Win, place and show: Long-time NYRA teller knows there’s no formula for success

Bill Donnelly has been around horse racing for nearly a decade and a half, working with NYRA Bets at Belmont Park to help teach fans the best way to make some money at the track.
Community News Group / Laura Amato
By Laura Amato

It all happened on a whim.

Bill Donnelly was living upstate, splitting his time between a home in the Adirondacks and spending winters down south before he and his wife decided it was time to downsize.

He didn’t realize that decision would change his life – and he certainly didn’t expect his life to change at 65 years old.

The pair eventually answered an ad for summer jobs at Saratoga Racetrack and suddenly the Donnellys became “track people,” working at the historic sports venue for the last 15 years.

Fast forward to Saturday afternoon, and Donnelly, now 80, was patrolling Belmont Park with as much enthusiasm as ever, working with NYRA Bets, the organization’s betting program for fans.

“We only missed like a couple of days for a granddaughter’s wedding until last year when my wife got sick. We always made it to the track,” Donnelly said of his time at Saratoga. “I admit it, if you’re a track person, you’ll get addicted to it. It isn’t the highest paying job in the world, but it’s user friendly.”

This year’s Belmont Stakes boasted a new NYRA initiative, opening small kiosks across the park which offered the chance for racing fans to get a short how-to on making bets. The kiosks first got their start at Saratoga last summer and, this year, will be open during major races at Belmont.

Donnelly, who helped worked as everything from a teller to a mutuel clerk at Saratoga, sees the booths as a chance to help spark interest in horse racing, particularly when there wasn’t a Triple Crown chance at this year’s Stakes.

“You’re always going to get a bump with the Triple Crown. [Saturday,] I’m sure, the attendance will be at least, say 30,000 less, but that’s a guess,” he said. “But they’re bringing in entertainment and things like this and then, statistically, those people will drift to these betting stands.”

Of course, there’s no guaranteed way to make money at the betting window and Donnelly is quick to point out that horse racing is a bit of trial and error.

“Having the skill to pick a horse is wonderful,” he said. “The odds are what they tell you to follow, but, for me, to sit in a booth and say if you do this and this, a horse will win, is much harder. If I had that skill, I’d be at the machine non-stop and making money.”

As far as Donnelly is concerned, the key to picking a horse is, first, relaxing. He’s constantly reminding bettors that this is, at the end of it all, about fun, and always suggests first-timers budget themselves whenever they spend a day at the track.

There are plenty of ways to bet a horse race – superfectas and trifectas and exacta boxes – and Donnelly is more than willing to explain to anyone who’s willing to listen. He finds that most people, however, aren’t interested in listening.

That’s when he suggests the tried and true standby – pick a fun name.

“If I’m losing them, I just tell them to throw a dart,” Donnelly said. “I get a new bettor and I tell them, I want you to hear something and you won’t believe I’m telling you this. You will win today. I said because you’re new and you haven’t got a clue what you’re doing. You’ll bet the horse with the red tail or a number or the name of the horse.”

Donnelly never expected to be working at Belmont when he first answered that ad a decade-and-a-half ago, but he’s just as passionate as ever and he’s hopeful he’ll eventually see that one, big bet payout.

Until it does, though, he’s going to keep telling people to bet two bucks on every race and, most importantly, have some fun.

“By the fifth race and the eighth beer, anything goes,” Donnelly said. “And then you use your own instincts, but if you think anyone is going to guarantee you a winner, just tell them you’ll buy them out. I’ll give you a $100, come with me and we’ll bet all the races, a $1,000 bet on each.”

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