USTA’s Wendy Ross put together the Oliveira vs. Tetrick match race in seven days
by Gordon Waterstone
United Fighting Championship (UFC) lightweight champ Charles Oliveira’s next fight will likely come against Dustin Poirier, who last defeated Conor McGregor on July 10 in Las Vegas, and if that battle comes to fruition, the native Brazilian will bring with him 10 consecutive victories: nine UFC matches and an exhibition match harness race in which he defeated Hall of Fame driver Tim Tetrick. In the span of a week, USTA social media content manager Wendy Ross was able to put the Oliveira vs. Tetrick match race together, which took place on the evening of Tuesday, July 13, at MGM Yonkers Raceway.
Considering that until a few months ago, Ross had never even heard of Oliveira, the event turned into a crowning achievement for all involved, especially for the UFC fighter, who said winning the race was “like a dream come true.”
Ross said she first learned of Oliveira’s involvement in harness racing in early May when the UFC produced a video showing the fighter training his stable of Standardbreds in Brazil. That ultimately led to Ross doing a Zoom call interview with Oliveira about his harness racing background.
“I first heard of him about two months ago when a video went around before his last fight against Michael Chandler (on May 15) that the UFC did of him with his horses,” said Ross. “I think we all shared it and thought it was cool, and I was probably as interested as anybody else was, but I really didn’t know who he was.”
Then Ross received an email from Blue Chip Farm’s Nahuel Agosti.
“They knew Charles Oliveira, so we did a Zoom call with Charles from Brazil,” she said.
One obstacle that had to be overcome was that Ross did not speak Portuguese, the native language of Brazil, and Oliveira did not speak English. So she enlisted blacksmith Eduardo Bianchi, a native Brazilian who is a friend of Oliveira’s, to handle the translation.
“It was a little intimidating at first,” said Ross. “Normally, I speak fast, but going in, Eduardo—who was nervous about the interview—asked me to speak a little slower. If you watch the video, it’s a little bit out of my style. I did my best to slow it down and then Rich (USTA multimedia director Rich Johnston) put it together so well with Eduardo’s voice over Charles and showing the (video) roll.”
Ross, along with her USTA peers Johnston and photographer Mark Hall, spent the Fourth of July Hall of Fame weekend in New York, with their first stop being at Blue Chip Farms Friday morning (July 2) before heading to Yonkers Raceway for that night’s Yonkers Trot and Messenger Stakes.
“Mark and I went to Blue Chip and at 8:30 that morning Nahuel told me they got the best news, that Charles got his flight changed and was coming to New York for three days, from July 12 to 15,” said Ross. “The first call I made was to USTA Chief Operating Officer TC Lane and asked him, ‘What do we have to do (to have a match race) and will it work?’ TC said it was an exhibition and Oliveira didn’t have to be licensed.
“Once I made the call to TC, it was then ‘Where can I do it?’ Charles was in New York, Yonkers races Tuesday night, and I talked to Alex (Yonkers’ director of racing Alex Dadoyan) that night in the winner’s circle and he gave me the OK the next day.”
Ross already knew Tetrick would agree to the contest.
“On the Zoom call I made reference to a race against Tim, Dexter (Dunn) or Brian (Sears), and once it came out, Timmy messaged me and said that if it ever happened, he was in,” she said.
Ross believed having the USTA team up with Tetrick Racing would be a win-win situation.
“I chose Timmy because he is the ambassador and champion of harness racing,” said Ross. “He and his wife, Ashley, have built their Tetrick Racing brand up so much I knew it would be the best way to get the most engagement and biggest reach I could.”
Ross also had to find two horses for the race. Trainers Ron Burke and Scott Di Domenico stepped up to the plate without hesitation.
“I knew I could get the horses with no problem, and the ball rolled from there,” said Ross. “I wanted (horses) that were safe and reliable, and the two guys were so cool to help us with whatever we needed.”
A graphic was produced to promote the race, which was shown live on all the advance wagering platforms and the Tetrick Racing Facebook page, and available immediately afterward on Yonkers’ website and Facebook page.
Oliveira was so anxious about the match race, he arrived at Yonkers about 3 o’clock in the afternoon. It was there he was fitted with specially made colors created by Irv & Vic Sportswear, which were produced in just those few days. Driver George Brennan also pitched in and bought Oliveira boots and gloves.
Ross admitted she was still slightly bewildered by the fact that despite online coverage of Oliveira’s involvement in harness racing, he was still unfamiliar to many fans.
“When we set up the match race, people still said, ‘Who is this guy?’ He’s the lightweight champ and we had to put that message out there,” she said, adding, “Also . . . people underestimated Charles’ ability. I was confident because I had watched him and talked with him, so I knew he’d be good. He definitely had enough Standardbred horse experience. I think a lot of people were wondering, ‘Did the guy ever sit behind a horse?’ I think you got to see how experienced he was when that happened.”
An unexpected development in the race happened at the half. Tetrick had taken the early lead with the Di Domenico-trained Sumthinboutim, but at the :56.2 half the pacer took a bad step and the driver moved to his right in case the pacer went totally offstride.
At that point, Oliveira steered the Burke-trained Provocativeprincen up the inside and to the lead. Sumthinboutim settled back on gait and in the two hole, but despite urging from Tetrick down the stretch, came up a neck shy of catching Oliveira, who was obviously elated with the 1:56 victory.
“(Oliveira) said he was more excited to come to this race than some of his fights and it was a dream come true for him,” said Ross. “He’s a genuinely good person and is so nice. He doesn’t speak a pound of English, so there is some disconnect there, but he was really, really cool to be around.”
Ross said the match race received coverage on the 11 o’clock news that night on New York City’s ABC affiliate, and that even more coverage is expected when Oliveira fights next, likely against Poirier.
“The UFC flew a four-man crew out from California to make a video that will come out before his next fight,” said Ross. “ABC came out and we got 25 seconds there. I had people messaging me from Europe and Australia, so the fact that we got that much reach, I felt we did our job.”
When he wasn’t in the sulky, Oliveira spent his day at Yonkers posing for photos with anybody who asked.
“I said I wanted to wake up the next day and feel that we reached everybody we possibly could, and I feel like we did that, and much more,” said Ross. “In less than a week’s time, we did all we could. I’m glad the USTA got to be the lead on it. MGM stepped up, Yonkers stepped up, Tetrick Racing stepped up. Jason Turner made the graphics and the UFC thought it was cool. We showed we could do it. I’m getting a ton of credit, but Rich (Johnston) and Mark (Hall) also did so much. This was a team effort.” HB
Gordon Waterstone is a USTA editorial specialist. To comment on this story, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.