This is not only a story about a “girl” jockey about to become the first female to ride in all three jewels of the Triple Crown, because Rosie Napravnik is not just a woman in a male-dominated profession. She has arrived as one of the best jockeys in the sport today.
On Saturday in the $1 million Belmont Stakes, she will get a leg up from trainer Todd Pletcher as she rides the filly Unlimited Budget, looking to become just the second female jockey to win the race. Hall of fame rider Julie Krone won the 1993 running of the race aboard Colonial Affair.
Napravnik rode Mylute to a fifth-place finish in the Kentucky Derby five weeks ago and then piloted the same colt to a third-place finish in the Preakness Stakes. Those are the two best finishes by a female jockey in the first two jewels of the Triple Crown.
Not even Hall of Fame jockey Krone rode in all three Triple Crown races. Considered the best female jockey of all time, Krone had mounts in the Kentucky Derby twice, finishing 14th aboard Ecstatic Ride in 1992 and 11th on Suave Prospect in 1995, but she never had a Preakness mount.
Napravnik's rise from a relatively unknown 17-year-old riding in Maryland to the big stage has been eight years in the making, and she is one of the most talented and unique figures in horse racing today.
Rookie Sensation A.R. Napravnik
When Napravnik first started out as a jockey, trainer Richard Small had an idea. Small is known on the Maryland circuit for giving female riders a shot, but he thought it might be better if the rookie jockey (known as an apprentice) did not go by Rosie.
Small said she couldn't use Rosie or Anna (her first name) because then everyone would know she was a girl, so they decided to use her initials, Napravnik told Bob Simon in a 60 Minutes interview.
It did not take long for Napravnik to find the winner’s circle, winning for Small aboard her first mount Ringofdiamonds on June 9, 2005, at Pimlico Race Course.
Napravnik would go on to dominate in Maryland, winning all four meets at Pimlico and Laurel Park in 2006 and finishing second in the voting for the Eclipse Award for Outstanding Apprentice Jockey behind Julien Leparoux.
Her Disposition Can Be Not So "Rosie"
What sets Napravnik apart from other jockeys is her determination, fearlessness and grit. She is well aware that some may take her aggressive style the wrong way.
“A lot of people think that I am stuck up, quiet and grumpy or mad or upset all the time,” she said in a New York Racing Association Riders Up interview. “I’m really just focused. It’s absolutely, probably a big guard I put up. I have to be as tough as the guys, and I am. I do this every day with them, and I don’t want anyone to mess with me. I don’t take anybody’s crap. ... I was born that way.”
Along with her sister, Jazz — who is now a trainer — they started riding at the age of seven in pony races, and she took her first job in racing for trainer Jonathan Sheppard. She soon realized she wanted to make horse racing a career, and there is no doubt she had the gift and no fear.
"She was about four when she broke her arm the very first time, falling off a pony, and climbed right back on," Jazz told espnW.com. "Toughness has never been an issue."
"There is a special something she has that gets those horses to put in a little extra effort, and she has a special connection that no one can really put words to," Jazz told 60 Minutes.
Rosie Makes Fair Grounds Look Like Big Easy
Napravnik now makes her home in New Orleans with her husband Joe Sharp, an assistant to trainer Mike Maker, and she has dominated the jockey standings at Fair Grounds the past few years.
In 2011, she won the jockey title with 110 wins, 31 more winners than runner-up Shaun Bridgmohan. In 2012, she won 111 races, easily outpacing runner-up James Graham, who had 79 winners.
This year things have been even better as she's won 125 races at Fair Grounds, with Graham next in line with 83 winners.
Getting the Big Mounts
As her stature grew, she started getting the attention of top trainers and began securing big-name horses. Her first Grade 1 victory was aboard Believe You Can in the 2012 Kentucky Oaks, the first female to win the biggest race of the year for three-year-old fillies.
She also was aboard the early favorite for the 2012 Kentucky Derby, winning aboard Shanghai Bobby for trainer Todd Pletcher in all five of his races in his juvenile season, including the Champagne Stakes (G1) and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1).
“I was wowed by his class and strength and power, and he is so well put together,” Napravnik said in an interview with America’s Best Racing.
The colt did not recapture his juvenile form this year and was retired after a disappointing fifth-place finish in the Florida Derby (G1) in March.
Tom Amoss, one of the top trainers in the U.S., had enough confidence in Napravnik to give her the mount aboard Mylute, who she rode in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.
Hayley Turner Grills Rosie
Hayley Turner is the top female jockey in the United Kingdom, and she sat down for a rather revealing interview with Napravnik back in 2011 that gives us answers to a few questions that not too many horse racing journalists would ask:
Do you prefer your men bald or gray? Gray.
Heels or flats? Flats.
Polytrack or dirt? Dirt.
Would you prefer to go about your daily routine totally naked or fall asleep for a year? Naked.
A night out or a night in? Night in.
Breeders’ Cup or a Dubai World Cup? Breeders' Cup.
Sweet or Chocolate? Sweets are chocolate. Chocolate.
Unibrow or mustache? Mustache.
Wine or beer? Wine.
The Future Looks "Rosie" for Napravnik
Napravnik won 192 races in 2012 with purse earnings of over $12 million, and she is showing no signs of slowing down. So far in 2013 she has won 140 races, which ranks fourth in the U.S., with purse earnings of $6 million, which currently ranks fifth.
She has a good shot of padding that bankroll by $600,000 in Saturday’s Belmont Stakes with Unlimited Budget, who is 8-1 on the morning line.
She will not rest on her laurels until her goals are met.
“When I was seven I set a goal for myself to become the youngest to win the Kentucky Derby and also the first woman to win the Triple Crown, but I am behind the ball in that goal,” she told America’s Best Racing.
She has already surpassed the notion that she is just the best female rider in horse racing. She has proven over the past year she is one of the elite jockeys in the game today, regardless of gender.