Guest Column: To New Kent, With Love

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Jessica Paquette in her element with jockey Feargal Lynch this past summer at Colonial Downs. Photo provided.

By Jessica Paquette

When the last horse crossed the finish line at Suffolk Downs, I knew there were going to be a lot of things I would miss. At a racetrack, live racing promises that no two days are the same – there is the chance for greatness every single day. The thing I ultimately wound up missing most, however, was the sense of community and camaraderie that came with it.

It has been at Colonial Downs that I have found a new home. Over the past two seasons, I have gotten to see firsthand the growth of racing in New Kent, Virginia, and the excitement that is building around the Virginia breeding and certification program. The racing is a handicapper’s dream – big fields of competitive horses and the most glorious turf course in the country. But beyond the racing product, there is something more going on at Colonial.

Leadership comes from the top and the racing product is led by two powerhouses – Vice President of Racing Jill Byrne and Racing Secretary Allison DeLuca. As a woman in the racing industry, it is a privilege to have the opportunity to get to work with and learn from two people who I view as aspirational. It is the tone that they both set that trickles down to everyone involved in racing operations. From the grounds crew to the announcer’s booth, it feels like we are all working toward the same goal – to put on the best possible product, every day while also prioritizing the safety of our equine and human athletes.

“We have been very lucky at Colonial Downs to have a great group of people, starting with Jill Byrne at the top, who are dedicated to making Colonial a safe and successful race meet,” said DeLuca. “From the racing office, to the veterinarians, receiving barn crew to security and the track crew, you name it, everyone works together. We also have an amazing VAHBPA. dedicated to horsemen and backside help. Colonial Downs sort of feels like summer camp, it’s actually fun. After all, that’s what most of us got into racing for, to have some fun and adventure. The Virginia horsemen are dedicated to Colonial, and along with horsemen from all over the country, it is growing into a great meet.”

The leadership displayed by Jill and Allison is visible in every aspect of the racing day. On any given day, Jill is a logging the kind of miles that make this marathoner tired as she goes from the paddock to the winner’s circle to the suites to the jock’s room and everywhere in between to make sure everyone has everything they need and everything is running smooth. How many upper-level executives can be seen with a pitchfork in hand picking up in the paddock between races or helping hose a horse off? It is that sort of willingness to do what needs to be done with zero ego that elevates everyone around her to want to do the same thing. No job is too small (or too big) to be done well and to be done together.

There is more racing, there is more money but the special sauce to it all is the fun. You cannot fake chemistry or camaraderie. Even as the meet has expanded, it still has the special feel of a boutique meet. As announcer Jason Beem and I bounce back and forth during my paddock analysis, occasionally peppering in an inside joke to try to make the other break and laugh, I am struck by how lucky I am to get to do this with one of my best friends. When it sounds like we are having more fun than should be allowed in a workplace, it is because we are.

We are also given a lot of creative freedom which allows us to put on a show that is both, we hope, interesting for the savvy horseplayer but also entertaining and informative for someone new to racing or just new to Colonial Downs. With Dave Zenner running the helm of simulcast operations, there is a team in place that genuinely cares about delivering on what the horseplayer wants each day.

Some of our jokes can even take on a life of their own. Last year, trainer Phil Schoenthal learned that even the most innocuous comment on the internet can last forever. One offhand comment about the Rosie’s Cheeseburger has somehow led Jason and I to latch on this and we have referred to Phil as “Cheeseburger Phil” at every opportunity. To his credit, Phil has taken the joke and has run with it.

These moments – the laughing and teasing between races – are what we try to share with the public playing along or watching from home. Though these horsemen and women compete against each other, there is also a strong sense that they are all rooting for each other, as well. When Michelle Lovell’s rising star Damon’s Mound went to Saratoga to win the Grade 2 Saratoga Special, the cheers coming from Colonial’s backside may have been the loudest of all.

I was not born into the sport. No one gets where they get to on their own and I got extremely fortunate to be involved with an organization called Kids to the Cup, which helped open doors that may have been hard to pry open otherwise.

There isn’t a day that goes by that I do not feel beyond lucky to have made a home in this sport and, after all of these years, to still find the joy in it that I do every day. My goal on every broadcast I participate in is to share that joy and to make the viewers feel that not only are they getting handicapping insight (some better, some worse depending on the day) but that they are experiencing the things that make the racetrack so special alongside me. I am genuinely as excited to talk about a $10,000 NW2L as I am a major stakes race.

This is just the beginning at Colonial Downs. The future is bright for horse racing in Virginia as we continue to move forward with more racing and yes, more fun. Each summer, Virginia feels a little more like home to me and I cannot wait to see what comes next for Colonial Downs.

Jessica Paquette, at native of Lowell, Massachusetts, who also is part of our handicapping team at The Saratoga Special, works summers as an on-air analyst at Colonial Downs. She’s worked many other jobs in racing during her career, including senior vice president of marketing at Suffolk Downs.