Friday, May 16, 2014 12:01 am
Napravnik seeks warm homecoming in Preakness
"I grew up in New Jersey," Napravnik said this week, "but as far as the racing world goes, I am from Maryland."
Napravnik left home as a 16-year-old to live in Maryland with trainer Holly Robinson, who had previously hired Jasmine Napravnik to exercise the horses in her stable.
"I kept saying, 'Jas, you're such a good rider,'" Robinson recalled. "And Jas said, 'Wait until you see my little sister. She can ride.'"
Oh, could she ride. Rosie Napravnik soon started getting mounts of her own, and now she's among the best in the business — male or female. A two-time winner of the Kentucky Oaks and the only woman to ride in all three Triple Crown races, Napravnik finished in the top 10 in earnings nationally in each of the past two years and is currently the leading money winner at prestigious Churchill Downs.
On Saturday, Napravnik, 26, will team with Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert on Bayern at the Preakness. She also will compete in the Pimlico Special and Miss Preakness aboard a Baffert-trained horse.
"I ride her because she's a great rider and I think she's getting better and better," Baffert said. "She's better this year than she was last year. I've seen her really changing a lot. Once you have it, you still need the horse underneath you. A great jockey like her keeps a good horse from getting beat."
Napravnik has won races all over the country, but nothing gives her a thrill like competing at Pimlico Race Course. Should she get into the winner's circle with Bayern, it would be the highlight of her sensational career.
"I'll tell you what, if it's not higher on the priority list than the Kentucky Derby it's right there with it," Napravnik said. "I just have so many people there that are responsible for getting me started and supporting me during the early years of my career. It's a great place for a young rider to start. The Maryland circuit and the people in it are a huge part of how I became successful."
Robinson did what she could to help Napravnik develop, including introduce her to Maryland-based trainer Dickie Small, who had the horses and expertise to take the teenager to a higher level. Napravnik rode her first winner for Small as a 17-year-old aboard Ringofdiamonds on June 9, 2005, at Pimlico.
Small died last month at 68, but the memory of what he did for Napravnik will almost certainly stay within her forever.
"He didn't just give me the chance, he gave me knowledge, confidence and extended my horsemanship," Napravnik said. "I guarantee if I win any race this week at Pimlico, he will be one of the first thoughts that crosses my mind. Dickie has always been — since the first Derby, when I won the Oaks — something that I'm thinking about, just because I feel like it's my way of repaying what he's done for me."
Robinson and Small laid the groundwork for Napravnik's success, but the jockey herself deserves a ton of the credit.
"I call her my little redhead freak," Robinson said. "She has gone and excelled. She is so competitive. She is so opposite of what people thought she was going to be. When she first started riding races, you thought you were going to get this bouncy little girl that says, 'Hi. How are you?'
"People thought she wasn't very friendly because she walks up to you, shakes your hand and says, 'OK, what would you like me to do and what can you teach me?' She's was business then and she's business now. She's a wonderful person with a great sense of humor, but she is 100 percent professional."
Napravnik's racing career took root in Maryland, but Robinson knows it probably would have blossomed anywhere she landed.
"She had in mind her goals, and Dickie helped her get to those goals," Robinson said. "Did Dickie make her? No. We all gave her a leg up, we all helped and it made it easier. But if Rosie ended up staying in New Jersey she still would have made it because she wanted it that bad."
Her motivation for winning the Preakness has nothing to do with becoming the first woman to do so.
"Any jockey would aspire to win the Oaks or aspire to win the Derby or win the Preakness," Napravnik said. "It's not going to be incredible because I am a female. It would be incredible for any jockey. I've ridden in three of the last four Derbys, and to me, that's an accomplishment in itself. That is what I've strived for in my career, to get the level where I'll have the opportunity to ride in these big races. That's the thrill of it all."