On the Clock: Racetrack clerk takes horse bets, questions, compliments in stride

Mary Fergusson of Schenectady stood at her station at Saratoga Race Course. And waited. “I love the

Mary Fergusson of Schenectady stood at her station at Saratoga Race Course. And waited.

Wednesday’s first race was just minutes away. People considering investments on horses such as Meet the Mets, Little Nick and Saint Arthur would soon come to the Bank of Mary to buy in.

“I love the job,” the 52-year-old Fergusson said of her work as a pari-mutuel clerk at the race course. “I love Saratoga, I’ve always loved Saratoga, I’ve been coming here since I was a little kid.”

A small line of horse players formed in front of her Window 1701, sandwiched between the El Verano Taqueria food stand on the left and the Shake Shack hamburger-and-shake place on the right. The four-window outpost backs up to the dirt path the horses travel from paddock to main track.

Fergusson, a friendly woman with brown eyes, dark brown hair tinged with a little white, and red fingernails, took orders quickly. She punched in numbers on her small register for win, place and show bets. There were exacta wagers, wheels and trifecta keys.

She knows everything on the numerical menus, and punched out the race tickets quickly. “Once you do it, you do it all the time,” she said.

She has been on the job since 1984 — she’s the senior “extra” among upstate tellers who do not work regularly at Belmont and Aqueduct, the other two horse tracks operated by the New York Racing Association.

Break for the race

“They’re in the gate. . . .They’re off,” track announcer Tom Durkin exclaimed just after 1 p.m. That was Fergusson’s cue to take a quick break. No bets can be taken once a race has started.

“We get pounded,” Fergusson said of her days at the races. “From the moment it’s official until the next race goes off.”

By 1:06, Meet the Mets had met victory in the opener. People who had expressed financial confidence in the horse returned to the pari-mutuel windows for their rewards.

Al Ferri of Springfield, N.J., one of Fergusson’s regulars, stepped up to the window with a handful of bills in his left hand. He likes to bet exactas — his choice of horses must finish first and second in a given race — and other combinations. “She’s the best teller here,” said Ferri, dressed in a black, button-downn short-sleeved shirt and tan pants.

He knows that some tickets he “buys” from Mary are winners. Others are not.

“You know you’re going to lose some money,” he said. “As long as you try to keep it limited.”

Ferri knows his numbers, winners and losers. Others, like Mazi Yasoboof, 25, of Queens, are still learning.

“How’d we do?” asked the sunglasses-wearing, blond Yasoboof, presenting Fergusson with a handful of tickets at 1:15. “I don’t think we won anything.”

“We’re going to check them,” answered Fergusson, running three tickets through the machine. The machine read the code on each ticket, and then delivered the bad news. “No, no and no,” she said.

Teaching time

Mary doesn’t mind helping out new fans. It used to be her whole career. She once taught social studies and worked as librarian at the former Keveny Memorial Academy in Cohoes. She was director of students at The Doane Stuart School in Rensselaer. Fergusson also worked as assistant principal at Schoharie High School.

“We do a lot of teaching at the window,” she said.

Players began stopping by Window 1701 for the second race.

“Number three horse, place and show, $4 and $4,” said one man, who believed in the chances for Jess Not Jesse.

“Eight dollars altogether,” said Fergusson, collecting the dough.

Fergusson said she has met nice people at the races over the years. Most of them she knows only by their first names. One year, she said, “Jean from Connecticut” asked for Fergusson’s address. Mary generally keeps those details to herself, but Jean was an old friend.

“She sent me this beautiful scrapbook of horse racing over the decades,” Fergusson said. “It was so touching. She gave me several of them over the years. She’d come specifically out here to visit us.”

A man appeared at the window. “One dollar triple box — one, three, six,” he said, giving Fergusson his three favorite horses. “And a two-dollar exacta box, four and six.”

“Ten dollars” said Mary, accepting the man’s payment. “Out of $20. Here’s $10.”

Tom Durkin chimed in: “Scratch number five, Dom, and scratch number eight, Wildcat Frankie.”

A man and several kids were next, all dressed in lavender-colored shirts. The man did all the talking — people must be 18 or older to make bets at Saratoga. “Let’s hope we win, three, four, seven,” the chief investor said, leading his group toward the paddock picnic grounds. “Let’s go watch.”

Fergusson stayed on her feet as the second race began. While there’s never a problem punching in the assorted combinations, there can be a problem for tellers at the end of the day. Especially when one $100 bill sticks to another and leaves the window by mistake.

“If I’m short, I’m short,” she said. “That means it comes out of my check. It happens to everybody, sooner or later. You have to turn in your money every night, you have to balance every night. I’m careful.”

Not so smooth

Fergusson remembers rough days on the job. On Travers Stakes day in 2004, with skies growing almost midnight dark and a wrath-of-nature thunderstorm just minutes away, race course officials quickly moved up the starting time of Saratoga’s signature race. There were long lines for the tellers, and many were unable to get their bets down.

“The only light we had was the light from our machines,” Fergusson said. “It was a challenge.”

Jess Not Jesse won the second race. Al Ferri and another Fergusson fan, Carmine DeSciora of Hollywood, Fla., stopped by their favorite window for quick chats at 1:40. “Not only is she good, she’s a nice person,” Ferri said.

A tall man with a shaved head, white shirt and tan pants needed a little help at 1:42, 23 minutes until the third race. “Can I bet $2 on four horses?” he asked. “The eight, one, five, seven?”

“There is no eight in this race,” Fergusson answered. “There are only seven horses in this race.”

The new bettor wanted to bet the superfecta combination straight — his top four finishers would have to be eight-one-five-seven — the entire day. Fergusson checked, and saw he could make the combinations work for four of the remaining seven races. He booked the bets, for $8. “Thank you for your help,” he said.

Guys with triple and exacta boxes followed. Some cashed in winning tickets and made more bets. At 1:53, a man wearing a backpack and a blue Chicago Cubs baseball cap made his move. “Two dollars on the four to win,” he told Fergusson. “Two dollars on the three to place, $4 on the five to win, $4 on the six to win. And a $2 exacta box, six-five-four.”

Fergusson punched in the orders. “Twenty-four dollars,” she said.

The four horse, Vicki’s Dancer, might have been a fortune horse. A blond man in a plaid yellow shirt made a bold investment. “One hundred to win on the four,” he tells Fergusson. “Two hundred to place on the four. Three hundred to show on the four.”

He paid Fergusson $600. And just after 2 p.m., Vicki’s Dancer ran third and won the show money, $3.40 for each $2 bet. And $510 for the big bettor.

The bettor might have even better luck for the Travers. Fergusson also hopes for a smooth trip, and said her betting friends can help.

“It will be bell to bell,” she said, anticipating a big crowd. “We’ll have lines. If people read the paper early in the morning, please tell them to call their bets in order and have their money ready. It moves the line faster, and people in lines get impatient.”

“On The Clock” profiles people at work in the Capital Region by spending one hour with them on the job. Nominate a friend or co-worker by contacting Gazette reporter Jeff Wilkin at 395-3124 or at [email protected]

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