Grasping the reins that connected her firm, gentle hands to a filly she understood so well—a Thoroughbred who needed to run it her way— Tammi Piermarini steadily piloted her out of the starting gait and into a race that would put the jockey into the history books.
On Monday afternoon, in the third race at Suffolk Downs in East Boston, the 44-year-old local jockey crossed the finish line in first place aboard the filly Sugar Trade, becoming the fifth female jockey in the history of the sport to amass 2,000 wins.
For the rest of the week, in between rides, Piermarini conducted interviews with both mainstream and horseracing media about the win that has put her on the same page with other jockey greats: Julie Krone (3,704 wins), Rosemary Homeister (2,438 wins), Patti Cooksey (2,137 wins), Vicki (Aragon) Baze (2019 wins).
Now Tammi Piermarini’s name is on that list, with 2,002 wins, and counting.
Sire: Performing Magic
Foal date: 2007
Career earnings: $114,774“My goal is to get to 3,000,” she says in a telephone interview Wednesday. “I’m on a tear everyday, and I’m just building and building and building.”
Building a career, a reputation and a legacy. And setting herself apart from the rest of the pack.
Asked how she did it, how she got into the record books, Piermarini names a few things right away: the clientele of horses—“Without great horses, I’d be nothing.”— and the support of grooms, hotwalkers and trainers who are tremendously important in this sport.
And for the jockey’s part, it’s about hands. As she says, “having good hands.”
“A jockey needs to be able to make first-rate decisions, judge pace, and have a feel for the animal,” she explains. “You need to be able to sense what’s going on with the horse in every race your ride.”
So when she climbed into the irons on Sugar Trade she knew what she was getting. Although she always listens to instructions from the trainer, she gives equal say to the horse.
“With a filly like Sugar Trade, she dictates to me how she wants to run,” Piermarini explains. “If I ask her, she’ll go to the pace, and I let her run the way she wants to run.”
The winning formula involved allowing her to settle where she wanted to be, in a stalking position in third or fourth place.
Then, at the top of the stretch, Piermarini asked for a little more, and naturally, the filly had it in her.
“Just past the head of the stretch she loomed to the outside and took the lead,” she says. “She’s just a classy filly.”
Like the horse who got it done for her, the jockey herself has run her own race in a predominantly male industry. She started riding racehorses in 1985 under her maiden name, Tammi Campbell. Her first victory was recorded Aug. 30 that year aboard Go Darby and Joan at Suffolk Downs.
Since that first trip to the Winner’s Circle, Piermarini has experienced the highs and lows of a rollercoaster ride, she says. In the 80s, her career was on fire. She had major victories, including a 1987 win aboard Tour d’Or, according to a story on the Suffolk Downs website.
But the 90s turned dark for her, as recurrent bouts with spinal meningitis and injuries sidelined her from racing. At her lowest point, Piermarini spiraled into a deep depression and lost 30 pounds from her 110-pound frame with sickness so severe she was given last rites by a priest.
But life took a better turn for the jockey when she met and married her husband and agent John Piermarini, and eventually gave birth to their three children, Isabella (9), Johnny (4) and Sophia-Lawren (16 months). Her children, despite all the glory of her career, are still her greatest achievement.
Heading home with her husband Wednesday night after another day of racing, Piermarini reflected on her historic accomplishment.
“It really didn’t hit me until I was about 10 wins away from it. My husband and I were driving home, and he says to me, ‘You know Tam, you really don’t give yourself enough credit. You’ve had a great career and you’re almost at the 2,000 milestone—there’s only four women ahead of you. And none of them had three kids in between (racing seasons).’ ”
She paused for a moment.
“When you’re given the opportunity to ride (great) horses … you can be a super star like Julie Krone,” she says. “I’ve been blessed this year. This is the best decade of my life.”