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.