Article by Julie Mankin – Photographs by John Brasseaux.
Spring is still shaking winter off early one May morning as Tami Purcell leads a saddled half-wild dun mare through the Texas oaks up the hill to the pattern in the pasture.
“When she got here, this mare would pull back,” Purcell says. “She’d walk all over you. You couldn’t ride her in the pasture – she’d just walk on her hind legs and lunge. You couldn’t bridle her out there or get on her. She’d be foaming wet even in winter.”
She says this matter-of-factly. While most self-respecting horsewomen wouldn’t even step on the 7-year-old mare knowing this, especially out in the open in an icy breeze on the dewy grass, Purcell looks forward to it. After all, it’s her specialty.
The NFR barrel racer and winningest female jockey in history actually craves a “problem horse” – a horse that’s always doing its own thing – because she can relate.
The daughter of Bob and Joy Purcell grew up in Dripping Springs, Texas, just south of Austin, where her baby brother Todd is now the mayor. He’s also a fireman, like their grandfather was, and like Tami was going to be when she became the first female to go through the local fireman cadet class (she’d been pondering a gymnastics scholarship to Louisiana State University when she’d heard the fire department was hiring).
The extremely close Purcell family still had her back when the tiny horsewoman changed her mind and jumped with both feet into a career heavily dominated by men – horse racing.
“I moved out to California because I wanted to be around better riders,” she said. I’d tell people, ‘I’ll clean your stalls if you’ll just let me lope your horse.’ I offered to babysit for [Danny] Cardoza and Shoemake [Willie Shoemaker], and begged them to let me help them gallop their horses. So then they’d start telling me to try this or do that.”
Purcell survived by babysitting, cleaning houses and galloping horses, living on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Fear wasn’t in this female’s repertoire, and just for a chance to get a foothold in that male hierarchy, she’d ride anything.
“One time, there was this horse that everybody told me, ‘don’t ride him; don’t even get on him.’ Well, it was too late because I’d already said I’d ride him,” she recalled. “It was summertime and he had long hair, and his feet were so overgrown you couldn’t see his shoes, plus I think a hind shoe was missing. They didn’t even have a bridle; just grabbed one at the last minute that wasn’t even a racing bridle. The one guy was in a neck brace and his eyes were black and blue; and there was his wife over by the fence on crutches.”
Purcell won that race by four lengths, on what she learned later was one of the last sons of Go Man Go.
“Other jockeys thought I was crazy and desperate, and I guess I was,” she said. “Sometimes a horse would flip in the paddock and the jockey would refuse to get on him. They’d look for someone else and I’d raise my hand.
“But when you’re just getting started, you have to take the bad if you want to get up that ladder,” she explained. “Especially as a woman, you can’t whine or cry; you just take your licks.”
The dun mare doesn’t like being penned up, Purcell tells me, so lately she’s been turned out to get fat and happy. And because tie-downs make the mare stop and freeze up, she uses a martingale with less resistance.
“These trees are great,” Purcell says, pointing to the thick grove between the barn and pasture. “I’ll take an alley-sour horse and just ride in the pasture or through the trees. I want to remove the pressure. I might haul one to three different alleys and just score him.”
Purcell knows a thing or two about resistance and pressure. To not only survive in a man’s world but become one of the best in it, she didn’t focus on her gender. She stayed to herself and just worked hard.
“Jockeys today have grown up with women riders, but when I started, those older guys were like “what are you doing here?” she recalled.
To deal with the skeptics and the chauvinists, Purcell used humor.
“Sometimes a guy would doubt me on a horse, saying, ‘I don’t know if she can hold this horse.’ So I’d joke with him and say, ‘Well, I’m going to let my horse run, actually. I’m not going to hold him; I’m going to let him go.’
Unlike a lot of the jockeys trying to make weight, Purcell never needed to diet. She had a good metabolism and stayed in shape. She was just as strong as the guys who were taking Lasix and sitting in the “hot box,” because she was eating breakfast, lunch and supper.
It wasn’t all roses and paychecks, however. Over the years, Purcell had racehorses stumble and fall, break down with her, jump the rail, and flip in the gate on top of her. The woman has broken every bone in her body, including several that she didn’t take the time to get checked out.
A horrific wreck in 1992 in Benton, La., broke her back and all of her ribs and left her in intensive care for almost a month. Doctors said she’d never ride again. They advised a year of rehabilitation. She was back in the saddle in six months.
Once Purcell mounts up, I watch with trepidation as the mare, with a significant hump in her back, begins grabbing her butt and leaping spastically with Purcell.
“I don’t mind this,” she calls out to me. “She’s happy and feels good, and I’ll ride her through it. She can’t take a spanking.”
Purcell has won every major Quarter horse race and many prestigious rodeos, but the name of two-time champion Toast To Dash graces the trophy buckle she wears from Manor Downs because that’s where she started racing. In her 27-year career, Purcell mostly raced in Louisiana, but also flew out to California and New Mexico.
Another of her decorated winners was Dash N Folly. And Purcell is the only woman to have ever won the All American Futurity, hitting that winner’s circle in 1996 on a filly named Corona Cash.
A few years earlier, the racetrack was also where she first met up with a renegade gray gelding named Elected Official. The quarter-Thoroughbred runner had bucked too hard in the gates as a 2-year-old for anyone to want to keep him. Purcell had seen him around, scrawny and ugly and unpopular. Finally, he was headed to the killers, so she decided to take him and try to find him a home.
“I was an outcast, too,” she said. “I guess I was a loner, always being around horses and kind of awkward.”
When she found a prospective buyer, “Elliot,” as he came to be known, bucked the girl off and broke her arm, so with Purcell he stayed. By 1997, she still had Elliot for sale, but he just wouldn’t stop bucking. So, with barrel racing being her first big passion, Purcell ran him herself. Her family would meet her on the road with him between races.
Purcell and Elliot qualified for the 2001 and 2002 NFRs, finishing ninth in the world both years. Toward the end of the 2001 season, though, Elliot had gotten hurt and, after surgery, needed a long break. At that point, Purcell’s decade-long marriage had ended (her married name was Fontenot), and she migrated back to the track.
Surprising even herself, Purcell went right back to winning in what she considered to be a late stage of her career. Unfortunately in 2006, a racehorse wreck in Lafayette, La., broke Purcell’s neck and shattered her collarbone. Finally, she called it quits, recuperating as her great gelding had five years before.
Watching her with the mare, asking but never demanding; tolerant but commanding respect, it’s not hard to see how she made a bronc into an NFR horse.
“I never overdo her,” Purcell is saying to me as she rides by. “Some would think you camp on these kinds of horses out here, but not her. She just gets hotter. The key is to walk away when you can. I’ve ridden some horses into the alley at a barrel race and then turned around and went back to the trailer with them.”
A recuperated Purcell had told her family a week before Labor Day last year that she was coming home, and by Labor Day weekend they were already setting the posts on a new barn for her. The now-complete training facility, built near Johnson City on the property of Tami’s sister and brother-in-law, Tracy and Doug Smith, is a short drive from Tami’s home in Dripping Springs. Purcell says she couldn’t have done anything in her career without her family (which also includes an older sister, Teri,) and she’s grateful today for the support of her boyfriend, Wayne Burklund.
As for Elliot, he has the best digs at the new barn. The 18-year-old grandson of Beduino, out of Native Mary by Dancing Dervish, was still running tough in 2005 when he won the 1D at the Josey Reunion Round-Up. But through this spring, his prognosis after having a tendon slip off his hock was that he wouldn’t run again.
Purcell can’t say she wouldn’t rodeo again if a horse came along, but she’s enjoying staying close to home. She’s fairly sound, and takes nothing but an occasional Advil. A little torn cartilage in one knee might force her under the knife at some point, but not if she can help it.
I watch her unsaddle the dun mare, and ask her if she ever worries about having another wreck on one of these “problem” barrel horses.
“I don’t really think about it,” she says, half-laughing. “I just like to ride.”
Purcell’s single-minded love of horses has won her a multitude of fans, including “the pretty good bunch of guys” on the track that at first were hesitant and even gruff when Purcell came on the scene. One time after losing a dog, she spotted a mutt she really wanted, but the owner wouldn’t sell. The Jockey Club in Louisiana took up a collection, paid the guy some $400, and surprised her with the dog.
She has that effect. Elliot, for instance, used to colic when she would leave him. Simply being near her makes him lick and chew. He still bucks (he’ll do it on cue at Purcell’s request). And she still rides him bareback every morning. As for the dun mare, she’s “doing really good,” and has new owners.
Purcell has an effect on more than just the inside of a horse. She’s gleaned some valuable insights from her old vet, Ed Boldt, DVM, who also is an acupuncturist, and is working on getting certified in equine massage and acupressure. She’s also excited about not only changing horses’ lives, but helping out her fellow barrel racers.
“When you’re rodeoing, you can’t give your horses time to heal – you’ve just got to get to the vet and get on to the next one,” she says. “I’m creating a place where you can send your horse if you need to get him off the road. He can come here and we can rehabilitate his mind, or get one legged up after an injury.”
Purcell, who will be getting a Web site up soon, has conducted clinics in the past, and is planning one soon in Louisiana that will incorporate a holistic approach.
“It’s more of a boot camp for girls who really want to go on the road, or are headed to college,” she said. “It’ll be about taking care of horses from the bottom up – not just on the barrels.”
Purcell’s track record for taking care of horses speaks for itself. Elliot, whom Purcell said in May wasn’t sound, has since come back 100 percent and in early October was happily in her trailer headed to a jackpot.
Sixteen years ago, ironically, they were both supposed to be done.
Julie Mankin is an avid barrel racer and roper as well as a regular contributor to Barrel Horse News. E-mail comments on this article to [email protected].