02/10/2011 3:56PM

Napravnik takes the next step toward riding elite

Michael Amoruso
Rosie Napravnik is competing at Fair Grounds for the first time and has an eight-win lead atop the meet's jockey standings through Monday's races.

NEW ORLEANS – The penultimate race Jan. 20 at Fair Grounds, a maiden sprint, had been rained off the turf. Robby Albarado was hurt, Jamie Theriot was on one main-track-only entrant, and Miguel Mena was on another, so the mount on Close Ally, a Neil Howard-trained first-time starter, fell to Rosie Napravnik.

Bred like a grass horse, Close Ally escaped notice from bettors, going off at 30-1. As he lost some position around the far turn, falling back to seventh, the long price looked justified. But Napravnik was not giving up. As Close Ally gained momentum, the pace-setters began wilting, and suddenly, Close Ally, his jockey moving in perfect rhythm with lengthening strides, was gaining fast up the fence. Napravnik steered right as Close Ally whistled past a couple of horses, then deftly straightened out her inexperienced mount as he clipped by to win going away. Sure, the horse, it turned out, was ready and capable. The rider had made it look easy.

“She don’t take any prisoners, this girl,” Howard said the next morning. “She looks like a female Calvin Borel out there. She’s very, very heady.”

That’s a strong endorsement from a respected, veteran horseman who has trained a Horse of the Year and to whom Hall of Famer Pat Day was extremely loyal at the height of his powers. Consider also that Napravnik is far from a go-to jockey for Howard and has ridden only a handful of horses for him.

“All the pieces are in place with this girl,” Howard said. “She’s a top-10 rider in the country as far as I’m concerned.”

Not quite top 10 yet, but closing in. Her mounts in 2010 won 209 races, 16th-most in North America, and earned $6.59 million, the 30th-highest amount and a career-best for Napravnik. The win total was Napravnik’s most since her apprentice year of 2006, when she won 300 races and was an Eclipse Award finalist.

Look longer-term, and Napravnik’s accomplishments shine brighter. Having risen to the top of the Maryland jockey colony, she spent her third meet at Delaware Park in 2010 and won the riding title there, the first woman to do so in the track’s 73-year history. Napravnik had gone 0 for 30 in graded stakes races until last year, but she compiled a 4-5-1 record from 17 such mounts in 2010. She also made her first two Breeders’ Cup rides last year, aboard Forever Together in the Filly and Mare Turf and Rough Sailing in the Juvenile Turf.

From 2005 to 2010, Napravnik, who turned 23 on Wednesday, amassed 1,029 victories despite missing nearly one year’s worth of mounts to three injuries. Julie Krone, racing’s most successful female rider, ended her career with 3,704 wins: Through her first six years, Krone won 843 races.

“I’ve been watching her ride for a while now,” Krone said. “She’s really strong. She looks like she really communicates well with the horses. She has chutzpah.”

Napravnik respects Krone plenty, but the “she-could-be-just-like-Julie” comparisons during her first wave of success grated on her.

“I don’t want to be the next Julie Krone,” she said time and again. “I want to be the first Anna Napravnik.”

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Or the first Rosie Napravnik – depending on who is speaking. Napravnik’s full name is Anna Rose Napravnik. She has been Rosie all her life, but Anna became her professional name when she started riding. At some point, an agent made a to-do about her actual name being Rosie. Napravnik herself said she has no preference.

“I just wish it wasn’t an issue at all,” she said. “It’s like a little gnat, annoying me.”

Napravnik seems more resigned than annoyed when Krone comparisons come up. And more parallels exist between them than merely their place in a man’s world. In 1998, 17 years into her career, Krone walked up to Maryland-based trainer Dickie Small in the paddock one day and asked if she could ride for him at Fair Grounds that winter. Small quickly assented, and Krone, based out of Fair Grounds for the first time, won 84 races.

Small also got Napravnik started as a jockey, and this winter it was her turn to make the move to New Orleans. She rode the last two winters over Aqueduct’s inner dirt track and had never spent an entire race meet away from the East Coast, but Napravnik started the 2010-2011 Fair Grounds season hot and has not let up. Through Monday’s races she was leading rider, up 57 wins to 49 for Jamie Theriot. Her mounts have earned a meet-best $1.5 million, her six stakes wins are tops at the meet, and she won one of the two graded stakes Fair Grounds has so far hosted.

“Wherever she goes, she does well,” said trainer Kiaran McLaughlin, who entrusted Napravnik with out-of-town graded stakes rides on handicapper Redding Colliery last year. “She might have been more comfortable at Delaware or Maryland, but she can compete anywhere.”

Napravnik began competing on the Mid-­Atlantic pony-race circuit when she was 7, but by then she was well along in her riding career. Her mother, Cindy, ran an eventing and sport-horse training facility in New Jersey while raising Rosie and her two siblings: Jasmine, or Jazz, who is six years older than Rosie and is now a trainer in Maryland, and Colt, who is four years older. The kids grew up riding and working in the barn.

“Jazz went for her first gallop on my lap when she was 18 months old,” Cindy Napravnik said. “She was all smiles.”

Rosie was horsebacking by the time she was 2. By then, Jazz already had gotten interested in racing ponies.

“Jazz was 5 years old when she ran down the course the first time on this big, fat pony,” Cindy said. “Rosie breezed our fast pony when she was 7 because we didn’t have a slow pony then. I learned to pray that day. I’ve never seen something so small go that fast.”

“My sister and I were really into pony racing,” Rosie Napravnik said. “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, all that.”

It sounds carnivalesque, these miniature races conducted as a sideshow at steeplechase meets, but the Napravnik girls took it seriously. Rosie already had her mind set on becoming a jockey, and this was as good an education as she was likely to get, a distant relative to the riding schools of Central and South America or the defunct bush-track races in Louisiana’s Cajun country.

At 13, Napravnik spent a summer galloping for trainer Jonathan Sheppard. The next year she did the same for trainer Jack Fisher. Napravnik’s 15th year was horse-free.

“I was a teenager in high school, and I wanted to act like one,” Napravnik said. “I had done stalls, worked at the barn since I was old enough to physically do it. I just decided that I wanted to be a kid.”

Besides, at 16 she would be old enough to go to the racetrack, and Napravnik had every intention of doing so. In 2004 she summered in Maryland, galloping for Small, who, after watching Napravnik came to the conclusion that school should be her secondary priority, racing her first.

“I told her to go for it,” said her father, Charles. (Napravnik’s parents separated when she was 12.) “My whole thing is, if you’re passionate about something you love, you should do what makes you happy, which was not exactly how I was raised, but it’s how I decided to do things with my children.”

So in 2005, Napravnik left high school (she would get her GED in 2006) to concentrate on becoming a jockey.

“I mean, Robert Redford and ‘The Natural’ − that was my impression of her,” said Small, a minor legend on his circuit. “She was like a little super ball, just a complete natural with a horse. Very, very confident. She didn’t have a driver’s license, and she didn’t take any stuff from guys around the racetrack. She just has phenomenal balance on a horse, and that’s awful important. And the thing that I really remember about her is that she was just like a sponge. It’s not like I was really teaching her about horses. We have a large stable, and I’ve always been real picky about riders. She would just soak it all up, and she never forgets anything.”

Small still laughs over a piece of advice he gave Napravnik well in advance of her career debut. Small pointed out where the camera tracking the horses would focus in the Pimlico homestretch.

“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 said.

Weeks later, on June 9, 2005, Small put Napravnik on a filly named Ringofdiamonds.

“She was kind of a can’t-lose filly,” he said. “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, but she remembered.”

Napravnik watched and learned but said that her long riding history gave her a strong foundation built mainly on instinct. Becoming a jockey was second nature.

“I’ve never tried to pattern myself after anyone,” she said. “Most people say they tried to watch so and so when they started. I never did that. I guess I just learned by being there. I pull a little something from one jockey, a little something from another − ‘hey, that might work.’
“I kind of idolize everyone who’s made it,” she said. “I’ve always gotten along with horses my whole life, and I’ve never really been told what to do. If a young rider wants my advice, I’m a horrible teacher. I can’t explain the mechanics of what I’m doing. Even something as simple as making a horse switch leads, I kind of just do it. As much as I’ve been told something, I have to figure it out on my own. It comes to me naturally – or it doesn’t.”

Like Krone before her, Napravnik gets strong reviews for her ability to relax a horse early in a race, to turn the animal off until the time is ripe for a rally.

“She just seems to know where she is all the time, never being in too much of a hurry, which is my style, so she fit my horses very well,” said trainer Mike Stidham, who was instrumental in convincing Napravnik to try Fair Grounds and has been her strongest supporter at the meet. “She has a more patient style.”

Napravnik, however, sees value in expanding her repertoire.

“I guess I’ve always been stereotyped as a come-from-behind rider, but I don’t like to say that’s my style,” she said. “I try to ride a race how a horse wants to be ridden, but that’s something I’m learning: Sometimes you have to make a horse do something they don’t really want to do. Something I do more now is making my horse more forwardly placed, and I’ve won more races because of that.”

In New Orleans, Napravnik said she has found herself competing against a different class of jockeys.

“The riders here are very talented, and they’re very competitive,” she said. “They’re Cajuns. They’re just tough, and that’s fine, because I’ll be tough back. This is their turf, their territory, and someone coming in new here, they’re not going to let anyone have anything easy.”

“She rides a very, very smart race, and she rides with confidence, and that’s everything with a rider,” said Theriot, who grew up riding in central Louisiana. “Yeah, I put her in some spots early in the meet, rode her tight, but she never said a word, and that’s what I like about her. Some people would have said something. A couple of times she came up on my inside, and I made it tight. Don’t get me wrong – she hasn’t done it again, but she handled it good.”

Napravnik shows no fear of riding the rails. That wins races and is somewhat surprising, given what happened in the Nick Shuk Stakes on Aug. 2, 2008, at Delaware Park. That day, Napravnik scraped paint around the far turn with Pickering, who clearly had run, poised for his cue to use it. Napravnik patiently waited for pace-setter Sir Diamond to drift off the rail and open an inside lane, and he did as the horses straightened away. Mario Pino, the rider of Sir Diamond, looked back and toward the inside as Napravnik and Pickering started to come through. Pino steered left to close the opening, Pickering clipped heels, and Napravnik went down, trampled by a trailing horse.

“That horse kind of galloped right through me and broke my shin in half,” she said.

The injury cost Napravnik three months and was part of a series of incidents that bedeviled her for a couple of years.

On Nov. 12, 2005, at Laurel, a horse clipped heels and went down, and Napravnik’s mount fell over him. She suffered a broken collarbone and was out five weeks.

On Jan. 26, 2007, at Laurel, Look Out Lorie collapsed past the finish line with Napravnik on her back. She suffered a spinal compression and fractured vertebrae and was out three months.

On July 6, 2007, Napravnik was at Colonial Downs for one day of riding when her mount in a turf sprint broke down at the sixteenth pole. She suffered a broken wrist and finger. “I could see the color of the bone through the wrist,” she said.

This injury required extensive therapy and cost Napravnik more than four months, but when she came back in the fall of 2007, she figured she would be set for a while.

“Now I’m thinking that things come in threes, so I’ll be good to go,” she said.

Then came the Delaware wreck.

“That was about the time I realized this could happen to me every day,” she said. “When I broke my leg, it was such an emotional setback. I was like, ‘God, why is this happening to me?’ I had never really thought about getting hurt, or what would happen if I did.”

Falling is a matter of when, not if, for riders, and Napravnik still rides ferociously. That has led to an unlikely match at Fair Grounds, with the young woman from the East Coast becoming the go-to rider for a group of hardened, middle-aged Louisiana trainers. Napravnik’s inroads into this group owe much to her agent, Derek Ducoing, the son of local trainer Sturges Ducoing, who has put Napravnik on eight winners at the meet through Feb. 7. Napravnik also has gone 5 for 13 for native New Orleanian Eddie Johnston and 4 for 14 for another local trainer, Andy Leggio. Napravnik’s business has further broadened in recent weeks: She has ridden for trainer Al Stall and was named last weekend on two stakes runners for trainer Steve Asmussen.

“Julie Krone was one of the great female jockeys, and I think this kid is going to be one also,” Leggio said. “She just does everything right.”

There’s that name again − Krone − and there’s just no escaping the woman-in-racing thing. But to Napravnik, the role has become old hat.

“I think it’s kind of worked to my advantage because it’s just something that’s different from everyone else, so I stand out more,” she said. “The success that I’ve had, if I was a male rider I probably wouldn’t have been publicized as much, wouldn’t have been appreciated as much, and I might have fallen into something more typical.

“Now in saying that, I still get all the time a trainer or maybe an owner that doesn’t really want to ride a girl,” she said. “You’re going up to this person every morning, shaking their hand, trying to get your foot in the door, and you’re just getting no reaction. You can tell it’s a sexist thing. I’ll ask my agent, ‘Is this guy just not going to ride me because I’m a girl?’ And he’ll say, ‘Yeah, probably.’ I never really took offense to it. I know it’s out there. There’s really no other way to deal with it but hope you can beat them in a race and get their attention.”

Having made the jump from the East Coast this winter, the door stands open for Napravnik to widen her scope. Size, that saboteur of aspiring jockeys, should not be an impediment. Napravnik tacks 114 pounds and said she can get down to riding weight through straightforward dieting, none of the rough stuff. She said she plans to ride at Keeneland in the spring, Delaware over the summer, and Fair Grounds again next year. After that, who knows?

Although Napravnik’s first Breeders’ Cup experience ended in disaster − her mount in the Juvenile Turf, Rough Sailing, slipped and fell on the first turn, broke his shoulder, and had to be euthanized – she hopes her services will at some point be in demand at that level. The way things are clicking, such ambitions don’t seem misplaced, and with luck, Napravnik should wind up one of the top female riders in racing history. Not that Rosie Napravnik has set that as a goal.

Said her father, Charles, “She doesn’t want to be the best female jockey. She wants to be the best jockey.”