Barth speaks of his early years with a tone of tolerant amusement; not only were the wagers different, so were the clerks. In those days, the folks behind the windows were mostly men and, not infrequently, indistinguishable from the carnies at the county fair. Over the course of decades and a million losing tickets fluttering in the wind, the face of the pari-mutuel clerk has changed; Barth describes the atmosphere these days as more “civilized.” But despite an influx of women and perhaps a class upgrade, other characteristics remain: now, as then, the archetypal pari-mutuel guy is a nomadic horseplayer who hates to get up any earlier than he has to in the morning.
I asked Barth what the appeal is; after all, pari-mutuel clerks don’t make a lot of money, and the work can be not only spotty but suffused with pressure. He replied, “It’s the unconstructed life.” He elaborated that for the pari-mutuel clerk, the flexibility of schedules — and perhaps the opportunity to be at the track frequently — are paramount. He used the term “lifestyle,” seeming to imply that for some clerks hanging out at a place like Del Mar is more than a job; it’s a calling, perhaps like the priesthood. Spiritual references aside — and what horseplayer hasn’t prayed to one deity or another as his horse hit the stretch — the racetrack, as Barth puts it, “isn’t church.” As much as he loves horse racing, he admits that wherever a lot of cash is floating around there are bound to be a few “unsavory characters” afoot, which takes us straight to the California Horse Racing Board.
In California, just about everything pleasurable (cigars, booze, fast driving) is controlled, licensed, taxed, and micromanaged by the daddy state and its unelected bureaucrats. Horse racing is no different. If you want to run a horse (or for that matter, a mule) on a California track for a purse, the racing board, in its 225-page rule book, will tell you, in unstinting detail, what you must and mustn’t do. Everything is covered, from the size of a jockey’s whip to the rules for calculating a massive pick-six carryover. For the pari-mutuel clerk, perhaps the most important role of the racing board is its sanctioning of racetracks and allocation of racing dates around the calendar — the live meets that, along with their offtrack simulcast companions, constitute the office and office hours, if you will, of the clerk.
Del Mar’s summer meet, which runs from mid-July to early September, is considered by many pari-mutuel clerks to be the best venue in California for selling tickets because that’s where the bettors are. Although the clerks I interviewed noted the festive atmosphere and the potential for large tips from wealthy tourists, they told me that it’s Del Mar’s healthy ontrack attendance that makes it the place to man the windows. As anyone who’s ever been to Santa Anita or Hollywood Park can attest, a huge, nearly empty grandstand, populated by a scattering of old people and the occasional inveterate horseplayer burnout, is the norm at any weekday racing program. Fewer patrons mean fewer windows open, fewer hours for pari-mutuel clerks, especially those without seniority.
According to the racing board, there are approximately 1900 licensed clerks. Given the number of horse races Californians can wager on year-round (including numerous Thoroughbred and harness races in other states), one might think that pari-mutuel clerks are perpetually busy. In truth, the ascendancy of online wagering, handheld PDA devices, and voucher kiosks (the latter pushed by Del Mar management) has cut into the need for live tellers. Coupled with an overall decline in horse racing as a first-tier gaming option — courtesy of Indian casinos — technological advances have rendered the pari-mutuel clerk a dying subculture. And there’s the seniority issue.
At Del Mar, and every other wagering facility in California, a pari-mutuel clerk — unless he’s content to ply his trade only occasionally — will have to join the union, namely the Pari-Mutuel Employees Guild Local 280. Affiliated with the Service Employees International Union and part of the AFL-CIO, the Local 280 represents pari-mutuel workers in contract negotiations and sets out a passel of policies, practices, and procedures that govern every aspect of the clerk’s workday. In order to make a career of it as Don Barth has — or merely take a stab at covering your weekly wagering habit — you’ll not only need to join the union but also learn to play the game according to its rules. To be fair, many of those rules are aimed at maximizing the income opportunities for clerks in an industry that’s stagnant at best; to that end, union members are assigned seniority numbers — the higher the better.
A seniority number close to 2000 guarantees a choice of workdays; clerks with decades-plus of experience can work as many days as they want, capped only by the limit set in the union’s collective bargaining agreement. The old-timers also get first choice of locations, allowing them, for example, to work at a nearby offtrack betting facility if that’s their preference. (Because Don Barth has a vested guild pension and is considered semiretired, his workdays are limited.) At the other end of the continuum are the lowly nonunion permit holders. These clerks, licensed by the racing board but without numbers, are allowed to work only the busiest days. You’ll find them on Saturdays and Sundays, including the day of the Pacific Classic (Del Mar’s richest race — the meet’s crown jewel) as well as the insanely crowded opening day. Eventually, most pari-mutuel clerks join the union, shelling out an initiation fee of $250 and yearly dues of $526; it’s a lot a money in a gig that pays $80 to $140 a day. It’s evident that many clerks resent the compulsory membership and stiff dues. In turn, the guild’s officers respond defensively; in an online newsletter, the union’s officers write that the pari-mutuel clerks should be filled with “gratitude” for their collective bargaining agreements.