Rosie Napravnik settled on her life’s ambition at age 7. Since then, she has let nothing stand in the way of her dream of becoming the first female jockey to win thoroughbred racing’s Triple Crown.
Not high school, which she juggled with a full-time job as an exercise rider. Not five serious injuries, including fractured vertebrae, a broken left arm and broken left leg. Not even her own name, competing the first six years of her career as “A.R.” Napravnik to make sure that her gender wasn’t an impediment.
Now 25, Napravnik has achieved far too much to mask her identity.
With her fifth-place finish aboard Mylute in the May 4 Kentucky Derby, Napravnik holds the top two finishes by a female jockey at Churchill Downs, having ridden Pants on Fire to a ninth-place finish in 2011.
On Saturday, she’ll become just the third woman (and first since 1994) to compete in the Preakness Stakes. She enters the weekend second overall in wins this season (123) and fifth overall in purses ($5,186,563).
And “Rosie,” the name Anna Rose Napravnik now lists on her official racing biography, isn’t a barrier but a respected calling-card in thoroughbred racing. Should she become the first woman to win the second jewel of the Triple Crown, Rosie Napravnik might become a household name, as well.
The spotlight isn’t something the 5-foot-2, 113-pound rider craves. But if standing in it would help publicize the sport she loves, she’s more than willing to do so.
“I’m not one that thrives in the limelight at all, but a lot of young girls have been inspired by women who have done very well in male-dominated sports, and I think that’s great for women and great for the sport,” Napravnik said in a telephone interview.
“If I can be a part of drawing attention to a great sport, I’d do anything I can. “
To that end, Napravnik has enlisted the help of Octagon Sports, the McLean-based marking agency that has helped swimming find a broader audience (Michael Phelps is among its clients) and made cult heroes of champion snowboarders, skateboarders and mountain climbers.
Napravnik is the first jockey Octagon has represented.
While hardly steeped in thoroughbred racing, Peter Carlisle, managing director of Octagon’s Olympics & Action Sports division, said he knew instinctively that Napravnik had the potential to expand horse-racing’s audience by making a tradition-laden sport relevant to the general public.
For starters, he points to the gap between the teeming ranks of teenage girls who participate in equestrian sports (according to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association, 74 percent of “core” horseback riders 13 and older are female) and the meager ranks of female jockeys.
“I don’t need to be that sophisticated to think, ‘That doesn’t add up,’” Carlisle said. “There is an opportunity of historical significance.”
But for Napravnik’s narrative to transcend horse racing, she’ll have to achieve more “firsts” to go with her ground-breaking victories in the 2011 Louisiana Derby and 2012 Kentucky Oaks.
In 1993, Julie Krone became the first woman to win a Triple Crown race, riding Colonial Affair to victory in the Belmont Stakes. Two decades later, Krone’s feat stands alone.
The daughter of an accomplished eventing horse trainer, Napravnik grew up in High Bridge, N.J., and started competing in Pony Club meets at age 3. She and her elder sister, Jazz, were schooled in every facet of horsemanship, but Rosie was determined to become a jockey from the start.
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.”
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.”