May 6, 2011 in Sports

It’s a man’s world in horse racing, but she aims to change that

Jim Litke Associated Press
 
Associated Press photo

Derby hopeful Pants On Fire is ridden by jockey Rosie Napravnik.
(Full-size photo)

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Rosie Napravnik learned to ride horses before she could walk. Even so, being the first female jockey to win the Kentucky Derby was not her driving ambition.

“I was determined to be the youngest jockey ever to win the Triple Crown, not just the first female,” she said not too long ago. “But that was supposed to happen when I was 16.”

It didn’t, of course, since Napravnik turned 23 in February and just picked up her first Triple Crown-caliber mount, a dark bay colt named Pants On Fire. For all the progress the sport has made, his name suggests what most of the men who still control the thoroughbred racket would have to experience before turning over several million dollars worth of horseflesh to a woman rider.

“It still is a man’s world,” Napravnik said. “You still get that just about every day: ‘I don’t want to ride a girl. The owner doesn’t want to ride a girl. You’re not as strong, you’re not as this, you’re not as that.’

“It’s probably not nearly what it used to be,” she added, “but it’s still out there.”

Diane Crump was the first woman to ride in both a parimutuel race – in 1969, at Hialeah Park, where she needed a police escort to get in – and the Kentucky Derby the following year. Since then, only four of her fellow travelers, including Julie Krone, the most successful, best known and only female rider in the Hall of Fame, have been up in the saddle on the first Saturday in May. The last was Rosemary Homeister Jr., in 2003. None has finished higher than 11th.

That should have changed two years ago, when 50-to-1 shot Mine That Bird charged up the rail to steal the Derby. Chantal Sutherland had been his regular rider, lost him for two races during a change of trainers, then showed up at Churchill Downs three days before the race with a promise from one of the owners she would get the mount for the big race. It went to veteran Calvin Borel instead.

“I found out about it from reading the Racing Form,” Sutherland said in a phone interview Thursday. “I never learned the reason. If somebody had said, ‘We need a jockey with experience; he’s already won it,’ I would have said fair enough.

“But generally, I’ve been lucky,” she added. “There’s still the odd person out there who says, ‘I won’t use her because she’s a girl,’ though they usually couch it some other way, like ‘she goes too wide in the turns, or doesn’t know how to switch the stick.’ ”

Napravnik isn’t likely to get that dreaded last-minute call, in no small part because Kelly Breen, who trains Pants on Fire, might be too afraid to pick up the phone.

“I’d rather have her on our side than have to run against her. And not to put this in a bad way, but Rosie is a redhead and she’s got that fire in her eyes. When she loses,” he said, rolling his eyes, “she’s definitely not a happy camper.”

At that point, Breen paused, glanced behind him and turned back, relieved.

“I had to look over my shoulder when I said that,” he chuckled. “Like, is Rosie anywhere nearby?”

For all that, Napravnik hardly looks imposing. She stands 5-foot-2 and weighs 111 pounds in full riding gear, with her hair bundled in a bandanna tucked beneath her helmet. She credits frequent fights with an older brother for toughening her up.

Yet in a sense, her whole life was preparation for the racetrack. Her mother, Cindy, ran a horse-training center in New Jersey while raising Rosie – her full name is Anna Rose – and two older siblings. All three grew up working around horses and in the barn. Rosie was riding by age 2, racing ponies at 7 and when she got her hands on a video called “The Jewels of the Triple Crown,” knew what she wanted to do with the rest of her life.

“Julie wasn’t in the video,” Napravnik said, referring to Krone, “but she was the only female jockey I’d ever heard of.”

Krone stepped away from racing in 2004 and remains the only woman to have won a Triple Crown race – the 1993 Belmont, aboard Colonial Affair. She said earlier this year what she admired most about Napravnik was her strength and “chutzpah.” Flattering as the comments and comparisons are, Napravnik insists on doing things her own way.

She not only won her debut race at Pimlico in 2005, atop a filly named Ringofdiamonds, she had the presence of mind to remember something trainer Dickie Small, one of her mentors, told her years earlier, when he first let her do odd jobs around his barn.

“I told her the day she starts riding to hit the horse left-handed under the camera so all the jocks’ agents could see,” Small recently told the Daily Racing Form. “She’s galloping along five or six in front through the stretch, and boom! Rosie belted her left-handed.

“I’d completely forgotten what I told her,” he added, “but she remembered.”

That wasn’t the only thing, Napravnik’s mentors said about her.

“One,” she recalled, “said the thing that everyone hates about me is what makes me so good, and that’s the way I carry myself. I feel like I have to be as tough as all the guys, and I am. I do this every day with them. I don’t let them mess with me. …

“I have to be like that, I’ve always been like that. It’s actually gotten me,” she said, “really far.”

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