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A high-flying ladybug
Frank Deford
November 25, 1974
Suffolk Downs' leading rider is a woman. And an apprentice. Now, the latter means more than the former to Denise Boudrot
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November 25, 1974

A High-flying Ladybug

Suffolk Downs' leading rider is a woman. And an apprentice. Now, the latter means more than the former to Denise Boudrot

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Above all, you must understand that the important thing right now in Denise Boudrot's career is not that she is a lady, but that she is a bug. She will always be a lady, but after Dec. 20 she will never again be a bug. Just one more month to live in a storybook, and then we shall see.

A bug is an apprentice jockey, the name derived from the asterisk inscribed in a racing program to indicate that a horse has been granted a five-pound weight allowance as compensation for being steered by a novice. Thus: DEVIL'S GULCH *111 DENISE BOUDROT. If this were Dec. 20, that entry would read: DEVIL'S GULCH 116 DENISE BOUDROT. Or worse, maybe it would read: DEVIL'S GULCH 116 PAUL CAPABLO, or even: DEVIL'S GULCH *111 BENITO CARRASCO. There are few things in sports so disposable as yesterday's apprentice.

This is not merely a practical matter, like the pitches a rookie will not see the second time around the league. For the jockey it can be going from the sublime to the ridiculous. Some pimply little kid—"Hey, Sonny, as short as you are, you ought to be a jockey"—catches on how to hustle a horse out of the gate and to hang on for dear life. A wily agent materializes, cadges a couple of live rides off trainers who owe him favors, and suddenly everybody on the backstretch is standing in line to get the wonder bug boy up on their stock. Bugs who ride like sacks of potatoes have been known to win national jockey titles.

The day an apprentice loses the weight advantage—one calendar year after his fifth win—is when reality hits full force. Trainers start telling the kid that they're "going with experience." There might not be a track in the country where at least one old jock isn't sweating weight in the box, gobbling water pills, scrambling to get up on any long shot, willing to hold any horse for a small price, who remembers the glory months, years ago, when he was the hot bug, when every live mount was his (plus a gaudy Cadillac, cash down, and a bottle blonde to go with it), and the vista of unlimited riding greatness ahead that ended, alas, exactly a year to the day after his fifth win. All the poets, all the painters, all the lovers and the dreamers, none could ever describe the ultimate splendor and promise of youth so well as the ethereal look on the baby face of a hot bug as he comes back with another winner, waving his whip in salute at a cheering world.

Denise, 22, is such a bug. Miss Boudrot (pronounced exactly like Lou Boudreau) is far and away the leading rider at Suffolk Downs in Boston. Since it seems certain she also will be the first woman jockey ever to be a leading apprentice at a major track, she is, in a very real sense, the start of a second generation of female riders. The first entered through the side door, so to speak, when women were allowed onto the tracks four years ago: jockettes. Some were merely manifestations of the fad. The best of those that hung on and prospered were tempered with a pioneer toughness, generally cast out of difficult, even mean, childhoods, which gave them the steel to endure rejection, mockery and—inevitably—casting-couch gossip whenever they did gain mounts. Robyn Smith, a stunning, graceful beauty who had dabbled in Hollywood, felt almost obliged to deny her attractiveness and retreat into contrived mysteries; Mary Bacon, brazen as she looked, rode a winner practically on the way to the maternity ward, and accommodated Playboy's usual photographic demands. One of the first days Denise was ever at a track, she saw a woman rider dismount and slug a startled male rival.

Denise is like those original jockettes only in gender. What she is, is a bug. Her true colleagues are boys, boys like Chris McCarron, an apprentice who grew up as she did only a few miles from Suffolk Downs in a Boston suburb. He is now the leading rider in the country. Or Darrel McHargue, mature and clever, one of the leading bugs in the nation last year, who proved to be the real McCoy and has kept on winning without the weight advantage.

Boudrot may be able to follow that script, too. She is smart, patient on a horse—"cool" is the word frequently employed in her behalf. Unlike most bugs who ride hell-for-leather, out wide, whipping frantically, Boudrot is known for dropping down on the rail, saving ground, working the fiercest territory. "She plays that rail, she makes it count," says John Mieli, a veteran trainer who never even considered using a girl jockey before he saw Boudrot ride. Even in the low-dollar sprints that dominate the Suffolk card, most of Denise's wins come from off the pace, rating.

After a race she returns to the lady jocks' dressing room and watches the rerun. Tom Stanski, her valet, joins her. "Come on, come on," Denise calls, rooting for herself. She is third in the stretch on a sore-kneed plater named Seductive Silver, who quit in his last race, under a boy rider, as odds-on favorite. Out front, a filly named No Unhappyness, ridden by Ovidio Diaz, looks safely home.

In the men's jockey quarters, the boys are also watching the rerun on their TV, seeing Denise steering Seductive Silver off the rail, around a tiring challenger and taking aim on No Unhappyness. At the sixteenth pole she is still two lengths back, yet she tucks away her bat and merely hand-rides her mount, pushing, coaxing, in the animal's own rhythm. "Look at that," says a rider. "She don't touch him but the one time."

Denise watches herself win and then switches over to the soap opera. "Well, how do you feel getting beat by her, Ovi?" another boy says to Diaz, but it is a friendly jibe, without rancor. At Suffolk almost every jockey has been beaten by Denise, and they have learned to live with it, which is not an easy thing for these little men who have discovered a place of their own in a big person's world.

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