When Suffolk Downs began letting horses on the track April 22 to start preparations for the new season — which opens Saturday — one jockey made sure she was first in line.
There’s a reason Tammi Piermarini has been the leading rider at Suffolk Downs each of the past three years. Lots of reasons, actually, but the commitment to getting up on a thoroughbred and back on the track as quickly as possible — especially after a long winter — is one of the ways Piermarini has distanced herself, at least locally, from her peers.
This is someone, after all, who was riding in races with staples still in her stomach, two weeks after giving birth by C-section.
“I wasn’t supposed to even be driving for six weeks, but I was riding,” Piermarini said in a telephone interview this week from her home in Leominster. “That’s my love, that’s my passion, that’s my job. It’s all I want, so I couldn’t get to [the horses] quick enough when they opened.”
The 46-year-old mother of three made her Suffolk debut in 1985, won her first career race at the East Boston track, and is currently third all time in wins by female jockeys in the United States, behind Julie Krone and Rosemary Homeister.
Just don’t ask her exactly how many times she’s crossed the line first.
“I think I have 2,194 wins or 2,195 wins, and believe it or not, I feel that there’s more than that, but they haven’t been found yet,” Piermarini said. “My goal is to win over 3,000 races and find a big horse and make it to the [Kentucky] Derby.”
She’ll take as many mounts as she can get this summer, forced to seek employment with whoever’s hiring because, unlike past years, she doesn’t have a regular outfit with a steady stable of horses. That has made her somewhat of a free agent, able to ride for a larger collection of owners and trainers, instead of just a few.
But it also means that Piermarini is in the position of having to prove herself all over again to anyone looking for a jockey.
“They know I can ride, but I have to start from scratch, because I have to get my foot in the door first,” she said. “Is it fair? It happens to everybody.
“We don’t have as many horses as last year yet, so it’s going to be hard, it’s going to be a tough challenge. But I’m going to make it tough on everybody.
“You can’t have a negative attitude. Negativity gets you nowhere in this business.”
Piermarini is part of an impressive group of female jockeys who have had success at Suffolk, especially recently. Piermarini finished first in the track’s 2012 jockey standings, ahead of Jackie Davis (second), Andria Terrill (fourth), and Jill Jellison (12th).
“We’re doing OK, the girls,” said Terrill, who debuted at Suffolk last year and is back for her second season, expecting to ride in eight of Saturday’s nine races. “Jackie, Tammi, and me probably ride the most races out of everybody.
“Everyone that rides horses is competitive, they’re athletic. When you go back to the room, everything’s fine, there’s friendships there, but when we’re on the track, I’m not going to give up my position for you. It doesn’t matter if you’re male or female.”
Being fairly gender-blind has also been Jay Bernardini’s no-nonsense approach. The owner/trainer has put both men and women on his horses, because when it involves your livelihood, one characteristic stands out more than anything else.
“If they can get the horses to run, that’s the important part of it,” said Bernardini, who expects to have six horses running on opening day. “I don’t think it’s ever anything personal against the male jockeys, because there are some good ones here, as well.
“But at some point, this is all business and financial, so it doesn’t matter if they’re male or female. Ultimately, it’s who’s getting the horses to run the fastest. That is the most important factor.”
Live racing returns to Suffolk Downs with a nine-race card on Saturday (post time 12:45 p.m.) and continues through Nov. 2, which is Breeders’ Cup weekend.
The initial schedule offers racing on Saturdays, Mondays, and Wednesdays, with Tuesdays being added from July 9-Oct. 1.
There’s also a special day of racing on July 4, a Thursday.
As always, parking and admission are both free, but for Saturday’s opening day, fans donating $10 — all of which will go to the One Fund Boston — will receive a commemorative T-shirt or hat, with the track’s logo adapted to incorporate the blue-and-yellow color scheme used by the Boston Athletic Association for the Boston Marathon.
The Massachusetts Handicap will not be run this year, but that doesn’t mean it’s gone forever.
“We’d love to bring it back,’’ said Suffolk Downs CEO Chip Tuttle, “as part of a whole stakes program, as well as additional Mass.-bred stakes. That’s part of the long-term planning if we’re successful in earning a gaming license.’’
The horses won’t like the weekend heat, but they’ll be ready to run. For the jockeys, owners, and trainers, the long winter wait is finally over.
“It’s a pretty good time around here, lots of excitement,” said Bernardini. “It’s a fun, beautiful day, watching the horses run, especially for someone who’s never seen it live before.
“You never know, with a little bit of luck, you don’t even need skill, you can actually leave with more money than you came.”