SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. — Rasi Harper and Maurice Davis arrived in Louisville a couple of days before the Kentucky Derby in May, carrying their video cameras and searching, as always, for true stories of life at the racetrack.
They found one in a hurry.
At one of the first barns they visited at Churchill Downs, Jerry Dixon Sr. had a loose hold on a thoroughbred and was amiable enough to take questions from two men he did not know and who did not know him.
Dixon explained that he grew up on the racetrack and was a third-generation horseman. He was at the barn helping his son Jerry Jr., the groom for an unsung horse hoping for a last-minute spot in the Derby.
Harper asked Dixon what had changed in horse racing.
“This may get me in trouble,” Dixon said, looking over his shoulder and lowering his voice. “I’m the only Black man at the end of a shank. It’s sad but true. Real grooms got pushed out.”
It was the sort of candid, just-between-us moment that has made Harper and Davis’s YouTube documentary series, The Real Players Inside the Backstretch, a must-see for those who own, breed, train, ride, groom, bet on or just love thoroughbred horses.
The Real Players videos, which have generated 2.5 million views on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, cover just about every aspect of racetrack life. But a prominent theme of the Real Players is the important but ever-diminishing role of African Americans in a sport they helped put on the map.
Harper and Davis, who are Black, are barbers from near Saratoga Springs, N.Y., who have been around horses and horseplayers most of their lives. For them, Real Players isn’t a gamble so much as an act of faith.
“When you create something you’re passionate about, the money ain’t going to miss you — it’ll come,” Harper said.
Most afternoons, Harper and Davis cut hair at their shop, Boss Builders & Outreach Barbershop in Schenectady. As its name, continuous traffic and constantly humming clippers suggest, Boss Builders is part incuba tor and part neighborhood center for the next generation of entrepreneurs shaping hair or making videos.
Long before they picked up scissors or bought video equipment they could neither afford nor operate, Harper and Davis were listeners.
Jockey Javier Castellano and horse owners like former New York Giants coach Bill Parcells and Florida Panthers owner Vincent Viola sat in their chairs and talked racing with a colorful cast of gamblers. At Boss Builders, billionaires and racetrack grooms, send-it-all-in horseplayers and $2 railbirds were all equal and united because they shared the language of fast horses.
Davis, who grew up in Long Island and whose stepfather worked for storied trainers such as Roger Laurin, got an education in all things horses as a boy coming of age on the backside of Belmont Park.
“It was a wonderful thing growing up loving horse racing, cutting through the fence each morning,” Davis, 50, said. “I’d shoot pool in the rec center with the grooms that rubbed champions.”
For Harper, a Brooklynite who had never been to a racetrack, the “got the horse right here” cross talk he heard in the shop was a revelation. He is an idea man who has expanded Boss Builders by cutting hair at retirement centers and setting up barber chairs trackside at Saratoga for those not wanting to venture too far from the action.
“We had all these guys in our chairs, and all we needed was someone to film and capture their passion,” Harper, 45, said.
When a documentary filmmaker said he would charge $1,200 an episode, Harper went down YouTube rabbit holes learning how to buy and use camera equipment. After spending $13,000, they were in business. Sort of.
They posted their early video interviews on Facebook, attracting just a handful of views. The absence of a critical audience, or really any audience, allowed Harper and Davis to get comfortable with their filmmaking technique.
“I look back at some of our early stuff, and the frame’s out of focus and the camera’s jiggling,” said Harper, the cameraman.
But in time, their interview style — TMZ ambush meets speed-dating questions — drew endearingly candid responses from the people Davis calls the “real racetrack royalty”: the men and women who walk, rub and care for thoroughbreds that are worth more than their handlers may ever earn in a lifetime.
In the media and the public mind, the success of iconic horses like the 1974 Kentucky Derby winner Cannonade and the 1982 Belmont Stakes champ Conquistador Cielo owes to the brilliance of the Hall of Fame trainer Woody Stephens. But in the Real Players videos, those victories turn more on the everyday care showered on them by Harold Hardy, a Jamaican groom known at New York tracks as Toumaine.
In a lilting patois, Toumaine name-checks turf titans — both equine and human — he has either rubbed or rubbed shoulders with. The champion stallion Danzig was all class, he says, as was Marylou Whitney, who spent her time and family fortune making the Spa City the summer place to be for horse people.
“All I have in life is racing,” Toumaine said.
Leroy Ross, behind clouds of cigar smoke, told the Real Players how run-ins with the police in his native South Carolina — “I was on the street, stealing” — redirected him to a productive life on the backside. Known today as Big Ross, he got a job with Stephens in the 1960s and celebrated the Kentucky Derby victories of Strike the Gold and Go for Gin in the 1990s.
Yes, Big Ross conceded, horse life can be a grind.
“All you got to do is keep thinking, you got to eat,’’ he said. “And if you don’t get up and do it, somebody else will.”
Edmund Pringle has been on the racetrack for more than a half-century, too, rising through the ranks from hot-walker, groom, barn foreman and assistant trainer. For 22 years he’s been on his own as a trainer, winning a modest 42 races for purse earnings of more than $2 million.
He cannot imagine another or a better life.
“What’s your favorite moment?” Harper asked.
“Every day is my favorite moment — I love doing this,” Pringle said. “I don’t win that many races, but I keep trying.”
Interviewing longtime hands like Hardy, Ross and Pringle is the Real Players’ way of highlighting Black men and women’s long but slowly vanishing history in the sport.
An African American jockey, Oliver Lewis, won the inaugural running of the Kentucky Derby, in 1875, aboard Aristides, who was trained by Ansel Williamson, who had been born into slavery. In the years after the Civil War, Black jockeys dominated horse racing, winning 15 of the first 28 Kentucky Derbies and becoming celebrities much like today’s N.B.A. stars.
Jim Crow laws and the opposition of white horsemen pushed Black jockeys and owners out of the sport, or to Europe, where they were more widely accepted. The absence of Black people at the top of horse racing led to their near-disappearance from the barns, where Latino immigrants and their offspring are now doing many of the jobs.
Cleveland Johnson wept when he was asked about the Black horsemen he came up with. They’re all gone now. Johnson got his first racetrack license as a 15-year-old in 1965 and now, at 70 with “bad knees, bad back, bad everything,” trains a small string in New York.
“Those guys who came up with me, they never had the opportunity I got now. What is it, maybe 1 percent trainers are Black?” he asks. “That ain’t right.”
Greg Harbut, a Black horse owner and bloodstock agent, compared Harper and Davis to Alan Lomax, the historian who recorded and preserved folk and blues music across America.
“They are documenting living history,” Harbut said. “The work they are doing will outlive them. Their work is something the sport should get behind.”
The Real Players of the Backstretch have posted nearly 300 videos and built followings on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Real money keeps missing them, but they are undaunted.
“When you got the heart of people, God has a place for you,” Davis said.
On a recent morning in Sarasota Springs, Harper aimed his camera at Elliott Walden and began firing off questions.
Harper did not know that Walden was once a trainer or that he is now the chief executive officer of WinStar Farm, a high-end breeding operation. It didn’t matter.
“Who was your mentor?” Harper asked.
“Leroy Jolley,” Walden replied, mentioning another famed New York trainer.
Walden told a story. One morning, he thought his work was done, so he turned a bucket upside down and took a seat. When Jolley saw this, he kicked the bucket out from under him.
“If you want to sit down, get a desk job,” Walden remembered Jolley saying.
The appeal of the Real Players comes down to anecdotes like that, along with respect for horse racing history, unforgettable characters — and sometimes a little luck.
Two days after Harper and Davis interviewed Jerry Dixon Sr., “the only Black man at the end of a shank,” he joined his son in the winner’s circle at Churchill Downs. Jerry Dixon Jr.’s as-yet-unknown horse was the 80-1 Derby winner, Rich Strike.
The Real Players video about it got 470,000 views.