Saratoga County

Job seekers eye summer at track

And they’re off!

PHOTOGRAPHER:

And they’re off!

No, not the thoroughbred horses due to arrive later this month, but the 1,300 people working behind the scenes to ensure everything runs smoothly at the Saratoga Race Course when the meet opens on July 23.

Sunday afternoon, small groups of would-be track employees walked through the Union Avenue gates and across the wet grass that will in a short time be crowded to capacity with racing fans and their coolers. The stalls were empty, the ice cream and hot dog stands wrapped in plastic to keep out the rain and the sprawling grounds were eerily silent.

But spirits were high as the mostly high school and college set traipsed into the New York Racing Association office for the last job fair this summer. Most had an idea which job they wanted for the six-week racing season, with ushers, also known as whitecaps, being the most sought after.

“I worked here last year as a hand-stamper outside the grandstand, and it wasn’t that great,” Kelly Balbian, 16, of Galway said. “I want to be an usher because you get to watch the races.”

Mike White, 19, who accompanied Balbian and his sister, Brooke, to the track Sunday, also hoped to be hired as an usher, despite the fact he’ll have to don a formal vest and bow tie.

“I work at a barbecue place and have to wear a jumbo shirt and hat, so this won’t be so bad,” Mike White said. “I hear you make really good tips as an usher, and I just bought a $1,500 Cadillac I have to pay for.”

Other jobs available, with wages ranging from about $7.15 to $10, included parking attendants, mutuel clerks and security officers, the latter two requiring applicants be 18 years of age or older. Other jobs in turf care, landscaping, cleaning and customer service at the NYRA store have already been snatched up.

Inside the NYRA office, a handful of people helped the job-seekers fill out the paperwork and then briefly interviewed them. That same office will be buzzing with activity once the races end at Belmont and 20 employees and their office equipment arrive in Saratoga to take up residence for the season.

“A mix of people apply for jobs, from teenagers to teachers to retired people,” Julie Levine, NYRA recruiter, said. “It’s a good first-time job for high school students; they don’t need previous experience to work here.”

Most track jobs are six days a week, although a few are available weekends only, and regardless of their regular hours, every single track employee works on Travers Day, which is Saturday, Aug. 23, this year.

Diane Manupella of Waterford has had a race course job for more than 20 years, and now is mutuel supervisor, overseeing about 40 clerks whose jobs are to help everyone from heavy hitters to novices place their bets.

“We get first-timers every year, but tellers are really patient with them and walk them through the process,” Manupella said. “It’s a touristy crowd and most are experienced on how to bet. One of the biggest things is people who know the name of their horse but not the number from the program, and now tellers can punch it in by name or number.”

The more than 900 self-automated wagering machines allow regular patrons to do their own wagering at the tap of a few buttons, and also cash in at the end of the day. For people whose horses don’t win, place or show, there’s the old custom of tossing the small square tickets all over the race track grounds, a habit Manupella doesn’t consider littering.

“It’s all part of the ambiance, and we have special crew with huge vacuums come in at night to clean it all up,” Manupella said. “What we don’t like is when kids come along with tickets they’ve picked up from the grass and try to cash in, because the dirt clogs our machines.”

Spinners, who are the crowds that flock through the gates repeatedly to pick up giveaways that this year include T-shirts, baseball caps and seat cushions, are also well known to long-time employees.

“Spinners are a fact of life; we laughed at them for the first few years, but now it’s accepted,” Levine said. “We don’t have bobble heads this year, so maybe it will be different.”

There are a few times when racing fans become disgruntled and are less than pleasant to staff members.

“If they’re losing money, drinking too much, or out in the heat all day, they get really cranky,” Lizzy Wyld of Albany, working in the NYRA office Sunday, said.

Most of the applicants will be called back for final interviews, but spirits were high among those who flew through the 15-minute application procedure.

“We applied to be parking attendants because we like working outside,” Jimmy Clute, 16, and friend Ray Lee, 17, both of Saratoga Springs High School, said. “We have to start work at 6 a.m., but I don’t care if we can’t sleep in during the summer, the money’s worth it.”

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