In the first week of her reporting internship for a horse-racing newspaper, Gabby Gaudet nervously approached one of the most celebrated figures in the sport. "Can you tell me how you first got involved in the game?" she asked Kelly Breen, who trained the winner of the 2011 Belmont Stakes.
"Terrible question. Get back to me when you think of a better one," he replied.
She flinched but thought fast. "How about if I ride your horse?" she asked. He said yes, they fell to talking, and the story she wrote ran above the fold in The Saratoga Special.
Gaudet says the experience helped prepare her for her new role as the face of the state's two top thoroughbred venues. As she makes her name in a field of established heavyweights, Gaudet knows she has to be tough and persistent — and prove she knows her stuff.
The telegenic 22-year-old, the new handicapper at Pimlico and Laurel racetracks, is about to work her first Preakness, albeit behind the scenes. She replaces Frank Carulli, the 51-year-old oddsmaker who departs next month after 11 years on the job.
"Maryland's bettors are sharp, and they're hard-headed," said Carulli, the track veteran who served on the panel that chose Gaudet over 14 other candidates last March. "She'll have to win them over early, give them information they can't get anywhere else. That means a lot of hard work, and she has the work ethic to be a good one."
A senior at Towson University, Gaudet has been juggling an 18-hour class schedule with weekend duties at the track. She'll do research, hand out media badges and carry out clerical work during Preakness Week, graduate six days after the big race and take over full-time when the Laurel meeting begins in September.
In some ways, her job will differ from the one Carulli has done. She'll offer in-depth televised analysis before every race, as he has, but won't set odds — that duty has gone to chart-calling veteran Keith Feustle. Instead, she'll cover the action at the track starting early on race days.
She'll share her material on television, on her blog and on Twitter.
"This is a terrific opportunity for a young talent," said Mike Gathagan, vice president of communications for the Maryland Jockey Club. "Gabby will be doing the things that 22-year-olds can do that 50-year-olds generally can't. She's good at the horse side but also as a communicator. You've got to adapt, right?"
In one sense, at least, Gaudet has been preparing for the job her whole life.
She was born in Prince George's County, where her parents, longtime horse trainers Eddie and Linda Gaudet, run a breeding farm in Upper Marlboro and a large, successful public stable at Bowie Training Center.
Eddie, 82, retired as a trainer last year after 50 years on the job, but only after falling off a horse and breaking his hip.
Linda home-schooled the future handicapper and her older sister, Lacey, in and around the stables until Gabby was in the eighth grade. Gabby earned her exercise rider's license at 16 and — along with Lacey, a trainer — trained 10 horses for her parents at Colonial Downs near Richmond, Va., one summer.
At Towson, Gaudet majored in mass communications and graphic design and found herself gravitating to projects that touched on the sport of kings.
When the chance arose to write for The Saratoga Special last summer — the paper documents daily events at the famed Saratoga Race Course in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. — she acted quickly.
Her editors say many aspiring reporters take the six-week internship, but most "blow the turn" by the first weekend.
"I gave her the same talk I give every intern: 'I won't have time to manage you. You won't make more money if you do a great job. It won't matter to me if you sink or swim,'" said Sean Clancy, the paper's co-publisher. "But if you're a self-starter, if you go the extra mile, you'll learn. You'll meet more people.
"In no time at all you could tell she was going to make it. A few people kind of kicked her around, but you couldn't scare her. She just wrote good stuff."
Previous interns at the paper include the likes of Quint Kessenich, who covers lacrosse for ESPN and contributes columns on the sport to The Baltimore Sun.
Back at Towson, Gaudet signed on for her usual 18 hours of classes, but continued galloping horses for her parents each morning. She also started appearing on Maryland Horse Radio, a show that airs on CBS Sports Radio in Baltimore every Tuesday evening.
The newspaper and radio jobs convinced Gaudet she wanted to be in horse-racing — just not in riding or training.
"Horse-racing has so many incredibly colorful characters in it, but to be honest, it tends to be kind of a closed-in community," she said. "I love collecting their stories, and I want to open that up."
Last year, when Carulli announced he would be leaving his position, the jockey club began a months-long search for a replacement. The finalists included three women — Gaudet and two horse trainers in their 20s — and a 31-year-old man who is a former jockey.
Each candidate had an all-day, on-air audition during the week of March 18.
Gaudet, who had never appeared live on-camera, approached the matter strategically. First, she contacted Jeannine Edwards, an ESPN horse-racing commentator, for advice. ("Just speak to the camera as though it's a person," Edwards said.)
Gaudet also requested the last of the four slots so she could size up her competition.
All were excellent, she says, but some were stronger as communicators, the others as analysts. Gaudet aimed to do both well.
Saturday, March 23, was "the longest day of my life — I can't tell you how tired I was when it was all over," she says, but by the end of the 10 races, she had picked mostly winners, shown off her ample research on the horses and established herself as a welcoming presence on the air.
Ten days after her audition, Gaudet became one of the handful of female handicappers in the nation.
She's thankful that the Maryland racing community has welcomed her with open arms. She also speaks at length of Carulli's help.
Her predecessor has shown her the intricacies of the Formulator, an online resource of The Daily Racing Form, the tabloid paper that prints racehorses' prior performances for the benefit of the betting public. He has advised her to use her industry contacts to serve up unique information veteran bettors can use. And he urged her to view the TV spots as a chance not just to make predictions but to put forth well-reasoned arguments.
"She has improved every week," Carulli said. "There are only a few [handicappers] on my A list. I think she has a chance to be one of them."
ESPN's Edwards, he adds, got her start in 1993 in the very job Gaudet is taking on now.
Gaudet knows her dream first gig won't always be easy. She'll eventually have to criticize horses whose trainers or owners she knows. She'll have bad days as a handicapper and she'll hear it from fans.
She might even get the cold shoulder from a source or two — though she eventually figured out that Breen, a long-time friend of her parents, was aware she was coming that day last summer and was actually putting her on.
She believes the prank helped her get ready for what lies ahead.
"Some people really are just going to laugh at you and walk away," Gaudet said. "That helped me realize I can't have a thin skin in this job. I expect to be doing it for a long time."
Job: Handicapper at Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Park
From: Prince George's County
Education: Senior at Towson University majoring in mass communications and graphic design; St. Mary's High School graduate
Parents: Eddie and Linda Gaudet, longtime horse trainers
Previous experience in horse racing: Trained horses for her parents; reported for The Saratoga Special newspaper; appeared on "Maryland Horse Radio."