On second thought

She’s enjoying the ride

By Kevin Paul Dupont
Globe Staff / August 24, 2011

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Tammi Piermarini was back on the job yesterday, pointing horses toward the finish line at Suffolk Downs, adding to the total tonnage of her career résumé. She brought home The King’s Girl for a win in the fourth race at the East Boston oval and directed Fort Pyramid first over the line in the seventh.

Piermarini’s total for her seven races: two wins, one place, one show, and $15,388 in earnings. She followed all of that with a quiet drive home to Leominster, one of horse racing’s most successful female jockeys luxuriating in roughly an hour’s peace and restorative decompression before officially surrendering her silks for her No. 1 gig as mom to Izabella (9), Johnny (4), and Sophia-Lawren (16 months).

“I came home Monday night and I was on Cloud 9,’’ said Piermarini, who that day became only the fifth female jockey to reach the 2,000-win plateau. “When I got home, the kids came running out, screaming, ‘Mom!, Mom! Mom!’ and it was all hugs and kisses.

“It was fabulous. Yeah, let me tell you . . . a mighty fine time.’’

Piermarini, 44, originally from Salisbury, began her racing career at Suffolk in 1985 as an apprentice jockey. Over the course of 26 years, three pregnancies, repeated bouts of debilitating spinal meningitis, and upward of $17 million in purse winnings, she diligently has carved out one of the sport’s more impressive careers for a woman. Not that she really considers “for a woman’’ to be a necessary qualifier in the overall discussion of her time in the saddle, because she now has exactly 14,206 races and, oh, the odd dustup in the jocks room with some of her brothers is ample evidence that she considers her sport a level playing field.

“You know what? I don’t look like a woman on a horse,’’ said the 5-foot-3-inch, 110-pound Piermarini, as refreshingly blunt and compact as her physical presence. “I look like a man on a horse. I’m not really built like a typical female, either. I’m more like a man, with lots of muscle. When I’m at the track, when I’m competing, I consider myself one of the boys.’’

So much so, said Piermarini, that over the years she hasn’t been timid about settling a disagreement or two with her male peers the way guys sometimes do. When words fail, a more direct approach may be necessary.

“Hey, we’re a family, a one-of-a-kind family, I really believe that,’’ she said. “Families sometimes fight. I’ll admit, I’ve had to be pulled off some of the guys a few times.

“Look, we’re jockeys, and we’re all the same size, right? I’m not afraid of them because they’re guys. They don’t treat me like a girl and I don’t treat them like they’re big guys, because, well, they’re not.’’

This is a woman, after all, who has fought bigger battles than fending off the horse hard on her heels or dealing with a fellow jock who has a horsefly under his hard hat.

Piermarini, who began her career riding under her maiden name, Tammi Campbell, took an extended break from racing in the ’90s because of the meningitis attacks. Doctors told her that the flareups stemmed from a case of the virus she contracted as an infant, which led then to a three-month stay at Children’s Hospital.

When the illness flared up in the mid ’90s, some 10 years and 984 wins into her career, she needed nearly four years away from the track to recover. Compounding her troubles, a severe bout of depression followed, her weight plummeting to an emaciated 80 pounds, her kidneys temporarily shutting down, a priest summoned to give her last rites.

“All of that was a tough go, I’ll admit it,’’ she said. “The depression hit me and it hit me hard. But I’m here - I’m here and I’m riding strong.’’

Win No. 2,000, her 1,586th at Suffolk, came with Piermarini aboard Sugar Trade, nearly 26 years after she rode Go Darby And Joan to her first career win at Suffolk on Aug. 30, 1985. Her two yesterday leave Piermarini 17 wins from tying Vicki Baze for fourth place on the women’s all-time victory list. She hopes to eclipse the likes of Patti Cooksey (2,137), Rosemary Homeister (2,438), and even perhaps her idol, Julie Krone (3,704), the only woman to win a Triple Crown race (1993 Belmont, aboard Colonial Affair).

“I don’t know if I can catch Julie, but I want to win 3,000,’’ said Piermarini, whose husband, John, is also her agent. “These past 10 years have been my best and I’ve done that while having three kids, too.

“Think about that: That’s nine months of pregnancies three times, right? And I had my share of injuries, too. But I’ve kept at it and I’ve kept winning. I love to win. So if I have no more kids, and I really get on a tear, I could hit 3,000 in five years, maybe even less.’’

She’ll report back to East Boston this morning, another day of taking on the field and the odds. When the card opens, she will enter with 2,002 wins, 1,820 places, and 1,812 shows. She has finished in the money in 39.7 percent of her starts, reported to the winner’s circle in 14.1 percent.

“I was born with the gift; God gave me the hands,’’ mused Piermarini, asked how she’s come by her success. “This is my passion, and I’d do it for free.

“To be successful, you need the hands, you have to have a sense of pace, know the clock, have the ability to decide - when to move in and out of the pack, finish strong.

“And most of all, you need the horse. I’d say the horse is 80 percent of it. Without the horse, I have nothing.’’

For all those 2,002 career wins, Piermarini credits countless owners, trainers, groomers, and hot walkers through the years. As one example, she said, the faith and trust of trainer Marcus Vitali this season has been a key ingredient to her track-leading 64 triumphs. And after a quarter-century of making weight and having three kids, winning also takes discipline and a diet high in protein.

“A 12-ounce steak, topped with tons of bleu cheese and lots and lots of peppers,’’ said Piermarini. “That’s my kind of meal - I like things hot.’’

And it doesn’t look like she’ll cool off any time soon.

Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at