At 16, she left home and moved in with her sister, then an assistant to Maryland-based trainer Holly Robinson, and got a job galloping horses at Pimlico Race Course for veteran trainer Dickie Small.
“She was a 30-year-old at 15,” Robinson recalls. “Very mature, very smart. There was never a doubt in her mind about what she wanted to do.”
Napravnik went to Pimlico at 4:30 a.m. each day, rode as many different horses as she could, cleaned up and left for school at 10 a.m., slept in the car on the way home and attended night school to complete her studies.
It was a grueling apprenticeship, but Robinson remembers Napravnik taking full advantage, listening and observing more than she talked and following Small’s instructions to the letter.
One month after her junior year, Napravnik entered her first race as a professional jockey and won from the one hole, leading the entire way. Eight years later, the memory is as surreal as the day it happened.
“I couldn’t believe I was going to get to ride a real race on a real racetrack with a state-issued license as a jockey,” Napravnik recalled. “My mom was there. My sister was there. When I look back now, I realize how much I didn’t know. I just remember trying to stay in front.”
‘She’s got all the tools’
According to Robinson, Napravnik earned fellow jockeys’ respect by never exploiting or apologizing for her gender.
“She never pulled the women trick on them: ‘Oh, don’t do that! I’m a girl!’” Robinson said in a syrupy, coy tone. “She didn’t ask for anything she couldn’t handle. She rides as good as the boys. She doesn’t give them any slack, and she never asked them to give her any slack.”
Still, some trainers and owners are reluctant to put a thoroughbred in the hands of a female jockey, skeptical about their raw strength and strength of will.
To that, Napravnik responds with work rather than words.
“The gender issue is never going to go away completely,” she says. “With any female rider, there is a certain responsibility to prove, no matter who you’re riding against, that you can compete, that you have the drive, the strength and the will to win. Once you start to win races and show you’re competitive and not intimidated and can compete on a level playing field, I think for most people it doesn’t really matter. It shouldn’t matter.”
In the view of Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens, Napravnik had made her point impressively.
“I don’t care what kind of clothes she puts on after her races are over or what kind of perfume she puts on,” Stevens said. “She’s competitive. She’s tough. She rides a good race. She rides a smart race. And she’s fiery. She’s got all the tools of a great jockey, and she’s still improving; that’s the beauty of it. I don’t think we’ve seen the best of Rosie Napravnik if she stays healthy.”