Jockey Napravnik defends title, is hungry for more

Mar 31 2012 - 4:10pm

NEW ORLEANS -- Rosie Napravnik says the career for a female jockey is often shorter than for a man, so she'll be holding nothing back when she defends her Louisiana Derby title on Sunday.

"I'm trying to win as many races as possible as quickly as possible," said the 24-year-old from Mendham, N.J.

Napravnik became a jockey in 2005 and last year was the first woman to nab the lead jockey title for the most wins at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans. Last year she was also the first woman to win the Louisiana Derby when she rode Pants on Fire to victory.

She went on to post the highest finish by a female jockey in the Kentucky Derby when she guided Pants On Fire to ninth place.

But that's not good enough for Napravnik, a petite redhead barely more than 100 pounds. "I don't like taking credit for ninth place," she said. "It's not first."

On Sunday Napravnik will be jockeying for the Louisiana Derby's $1 million purse, and another shot at the Kentucky Derby in May.

She'll be aboard Mark Valeski, a horse owned by Brereton Jones and trained by Larry Jones.

John Asher, a spokesman for Churchill Downs, which owns the Fair Grounds, said Napravnik brought a lot of excitement to last year's Kentucky Derby and they would like to see her return.

"We don't give anything away in horse racing," Asher said. "You have to earn it. She's proven herself and is going to be a big presence at races for years to come."

How long could be a question.

While some jockeys ride well into their 60s, many ride at least into their 40s and 50s, barring injuries. But the career span for female jockeys tends to be shorter, particularly if they have children, Napravnik said.

Napravnik says she would like to have children of her own with her husband, horse trainer Joe Sharp. The couple married last year and have a home in New Orleans.

There's cash to be earned now for Napravnik.

The Louisiana Derby is a $1 million race, so the first place horse gets 60 percent of the winnings, or $600,000. The jockey will get 10 percent of that -- about $60,000. But the jockey usually has to pay his or her agent 25 percent, or about $15,000. So if Napravnik wins on Sunday, she stands to walk away with about $45,000.

Last year was a breakout year for Napravnik. She rode 110 winners at the Fair Grounds. Her closest rival, James Graham, finished with 76. Winning the Louisiana Derby "was the icing on the cake and the cherry on top," she said.

And with success came a degree of celebrity at the Kentucky Derby.

"The fans were crazy," she said. "They were all yelling 'Rosie, Rosie,' and I was not expecting that. It really was unbelievable."

Napravnik said she realizes being a woman has boosted her career and popularity.

"If I was a male, I realize I may not have had as much popularity because there are so many males who are doing what I'm doing," she said. "I just don't think of myself as any different because I race with these guys every day. I'm doing what they do every day."

Earlier this week, Napravnik visited Children's Hospital in New Orleans. She posed for pictures with patients and autographed copies of a collage from last year's Louisiana Derby win.

"If it makes their day a little better, I'm happy to do it," she said, donning the orange and green silks she'll be wearing in Sunday's race.

Napravnik's career often is measured against that of Julie Krone, who's considered the grande dame of women jockeys. In 1993, Krone became the first female jockey to win a Triple Crown race when she captured the Belmont Stakes aboard Colonial Affair.

Others who have paved the way for Napravnik are Patricia Cooksey, who rode So Vague in the 1984 Kentucky Derby, and Donna Barton Brothers, the all-time leading female stakes winner at Churchill Downs.

Napravnik's work with horses started early. Her mother ran an event and sports-training facility, so Napravnik grew up doing dressage, as well as cross-country and show jumping. Her father is a farrier.

"I don't really have a first memory without a horse," she said.

Napravnik credits her older sister, horse trainer Jasmine "Jazz" Napravnik, as one of her biggest influences.

"It's harder to break into training than riding," Napravnik said. "She gave me a lot of good advice, like not showing vulnerability. She gave me veins of ice."

Napravnik has also had to be physically tough. She's suffered five major injuries, including a broken collar bone, compression fractures in her spine, a broken left wrist and broken tibia and fibula bones in her left leg.

"I wake up with tons of aches and pains," she said. "I think about how good I'd be if I didn't hurt so much."

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