At this year’s Breeders’ Cup World Championships, I saw Jessica Paquette everywhere I went. Sprinting from task to task, this handicapper, off-track Thoroughbred advocate, and broadcaster was a constant whirl at Keeneland, popping up in the paddock and on my social media feeds nearly simultaneously. It is indicative of who she is in real life: an unstoppable force, one not afraid to take on challenges from the Chicago Marathon a year after breaking her back to her newest job as full-time track announcer at Parx Racing in Bensalem, Pa.
As she succeeds Chris Griffin at the microphone, this self-styled “weird horse girl” is living another one of her dreams and inspiring the next generation to pursue theirs as well.
The Girl on the Rail
From her earliest encounter with a horse at age 6, Paquette has made these animals her life. She had her share of unexcused absences during her school days as she bypassed a day’s learning in the classroom for one on the rail. After her earliest exposure to racing at New England tracks like Rockingham Park and Suffolk Downs, the aspiring equestrienne found the 1999 Breeders’ Cup at Gulfstream Park another one of those seminal experiences which made her even more determined to find her place in the sport. But the road to the announcer’s booth was not a straight one. Rather, her first opportunity to call a race came purely by accident.
A tornado in the Boston area in 2014 delayed announcer T.D. Thornton’s arrival at Suffolk, so Paquette took the mike in a pinch. As the track’s senior director of communications (and later vice president of marketing), she was a common sight for racing fans, giving out her picks in the paddock while also promoting the sport she loves. Calling a race, though, was a different story, yet Paquette was certain she was up to the task.
“I come from a place of yes. I welcome every new challenge,” she says. “When I called that one off race at Suffolk Downs in 2014, the adrenaline rush was like nothing else.”
That impromptu turn in the booth at Suffolk planted a seed for this woman of many talents. She continued in her role at her beloved racetrack and then added working for the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation after Suffolk closed in 2019. Since then, Paquette has worn a variety of hats, including proud owner of OTTBs What a Trippi and Puget Sound, paddock analyst at Sam Houston in Texas and Colonial Downs in Virginia, and jill-of-all-trades within the sport of horse racing.
That talent for doing all the things brought her this dream job she begins this week at Parx.
The Voice in the Booth
In her time at both Sam Houston and Colonial, Paquette was able to pick up where she left off on that crazy day at Suffolk and call more races, including Quarter-Horse and steeplechase contests. With friends like Tampa Bay Downs and Colonial Downs race caller Jason Beem and influences like Larry Collmus and T.D. Thornton, it is no wonder that Paquette has been able to transition from paddock analyst to race caller with aplomb.
Her biggest lesson from those two former Suffolk announcers? “I learned to take what you do very seriously but also to not take yourself too seriously,” she shares as she counted down toward her first days at the Parx helm. “I love the challenge and I love getting to be a part of the day-to-day action of a racetrack.”
Following in the footsteps of women like Ann Elliott and Angie Hermann, Paquette is poised to do something that she herself did not consider doing until those chances to fill in at the mike. She credits those who came before her as paving the way for this opportunity: “When I was growing up, it never occurred to me to even think about being a track announcer because I had never seen it done. No one gets where they are by themselves – my role in racing to this point has been possible because of so many women that broke down barriers before me in broadcasting.”
With at least 50 races under her belt already, the new Parx announcer has started honing her routine for each day’s work. To prepare, she colors her program and studies each day’s races, while also remembering “to try to take a little time to get myself centered to take a moment to appreciate how genuinely cool this is.”
“The real challenge is to go fast enough to keep up with the action while still keeping your brain quiet enough that you are making clear, concise choices in what you say so you paint a picture for folks listening in,” Paquette says of the task ahead. “To me, it is a lot like riding a show jumper round – the goal is the go fast but also make good choices.
“Ideally, you have to stay ahead of the action, and you should be trying to see what is unfolding as it unfolds, not catching up after it already happened. It all goes very, very fast.”
As she picks up where departing announcer Chris Griffin leaves off, will Paquette take up his mantle of TikTok star and continue that social media tradition?
“I can’t dance,” Paquette laughs. “Seriously, though – Chris set the bar extremely high both as an announcer and as a tireless, enthusiastic promoter of our sport. I hope to continue to do justice to the work he has done here.”
With the joy she has brought to her many jobs over nearly two decades, Parx’s newest voice is sure to make her time in the booth as merry and as meaningful as those youthful days on the rail at Rockingham.
The Heart of a Trailblazer
In this new role as currently the only woman calling races full-time at a major American racetrack, Paquette brings a resilience indicative of someone who has devoted her life to horses and to the sport and one who has overcome her share of challenges along the way. After Suffolk closed in 2019, she persisted and found new places to follow her passion and to ply her trade. After fracturing her L4 vertebra in a fall a year ago, this trailblazer clawed her way back into long-distance running, completing the Chicago Marathon last month.
At every turn she has shown herself to be much like the pioneers who have made the careers of other women in racing possible, possessing the tenacity necessary to persevere.
“[This new job] is a huge honor that I do not take lightly,” Paquette says. “At the end of the day, I am just a weird horse girl who is extremely lucky to have made such an amazing life and career thanks to these incredible animals. My role in the sport is to promote it, to help make it approachable for new fans and, ultimately, to hopefully leave it slightly better than it was when I started if I can.”