Rosie Napravnik riding for history
Kelly Breen thought it was a great fit. His fast-improving 3-year-old, Pants On Fire, was entered in the Louisiana Derby, so Breen arranged what might be the horse racing equivalent of a blind date and asked Anna Rose "Rosie" Napravnik to ride his colt.
Napravnik, 23, was the hot jockey at Fairgrounds Race Course in New Orleans, leading the meet in winners. Breen got a call from Napravnik's agent and the deal was sealed.
"I'm from New Jersey like she is," Breen said, "so I know about her. She was beating the boys and riding so well; she was in a zone. It was the right spot and right time."
Napravnik didn't even have an opportunity to become acquainted with Pants On Fire. "The first time I rode him was in the Derby," she said.
It was success at first sight.
Pants On Fire was the surprise winner of the $1 million Louisiana Derby on March 26, finishing first by a neck. It earned him a trip to another Derby -- this time the one at Churchill Downs in Kentucky on the first Saturday in May. And it gave Napravnik the chance of a lifetime. She will be just the sixth female jockey to ride in the Kentucky Derby.
"Pants On Fire is an extremely classy horse and easy to ride," Napravnik said. "His class made it easy to get along with him. He has an excellent disposition with no quirks or tricks."
Still, as she said, "He wasn't expected to win the Louisiana Derby." That surprise finish turned Napravnik's world upside down and ignited a media firestorm. And while it might make her cringe a bit, she knows that much of the attention revolves around the fact that she's a woman.
You'll always hear female jockeys being compared to female jockeys. They'll say things like, 'You're the best female jockey.' But as far as the other jockeys are concerned, we are just jockeys. As long as you can ride with the boys, they'll treat you equal.Rosie Napravnik
"You'll always hear female jockeys being compared to female jockeys," she said. "They'll say things like, 'You're the best female jockey.'
"But as far as the other jockeys are concerned, we are just jockeys. As long as you can ride with the boys, they'll treat you equal."
That wasn't always the case. When Diane Crump -- the first woman to ride in a pari-mutuel race and the first in the Kentucky Derby -- was trying to get mounts, some of the men threatened to boycott.
She was put on Bridle 'n Bit in a race at Hialeah on Feb. 7, 1969. "Out of the clear blue sky, somebody I didn't know, had never heard of, named me to a horse,'' Crump said.
She said officials at Hialeah warned the male jockeys that if they boycotted the race, they would be suspended and fined. They backed off the boycott and Crump finished 10th.
Still, given the progress female jockeys have made, Crump is incredulous that Napravnik will be only the sixth to ride in the Derby. None has finished higher than 11th.
There are a lot of good riders, male and female, Crump said, who have waited and waited for the chance.
"It's just hard to be able to ride that 2-year-old or 3-year-old that has that quality," Crump said. "It's like the lottery. That's for any rider, not just women.
"The fact that if you have the ability, you can go do it, that's saying a heck of a lot because it wasn't like that 40 years ago. If someone tries hard enough and has the ability now, no one's going to say, 'Oh, take her off [the horse before the Derby]. She can't ride it. No woman can do that.' They sure as heck said it in my day."
A female jockey in the Kentucky Derby is still a novelty, though, and it has helped make Napravnik and Pants On Fire one of the more intriguing storylines.
CBS and NBC have come knocking. There are scores of interview requests. There are more promotional appearances and other demands on her time.
"Doing interviews and getting attention is great," she said. "I do as much as I can, but you can't let it drive you crazy."
Horse racing is a sport where men and women compete equally. Still, women face obstacles.
"I heard one trainer say, 'Why ride a girl when you can ride a guy,'" Napravnik said. But she has made converts over time. "I have been surprised because trainers who told me that have given me rides later on. Winning is the only way to prove you are competitive."
Even though Napravnik is prototypical jockey size at 5-foot-2 and 111 pounds, female jockeys in general are not considered to be as strong as men, as aggressive, as experienced or as authoritative with a whip.
Napravnik has answered those doubts. She was born in High Bridge, N.J., and has been riding since she was about 4. Her mother was an event horse trainer who ran her own stable. Rosie knows one end of a horse from the other. "Some people want to be a jockey in six months and then go right to the starting gate," Breen said. "This girl has been riding her whole life."
She won her first race at Pimlico on June 9, 2005, on her first mount, Ringofdiamonds. She was still in high school.
She excelled against some of the best jockeys on the circuit at Aqueduct in New York, where she finished fourth among riders in 2009. A year later, she was the top jockey at Delaware Park, where she won her 1,000th career race on Laughing Charlie.
And while she knows the names of the women who blazed the trail before her -- jockeys such as Crump and Julie Krone -- Napravnik said she doesn't model her style after anyone in particular.
"I never singled out anyone to be my idol," Napravnik said. "I take some from all jockeys. I mix everyone's qualities together and try to improve."
Now, she is ready to take the next step in what has been an eventful year. She became engaged to the other man in her life, assistant trainer Joe Sharp, in February, and they are planning a July 2012 wedding.
For now, though, her focus is on Pants On Fire and the Kentucky Derby. Pants On Fire is a 20-1 shot in the 20-horse field.
Napravnik's world is spinning faster now, and maybe, at some point, she will have an opportunity to reflect on everything that has happened.
"I'm just going through my routine every day," she said. "It doesn't give you a chance to sit back and say, 'Wow, what's happening?' But it's incredible and I'm excited to see how far my career will go."
Brian Landman contributed to this report.