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Picking (Up) Winners Without Placing a Bet

For the past 10 years, Jesus Leonardo has been cleaning up at an OTB parlor in Midtown Manhattan, cashing in, by his own count, nearly half a million dollars’ worth of winning tickets from wagers on thoroughbred races across the country.

A man holds his betting slips and money at an Off-Track Betting (OTB) parlor in Midtown Manhattan.
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A man holds his betting slips and money at an Off-Track Betting (OTB) parlor in Midtown Manhattan.

During his glorious run, Mr. Leonardo, 57, has not placed a single bet.

“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.”

Leonardo, who favors track suits and wears his graying hair and bushy beard in long ponytails, is what’s known in horse racing parlance as a stooper — a person who hangs around racetracks and betting parlors picking up tickets thrown away by others. Most tickets are losers, but enough are winners to make it worth his while.

To his stable of OTB buddies, Mr. Leonardo is the Secretariat of stoopers.

“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.”

T.D. Thornton, a journalist who wrote about stoopers in his 2007 book, “Not by a Long Shot: A Season at a Hard-Luck Horse Track,” 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.

Mr. Leonardo, who is married with two teenagers, is hardly living on the fringes. He said that stooping brings him $100 to $300 a day, and more than $45,000 a year. 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.

Freddy Peguero, 53, a short-order cook from Manhattan, rooted for Mr. Leonardo to scan a winner one recent afternoon.

“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 realized 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 began a frantic search for his ticket, picking up hundreds off the floor, and from ashtrays and garbage cans. He could not find it, however, and began pleading with the manager on duty.

“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.’ ”

He did. Although he did not locate his $900 jackpot, he found two other winners in the trash, worth a combined $2,000.

“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 has since returned nearly every day, waiting patiently for the OTB garbage to be placed at the curb before claiming it and picking out hundreds of betting slips. He places them in a separate garbage bag, which he hauls onto the PATH train for the ride home.

“At first, my wife thought I was crazy, but then she realized 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.”

Over time, Mr. Leonardo devised a plan to increase his winnings. He enlisted two friends to pick up the trash at four other OTB parlors around the city and take it to him for $25 per bag. By the time Mr. Leonardo boards his train, he is carrying 2,000 to 7,000 discarded tickets.

At home, two other friends help him bundle the tickets in stacks of 300, which Mr. Leonardo places in a red satchel. He heads back to New York in the morning and spends hours in front of a ticket machine, scanning each ticket. If anyone else needs the machine, he moves aside.

“It is such exhausting work that I give myself a lunch hour,” he said.

Uncashed winnings at all off-track betting operations and all racetracks in New York totaled more than $8.5 million over the past two years, according to the New York State Racing and Wagering Board.

That is why Mr. Leonardo said he would not stop stooping anytime soon, not by a long shot.

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