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The art of stooping: Found money in discarded tickets at the track

The familiar, brassy call to post sounded overhead inside a Pimlico Race Course concourse early Saturday afternoon, and Jimmy was off, talking about how a man with no legs had inspired some of the greatest scores of his gambling career.

This was about four decades ago, at Florida's Hialeah Park Race Track. The disabled man Jimmy had spotted would move about the park in his wheelchair, stopping here and there to pick up discarded white slips of paper. Content with his haul, he'd move over to a betting window, raise certain slips and have them redeemed for cash.

Strangeness aside, Jimmy thought little of it. Then, a few years later at Hialeah, about 1978, a tossed-aside ticket blew away and clung to his leg as if they were destined to meet. Jimmy picked it up to examine the numbers; it was a winner. An earlier race's top three finishers were all long shots, and this $2 straight trifecta bet had predicted it exactly. It was his to claim, as the man with no legs had before.

"And it was from that point on that I knew," he said, and what he knew was that he could find treasure in other people's trash.

"Stoopers" like the 64-year-old Jimmy, so named for their tried-and-true practice of leaning over to reach into trash bins for thrown-away slips, normally are frowned upon by Pimlico officials, hence Jimmy and others' hesitation to disclose their full names. But at big-ticket days like Saturday's, when crowds swell, alcohol flows and thousands bet, there is little to stop the discovery of a minor fortune.

Fifteen years ago, on a Preakness Day, he came away $3,000 richer. On Saturday, through five races, only the last three of which he was present for, he had made enough to buy a Big Mac: $4.

"You just don't know," he said.

According to the Maryland Racing Commission's annual report for 2015, the last year for which data is available on state racetracks, there was $583,694 in uncashed parimutuel tickets, the most common form of horse race betting. If any winning slip is not redeemed within a year from its issue date, MRC executive director Mike Hopkins said, the value of the ticket is paid to the commission.

Winnings are lost most often for reasons of ignorance or intoxication. A bettor might pick three horses in a box bet, have only two horses finish in the top three and deem the wager worthless. Or a bettor, after a few too many Black-eyed Susan cocktails, might drop a betting slip in the Pimlico infield or leave it behind next to their grandstand seat.

All are mistakes. Enter the stooper, who swings by on a lap around the premises, studies it like a hawk and matches the slip's numbers against the winning combination. If it's worth anything, that's found money. The later in the day, the better those chances get.

"If they stayed sober, [if] there was no drinking," Jimmy said, "forget it altogether."

The paydays used to be bigger, for the industry and stoopers alike. Jimmy, a certified medication technician who works in a nursing home, managed "astronomical" scores through the late 1990s. "There was so much money made that it was just mind-blowing," he said. But as the stooping pool crowded and the technology for redeeming winning bets improved, a day's work became less valuable.

On Saturday, Jimmy estimated he was one of 15 working stoopers, none of them young or new to the trade. The math normally doesn't add up. He said he made only about $275 last Preakness in unclaimed winnings, but considering what he paid for admission … and parking … and gas … and food, well, it was "a waste of time." Now he bothers to show for only 30 or so racing days a year across the country.

"I almost didn't even come today," he said, but before long, he had moved on to the next bin, looking for a winner.

jshaffer@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jonas_shaffer

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