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Published in Print: October 1, 2005, as They’re Off!

They’re Off!

For the past half-century, a racetrack outside San Diego has recruited educators for jobs during the summer break. But earning extra cash isn't the only reason these seasonal employees return every year.

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First thing in the morning, California high school teacher Mark McCleave walks into his office, pulling the door shut behind him. It’s a beautiful July day in the seaside town of Del Mar, with a cool wind coming off the ocean less than a quarter-mile away. But you wouldn’t know it inside this windowless space with drab yellow cinder block walls. McCleave sits at his desk, turns on his computer, and pulls a sheaf of paperwork from a drawer. It’s time to take roll.

Third grade teacher Jolene Smith has worked as an usher at Del Mar racetrack for six summers.
Third grade teacher Jolene Smith has worked as an usher at Del Mar racetrack for six summers.
—Ringo H. W. Chiu

“Hank!” he shouts. “Come on in!”

In walks Hank Acquarelli, a retired 30-year teaching veteran. Dressed in a light-blue flower-print shirt emblazoned with wood-paneled cars, he picks up a pen and signs a sheet lying on a table.

“Mark!” McCleave shouts out the now half-open door to the office.

In strolls Mark Brubaker, a 43-year-old high school science teacher. Dressed in a white T-shirt, with curly blond hair, earrings, and a goatee, he looks the epitome of California cool next to the eyeglasses-wearing Acquarelli.

“Let me borrow your pen, Hankie,” Brubaker says. He then asks his 60-something colleague when he’ll be out surfing again. Acquarelli winces, recounting standing orders from his physician to Brubaker, who’s obviously heard this a dozen times before.

“You had one doctor who said it was OK,” Brubaker replies. “Screw the other one!” The two chuckle and, after chatting for a moment, grab walkie-talkies and stroll out.

“Any Chris Weber sightings?” asks McCleave, who speaks in flat, declarative sentences and sports an expression encompassing both concentration and concern. A tall guy with a sheepish grin walks in, scanning the table for something to write with. “Everyone should have a pen,” McCleave chides before flipping through more paperwork and turning his attention to a problem. Pulling what look like scuffed boxes from under his desk, he begins to stack them while thinking aloud. “Let’s put four of these in a 10-foot square, then 15 feet ahead. ... ” He trails off, as if pondering a question he’ll ask his students once he’s back at Los Altos High School in Hacienda Heights in the fall.

The atmosphere here is casual, even for summer school—except that this isn’t summer school at all. Walk outside McCleave’s office, past the skulking college-age kids waiting to be called inside, and you’ll find yourself on a palm-tree-lined street resembling a Hollywood studio lot. Take a left, and you’re standing in front of the mission-style, red-tile-roofed main grandstand of the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, where horses are gamboling around the track. McCleave, who teaches science for 10 months of the year, spends much of the remaining two working at the racetrack, where he supervises as many as 125 parking attendants. With 12,000 spectators on a slow day and upwards of 40,000 during headline events, dealing with such problems as placing parking meters is far from academic.

Fortunately, he has a lot of help. Of the 350 people who run the racetrack during its 43-day season—ushering, working security, overseeing the parking lot, selling tickets and racing forms—around 50 are current or former educators. Many spent full careers in the classroom, retired from teaching, then continued to work at Del Mar for decades longer. “Sometimes we have to kick them out,” jokes Steve Brubaker, the track’s operations manager, whose son, Mark, has worked at the San Diego-area institution since he was 10.

Parking manager Mark McCleave gave up an assistant principal post to stay at Del Mar.
Parking manager Mark McCleave gave up an assistant principal post to stay at Del Mar. "I chose the racetrack over being an administrator," he explains.
—Ringo H. W. Chiu

Even for teachers who don’t trade their classrooms for Del Mar’s dizzying combination of sun, surf, and crowds, summer is always a disorienting time. And, in recent years, financial pressures and increased professional demands have made it all the more difficult for educators to “clear their heads,” as John Mitchell, deputy director of educational issues for the American Federation of Teachers, puts it. More than a third of the country’s teachers take on summer work, according to the federal government’s National Center for Education Statistics. Still, it’s unusual to find a place that has gone out of its way to provide reliable seasonal work for so many educators for so long, thanks largely to a high school principal who, more than a half-century ago, saw the pairing as a perfect fit. And at a time when the teaching workload has begun seeping into the traditional break, many of Del Mar’s employees see their jobs as offering a much-needed jolt of perspective.

Back in his office, McCleave grabs two things from his desk he doesn’t need during the school year—sunglasses and sunscreen. Jim Lineberger, a Long Beach PE teacher, coach, and administrator who’s worked at the track since 1969, walks in. When asked why they don’t just teach summer school, both laugh.

“Talk to the people who do summer school, and they come back in the fall burned out,” Lineberger explains. “Those who don’t come back refreshed.”

Post time for the first of the day’s eight races is 2 p.m., still hours away. But people are already streaming through the main gates, hoping for an early look at the competition. Horses parade down a well-traveled bit of turf that splits the grandstand in two, then pace around the paddock as spectators scribble notes on their racing forms. “Number 7 looks a little spry,” one onlooker says to no one in particular.

San Diego has always had a conservative, squeaky-clean mien, so it’s not surprising to see that reflected at Del Mar, which opened in 1937 after being bankrolled, in part, by the equally polished Bing Crosby. Blown-up black-and-white photos of actors from the track’s 1940s Hollywood heyday—Dorothy Lamour, W.C. Fields, Ava Gardner, Jimmy Durante, Betty Grable, and Mickey Rooney—hang everywhere, as does the image of legendary jockey Bill Shoemaker, who broke Del Mar records from his apprentice year in 1949 through 1970. Crosby even recorded a song still played regularly at the track: “There’s a smile on every face/ And a winner in each race/ Where the turf meets the surf at Del Mar.”

“It was a perfect fit. Teachers have people skills. They have a responsible job somewhere else.”
Steve Brubaker,
operations manager of the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club.

The Hollywood days are over, but Del Mar remains among the best- attended tracks in the nation and works hard to retain its historical sheen. Tailgating is strictly forbidden, and the crowd that’s pouring through the gates this morning is a mix of clean-cut retirees, fun-seeking college-age kids, businessmen looking for an excuse to get out of the office, and a smattering of families with kids. (The infield boasts a playground.)

“People here are creatures of habit,” Steve Brubaker says. “You’ll walk out and see the same ones year after year.” Brubaker would know, having been a fixture at the track since his father, Bud, held the same position he does now. Bud’s portrait hangs on the wall of Del Mar’s administration building, his face sporting the knowing grin of a high school coach who’s seen it all. Which makes sense, considering that’s what he did for years in Los Angeles schools. He’s also the reason the lives of the track and Southern California educators became intertwined.

When Bud was coaching and working as a principal, he “needed a summer job and a part-time job” to support the family’s three kids, Steve recalls. So he refereed professional baseball and football through the 1940s. Meanwhile, Del Mar, which had gone dark during World War II, was recruiting “credible officials” to judge race results. Bud signed on and ultimately took a full-time job on the operations side, where he would work for more than 50 years, until his death in 1995.

From the beginning, Brubaker would talk up Del Mar among his fellow referees, many of whom were high school coaches. He had help: Carl Benton, who’s worked summers at the track on and off since the mid-1950s, trained PE instructors at San Diego State University until retiring in 1983. He’d often suggest to his student teachers that they look into Del Mar.

“It was a perfect fit,” Steve Brubaker says of the arrangement. “Teachers have people skills. They have a responsible job somewhere else.” Running a racetrack is, by and large, a cash business, so the word “responsibility” isn’t used lightly.

For many employees at the racetrack, practical issues take precedence over a love of horses.
For many employees at the racetrack, practical issues take precedence over a love of horses.
—Ringo H. W. Chiu

That the arrangement works at all is due to a longstanding anomaly of the California horse-racing circuit, which staggers “meets,” or seasons, across a half-dozen tracks. Del Mar’s sole meet runs from late July through Labor Day weekend—perfect timing for teachers. Support employees, now unionized, often travel from track to track as meets open and close, but they’ve allowed teachers into their ranks at Del Mar. The money’s good; veteran parking attendants, for instance, can clear $100 a day, while ushers, gatekeepers, and other employees average between $70 and $85 daily, not counting incentives and gratuities.

Over the decades, the track has always offered “one of the best salaries for part-time work,” says Benton, now 83. That’s helpful in an area ranked among the nation’s most expensive; the median housing price in Southern California is $510,000. Even in less real estate-obsessed areas, teacher pay hasn’t kept pace with rapidly accelerating home prices. According to the Center for Housing Policy in Washington, D.C., the national average teacher salary of $45,320 is about $25,000 shy of what’s needed to finance a median-priced home. It definitely won’t cut it in Del Mar, where a development near the racetrack advertises homes “starting in the low $1,000,000s.”

Like teaching, racetrack work often runs in families. Steve Brubaker, now a lean, well-coiffed 67, started working for his father when he was 14. Summer work helped pay for college, where a stint as a student teacher convinced him not to follow in Bud’s pedagogical footsteps. He worked most of his adult life in retail management, but he took early retirement in 1983 and returned to Del Mar full time. Mark, who teaches science at La Costa Canyon High School in Carlsbad, was already spending his summers at the track with his grandfather. Now, he’s brought his father into his school, where the two coach volleyball together. “Here, he’s my boss, there, I’m his boss,” Mark says, laughing.

Family and teaching connections are everywhere at Del Mar. Hank Acquarelli lets his nephew, Joey Acquarelli, a middle school teacher from Orange County, move in with him each summer so they can work side by side. And Bill and Iris Becks, who met at a school in Sacramento—“on my first day of teaching,” Iris recalls—taught together for three decades. Since retiring, they’ve both worked at the racetrack for six years.

It’s 10:59 a.m., and Leo Tuck checks his watch as people file into a room perched above the grandstand, sitting two to a table. “Good morning, ladies and gentlemen,” he says in the same clear voice he used as a principal for 26 years. The bespectacled 80-year-old looks and sounds spry enough to keep junior high kids in line, though a nearby video monitor showing a race from Saratoga makes it clear that today’s audience won’t be students.

For some, like science teacher Mark Brubaker, both teaching and working at Del Mar run in the family. Mark's late grandfather, Bud, a principal and coach, brought Mark to work at the track when he was a kid. Now Mark's father, Steve, supervises him there.
For some, like science teacher Mark Brubaker, both teaching and working at Del Mar run in the family. Mark's late grandfather, Bud, a principal and coach, brought Mark to work at the track when he was a kid. Now Mark's father, Steve, supervises him there.
—David Kidd

Tuck, a 54-year Del Mar veteran who still coaches high school softball, has been supervising ushers here since 2001. After passing around a get-well card for an ailing coworker, he lists the day’s unreserved sections—the places where ushers can direct day-ticket holders to seats. “Any questions?” he asks, and the 35 men and women attired in sea-green polo shirts and khakis shake their heads. “When you’re dismissed,” he continues, still in teacher mode as he gestures to the back of the room, “go out that way. Have a good day—keep smiling!” Everyone files out, chatting amiably.

When asked to describe his job, Tuck says the same thing as virtually everyone else who works at Del Mar: “We help solve problems.” Double-checking a seating chart, he puts on his cap and blue blazer bearing the words “Del Mar” and heads out. Tuck wears a pedometer, and by the time today’s last race has ended, he’ll have logged six miles patrolling the grandstand. Passing a bank of brass-accented elevators, he stops to say hello to gatekeeper Cassandra Smith, a high school field hockey coach who’s checking coats and chatting with a gaggle of nattily dressed businessmen on their way up to the luxury boxes. “I’ve learned a lot about jacket sizes,” the 23-year-old jokes.

Just outside, program salesman Bill Meyer is talking with a customer who has splayed photos from past races across his counter, prompting the 46-year veteran to recall his first summer as a teacher in San Diego schools. “Teacher compensation was pretty low,” he says in a soft, professorial voice. Tuck recalls that as a rookie in the ’50s, he signed a $3,200 annual contract, the equivalent of roughly $25,000 today. What’s more, it stipulated in no uncertain terms that he’d only receive paychecks 10 months a year, sending him and others scrambling to fill the gap. Retired Spanish teacher Tom Pirazzini, who’s worked at the racetrack for 53 years, explains, “We had to eat during the summer.”

Up on Level 3 of the grandstand, people are starting to trickle in as a tractor circles the racetrack, leveling the turf for the races. Here and there, an usher wipes a seat with a washcloth.

Jolene Smith looks at the giant screen in the infield and sighs. It’s showing a live shot of the beach, and while the folks waiting for the first race of the day pay it no heed, she’s mesmerized by the crashing waves. Smith and her twin sister, Jorja, were once professional surfers. But following an injury six years ago, Jolene traded her surfboard for a blackboard, and she now teaches 3rd grade in Orange County.

“Am I in the right neighborhood?” a middle-age man in a polo shirt asks Smith, handing her his ticket.

“Right here,” she says with a smile, walking him to a seat a few rows down.

“You get all kinds of questions,” Smith says. “What’s a trifecta? What’s a superfecta? Where do I get ice cream?”

It doesn’t sound that different from an elementary school classroom, a point appreciated by police Sergeant Dave Spencer, who trains Del Mar’s security officers. “[They] get questions from everyone and about everything,” says the soft-spoken retired teacher.

“I could never do this for more than six or seven weeks. But when I have my summers, I want to get as far away [from school] as possible.”
John Matheus,
an administrator at a Catholic school in Pasadena

One level down, in the reserved box section, John Matheus is clearly out of his element. He’s the first to admit it, even though the wisecracking 49-year-old started working at Del Mar when he was 18. The rest of the year, it turns out, he’s a no-nonsense administrator at a Catholic school in Pasadena.

Matheus’ job is to keep an eye on the choice box seats in his section—flush against the finish line. And that’s where his experience from 26 years in the classroom comes in handy. “Some people are really, really bad poker players,” he says, playacting a typical attempt at gate-crashing as a handful of regulars watch and laugh.

“I’m a friend of Mr. Smith,” someone will invariably tell him.

“Oh,” he’ll reply. “Describe Mr. Smith for me.”

“He’s tall, black hair, in his 50s.”

“Well, Mr. Smith has been dead for 10 years.”

“I could never do this for more than six or seven weeks,” Matheus says later. “But when I have my summers, I want to get as far away [from school] as possible.” It’s clear he relishes being out of the regimented environment; as he talks, a regular smacks him on the back with a rolled-up newspaper. Given that 60 percent of teachers who work during breaks choose other types of jobs over summer school, according to NCES statistics, he’s not alone in seeking a change of pace.

That’s not as easy to do these days, however. Even in those locations where year-round schooling hasn’t taken root, curricula and tactics sparked by the standards-and-accountability movement have spawned “specific summertime professional development linked to new programs,” says the AFT’s Mitchell. “Teachers,” he adds, “are going back into schools not as relaxed and refreshed as they have in previous years.”

Del Mar’s security director, Bill Sullivan, sees this conflict firsthand. Picking out the teachers on a wall of former security officers’ photographs, he says, “They were the core of this work force.” Now, educators who want to devote time to the track have to make serious decisions about both careers.

McCleave did just that a few years back after taking a job as an assistant principal. Summer administrative duties soon forced him to make a choice between his day job and the track. Thinking of childhood vacations in Del Mar, his coworkers, and his retirement plans—he’d already bought a second home nearby—it wasn’t tough to do.

“I chose the racetrack over being an administrator,” he says flatly.

Back outside the grandstand, Joey Acquarelli looks up at the giant clock tower. It’s 15 minutes until post time, which explains the crush of Mercedeses, Lexuses, and Cadillacs lining up in three parallel white-striped lanes, looking every bit like a track meet for luxury cars. Next in line, though, is an ordinary white pickup. Acquarelli opens the door for the driver, writes out a ticket, and sticks it in the windshield. Another valet jumps in and drives away.

Acquarelli is 32, but with his wraparound sunglasses and buzz cut, he appears to be right out of college. Like Hank, his uncle and summertime roommate, Joey has worked at the track since he was a kid, as did his father and grandfather. But this summer, he has a problem.

The teacher-friendly environment has led many summer workers to return to Del Mar even after they've left the classroom. Retired principal Leo Tuck is going on his 55th season at the track.
The teacher-friendly environment has led many summer workers to return to Del Mar even after they've left the classroom. Retired principal Leo Tuck is going on his 55th season at the track.
—Ringo H. W. Chiu

“My last day here”—which falls on the Wednesday after Labor Day—“could be my first day of school,” he says with a laugh. He’s not complaining, though; for the younger teachers, one of the great things about working at Del Mar is that the season starts well into the break. Nathan Williams, who’s in his third year of teaching 6th grade in Palm Springs and his fourth at the track, spent June hitchhiking through Newfoundland, then moved in with his mother in nearby Encinitas to work the rest of the summer. Between the two changes in scenery, by the time school starts again, “you’re fresh,” he says.

“Not even waiting around for the first race?” his friend Mark Brubaker asks a departing couple. The 11-year teaching veteran has attempted to invert the summertime transformation of teachers into track workers. “I’ve talked one parking attendant into giving teaching a try,” he says before turning his attention to the row of cars.

“Come on down!” he shouts, waving up a silver Lexus SUV. Opening the driver’s-side door, a woman wearing a spangly party dress climbs out. “You have a great day!” he says, beaming.

Down in the standing room area hard up against the turf, folks are watching the fourth slate of horses pacing into the gate for the race about to begin. “The morning line was 4-5, now it’s 1-2,” a guy in a T-shirt and black shorts mutters, shaking his head as he stares at the odds listed on the giant infield screen.

As the spectators buzz with anticipation, the track employees remain unfazed. Much like ushers in movie theaters, they’re here to do a job. Besides, it’s not the horses or even the beautiful surroundings that keep the teachers coming back to Del Mar. Almost to a person, they say it’s the chance to work with adults for two months of the year, to recharge their batteries in a very different setting, and to be appreciated for intrinsic qualities not reflected in standardized-test results.

“And away they go!” the track’s announcer, Trevor Denman, shouts in his signature South African accent. A loud rumble can be heard from the far side of the infield as the horses charge out of the gates. People rise to their feet, watching the horses round the nearest turn in a tight pack. Then horse number 6—a 3-year-old named Lone Prairie—breaks free. The crowd screams as he clears the finish line, well ahead of his nearest competitor.

With the next race a half-hour away, there’s a momentary lull in activity. The ushers edge away from the seats in the grandstands and lean against the walls. The valets chat on a picnic bench under the clock tower. Security blends into the scenery. Everywhere you look, teachers are standing back, watching the crowds. What happens next is just a matter of odds.

Vol. 17, Issue 02, Pages 38-43

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