Jessica Paquette has broken down both literal and figurative doors in her journey to not only become the first-ever female announcer at Parx Racing’s Pennsylvania Derby, but the world’s first woman to announce a $1 million horse race.
Growing up in Massachusetts, Paquette was always “horse-crazy,” but due to her family not having the financial means to get her one of her own, she turned to the next best thing: watching horse racing.
Eventually, she started to envision a career at the track, but certainly not as an announcer.
“It seemed beyond my wildest dreams. It wasn’t even something that occurred to me was a job for a woman because you want to be what you can see, and there were no women doing this,” she said. “This sounds a little silly and a little sexist honestly, but I didn’t think that women could be announcers because I didn’t see anyone doing it.”
Paquette saw women as sideline reporters and handicappers, which is what she did for some time.
However, that began to change in 2014 during her time at Suffolk Downs in Boston, Massachusetts. When the regular announcer got stuck in traffic due to a tornado and wasn’t able to call the first race, Paquette was asked to step in because, despite the weather, the event was still moving forward. She didn’t hesitate to say, “Yes.”
“I had to break into the announcer’s booth because he had the only key,” she said with a laugh. “So I literally had to break the door down, which is probably a metaphor now that you think about it.”
Stepping into the announcer’s booth was the greatest thrill for Paquette, but she didn’t consider it more than a one-off, bucket list type of experience.
But in summer 2020, she was asked to announce yet again, this time for the Quarter Horses event at Sam Houston Race Park in Houston, Texas. Once again, she happily obliged, but didn’t think much of it.
It wasn’t until 2021, when she spent another weekend calling the Quarter Horses event, that Paquette wondered if she could actually become an announcer.
“I kind of put it out into the universe that, by the time I was 40, I wanted to try being a track announcer,” she said. “Why not?”
In 2021 and 2022, Parx Racing brought Paquette in as a guest paddock personality for Pennsylvania Derby Day, with a strong working relationship forming between her and the Parx crew. When the track’s full-time announcer moved on at the end of 2022, Parx was willing to take a chance on Paquette, despite her minimal experience.
Now, serving as the voice of Parx Racing is her full-time gig.
She has a hectic schedule, with an average of 10 races taking place Monday through Wednesday. Paquette, who still resides in Massachusetts, drives down every Sunday and back every Wednesday night, though she hopes to relocate to the Philadelphia area in the near future (she has quite a few hooves and paws at home that she needs to figure out how to bring with her). She also handicaps the races and studies them in advance, and even has her own system of shading in the jockeys’ colors on her sheet to make things easier.
“It’s a weird thing when people ask what I do,” she said. “I say, ‘I color and I yell.’”
Last month, Paquette announced Parx Racing’s Pennsylvania Derby, becoming the first woman to ever call a Grade 1, $1 million race. The raininess of the day — and mud-covered horses — certainly made her job difficult, but she’s thrilled to have such an accomplishment under her belt.
“To have even the tiniest bit of history in the sport that you’ve devoted 20 years of your life to is really a huge honor,” she said.
Paquette hopes that other “horse-crazy” young girls can look at what she’s done and be inspired to break down more doors in the male-centric world of sports. According to her, the demographics have been shifting in recent years, with more women landing hands-on roles beyond sideline reporting.
“That’s the goal. That will be at the end of the day what makes this all worth it, if in 10 years, 15 years, there are young women who can be themselves in this role and start earlier than I did and kind of come into it more prepared and ready and wanting this in an entirely different way,” she said. “Don’t take no for an answer. Your dreams are never too big. And all you really have to do is just keep showing up, even on the days it’s hard, even on the days you question why you’re doing it. Just keep showing up. And if there’s not a seat for you at the table, bring your own seat.”
Samantha Bambino can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org