Rosie Napravnik lighting up Fair Grounds

Napravinik showing her worth at Fair Grounds

Photos provided by Todd Buchanan/Breeders’ CupShanghai Bobby with Rosie Napravnik aboard, top, wins the $2 Million Breeders’ Cup Grey Goose Juvenile at the Breeders’ Cup World Thoroughbred Championships in November.
Photos provided by Todd Buchanan/Breeders’ CupShanghai Bobby with Rosie Napravnik aboard, top, wins the $2 Million Breeders’ Cup Grey Goose Juvenile at the Breeders’ Cup World Thoroughbred Championships in November.

NEW ORLEANS — Why has Rosie Napravnik won the last two meet jockey titles at the Fair Grounds and Race Course? Why is Napravnik — who loves racing in New Orleans so much that owns a house here — already far ahead in the standings again in the 2012-13 meet? How did she become the first woman to win the prestigious Kentucky Oaks and the Louisiana Derby.

Why, quite simply, at the still-tender age of 25, has Rosie Napravnik become one of the best jockeys in the world today, period?

Because she has a God-given gift with horses, say those who have worked with her in her rise to the top of the horse-racing world. And the Fair Grounds’ best trainers and owners agree.

“There are those race riders who have a real connection to a horse,” said Tom Amoss, one of the Fair Grounds’ most accomplished trainers. “They’re able to get the most out of any mount they ride. I see that connection between Rosie and the horses she rides.

“That’s an inherent gift. That’s just an inherent gift. I can’t explain why she has it or how she has it, but she definitely has that gift.”

Iowa-based horse breeder and owner Maggi Moss, who uses Napravnik for most of her mounts, agreed.

“Rosie is absolutely terrific,” Moss said. “She’s so competitive, probably one of the best jockeys in the words right now. She is so smart, and she is just as tough, fast and strong as any rider. She has a maturity, a sophistication, an intelligence that’s light years ahead of her age.”

But Napravnik, a 5-foot-2, 113-pound native of Morristown, N.J., deflects such praise, demurely calling it “flattering.” The daughter of a horseshoer and a show horse trainer and the younger sister of an accomplished pony rider, Napravnik was steeped in equine science from an early age and developed an affinity and talent for riding as a teen.

Napravnik said her background in horse training was a large factor in her decision to go into the business, and it spurred her to shoot for the top.

“I grew up riding horses ever since I can remember,” she said. “I learned at a very young age how to communicate with a horse. The relationship between a horse and a rider has to be natural. I love horses. They’re my love.”

At this point in her career, Napravnik’s gender is becoming less and less of an issue, at least for those around her. Regardless of gender, they say, Napravnik is among the cream of the jockey crop.

But the comparisons to other women riders are also inevitable. The gold standard for female jockeys was established by Racing Hall of Famer Julie Krone, who most famously became the first woman to win a Triple Crown event when she piloted Colonial Affair to victory in the 1993 Belmont Stakes.

But Napravnik is rapidly making a case for the title of best female jockey ever. Last year, she finished eighth in the national jockey standings after her mounts won nearly $12.5 million in purse money. The highest any other woman, including Krone, had previously finished, was ninth.

In addition, in 2011, she became the highest-placing woman in Kentucky Derby history, when she rode Pants on Fire to a ninth-place finish. She did that after becoming the first female rider to win the Louisiana Derby, and last year she broke the gender barrier in the winner’s circle at the Kentucky Oaks, which she won aboard the filly Believe You Can.

Last year also laid the groundwork for possible greatness in 2013. In 2012, she won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, piloting Shanghai Bobby to one of the coveted Breeders’ Cup World Championship races. Shanghai Bobby went on to garner the prestigious Eclipse Award, and on Tuesday the Associated Press tabbed Bobby and Napravnik as the top favorites to win this year’s Kentucky Derby.

While Napravnik has ridden horses at tracks all over the country — including riding the New York Racing Circuit full time last year — she still chooses to spend her winters in New Orleans and is now the favorite to win the Fair Grounds’ 2012-13 meet if she maintains her lead in the Fair Grounds’ standings. As of Wednesday, she was securely atop the leader board with 69 wins and more than $2 million in earnings. The next-highest rider is James Graham with 49 wins and about $1.4 million in garnered purses.

Why, when she could have her pick of locales and mounts, does the prohibitive Kentucky Derby favorite remain so loyal to the New Orleans facility? Because just loves the Fair Grounds, the city and its people.

“Everywhere she has ridden — Kentucky, California, New York — she’s been a good fit,” said trainer Larry Jones, who is a regular during the Fair Ground’s winter meets. “If she gets the right horse, she can win anywhere.

“But New Orleans is a good spot, and I’m glad she’s here. We bring our best horses here so she can race them.”

Napravnik expresses a deep affinity for New Orleans.

“I’m very happy here at the Fair Grounds,” Napravnik said. “They have good races here. This is a really good fit for me. I love coming here.”

Of course, that doesn’t mean she’s limiting herself to the Fair Grounds, especially now that she and Shanghai Bobby are riding a wave of momentum all the way to Churchill Downs, where she has the Kentucky Derby roses in her sights.

“I would say absolutely,” she said of her goal to win the biggest race in the world. “I do feel like it’s one of the things I want to accomplish. I have a great opportunity this year.”

Napravnik’s motivation, and penchant, for success remains much the same as it was during her child. Jockeying is simply a passion.

“I just want to be riding horses,” she said simply.

Added Moss: “She’s one jockey who just oozes confidence for me. You just know she’s trying her best in every race, and that’s all any owner can ask. She’s the total package.”