NEW ORLEANS -- Having been there, she's focused on returning; beyond that, she's focused on returning annually and routinely. In fact, she's preternaturally focused, dialed in, a regular jewel-seeking missile. That's why Rosie Napravnik is a good bet to become the first woman ever to win the Kentucky Derby.
It's going to happen, and probably soon, given the trends in racing and the sport's awakening to gender's competitive insignificance, that a woman rides a horse into the Churchill Downs winner's circle and then gracefully accepts into her arms the famed blanket of roses. And Napravnik is most likely to be the woman who does the riding and the accepting simply because she's that good, that talented and that focused.
"She's a professional," trainer Al Stall Jr. said about the young woman who'll ride Seven Lively Sins for him in Saturday's $175,000 Lecomte Stakes, the first of three Fair Grounds stakes on the road to the Triple Crown. "She's really focused, which doesn't count for anything if you're not good; but she's that, and she has a world of talent."
Last year, with 110 victories, 31 more than her nearest rival, Napravnik became the first woman ever to top the Fair Grounds jockeys' standings, the first, too, to win the Louisiana Derby. As she rode Pants On Fire into the winner's circle that day, chants of "Ro-Zee, Ro-Zee" erupted from a New Orleans crowd that, having watched Napravnik all season, could joyfully bear witness to her virtuosity.
Perhaps it shouldn't have been a surprise, for, after all, Napravnik had been the leading jockey at Laurel and Pimlico in Maryland and at Delaware Park; but the colony here was so accomplished and deep, and she was a newcomer and a relative tyro compared to such experienced riders as Robby Albarado, Shane Sellers and Corey Lanerie. And yet she rode more winners than Albarado, Sellers and Lanerie combined.
"She just doesn't get passed when she's in front," Stall said about Napravnik. "I don't know what she does, whether it's strength or finesse, but she gets it done."
Pants On Fire finished ninth in the Kentucky Derby, despite some internal bleeding; it was the best finish ever for a woman. And the whole experience, along with indelible memories of the cheers rising in a crescendo as the horses were loaded and of the volcanic roar at the break, left Napravnik determined to return.
"It took me a month to reflect on it," Napravnik said about the Derby, "and to understand what it meant to me. It was awesome And my most immediate goal is to get myself back to the Kentucky Derby."
And so, she said, she's excited to ride Seven Lively Sins in the Lecomte. A lightly raced colt, he finished second last year in the Iroquois Stakes at Churchill. He hasn't raced since November, but he has been training "fabulously" Napravnik said.
"And she's the perfect rider for him," Stall said about Napravnik and Seven Lively Sins, perfect because he prefers to be prominent early and because she has an uncanny knack for encouraging horses to persevere.
But to hear horsemen talk about Napravnik, you might think she's the perfect rider for most horses. Some talk about her strength, others about her vision, others about her ability to understand and communicate, and some just say, in what might be the ultimate compliment, that horses run for her.
"I think she's a great rider," said veteran trainer Andy Leggio about Napravnik. "She has a way of putting horses in the right place at the right time, and when she turns into the lane, she seems to have plenty of horse left." Riding for Leggio, Napravnik finished second on St. John's River in last year's Kentucky Oaks.
It's probably indicative of her popularity and talent that she'll ride all five of the stakes races Saturday in New Orleans: Believe You Can in the $125,000 Silverbulletday; Suntracer in the $100,000 Colonel E.R. Bradley Handicap; Harmonizer in the $100,000 Louisiana Handicap; and Gran Lioness in the $75,000 Pan Zareta, in addition to Seven Lively Sins in the Lecomte.
Napravnik grew up on a horse farm in New Jersey, the family's apartment literally perched above a barn. She began riding horses when most kids start riding tricycles. Moving to Baltimore, she galloped horses in the early mornings at Pimlico while she was still in high school and won her first race before she graduated; at 18, she rode 300 winners and became the leading jockey in Maryland.
And although she again seems to be running away with the riding title here in New Orleans, she modestly says she's proud to be able to compete with top jockeys. She says she doesn't yet know what she wants to do when she grows up, and yet the recent bride speaks of saving money for the future and having a family. Preternaturally focused, she conducts herself with an aplomb maturity that belies her 23 years, or, in other words, like the woman who's going to be the first to accept that blanket of roses.