his is so not a story about a girl jockey.
It's opening weekend at Keeneland Race Course in Lexington, Ky., and Rosie Napravnik is sitting in the jockey's room waiting for me. I'd been standing outside looking for her, but she snuck in the back door and beat me there. She's good at beating people.
"Other jockeys might underestimate my ability to be aggressive in a race," says Napravnik, a 25-year-old who leads all jockeys in wins this year. "Until they ride with me. Then they're like, 'Ohhhh, OK.'"
Napravnik is fresh off another dominating run at the Fair Grounds Race Course in New Orleans, where she took the riding title for the third straight season. In 2012, she became the first female rider to top $10 million in earnings and rank as high as eighth, with her mounts earning more than $12.4 million -- breaking Hall of Famer Julie Krone's previous record for female jockeys (of $9.2 million) set in 1992. But, as I tell Rosie, this isn't a story about a girl jockey. "Good," she says, "I'm getting tired of those."
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It's early April, so at this point it's a story about a jockey who needs to finish her taxes. "A reporter asked, 'How does it feel to be young and rich?'" she recalls. "I had to correct him and tell him I didn't really get to keep all $12 million in earnings last year." (Jockeys typically get 10 percent.)
Maybe not, but last year Napravnik did rack up the victories. She became the first woman to win the Kentucky Oaks (a stake race for fillies) when she brought home Believe You Can at 13-1 odds. Then she rode a 2-year-old named Shanghai Bobby to wins in all five of his starts in 2012, including the $2 million Breeders' Cup Juvenile in November.
Rosie and Shanghai Bobby looked like early favorites for the Kentucky Derby (a race no female jockey has won, though Rosie did finish ninth in the 2011 Run for the Roses aboard Pants on Fire). But, remember, this is not a story about a girl jockey. And after two lackluster finishes in January and March put an end to the horse's Derby prospects, Shanghai Bobby was taken off the Derby trail. It looked like Napravnik's Derby dream had been dashed.
"I'm a personality type who likes to make plans," she says. "But that's really bad in this business because plans almost never work out. But everything falls into place. You can't get upset about things you can't control." Things fell into place in mid-April, when Napravnik accepted an offer to ride another, already qualified horse, Louisiana Derby runner-up Mylute -- whom she had led to a 10 3/4-length victory in an allowance race at Fair Grounds -- in Saturday's Kentucky Derby.
Napravnik first started planning to ride in Triple Crown races at age 7. She'd been on horses virtually all her life -- her dad shoes horses, while her mom trains riders for show and jump events -- but one day, Rosie says, she watched a tape of the horse racing documentary "Jewels of the Triple Crown" and was hooked. She ended up watching it so many times that she memorized the entire thing. "That's when I knew I wanted to ride the flats," she says.
And ride she did. She heads to Churchill Downs with more than 1,500 career wins.
"When she's coming at you [on the track] we don't say, 'Here comes the girl,'" says veteran jockey Shaun Bridgmohan, who rode against Napravnik at Keeneland. "She's a very good rider. She places horses in the right spot where they need to be."
Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith says the key to Napravnik's success is her finesse. "She has great hands," says Smith, who will run against Rosie at Churchill Downs aboard Blue Grass runner-up Palace Malice. "She gets a horse to relax and do what she wants it to do."
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Before the eighth race on the Keeneland meet's first Saturday, Napravnik walks out to the saddling ring wearing a tense look, which seems weird considering she had told me she really liked her chances in the race. Maybe she's still worrying about those taxes. When the gates open, she has even more pressing problems. Her mount, Gathering, hasn't been to the track in eight months and it looks like the filly has forgotten how to run.
She breaks slowly and is dead last at the first turn, so far behind the field that the track announcer doesn't even bother to mention her name. But as they head into the final turn, Napravnik's hands help ease the filly back toward the field. Gathering starts to pick off opponents one by one. Down five lengths, with a quarter mile to run, it seems hopeless. And it is -- for the others. Napravnik and Gathering win the race going away.
Was the jockey worried about the filly's bad start? "I don't get nervous," Napravnik says. "I'm pretty calm."
Sandy Wright, the massage therapist for jockeys at Keeneland, joins me near the paddock. She wants to talk about "Dancing With the Stars." I want to talk about where Napravnik's unshakable calm comes from. Where does she carry her stress? "It's in her shoulders and the middle of her back," says Wright, who adds that that's pretty normal for a jockey. Or any non-jockey, for that matter. Wrights also notes that "Rosie is a good tipper." She should be, given that (more or less) $12 million in purses she earned last year. The government could be watching.
On Saturday, the country will watch as Napravnik tries again to become, sorry, the first "girl" jockey to win the Kentucky Derby -- which, even if Napravnik doesn't want to talk about it, would be a win of historic proportions.
After all, not that long ago racetracks still printed programs that said "no boy" when a horse was entered in a race before its jockey had been determined. But it never said "no girl." Stay calm, Rosie Napravnik.