Barbershop conversation is not necessarily idle chatter.
Barber Rasi Harper turned videographer after hearing tales of the track while he snipped away on clients such as former NFL coach turned Thoroughbred owner Bill Parcells, trainer Chad Brown, and jockeys Javier Castellano and Kendrick Carmouche.
Harper had grown up in Brooklyn, N.Y., but was only vaguely aware of horse racing through friends who made occasional big scores at the betting windows. That changed once he moved to the Saratoga Springs area more than a decade ago. The city enjoys an economic boon each summer that revolves around Saratoga Race Course.
“I had never been to the track, never been to the backstretch,” Harper said. “But I knew so many people from being a barber.”
The urge to visit the track became irresistible. Soon, after hearing more stories and feeling the energy of the iconic venue, his mission became clear. He invested $14,000 – everything he had – in video equipment.
The father of four taught himself the art of filming and editing and launched The Real Players Inside The Backstretch in 2021. “The goal is to tell the story of every single person that crosses through those gates because you feel every single person has a unique story,” he said. “No two stories are the same.”
Real Players came to prominence fairly quickly. It created a buzz with an interview of Jerry Dixon Jr., the confident groom for Rich Strike, before that colt came off the also-eligible list to score one of the great upsets in Kentucky Derby history at 80-1 last year. The interview with Dixon attracted more than 480,000 views on YouTube.
Real Players was featured in The New York Times last September. Harper’s new-found zest for storytelling has already taken him to Saratoga, Belmont Park, Churchill Downs, Fair Grounds, Gulfstream Park, Santa Anita Park, and Woodbine Racetrack.
“A lot of people in life don’t get the recognition they deserve. That’s kind of what drives him, to give people their recognition,” said Charlie Duclos, who focuses on the business side of the project with the hope of securing investors and sponsors.
While Harper is black and it is important to him to relate how important a role African-Americans played in racing years ago, that is only part of his mission.
“People may think because I’m black I’m only chasing the black stories. But that’s not the truth,” said Harper, 45. “I want to tell everybody’s story.”
Duclos joined Harper in emphasizing that their mission has sometimes been misrepresented. “To say that his focus is on the black people on the backstretch is an overstatement. Really, that’s not the case,” Duclos said. “He’s a people person and there is no discrimination or separation in his mind.
“He does want to highlight the old-school black folks who were the foundation of the sport. That’s something he’s very, very interested in. But it’s not a color thing. Absolutely not.”
In the early going, Harper admits his subjects were not always in sharp focus and that the camera was sometimes “jiggling.” He has refined his technique. Much of the charm of his work stems from his lack of polish as an interviewer in a world in which so much of what people see is scripted. The conversational tone of his interviews is delightful and refreshing.
Leroy Ross, known as “Big Ross,” is as plain spoken as he can be as he puffs on a fat cigar and tells of a troubled boyhood in which he provided for himself by stealing. He put that behind him when he discovered opportunity on the backstretch.
When asked about the positions he has held in racing, Ross answered, “Rubbing horses, night watchman, and keeping everybody happy.”
Big Ross’ favorite horse was Strike the Gold, the 1991 Kentucky Derby winner. “He was like a little child,” he said fondly.
As to how he adjusted to the seven-day grind of the business, his answer cut to the heart of the matter. “All you got to do is keep thinking you got to eat.”
Another enjoyable Real Players interview available through YouTube is with Roy Seales. He hails from the Virgin Islands and opens by saying, “I’ve been in this game since 9 years old and I made it to 60, so I’ve got a lot to tell you.”
Although he may lack formal training, Harper is an interviewer who knows how to stay out of the way of his subjects. He gives them plenty of room to roam. Seales does exactly that in discussing the importance of a good groom.
“He’s with the horse every day, you understand. Every day he is with the horse,” Seales said. “When you are a real groom and you are doing the right thing for the horse, keeping it happy, keeping it sound, he would follow you through fire because of the bond you and him have.”
Harper’s goal with Real Players is to do everything possible to keep it real. “We want to have a real conversation about love of the game and how you got here,” he said. “If you listen to my videos, it’s not all about horse racing. It’s all about people.”
People who are essential to the industry. People who are accustomed to toiling in anonymity. People who shine when given a few minutes of fame in front of a camera that no longer jiggles.