Don't try bothering Inez Karlsson this Saturday.
The Midwest's top female jockey will be riding in the biggest race of her young career - the Arlington Million.
"God forbid, if someone bothers me," said the Sweden-born 27-year-old who began her racing career in 2007. "That is one day when I will be very focused. When I'm focused, I don't like people bothering me.
"Of course, this (the Million) is a thrill. But when the day comes, I'll have the butterflies in my stomach."
Karlsson will be riding Rahystrada in Saturday's 28th running of the Arlington Million. She guided the 6-year-old gelding to a ½-length victory in the Grade III Arlington Handicap on July 17 to earn a spot in the race.
And it really might not be a good idea to distract Karlsson from her focus Saturday. After all, she is a former boxer.
Karlsson, who won 14 of her 20 fights while also breaking her nose a few times and suffered multiple rib injuries, will never forget her first boxing match in Gothenburg, Sweden.
After two months of training, she went into the ring as a 19-year-old rookie in the light flyweight division.
"I didn't really know what to do, and this girl just came right out after me, and I was like 'Oh My God,'" Karlsson said. "I had been only training for two months. This girl beat the heck out of me. I was knocked out in the second round, bleeding nose and all. I mean, she killed me. I don't know why I kept doing it."
She didn't quit, though, in part to a competitive edge that Arlington Park racing fans see on the racetrack every day.
Last year Karlsson was the runner-up for the Eclipse award given to the top apprentice in the nation. She is currently sixth in the Arlington standings with 42 wins and has collected more than $1 million in earnings this summer.
She is the only female jockey to win five races in one day at Arlington (May 21, 2009) and has won 171 races at the Arlington Heights oval.
Just as competitive is Karlsson's agent, who also happens to be a women of European descent, Penny Ffitch-Heyes.
"I know this may not sound great, but we're not just happy to be in the race - we want to win it," said Ffitch-Heyes, a native of England who has been the agent for nearly all of Karlsson's career. "Yes, it's exciting to be in the race but we don't want this to just be a 'hope so' or back of the bus ride. We want to win it."
Ffitch-Heyes has also handled the books of former female jockeys Zoe Cadman, Kristi Chapman and Lori Keith. A former steeplechase rider in England, Ffitch-Heyes is hoping her client becomes the first female to win the Million.
The only female to previously ride in the race is retired Hall of Famer Julie Krone, who finished fourth aboard Chenin Blanc in 1991.
"Inez is the strongest hand-ride finisher I've ever seen," Ffitch-Heyes said. "She is a smart rider and very competitive."
Scooter Hughes, the trainer of Rahystrada, likes Karlsson's calm demeanor atop his thoroughbred.
"This is a horse that needs a rider like Inez," he said. "She is quiet and doesn't mess around a lot with the horse. She just seems to be smart and fits the horse well."
Karlsson was the pilot when Rahystrada won a $35,000 claiming race at Hawthorne as a 3-year-old.
"I remember that day," Hughes said. "It was snowing and I couldn't believe the race stayed on the turf."
"I knew this was a good horse then because I didn't know how to ride the turf yet and he still won," Karlsson said with a laugh.
She was right, and Rahystrada has gone on to earn more than $400,000 for owner Robert Courtney, who grew up with Hughes on farms in Kentucky.
Rahystrada has won 10 of 26 career starts for Courtney. The chestnut son of Rahy came from sixth in the 11/4-miles Arlington Handicap to defeat defending champ Just as Well.
As for a running strategy in the Million, Karlsson says Rahystrada's versatility will dictate the plan.
"He can lay wherever he wants," she said. "He is push button, like driving a car. If he wants the lead, he could run there, too."
Karlsson enjoys the free rein she gets from Hughes.
"Mr. Hughes is very confident in me," she said. "What I like is that he doesn't give me tons of instructions. He pretty much tells me to ride the race the way it comes up. That make my job easier.
"In our last race, we were up fairly close. He has tactical speed so you can put him just about anywhere."
But Karlsson stresses that there is one important thing in the Arlington Million.
"The most important thing is getting out of the gate," she said. "That's the thing about the mile and a quarter in the Arlington Handicap - I knew I had to get out of the gate. If you're inside you don't want to get stuck on the fence."
As a child, Inez was never stuck on boredom. Her mother had Inez and her twin sister Karin (now studying at Morton College in Cicero) taking horse-riding lessons when they were 6 years old.
But Inez never rode a thoroughbred until she was 22. Instead, she took up boxing in her late teens.
"Our parents (Leif and Annika) were always supportive and didn't say much about what we were doing," said Inez, who gets a lot of support from her boyfriend Anthony Calcagno, a stocks trader she met at a charity event last year. "My dad laughed when he first heard I was boxing. He was a state champion boxer and he never told me until after I had started boxing."
After her boxing career, she began working with standardbreds in Canada, eventually leading to her jockey career.
"I'll be honest, after I was done boxing, at that point of my life, I didn't think I'd do anything," Karlsson said.
Saturday, she is trying to land her biggest punch in a sport dominated by males.
"All the women who have been in this sport, I have to respect," Karlsson said. "To compete in a sport that is male-dominated, I give credit to all of them."