Hampton Roads: Getting an early start on a career always helps.
Rosie Napravnik couldn't have begun any younger: Her mother rode show horses - and she didn't stop after learning she was pregnant. "I was riding in the womb," Napravnik said, "and ever since."
Bouncing around in the saddle before birth didn't produce her uncanny sense of pace, but it couldn't have hurt. At 2, the redheaded farm girl from New Jersey was on a pony. At 7, after her first pony race, she decided she'd become a jockey. At 23, she'll try to be the first woman to ride a Kentucky Derby winner.
Can Rosie get the roses?
Catching on quickly comes naturally to Napravnik, who at 17 went to Pimlico's winner's circle in her career debut. Last year, she was the first woman to lead the standings at Delaware Park, and this winter her 110 victories won the Fair Grounds title. Her career highlight? Taking the $1 million Louisiana Derby her first time on Pants On Fire, her Derby mount Saturday for trainer Kelly Breen.
She's pretty and petite (5-2, 114 pounds), but also fearless and cool. "My fiance criticizes me for never getting excited about anything," Napravnik said. "When the owner asked whether I wanted to ride in the Derby, I was sarcastic and said, 'Yes, I don't think I have anything else to do that day.' But if we win, definitely tears."
Napravnik said farm chores growing up created her work ethic. "I think coming up from the bottom taught me a lot of horsemanship. I think it really gave me a good foundation."
Getting respect from male riders, however, took time. "I feel like I'm treated equally with the guys now," she said. "But every time you go to a new place, you get tested. At the Fair Grounds, those Cajuns are tough, and at first they tried to be as intimidating as possible. By the end, I think they were very happy for my success."
She credits trainer Michael Stidham and his assistant, Joe Sharp, for encouraging her to compete at the Fair Grounds. Sharp, by the way, is her fiance.
After going 2 for 66 at ultra-competitive Keeneland, Napravnik won twice Saturday on Churchill's opening night. "I was hoping it would set a precedent for this meet," she said. "I really feel Pants On Fire is as talented as anybody in the field."
"He runs with an extreme amount of heart."
Confidence has never been a problem for Napravnik. Kelly Wietsma represents her and Mike Repole, Uncle Mo's owner. "I told Rosie I couldn't put Pants On Fire ahead of Uncle Mo, but I could hope for a dead heat," Wietsma said. "Rosie said, 'OK, I'll wait for Mo at the wire.' "