05/12/2011 2:37PM

Rosie Napravnik's first whiff of Kentucky Derby roses

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Rosie Napravnik dug herself out from under last week’s Derby media avalanche and came up for air, exhausted and inspired, determined to go back for more.

“Absolutely,” she said. “I’ll be very disappointed if I’m not there every year. What an incredible experience.”

It will happen, without a doubt, given Napravnik’s upward trajectory in the sport as the most accomplished women jockey in what is still very much a man’s world. Someday her participation in the Derby might even be old hat, at least until that day she wins one. Then look out, especially in view of the reaction to her performance aboard Pants on Fire last Saturday at Churchill Downs.

I never had so many congratulations for finishing ninth,” Napravnik said Thursday morning.

She was back in Delaware, getting ready to ride there this weekend.

“Everybody was so happy for me in the Oaks, too,” she added, referring to her close second the day before the Derby aboard St. John’s River. “And I’m thinking, ‘Dammit, I lost!’ When is it a good thing to lose?”

Napravnik is a ferocious competitor who is learning when to turn it off and on. Not that the mass media version of Napravnik on display last week was a false front. Far from it. She was poised, articulate and gracious by turns, finding herself, at the age of 23, targeted as one of the stories of the 137th Derby. None of the six Derby horses ridden by women had ever finished better than 11th – not exactly a high bar – but the fact Napravnik was in her first Derby and riding the Louisiana Derby winner sent reporters aswoon with the possibilities.

“I don’t really thrive on attention, so it definitely wore me out,” she said. “It was all kind of overwhelming. I know the media is a key part of the sport, and my mom definitely enjoyed being on TV. There were times, though, I just wanted to take a nap.”

As the Derby approached, Napravnik got plenty of advice from fellow jocks on how she would feel when she heard “My Old Kentucky Home” and paraded onto the track. Get ready for the tears to flow, she was warned.

“Getting choked up like that is not really me, so I really didn’t get emotional at any point,” she said. “But I was very excited. I kept thinking, ‘This is so cool.’ I remember Ramon looking over at me in the post parade” – that would be Ramon Dominguez, on Stay Thirsty – “and saying, ‘Pretty exciting, isn’t it?’”

Her reply: “Awesome!”

As far as the race itself, Napravnik did just about everything a jockey is supposed to do to give a horse a chance to win the Derby.

“Even with all the attention on me for being a girl riding in the Derby, the most important thing was to keep my focus and do my job right, to get my horse a good trip,” Napravnik said. “It was important I proved myself capable of competing at that level.”

Mission accomplished. Napravnik got Pants on Fire away from the gate like a champ and was able to secure an ideal position into the first turn, just in behind pacesetters Shackleford and Comma to the Top.

“I was so thankful for the demeanor of my horse,” she said. “It was one less thing I had to worry about. He was never nervous, never rank, although he did act up a little in the gate.”

There was a point approaching the far turn that Napravnik let herself think something special might be happening.

“At the half-mile pole I still had horse when I nudged him,” she said. “I thought, ‘I guess we’re going to find out how much.’ I was really excited to not be going backwards at the point of the race where it really begins.”

Around the turn, as Napravnik and her colt continued to keep the lead in their sights, Nehro and Corey Nakatani made a huge move on the outside to attack the leaders.

“That horse moved so early and so fast, it was kind of like we had to go with him,” Napravnik said. “That’s when I discovered I didn’t really have what I needed at that point.”

Pants on Fire seemed to go through the motions after that, losing ground gradually to be beaten just under eight lengths by Animal Kingdom. It was later reported by trainer Kelly Breen that Pants on Fire had bled.

“The only thing that went wrong was the bleeding I guess,” Napravnik noted. “Hopefully that’s why he didn’t finish well, but it’s not like he stopped completely and was beaten many.”

Aside from the thrill of the race itself, Napravnik came away with plenty of souvenirs and a bag full of goodies, among them the traditional group photo taken of the Derby jockeys before the race.

“It’s always unfair, because the guys don’t have to do their hair,” Napravnik said. “I try to look good, but I just gave up.

“I also got a $500 jock’s mount fee, and a gift bag with lots of nice things,” she added. “They must have done one especially for girls, because one of the gifts was a Kentucky Derby purse, which is very nice. I’m sure the guys didn’t get a purse.

“I also got five long-stemmed red roses – Derby roses,” Napravnik added. “I ended up putting them on the dashboard of my car. Somebody said no, you should take them home and dry them. Don’t let them get wrecked. I mean, they’re ninth-place roses! What the heck do I want them for?”