Antoinette Vermette is a retired jockey that rode at Suffolk Downs and Rockingham Park and the Fairgrounds back in the 80’s and this is her story:
FOTH: Where were you born and where did you grow up?
AV: I was born in Boston. I grew up in Brockton, and my high school years I grew up in Lakeville, Ma.
FOTH: What sort of girl were you growing up?
AV: I was very active. Long Pond was our back yard in Lakeville. I did a lot of water skiing in the summer and ice skating in the winter. I was very athletic.
FOTH: Did you come from a big or small family?
AV: I came from a small family, my two brothers and myself. I was the middle child.
FOTH: Did you have a love for horses early on or did that come later on in life?
AV: Yes, I did have a love for horses, and I still do. I miss being around them.
FOTH: So what did you think of a live horse race the 1st time you saw one?
AV: I was so amazed, and I love the excitement.
FOTH: So take me through the steps that led you to becoming a jockey.
AV: My father trained race horses, I had two cousins that were Jockeys, Tony Ricci and Gary Ricci and my grandfather trained race horses too. I was always around them as a child. I wanted to be a veterinarian or a jockey. So I went to a farm in Bridgewater, Bobby Manning's farm to learn how to ride.
FOTH: So did it feel natural getting up on horses at first or did it take some getting used to?
AV: It felt natural the first time and I was told by many trainers that I was a natural. My strength and balance was natural due to mucking out stalls, grooming, and all the physical work that involves race horses.
FOTH: Who taught you how to ride and how long did you exercise horses before you took out your jockey license?
AV: I started out at Bobby Manning's farm. He was a trainer at Suffolk Downs. It took me a little less than a year before I rode a race. I took my time to learn.
FOTH: So when you finally got your license and all what was the actually feeling like of holding that license in your hand?
AV: I was the happiest person in the world knowing that my career was about to begin.
FOTH: So now tell me about your 1st race. Where was it at and how nervous were you in the jock’s room before the race? How about in the paddock and during the post parade?
AV: I was so excited, to be in the jock's room and I was a little nervous. In the post parade I felt like a celebrity, so many fans watching me. In the paddock was amazing too, I would look up in the window above and to see all the people watching was exciting. My heart was pounding with excitement.
FOTH: Where did you end up finishing and were you glad to get that first race out of the way so to speak?
AV: May 18th 1984, I rode my first race at Suffolk Downs. Rave Line was the horse and I finished 6th. Yes, I was happy to have that first race under my belt.
FOTH: So tell me about your 1st win. What track was that at and did you win by a little or a lot? How long did it take you to realize you won the race and what was it like jogging the horse back to the winner’s circle?
AV: I won my first race at Rockingham Park. Back Bay Barron was the horse. I won by a few lengths. This horse was difficult to ride. He was lugging in so badly, I kept him in control while trying to win that race. I had a big smile and I was so proud to be in that winners circle. I felt like 10 feet tall jogging back to the winners circle.
FOTH: Now did the jockeys get you good after the race and did you know it was coming and when you were riding did you get to do it to another jockey?
AV: Yes the jockeys got me good! I have a picture and write up of my first race in my Facebook albums. I knew it was coming and I had to ride the next race full of eggs and I had to quickly was the shaving cream off. It was funny and exciting. Vernon Bush got me pretty good and then the rest of the jockeys followed with water eggs, and shaving cream. I never got the opportunity to do it to another jockey. I would have loved to though.
FOTH: Now when you were riding on a race day, what was a typical race day like for you back then?
AV: It was early morning work outs, visiting my trainers; talking to the trainers I rode for about strategy for the afternoon races and going to the jock's room to relax before the races. I would eat my lunch, read the form, socialize with the jocks, get weighed in and get ready for the races I rode. I would also sit in the Jacuzzi to relax my muscles. I did not have to reduce. I was naturally small and I could eat well and not gain weight.
FOTH: So tell me some of your memories of Suffolk Downs and Rockingham Park and how sad is for you those both of these tracks are now closed and what were some of the jockeys that you rode with back then?
AV: At Rockingham I won my first race, and I ended my bug there too. The day I won the ladies Championship was the end of my bug. I ended it with a trophy. It was a very special day for me. At Suffolk Downs I met my husband there. I started a new career in the racing business; I became an assistant race horse trainer. I feel so sad that the tracks have closed. I have so much history there and so many friends that I have met through the years of being on the race track. Thank God for Facebook, I can keep in touch with my close race track friends. I have to say we were a big family back then. Tammi Piermarini, Vernon Bush, Rudy Baez, Tim Ritvo, Abigail Fuller, Maryann Bogachow, Carl Gambardella, and many more I rode with. The girls' jock room was full back in the 80's. We were all good friends.
FOTH: You also mentioned me to me about riding at the Fairgrounds. What was that experience like for you?
AV: It was different riding at the Fairgrounds. The turns were very sharp, if you had a horse that drifted, it would be dangerous. I had to adjust my irons differently at the half mile tracks to lean into the turns better. We had to go around so many times for longer distance races and remember the count so I didn't blow the race. It was fun to ride at the Fairgrounds.
FOTH: Now did you ride at any racetracks besides the 3 above? If so which ones and did you have a favorite and least favorite out of all of them?
AV: No, I only rode here in New England. I wish I had an opportunity to have ridden out of state. My favorite was Rockingham Park. The atmosphere was so relaxing. During race time we could sit outside the room and hang out. It was such a pretty race track.
FOTH: You told me after you got married you rode a few races under the name Lisa Zirpolo and your nickname was “longshot lisa”. Why this nickname?
AV: I used to ride for the smaller stables, and most of the horses I rode were long shots. I would get the job done with them. One horse Mystic Transport, a Mass Bred, I won on was like reversal of the form. This horse paid $333.00 the tote board lit up like telephone numbers. It went down in history at Suffolk Downs as one of the biggest pay offs.
FOTH: So now what led to you retiring and did you know your last race was going to be your last race at the time?
AV: Yes I knew it was my last race at the time. I did not have an agent, it was becoming a struggle to get better mounts, I was feeling very depressed riding the same horses and not winning. When I did have an opportunity to ride for the bigger stables, I did win. The horses were like Cadillacs. I made the decision to become an assistant trainer and it was just as exciting to watch the horses win from my conditioning.
FOTH: Did your parents support you when you were riding races? Did they come see you ride and go into the winner’s circle?
AV: Yes, my whole family did support me and they did go into the winners circle with me.
FOTH: So you got married and went and got your assistant trainer license. How different was that you being an assistant trainer and not being a jockey? Did you ever ride female jockeys on any of your horses?
AV: Yes, we did ride female jockeys. The difference was I was not winning on the horse but, I was winning off the horse and watching. The winning part felt the same to me as if I was riding the horse.
FOTH: Did you feel you had a certain riding style when you were riding? With you being a former jockey can you tell if a jockey gives a bad ride on a horse?
AV: Yes I can tell when I see if a jockey gave a bad ride. My style of riding was a lot of coming off the pace and getting the job done by a nose, and speed horses were my favorite. Wire to wire was nice, no mud in my face Lol.
FOTH: Now you are out of the horse racing business correct? If so do you miss it a lot?
AV: Yes, I am not in the business anymore. I surely do miss it.
FOTH: What are your thoughts on all these tracks having casinos attached to them to survive? Do you think going forward that more tracks will close and that tracks only with casinos will survive?
AV: Yes, I agree. I feel tracks with casinos would be better off. The racing business has changed so much. The tracks need the revenue and more people to attend. I feel the casinos would bring in a bigger crowd.
FOTH: If some young girl came up to you and said she wanted to become a jockey what would you tell her?
AV: I would tell her you would have to be 100% sure if this what you want to do. You have to be dedicated and this life is a 7 days a week job. Early mornings and long afternoons. I would just tell her to get a good agent, work hard, try to get yourself in with the bigger stables, and never give up.
FOTH: Did you get along with all the male jockeys back then or did you have to put some in their place so to speak?
AV: I did get along with them all, back then we were all like family. And yes, if I had to put them in their place I certainly would. I have put Stewart Elliot and Nick Petro in their place at one time. Stewart Elliot yelled at me to back out of a hole that I saw at the same time as him. I didn't back out and I won the race. It was for the late Peter Fuller, and trainer Ned Allard.
FOTH: How many injuries did you have and what was the worst one?
AV: I had a few. I broke my collar bone and tore ligaments in my left knee. Right after my first win at Rockingham I rode a horse that Sandy Dimauro warned me about. This horse was a psycho but I did not listen. I came out of the gate and the horse ran up on heels and dropped me. That was when I was knocked out and broke my collar bone.
FOTH: Over your career what were some of the highlights of it?
AV: Winning the ladies championship at Rockingham, winning on the horse that paid a huge ticket, and of course my first win.
FOTH: Antoinette I am out of questions, thumbs up for doing this interview any last words the floor is yours?
AV: Thank you as well for interviewing me. You took me back to my wonderful days of being a jockey. I just wish I could have rode longer, had an agent, and rode for the bigger stables. I have no regrets, that I did change my career from jockey to assistant trainer. Winning was the same feeling whether I was a jockey or a trainer. It's a life I enjoyed and will be in my heart forever. I tell people what I did for a living and they are amazed to meet me knowing I was a jockey. Here in New England you don't hear of this life anymore due to the tracks not open anymore. It's such a shame. I hope you enjoy my answers. Have a wonderful day. It was a pleasure to do this.
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