Napravnik seeks to blaze new path on Pants on Fire

Former Maryland-based jockey has a chance to ride her competitive streak into the Kentucky Derby record books

May 06, 2011|By Sandra McKee, The Baltimore Sun

As jockey Rosie Napravnik led her horse, St. John's River, down the stretch of the Kentucky Oaks Friday, she dared to believe she'd catch the eventual winner, Plum Pretty.

She'd relive the moment later, eyes bright as if the win was still in front of her, by recalling that she was thinking "girl power in the Oaks!"

But Napravnik, who would have been the first female jockey to win the Oaks, won't be able to let the loss linger. She has another chance to make history today at the 137th running of the Kentucky Derby, and many believers in her corner.

"She's one of the hottest riders in the country right now," said trainer Mike Stidham, for whom she rides at Delaware Park and The Fair Grounds in New Orleans. "She's riding the wave, and I believe if the horse is good, she has every chance to win."

Jockeys dream of being where she will be Saturday, breaking from the seventh post aboard 20-1 shot Pants on Fire. For some, like Maryland's Mario Pino (who waited 28 years) and Louisiana's Calvin Borel (who waited 21), it took decades to get their first Kentucky Derby horse. For Napravnik it has taken six years.

"I know it doesn't happen for everyone," Napravnik said. "And I really didn't expect to be here in 2011. This is all happening a lot faster and sooner than I ever thought it would. I didn't have a plan for reaching the Derby or for what kind of horse I would ride in it. I just wanted to be successful. This is not my dream come true, but part of my dream coming true. My dream is to be competitive and successful at the highest level for a long time."

She was riding before she was born, in her mother's womb, racing ponies against her sister before she was 10 and when she was barely 15 she showed up at Maryland trainer Dickie Small's barn at Pimlico Race Course asking to work his horses in the wee hours of the morning.

Napravnik moved to Maryland to be with her sister Jazz, a local trainer, went to Hereford High School for her junior year and then turned pro at the end of that school year in 2005 (she did later earn her GED.)

Now, at 23, she will be the sixth female jockey to ride in the Derby and the latest seeking to be the first to win. The closest anyone has come is 11th, twice.

"Before she's through, she's going to be the best woman ever in the profession," said Pimlico vice president of communications Mike Gathagan, who worked with Napravnik when she rode in Maryland from 2005 to 2008. "And here's the reason why: Rosie is incredibly competitive. She wants to win every race she rides in. Not just the big races, but all the races. Most jockeys aren't like that."

Napravnik has succeeded everywhere she has gone. Except for three serious injuries early in her career — a spinal compression, a badly broken wrist and a broken leg — that briefly slowed her, she has been able to grab hold of her horses and ride with the wind. She ranks seventh in the country with winnings of $3,462,946.

Out of nowhere

Stidham noticed her competitive nature early in their dealings, but there was one race at the New Orleans track that allowed everyone to see her inner will.

She was riding a maiden, a horse in search of its first win, and the horse had fallen way back.

"That horse looked like it had absolutely no chance," Stidham said. "I had watched Rosie closely for the last two years, on my horses and others. What I noticed was she has the knack for placing horses well and saving horses for the end, where the racing really begins down the stretch.

"But that horse that day at the Fair Grounds was absolutely last and then all at once she had him flying on the outside and got a last jump to win. And I thought, 'Wow, she's getting the job done even when the horse is dead last.' People talked about that race for a while."

It was the maiden's first win, and Napravnik is known for dealing in firsts.

She got her first career victory on her first mount in her first race at Pimlico in 2005 and went on to win 300 races that year, taking the riding titles at Pimlico and Laurel Park and finishing as runner-up for an Eclipse Award.

Last fall she became the first female jockey to win the Delaware Park riding title and followed that this winter by winning the first race she rode at Fair Grounds. She went on to win a total of 110 races — 31 more than her nearest challenger and 80 more than she hoped for at the start of the meet. The effort made her the first woman to win the riding title in that track's 139-year history.

Now she's at Churchill Downs because she rode Pants on Fire to an upset victory in the Grade II, $1 million Louisiana Derby, beating Mucho Macho Man, the early Derby favorite, on a horse who had one win in seven races before Napravnik took her turn on his back.

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