When Colonial Downs begins its third season of thoroughbred racing under the ownership of the Colonial Downs Group on July 19, fans will see a new face on camera who provides selections and insight into each upcoming race from the paddock area.
Jessica Paquette, long time handicapper at Suffolk Downs and most recently Sam Houston, will make her debut in New Kent replacing Merv Huber, who is unable to travel to Colonial Downs this season but will stay on as morning line odds maker and provide guest analysis.
The 36-year-old Lowell, Massachusetts native is excited to be part of the Colonial Downs team, and the track’s signature racing surface is a big reason why.
“I’ve heard the Secretariat Turf Course is the best grass surface in the country, and it’s my favorite kind of racing. Being able to talk about beautiful pedigrees on a great grass course just lights my soul on fire. Turf is a much more specific surface than dirt. Some horses will love it and some will only take to that specific course.”
Colonial is known for having large fields that compete on grass, but Paquette seems unfazed by the challenge of picking winners for viewers. “I’m a real pedigree nerd,” she said. “With grass races, you can find horses with hidden turf pedigrees that just jump up and surprise you. I’ll provide insights during the paddock show on specific horse flesh I notice. I’m a day-to-day horse person. I’ll be getting a sense of the barns on site and watching patterns. I’ll be familiarizing myself with the trainer colony. I’ll be taking a lot of notes. I think you can stumble across a lot of nice horses that way.”
Growing up, Paquette’s parents did not have a background or interest in horses, so her equine passion began with participation in the ‘Kids to the Cup’ program as a young teenager. She never looked back.
“Once I got involved in ‘Kids to the Cup’ (KTTC) 25 years ago, it changed my life. It put me on the path to get where I am today. I was a nerdy horse crazy kid back then and I just fell in love with racing during that golden era of the ’90’s when Silver Charm and Skip Away were racing. It just captivated me. Nothing fills me with as much joy as being at a racetrack and being up close,” she added. “No matter what breed, I love watching all horses turn left.”
From KTTC, she started out as a hotwalker at Rockingham Park, then went on to work as a mutuels clerk and followed that with an internship in the publicity department. After those experiences, she landed another internship at Suffolk Downs and never left. Paquette spent the next 14 years at Suffolk where she rose through the ranks to become Senior VP of Marketing and an on camera personality and handicapper.
Suffolk closed its doors for good in June, 2019 after 84 years in business. Rockingham previously closed in 2016. Both closures hit Paquette hard.
“As a fan, I watched Rockingham close and it was heartbreaking. It was the first place I saw a live horse race. At Suffolk, I was helping run the place so mourning the loss of something I Ioved so much was tough but I had to be professional about it. The day still had to go on. Putting on a public face when your heart is being ripped to pieces was challenging. We sent the old girl off the best way we could,” Paquette added. “The last day was a celebration. I watched the last race from the roof by myself. Those are memories I’ll take with me the rest of my life.”
Since Suffolk closed, Paquette served as on camera handicapper for the Sam Houston thoroughbred meet this past winter. In a Covid-pandemic environment, she performed the job remotely, from a studio she set up in her closet. And in March, she became the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation’s Director of Communications & the Annual Fund. The position allows her to work from home in the Northern Shore of Massachusetts where she owns two Off The Track Thoroughbreds.
What A Trippi, retired now from success in the show ring — which came after collecting 9 wins in 42 starts as a racehorse — occupies some of her home time now along with Puget Sound, who after 84 starts is enjoying time as a “pasture ornament” according to Paquette.
“Those two fill my day every day,” she said. “Aftercare is the most important thing to me. I’m grateful to be in a position to be able to give back professionally. Every good thing in my life has come from horses so giving back means a lot. I think thoroughbreds are the greatest athletes. They can do anything you ask of them, as long as you ask them correctly.” Colonial Downs and the VHBPA contribute $15 each to the TAA for every start during the race meet.
Paquette will arrive in New Kent on July 15 and go on camera from the paddock around 1:30 PM four days later. “After giving my picks remotely, I can’t wait to see horses again in person.”
Colonial’s season will continue through September 1 with racing every Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday at 1:45 PM. The $250,000 New Kent County Virginia Derby (Gr. 3) highlights meet festivities on Tuesday August 31. Paquette not only gets to provide selections for all races held over the 180-foot wide turf course and 1 1/4 miles dirt track, she gets to work with some of her best friends as well.
“I was in ‘Kids to the Cup’ with Merv Huber when we were horse crazy wild-eyed children and we’ve been friends since. Jason Beem (Colonial track announcer) is one of my best friends. And I’m looking forward to working with Jill Byrne (Colonial VP of Racing) who I have so much respect for. She is a pioneer in racing and an inspiration. I’m just really excited for this opportunity,” she added. “When racing in Suffolk ended in 2019, it was easy to think that your best days are behind you when the thing you love most goes away. Not so any more.”