Kentucky Derby

John Clay: Oaks triumph is first Grade I victory for jockey Rosie Napravnik

Believe You Can's owner, former Gov. Brereton Jones, congratulated jockey Rosie Napravnik after her Kentucky Oaks win.
Believe You Can's owner, former Gov. Brereton Jones, congratulated jockey Rosie Napravnik after her Kentucky Oaks win. Herald-Leader

LOUISVILLE — Starting out, she went by the name A.R. Napravnik.

"So no one would know I was a girl," she said.

After Friday's Kentucky Oaks, however, everyone knows Rosie Napravnik is more than just a female jockey. She's one of the best riders in all of Thoroughbred racing.

The 24-year-old from Morristown, N.J., became the first female jockey to win arguably the world's biggest race for females, guiding Brereton Jones' Believe You Can to victory in the 138th running of the Kentucky Oaks.

"It was my first Grade I win," said Napravnik, sporting a pink hat to fit the day's theme of breast cancer awareness. "And it was a helluva one."

Just as it had been a "helluva" week for Napravnik, who had been scheduled to ride Jones' Mark Valeski in the Kentucky Derby, only to have Brereton Jones and trainer Larry Jones, who are not related, decide Tuesday not to enter the 3-year-old son of Proud Citizen.

"When Larry called and told me they were considering other options, I was extremely disappointed," said Napravnik, who would have been the first female jockey to ride in the Derby two years in a row. "But I also understood 100 percent why they decided to do what they did.

"Actually it's refreshing to see somebody without the Derby fever, who is really doing right by the horse."

Besides, Jones and Jones still had a pretty good 3-year-old filly by Proud Citizen. Believe You Can had just redeemed herself after a fourth-place finish in the Rachel Alexandra Stakes by winning the Fair Grounds Oaks last time out.

"Before the (Kentucky Oaks), I was getting to know everything I could about the race," said Napravnik, "and I'm just thinking, 'I really think I'm going to win this race."

And she did.

"When I first met her, I thought they had introduced me to the wrong person," Brereton Jones said after the Oaks. "She doesn't look hard enough. She doesn't look tough enough. She just looks like a really attractive, pretty young lady."

A pretty young lady who sure can ride.

Napravnik grew up around horses on her family's farm near Morristown. Her mother, Cindy, was once a steeplechase rider.

"I was on horses in the womb," Rosie Napravnik said.

She took out her jockey's license in 2005, riding in Maryland and Delaware. A year later, she won all four riding titles at Maryland tracks. In 2010, she dominated the Delaware Park jockey standings.

Last year, aboard Pants on Fire, she became the first female jockey to win the Louisiana Derby. That helped her become the first female to win the Fair Grounds jockey title.

"She is the coolest customer I have ever seen ride a horse," said Brereton Jones. "She never, ever gets flustered. Or at least I haven't seen it."

"I think I saw some statistic that said she won on 47 percent of the races I've put her on, 43 or 47, something like that," said Larry Jones. "I don't know what her super strong suit is that just makes her so good, but she just is. I think Brereton probably hit it on the head. She is just so totally cool."

She was certainly cool in the Oaks stretch when she engaged jockey John Velazquez on the Todd Pletcher-trained Broadway's Alibi.

"It was almost intimidating, sitting behind Johnny Velazquez," Napravnik said. "Turning for home, I just said, 'This is it. We're either going to get it or we're not.'"

They got it, all right. Just as, by now, we have gotten past the point that a female jockey has to hide her gender.

"I think the whole female jockey issue has come down to a talent issue. If you're talented, it's not really going to matter what sex you are," Napravnik said. "In my career, (being a female has) only worked to my advantage because of the attention you get from being a female and the popularity you get from all the females around the world and the support you get."

She had plenty of support on Thoroughbred racing's biggest day for females.

"It's fun for me to be able to represent women," said the former A.R. Napravnik. "I'm happy to be able to come through for everybody."

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