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Racing History • Racing Today
Everything’s Coming up Rosie
The Hunt Magazine
It all started with Brownie.
Long before Rosie Napravnik won a $2 million Breeders’ Cup race, and before she became the first female rider in the 138 year history to score in the prestigious Kentucky Oaks, and before the gang at 60 Minutes trained their spotlight on her last spring, Rosie was wild about pony races.
These miniature races are conducted as a warm-up to the Brandywine Point-to-Point steeplechase meet outside Unionville each spring. But in 1997, you couldn’t tell that to a tough little redhead slapping the pony’s haunches side-to-side with the reins and storming home the winner aboard Sweet Sensation (aka Brownie), a 12-hand Welsh Mountain pony. Rosie was nine.
“My mom likes to say she never saw anything so small go so fast,” laughs Jasmine (Jazz) Napravnik, Rosie’s older sister. “They climb a hill to get to the stretch. The ponies are so small you can’t even see them. Here comes Rosie charging down the lane, winning by a head. She’s beaming, the pony was happy, we were all happy. Then Rosie marches up and goes, ‘Mom, I want to win Triple Crown races.’”
Napravnik earned her first professional victory with her first mount, Ringofdiamonds. It was just days after finishing her junior year of high school in June 2005. Back then, to get horses she rode under the first name "A.R." so no-one would know she was a girl.
More than 1,600 victories later, Napravnik is one of the elite jockeys in the racing game winning more than $50 million in purses (a jockey gets 10 percent). She piloted the colt Mylute to a fifth place finish in the 2013 Kentucky Derby, the best finish ever by a female jockey. Napravnik has earned riding titles in Maryland, Delaware and at the Fairgrounds in New Orleans where she won her third consecutive title with 125 victories last year.
Better than the titles was the respect she earned of the rival jockeys at the Fairgrounds. Horse racing has been stamped “Men Only” for more than a century. Many trainers wouldn’t let Napravnik even come under their shed row.
“They considered it bad luck and they wanted me out of there,” recalls Napravnik, 26. “The guys (riders) at the Fairgrounds tried to intimidate me a little. But I kept my mouth shut and pushed back. You have to prove your toughness. I think that is what a lot of female riders lack.”
Jockeys try to intentionally bump her during a race, but even at 5’2” and weighing 113 pounds, Napravnik isn’t easily intimidated. She won the 2012 Kentucky Oaks aboard the aptly named filly Believe You Can.
“Trust me, don’t do Rosie that way, because she will run over you,” insists the filly’s trainer Larry Jones. “The girl has no fear.”
Napravnik has the battle scars to prove it. She’s had five major spills where she’s broken her back, her collarbone, snapped both wrists in two, broke an arm three times, suffered two leg fractures and more than one spinal compression.
Six years her senior, sister Jazz recalls her first injury.
"She was about four when she broke her arm the very first time, falling off a pony,” remembers Jazz, a flat and steeplechase trainer in Monkton, Md. "She climbed right back on before we got it fixed. Rosie has always wanted to prove she’s tougher than anyone else. Riding racehorses is all she’s ever wanted to do.”
Trainers will tell you she knows exactly where she needs to be on the track in a race and possesses a keen sense of pace. She also has some of the softest hands in the business. There are few things more essential in becoming a great jockey. Horses listen to her.
“Relaxed hands tell a horse to relax, that it’s not yet time to go,” Jones explains. “Rosie can take a really high-strung horse, and he’ll settle down for her. I’ll tell you it’s a gift from God what she’s got.”
Though soft spoken, Napravnik radiates a cool determination. It has been part of inner core since she took her first turn in the saddle with her mother Cindy at age 2. Rosie and Jazz mucked stalls in Cindy’s sport horse stable to help pay for the horses they rode. Her father Charles still works as a farrier, shoeing horses and trimming hooves.
“Jazz and I were really into pony racing,” Napravnik recalls with a smile. “We would be traveling from New Jersey to Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, putting the ponies on the van. We trained them like racehorses, went out in sets, did bandages, groomed them, all that.”
At age thirteen Napravnik spent a summer working for Chester County trainer Jonathan Sheppard grooming, schooling and galloping his talented turf horses.
“Even at that age Rosie had this presence,” remembers the Hall of Fame trainer. “She didn’t say a lot, but she picked up on things very quickly. She knew horses. If you asked her do something she didn’t think was quite appropriate, she’d give you this kind of squinty look. But that was good. You need a bit of spunk to survive in this racing game.”
With her fiery auburn hair and steely determination, Napravnik took the sports world by storm in 2012 by landing the highest ranking ever by a female jockey on the year-end North American leader board with $12,451,713 in purse earnings and 193 victories that placed her in eighth. By early November 2013 Napravnik ranked fifth among top jockeys with 226 victories and earnings of more than $11.6 million.
Married to thoroughbred trainer Joe Sharp, they own a primary residence in New Orleans but Napravnik rides in Kentucky, New York and Saratoga throughout the year. She admits all of the recent national attention and added responsibilities "is 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 with horses."
When a friend explained why Michael Blowen started Old Friends and its mission, Napravnik wanted to do what she could do to support them. The thoroughbred aftercare facility takes care of 118 retired racehorses in Georgetown, Kentucky with another 14 outside of Saratoga, N. Y. It is the only thoroughbred rescue and retirement facility specializing in the care of stallions. Last spring Napravnik was appointed to the board of directors.
“I’m working with them on benefits and fund-raisers as well as collaborating on ideas to create awareness,” she relates after a morning of exercising horses. “I’m also able to provide some inside information on which racehorses might be candidates to join the group at Old Friends.”
Napravnik makes personal appearances to help promote the organization such as the Ferdinand's Ball fundraiser the night before last year’s Kentucky Derby. She also donated her time to model a series of beautiful, hand-crafted ladies’ Derby hats that honor champion thoroughbreds and are sold in special online auctions that raise funds for Old Friends.
Last autumn began Napravnik modeling the first of five of the 2014 series Derby hats with the horses they honor. A feisty 7-year old Sean Avery added another dimension to the October photo shoot.
“It was a bit challenging wearing a dress and high heels, but I got him under control,” Napravnik says with a laugh. “Sean is still young and frisky. When Michael approached me I thought it was a very cool idea. It’s so important to have all these champions together so people can give back for all their success, the entertainment, and the glory these racehorses have given all of us. I’m pleased to be the model. It’s a terrific way to promote what Old Friends does.”
Early in her career she piloted Old Ironsides to a couple victories and when it was time for the classy gray to retire, Napravnik stepped up. Now sugar-white, the horse has been retrained to be a track pony that leads runners out on to the racetrack.
“My husband Joe brought him to Belmont Park and schooled him under western tack and he has turned into the best stable pony,” Napravnik says. “Whether it’s an off-track thoroughbred program where a horse is being re-schooled or perhaps a horse too injured to compete or one that’s infertile, we need to give them a place to retire. All they need is a helping hand.”
Photographs of Rosie Napravnik courtesy of Matt Wooley
The Sean Avery hat modeled by Rosie was created by Maggie Mae Designs for the "Hats Off to the Horses" online auction, an exclusive annual fundraiser with all the proceeds going to Old Friends, a thoroughbred retirement farm in Kentucky. The auction continues until April 2014. Visit www.oldfriendsequine.org to view all the hats in the collection.
Writer & Historian
Terry Conway has been a regular contributor to The Blood-Horse magazine since 2003. He started writing historical racing articles for ESPN.com in 2010 and the Jockey Club’s America’s Best Racing in 2012. His work has been featured on premier racing sites including the Paulick Report and Equidaily.com. He is also a member of the Turf Writers of America.
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