04/06/2011 11:25AM

Keeneland, Kentucky Derby the next frontier for Rosie Napravnik

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Barbara D. Livingston
Rosie Napravnik will be just the sixth female jockey to ride in the Kentucky Derby.

LEXINGTON, Ky. – Rosie Napravnik was supposed to make a 10-hour drive from Delaware to Keeneland on Tuesday, but a nasty case of food poisoning delayed the trip by a day.

“It was horrible,” said Napravnik. “Four of us went to our favorite restaurant near Delaware Park [Monday night], and I had what everybody else had, except for the salad dressing. I was the only one who got sick, so I guess that was it.”

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It will take more than the proverbial hiccup – or, er, worse – to slow the remarkable momentum that Napravnik, 23, has built in recent months. Last fall she became the first woman to top the Delaware Park jockey standings in that track’s 73-year history, and over the winter, she wowed the racing world by absolutely dominating the jockey race in her first stint at Fair Grounds, winning 110 races.

And there’s more – possibly much more. Not only is Napravnik set to compete for the first time on a regular basis this month with the elite at Keeneland, where the 15-day spring meet starts Friday with the top jockeys in North America on hand as usual, but she also learned Monday that she will indeed become just the sixth woman to ride in the Kentucky Derby.

Napravnik will have the mount back in the May 7 Derby on Pants On Fire, the colt aboard whom she won the March 26 Louisiana Derby to cap her phenomenal Fair Grounds meet. If the colt remains healthy and makes the race for owners George and Lori Hall and trainer Kelly Breen, she will become the first woman to ride in the Derby since Rosemary Homeister Jr. was 13th aboard Supah Blitz in 2003.

“George and I played phone tag for a week before we finally got in touch,” said Napravnik, whose first name is Anna but has decided, after some back and forth, that Rosie is how she wants to be known. “He asked if I would go, and of course I said yes. It tops off the great year we’ve had so far.”

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Napravnik is engaged to Joe Sharp, an assistant to trainer Mike Stidham, who brought a string of about 30 horses to Keeneland from Fair Grounds. It was at Stidham’s coaxing that she tried Fair Grounds in the first place, and after hiring agent Derek Ducoing – who had strong Louisiana connections as the son of longtime trainer Sturges Ducoing – she emerged as by far the biggest story of the four-month meet.

“The business we got at Fair Grounds is what led us to move on to Keeneland,” she said. “We’ve got some really good horses to ride. I’m pretty optimistic that we’ll continue doing well. At least it’ll be interesting to see how we can do at a really big meet like that.”

The jockey waters don’t get much deeper than they do at Keeneland. Expected to compete here for all of part of the meet are Garrett Gomez, Julien Leparoux, John Velazquez, Robby Albarado, Kent Desormeaux, Edgar Prado, Rajiv Maragh, Alan Garcia, Jamie Theriot, Jose Lezcano, Shaun Bridgmohan, Jimmy Graham, Javier Castellano, and more.

“Pretty much everybody is here,” said Steve Bass, agent for Leparoux. “It’s unreal.”

Ducoing will continue to work as agent for Napravnik through Derby week at Churchill Downs, after which Napravnik will return to Delaware, where Kevin Witte will book her mounts.

Napravnik, who has been riding since she was 2, won with 2 of 3 mounts at Keeneland last fall but has never stayed for a lengthy duration in this part of the country. What might await her in the next four weeks in Kentucky has her thrilled beyond words.

“It’s incredible,” she said. “Just very, very exciting. I’m riding a whirlwind right now.”

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