Saturday, May 7, 2011

Jersey Girl Takes Aim at Derby

Saturday, May 7, 2011
[NYJOCKEY]Associated Press

Jockey Rosie Napravnik, at left, aboard Kentucky Derby hopeful Pants on Fire during a workout Sunday at Churchill Downs.

Rosie Napravnik left New Jersey about seven years ago, not long after her sophomore year of high school, to pursue her lifelong dream of riding racehorses at the highest level.

This Saturday at Churchill Downs, she'll climb aboard Pants on Fire to try to become the first female jockey ever to win the Kentucky Derby.

"I knew her when she was 40 pounds, and she was this little, skinny, red-haired girl like Little Orphan Annie who absolutely loved horses," said Jessie Reed, 32, who rode with Napravnik at the Hunterdon Hills Pony Club. "She used to trot around pretending she really was a pony, and now we're all going to watch her ride the Kentucky Derby."

Only five women have ever ridden in the race, which has been run 136 times. None has finished better than 11th. While there are two female trainers in this year's field, Napravnik is the only female jockey.

As a child growing up in Somerset and Hunterdon counties, Napravnik started with eventing and show jumping and eventually moved to racing when she turned 7. Those who remember her say she was always feisty and extremely competitive: they always make a note of her fiery red hair, which, they say, gives a strong hint about the personality of the jockey.

None of her friends said they'd imagined she'd ride a horse in the Kentucky Derby. But when word started leaking out, nobody was shocked. "She was always so into her racing. She always cared about it more than anything," said Doug Payne, 29, who once raced with Napravnik at Far Hills. "The way I remember her, it definitely seemed like anything was possible."

[NYJOCKEY]Hodges Photography/Associated Press

Napravnik celebrates after winning the Louisiana Derby with Pants on Fire at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans

Pants on Fire, a 20-1 longshot as of Friday, will race from the No. 7 post position. The horse was the surprise winner of the Louisiana Derby in March, but hasn't raced in six weeks.

Napravnik, who is 23, is already tired of hearing about her place in history should she win Saturday's race (6:24 pm on NBC). She said that since horse racing started as a male-only sport, it makes sense that no woman has won the Derby. Over time, she said, it will evolve.

Kelly Breen, trainer of Pants on Fire, doesn't want to talk about Napravnik's gender, either. He picked her to ride his horse at the Derby for one reason: She wins. Her victory at the Louisiana Derby netted $1 million. "You don't go away from someone who just won you a million-dollar purse," Breen said. "It has nothing to do with whether she's a boy or a girl.''

It turns out there's another reason Breen may have leaned toward choosing Napravnik to ride Pants on Fire. Breen grew up in Farmingdale and has lived in New Jersey his entire life. He didn't meet Napravnik through their collective histories in Jersey, but it didn't hurt.

"You can't say it doesn't matter at all because you do associate people with where you're born and raised," Breen said. "She always talks about Jersey, and never in a derogatory manner. These are her roots, and being a traveling girl like she is doesn't change that."

—Pia Catton contributed to this article

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