Miranda Weber remembers going to Gulfstream Park when she was a little girl. She remembers that her mother liked the racetrack, and that they bet on horses. She remembers winning. She also remembers going to greyhound racing and to jai alai, but one horse racing memory stands out, even if some of the details are fuzzy.
“We bet on a horse called Grindstone, and he won by a nose,” she recalled recently, by phone from Florida. “I thought that was the cleverest thing on earth, a nose to the Grindstone. I’ve never forgotten it.”
In her memory, she was watching the race live; looking back, she realized that she watched on television, and that the race Grindstone won that day was not at Gulfstream Park, but at Churchill Downs: the Kentucky Derby.
Now 25, Weber went back to Gulfstream recently, but it wasn’t to try to pick a winner. This time, she was the one competing, in the Ms. Racing Queen pageant sponsored by The Stronach Group, in which the winner would get $100,000 and the opportunity to become a racing ambassador for the company that owns Gulfstream Park and Santa Anita Park. Both tracks held preliminary pageants, with the finals held at Gulfstream the week before the Florida Derby.
Weber didn’t get the $100,000, but she was first runner-up, winning $50,000, some of which she’ll use to buy her younger sister a used car for college and to buy some clothes. Most of it, she told me, will go to ease the strain of living paycheck to paycheck, and into a savings account.
A pageant veteran, Weber has competed since she was 17, winning several local titles, including Miss Jacksonville and Miss Orlando. After graduating from the University of North Florida, she took a job as a corporate recruiter for a financial tech recruiting company; she also serves as a gameday host for the Jacksonville Jaguars, appearing on the big screen during commercial breaks.
Describing herself as “extremely competitive and not very athletic,” Weber said that she’d tried a variety of activities growing up—karate, ballet—but nothing stuck. She turned to pageants as a way to compete while tapping into skills such as public speaking.
She grew up in New Smyrna Beach, Florida, a town that offered, she said, two options if you stayed there: work for the city or get addicted to drugs. She found in pageants the sorts of role models that were missing in her hometown, women older than she, who had gone to college, who gave back to their communities.
“They commanded authority,” she said. “They were classy, respected, well-spoken. I wasn’t used to that, and it inspired me.”
The pageant directors supported her and served as job references; it’s because of one of them, she said, that she got the Jaguars job. It had been four years since she had competed, but she decided to enter the Ms. Racing Queen pageant because of the professional opportunity it offered, coming out of what she called “pageant retirement,” even though her knowledge of horses and racing was limited to those Gulfstream Park visits and a few rides on horseback.
“This sounded,” she said, “like the opportunity I’ve been looking for.”
According to Weber, Ms. Racing Queen was not your typical beauty pageant, which usually lasts for just a few days. This competition went on for several weeks and required the contestants to interact in a variety of environments: dinner with Frank Stronach, the shopping village at Gulfstream Park, the jockeys’ room.
“The organizers wanted to see that we’re not just people who can walk on stage and do an interview,” she explained. “They wanted to see that we’d mesh well with the people we’d work with for the rest of the year.”
“I appreciated that that they wanted us to be 100% ourselves. You could tell,” she continued, “that they were weeding out people who weren’t.”
She also liked that the competition tapped into one of her interests, the one that was instilled in her back in those early Gulfstream days: gambling.
“Texas Hold ‘Em has been my biggest hobby since I was 16,” she said. “I don’t win a lot, and when I lose, I consider it an entertainment expense.”
But perhaps what impressed her most of all was the pageant’s emphasis on the contestants’ knowledge and willingness to learn about racing.
“They made it clear that our wardrobe wasn’t what they cared about,” she said.
Each Sunday, the contestants were introduced to people from the industry: jockeys, agents, trainers et al. She was most impressed by the women jockeys she met and the people who work at Florida TRAC (Thoroughbred Retirement and Adoptive Care).
“Some of my activist friends approached me about the contest, saying that racing isn’t good for horses,” she said. “That’s valid, because some tracks don’t take care of their horses; I know that exists. But from what they showed me at Gulfstream, they care. I liked being able to respond to people who had a problem with the pageant by sharing with them what I was learning.”
Between the experience and the prize money, the Ms. Racing Queen pageant is not one Weber will soon forget.
“Mr. Stronach changed my life, even though he didn’t give me the title,” she observed. “I was invited to the Florida Derby and the Santa Anita Derby, and to the farm so that I can see how Florida TRAC runs.”
She plans to visit the farm with Tatiana Schoeppler, named Ms. Racing Queen at Gulfstream last month, and to continue to look for the job that will play to her strengths.
“I had an interview recently for a job with better pay, but I’m not going to box myself into things I’m not interested in,” she said. “I know I’ll end up being a speaker in some way: hosting a conference, or working for a sports team or non-profit. I know I’ll end up with that kind of opportunity.”
One thing is for certain: Weber will keep her nose to the grindstone, even if it’s not at Gulfstream Park.