By Francis LaBelle
Since she accepted the position of Director of Communications and Annual Fund for the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation in March, Jessica Paquette has brought passion and energy to the world’s oldest and largest Thoroughbred racehorse sanctuary organization. She has spearheaded appeals, upgraded the TRF’s social media presence and aided in planning upcoming summer TRF events, all from her home in Rowley, Massachusetts.
“[I’m a] Jess of all trades,” she says. “I am also working on enhancing the TRF’s relationship with the horse racing industry.”
Just imagine what will happen when she finally comes to visit the TRF home office in Saratoga Springs, New York.
That visit is temporarily on hold, however, as Jessica has taken to the road to not only pursue her career as a television racing analyst, handicapper and track announcer but to educate new audiences about the TRF and the importance of Thoroughbred aftercare.
“All of this gives me a great platform to show how much aftercare matters,” she said.
Jessica, a 36-year-old native of Lowell, Massachusetts, became the first woman to call a horse race in Texas, when she took to the announcer’s booth on Thursday, June 3 to call the first card of the weekend’s quarter horse races at Sam Houston Park in Houston. She was one of several guest announcers hired to call the races during the track’s 23-day meet.
But Jessica wasn’t granted an easy start. Post time for the first race on June 3 was delayed an hour because of lightning. The track was already sloppy thanks to continuous rain, and when the horses finally got on the track, the start was further delayed when one got loose and was later scratched.
Jessica got her first call in and Miss Good Candy, favored at 3-5, broke a step out, then straightened out to win in all of 15.41 seconds. The rest of the 10-card was canceled.
“The longer the delay went on, the more anxious I got,” she said. “It was raining so hard that I could barely see the horses. It was wild, but the next few days were a lot better. The weather was better, the people were wonderful, and I felt more and more comfortable. I had so much fun down there.”
Jessica has now called 22 races in her career, but nothing tops the first. That came seven years ago and was noteworthy because she inadvertently became the first woman to call a race in New England.
Just like Dorothy in Oz, a tornado dumped Jessica into a whole new world of wonder.
“I was Director of Communication at Suffolk Downs when the tornado caused a traffic jam and the regular announcer, T.D. Thornton couldn’t get to the track in time for the first race. “I was upstairs getting scratches and tending to my administrative duties when I was told that I had to call the first race,” she remembered. “T.D. had the only key to the announcer’s booth, so Ernie, the head maintenance man, helped me body slam the door and we broke in.”
Jessica admits she was nervous and excited. She remembers the name of the horse that won the race: Worth the Worry.”
The circumstances surrounding Jessica’s first race call garnered a lot of publicity and she quickly became known for her willingness to help out whenever she could. She even impressed her good friend, Thornton, who remains loyal and supportive and even officiated at her wedding.
Jessica finally got the weather to cooperate and called the races for the first time on a fast track on June 4th and 5th, at Sam Houston. Then, she headed back home to take a few days to catch her breath.
Next up, she will take the seven-hour drive to Fair Hill, Maryland to compete with another OTTB, seven-year-old Tell the Truth, in the Fifth Annual Real Rider Cup. The virtual event runs from June 20-26 and kicks off the Fair Hill Thoroughbred Show. Tell The Truth won only once in five starts for trainer H. Graham Motion but has turned into a solid show horse.
“I’m going there a few days early to meet Tell the Truth,” Jessica said. “It’s like a first date. You really hope everything goes well.”
Jessica, like the other competitors, have pledged to raise at least $1,000, for The Real Rider Cup. Jessica is a firm believer in The Real Rider Cup, which raises funds and awareness for three re-training charities: the Retired Racehorse Project, New Vocations and the Fair Hill Thoroughbred Show.
Proceeds from a follow-up art auction of original paintings of OTTBs and notecards will benefit the TRF and its Second Chances programs, which use retired racehorses to teach equine industry vocations to student/inmates in seven state correctional facilities.
“I participated in The Real Rider Cup in 2019, and it was genuinely a life-changing experience,” Jessica said. “I met (TRF Director of Major Gifts and Planned Giving) Kim Weir for the first time and that set in motion a friendship that brought me to the TRF. I remember leaving that weekend being so inspired by so many people that were coming together in the industry to make a difference for Thoroughbred aftercare. I decided then that I wanted to have a more hands-on role to make an impact in Thoroughbred aftercare.”
Jessica is a natural for the TRF and she has jumped right into her new job. Still, her busy schedule has done little to bother her home life. She and her husband, Keith Henshaw, stay active thanks to two English Bull Terriers, Gibbs and Eve, and Jessica’s two off-track Thoroughbreds, What a Trippi and Puget Sound.
In what little spare time she has, Jessica is also a runner and a voracious reader.
Jessica also seems to thrive on action. This is hardly surprising from a person whose racetrack resume includes hotwalker, mutuel clerk, handicapper, paddock analyst, senior director, vice president, and, of course, track announcer.
On July 15, Jessica will hit the road once again to travel to New Kent, Virginia. where she will be the paddock host and handicapper at Colonial Downs for its 21-day meet, which starts on July 19.
“(Track announcer) Jason Beem is one of my best friends,” she said. “He has been my biggest cheerleader over the years and suggested me for Sam Houston. That, in turn, opened up some new doors for me. I can’t wait to work with him at Colonial.”
Beem, who recently was hired to replace retired announcer Richard Grunder at Tampa Bay Downs, has been calling races at various tracks since 2006. He has his own podcast with TwinSpires and a definite opinion of Jessica. This will be his third season at Colonial.
“I am not really sure how Jessica and I met; it was probably through social media,” Beem said. “I’ve known her for about 13 years but only met her about two years ago. She does a great job, and she is a great advocate for the sport. That is why I recommended her at Sam Houston when they were looking for announcers. I had her on as a guest on my radio show at Portland Meadows (Washington). We have remained great friends and we always stay in touch. I remember after she called that race at Suffolk, all she could talk about was how much fun it was and how she wanted to do it again.”
Jessica is still having fun and remains on the lookout for more to do.
“There are 24 usable hours every day,” she said.