A thrill-seeker’s thirst for adventure has transformed her from firefighter to champion jockey to National Finals Rodeo contender.
TAMI FONTENOT would be a prime prospect for an extreme survival-type television show. Drop her off on a jungle-infested island and she’d thrive, probably win. It’s her kind of challenge. First, she’s from Louisiana. The bugs and heat wouldn’t bother her. Second, she’s a competitor who thrives at the highest level. She’s lived big-time pressure and won.
Fontenot took race riding to the extreme when horses she piloted earned over $9.5 million. She’s still the only female jockey to win Quarter Horse racing’s two most prestigious races – the All American Futurity and the Champion of Champions.
She once broke her back during a spill in a Thoroughbred race and was paralyzed for several weeks. The doctors told Tami she’d be sidelined for two years. She was racing again within five months.
Tami is now taking barrel racing to the extreme with a series win in the Wrangler ProRodeo Winter Tour. Ranking second in the professional standings, she’s on track to her second straight Wrangler National Finals Rodeo.
Growing up in the Louisiana countryside, Tami, 42, was a self-described extreme dreamer. She rode horses, rodeoed with her family and dreamed a lot. This dreamer’s now a role model for all girls blessed with horse-filled dreams.
Tami started her working life in the early 1980s as a firefighter in Austin, Texas. You’d think that would be enough excitement for any young woman.
Not for Tami.
She became bored when she had 48 hours off each week, so she began working with racehorses. By the time she retired from the track in 2000, she was Quarter Horse racing’s all-time leading female rider of money earners.
Tami started campaigning her barrel horse, Elliott, during her final year as a jockey in 2000. She just missed qualifying for the NFR that year – finishing 16th in the regular season standings – but bounced back to qualify for her first NFR last year.
Tami’s rodeo-daredevil lifestyle once went beyond barrel racing. In 2000, she climbed on a bull just two days before riding one of her champion racehorses in a $110,000 race. If she’d been injured while riding the bull she would’ve missed out on the chance for a major paycheck.
Tami says she was always “kamikaze.” More importantly, she was always the girl from Louisiana who – with the loving support of her family and friends – took advantage of her natural talents and innate drive.
“When I was a girl, one day I wanted to be a trick rider and the next day I wanted to be a jockey,” she says. “It was a new dream every day. I daydreamed and if it involved horses I wanted to do it.”
Unlike most jockeys, Tami (who raced with her maiden name of Purcell) didn’t get involved in racing to chase money. Racing involves horses and thrills, so it appealed to Tami’s adventurous spirit.
She started working with horses at Manor Downs, a small track near her fire-fighting base of Austin.
“I thought I could gallop racehorses, have fun and make a few dollars,” Tami says. “I was galloping horses and thought I could breeze (work out) one. Then after breezing them, I thought I could work one from the gate. Then I thought I could race one.”
She raced more than one. She ended up riding in 8,586 Quarter Horse races and notching up 1,588 wins, including 55 stakes wins. (Stakes races are the richest races.)
Tami got her big break when she hooked up with the husband-and-wife training team of James and Donna McArthur. James is a leading Quarter Horse trainer in Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico. Donna has a powerful stable based at Los Alamitos Race Course in southern California. On March 2, 2002, Donna won her 50th stakes race at Los Al. James and Donna are the only husband and wife trainers to have each won the All American Futurity and the Champion of Champions.
“Tami was at Manor Downs when I first saw her,” Donna says, recalling a memory from two decades ago. “I saw her galloping some horses that were really rough. I saw that she had talent, a good work ethic and a divine love for the sport. I told James to get her.”
Tami paid tough dues in a sport in which rivals give no quarter. She knew she had to work to succeed, so she raced at tracks from Louisiana to California. She rode thousands of horses and the more she rode, the more she learned. It wasn’t easy.
Tami gave Thoroughbreds a try in 1991, but returned to Quarter Horse racing.
“I realized I loved the Quarter Horses,” Tami says. “I loved the speed.”
Tami reunited with Donna and the pair made a major impact at Los Alamitos when they arrived in 1994.
“The horses thrived on a lot of hugs and pets,” Tami says. “Donna would listen to me and that sent my confidence through the roof. It was our barn and I admired her for that. Not many trainers will listen to a jockey.”
“We were and are close friends,” Donna says. “It was a 100-percent team effort. She would get off (a horse) and tell me what was going on. Tami was on the horses in the morning and in the races. She knew them.”‘
The Female Factor
Tami and Donna had two of the fastest mares of the 1990s – Dashing Folly and Corona Cash.’ Dashing Folly was a remarkable testament to how patience can lead to success. The First Down Dash daughter raced only three times as a 2-year-old in 1995 and recorded three lackluster fourth-place finishes. She earned $9,075. Hundreds of 2-year-olds had better records that year.’ The McArthur team didn’t push the filly; they gave her time.’ The next year Dashing Folly became the top Quarter Horse from 14,189 starters. She began the year by winning a minor race in March at Manor Downs. Donna then took Dashing Folly to Los Alamitos and she went undefeated for the year, 10 for 10.’ Tami, Donna and the then-3-year-old Dashing Folly beat older mares in the $110,250 Mildred Vessels Handicap in September, beat the West Coast’s best 3-year-olds in the $234,171 Los Alamitos Derby in November, and beat the sport’s best horses in the $300,000 Champion of Champions in December.’ “She was the horse you dream about,” Tami says. “The Champion of Champions was a smooth race. She’d always rear up just a little, we called it tilting, in the gate before a race. When she tilted and came down it was like she was saying, ‘Tami, I’m going to win this for you.'”
Dashing Folly’s 10 wins from 10 starts included seven stakes races and earned $361,526. She was named world champion, champion 3-year-old and champion 3-year-old filly.
The following year Dashing Folly, with Tami riding, was also named champion aged mare. Dashing Folly retired with earnings of $535,841.
Corona Cash was all racehorse. She was good the first day a racing saddle was put on her back in 1997 and she was great by the time she retired in 2000. During her four years of racing she earned $1,542,880.
Corona Cash was meant to be fast – really fast. Her sire, world champion First Down Dash, is the only Quarter Horse to sire the earners of $40 million. Her dam, champion Corona Chick, was one of the fastest mares ever – she still holds Los Alamitos’ 350-yard track record (17.22 seconds), which she set in 1991.
Corona Cash earned $888,690 in just 21.55 seconds when Tami rode her in the All American Futurity.
Tami had her choice of several horses in the All American and chose Corona Cash because the filly was a tenacious competitor.
“We took some bumping at the start,” Tami says. “The inside horse was coming out. When the horse came out it just got Corona Cash mad.”
In those 21.55 seconds Corona Cash, Tami and Donna became the only all-female team to win the All American Futurity. Just nine months earlier, with Dashing Folly, they had become the only all-female team to win the Champion of Champions.
Corona Cash was named champion 2-year-old and champion 2-year-old filly. The next year she was the champion 3-year-old and 3-year-old filly.
Tami and Donna were on top of Quarter Horse racing.
Tami and Elliott
While a nationally prominent jockey in 2000, Tami went back to her high-school rodeo roots by joining the professional barrel-racing circuit. As in racing, she thrived and continues to succeed.
Tami probably didn’t qualify for the 2000 NFR because she put her horse, Elliott, before personal ambition.
“Elliott was young and I backed off on him when I felt things weren’t quite right,” she says. “Looking back, I feel like a winner for waiting. By not pushing him then, I think I have a better horse now.”
Tami earned her first trip to the NFR in 2001. She earned $32,133 and wrapped up the season on the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association circuit with $90,778, good enough for ninth place in the world standings.
Tami’s highlight of the 2001 NFR wasn’t her earnings, but Elliott’s honor. Elliott (who is registered American Quarter Horse Association as Elected Official) was named the second recipient of the Scoti Flit Bar Rising Star Award.
“That award meant a lot because it’s voted on by the girls,” Tami says. “It’s quite a compliment for the horse. It’s special because Elliott and I have been together since day one.” Elliott was purchased by Tami’s husband Keith at a 1991 racehorse yearling sale and has been developed by Tami.
Through all of life’s extreme adventure and record-setting successes, Tami remains focused.
“My main goal is to be the best I can by being a good wife, a good daughter and a good friend,” she says. “Sure, I want to go to the NFR this year. But I’m eating one way or the other. My world doesn’t revolve around wins and success.”
Ty Wyant is the Quarter Horse columnist for the Daily Racing Form and managing editor for Ride with Bob Avila, Spin to Win and The Trail Less Traveled. He lives in Louisville, Colo.The Life and Fast Times of Tami Fontenot