By Chelsea Hackbarth for The Paulick Report

It’s not every day a horse draws out to a 20-length lead in the early stages of a race. Even rarer is for that horse to go on and win once the pack catches up to him. But that’s exactly what happened April 2 at Turf Paradise, when jockey Natasha Coddington rode Blue Bomber to victory in the $27,000 Wildcat Handicap. It was the first stakes victory for both horse and rider.

Contested at 11 furlongs over the turf course, the race began on the backside and consisted of 1 ½ laps around the Arizona track. By the time Coddington and Blue Bomber reached the top of the lane the first time, they were already twelve lengths in front of the field and drawing away.

“The first part of the race, he was pretty into the bridle so I was a little bit worried about that, but immediately he just relaxed for me,” said the 23-year-old jockey from Covington, Wash. By the time they reached the half-mile mark, the pair was running a race of their own, 20 lengths in front of the next horse.

“I tried not to look back. I knew I was a way out there, but I didn’t realize I was 20 lengths out there,” said Coddington with a laugh.

“What the heck is going on,” thought Blue Bomber’s trainer Robertino Diodoro.

When the first fractional times of :24.63, :48.50, and 1:14.35 were posted, Diodoro began to relax a bit.

“I looked over at a friend that was standing next to me and said, ‘Well there’s nothing she can do,’” recalled the trainer. “It’s not like the lines are dangling or anything; she had the horse relaxed, had a nice little hold of him. As soon as they put the fractions up, I was like well, she can’t do nothing different here.”

Coddington, a small rider at 4’9” and 105 pounds, managed to give the 5-year-old gelding a breather for the next quarter-mile, slowing down to a split time of :27.31 and catching the mile in 1:41.66. The rest of the field began closing in at this point, prompting track announcer Robert Fox Jr. to make an early prediction about the finish of the race.

“And that’s it for Blue Bomber,” Fox called when another horse approached his flank turning for home. “Blue Bomber is about to be inhaled.”

That wasn’t it for the son of Congrats. Not on this day.

“I’d been caught on him twice before,” said Coddington, who is just entering her fourth year as a jockey. “Coming down the lane, that was a little bit in the back of my head.”

But Blue Bomber picked up his pace once again, sprinting home to cover the final three-eighths in 35.44 seconds and pulling away to win by two lengths. His final time for the 1 3/8 miles was 2:17.10.

“Blue Bomber actually is finding more,” called the surprised Fox. “This is impressive. Blue Bomber continues to find more.”

“It was just an amazing feeling the way he re-broke at the head of the lane and wasn’t going to let them get by him that day,” Coddington said.

Fox’s final comment as Blue Bomber crossed under the wire the winner was that “Natasha Coddington just pulled a ‘rope-a-dope;’ that’s an impressive win.”

“Rope-a-dope” is a boxing term made famous in Muhammad Ali’s 1974 Rumble in the Jungle match against George Foreman. It involves leaning against the ropes and absorbing a beating in order to tire out the opponent, then taking advantage to win the match.

Coddington’s ride on Blue Bomber may not have been traditional, but Diodoro has been very pleased with her efforts aboard the son of Congrats in the past.

“I thought the horse ran some big races for her,” said the meet-leading trainer at Turf Paradise. “Both times (she was caught) the horse ran too good to get beat, and there was nothing different that she could do. He’s a little bit of a different horse, and she gets along well with the horse.”

The “high-strung” 5-year-old gelding recorded his fourth lifetime victory from 20 starts in the Wildcat, boosting his earnings to just over $85,000.

“He’s such a sweet horse, I go visit him every morning,” Coddington said. “He’s one of the sweetest horses in the barn.”

Coddington rode out her bug in Pennsylvania at Parx and Penn National in 2013 after riding a horse for the first time at age 16. She followed an uncle into life at the racetrack and came to Turf Paradise for the first time last winter to escape the cold northern weather. She now gallops horses for Diodoro every morning.

“Being a female rider is tough, there’s no way around it,” said Coddington. “They think you’re weak, that you can’t hold horses, that you’re not strong enough down the lane. I’m really light, and that’s another thing – people don’t like to carry a lot of dead weight, the lead. There’s a lot to overcome with it, but I try not to dwell on it too much. I just do the best I can. And you know what, girl riders fit certain horses. That’s just like Blue Bomber — that horse runs really well for girls.”

With 121 wins from 1,182 career starts, Coddington is hopeful that her first stakes victory will continue her ascent as a jockey. She plans to travel to Canterbury Park in Minnesota for the first time this year, following Diodoro and Blue Bomber.

“Hopefully we can stick together, him and I,” she said. “I wish I could keep Blue Bomber as my pet. Maybe when he retires, you never know.”