Standing on the rail during the running of Saturday's Gulfstream Park Oaks, former University of Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino was ecstatic when the filly he owns a part of came flying down the outside of the track to score her first graded stakes victory. He turned to trainer Dale Romans and Romans' long-time partner Tammy Fox with giddy joy evident on his face, then shouted, “Put her up on my shoulders!”
Before she knew what was happening, Romans hoisted the four-foot-six-inch tall Fox into the air and plopped her down on Pitino's back. Fox took it all in stride, celebrating the victory of “Coach Rocks” with the connections, but the 53-year-old was undoubtedly grateful when her feet returned to ground level.
“It certainly made for a good picture,” Fox said, laughing good-naturedly.
Coach Rocks, a 3-year-old daughter of Oxbow, now has a spot in the starting gate for the Kentucky Oaks. Though Pitino is currently intent on upholding his boycott of the city of Louisville, there is no doubt Fox will be there, standing beside Romans as the fillies turn for home on the first Friday in May.
She has been beside Romans since 1990, and the couple have two children together: Bailey, 25, and Jacob, 22. Fox's passion for the horses, however, goes back to her earliest memories of a shed row at Louisiana's Jefferson Downs.
Her father, Billy Fox Sr., was both a jockey and a trainer in Louisiana. Tammy Fox grew up on the racetrack and dreamed of being a professional jockey, but her short stature meant she was somewhat limited in terms of the barn chores she could perform.
“My job was to keep the horses on the walking wheel moving, and to scrub and fill up the water buckets,” she remembered. “They were heavy, but I didn't mind because I knew I needed to be strong. I was willing to do everything it took in order to ride, so I even started filling up milk jugs with water and carrying them around with me.”
In spite of her diminutive frame, or perhaps because of it, Fox became a hard-knocking jockey for her father's stable. She left high school at age 16 to ride for a season at Churchill Downs, then returned to the Fair Grounds where she became the leading apprentice rider. For the next 20 years, Fox primarily rode her father's stable of 30 to 40 horses, racking up a total of 236 wins and earnings of nearly $3.5 million.
One of the fondest memories of her father was his habit of carrying a stopwatch on long trips. Fox would be driving, and he would pull out the stopwatch for their “game.”
“He'd tell me to go an eighth of a mile in 12, in 11 and four, all different times,” said Fox. “It helped me develop a really good clock in my head for when I'm working horses… Even when I'm watching a work from up in the stands, I can clock them accurately in my head while all the guys around me have stopwatches out.”
She and her father were close through that time, but it wasn't until she met Romans that Fox understood how hard her career could make her father's task as a trainer. Certain owners were more accepting of Fox riding their horses than others, and any time she made a mistake it came down hard on her father.
“Dale knew which owners would be okay with riding me on their horses, and which ones not to ride me on,” Fox explained. “Looking back, I should have been more understanding of the situation I put my dad in when I was riding… I guess I appreciate him more now.”
Fox doesn't ride in the afternoons anymore, but that doesn't mean she considers herself retired, exactly.
“When that time comes, I know I'm really going to miss it,” she said. “I'd still rather be riding, because I just love the competitiveness of it that much.”
Some of that competitive drive has carried over to the barn in the morning training hours. One of her favorite tasks is to ride all the new 2-year-olds because they are the most honest and hard-trying of all the horses in the barn. Fox is also trying to figure out which ones are the potential stars.
How accurate is the Fox-o-meter?
“About 99.9 percent,” she laughed. “The .1 percent was actually a horse you've probably heard of; Kitten's Joy. I got on him for one of his first works, I think it was a half-mile on the dirt in :53 or :54. I got off and said I didn't like him. Then they wouldn't let me get back on him!
“But when they worked him on the turf course, you could just see how everything about his way of going changed. And just look at him now!”
Fox first rode Coach Rocks at Churchill Downs in the fall, after the filly had run at Saratoga on the grass. Romans asked her opinion on whether the filly was a dirt or a grass horse, and Fox unequivocally said “dirt.”
“She's a classy, gentle, kind filly, easy to be around in the barn,” said Fox. “She has this really long stride… When I'm breezing her she might get five furlongs in a minute, but it hardly feels like she's going that fast.”
That's one of the signs of a good horse, obviously, which Fox would recognize based on the horses she's ridden for Romans in the mornings. Some of her favorites include First Dude, who loved to stop and pose for the cameras, Tapitsfly, the tomboy-tough mare who oozed class from the start, and Silver Max, a “special, special horse” who has the unfortunate problem of constantly running against Wise Dan on the turf.
“When those horses are that special, you just remember them a lot,” Fox added, reflecting. “You know, this business is a lot of fun. I get to meet people and make friends from all over the world, and I just wouldn't trade it.”
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