Jason Beem's Thursday Column for April 7, 2022
A good Thursday to you all! Such a fun and exciting weekend coming up of racing, and we'll certainly recap some of that in my Monday column.
Last week, I wrote about racing "having fun" and doing comedy within horse racing. So along those lines, I'm happy to welcome in longtime fan and content creator Ray Cotolo.
I've known Ray through Twitter (he's @RayCotolo, clever handle, huh?) for many years. I was shocked to know he's only 22 years old. He's been making racing-related content for years and has also announced races. He's done standup comedy and in more recent times, has been making short films, and he's a fantastic editor.
I personally find Ray's content and comedy quite funny, and so I thought it would be fun to interview someone who is not only in that "young racing fan" demographic that people seem so obsessed with, but someone who has been working as a creative within the racing space and outside of it. So welcome to the wild and wonderful world of Ray!
Jason Beem: How did you first get into horse racing?
Ray Cotolo: We used to watch the Kentucky Derby every year when I was a kid, and funnily enough I hated those days because it meant I had less time on the main TV to play GameCube. Though my mom had a friend who would come over and watch TVG frequently, and one day I decided to look at a race from Golden Gate to see what exactly it all was about. Sure enough, I managed to pick the winner of that race off the form.
But at the same time, I don’t know if that actually happened, or if in my head that’s what I remember because it’s a better story. At this point, it’s what happened. From there I went to my dad to have him show me more about the sport, and in a few months it became a large chunk of my life.
JB: What were some of your favorite memories of racing as a kid?
RC: In 2010, I had the opportunity to go to my first Hambletonian and first Breeders Crown in the same year — that year, the Breeders Crown was at Pocono with all 12 races on the same night for the first time.
That first Hambo is almost a blur in my head because the experience was so different from anything else I had seen in my life, both in the sense of scope and also in a sensory overload kind of way since the crowds were so massive and I might’ve been no taller than five feet. That Breeders Crown we also spent in this concrete dungeon that had minimal heating. I'd say the racing was enough to keep us warm, but I couldn't have a winner to save my life that night.
I remember being in the Pegasus Restaurant in the old grandstand that first Hambo weekend. On the Friday before the Hambo, I really liked this two-year-old in the first race that was driven by Johnny Takter. The horse was like 70-1 or something, and I don’t bet him because I’m 11 so instead I just sat eating some salmon and potatoes while watching Johnny Takter swoop the first-race field and paying $130.
Another fun moment from that 2010 Hambo weekend — it was the first time I met Sam McKee (rest in peace). But he saw that I was in the grandstand at the rail for a race on that Friday night and, as they were going to the gate, I heard him say “starter calls for the Ray Cotolo Pace.” I still have the program page from that race and a printout of the winner’s circle photo with a horse named Semjac Legacy.
That same year — okay, another fun story. I was 11 years old in the press box after Muscle Massive won the Hambletonian. After the race, Jimmy Takter came up to answer questions from the press pool behind this Hambletonian podium, that for some reason had AstroTurf on the bottom of it. But everyone was asking questions, and I hopped in and asked some question, I don't remember what it was, and Jimmy Takter just said through his accent, "Who are you? You are a smart kid. He's a smart kid. That's a really good question." I'm pretty sure he answered my question after that, something about scheduling the horses' starts or something, I don't know. I was 11.
JB: You're a young guy and are pretty prolific about creating content of various kinds. When did you start showing an interest in making comedy/videos/films, etc.?
RC: Comedy was the first real love for me from an early age. With my dad having worked in that business, it was already in my blood, but he was the first person I saw that made comedy almost like my wrestling — I would see the moves he would do that are the punchline equivalent of a suplex or leaping off a ladder, whatever they do in wrestling. So then, at like 10 or 11 years old, I’m watching those George Carlin specials, Demetri Martin, Andy Milonakis. I continued to branch from there, but I always had my eye on it.
Film is a much more recent passion. I have a vivid memory from being younger of trying to watch "Night at the Museum," of all movies, and being unable to just sit and watch it; I had to go play with toys or something. I remember even watching "The Simpsons Movie" in theaters was a struggle for me despite enjoying it. But I think my interest in film really grew more when I started writing, which wasn’t a strong love until I was maybe 16. It’s a different kind of language from just speaking or writing or whatever. And the more I connected with it and learned from it, the more my interest in the medium grew. Plus, the more I could learn about it, the more I could produce my own stuff and not have to wait for somebody to do it for me.
JB: Who would you say are some of your creative influences?
RC: I feel like Jason has a word-count limit because I don’t want to just list a thousand names. I try to learn from everybody I possibly can, even if their name is Ian Abramson. But for posterity’s sake, I think Norm MacDonald’s one of the best standup comics of all time, but by virtue of that I’m also heavily influenced by Bob Hope, who was Norm’s favorite comic.
More contemporary comics like Jerrod Carmichael and Mike Birbiglia are definitely people I look up to and also people like Tig Notaro, Garry Shandling, Patrice O’Neal — going farther back to Andy Kaufman, who was a big influence for me for a while, and even farther to the Marx Brothers and Buster Keaton, etc. See, I’m just listing names, and I haven’t even touched on Mike Nichols and Elaine May, Max Shulman, Neil Simon, etc.
Likewise, I am also influenced heavily by music. Julian Casablancas is one of my favorite musicians today, but because of that, I’m also influenced by Lou Reed, Jim Morrison and all the countless other names that Julian channels. The MGMT boys, Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser, are also strong influences for me and are so strongly influenced by rock and experimental music of the 70s and 80s.
And maybe I can’t fully explain how that music translates to how I make things in racing or like "The Ballad of Lawn Man" or my new movie "I’m Calling Long Distance" (which is out now for free on YouTube!) but I 100% know that their writing and ideas somehow make their way into my stuff, as I am merely a brain capsule; a thought vehicle; a vitamix of ideas.
Movie-wise, I love Paul Thomas Anderson’s works, which, of course, means I’m also influenced by Robert Altman, etc. You get what I’m saying. And most films will offer something for me to learn. The cool thing about making stuff is that it ultimately is this aggregation of yourself and every person you’ve ever met or known. Or maybe that’s also the terrifying thing. I’ll get back to you on this one.
JB: You've done some horse racing-related content of various kinds as well, including comedy. How have you found reception of mixing comedy and racing?
RC: Talk about a niche audience. But I think there are a lot of things that are funny with racing. North American Harness Update (NAHU) — my show that I did for about seven years — was essentially built from a desire to annex my love of comedy and racing. I knew everyone that was in my punter’s shoes thought the way to sell themselves was to be the sharpest handicappers in the shed, so blending my two loves felt like the most natural way to try and make what I was doing stand out. I didn’t see why I couldn’t be a sharp handicapper and also know that, deep down, I have no idea what I’m talking about. So comedy there felt organic, and we built an audience doing that.
Still, it felt like a new idea to deconstruct a lot of that sportscasting professionalism we see in the sport. For a lot of the show’s run, I felt anxious about whether I was making something that the racing community truly liked, or if I was alienating myself from the sport just for being myself.
That said, I’m proud of everything we did on that show, of the few video pieces I got to make as the main head putting that whole machine together. Still, I couldn’t imagine doing a show like that without Mike Pribozie and Rod Allums Jr. They brought their own characters and skills that made it much easier to power through a six-hour live show, even if I was in the middle of a panic attack, which is a true story.
I think that something like NAHU today would do well, and I even think of like Barry Spears and Charles Simon with their podcast, the Degen Nation guys and whatever they do… the online community of racing is so much more vibrant and interpersonal than it was when we were taking that show on the road. It's a wonderful thing to see, as in a way that’s what I always wanted to foster with NAHU; just a communal feeling of “look, we all like to gamble. And also, let’s admit, the sport we like is a little weird! There’s nothing wrong with that, but let’s just have fun.” Hell, that thing Gabe and Pete did there for a month blew up.
All in all, I definitely think the racing community is more open to that type of content than it might’ve been five, 10 years ago. It’s a battle versus the old guard, truly. Same time, I have had offers to try and put together racing-comedy content but nothing ever took off, so it’s still tough to say whether the industry is welcoming of it, but surely the bettors are and are as colorful online finally as they’ve always been in the grandstand, for better or worse.
JB: You also use some newer mediums, like Twitch, for example. Do you think there's room for horse racing to grow on channels such as that?
RC: Depending on the type of content, it certainly seems like the modern digital racing audience is receptive to platforms like Twitch. I streamed the Cheltenham Festival, handicapped every race with my buddy Bill over in England, provided my own commentary alongside the races, was betting and constructing my tickets live, and had a total of a thousand views from that week alone.
Horseplayers nowadays really want to connect with other horseplayers, and so it makes sense if they’d want to turn out to an interactive platform like Twitch and share their bets, their thoughts on races, etc. In a way, it’s a chance to digitally build your own grandstand of horseplayers who could be anywhere in the world. But at the same time, any horseplayer knows that they’re coming more to see and share in the race versus actually listen to what another horseplayer has to say, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. There’s just more comedy laying somewhere in there.
JB: As a fan and not a creator, what is some racing-related content you'd like to see more of?
RC: I want to see more personality out of the sport. Like the typical stories we see of “This horse has come a long way to get here” or “This trainer comes from humble beginnings” are all fine and dandy, but damn it, I have seen them 500,000 times. I want to see what these jockeys or drivers or trainers are like on the track, off the track. They are ambassadors to our sport, and they do live absurdly busy schedules. But they are not all racing people 24/7.
Sure, in spirit they are because they “eat, drink, breathe it”, but I want to see who these people are by putting them in situations that might not be racing-related. Can Flavien Prat grill a particularly good kebab? If you sent Reylu Gutierrez down the cereal aisle, there has to be a cereal that he would run to put in his cart and one that he would grab and throw in the garbage (and that cereal would be Cookie Crisp). How good is Todd Pletcher at tennis really? We have living, breathing people who participate in this game. Seeing the athlete is great, but — if they want to — show me who the person is in whatever way possible.
JB: What are some areas of content creation you hope to focus on or work on in the next year? Anything racing related?
RC: Well, I already knocked one of them out by making a feature film this year, which I should mention is available for streaming on YouTube. It’s called "I’m Calling Long Distance," in case I didn’t mention it. (I know I did)
From there, my focus is on trying to make a tighter, more engrossing feature-length film at some point either in the next year or next few. Maybe shop that to some festivals, all depending. I have tons of exciting projects either in development, waiting to be edited or still yet to emerge from my hard and thick skull, so it’s hopefully going to be a loaded year.
I do hope to have the opportunity to branch the more filmmaking-type style I’ve been playing with to horse racing. It's ultimately just a matter of logistics. I’ve had ideas for certain larger-scale projects that I’m constantly tinkering with and will maybe pitch somewhere or go forward with myself some time in the future. But I think there’s a lot of poetry and pathos to our sport and in the people who work in our sport that I would enjoy digging for and being able to capture. As well as the funny bits.
JB: You've done some racecalling as well. What have been some of your experiences calling races? Is that something you'd like to pursue more of?
RC: Racecalling may have been my favorite thing I did on NAHU — and I did a lot of weird, fun stuff on that show. It’s such an interesting art form to me in part because you’re firstly locked into a moment, which is already a super zen state to occupy, but you’re also in that moment writing music.
Not necessarily a melody, but you’re a harmony to the action that’s on the track, and it’s always been a fun challenge to be able to encapsulate those moments in words. You’re constrained to under two minutes to tell a full story, three acts. There's a rhythm you have to hit. It’s an art when done well, and I certainly do hope to have more calling opportunities in the future. Of all the positions I’ve had an opportunity to work in racing, it’s by far been one of my favorites.
JB: What are the primary tracks/circuits you like to play?
RC: I would like to apologize to the takeout bros for saying this, but I absolutely love betting U.K. horse racing. I stumbled into it last summer, and I know I have fallen in love with it because I have had so many beats that should make me quit the game altogether, but I still open the Racing Post.
That also could be a sign of a gambling problem, but I do keep my finances in check and not credit. I particularly love the uphill tracks — Newmarket, Epsom, Salisbury, Pontefract, etc. The different track configurations along with their weighting and classification system make it such a fun product to follow and a rewarding one to master.
Most of my handle these days goes on U.K. racing, and I wish I could open an account with a bookie because they offer much better rewards than these ADWs do (sorry but I can’t argue with that when they give me eight place spots in a 20-horse field versus the tote-standard three places among other rebates). Hong Kong is cool too, but it feels ironic to mention them after a long paragraph about the British.
Otherwise, I’ll follow The Meadowlands and Mohawk as the weather gets warmer because it’s much easier for me to gauge horse’s abilities come springtime versus the winter months. On the American Thoroughbred side, I’ll look at Del Mar or Keeneland, but otherwise I try to stick to betting just turf racing from anywhere. Also, shoutout to perhaps the greatest racetrack still running today: Penn National Race Course. Truly no other track like it, for better or worse.
JB: Thanks Ray! Ray's a humble guy so he would never mention that he has a feature-length film on YouTube called "I'm Calling Long Distance."