Rosie Napravnik was born to ride
When she began racing horses, Rosie Napravnik did so under the first name "A.R." so no one would know she was a woman.
It's a bit difficult to hide now as Napravnik enters Saturday's Kentucky Derby, if not atop one of the favored mounts, as one of the top jockeys. She has more victories this year than all but one rider.
Even as she tries to become the first woman to win the Derby, the whole being-a-woman issue is really behind the 25-year-old, if it ever was an issue at all.
"The thing about it is that all the questions have been answered, and to me, the female aspect just isn't a big deal," Napravnik said in a phone interview Thursday morning. "I've been doing this my whole life. I've always been a female. I've always been competing against men. There was just no other way. My brother, who's two years older than I am, was my best friend, and I was always trying to keep up with him so I always tried to be one of the guys."
Today, Napravnik is clearly not just one of the pack. Until the Florida Derby in March -- when her mount Shanghai Bobby finished fifth then was found to have a pelvic stress fracture and scratched from the Triple Crown -- the 113-pound New Jersey native had ridden the 2-year-old to victory in all five of his starts, and they were considered Derby favorites.
Napravnik is scheduled to ride Mylute on Saturday at Churchill Downs. At 15-1 odds from the sixth post position, the considerable pre-Derby buzz may have faded. But given her fifth-place ranking in earnings this year (her $12.4 million last year was eighth best in North America and the best by a female rider in a single year) and highest winning percentage among the 16 riders with at least 385 races, anything is possible.
"There are races when I go out thinking I'm on the best horse and I really want to win and others that I may have no shot, and it doesn't affect the way I ride at all," she said. "Even if I think my chances are slim, I'll still ride my race and give my horse the absolute best chance to win in case something happens. I ride every race competitively."
Last year, Napravnik, the daughter of a horseshoer and horse-show trainer, became the first female rider to win the Kentucky Oaks, with the filly Believe You Can at 13-1 odds. Her ninth-place finish at the 2011 Kentucky Derby is the best for a female rider in Derby history. And she has more than proved her toughness, with three broken arms, two broken wrists, two leg fractures, a broken collarbone and more than one spinal compression.
Napravnik's sister Jazz, six years older than Rosie, recalls her first injury.
"She was about 4 when she broke her arm the very first time, falling off a pony, and climbed right back on," Jazz said. "Toughness has never been an issue."
Napravnik said the idea being an example for young girls in the sport did not occur to her immediately.
"I kind of fell into the role of playing a role model," she said. "It wasn't something I was trying to do or expected to do. But people have been inspired by women in male-dominated sports no matter what, whether it's Danica Patrick or whoever. Then you throw horses in the mix, and little girls love horses, and it feels great to know people can be inspired by me and I can embrace that.
"If I can make someone else's day by my accomplishments, that makes mine."
When she was growing up, Napravnik said, her sister was her role model.
"I didn't know a lot about horse racing growing up, and I wasn't near a racetrack," she said. "Julie Krone and Jerry Bailey were the only two jockeys I'd ever heard of. I also got to know Andrea Seefeldt outside of being a jockey, and she gave me advice here and there."
Seefeldt, who won 605 races between 1981 and 1994, including 38 stakes races, ran in the Kentucky Derby and was the second and last woman to ride in the Preakness. Seefeldt and Napravnik's sister were both riding for trainer Jack Fisher when Seefeldt met Rosie, who was 14 at the time and helping work out Fisher's horses.
"She could absolutely ride," Seefeldt, 49, said of Napravnik. "She was only 14 and looked as good or better than any jockey I ever rode with. She looked like she had been riding for 20 years."
Seefeldt said that while she understands why Napravnik's gender is still an issue in 2013, she wishes it was not.
"Yes, she's doing things no other woman has done before, but she's better than the guys," Seefeldt said. "It's almost insulting to say she's a good female jockey. She's a good jockey, and many women came before who were good jockeys. Some of the big races she has won other women haven't ridden before. She's a groundbreaker."
As for whether Napravnik can win the Derby on a horse she has not won with before, Seefeldt did not hesitate.
"Absolutely, she can," she said. "In the Derby, a lot of times the best horse doesn't always win. There are so many horses, so many variables and huge traffic. It's like rush hour on the Beltway, and sometimes the best horse gets caught in traffic. Even though she may not be on the best horse, she's the best rider and she could be on the best horse. ...
"She's a very good jockey, and she deserves to win."
Napravnik, whose husband, Joe Sharp, is a trainer, admitted to finding Kentucky Derby week and the accompanying attention and added responsibilities "a little overwhelming. [But] I have the best job in the world as far as I'm concerned. I love horses, and I enjoy working horses."
Jazz said that as soon as the starting gate goes up Saturday, her little sister will be in her element.
"The actual race is the easiest part of the whole experience for her," she said. "When it comes down to it, she's sitting on a horse in a field with more horses than she's used to riding against but galloping full speed around a racetrack. It's what she does every day, with just a lot more excitement and big fancy hats."