01/16/2007 12:00AM

'Promising' isn't always a promise

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ARCADIA, Calif. – In 1962, Warren Beatty was presented with a Golden Globe Award for “Most Promising Newcomer.” They got that right. But then, 20 years later, the desperately untalented Pia Zadora won the same title, marking pretty much the last time anyone took the award seriously.

The annual Eclipse Award for outstanding apprentice has suffered through a similar roller coaster reputation. There have been a handful of future Hall of Famers singled out (Chris McCarron, Steve Cauthen, and Kent Desormeaux), but there also have been a few Pia Zadora-style embarrassments, including the drug-plagued Ron Franklin and Jesus Bracho, the cheat from Venezuela, whose falsification of records deprived Rosemary Homeister from her rightful place onstage at the 1993 awards ceremony.

For the most part, the Eclipse Award-winning apprentice has been a nice young lad from the Mid-Atlantic region who goes on to a respectable though unspectacular career as a journeyman. End of story.

Unfortunately, in the universe of the Eclipse Awards, it’s the statue that counts. Bill Shoemaker, Sandy Hawley, and Gary Stevens each won the same number of Eclipse Awards for champion jockey – one – as Steve Valdez, Alberto Delgado, and Neil Poznansky. Eddie Delahoussaye and Jorge Velasquez, on the other hand, came to the end of their Hall of Fame careers without an Eclipse, unlike Gene St. Leon, George Martens, and Wesley Ward.

A case can be made for eliminating the apprentice award entirely. After all, these are baby jockeys, still learning their craft. Some are legitimate prodigies, true enough. But most of the others merely ride a wave of local popularity, getting plopped onto a herd of live horses based on the theory that five whole pounds makes all the difference in the world. They deserve praise and encouragement, and at least a fighting chance to make it once they begin competing on a level scale. But an Eclipse Award?

The 2006 crop of North American apprentices produced three Eclipse Award finalists that at least have the glimmer of permanent stardom. Julien Leparoux, with the support of Patrick Biancone and a whole gallery of Kentucky horsemen, became the first apprentice since Desormeaux in 1987 to lead the nation in total winners, and Martin Garcia gave California’s best journeymen all they could handle. And even though Leparoux is 1-9 to win the award, that will not stop the third finalist, Anna Rosie Napravnik, from making the 3,000-mile journey to Los Angeles to be on hand this Monday night.

Based in Maryland, Napravnik reached the magic 300-win mark in 2006 with 208 victories as an apprentice and another 92 as a journeyman, beginning last Aug. 24. Basic math skills and a calculator indicate she lost nothing in transition.

“I know I’m a longshot to win,” Napravnik said from home Tuesday afternoon, a dark day at Laurel. “But just to be there and meet some great people will be fun, and great for my career. Anyway, I’ve never been farther west than Colorado.”

At 18, Napravnik still has plenty of time to see the world. Until then, she has her MySpace site to expand her horizons. Under the blurb heading “Who I’d like to meet,” Napravnik has entered, “I’d love to meet myself from 10 years from now.”

“Absolutely,” she confirmed. “And I have no idea who it will be. Let’s face it, being a jockey is not that secure. It’s not a bad thing, but everybody knows the risks. You can do so many good things early on, and then all of a sudden nobody’s heard of you.

“I’m one of the most paranoid people you’ll meet about not having money,” she said. “I grew up with a lot of great things, which were mostly my horses. My parents worked so hard just to make sure we had something to do. But I didn’t grow up around a lot of money, and now that I’ve got a little taste of it I don’t want it to go away.”

Napravnik’s mounts earned just short of $6.4 million in 2006, her first full season. She describes herself as very frugal, but that has not stopped her from popping for plane tickets to L.A. and rooms at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel for her parents, her brother, an uncle, and her valet, Don Gisiner. Agent John Faltynski couldn’t make the trip.

After one whole day in L.A., Napravnik will head back to Maryland, where a fresh calendar page finds her in the opening weeks of what figures to be a tough battle for the defense of her 2006 Laurel riding title.

“I could set a goal to be something huge, but I might not get there and then be really disappointed,” Napravnik said. “The thing is, I really love riding racehorses. I just want to do this job, be successful, live well, and stay healthy. I’m just trying to improve my riding and improve myself in the eyes of the industry, so I can open doors and go for opportunities when they arise.”

Not surprisingly, Napravnik is regularly referred to as “another Julie Krone.” Krone, the Hall of Famer better known as “Mama!” in the Hovdey household, also spent her early years on the Maryland circuit.

“Believe me, that’s a real honor whenever I hear it said,” Napravnik said. “But then I always come back with, ‘Why don’t I just be the first Anna Napravnik?’ ”