Trailblazer Jessica Paquette Set to Debut as Parx Announcer

Jessica Paquette

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Jessica Paquette never imagined that she would become the full-time announcer at a major racetrack. Neither did anyone else. The job, for as long as the sport has been around, has been a profession that largely excluded women. But when the field loads into the gate at Parx Racing for Tuesday's first race, Paquette will be high atop the grandstand, nervous but excited, and ready to make history.

“The best thing we can all hope for in this sport is to leave the game a little bit better than it was when we found it,” she said. “I hope to set a good example and make the road easier for the generation coming behind us. If I can inspire one little girl who thinks this is possible for her and then comes and does it better than me then I'd be thrilled.”

Examples of females calling races are few and far between. Angela Hermann briefly held the job at Golden Gate Fields in 2016 after Michael Wrona left but was eventually replaced by Matt Dinerman. In the early sixties, Ann Elliott served as the announcer at Jefferson Downs in New Orleans for about four years. Nearly sixty years after Elliott's time at Jefferson, no other female had been hired as the full-time announcer at a U.S. track.

Paquette got into this by accident. In 2014, she was working in the marketing and publicity departments at Suffolk Down when regular announcer and TDN contributor T.D. Thornton couldn't get to the track because he was delayed by, of all things, a tornado. She was called upon to fill in. Thornton eventually made it to the track and Paquette went back to her other duties, which included serving as the track's simulcast host and paddock analyst.

She remained at Suffolk until 2019 when the track closed its doors for good. She felt lost.

“When Suffolk closed it was a huge existential crisis for me,” Paquette said. “Working in racing isn't just something I do, it is who I am. I didn't know what the future was going to look like.”

Paquette didn't mind traveling and would catch on as the simulcast analyst at Colonial Downs and Sam Houston.  At Sam Houston last summer, management allowed her to call some of the Quarter-Horse races. She estimates that she has called 50 races total.

“When I called the Quarter Horses at Sam Houston this past summer I had such a good time,” she said. “By the third day I started to feel less like I was filling in and more like it was something I really wanted to do. I was open to trying to find an announcing position somewhere. When it turned out that Chris was moving on my name came up and I said 'Why not? Let's talk.'”

She had the backing of Griffin, who has also been hired as the announcer at Monmouth Park.

“She knows what this means and it means a lot to many people,” Griffin said. “I'm looking forward to her getting into the booth and excited for her to make her debut Tuesday. We have a tremendous team at Parx and she will fit right in. It's great to see. It's time for some new voices in this sport. She is a professional through and through and can handle this. I'm very excited that she is getting this chance and like everyone else I am looking forward to it.”

Paquette said Griffin is among a group of male announcers who have taken her under their wing and encouraged her to seek an announcing job.

“Some of my closest friends in the industry are announcers,” she said. “Jason Beem is one of my best friends. Chris Griffin and I have become very close. They both were really encouraging. Of course, coming up through Suffolk Downs we have Larry Collmus and T.D. Thornton and they set the bar high. Frank Mirahmadi has been extremely encouraging and offered such helpful criticism since I got my feet wet with the Quarter Horses.”

Having had relatively little experience as an announcer, Paquette said she has been preparing by practicing calling races over television.

“It's not the same when it's not real because you don't get that stomach-throbbing sense of brief terror as the gates are about to open,” she said. “That's something you can't recreate.”

Will that “sense of brief terror” go away on Tuesday?

“I hope it doesn't because it's all about the excitement and the adrenaline involved with being part of the sport we love,” she said. “My standard anxiety level is probably a 7 ½ on a scale of 1 to 10. So I'm going to be excited and nervous. But that's a good thing.”

She looks back to that final day at Suffolk Downs and says she watched the last race ever run at the East Boston track from the roof and was crying. Never did she imagine what was to come.

“I've been very fortunate that horses and horse racing have brought me to places I never thought possible in life,” Paquette said. “For me this at this point in my career, I've had lot of fun in the paddock, talking about handicapping and racing. But this, the announcing job, is an opportunity do something where I get to be the only one. It's a real honor.”

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