Stooping to conquer, the Leonardo method

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

“It’s literally found money,” he said one evening from his private winner’s circle, where he spends more than ten hours a day 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 added. “This is how I feed my family.”

In horse racing lore, Leonardo, who favours track suits and ties his greying hair and his bushy beard in long ponytails, is known as a stooper, a person who hangs around race tracks and betting parlours picking up tickets thrown away by others. Almost every ticket is a loser, but enough are winners to make it worth his while.

To his stable of OTB buddies, Leonardo is the Secretariat of stoopers. “He is 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.”

TD Thornton, the horse racing 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 race track 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. Leanardo, however, is hardly living on the fringes. He said stooping brings him $100 to $300 a day, and more than $45,000 a year.  

Last month, he cashed a winning ticket from bets made on races at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, California, for $8,040. His largest purse came in 2006, when he received $9,500 from a Pick 4 wager -- choosing the winner of four consecutive races -- at Retama Park Race Track in Selma, Texas.  It’s all taxable income. “I file my winnings with the IRS (Internal Revenue Service) every year,” he said.
Freddy Peguero, 53, a short-order cook from Manhattan, rooted for Leanardo 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.”

Leonardo, a married father of two teenagers who lives in Wanaque, New Jersey, became a stooper by accident.

In 1999, he walked into the same OTB parlour 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 realised an enquiry had been made,” he said, referring to a review of the race to check into a possible infraction of the rules. “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,” Leonardo said. “I was so upset, almost in tears. Finally, she said, ‘Look, if want to take the garbage home with you and look for your ticket, go right ahead.’”

He did. Although he failed to locate his $900 jackpot, he found two other winners in the trash, worth a combined $2,000.

“I couldn’t believe it,” said Leonardo, who has 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 everyday.”

He has since returned nearly every day, waiting patiently for the OTB garbage to be placed at the curb before pouncing on it and picking out hundreds of betting slips, which he places in a separate garbage bag and lugs onto the train for the ride home.
“At first, my wife thought I was crazy, but then she realised 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.”

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