Tammi Piermarini

Tammi Piermarini

Suffolk Downs

Inside Track: Overcoming Adversity

Because of the physically demanding nature of competitive sports, it is rare when athletes find their prime after two decades of competing, especially once they hit the magical age of 40.

It is even more uncommon for an athlete to find that prime after overcoming several injuries, a life-threatening illness, and a pair of childbirths. But that is exactly what Tammi Piermarini has done.

Piermarini overcame all of those obstacles, and in 2007, in the 22nd year of her career, became the leading rider at Suffolk Downs, just the third time in the Boston racetrack’s 70-plus-year existence that a woman has accomplished that feat.

What’s even more remarkable, according to Piermarini’s husband, John, was what happened the year before.

“Tammi gave birth to our son (in September of 2006) and a little more than four weeks later she was back riding. And not only riding, but she won four races in her first day back,” said John Piermarini, who met and married Tammi in 1999, and is now her agent. “That is truly amazing.

“The things she has overcome are unbelievable. She had her career interrupted twice by childbirths, and she was so sick in 1998 that she was down to 80 pounds and given her last rites. To endure what she has and still be very good at what she does is unbelievable. I am so proud of her.”

Piermarini grew up in Salisbury, Mass., and developed a love of horses at a young age. After learning to groom, hotwalk, and gallop horses as a child, she set her sights on becoming a jockey. Luckily, Suffolk Downs was one of the most progressive racetracks in the nation as far as affording women opportunities to ride, and in 1985, at the age of 18, Piermarini took out her apprentice license.

“I hit it off pretty well and fairly quickly,” said Piermarini, who rode as Tammi Campbell back then. “I had my first winner on the first horse I ever rode, and it was a first-time starter. I also won at Aqueduct, Belmont, and Gulfstream the first time I ever rode at those tracks. So I was given some nice mounts and got in with some pretty classy outfits right away.”

Despite breaking her knee in that first year, Piermarini carved out a successful career for more than a decade. But in 1994, things took a turn for the worse when she was diagnosed with spinal meningitis. It was the start of a tumultuous five-year stretch.

“It came on in an instant,” Piermarini recalled. “I was riding one day, I was fine and all of a sudden I got a headache. Every race I rode it got worse, until the fourth race. I could barely stay on the horse, but I somehow still won. I was so weak they had to carry me off the horse in the winner’s circle. I went straight to the hospital and they diagnosed me with full-blown meningitis.”

The illness stayed with Piermarini for five years, in varying stages. At that point a part-time rider, Piermarini hit rock bottom in 1998 when she was diagnosed with major depression. Barely able to eat and deathly frail, Piermarini nearly died.

“I was so sick. I thought my world was ending, and really, it was. They read me my last rites,” Piermarini recalled. “It was all caused by the meningitis. I was in the hospital for more than three weeks. My kidneys had shut down.”

Somehow, Piermarini got better. She met John in 1999, started riding full-time again, and had her life back on track. In 2001, the couple had their first child, daughter Izabella. Piermarini returned to riding the following year and was back near the top of the Suffolk jockey standings.

But it wasn’t until 2007 that Piermarini had her breakthrough season. The 40-year-old jockey rode a meet-best 100 winners to take her first-ever riding title. It was an amazing feat for a woman who had overcome so much.

“I was pretty excited and proud,” said Piermarini, who has 1,670 wins and $13,754,488 in earnings during her career to date. “I’ve had a lot of bad luck, injuries, and illness, so it was gratifying. Plus, I did it in a room full of boys. It’s just me and one other woman.

“I don’t have a time limit as far as how long I’ll ride. I feel better now than ever. I love to win, and my goal is to get another riding title in 2008.”