SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY – Jessica Paquette calls herself a “weird horse girl.” She was six when she was first enchanted by them, at a New England fairground. They were so big, but soft enough for her to reach up and rub their noses.
She wanted them in her life.
Her family was working class, making the life of a young rider out of reach. But a nearby race track, Rockingham Park, in Salem, NH, became her classroom. She studied the horses closely like a warm walker and got up before dawn to cool them down.
After school, she was back on the track in her Catholic school uniform learning about the pedigree and pace of a group of horse-playing seniors who, in addition to passing on knowledge, made sure no one bothered the girl in the plaid sweater.
When she was 18, she took bets as a mutuel clerk at Suffolk Downs in Boston and studied journalism at Rivier University in Nashua, NH.
She worked her way into an internship in the Suffolk press room and then a job in the marketing department. Finally, she became an internal, on-air personality, dissecting what the racehorses looked like in the paddock and picking winners.
At 37, she is a multi-hyphenate who has devoted herself to thoroughbreds, throughout their racing careers and beyond.
Her connection to them was evident at the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation’s summer ranch, when she had Brickbat and My Teddy Bear — former racehorses — bow to her for mints and nuzzles. She is communications director for the foundation, which works to protect retired horses from abuse, neglect and slaughter.
“If I could go back and tell my teen herself what she would be doing in 20 years, I wouldn’t have believed it,” Paquette said. “All I have is because of horses.”
In addition to her work at the foundation, she does PR work for TVG, the horse racing network. She is also a handicapper for The Saratoga Special, a must-read tabloid for anyone who loves racehorses and the human characters that surround them.
Those lessons with the vintage cars in Rockingham Park paid off. This month, Paquette selected a horse named State of Rest to win the $1 million Saratoga Derby Invitational. He did and rewarded $2 bettors with a payout of $44.20.
“I don’t like to pick favorites,” she said. “If you’re a public handicapper, you have to pick some favorites to please the armchair quarterbacks. But it’s more fun to come up with a horse that gets overlooked.”
Every Sunday, Paquette boards a plane in Boston, her home, to Richmond, Virginia, where she is the paddock analyst for Colonial Downs.
On Thursday, she flies home to her husband, her dogs and the two racehorses she rescued from the racecourse, What a Trippi and Puget Sound.
There will be no third.
“One more horse, one less man,” Paquette said, with a wry smile on her face.
However, with What a Trippi she realized her dream of becoming a horse rider late. It was love at first sight when Paquette saw him in his first race in the paddock at Suffolk Downs. He was handsome and pedigree.
“I wanted him from the moment I saw him,” Paquette said. “I’ll never know why, but it was him.”
She followed him through a grueling 42-race career in which he won nine times and cashed in 10 other races, earning more than $111,000. In 2007, What a Trippi was named New England’s Champion 3-Year-Old Horse.
Three years later, his racing career over, Paquette bought him for $500.
“He was completely healthy,” she said.
Horse and rider started working for a show horse trainer, where they learned to jump.
In 2014, they traveled the New England circuit to compete as a fighter, where qualities such as manners, graceful movements and correct jumping style are rewarded. In 2017, What a Trippi was named New England reserve champion — or runner-up — in its fighter division.
The experience deepened her commitment to finding a home for thoroughbreds after their racing days.
“It’s the achievement of my life,” Paquette said. “They are not machines. Even though they’re busts like racehorses, they’re athletes and we need to find them a job.”