'Stoopers' scoop up discarded winners' slips at horse tracks
By Andrew Conte
Published: Monday, Dec. 28, 2009
Gamblers left behind at least $2.8 million in winnings last year at Pennsylvania's horse- and harness-racing tracks.
After a bettor inadvertently tosses a winning ticket or leaves behind a voucher for even a few cents, others known around the industry as "stoopers" often step in, plucking the slips from the trash. Twenty cents here, a couple of dollars there and pretty soon, you're talking real money.
"You see guys all the time picking them up off the tables and off the floor," said Joe Kish, 44, of Dravosburg, as he left The Meadows at West Mifflin, an off-track betting site.
So much money passes through the state's racing industry — more than $800 million last year, according to state racing commissions — that people at the fringes can eke out a little for themselves. Besides finding lost winning tickets, they can make money with unredeemed wagers after a horse gets scratched, or by illegally claiming a large prize on behalf of someone seeking to avoid the Internal Revenue Service, players said.
For the most part, racing regulators and track operators look the other way unless a problem arises. Regular players tend to self-police track behavior and said they tolerate the practices, as long as no one steals or becomes a nuisance.
"They don't bother no one, so what's the difference?" said Mike Ferdiani, 80, of Dormont, who said he watches his winnings too closely to misplace them.
Anyone with a winning ticket has until April 1 of the following year to redeem it. Then, the money — called an "out" — goes to the Treasury Department and gets put into the state's general fund.
Neither of the commissions overseeing horse racing in the state has rules against people cashing in winning tickets or redemptions that they find, said Justin Fleming, spokesman for the state Department of Agriculture, which provides staffing to the commissions.
"If there are rules, they're made at the tracks," he said. "The commissions don't have any jurisdiction over the stoopers."
Ever since The Meadows Racetrack & Casino in North Strabane converted to machines that replaced tellers, it lost contact with the stoopers, said Mike Jeannot, president of Meadows Racing. Before, someone with a stack of unredeemed vouchers had to go to a teller to determine whether any had value. Now, a stooper could simply run the vouchers through a machine.
"It really just isn't on our map of things that we look at these days," Jeannot said.
As a bus boy at The Meadows in 1971, Bobby Zanakis said he saved tickets people threw away in ashtrays and on tables in the Clubhouse and Adios Room. He recalled one night finding three $10 tickets on a horse that was scratched, giving him $30 in refunds — or more than the $21 he made in wages and tips for the night.
Later, when he came to the racetrack as a player, Zanakis lost a $750 winning ticket that he left behind on a table with a stack of losing vouchers. He figures someone redeemed the winner, but he never found out who.
Few people bother with discarded tickets at The Meadows' new casino and racetrack, which opened in April, Zanakis said. Players at the West Mifflin off-track betting site said the paper scraps get swept up too quickly for anyone to collect them off the floor.
"Seems it is a lost art, or just not enough people here to make it worthwhile," Zanakis wrote in an e-mail.
If the tracks are ambivalent about vouchers, the state's casinos are anything but. It's against the law in a casino to redeem someone else's winning voucher — even those thrown out or left behind, said Cpl. Daniel Lynch, unit supervisor at the Rivers Casino in Pittsburgh.
State police at casinos several times a day see people picking up someone else's vouchers, or walking through casinos "credit sweeping" for abandoned slips with remaining value, he said. Even if a player leaves behind a voucher, it becomes the property of the state and not the person who picks it up.
It's a misdemeanor to claim someone else's credit under $2,000, and a felony for any prize larger than that.
"There's no such 'finders-keepers' thing here in Pennsylvania," Lynch said.
Besides the stoopers looking for lost winnings, "signers" or "10 percenters" typically are around to claim major payoffs on behalf of winners who want to avoid reporting to the IRS, players said. Signers usually collect 10 percent commissions for redeeming prizes.
People pursuing another angle at racetracks can collect losing tickets to try to offset winnings for tax purposes, but that practice hardly works any more, players said. Tracks stamp players' card numbers on wagers, so it's hard to claim someone else's losses.
For all the work it would take to earn a living from track scraps, James Lee, 58, of the South Side said it doesn't seem worth the effort.
"There's not that much action, and then when a ticket hits the floor, they sweep them up," Lee said. "Wouldn't it be easier to learn a trade and go do something?"
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