Napravnik living her dream

OZONE PARK, NY -- The female jockeys' room at Aqueduct Racetrack is a sparsely populated sanctum despite a few fresh additions to the colony therein. Relative quiet on an easy weekday allows Rosie Napravnik the opportunity to reflect on upcoming races, her current career path, and the recent chaos in her life.

The past year has been a whirlwind for this elite young rider, 24, starting with her victory last March 26 in the $1 Million Louisiana Derby aboard Pants On Fire. She would go on to pilot that runner to a 9th-place finish in the Kentucky Derby -- becoming the 6th female jockey to run for the roses.

Three frustrating months on the sidelines soon followed, as Napravnik was forced to miss time due to a broken wrist suffered in a July 6 spill at Delaware Park. But she quickly got back on the beam with a splendid winter in New Orleans -- and just like that, it's Derby time again.

Napravnik appears to be headed back atop Louisiana Derby runner-up Mark Valeski, standing to become the first woman ever to ride in consecutive editions of the Kentucky Derby when she takes the Larry Jones trainee postward fifteen days from now.

No time to get caught up in Derby fever, though. Not when you're Rosie Napravnik and you've recently decided to pack up and move yet again. Rather than shift her tack to Kentucky like many do after the close of business in Louisiana, this year Napravnik decided to try her hand in New York. Three weeks after her arrival in the Big Apple, she finally feels as though she's gotten a handle on her personal affairs.

"Moving sucks," the lady says succinctly. "It's very stressful -- especially when you don't know how long you're going to be in one place, or where you're going to live when you get there. Having to do it all by myself while my husband [Joe Sharp, assistant trainer to Michael Maker] is still at Keeneland has been tough. But it's all over now. I'm pretty settled. The only thing I have left to do is put in the air conditioning unit."

Surely, installing an air conditioner didn't figure to be a pressing issue for Napravnik as she planned her move north from Louisiana. But with the temperature already having reached the high 80's in New York, that task moved to the top of her to-do list. Of course, cooling wasn't a concern at all the last time she rode regularly on the New York circuit -- the winter of 2010, when she placed third in the standings in her second season plying her trade on the frigid inner dirt oval at Aqueduct. Napravnik cites that previous experience as a huge part of the reason she decided to make a full-time move to the Empire State.

"I think having been here those two winters is going to help me a great deal in coming in year-round," she said. "Just the experience of having ridden for most of the trainers in New York -- they know who I am now. When I first got here, they thought I had the bug, but I'd already been riding for three years! But now, I've ridden for most of the trainers. Won races for a lot of them. So there's not as much of an introduction period."

Napravnik is ready to hit the ground running. She arrives fresh off a riding title at Fair Grounds Race Course, where she won a staggering 111 races this winter -- 32 more than her nearest competitor in the standings. That impressive win total made it clear that a move to the big-time was in order. She'd spent the past several summers at Delaware Park. But, according to Napravnik, returning there in 2012 was never a consideration.

"I knew that I wasn't going to go back to Delaware," she remarked. "Kentucky was an option, but there are a lot more moves involved, and you have nowhere to go in the middle of the summer. But [New York] was the better choice for me."

This stands to be quite the understatement, if Napravnik's current torrid form holds. She's won 10 of her first 38 races at Aqueduct, and figures to win a lot more with the backing of powerhouse agent Matt Muzikar.

"He was a huge part of the reason why I decided to come here," Napravnik said. "I wouldn't have wanted to come here, into such a deep jockey colony, without the right agent. I'm very impressed with the work that he does and the connections that he has."

For his part, Muzikar -- who also represents longtime New York stalwart Javier Castellano -- is excited to be handling Napravnik's book. He believes the sky's the limit for the young phenom.

"She has a bright future," Muzikar said. "Her potential is unlimited. She's got multiple skills. Great hands, a lot of energy. And her personality is tremendous. She's coming off of another meet title at the Fair Grounds, and I thought it was time for her to take the next step."

Muzikar's impressive connections include the likes of 5-time Eclipse Award winning trainer Todd Pletcher, for whom Napravnik will ride 3-year-old colt Dan and Shiela in Saturday's Jerome Stakes at Aqueduct. As much as she's looking forward to that mount, though, that other 3-year-old is on her mind these days. Mark Valeski has been somewhat overlooked on the Derby scene so far this year -- at least compared to Pants On Fire. Napravnik believes that's a mistake, and feels confident about her chances on the first Saturday in May.

"I really love the horse," she said. "I've been very impressed with him. He had a legitimate excuse coming out of the Louisiana Derby -- losing a shoe. He's just all heart -- a tough horse."

Napravnik believes her Derby experience in 2012 will differ from 2011 on a number of levels. She feels she's gotten to know Mark Valeski better than she got to know Pants On Fire prior to last year's Derby. She's ridden the colt in both of his 2012 starts, and she's gotten on him quite a bit in the morning.

"With Pants On Fire, I hadn't ridden him before the Louisiana Derby," she explained. "This horse [Mark Valeski], I've been riding him all winter. He's nice to ride. He's not a really quirky horse. He's just honest. I'm really looking forward to the Derby. I'm confident."

Perhaps more importantly, Napravnik will not be nearly as overwhelmed by the media crush she's sure to face in Louisville. Last year leading up to the Derby, she was the subject of full-scale profiles on the network morning shows of both CBS and NBC. Napravnik admitted the influx of media requests got to her a bit. But she cited some advice she received on Derby day last year from retired female jockey PJ Cooskey as being instrumental in helping her deal with the external pressure.

I don't have any motives other than riding races. That's really what my dream in racing has been -- to be at the top level and ride in the big races like the Derby.

-- Jockey Rosie Napravnik

"She told me 'You know, you just have to get over it, and be cordial with these people,'" Napravnik remarked. "'The media is what's going to support this industry. And these people like you. The fans like you. And everybody wants to get to know who you are.' She really opened my eyes up to the fact that I should be taking advantage of this, and appreciating it instead of getting frustrated with it."

Napravnik expanded her platform this year by speaking to her fans directly in the form of a blog she's just started on the America's Best Racing website. Though she hardly fancies herself an Emily Dickenson, she got a kick out of writing her first blog entry, and is eagerly looking forward to sitting down to compose another one.

"The blogging -- I realy loved it!" she said. "So many times, I've read an article and I've said to myself, 'This isn't accurate. That's not right.' But now, with blogging, I'm writing my own article. It's awesome."

But blogging is where Napravnik's off-track media pursuits end. Despite a girl-next-door appearance and demeanor sure to make television executives take notice, she insists that such endeavors do not interest her. Rosie Napravnik is a rider -- first, last, and always.

"I don't have any motives other than riding races," she said. "That's really what my dream in racing has been -- to be at the top level and ride in the big races like the Derby. Right now, I'm headed in the direction I always wanted to be."

-- Additional reporting by Claire Novak

Joe DePaolo is a freelance writer whose coverage of thoroughbred racing and entertainment has been featured by numerous different outlets. He can be reached via e-mail at jdepaolo85@gmail.com.