ACACIA Courtney has become popular in recent weeks with South Africa’s locked-down horseplayers betting on Gulfstream Park races in the USA, Thursday through Sunday. Her analysis of the Gulfstream meetings is proving to be a valuable guide. As it happens often, our ‘7 Questions’ today is extended to eight. There is much to learn from this colourful and up-and-coming racing celebrity. (Pic: Alex Zhang)
Acacia (27) is a TV Analyst and Broadcast Journalist in the world of horse racing, covering the biggest events around the United States such as the Triple Crown, Breeders’ Cup and the Pegasus World Cup.
She is the Founder and President of the 501(c)(3) organisation Racing for Home, Inc., which is dedicated to ensuring a second career and forever home for Thoroughbred Ex-Racehorses. She’s is a graduate of Fordham University with a degree in Communications and a minor in Theology. Acacia a classically trained ballerina who has performed in the opening number of the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show.
TT: Tell us about your background prior to horse racing?
I grew up around horses, and started riding at the age of 8. It was always something I loved, but other parts of my life took over for a while. I am a classically trained ballerina, and I studied at the prestigious Joffrey Ballet School and American Ballet Theatre. I thought for a long time that I would become a professional ballerina, and when I decided not to pursue that path, pageantry became another way for me to perform. I won the title of Miss Connecticut 2014, and finished in the top 15 at Miss America.
Pageants opened a lot of doors for me, and in fact helped me enter the world of broadcasting. Later on, I won the title of Miss Connecticut USA – a completely different pageant system – in 2019. Each of those titles was truly an honour to hold.
Although a lot of my energy was focused on dance throughout high school and college, I remained a horse lover and became increasingly invested in the Thoroughbred in particular. At the age of 17, I started the 501(c)(3) non-profit organization Racing for Home, Inc., which is dedicated to retraining and rehoming Thoroughbred Ex-Racehorses.
At the time I knew nothing about horse racing, and started to teach myself by watching replays and analysing the Form. I wanted to better understand for the sake of my organisation, and many people I met on the backside believed I didn’t know what I was talking about. I always enjoy proving them wrong.
2) How did all of this lead to your involvement in horse racing as broadcaster presenter and analyst?
While I was Miss Connecticut in 2014/2015, I put a lot of effort into promoting Racing for Home. On a day where I was visiting local businesses in my state, I did a radio interview and said I was interested in working in racing. Someone heard that, and messaged me on twitter. Through a few exchanges I was connected to Mike Penna of the Horse Racing Radio Network (HRRN).
Mike took a shot on me, and put me on their Kentucky Derby broadcast doing some interviews. American Pharoah won that year, so I’d say it was a good time to get involved! At the end of that year when I graduated college, HRRN hired me full time, and a few months after that I was approached by Gulfstream Park and joined their team as an on-air analyst in May of 2016.
3) Are you permanently employed by Gulfstream Park, analysing races and presenting at this venue only? Did you have a racing mentor and how have you been accepted as the rose among all those seasoned thorns?
While I am largely based at Gulfstream Park, you may also see me some other places! I am an employee of the Stronach Group, the parent company of Gulfstream, and so am able to do quite a bit of work in Maryland as well.
I love going to Laurel Park, and especially covering the Preakness Stakes. Last year I also joined the New York Racing Association (NYRA) in their racing coverage on FOX Sports. I was a paddock reporter for the Saratoga Live shows throughout the summer, and worked as an analyst and host during the Belmont Park meet in the Fall. I’m looking forward to doing the same again this year once New York is back open for racing.
In addition, I’ve worked the last four years as a member of the broadcast team for the Breeders’ Cup World Championships.
One of my greatest mentors in racing is Anthony Stabile, who I worked with on HRRN. We did shows together three times a week, and he taught me a lot of the nuances of racing that I just hadn’t learned due to lack of experience.
I think a big part of learning the game is being able to ask questions, and I was very intimidated when I first got involved in racing.
Anthony always made me feel comfortable to ask, and continues to be a close friend. When I first started a Gulfstream, my co-host Ron Nicoletti really took me under his wing and helped me learn a lot of the specifics about my new home track.
There are of course challenges to being a female in this game, but I would not say being accepted by other analysts (or, at least the ones I’ve worked with) would be one of those.
On top of being a paddock reporter and analyst, I am also one of the main producers of content at Gulfstream Park, and I’m the one that puts together the shows for big events like the Pegasus World Cup, Florida Derby, and Preakness Stakes. I think my work ethic really earned me a lot of respect.
4) You obviously have a natural love and affinity for horses. Was the analysing or tipping side an acquired skill? You are good at that, and not everyone is.
First, thank you for the compliment! I think an advantage I have is my eye for the horse and my experience riding. While I have not galloped horses on the racetrack or ridden in races myself, I understand what it is like to be on the back of a horse, when things are going right and when things are going wrong. I also understand different types of equipment and their uses, injuries, and conformation. I work at many twoyear-old sales, as well, shortlisting for bloodstock agent Dennis O’Neill (brother to trainer Doug O’Neill). It is pretty fun to follow some of these horses from the sales to the races.
Each time a see a horse, I take pretty extensive physical and trip notes on my iPad, so the next time I see that horse run, I have extra information that helps me spot things you can’t find on paper. I’ve improved a ton over the last few years, and I still am! One of the things I love most about racing is that there is always room for improvement.
5) Do you watch a lot of race replays in your preparation for any given race meeting? There is a perception here that you do more homework than others. What are some of your personal most important form aspects?
Absolutely. It think watching replays is key and in fact, is one of the biggest pieces of my handicapping. We also have great resources here with XBTV, which records many of the morning workouts. I watch as many of these as I can, particularly when analysing maidens.
I think pedigree research is also important, especially in maiden races. As mentioned before, I also have notes on each horse I’ve seen before. This is one of the big things I try to contribute to my tips. For instance, if I see a horse first time out and I like him but think he may be better on turf despite the pedigree not really suggesting that, I’ll take note of it. The next time he races and he’s entered on the turf, that horse will be my picks and hopefully at a nice price!
6) Where in the world have you raced and which are your favourite tracks and racing personalities interviewed?
I’ve been lucky to experience some incredible international racetracks like Meydan in Dubai, and Sha Tin and Happy Valley in Hong Kong. I have many still on my bucket list that I’d still like to visit. I’ve been to many racetracks in the US, but I do consider Gulfstream my home track, so it’s right up there for me, and I absolutely love Saratoga.
As far as people I’ve enjoyed interviewing, that’s a pretty long list! In general, I just really love the emotion that you see from people. I had a pretty special interview with the Albaugh Family on their horse Dennis’s Moment. Seeing them get teary-eyed talking about the excitement the horse had brought them was really wonderful. Interviews like that are the ones that really stand out to me.
7) During this lockdown, South African horseplayers have had to focus on US and Australian racing and you are building up a following here. We’re all still battling to win regularly, however, because we are not familiar enough with the fabric of American racing. What is your advice? What should we look for, as we don’t all have access to Detailed form guides like DRF. Are betting moves essential to take note of, for example?
One of the biggest keys to US racing I suggest following is the pace. In general, showing early speed at Gulfstream is a great weapon to have. The track tends to be a bit kinder to early speed types, although it is possible to see a strong closing runner succeed if there’s enough pace in front of him. Envisioning how the race will lay out is often how I start my handicapping process.
In addition, US racing has a lot different racing levels than in other countries. The claiming races not only mean a horse is for “sale,” but also dictates the level of competition. Those are important to pay attention to, as well.
8) We hhave to ask about the future of US and world racing in this troublesome period with lockdowns and prohibited drugs. Your view?
Regarding the lockdown, we have very strict safety protocols in place for those tracks that are still running. Gulfstream is adamant about this and we have taken every step necessary in order to continue conducting racing that is safe for all involved.
Of course we miss the fans, but we’re also very grateful to everyone who has continued to watch and wager at home. With the ability to bet online, we’ve seen tremendous support in that way.
I do think it’s encouraging to see the tracks coming together. The Jockey Club’s actions which led to recent arrests for medication violations are evidence that we’re moving in the right direction.
On my end, I’m proud to work for a company that has been on the forefront of medication reform. The Pegasus World Cup races, on both turf and dirt, were run without Lasix this year (and with great success), and two-year-old races this year at Stronach Group tracks are also being run without Lasix.