Rosie Napravnik after winning the Breeders' Cup Juvenile aboard Shanghai Bobby.
No female jockey has won the Kentucky Derby. No female jockey has even come close.
But for a few bright months, it seemed entirely possible that Rosie Napravnik might this year banish that aberration on the landscape of the sport in one glorious, gender-neutralizing swoop. Before being effectively ruled out of a trip to Kentucky, Shanghai Bobby, the former Derby favorite, collected the Breeders' Cup Juvenile with Napravnik aboard.
Napravnik still has a chance of leaving Churchill Downs on Saturday garlanded with roses—a modest chance, admittedly. She rides Mylute, the horse Revolutionary wore down to beat in the Louisiana Derby at Fair Grounds in March.
In the harsh cold light of objectivity, one would be hard-pressed to make a valid case for a Mylute victory. Still, it is the Kentucky Derby after all. If historical precedent can offer us any clues, it’s that the Derby has a habit of writing a postscript Hollywood-heavy with drama.
A Napravnik win? You’re talking box-office gold right there.
But let’s say the horses all run to form this year, and Mylute runs mid-pack, maybe sneaking a place at best. What then? How long do we have to wait before Napravnik gets another credible chance at exorcising that glaring omission in women’s sports?
How long will we have to wait before we see a female jockey pass the post first against the backdrop of those iconic twin spires? I’m willing to stretch my neck out and predict that the day will come sooner rather than later.
My hunch is based on a conviction that, in racing circles, all the old misogynistic attitudes attached to female jockeys have been largely erased among the people who matter.
Sure, you’re always going to find that one grizzled old trainer who, while spitting mouthfuls of black chewing tobacco, declares that women jockeys are sweet an’ all, but they’ll never be as good as a man.
You’re always going to find that one retirement-age jockey who, sick of finishing second to a fresh-faced female rider and nostalgic for his past glories, bitterly insists that she only gets the good mounts ‘cos she knows how to work her womanly wiles.
It’s a sad matter of human nature that you will invariably meet narrow-minded people whose thoughts are carved from the stone of bygone years.
Horse racing has its share of inverted thinkers. But in actuality, the truth is this: If a female jockey is good enough, she’ll receive the same opportunities as her male counterparts.
Napravnik is good enough. That’s why Todd Pletcher, a trainer known for running his battleship with ruthless precision, is happy to let Napravnik loose with the very best in his arsenal.
Chantal Sutherland was good enough. That’s why Bob Baffert, a trainer with more Grade 1 wins to his name than he has grey hairs on his head, was happy to let her take her chance on Game on Dude in the world’s richest race: the $10 million Dubai World Cup.
Money talks at any price. But for $10 million, if there was one whiff of doubt surrounding Sutherland’s abilities, Baffert would have replaced her faster than you could say “A Bunny’s Tale.”
The people who truly understand the sport—the winningest trainers, the astute owners—understand that race-riding is a nuanced art. There’s so much more involved than simple brute and brawn.
An intellect is imperative: A top rider must have a keen intuition of race tactics, position and pace. Horsemanship is key: A top rider must be able to forge a rapport with each horse he or she rides in order to coax from them every last drop of effort.
Race-riding is a complex art that neither sex accomplishes with any greater or less skill. Of course, Napravnik, Sutherland et al. aren’t the trailblazers in bringing light to this truth. They merely reaffirm it—in spades. No, the real trailblazers were the female jockeys of the '60s, '70s and '80s who were confronted with a sport cologne-heavy in sexism.
It beggars belief that it was only a little over 40 years ago that Diana Crump was the first female jockey to ride in a race on American soil. She rode the aptly named Bridle ‘n Bit to a 10th-place finish at Hialeah Park on Feb. 7, 1969.
Crump doubled up as the first female jockey to ride in the Kentucky Derby. A few months later in 1969, Barbara Jo Rubin rode into the record books as the first female jockey to ride a winner. But it was Julie Krone who performed the grunt work in dispelling from the sport most of the old prejudices.
Krone—with a Pit bull’s tenacity and a Chihuahua’s voice—proved beyond doubt that female jockeys were every bit as capable as the men by infiltrating the upper-most echelons of the sport. She broke the female hoodoo in a Triple Crown race and the Breeders' Cup.
She was a constant feature of top contests during the late '80s and early '90s. And if you’ve ever been lucky enough to listen to Krone explain what it entails to ride a horse in a race, explain with visceral precision the physical and psychological tolls of race-riding, you’ll understand exactly why it was that she was able to hold her own out on the track.
It's an even more impressive achievement given the bubbling undercurrent of sexism in the jock’s room at the time.
Napravnik herself is keen to acknowledge the work done by the generations of female jockeys before her. And she’ll admit to the same misogyny from her fellow jockeys. She’ll admit, however, that the treatment she has suffered pales in comparison to that faced by Krone.
Napravnik is lucky to have been born in a time when female jockeys have already proven their worth. Among the people who really matter, the people who really shape and affect this sport, the old gender biases are almost gone, kaput.
That is why, should Mylute only perform to expectations this Saturday, it is surely only a matter of time before the Kentucky Derby winner comes replete with a female jockey.