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Napravnik Making a Name for Herself
Upon learning all about jockey Julie Krone’s unparalleled successes, highlighted by an historic winning ride aboard Colonial Affair in the 1993 Belmont Stakes, a 7-year-old Rosie Napravnik set a couple of career goals for herself.
“I wanted to become the first woman to win the Triple Crown,” Napravnik recalled recently.
“And I also wanted to be the youngest jockey ever to win the Triple Crown. I’ve already missed out on that goal. I was supposed to have already accomplished that when I was 16 or 17. That was just a 7-year-old’s dream.
"As far as winning the Triple Crown, that’s up for grabs.”
At 24, Napravnik’s career focus encompasses much more than a five-week dream sequence of victories in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes, but her girlhood goal of winning the Triple Crown can hardly be regarded as fancy. Ever since taking out her jockey’s license at 17, the New Jersey native has moved closer and closer to attaining a status among the riding elite where a Triple Crown sweep is at least within the realm of possibility.
“Right now, it seems that it’s within my reach,” Napravnik said. “I’m going to have to take advantage of every opportunity that I have. “
Napravnik certainly has found herself a most exciting 3-year-old prospect for this year’s spring classics in undefeated Shanghai Bobby, the expected heavy favorite to win the $400,000 Holy Bull (G3) at Gulfstream Park on Jan. 26. The Todd Pletcher-trained colt, who was honored as champion 2-year-old of 2012 at the Eclipse Awards ceremony at Gulfstream on Jan. 19, has been ridden by Napravnik to five straight victories, including a triumph in the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) at Santa Anita.
While Shanghai Bobby’s exploits last season have established him as the most prominent prospect for this year’s Kentucky Derby (G1) at Churchill Downs on May 4, as well as the $1 million Florida Derby (G1) at Gulfstream Park on March 30, Napravnik identified the son of Harlan’s Holiday as a special horse before he went to the Aqueduct starting gate for his debut last April.
“April is very early in the year for 2-year-olds to be running. I was on Shanghai Bobby before the race in the post parade and I turned him loose and warmed him up without the pony, and he just really impressed me before he ran,” Napravnik said. “It was just his class, his demeanor, his strength, his athleticism. I said to myself, ‘Oh, my goodness, it’s only April and look at this incredible animal.’ The way he ran that day, validated my thoughts about him.”
Shanghai Bobby drew off to capture his debut by four lengths under Napravnik.
“It’s not easy to win at 4 ½ (furlongs). He was a little bit shy inside horses, so we had to come out and come off the pace, which isn’t an easy thing to do at short distances,” she said. “He proved he was talented then and had a lot of class all around. I really liked him right off the bat.”
After showcasing his superior talent with subsequent victories in the Track Baron at Belmont, the Hopeful (G2) at Saratoga and the Champagne (G1) at Belmont, Shanghai Bobby exuded class at Santa Anita while fighting back to score a victory by a head in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.
In an attempt to take advantage of a speed-favoring track, Pletcher and Napravnik changed their strategy, opting to send their favorite after the lead rather than seek a stalking position.
“We ended up in the spot we had in mind, but the pace was a fast pace. At the quarter-pole, we inherited the lead by default because the horse in the lead, Title Contender, began faltering and fading fast. We inherited the lead early, and he saw the crowd and saw the grandstand. There were so many people there that day, he sort of got lost and got distracted. He came to a complete walk at the head of the lane,” Napravnik said. “I was just praying that horses would come up to him as soon as possible because I knew he would turn back on and would do anything he could to keep his nose in front – which is exactly what he did. He showed a lot of guts, a lot of grit and, obviously, a lot of talent.”
The qualities attributed to Shanghai Bobby are the very same qualities that have propelled his jockey to lofty heights in a male-dominated career. Napravnik has ridden the winners of more than 1400 races and $44 million in purses, including a banner year in 2012 in which she ranked ninth in purse-earnings with $12.4 million.
Her mother, Cindy, trained three-day eventers, so she became involved in riding horses at a very early age, participating in Pony Club events by the time she was 4.
Napravnik eventually made her way to the racetrack, galloping for Hall of Famer Jonathan Sheppard and Maryland-based trainer Dickie Small. She took out a license with the National Steeplechase Association at 16 to ride in training flat races. Mentored by Small and trainer Holly Robinson, Napravnik took out her jockey’s license at Pimlico the next year and started out riding under the name A.R. Napravnik.
“That was the idea of Dickie Small. He put me on my first mount and he said, ‘We have to come up with a name for you.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘Well, we can’t let anyone know that you’re a girl.” It was just so people wouldn’t have that automatic judgment before they saw how I could ride,” said Napravnik, who rode her first mount, Ringofdiamonds, to victory at Pimlico on June 9, 2005.
“It definitely served its purpose starting out. Being a female, it is a little bit harder to start out and get yourself established. Once I got myself established, I didn’t have any problem using my right name.”
Rosie Napravnik quickly made a name for herself, winning 71 races to finish out 2005 and claiming all four riding titles at Pimlico and Laurel in 2006, when she rode 300 winners and was runner-up to Julien Leparoux in Eclipse Award voting for outstanding apprentice jockey. She went on to dominate in Maryland and Delaware Park before venturing to New Orleans to ride at the 2010-2011 meeting at Fair Grounds, where she became the first woman to win a title and ride the winner of the $1 million Louisiana Derby (Pants on Fire).
The 5-foot-2, 111-pound jockey returned to Fair Grounds to defending her title last year, before venturing to the New York circuit, where her past success riding for Pletcher at Delaware Park helped her gain mounts from the five-time Eclipse Award-winning trainer.
“I think like any jockey you’re looking to use, the most important factor is: have you had success? We’ve had some success when we were racing at Delaware,” said Pletcher, the nine-time defending training champ at Gulfstream Park. “When she came to New York, we put her on some horses in April and she did well. She got more opportunities, and she made the most of them.”
In addition to picking up the mount on Shanghai Bobby, Napravnik rode the Pletcher-trained Kauai Katie to three straight victories, a maiden-breaker and Adirondack (G2) stakes win at Saratoga, and a Matron (G1) triumph at Belmont Park.
Her biggest win of her career came at Churchill Downs last year on the day before the Kentucky Derby when she became the first woman jockey to win the Kentucky Oaks (G1) aboard Believe You Can.
“To start the year winning the second riding title at Fair Grounds was great. It gave me really positive momentum going into my first full season in New York. To top the spring off by winning the Kentucky Oaks was a lifetime moment, not just a career moment,” Napravnik said. “My first full summer in New York was very successful and Saratoga was an incredible experience. I did pretty well there and came out of there with a couple of really, really talented horses that won a couple of graded stakes there, Shanghai Bobby and Kauai Katie. And having those two horses in the Breeders’ Cup and Bobby winning, it was a really positive year. A lot of good things happened.”
Married for a year to Joe Sharp, assistant to trainer Mike Maker at Fair Grounds and Saratoga, Napravnik has become an inspiration for aspiring female jockeys.
“When I got into riding professionally, I didn’t really feel that it was my responsibility to be any sort of role model. I just kind of fell into that role. Once I accepted that it’s going to happen, whether or not I’m trying to make it happen, it makes me feel great that I can inspire somebody by signing an autograph or giving a little girl a pair of goggles,” Napravnik said. “It’s something that I never expected being a jockey, but once you gain a little popularity, especially being a woman, it really creates a lot of interest. I just sort of fell into that role, and now I can embrace it.”
Having emerged as one of Thoroughbred racing’s marquee names, Napravnik has become not only popular with racing fans but also with media outlets vying for access to tell her story.
”It does get crazy at times. But if somebody wants to talk to you, it’s a positive thing. If they want to know about your story, that’s great,” she said. “It does get a little overwhelming at times. I’m not one to jump into the limelight -- that’s not what I thrive on. But it’s very flattering.”
It’s likely to get even crazier, because Napravnik’s story has just begun.