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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

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.

"The ones who are jealous of Denise are the other girls around the track," says Vickie McElhiney, a 20-year-old trainer. "That's the only place you'll hear any bad talk about her."

Mike Carrozzella, long a leading rider in New England, has helped teach Boudrot the ropes. He says with some chagrin, "It's all changed around. She's the first girl jockey ever to get mounts because she is a girl. Guys around here are saying, well, I can't win with a boy, so let's try 'the broad.' "

"The broad"—it is said blandly, in the neutral manner of "the boy" or "the six-horse"—has won 63 races at the meeting (five of them on a single day two weeks ago) and has been in the money 50% of the time. And now almost every horse she rides goes down several numbers off the morning line. Usually in a pattern. As soon as the mutuels open there is a quick drop in odds—the housewife money coming in—then a leveling off till the very end, and another drop, the smart money. But if the fans are creating false favorites for her, and if the four-letter gutter word for woman ricochets about the grandstand when she loses, Denise remains a most popular rider. "Go home and have a baby" is about the most pointed remark she ever hears.

But then, Boudrot has caught everyone by surprise at Suffolk's fall meeting. She had not ridden since last May 26, when a rogue horse suddenly bolted for the outside and crashed full speed into the rail, his chest leaving an indentation still visible. Denise thudded to the ground, landing in a drainage ditch with a broken leg. She also was out several months late last year when a mount clipped heels and she wrenched her back in the resultant fall. Oh, she is a tough cookie, and brave. "Even when I was little I had no fear," she says.

She is strong, too—4'11", 104, a size 3, but more compact and full-breasted than most girl jocks. Her pale, placid face seems nearly always in repose, with narrow eyes that calmly receive the world around them, sometimes blue, other times green, sometimes hazel, given the right light and mood. She lives with a Chihuahua and two cats in an apartment near Suffolk, eats whatever she pleases, smokes quite a bit, bets not at all. She speaks well, if in the classic broad-A Boston accent. Disposition? It can only be said that Denise Marie Boudrot is sweet.

But she is nobody's fool, understand that. "The racetrack is a world all to itself," she says. "I've been very lucky. There's a lot of heartaches and heartbreaks here, and I'm not nearly as naive as when I first came. I used to believe everybody, but I've learned about people. I guess I've toughened up."

She came naturally to that initial attitude of trust, nurtured by a loving, secure family, and having lived a perfectly unremarkable life. She grew up a tomboy—"Sam, "friends called her—in Burlington, Mass., a few miles north of Boston, the second child and only daughter of a French-Irish marriage. At 12 she got her first pony. She graduated from Burlington High in 1970 and worked as a supermarket check-out girl, in a snack bar and on an assembly line before landing a stable job for $60 a week.

With her earnings from riding (her mounts have won nearly $400,000 in purses) she bought her parents a farm last spring in Elloree, S.C. They named it the Longshot Lady Farm. Nelson Boudrot, who had been a production foreman, retired, and he and his wife Julia settled there. Then a month ago, Julia Boudrot dropped dead.

"I'm sorry these sad things come up," someone says to Denise.

"No, don't be sorry," she replies. "All their lives my father and mother had to work and scrimp for money. And then for those five or six months they had together in South Carolina they could relax, and my father could buy her things he wanted to for the first time. Don't be sorry. Those were very happy times."

Her own personal life?

"I don't want to get married now. It's hard for me even to date away from the track because all my interests are here, which is not a good way to be, I know. Still, you should do things right, just like for a marriage to be done right the woman should devote her whole self to her family, her kids, her house."

Right after Denise loses her bug next month Suffolk closes, and she will leave for South Carolina to work near her own farm with Trainer Junie Bresnahan. He is the man who first taught her to ride thoroughbreds. He still has her under contract. She will not be back to the races until next spring—without the bug. She appears to have the strength, the heart and the brains to make it as a journeyman, to duplicate the success of McHargue after he lost the bug, or of Tony DeSpirito, the last New England jock to fulfill the promise of a fabled apprenticeship. But then, so many bugs have failed, been left to ride out nondescript careers with nothing but the tarnished memory of that one glorious year of youth when it seemed that life and weight would always be so easy to make.

"I don't think five pounds is so much anyway," Denise says, and firmly. "Maybe on a little filly, but not for most horses." She shrugs, and when the low winter sun glances off her golden hair, it is easy to dream for the lady.