Newburyport native Tammi Piermarini had aspirations of becoming a surgeon as a child. However, a chance job at a racing farm inevitably led her down a different path — the adrenaline-fueled life of a Suffolk Downs thoroughbred horse jockey.
Last year, Piermarini won four races on opening day to begin a meet-best 100-win season and her first ever Suffolk Downs riding title. She was also named the recipient of the Eli Chiat Award from the New England Turf Writers Association.
Piermarini, a Salem, N.H., resident, never really had the chance to call any certain town "home" for too long. Her family's constant moving forced her to attend schools in several districts including Triton, Pentucket and others in Seabrook, N.H., and Amesbury.
Eager for some extra cash, Piermarini took a baby-sitting job at a farm in Salisbury named Wallace Racing. She had already had experience with show horses, so when the owners asked her for help with the stalls, Piermarini never second-guessed and was soon working in their horse trailers.
At the end of her junior year, Piermarini's parents decided to migrate once more. However, with the blessing of her parents and employers, Piermarini stayed at the Wallace farm and continued taking care for the farm's horses. Not long after that, Piermarini's responsibilities increased and she was given the task of breaking in their yearlings, which inevitably led to her disbanding her ties with show horses. Piermarini was now exclusively grooming and galloping race horses, and even she had no inkling as to how far that would go.
"I was finally really getting into the whole system and such when someone asked me, 'Why don't you become a jockey?'," explained the mother of two (Izabella, 7, and Johnny, 2). "The minute I turned 18 was the moment I was eligible to become a jockey. I received the OK from five different trainers and after that, everything else is history."
Piermarini explained that the demographic of horse racing at Suffolk Downs has changed substantially since she joined.
"When I first started, it was nearly all women who were racing," said Piermarini, who has had more breaks and injuries than any two people. "Now, I'm one of only two women who race."
Along for the ride has been her husband John Piermarini, her husband of nine years as well as agent.
"We met through friends of the race track and eventually went on a double date," explained Piermarini. "On our third date he proposed to me. At first I thought he was joking, but we were married a month later. Of course there are rough days, but we're a great team with even better communication skills, and it shows in our family and our standings."
Their relationship has been a testament to how well Piermarini races. This year, Piermarini is second in the standings but has continued her milestone career with one of the most prestigious sporting opportunities in New England — throwing out the first pitch at a Red Sox game.
"That was so exciting. I loved it," said Piermarini. "It was on my birthday (May 2) and there was a two-hour rain delay. But once my husband, and my daughter and I walked out onto the field it was just an absolute joy.
"I'm used to the crowds, so that wasn't as bad as the possibility of not getting the ball into the catcher's mitt," said Piermarini, who explained how she had practiced throwing a baseball the day before and seemed doomed to miss her target. "That was nerve-racking. But I persevered and the throw was fine."
Piermarini's standard race day, akin to the horses', isn't a walk in the park. Piermarini and her husband get up at 5:10 a.m. and get the kids ready for the nanny. She arrives in Boston around 6:45 a.m. and exercises the horses on the track from 7 to 10. Once that closes, Piermarini has to be up at the jockey's room by 11:00 to weigh herself. From there she looks at the program and tries to set up a game plan as to how to ride the horses. Piermarini then will race six to nine races per day — 32 per week.
When asked why she loves her job, Piermarini had a few answers.
"First, I just love the animal. They're amazingly powerful creatures," said Piermarini. "I love the competition — I hate to lose — and I'm not going to be bashful, the money can be very good.
"The excitement and adrenaline that comes with this profession is very hard to compare to," said Piermarini. "The rush from the gate I guess can be compared to car racing, but even then, it's more of a natural force.
"Just imagine the instance where your adrenaline is at its peak," said Piermarini. "Like if you catch yourself dozing at the wheel or you're about to rear-end another car. That brief and swift reaction. That moment where you snap awake. That's pretty close."
A day in the life of a jockey
Newburyport native Tammi Piermarini was the top jockey at Suffolk Downs last summer. Here is an example of her typical day.
5:10 a.m. Wake up and take her two children to a nanny
5:45 a.m. Drive from Salem, NH to Revere
7 a.m. Exercise horses on the Suffolk Downs track
11 a.m. Weight in with other jockeys
11:30 a.m. Look at race schedule and set a game plan
12 p.m. Racing begins; she will race six to nine times per day
6:30 p.m. Racing ends