Swirling around like a tornado in the Suffolk Downs press box, Jessica Paquette neglected to notice there was an actual tornado forming nearby in the Boston area.
“I was so busy that I didn’t even realize there was a tornado,” said Paquette, who worked in public relations and marketing for the racetrack. “I finally turned on the news and said, ‘Holy crap, there’s actually going to be a tornado.’”
The imminent twister meant that Suffolk’s regular race announcer, T.D. Thornton, would not make it to the track in time to call the first race. Despite having never called a horse race before, Paquette, who fell in love with the sport as a girl, was pressed into duty as Thornton’s last-minute replacement.
“I was not prepared, but I was the only one there who was comfortable on a microphone,” said Paquette. “It went great. … It’s a race — just say what’s happening.”
Of that 2014 experience, Jason Beem, a veteran announcer who now calls the races at Colonial and Tampa Bay Downs, recalled, “She called me afterward and said, ‘That was the most fun thing I’ve ever done in my life.’”
After heartbreaking closure, ‘racing or bust’
A low point in Paquette’s life came in the summer of 2019, when the last race at Suffolk Downs — and in the state of Massachusetts — was run. (There’s hope of a revival in the state should a new track gain approval, but “that’s a long way’s away,” said Paquette.) Now 37, Paquette had spent 16 years working at the track and found herself facing, as she put it, “a little bit of an existential crisis.”
“It was heartbreaking in a way I’d never experienced before,” she said. “That racetrack was the love of my life and I’d devoted my entire adult career to it. With horse racing, it’s not just what you do, it’s part of who you are. When I didn’t have a racetrack, I wondered what the future would look like, but it was always racing or bust for me. I’ve never cared about anything like I care about racing.”
Thankfully, Paquette was quickly able to land gigs doing paddock analysis at Colonial Downs in Virginia, Parx Racing in Pennsylvania, and Sam Houston Race Park in Texas, occasionally calling quarter horse, thoroughbred, and steeplechase races. While these experiences helped her become a better announcer, she conceded, “I’m neon green at this point.”
In spite of her lack of experience, when Parx announcer Chris Griffin disclosed that he’d be leaving to call races at Aqueduct and Monmouth, the Philadelphia track tapped Paquette as his replacement. And, starting Tuesday, she’ll step into her groundbreaking role as the first woman to become a major horse track’s permanent race announcer.
The guys who said, ‘Yes you can’
A handful of women have filled in as racetrack announcers before, most notably Angela Hermann, who took over the microphone at Golden Gate Fields near San Francisco for a few weeks in 2016 after Michael Wrona headed south to Santa Anita.
“Angela Hermann gave it a pretty good go for five weeks,” said Paquette. “It’s only recently we’re hearing women do play-by-play and not just sideline reporting. You kind of wonder if you can do this, and if you’re a woman, nobody did it before you. You can kind of talk yourself out of it because it hasn’t really been done.”
But Paquette was tight with a group of accomplished male announcers — among them Beem, Griffin, Thornton, Larry Collmus, and Frank Mirahmadi — who encouraged her to pursue the opportunity that has now come her way.
“These were the guys who said, ‘Yes you can,’” she shared.
“I joked with her recently that I’m more nervous than she is,” said Beem, who worked with Paquette at Colonial Downs. “She probably is my best friend. I take partial credit or blame if this goes wrong, but I believe in her, I believe in her work ethic. As she gets more and more reps there, she’ll do very well. She has a very pleasant voice, which is important as a race caller. She’s the type of person who will not let herself fail.”
“It’s trailblazing stuff,” added Griffin. “I’ve always respected Jessica as a professional and think she’s gonna do just fine. You wear several different hats as an announcer — she has a real opportunity to make this area and big sports city of Philadelphia really love her. I couldn’t be happier for her. I know it’s presenting a challenge for her and she’s ready to go. She’ll be up here with me for a couple of weeks and nudge me aside to get on the mic, and I’m happy to do that.
“It’s great for Parx to bring about this moment and go a different direction than we’ve seen traditionally in the booth. She’s very well known on the East Coast. I think it’s a huge opportunity for her and I think she’s gonna represent Pennsylvania just fine.”
Parx ‘going to feel like home’
Contrary to her impromptu race call at Suffolk Downs back in 2014, Paquette puts a lot of preparation into her craft now that it butters her bread. (She does some public relations work on the side for entities like FanDuel and The Breeders’ Cup.)
“It’s different than handicapping a card for me,” she explained. “I don’t want to go into calling a race with a clear idea of how I think a race will go. As a handicapper, you have it mapped out in your mind, so I don’t study the [Daily Racing Form] as strongly as I would. But I do want to have a basic idea of where these horses, in theory, will be in terms of running style. Then I feel it’s helpful to memorize the silks. I am very fortunate that some of my best friends in the sport are announcers and aren’t shy about sharing tips.”
Some of those friends have delivered some of Paquette’s favorite calls, like when Collmus called the first Breeders’ Cup held after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. As fate would have it, the competition was held at New York’s Belmont Park, where the hall-of-fame horse Tiznow won his second straight Classic.
“‘Tiznow wins it for America’ always warms my cold, black heart,” said Paquette of Collmus’ memorable finish-line line.
While she roots for the sport to return to Massachusetts one day, for now she’s squarely focused on Parx, one of the few tracks in America to host live racing every week of the year.
“In a lot of ways, it’s going to feel like home to me because there are a lot of folks from Suffolk Downs who’ve wound up there,” said Paquette of her new home. “It’s an urban racetrack that runs in the winter on the East Coast, so you have to be tough.”
Photo courtesy of Jessica Paquette