Long before she talked to trainers and jockeys after big wins, way before she interviewed football and basketball coaches on the sidelines, far back to when she was just a high-schooler in North Jersey, Jeannine Edwards went to Belmont Park to look for a job.
With her mother.
All about horses in a non-horse family, Edwards was 12 when she first said she wanted to work at the track. Her parents didn’t take her seriously, but when the theme remained four years later it all got a bit more real.
“My mom’s uncle lived in Stewart Manor (near Belmont) and we went up to look for a job,” said Edwards. “My mother went with me and we walked around the barn area asking people if they needed a hotwalker. My mother was interviewing them . . . how embarrassing. They must have thought we dropped off of Mars.”
LeRoy Jolley passed Mom’s test and, in the summer of 1980, Edwards joined the team. She didn’t walk Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Genuine Risk, but was on the shank most of the summer – including a stint at Saratoga where her parents rented a house to facilitate the job.
“Genuine Risk had her own more-seasoned hotwalker, but I did walk (graded stakes winner) Jaklin Klugman quite a bit,” she said. “He was a biter and I wasn’t savvy enough to avoid that yet so I had plenty of scars for a while.”
She came back the next summer, went to Florida to break yearlings for famed owner Fred Hooper and was soon a 19-year-old exercise rider at Saratoga.
Fast forward to Saturday and she’ll be a reporter on ESPN’s live SportsCenter telecast from the paddock. The Connecticut-based sports network takes its signature show on the road periodically and visits America’s race course after recent stints at the NBA Finals, the NFL Draft and the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight.
“Never in my wildest dreams,” Edwards said when asked if she could have imagined the scenario when she turned left for a living. “I started as a kid with a love of horses and then wanted to work with horses and ride and train. I never even thought of doing TV work in any way, shape or form.”
That came to be when she was in Maryland with her then husband Jimmy Edwards, a former jockey. In 1993, figuring it was time to stop riding racehorses in the morning and wondering what she was going to do with the rest of her life, she took a job in the Maryland Jockey Club’s television department. She eventually got a gig with ESPN2’s fledgling racing show National Best Seven and moved on to other racing shows, college football and basketball and anything else the ESPN networks assign. In 2012, the Los Angeles Daily News put her in the “top 40 women who raised the bar in sports media.”
Now married to Oklahoma State University’s defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Glenn Spencer, Edwards lives in Oklahoma and regularly rides former Saratoga turf stakes winner Ashkal Way.
Saturday’s SportsCenter show brings everything together.
The three-hour show starts at 9 a.m. and Sara Walsh will anchor from a set near the paddock. Edwards and Kenny Mayne will also be on-track while Joe Tessitore (who grew up in the area) will contribute a taped feature on the track’s history.
“I think Saratoga has been on the list (for a SportsCenter visit) for a while,” she said. “Racing fans take it for granted because we’re in racing and just kind of have grown up with it. We love it for a lot of reasons.”
Edwards plans to translate those reasons to ESPN viewers.
Saratoga is at least 50 years older than Wrigley Field and Fenway Park, and just as important as the baseball cathedrals.
Sports Illustrated named Saratoga one of the world’s greatest sporting venues.
Saturday’s schedule calls for two live hits, a piece by Mayne on Birdstone’s Travers, plenty of B roll shot on Opening Day and visits to some special places – a Union Avenue horse crossing, the terrace dining room, trackside, maybe even Jolley’s old barn on the backside.
“I’m going to get to as many little nooks and crannies as I can,” she said of her morning duties. “Hopefully we’ll have enough different aspects of it covered and the viewers will get the point. You want to illuminate what’s special about Saratoga and what’s unique about the track.”