By John Scheinman
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, April 17, 2006
Jockey agent John Faltynski, who works with 18-year old Anna Rose Napravnik, recalled a recent post position draw in the Laurel Park racing office for one seven-horse field that turned comical. The officials began matching the posts with the entries, and nearly every trainer had his Napravnik named to ride.
"In a seven-horse field it was, 'Number two, Napravnik; number four, Napravnik.' Now, everybody's saying I'm in trouble," Faltynski recalled, laughing. " 'Number three, Napravnik; number six, Napravnik; number one, Napravnik.' She was named on five of the seven horses. The next day, I said to Rosie, 'Who do you want to ride?' She said, 'That's what I pay you the big bucks for, fella,' and walked out."
In less than a year, Napravnik has harnessed a running current of poise, natural talent and a voracious appetite for hard work to become the most successful female jockey in the country. Since winning on her very first mount, a horse named Ringofdiamonds last June at Pimlico, Napravnik went from an unknown to the seventh-winningest jockey in the United States, 24th in earnings and the only female jockey in the nation's top 100.
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Last Thursday, about an hour before the first race at Laurel, Napravnik was shuffling around slowly in thick, white socks under flip-flops, her head of wiry red hair bunched tightly inside a stretchy do-rag, dark rings under her tired eyes.
A week after missing two days of riding with the flu, Napravnik was back taking mounts as the leading jockey in Maryland, only now suffering from strep throat.
"It doesn't really affect my riding," she said, wearily speaking low, trying to conserve her voice. "I'm a little bit stronger when I'm healthy, but it doesn't matter as soon as the gates open."
A hacking case of strep throat wasn't going to keep her off her horses and possibly allow another rider to get on them and win.
"She's smart," said veteran Maryland trainer Eddie Gaudet. "Very, very smart."
In the Laurel Park winter meet that ended Saturday, Napravnik towered over her fellow Maryland riders, winning 99 races in 72 days on mounts earning $1,662,940. Runner-up Erick Rodriguez won 56 races and $1,087,630.
Riders such as Napravnik, who are still serving their apprenticeship, rarely get calls to ride in stakes races because they lose the benefit of their weight allowance. Jockeys are considered apprentices for one year after their fifth victory and while competing in non-stakes races are permitted to carry up to 10 pounds less than journeymen jockeys in the same race.
After Napravnik won the Harrison Johnson Memorial Handicap on March 18, however, then came back the next week aboard Our Peaks to score an electrifying win in the Private Terms Stakes at odds of 74-1, nobody cared any longer what she weighed.
"I like her," said Gaudet, who struggles to get Napravnik on his horses, just like everyone else. "She's got good balance, good patience, and she cuts the corners well. If she's tucked in behind horses when they get to the turn, they drift out and she shoots right through -- whoosh!"
Faltynski, 52, talks about Napravnik with an almost evangelical zeal.
"It took me 32 years to find a neat jockey like Rosie, who loves the game as much as I do," Faltynski said. "When you work as a sports agent in basketball or football, you have ups and downs working side by side seven days a week. I don't seem to have that with Rosie, and everything she rides seems to win."Early Surroundings
The seeds of Napravnik's success and work ethic were planted at a very young age. She was born on Feb. 9, 1988, in Morristown, N.J., to parents who were farmers and horsemen. Her father, Charles, works an organic farm in Asbury, N.J., with Belgian horses while her mother, Cindy, now living in Vermont, ran a boarding facility.
By age 6, Napravnik was already rubbing ankles in stalls and applying bandages.
"She wasn't overprotected from what was around," said Charles Napravnik. "We never hid anything from her. She just saw the life as what it really was. As far as the work ethic, my ex-wife rode horses, was very dedicated and the kids grew up with that."
Napravnik and her older sister Jasmine, 23, who everyone calls Jazz, tumbled into the horse world, riding pony races on the steeplechase circuit.
"When I was 12 years old, in addition to washing the dishes and clearing the tables, I was at the farm on the weekends at 6 o'clock in the morning mucking out at least eight stalls," said Jazz Napravnik, who works for Pimlico-based trainer Holly Robinson and trains four steeplechase horses on her own. "Before you think my mother was some sort of slave driver, I had one pony I was eventing, so I was paying my way."
The Napravnik household, during that time, never had a television set. "There's so much junk on it," Charles Napravnik said. "But now I've got a dish so I can watch Rosie."
The sisters began working for top steeplechase trainers Lilith Boucher, Bruce Miller and Jack Fisher. Rosie loved riding; Jazz training.
When Rosie was 13, she worked for a year with Hall of Fame trainer Jonathan Sheppard, but at 15, she took a year off from horses.
"I decided to take the year off and had a lot of fun just being a teenager. I knew I was going to work with horses for the rest of my life," Napravnik said.
Her parents divorced when Napravnik was 16 and she followed her sister into the home of Robinson, who had hired Jazz as an assistant.
"Jazz worked for me and said, 'You need to meet my sister; she's a great rider,' " Robinson recalled. "I said, 'Yeah, yeah,' I hear that all the time, but I sent her over to Dickie [top trainer Richard Small]. He's good with young riders and has good horses.
"I get up very early in the morning," Robinson said. "I'm at the barn at 4 a.m., and Rosie didn't have to be there until 5, but she'd be up with me and there at 4 a.m. working with Dickie."
In Small's barn, Napravnik galloped racehorses from 5 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. before heading off to Hereford High School. "Then she'd ride the bus home and then go to night school three nights a week," Robinson said.
Riding for Small and living with Robinson gave Napravnik a trainer's perspective on horse racing, and, by all accounts, the young rider absorbed everything.
"When I tell her something, she gets it," Robinson said. "There are people that come and go, and you give them instructions and you think you are talking to a wall."Stepping Up
Napravnik's skills were so apparent to Small in the spring of 2005, he knew there was nothing left to do but turn her pro. They got her a license, and she won her first race. The winning has never stopped.
Beginning Thursday, Napravnik will ride at the prestigious spring meet at Pimlico Race Course, moving up to Delaware Park on dark days. Faltynski has her on schedule to ride seven days a week.
The jockey colony at Delaware is deeper than in Maryland, and the Pimlico Spring Meet is thick with stakes races that lure top racing stables from around the country. Robinson expects Napravnik to keep right on winning.
"I'm a woman trainer, and I don't ride many female riders," Robinson said. "I want the best rider I can get -- man, woman, beast, no matter what. Rosie, as far as I'm concerned, is one of the best riders in Maryland."
Napravnik's long shot winner, Our Peaks, will run Saturday in the Federico Tesio Stakes. If he wins impressively, he might be entered in the Preakness Stakes. Napravnik is well aware jockey Steve Cauthen turned 18 the week before the Kentucky Derby when he rode Affirmed to the Triple Crown in 1978.
She speaks as if the Hall of Famer is a measuring stick for her success, and he got to the top just a little bit quicker. But she appears convinced, not with cockiness but confidence, that the top is where she is headed.
"It's all very exciting, but like I've said a million times before, a lot of people have a minute of fame," Napravnik said. "I want to keep doing well and finding ways how to."