LOUISVILLE — It was not quite two weeks ago when the weight on Believe You Can's dark bay shoulders increased. After months of being neighbors with reigning Horse of the Year Havre de Grace, the daughter of Proud Citizen found herself with an almost impossible vacancy to fill in trainer Larry Jones' barn.
Though no one realistically expected Believe You Can to take over the large shoes of her champion stablemate who was abruptly retired because of injury, she nonetheless signaled in the days that followed she had learned a thing or two from her older mentor.
With another history-making female urging her on in the irons in Friday's Grade I, $1 million Kentucky Oaks, Believe You Can showed her connections she can handle her new role as the barn's leading lady.
The crowd of 112,522 at Churchill Downs that withstood a near hour-long delay because of severe weather got to witness something no other Oaks audience had seen. Jockey Rosie Napravnik became the first female rider to win the Oaks when she guided Brereton Jones' homebred Believe You Can to a three-quarters-length triumph over Broadway's Alibi in the 11⁄8-mile filly classic.
Along with being Napravnik's first Oaks triumph and first career win in a Grade I race, Believe You Can gave Larry Jones and Brereton Jones their second Oaks win. The pair combined to earn the lilies with Proud Spell in 2008.
"It's unbelievable. I'm so happy and so grateful to be here," said Napravnik, who finished second in the Oaks a year ago aboard St. John's River. "I cried a little but I don't think I'm done crying yet. Last year was kind of a tease, I was so close. This year I was determined to be the one in the winner's circle and I had the right horse to do it."
Had the betting public seen the cool confidence Napravnik consistently radiated and the way Believe You Can had moved over the Churchill track of late, her post-time odds of 13-1 might have seemed an insult.
So impressive was the filly when she covered 5 furlongs in :58.40 during a breeze on April 29, it helped convince both Larry Jones and Brereton Jones that their Kentucky Derby hopeful Mark Valeski needed to skip the first Saturday in May and wait for an easier test.
With Mark Valeski subsequently withdrawn from Derby consideration, Believe You Can had nothing taking the attention off her as she delivered a stalk-and-pounce effort to absolute perfection.
"There will always be a vacancy with Havre de Grace, but thank God for Believe You Can," said Larry Jones. "She's always been the next-door neighbor to Havre de Grace. They've been traveling buddies since last year and I think it kind of rubbed off on Believe You Can.
"She thought she was supposed to run like the big mare."
The pace scenario for the Oaks was expected to be a sizzling one. True to form, the Todd Pletcher-trained Broadway's Alibi — winner of four straight races — assumed her position at the head of the 14-horse field, but Believe You Can sat just behind as the first quarter went in :23.12.
Jockey John Velazquez got Broadway's Alibi to the half in a respectable, but not insane, :47.47, and the Grade II winner was still digging in as Napravnik pushed the go button on Believe You Can.
"I knew there were some tough fillies in there we were going to have to beat; one was in front of me," Napravnik said. "We actually broke a step slow and I was worried for a millisecond. But we sat comfortably, we relaxed and she was moving well. On the turn for home I said 'This is it, we're either going to get it or we're not,' and she just got a little lower and much faster."
Stubborn as Broadway's Alibi was on the inside path, Believe You Can kept eating up inches with every stride, taking a narrow advantage about a furlong out en route to hitting the wire in 1:49.50 over a fast track.
"We're so blessed to have her," Brereton Jones said. "Derby horses come out of top-notch broodmares and ... to have two of them in our band, which she will be one day, is special. And to have the first woman jockey win the Oaks, that's pretty special."
Broadway's Alibi held for second, 21/2 lengths clear of 5-2 favorite Grace Hall, who came home third.
"Everything went the way we wanted it to, we just were unable to catch the first two," said Tony Dutrow, trainer of Grace Hall.
When Proud Spell won the Oaks in 2008, Larry Jones had his joy cut short 24 hours later when his other filly Eight Belles fatally broke down after finishing second in the Kentucky Derby.
The only thing that interrupted Jones' celebration this time was the fact he had another horse to saddle in the day's final race, one Napravnik was also riding.
Fittingly, the duo won that one too, proving the momentum Believe You Can had generated in her run didn't stop once she hit the wire.
"When we sat and watched her last work," Larry Jones said, "it was like, 'Did we just see what we thought we saw?' She told us every way she could talk to us that she was ready for a big race today."