Rasi Harper. (Photo courtesy of Rasi Harper)
Best of 2022: The Real Players Inside the Backstretch
NYRA Press Office
OZONE PARK, N.Y. – Just three live race days remain in 2022 to complete a remarkable year of racing action on the New York Racing Association, Inc. (NYRA) circuit. To celebrate the season, the NYRA Press Office checked in with a selection of racing personalities to get their reflections on the memorable year.
Rasi Harper and Maurice Davis launched The Real Players Inside the Backstretch channel in 2021 and reached new heights this year, traveling across the country to document the stories of backstretch workers.
Their interview with Jerry Dixon, Jr., groom of this year’s Kentucky Derby-winner Rich Strike, has generated more than 475,000 views on YouTube. During Belmont Stakes week, they conducted an interview with Kathy Hochul, Governor of New York, and in September the duo enjoyed a journalistic role reversal when their inspirational work was profiled in the New York Times.
Harper and Davis, who own and operate Boss Builders & Outreach Barbershop in Schenectady, N.Y., visited a number of tracks this year, including Saratoga Race Course, Belmont Park, Churchill Downs, Fair Grounds, Gulfstream Park, Santa Anita Park and Woodbine Racetrack. Racing fans can enjoy their content on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter.
What was your favorite interview this year and why?
Harper: “It has to be Jerry Dixon, Jr. When we got to Churchill, I interviewed him on the Thursday before the race and he was so excited and so happy. He loved Rich Strike. It wasn’t even about the Derby for him. He was just a horse guy, who loved what he does.
“For him to win, was amazing. I don’t think even he thought he could win. It was a real longshot. That interview was so organic, it wasn’t even about the Derby, it was about him as a horseman. For him to win the whole thing at 80-1 was wow…miracles do happen.”
Why do you think people enjoy your content?
Harper: “It’s just real and it’s organic. It’s not a media marketing scheme. I think talking to the real players on the backside was overdue. There are so many hard-working people back there and when you look at Saratoga, for instance, there are so many barns, but they only really cover the top few people winning races.
“I think it’s overdue in racing that we celebrate the people. It’s not that the industry doesn’t know these stories. People know the stories that are in the industry, but for the mass audience, it’s new stories to them.”
After having conducted hundreds of interviews, have you discovered a common theme that brings backstretch workers to the sport?
Harper: “It’s all horse, all passion and all love for the animal. Nobody told me any sad stories about money. Of all the hundreds of interviews, no one complained about that. These guys would do it for free.
“There’s something addictive about that lifestyle. I’m hooked now, too. The camaraderie back there, I can’t explain. The same thing that brings them to the game, brought me to the game.”
Which interview subject surprised you with their storytelling ability?
Harper: “It’s between a horseman named Roy Seales from the Virgin Islands and Robbie Davis. Roy had a tone to his voice when he spoke that you just knew you were speaking to backstretch royalty. He knows so much about the game, and you just knew that if this guy had a shot with some horses that he could be just as big as the guys that we love, the big guys. If he had the horses, he could be a force.
“Robbie – he’s just the ultimate storyteller. When he’s telling a story, you can visualize it as he’s talking. You can see yourself in the story in that moment. He embraced the Real Players right from the beginning. I went to his barn unknown, and he gave me those stories Day One. He didn’t have to warm up to me, he was already warm. You hit Robbie with a question, and he just takes you there. You have to root for guys like that.”
This editor’s favorite story was:
“We’re all lined up in the gate and the last horse loads. There’s two or three seconds in between and it’s quiet. Very very quiet. Because we know we’re about to break and all you can feel is the horse’s heart pumping. You can feel their heart beating through you. The two, three seconds is quiet. All you can feel is their heartbeat. That’s pretty wild.”
— Jockey Robby Albarado To The Real Players Inside The Backstretch
Why is it critical to document the stories of the backstretch workers?
Harper: “I feel like these stories are important. When I went to the Hall of Fame this year and I interviewed people, you realize there’s only five or six African Americans inducted as far as jockeys go and nobody told the stories of the backside.
“It just fell in my lap that I’m documenting oral histories with people on the backside that are just as important as any legendary jockey and any legendary trainer. If you ask Steve Asmussen, if you ask Bob Baffert, if you ask Chad Brown, they all say the same thing – without the guys on the backstretch, there’s no horse racing and not just a little bit, period!”
Should there be space in the Hall of Fame for backstretch workers?
“I think it’s overdue. It’s a major piece of bringing horses to the winner’s circle. You can’t do it without them.”
What comes next for The Real Players Inside the Backstretch in 2023?
Harper: “We want to hit more tracks. I’ve seen [footage of] the Japan Cup and that crowd got me motivated. I have to get to that. I’d love to get to the Dubai World Cup and I just want to keep grinding and growing the platform.”