How to Place a Bet

By Mikaela Lefrak

There are few people as excited about the logistics of gambling as Frank Shorr.

Sure, there are millions of people who love betting on horse races, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about a love of the wheres and whens and hows — how a guy called a pari-mutuel clerk standing behind the betting counter at the racetrack determines whether you go home richer or poorer that day.

Shorr used to go to the racetrack all the time as a kid, but he wasn’t much interested in the usual stuff: the gambling, the horses, even the beer.

I’ll let him explain:

For most of his adult life, Shorr was a TV producer. After winning a bunch of awards, he switched over to academia, and now teaches sports journalism at Boston University. Normally, his summertime gig is to lead a sports reporting institute at BU. But one year, in the late 2000s, he found out the institute wasn’t going to run because of an enrollment shortage.

Faced with a summer of nothing, Shorr called up an old friend, Chip Tuttle, the CEO of Suffolk Downs racetrack. He needed an answer to the question that kept running through his brain:

Shorr is a sports broadcaster by trade, and he looks the part.

Frank Shorr in his office at Boston University. Mikaela Lefrak, 3 Dec 2014.

The salt-and-pepper hair and strong jawline are evolutionary evidence of man’s ascendancy towards prime time. His shirts are always crisp, and accompanied by an attention-grabbing tie. Every time I see him, I get an strange hankering to go watch ESPN.

But for a man with a big TV smile and a bevy of professional accolades, fitting in at his new job at the track wasn’t exactly easy.

After six seasons at the track, the gig came to an abrupt end. Suffolk Downs is in the process of closing, and part-time employees, like Shorr, are no longer getting assigned any work hours.

The full-timers are trying desperately to find new jobs. After the track lost its casino bid in September, reps from Target and Market Basket came by to drop off applications. Some people got jobs, but many are still looking.

Parimutuel clerks have a strange power at a racetrack. They know all the big gamblers, they’ve heard all the theories about how to spot a lucky horse, and they have their hands on the money, all day long.

Betters line up at the windows at Suffolk Downs. Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection, 1950's.

With access comes responsibility. There’s only a couple of minutes between races, and the clerks have to serve a line of customers with lots of demands: $2 to win on number 4 at Saratoga, $50 trifecta key on 1 with 4 and 8 at Suffolk Downs.

If you mess up — punch in the wrong horse’s number, or don’t get the bet in before the deadline—you have to deal with a very angry customer and his empty wallet. And if the money’s counted wrong and you come up short at the end of the day, the difference comes straight out of your wages.

Despite all that — the high stress, the low wages, the even lower recognition — clerking is, for many, a job for life. Or, as, Shorr puts it:

Bonus Track: If you want to hear more from Frank Shorr, take a listen to this story about one of of the biggest tips he ever got:

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