Larry Burns stopped trying to pick winning horses a long time ago, but he has still been a regular at the Saratoga Race Course for 24 years.
That’s because Burns, 68, is one of the long-tenured bartenders who has become a familiar face to thousands who frequent the historic track.
“When I first started, people gave me tips [on horses], but they didn’t win. You would just waste your money,” Burns said. “So I learned that lesson early on.”
This sets him apart from most of the bartenders, he said, because they can tell you who won the last race, what it paid and probably have a program tucked away somewhere to handicap the next race. “I know it’s the reason I have a job, but I don’t bet,” he said.
Instead, his focus is his work, which Burns does four days a week at the Leininkugel bar, located in the main open thoroughfare near the bottom of the escalator.
The job started as a way to make extra money to augment his clothing business. With the help of a friend, who was connected with the labor group that filled many positions at the track, he found a way to occupy his free summers. Since then, the job evolved into a way for him to help support his grandchildren, with a love of racing never really taking root.
His first location had a “Beer of the World” theme and was located by an oak tree, which had a circular bar built around it and an elevated television set up. He remembers this spot fondly.
Since then he has bounced around the main thoroughfare, with his spots moving and morphing with every makeover planned at the track. Some places have lasted longer than others, like a small stand outside the paddock, but in recent years he has bounced around a lot. During these transitions the job has remained pretty much the same, although the beers he has served have changed from place to place.
Throughout it all, though, his regular customers find him. He estimates that about a quarter of the people he serves each day are customers who have known him for years and come from all over the country or even outside the country. “You make friends here. You have friends come from all over the world,” Burns said.
Even if you’re not a regular, he still will try to treat you like one, which could explain why customers keep coming back.
“If you come to my bar at the first race or second race and you come back, I’d say 80 percent of the time I’ll remember your name or what you drink,” he said, without any hint of boasting.
That kind of service also helps bring in the tips, with a really good day representing a chance at about $600 in tips, he said. But sometimes the service hasn’t been as important as the type of customer, as Burns said that some of the big gamblers routinely drop a $100 tip on their drink orders. He added that, in general, Friday and Saturday are good days to earn tips and Sundays are not.
Looking back on his career, his lengthy stay at the track is never something he predicted. “It was only going to be for a short period of time, but as time went by, your needs get more,” he said.
So now he bartends at the track and has a second job bartending at a hotel in Albany.
As for his future, Burns said he’ll likely be at the track for a few more years, unless he wins the lottery.
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