NEW ORLEANS — In the span of two minutes Saturday, Rosie Napravnik can enter that rare air of active female professional athletes identifiable by first name only — “Danica” and “Serena.”
In other words, it’s a pretty short list.
All it will take is winning the Kentucky Derby aboard 15-1 shot Mylute, and the sports world will instantly know who “Rosie” is.
No female jockey has won the Kentucky Derby. Napravnik’s ninth-place finish with Pants On Fire in 2011 was the best for the six women who have gotten a mount in the Run for the Roses.
Being the first of anything gets you plenty of attention these days. Ask Jason Collins.
So even if the sport of kings doesn’t get the attention it once did except for this weekend, this could be a big deal.
There’s plenty of local rooting interest for Napravnik.
Mylute, trained by New Orleanian Tom Amoss, finished second in the Louisiana Derby.
Napravnik is a three-time riding leader at the Fair Grounds, including the recently concluded session. She and husband Joe Sharp make New Orleans their home base.
Napravnik’s success at the Fair Grounds has helped propel her to second place nationally in victories this year and fifth in earnings.
For comparison’s sake, the high-profile Ms. Patrick is 26th in the Sprint Cup standings and has yet to earn a victory against the big boys. Rosie clearly holds her own against the little fellas, last year becoming the first female jockey to win the Kentucky Oaks.
For Napravnik, it’s more than just having to manage a half-ton of thoroughbred with delicate hands and steady nerves. It’s putting up with the extra physicality that male jockeys sometimes dish out to those of the fairer sex.
They can get a little snarky, too.
“Look at me,” an unidentified Fair Grounds jockey was quoted in a profile of Napravnik in The New York Times Magazine last month. “I’m 53 years old, brother. I’m going to walk into a paddock, and I’m going to talk to these owners and their wives and stuff. And there’s little Rosie. She’s going to bounce out of there, a pretty girl, good disposition. And she’s going to be talking all nice to them. Now which one of them would you rather leg up on your horse?”
The story was part of a publicity campaign for Napravnik recently.
She was profiled on “60 Minutes” last Sunday and on Tuesday landed her first national endorsement — for Snickers Bites, which will give away a million pieces if Mylute wins.
It certainly doesn’t hurt that Napravnik is young (25), has an interesting personal story and is easy on the eyes, although she doesn’t try to glam it up.
About the only hint of leaning on her gender in the “60 Minutes” story was her revelation that she encourages horses with “a smooching sound.” But she coyly refused to do it on air.
You’re unlikely to see Napravnik in a GoDaddy commercial.
“Rosie has focused her career on not making it as a women but competing with the guys on the highest level,” said Todd Quast, head trainer of GoldStar Farms, the owner of Mylute. “Well, she’s reached that point where she’s not thought of as a female jockey but just as a jockey — period.”
Make that a working jockey, too. After having nine mounts Friday, she’ll be riding in seven other races Saturday at Churchill Downs before she tries to make history in the Derby.
“I really just try to stay in my regular routine as much as I possibly can,” Napravnik said. “It’s tough during Derby week because a lot of the jockeys are asked to a lot of promotions and fundraisers, which is very good for the sport but a little overwhelming. The good thing about our sport is that we ride every day up until the Derby. We’re not just sitting around with this anticipation because we’ve got seven or eight races each day to focus on.”
Robbie Durham of Baton Rouge, a friend of Napravnik’s and Sharp’s, said Napravnik certainly hasn’t been distracted by the personal hoopla of the week.
“With Rosie, it’s always business,” he said. “She takes it the same way she does each week with any other race. Rosie’s like any other professional athlete. She knows the reason she’s there is because of what she’s been doing.”
Landing Napravnik for Mylute was a combination of good and bad fortune.
She was to have ridden Shanghai Bobby, the undefeated Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner and winter book favorite. But after a fifth-place finish in the Florida Derby, the horse was discovered to have a hip injury and was withdrawn from competition.
Napravnik might have switched to one of trainer Todd Pletcher’s other five Derby entries. But Pletcher brought in three-time Kentucky Derby winner Calvin Borel for Louisiana Derby winner Revolutionary, causing a shift in the rest of his lineup.
That brought Napravnik back to Mylute and Amoss, for whom she rode 19 winners at the Fair Grounds this season, including Mylute in a victorious allowance race in December.
With so much riding on a victory for Napravnik, it may not be the ideal mount, but it’s her best option. At 15-1, Mylute is tied for 10th in the morning line. It’s likely that Napravnik’s presence will make Mylute’s final odds shorter, but few are giving him a chance to win.
That’s OK with Mylute’s jockey, though.
“Everybody in this business does the same thing — we all started from the bottom and worked our way up. So to win this would be a tremendous feeling and fulfillment of a far-fetched dream,” Napravnik said.
Make that Rosie.
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