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First Woman Thoroughbred Announcer Calls Races at Parx Racing

Jessica Paquette fell in love with horses when she was a little girl.

“I would have teachers tell me I needed to broaden my horizons because every project I did was about horses. Every book report I did was about horses. Everything was about horses,” she said.

Paquette remains passionate about horses, an enthusiasm that is evident when she is at the microphone. The 37-year-old is the track announcer at Parx Racing in Bensalem. She is the first and only woman in North America to call horse races on a regular basis. She also serves as the track’s cable TV host and on-air handicapper and is involved in its social media efforts.

Paquette has done it all at various facilities over her two decades in the racing industry. She has worked in marketing and public relations as an analyst, handicapper, and director of racing operations. She was also a consultant on integrity and safety issues. she is director of communications and annual fund for the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation.

She called her first race at Suffolk Downs in her native Massachusetts in 2014 when the regular announcer was delayed getting to the track. Later, she called some quarter horse races in Texas on a fill-in basis.

Jessica Paquette with racehorse Ridin’ with Biden

“The more I did it, the more fun it became,” she said.

She was familiar with Parx after assisting with the track’s coverage of the Pennsylvania Derby in 2020 and 2021. When track announcer Chris Griffin took a job at Monmouth Park in New Jersey last fall, Paquette replaced him. She made her Parx debut on November 15.

She makes the trip from Massachusetts, where she lives, each Sunday night in advance of her three-day work week in Bensalem. The track typically runs races on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays, save for special occasions such as the days of the Triple Crown races, the Pennsylvania Derby, and Father’s Day.

Paquette’s task is daunting.

There are 11 races on each day’s card. She must memorize the numbers and colors of the silks of each horse in each race and then forget them instantly the moment the race concludes and begin preparing for the next one. It is the hardest task there is in the realm of sports broadcasting and public address work.

The night before each card, she will create a replica of the next day’s program and add the colors of each horse’s silks to the chart for each race.

“I color the silks because I’m fundamentally an anxious person,” Paquette said, “and I like to come as prepared and with as much homework done as I can before the day of racing.”

When talking about her job requirements, Paquette, who has a journalism degree, thinks back to her days as a student.

“I was very good at memorizing and then promptly forgetting,” she said. “I would cram for a test, do well on the test, and then forget absolutely everything. That has been just a natural skill of mine.

“But, I really liken it to a muscle. Certainly, memorization was really hard for me the first couple of weeks. And the more I do it, I feel like the stronger it gets. It’s a muscle that needs to be exercised and flexed. And you memorize it, you absorb it, you associate the colors of the silks.

“And occasionally some stick. There will be some horses That I will probably always be able to tell you so and so’s silks look like this, and then there are some that the second they cross the finish line, he’s gone. Until I have to speak of them again.”

Paquette strives to strike a balance between providing basic necessary information, including each horse’s position in the field, and adding anecdotes to her presentation.

“As I continue to develop my craft, I am trying to stick to the basics as much as possible,” she said. “I’ve gotten a lot of great advice from some very good announcers, and one that stuck with me was, ‘Don’t be cute until you’re good.’

“The better I get and the stronger and more confident, then I can start trying to be a little clever and a little more colorful. But for now, I’m focusing on getting them around, having the correct horse in the right place, and giving the most accurate information possible.”

The ability to keep track of horses during a race is an acquired talent. Paquette’s mentors in the business include, among others, Larry Collmus, the voice of the Triple Crown and Breeders Cup races for NBC, Griffin, and T.J. Thornton, who worked in various roles at Suffolk Downs and officiated at Paquette’s wedding.

“(Thornton) was the one I called my first week when I said, ‘Oh my God, what have I done?’” Paquette recalls. “He’s been a great sounding board.”

Paquette’s first weeks at Parx had a learning curve. Inevitably, she has attracted detractors whose criticisms have ranged from humorous to profane and vulgar.

“Imagine having your first day of a job having thousands of people watching you and telling you every mistake that you made,” she said. “How you’re the worst person to ever do this job and getting many opinions, not all of the kind or constructive on the job that you’re doing. It’s been certainly challenging.”

But Paquette understands her role in the history of thoroughbred racing and as a role model for women following behind her.

“The first one through the wall gets the arrows, right?” she said. “So, I’m hoping the path is a little easier for a woman coming behind me to do this.

“I think it’s a rare honor and an opportunity to make the sport or whatever profession you’ve dedicated your life to better for what comes (after you). That’s the best legacy you could ever hope to leave, right? Leave it just a little bit better than it was when you were there.”

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Showing Appreciation for Workers at Parx Racing

If you have ever been to the racetrack or watched the Kentucky Derby on TV, you probably never thought about the hundreds of behind-the-scenes workers who make the event happen.

On Wednesday, the Pennsylvania Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association and Pennsylvania Horse Racing Association held their first annual Pennsylvania Horse Racing Caregivers Appreciation Day at Parx Racing in Bensalem.

The workers—grooms, hot walkers, exercise riders—were treated to lunch in their community clubhouse, an area with seating, a cafeteria, pool tables, and a laundry. About 200 workers live in dormitories on the backside of the racecourse property. Another 100 commute, said Jeffrey Matty Jr., PTHA executive director.

He noted the workers start early in the morning, taking care of the 1,300 or so horses in all kinds of weather.

 

Groom Jonathan Diaz and trainer Daniel Velazquez

“Horses don’t understand what a holiday or a weekend is. They still need to eat, be provided fresh water, get their exercise, and be groomed,” Matty explained. “These men and women are out here daily making sure the horses properly care for and nurtured.  We appreciate all they do, and this is our small way of acknowledging their significant contributions to horse racing and, by extension, the state’s overall agricultural industry.”

The workers also receive the services of an onsite chaplain.

The Rev. Rick Bunker, a “very ecumenical” American Baptist, offers prayers, counseling and leads 12-step programs.

Groom Sean Fittipaldi said, “I think it’s great that people here recognize our hard work and dedication. They rely on me to be here every day and every evening.”

Trainer Kate Demasi and Fittipaldi took reporters on a tour of their Parx barn. Fittipaldi takes care of eight horses. Demasi trains 35 horses at Parx and another dozen at Penn National Race Track in Harrisburg.

Demasi started as a groomer and worked her way up to trainer. She said at first there were not many women in those jobs, but more women are at the track now. Parx recently debuted the first woman announcer, Jessica Paquette.

Both say they love their work and could not imagine being cooped up in an office.

Demasi grew up on a farm in Maryland and got her start with horses there before moving to Pennsylvania.

 

Groom George Diaz with Love Channel

 

“We think of ourselves as a big family,” at Parx she said. “You see everybody at their best and worst.”

“We have all our mares in Pennsylvania,” said Demasi with Pewter Stable. There are state incentives for Pennsylvania breeders paid for through slot machine revenue.

The purse for a given race is typically divided with 60 percent going to the winner, 20 percent going to second place, 10 percent going to third place, fourth place receiving 5 percent, and fifth place receiving 2.5 percent, according to Pete Peterson, a PTHA spokesman. Any horse that finishes sixth or worse receives splits of the remainder.

The breeder of a registered Pennsylvania bred receives an award whenever that horse finishes first, second or third in any pari-mutuel race in the state. For Pennsylvania-breds sired by registered Pennsylvania stallions, the state breeder award amounts to 50 percent for maiden races (which are limited to horses that have not previously won a race) and 40 percent in all other races of the purse earned. For those sired by out-of-state stallions, the award (non-Pennsylvania-sired breeder award) is 25 percent (maiden races) and 20 percent (all other races), he said.

“It pays to breed them in Pennsylvania,” said Demasi. “Breeding is not a cheap thing to do. You’ve got three years into a horse before he runs. You’ve got the whole gestation year and then two years to grow up,” Demasi said. That is “three years of putting money through the Pennsylvania industry.” There are different caretakers on the farms, veterinarians, and hay and grain producers. “This is one piece of a puzzle, the piece that can actually make money.”

One of her horses, Winning Time, recently won the Pennsylvania Nursery Stakes, a race for 2-year-olds.

Demasi is on the PATHA board and a member of its Hall of Fame, as well as chair of its Hall of Fame, said Matty.

Another Parx trainer, Daniel Velazquez, said, “I train racehorses for a living, and I think that’s really cool. It’s a hard business to be in but it’s really rewarding when a horse wins and you see him cross the wife.”

One of his horses, Brooklyn Strong, ran in the 2021 Kentucky Derby.

“It’s the greatest accomplishment as a trainer,” said Matty. Everyone at Parx was rooting for the horse, he said.

Velazquez has a trick. He bribes his horses with mint candy.

“They’ll sell their soul for mints,” he said.

Velazquez got his start as a jockey. He rode for five years, and his dad also trained horses at Parx for 35 years.

One of his grooms, Jonathan Diaz, works with the racehorses day in and day out.

“I come here at 4 o’clock in the morning,” said Diaz. “I come here every day. It’s a lot of hard work, but it’s rewarding.” His dad also worked at the racetrack.

“My dad, when I was 13, told me to get my butt to work,” he said.

Demasi said, “There’s no difference from zookeepers. Anywhere you have animals, you have to have someone there. Sometimes a horse might not seem like himself.”

Fittipaldi said, “You’ve got to read them.”

When horses can no longer race, PTHA offers Turning for Home, a nonprofit program to retrain and rehabilitate them and place them with new owners.

Danielle Montgomery, who runs the program at Parx, said horses race an average of five years and some as long as 10 years, but they live for about 30 years.

“We care about the horses,” said Demasi. Thoroughbreds make excellent jumpers, dressage horses, pleasure-riding mounts, and polo ponies she said.

Parx offers horseracing all year long. It is slated to have 151 race days in 2023.

At the luncheon, the caregivers received a winter hat and hooded sweatshirt from the Pennsylvania Horse Racing Association and the PTHA.

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