Sunday, February 5, 2012
Stu and Betty Owlett, Mutuel Tellers
When Stu and Betty Owlett vacationed on the west coast of Florida in the 1960s and early ‘70s, they would enjoy a day at Tampa Bay Downs – then Florida Downs – with Stu’s father, who lived in Tarpon Springs. In 1975, they decided to take the plunge themselves, selling their successful grocery business in Wellsboro, Pa. and moving to the Tampa Bay area. On his next visit to the track, Stu approached the mutuels manager, Al Carrero, about getting a job as a teller. The rest, as they say, is history: Stu and Betty Owlett have spent the past 35 years selling and cashing tickets at the Oldsmar oval and numerous other tracks across the country, including Churchill Downs and Pimlico during the Triple Crown. The Owletts, who will be married 65 years in June, have two children, four grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.
Stu: We sold Owlett’s Supermarket in 1975 when I was 46. I had started working in the store when I was 6 and had been partners with my dad since 1950, then I bought it from him in 1965. We were sort of a precursor to Walmart, but on a much smaller scale. We sold groceries, but we also sold sheets, towels, blue jeans, underwear, shoes and gasoline.
We sold the store because it was too successful. We employed about 20 clerks, but I thought I had to have my finger in all the work, so I got there early and stayed late. It was doing very well, but it got to be too much for me. I didn’t want to die of a heart attack at 50.
Betty: Stu had put his hard years in. We lived at the store – after we ate dinner, he would go back in and work some more. It was time for us to make a change.
Stu: After the length of time we’ve been married, Betty and I think alike. When you’ve been together 65 years, your habits get to be the same. I know up north, I could tell sometimes when a husband and wife walked into the store together, because they sort of looked alike. But nobody has any trouble telling us apart.
Betty: The No. 1 thing that has kept us together is love. I started going with Stuart in the ninth grade, and he was the only boyfriend I ever had. We just like each other. He is a real gentleman and a real Christian guy, and that is a big part of any marriage. You hate to hear anyone say, ‘We don’t ever fight’ – but we don’t!
Stu: We’ve always enjoyed working here. When Sam F. Davis was the President of the track, he would gather all the tellers in the middle of the grandstand on Opening Day and give us a pep talk and remind us this was the friendliest track in the country. He used to say ‘If people don’t say anything else about this track, I want them to leave here saying they were treated well.’
When we started working here it wasn’t computerized like it is now. Tellers on one side sold the tickets and those on the other side cashed. I worked the ‘$50 Only’ window, and it was a dangerous job from the standpoint that if you were short at the end of the day, it came out of your pocket.
There were 4,000 or 5,000 people here my first day and I was paying out on winning tickets. Al Carrero told me I could watch the guy next to me and get the feel for it. I got $5,000 out of the back room, Al said ‘You’ll be alright,’ and he threw me to the wolves and I just commenced to perspire.
When you get $5,000 you think, that’s a lot of money, and in an hour or so it was gone. And back then, you didn’t know until the next day if you were right. If you made a mistake in the $50 window, it could kill you.
Betty: They used to have what they called pigeons, where the No. 2 horse might win the second race and pay $4. Then, a bettor might hold that ticket until the No. 2 came in again, say in the eighth race, and pay $22. So someone would get in the line with their ticket from the second race with No. 2 on it that was really worth only $4, and try to cash it for $22. The tellers would say, ‘The pigeon just flew in.’ You’d try to watch your ticket codes, but sometimes you’d get stuck with a pigeon.
I was nervous when I first started, but I’d always been a cashier at the store and had experience handling money. So far, I’ve had alright luck.
Stu: Many years ago, I got stuck for $270 by a guy from the backside. Instead of selling him $10 win-place-show tickets, which is what he’d asked for, I hit the button for $100 across the board. I knew it immediately and came out into the grandstand, but I couldn’t find him. The tickets ended up being worth $500, and I told his friends he could have his profit, just please return the balance. He had cashed them as soon as the race ended and wouldn’t come back in, but management found out and he ended up being fired for it.
But I’ve had so many times when I went out and told a bettor I made a mistake, and he returned the money because he knew I wouldn’t cheat him. If you’re honest, it comes back to bless you.
Betty: The biggest ticket I ever paid out was $123,000 at Albuquerque Downs in New Mexico. Believe me, it was an experience. There were nine people sharing the ticket, so I had to fill out nine separate tax forms. It was all paid out in $100 bills – 1,230 of them. I paid it out and let them divide it up.
Stu: From 1980-94, we worked the New Mexico circuit. We started at Santa Fe after Tampa Bay Downs closed and worked there until Labor Day, then we worked a 25-day meeting at the New Mexico State Fair. It was a huge meeting. That was when the Texas oilmen would fly into Santa Fe in their Piper Cubs and come to the track with stacks of $100 bills. I was a $50 cashier, and some days I would cash and sell more than $100,000 in tickets.
I was handling a lot of money under pressure, but it was fun if you liked people. Then all of a sudden the price of oil dropped, and they were gone.
Betty: We like to work and we like people, so we don’t talk about retiring. We’re happier working than when we’re sitting at home. We enjoy our customers. We usually take a vacation every year, and this year we’re planning to go back to Pennsylvania and stay in a home we’re renting.
Stu: We have been fortunate to travel all over the world. We’ve been to Japan twice, Australia, New Zealand, Alaska, Thailand and Singapore. We got permission to go to Russia during the Cold War. We were on safari in Africa during the 1970s.
We traveled in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. We were not scared at the time, but since then I’ve thought we should have been. We toured the Serengeti with our own driver in a four-wheel drive Volkswagen with a rollaway roof, and we crossed 15 miles of solid wildlife migration – zebras, wildebeests and antelopes, as far as the eye can see.
We were going 30 miles per hour across grassy terrain – there were no roads – and the zebras would go as fast as our vehicle, then run across our path and stop, just playing with us. It was absolutely spectacular.
Betty: I really liked Japan. We had a guide who bowed and kissed all the ladies’ hands. He was very polite and made the American men look, well. …
Stu: This job never gets old because every day, something different happens. I had a guy come to my window recently who wanted to bet a four-horse dime superfecta box with the automatic teller machine, but he had never used it before. So I talked him through it and gave him a voucher for $12.
He came back the next day with five winning tickets that were each worth $750. I asked him what had happened, and he said ‘Well, you said the machine was easy to work, and I thought I had change coming from my bet. But instead of hitting the return voucher button, I kept hitting repeat ticket.’ Talk about beginner’s luck!