I just handed my last 90 bucks to a scowling man behind the counter, and if number five doesn’t finish in the top three in this $25,000 maiden claimer, I’ll go home broke, with only an expensive beer buzz and a bad sunburn to show for the experience. The man behind the counter couldn’t care less; he’s just hoping like hell his drawer isn’t short again at the end of the day.
Some guys will bet on anything — presidential elections, hog-calling contests, even junior high school girls’ field hockey. I bet on horses, usually online. But when the Del Mar meet comes around each summer, a lot of my action is funneled through the hands of the folks known as pari-mutuel clerks.
If you’ve been to Del Mar — or for that matter, to any Thoroughbred racetrack or offtrack betting joint — you’ve seen them. (For the record, you’ll also see them at places where quarter horses, Standardbreds, and other breeds race.) At Del Mar, pari-mutuel clerks are clad in pastel Hawaiian-style shirts with a tropical/equine motif. Although you may have seen them, perhaps exchanged a handicapping insight or two with them, the odds are good — probably less than one to five — that you don’t know much about them other than they’re usually dour, occasionally surly, and not infrequently sporting wraps on their wrists and forearms.
Kentucky’s Churchill Downs notwithstanding, Southern California and New York are home to Thoroughbred racing’s most important tracks, the ovals where the best horses run for the biggest purses. In Southern California, Del Mar — with its 43-day boutique meet — is one of three major venues, along with Santa Anita and Hollywood Park.
Of course, as most punters know, Thoroughbred racing isn’t limited to the majors, and neither is the work of the pari-mutuel clerk. Unless you bring a laptop computer or other device to wager online or use a voucher kiosk, if you place a bet — and why the hell else would you go to the track? — you’ll need to deal with a pari-mutuel clerk, or teller. This holds true not only for the overdressed, underinformed tourists at opening-day Del Mar but for the hard-core players leaning on the rail at Los Alamitos, the guys who just blew their last 10 bucks on a $5000 claiming race.
The word “pari-mutuel,” like many an arcane term of sport, is French and refers to the fact that in horse racing, one plays against other bettors rather than the house; roughly speaking, one’s chances of winning and the size of any potential payout depend on how the other players have wagered. Few horseplayers have heard of Pierre Oller, and fewer still have taken a whiff of his fragrances. But in the 1860s, Oller, a Parisian perfume-maker, devised the pari-mutuel wagering system used today by those who wager on horse racing, dog racing, and jai alai. However, it took the pari-mutuel machine, first seen in Australia in 1913 and introduced to the United States in 1933, to make Thoroughbred wagering practical on a large scale. Best known by the brand name Totalizer, the device enabled betting pools, odds, and probable payouts to be calculated rapidly. In recent years, advances in computer technology have goosed the speed even more; nowadays, the totalizer can instantly mix, stir, and blend wagering funds coming in from thousands of places and conduits — from online, from offtrack betting facilities, and, of course, from the track — directing each dollar to the appropriate pool. But even after the advent of the totalizer, live human beings were needed to facilitate wagering and are needed today, albeit in diminished numbers; in this, the age of online wagering, most horseplayers remain familiar with the admonition “hold all tickets.”
Obviously, before you can hold your tickets (or, more likely, wad them up in disgust and hurl them), you’ve got to shell out cash to get them, and that’s where the pari-mutuel clerk comes in; his (or, increasingly, her) job is to take your cash as quickly as possible, before you change your mind and decide to put that Benjamin toward the mortgage or your kid’s braces. In order to accomplish this sleight of hand, this transformation of Federal Reserve notes to usually worthless slips of paper, the clerk must learn not only the menu of available wagers but — and this is often the madness-inducing part for the clerk — how to decipher the bets called out by the bettors. Notwithstanding the importance of rapidity, accuracy always trumps speed at the clerk’s window.
Say you love Del Mar, think you’d look groovy in one of those official Hawaiian-style shirts or long to hear Trevor Denman’s lilting calls right from the loudspeaker, or maybe you just can’t shake the afterglow from the rush you got when your $36 trifecta part wheel returned $958.35. For whatever reason, you’ve decided to become a pari-mutuel clerk — often shortened to “mutuel clerk” by insiders. It’s not enough that you enjoy hanging out at the track, although many clerks start with that mind-set.
Back in the 1950s or 1960s, it helped an aspiring mutuel clerk to have relatives in the business — Dad was a clerk, brother-in-law a hot walker, whatever. Nepotism was the fast track, sometimes the only track. Nowadays, the way through the tunnel is more democratic, more straightforward. First off, you’ve got to get trained. No college offers a major in pari-mutuel clerking, and there is no Idiot’s Guide for self-learners. Instead, you must first go through a 12-hour training class in early July. After that, if your desire to descend to pari-mutuel purgatory persists, you’ll apply for a license from the California Horse Racing Board. Providing you’re not a capo in the Gotti organization or a member of the Manson clan, you’ll then get a license that — among other things — will entitle you to free admission to every wagering facility in the state.
Don Barth doesn’t scowl behind the window. Perhaps he’s atypical, but he loves the business. He’s been in it for over 40 years. When Barth started as a pari-mutuel clerk in 1967, California tracks offered only three traditional wagers — win, place, and show; most of the exotic wagers that dominate today’s action were years, if not decades, away. As horseplayers from that era recall, even the most basic innovation, e.g., the daily double (which entails picking the winner in two consecutive races and at first offered only once per race card), was seen as revolutionary. As for the exacta — where one must pick the first two finishers of a given race in order — that was considered blasphemous by folks like Tom Ainslie, the legendary handicapping author who regarded the wager as gambling, not Thoroughbred handicapping.