SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y., Aug. 1 - Shortly before the seventh race started on Saturday, a man dressed in khakis, a light yellow polo shirt and a baseball cap stopped and bent over to pick up a discarded betting slip from the concrete floor here at the Saratoga Race Course.
After momentarily studying the ticket, he quickly ripped it up and threw it back onto the ground. Then, making his way over to a plastic garbage bin, he began fishing for more discarded tickets, repeating the grab-examine-tear process several times.
The man, who declined to be interviewed, is part of a horse racing subculture made up of people known as stoopers. Much like people who spend afternoons wandering the beaches with metal detectors searching for treasure in the sand, stoopers spend their day at the track hoping to discover a discarded winning ticket.
But it seems as if the stoopers' days may be numbered. These days, bettors do everything from placing bets to getting their parimutuel tickets to receiving winnings at computer terminals at the track. Because a bettor can put a ticket into a terminal after a race and see if it is a winner, fewer novices fail to collect on winning combination bets like exactas, the stoopers say. And with results displayed on hundreds of video monitors around the grounds, there are fewer horseplayers who miss the call of a race, fail to see the result posted and discard a winning ticket.
"It used to be that as a stooper you could make really decent money, I mean do nothing else but stoop and make a living from it," said a stooper who spoke on condition that he be identified only as Donald. "Today, it is almost impossible to make minimum wage by stooping. People have become smarter at the track and technology has helped them."
That means fewer stoopers for Saratoga.
"I can remember, in the heyday, there would be 300-plus stoopers out here trying to make as much money as possible," said Donald, who began stooping in Florida back in 1978 and quickly began earning enough money to leave his carpentry job to stoop full time. "Today, there is maybe about a dozen of us here and none are doing well."
As a result, Donald and the others have begun placing actual bets of their own.
"After years of being surrounded by losing tickets, I've learned how to place winning bets," he said.
While the stoopers may be on their way out, racing officials say they never were much of a problem anyway.
"We do not get many complaints about them and all they really do is pick up litter from the ground," said Bill Nader, a spokesman for the New York Racing Association.
"We do not bother people, we do not take tickets away from people, we simply use them after the bettors are done, and hope for the best," he said. "But, like I said: it's not the sure moneymaker that it used to be. This might be my last year. I might have to get a real job."