Not by a Long Shot: A Season at a Hard-Luck Horse Track

It sounds too good to be true. 

American, Jesus Leonardo, walked into a betting shop without placing a bet and walked out with $9,500. 

The man from Midtown, Manhattan, makes a tidy profit from visiting bookmaker's and racetracks, sorting through betting slips thrown in the bins or scattered on the floor. He's known as a ''stooper'' and pockets cash by picking up tickets that others have thrown away as rubbish. 

In fact, over the years he estimates he has collected nearly half a million dollars. When you consider that uncashed winning tickets at bookmakers and racetracks in New York totalled more than $8.5 million over a two-year period there seems ample opportunity to take advantage of others misfortune. 


''It's difficult enough to find winners but these people have won and thrown their winning betting slip in the trash'' 

Jesus Leonardo has not even placed a bet.

He said: “It is literally found money,” he said on a recent night from his private winner’s circle. He spends more than 10 hours a day there, feeding thousands of discarded betting slips through a ticket scanner in a never-ending search for someone else’s lost treasure. 

“This has become my job, my life,” he said. “This is how I feed my family.”

“He’s a legend,” said Paul Pepad, 57, an out-of-work musician who lives in Manhattan. “Everyone knows that this is his turf, that all the tickets thrown out belong to him, period. It’s just been that way as long as I can remember.”

The fascinating endeavours of stoopers captured the interest of journalist T. D. Thornton who wrote a book in 2007: Not by a Long Shot: A Season at a Hard-Luck Horse Track.

He said: “Stoopers are the gleaners of the racetrack world. Stoopers have a relationship with horse tracks that goes back to the advent of parimutuel betting in the early 1930s. There is an unwritten code in racing that says stoopers are tolerated as long as they are not perceived as harassing or stalking customers.” “They are allowed to live on the fringes,” he added.

Leonardo says he makes a good living from stooping making from $100 - $300 a day and more than $45,000 ay year. 

He said: Last month, he cashed in a winning ticket from bets made on races at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif., for $8,040. His largest purse came in 2006, when he received $9,500 from a Pick 4 wager (choosing the winners of four consecutive races) at Retama Park Race Track in Selma, Tex. It is all taxable income.

“I file my winnings with the I.R.S. every year,” Mr. Leonardo said in his thick Dominican accent.

Friend, Freddy Perguero, detailed:  

“Everybody in here loves Jesus,” he said. “When Jesus wins, we all eat, and we all drink. Jesus is a very generous man.” 



Once upon a wager on a race run at Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens, Mr. Leonardo, who lives in Wanaque, N.J., became a stooper by accident. In 1999, he walked into that same OTB parlor in Midtown and placed a bet. He watched the race, was sure he had lost and threw away his Pick 3 ticket. “But just as I was leaving, I looked up at the screen and realised an inquiry had been made,” he said, referring to a review of the race to check for possible rules infractions. “All of a sudden, the results changed and I actually won $900.”

He recalled the moment when trying to find his winning ticket almost in tears asking the manageress for help:   

“She said there was nothing she could do about it,” Mr. Leonardo said. “I was so upset, almost in tears. Finally, she said, ‘Look, if you want to take the garbage home with you and look for your ticket, go right ahead.’ ”


Amazingly, he couldn't find his winning $900 ticket but found two others worth almost $2000


“I couldn’t believe it,” said Mr. Leonardo, who had been supporting his family and his dream of writing songs by working odd jobs, including painting homes and cleaning windows. “I started thinking, there’s probably winning tickets thrown in the garbage every day.”

He decided it was a winning job and returned every day waiting for the betting shops to be placed at the curb and picking through hundreds of slips. 

“At first, my wife thought I was crazy, but then she realised I was finding a lot of money in winning tickets, sometimes $200 a day,” he said. “After a while, she didn’t think I was so crazy.”

He hasn't got any intention of stopping.

“Look here,” he said to Mr. Peguero after pulling a credit voucher from the machine for $6. “Another winner.”

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