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The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing

WOMEN IN RACING, THE ANATOMY OF TWO RECENT HIGH-PROFILE HIRES

In the 1950 movie The Jackie Robinson Story, the Brooklyn Dodgers’ Branch Rickey said to the ballplayer: “Jackie, I need a man who can hit, field, and steal bases… I know you can do those things… but can you take it?

“What if there’s a close play at second base, the umpire calls the baserunner out, he’s so made, he looks up and all he can see is your black face, then he gets up and punches you on the cheek, what are you going to do?”

“I’ve got another cheek Mr Rickey,” Robinson answered.

With that, the color barrier was broken, a win for baseball and for America. Robinson had the courage not to fight back when he was brutally antagonized and, of course, he could run, hit, field, and stole bases. Later he would become a difference maker on and off the field.

For all his character, if he didn’t have the skills to help the Dodgers get to the World Series, he never could have lasted and that would have set the movement back. So, what does this have to do with horse racing?

Well, for the longest time, there was no place for women in horse racing communications. They were fixtures on the backside but were largely invisible. The great Charlsie Cantey helped change that with her broadcasting skills, knowledge of equine body language, and inventive post-race jockey interviews on horseback.

Today, women are front and center in tele-racing communications and are in fact so celebrated that only first names are needed: Acacia, Britney, Caton, and an honor roll of talent too numerous to include here.

There is, however, one area that hasn’t been conquered by racing’s two-legged distaffers, that of race caller at a major American racetrack.

All that changed recently when Parx Racing hired Jessica Paquette to call the action at the Bensalem, PA track. The question now is can Paquette take it because, unlike Robinson, she was not ready for prime time, indeed not even close, and the situation has not gone unnoticed.

Twitter has been all abuzz with criticism, which is the essence of that platform, of course, but it’s not unjustified. I spoke with several regulars at Gulfstream Park on Saturday and most of the commentary cannot be repeated on a family website.

Horseplayers and fans who knock race callers finish a close second to those who lodge complaints about the skill set of jockeys. Both groups are the racing equivalent of low-hanging fruit.

As a former cable television analyst and host of a radio show in New York, I know a little about what it takes to reach the racetrack version of Carnegie Hall. With enough on-the-job training, talent has a chance to grow over time.

Paquette is no newcomer to the industry, having worked as a publicist, paddock analyst, and handicapper at several venues, and still does. This critique comes from someone who literally could not call a race if my life depended on it. So knowing your limitations is important.

Paquette’s voice lacks vocal character, the kind that Capossela, Johnson, or Anderson had back in the day. Her tone and tempo doesn’t change, a trait necessary to get fans involved, excited by what they are seeing and what might come. She doesn’t always go through the field; doing that once is mandatory.

Paquette’s overall lack of experience hurts, of course, and Parx, while it deserves props for giving a woman a chance to call the races, should have vetted their candidate better. That’s on Parx. Publicity is one thing, but they needed to get this highly visible position right.

Branch Rickey knew exactly what the Dodgers were getting when he gave Robinson the opportunity. Demonstrably, Parx management did not.

THE JOCKEY CLUB GETS IT RIGHT

The Samantha Randazzo hire to become The Jockey Club steward at NYRA tracks, replacing Dr. Jennifer Durenberger who moved on as HISA’s Equine Safety & Welfare Director, is an inspired one. No lack of experience here.

I have known Samantha for more than two decades, meeting her when she and Josephine Palmisano shared assistant trainer roles for the Linda Rice barn. Several years ago, however, Randazzo decided to make use of the degree she earned while attending the University of Toledo College of Law.

Most recently, the graduate of the Racing Officials Accreditation Program served as a steward for three seasons at Finger Lakes, previously was an alternate steward in Florida, New Jersey, Minnesota, Illinois, and as a safety steward for the National Steeplechase Association.

She has the bona fides. The hope now is that Randazzo can bring badly needed consistency to the race adjudication process at Aqueduct, Belmont, and Saratoga.

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28 Responses

  1. I do not know if there is a ” Rooney” rule in racing but if there was it does not mean that an amateurish,hesitant female voice has to be hired.It reeks of patronage, quid pro quo ,political and other non competitive hires. It does not help competent women in other fields and as a matter of fact It,this temporary hire,it is insulting to most of them,whether they are male ,female ,non binary or whatever their name is supposed to represent. In a competitive sport,and world,the most competent and qualified should get the job.Otherwise,it does Not help the industry,its image ,nor its reputation..This ” Ain’t ” WWE . Some owner-trainer outfits should publicly speak up.It is a mockery of a hire [ favor] . I cannot listen to those high school level calls.Thanks x your pro input,JP.

    1. Unfortunately, most businesses and institutions have changed their standards of hiring due to the pressure of the culture which I hesitate to mention out of respect. The quality of just about every goods and services industry in our country have declined due to the diversity nonsense imposed by a few progressive programs. I am afraid that meritocracy will be a thing of the past, and we may have to accept less than mediocre results on all fronts.

    2. JG, you’ve made this point vociferously on a prior thread. All I can say is if you’re so offended by the race calls, make use of the mute button and just watch the race. The hope is Ms Paquette gets better over time, but she should have worked harder on her skills before going live.

      I was in the NY press box for close to four decades and saw several aspiring announcers get started there, but I remember that all set themselves up in an office near the announcers booth and practiced every day for several months.

      I don’t know if her work schedule afforded Ms Paquette the luxury of that kind of time. Parx should have provided that opportunity in order to possibly help attract a wider audience for the sport, going beyond the notion “hey, let’s have a woman call the races.”

      It pained me to write this, but the game is bigger than any one individual. As stated, I could never be a race caller, but at least was honest enough to recognize my limitations. Unlike justice, ambition should not be blind.

      1. A race call, a proper one, makes the race a bit more educational, interesting, just like a boxing match or baseball game. I did turn it off….after i recovered from the shock. Parx is not one of my main tracks. It has not been since its Keystone days but I now miss the previous race caller who was there for many yrs. I do not remember his name but he was maybe the best this about that track…

  2. Mark,

    If your premise is correct, progressive diversity is a positive development. Horseplayers especially love to bring up the “equal playing field issue.” It is my opinion that long established glass ceilings be shattered when it comes to matters or race and gender. It’s not the “woke thing;” it’s the “right thing” that should be advanced. Societies do change, the good ones aspire to growth, IMO.

    Prior to out criticism, we gave several examples of just a few top flight broadcasters. This was not a piece I enjoyed writing but I didn’t think this hire advanced the acceptance of racing to a wider sports audience, worthy of a larger audience than it has.

    As for gender, allow this tangent. I refer to a featured comedy segment that regularly appears on Bill Maher’s “Real Time” program, entitled “I don’t know it for a fact, I just know it’s true.”

    Well, IMO once again, if women were heads of state in every country in the world, the planet would be a more civilized, safer place. Thanks for your input.

    Your point is valid but it would be nice if the country did strive to be a more perfect union.

  3. What does a race caller have to do with pick’in winners? Is the horse race for entertainment or for following the plodder y’all bet on? Me, I always have the volume off, even when the talking heads between races are yaking; though I do find Acacia worth a peek now and then.

    1. A race caller is supposed to tell you at least once where the plodder y’all bet on is. Careful WMC, some might think of you as sexist. BTW: acacia is more than ornamental. Turn up the sound, might pick you on the winning plodder…

  4. John, you left my personal favorite, Maggie, out of your line up of female telecommunicators. And so happy to see Charlsie get her due as the originator of the position. Great work by them all. As for the Parx race caller, happened to hear her one day and was totally dismayed by the lack of ability.

    1. Stephen, in my own defense, I did write “too many to mention.”

      I love Maggie, and I love Christina, and I love Gabby, and I love Ande, and I love Dawn Lupul from Woodbine, and I love Donna Brothers. And I love anyone else I failed to mention first time around. The women I have seen–I have not seen all the female closed-circuit analysts at the minor tracks–but those named here know their horses. I find their comments very informative, and occasionally rewarding.

      It’s their insight into the physical animal that’s always appreciated, occasionally teaching me things that I never knew…

  5. Charlsie Cantey was my favorite – her voice was so regal that it made me think when I was a little kid at Breakfast At Belmont, that I was at the most important sporting event in the world.

    For the current women in race broadcasting, there are a number of very good ones, but I don’t think anyone tops Maggie.

  6. Well, that’s two votes for Maggie in this space, good for her, the plaudits are well deserved.

    The point of the first section above is that, sadly in this society, women have to be better than men to earn the same amount of praise, an unnecessary high bar over which to jump.

    All those who received favorable mention here have earned the praise they’ve earned. Frankly, I didn’t want Paquette’s falling short to prevent other women for getting a chance to be race callers if that is their goal.

    But, and this applies to anyone and everyone, ambition should not trump talent. Actions lead to consequences…

  7. A race announcer needs the ability to direct jockeys away from dangerous situations. An announcer who does not possess that ability should not be calling races.

  8. In defense of gender equality, to and for “anyone and everyone”, I would suggest reading the tribute attached below written in recognition to deceased NYPD Officer Moira Smith, the only female female police officer to have perished on 9/11. Officer Moira Smith’s job on 9/11 was without heraldry, yet she may have been responsible for saving more lives that day than anyone. Directing crowds is an everyday event in the life of a police officer. While Moira’s heroic action was compressed into a few short hours in the lower levels of the World Trade Center on 9/11, her steadfast dedication ended with her making the supreme sacrifice in her giving up her own life that day.

    There can also be a parallel extended with the heroic Covid-19 Essential Workers during the recent pandemic, both male and female workers. In the instances cited, Moira Smith like so many others performed commonplace actions in the face of personal danger. Healthcare workers, the uniformed services, NYC essential service workers, and supermarket checkout clerks. Male and Female, all of equal gender equality.

    The account below was written by Martin Glynn.

    https://www.moirasmith.com/

  9. McD, while not germane to the “Women In Racing,” HRI is happy to post this comment as it relates to life and death. Clearly, there is no degree of danger walking into an announcer’s booth, compared to the ultimate sacrifice of Moira Smith. HRI considers it an honor to be able, in this small way, to acknowledge a true American heroine.

    1. My intent was only to express the importance of not limiting a person’s perceived capabilities to be based on gender. Maybe I misunderstood some of the earlier replies, but I thought that that sentiment was implied unfairly in some of the comments.

      As for Parks Racing, sending a new announcer out onto a live broadcast stage completely unprepared, be that person male or female, well the greatest failure in the transition process belongs to the upper management at Parks itself. Just wondering if the final approval in the process was signed off on by a member or two of the upper echelon “boys club” at Parks, lol.

      P.S. Moira Smith came to the forefront of my mind regarding the gender concerns in the article, as I worked for years with Moira’s sister when in the Engineering Department at Verizon. Two sisters working on opposite sides of Vesey St that tragic day.

      My co-worker and friend Mary was blessed with the same qualities and character as Moira, and she as well would stand steadfast her ground while provisioning the restoration of communication networks in lower Manhattan during the recovery period during the months after the attack. Never a gender issue raised.

  10. How many people actually want to be race track announcers ? Young people perceive horse racing as a dying sport and experience gained from working as an announcer is not a transferable skill. A highlight on a resume it ain’t.

    The average person cannot name anyone prominent in horse racing media.

  11. Dan,

    The average person never heard of Flightline, either. This would be an industry marketing problem, not a racing media issue.

    Maybe Tom Rooney should spend more time on Madison Ave than Washington D.C., working for the good of the sport, not just its horsemen.

  12. JP–
    I strongly agree with you that the NTRA should be spending more time and effort marketing the sport rather than getting dragged into issues in Washington — most notably the well intentioned, but constitutionally flawed HISA legislation. I note that Mr. Rooney and the NTRA have been strangely silent since the HISA legislation signed into law by President Trump in 2020 was found to be unconstitutional by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in November, 2022. And I would imagine that many believe that HISA is not the only unconstitutional legacy of President Trump…….

  13. The Fifth Circuit is where progressive ideas go to die, many times out of hand due to political considerations. The NHBPA didn’t want this, as most horsemen endorse the status quo. Dig down deep into settled law, never mind HISA, and almost anything can be unconstitutional via some technicality.

    Isn’t that why legislation is written in circumlocutional language, allowing for political influences?

    1. Agree with you–the NTHA needs to move on from the battles in Washington-noble and otherwise– and shift its focus back to marketing.

    2. Any marketing efforts must be preceded by a reduction in volume of racing in North America. Bring the number of races in line with consumer demand (maximum 25,000 races per year), then start the marketing campaign.

      1. Agree that education is badly needed and has for some time, also agree that there’s too much racing but there’s no league or commissioner to refine a national schedule that makes sense. It’s just also so exhausting isn’t it? Nothing will change. And if they ever succeed to fully eradicate HISA, majority of horsemen will be throwing parties for weeks!

  14. Reducing the number of races can serve to increase field size–so it would be interesting to see which has a greater impact on handle, fewer races or larger fields? And hopefully the unconstitutional provisions of HISA can be remedied which had little to do with the reforms contained in the legislation but more regarding its administration.

  15. The handicapper’s best friends are Maggie, Christina, and Gabby for horses paddock and warm up appearance reporting. Best TV handicapper is Andy Serling.

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