindled to a few dollars, but as long as Glenn had money in his pocket he was going to bet it as soon as possible. Turfway had a race coming up in one minute. Glenn didn’t have a program, so he decided to play the favorite. It wouldn’t pay much. But favorites win a third of all races, and his money was so tight he needed a winner to keep going. Chasing long shots is for guys with big bankrolls.
Glenn raced to a touch-screen betting terminal, but the horses were out of the gate before he could punch in his bet. He backed away from the machine and looked up at the TVs. Laurel would be going off next. He bet $5 on the favorite to place–finish at least second–then watched the race, his arms folded across his black sweatshirt. He’s lost plenty of bets, so when his horse struggled home in the middle of the pack, he just scrunched his graying mustache and wobbled his head in resignation. “That’s it, man,” he said. “I’m broke.”
It was time to start stooping. Glenn donned the wire-rimmed glasses he wears for racing programs and other small print and headed for the east end of the grandstand.
Serious stoopers carry paper and pencil to jot down all the winners. Glenn figures that niche has been filled, so he looks for tickets with “scratches,” horses pulled from a race a few minutes before post time. You get a refund when your horse is scratched. A rabbit-toothed stooper known as Bucky had told him about a scratch at Aqueduct.
Glenn lifted the top off a garbage and dipped into the rubbish, looking for the scratched horse’s number. “A lot of money in these garbage cans,” he said. “It’s nasty. I gotta keep washing my hands. But it’s worth it.”
He looked anxiously at a janitor in a mint-colored shirt pushing a broom across the floor. Competition. The guy might sweep away a live ticket before Glenn could inspect it.
Glenn also watched for security guards. “I know a lot of guys been gettin’ barred out for this,” he said.
“I’m always yelling at them,” Packy Hart, Hawthorne’s director of mutuels, says of his racetrack’s stoopers. By the time a stooper feeds a ticket into a betting terminal it’s been stepped on or it’s been lying in the rancid salad of taco wrappers, hot dog butts, and soda cups in a trash barrel. “They gunk up my machines,” Hart says, “and then I have to shut them down for repairs.”
From the depths of the garbage can Glenn plucked a pair of betting vouchers–one worth 60 cents, the other 90 cents. The players who’d discarded the vouchers probably thought they were worthless small change. “Fifty more cents, I got a bet,” said Glenn.
He rode the escalator upstairs, where there were fewer janitors to contend with. At last, on the third floor, he found a ticket bearing the number of the scratched horse at Aqueduct, though a churlish gambler had ripped it into quarters. Glenn knows a clerk who will cash torn tickets–if they’re taped back together.
On the first floor was a poster promoting an upcoming book signing. Glenn eased it from its pillar, rolled the tape off the bottom corners, then smoothed it back into place. He sat down to repair the ticket.
Then he hurried off to see the clerk. An hour later he was sitting alone on a bench next to the customer service window. Someone asked how he was doing. “It’s rough, man,” he said, shaking his head dejectedly. “I’m just trying to get together enough money for a bet.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Nathan Mandell.