Anna “Rosie” Napravnik will become only the sixth woman to ride in the 137-year history of the Kentucky Derby when she takes the reins on Pants On Fire, and the significance isn’t lost on her.
“I think whether you’re male or female, riding in the Derby is a big accomplishment,” Napravnik said. “It’s a great honor.”
But Napravnik is extremely driven and wants to be the first female to win the Kentucky Derby. And while she’s riding Pants on Fire, not one of this year’s most hyped contenders, Napravnik remains a rising star who is likely to have plenty of opportunities to break through in the future.
In less than six years, the 23-year-old sensation has won more than 1,100 races. She’s also the first woman to capture riding titles at Fair Grounds and Delaware Park.
Pants on Fire had lost four straight starts entering the $1 million Louisiana Derby (G2) and needed a major upset to make the Kentucky Derby field. He’ll be dismissed at long odds by bettors who consider his last performance to be a fluke, but none of that matters to the ultra-competitive Napravnik.
“Pants on Fire is a very nice horse and if he continues to improve off the Louisiana Derby, he’s got a chance,” she says confidently.
You could say riding is in her blood. The New Jersey native was raised around horses, getting in the saddle for the first time when she was only two, and grew up competing in eventing, show horses and pony club. Napravnik left high school to pursue her dream of being a jockey, making her career debut in June 2005.
It didn’t take long for her to make an impact, winning 300 races while based on the Maryland circuit in 2006, and Napravnik finished second to Julien Leparoux in the Eclipse Award voting for outstanding apprentice jockey.
“I feel fortunate that I’m healthy and safe right now,” Napravnik said.
One of Napravnik’s greatest strengths is her aggressive riding style; fear isn’t part of her make-up. She’s good on any track surface, riding speed or come-from-behind horses, and her will to win has caught the eye of many top trainers, presenting the opportunity to ride better horses.
Napravnik rode for nearly every high-profile outfit during the recently-completed meet at Fair Grounds, one of the nation’s oldest venues, and wound up dominating the 139th season of Thoroughbred racing in New Orleans, finishing 31 wins ahead of her nearest challenger.
“That meet completely exceeded expectations,” Napravnik said. “I went down there hoping to win some races, but it was really a surprise to acquire so much business. I love the city and the people. My fianceé (assistant trainer Joe Sharp) and I wound up buying a house at the end of the meet.”
The Louisiana Derby served as her biggest career victory so far.
Napravnik had never ridden Pants on Fire prior to the Louisiana Derby, and picked up the mount only when regular rider Joe Bravo elected to ride a better-regarded stablemate instead.
Napravnik put the colt close to the early lead, and Pants on Fire grabbed a short advantage on the final turn. He battled gamely all the way to the finish line, winning by a neck in a tight three-horse finish over Nehro and heavy favorite Mucho Macho Man.
Jockeys with little-to-no Kentucky Derby experience are often replaced by more high-profile riders, but owners George and Lori Hall, along with trainer Kelly Breen, decided to stick with Napravnik. And she’s looking forward to the challenge ahead.
“I think the Derby is going to depend a lot upon post positions, which we won’t know until the Wednesday before the race, but the objective is to be forwardly placed,” Napravnik said when asked about tactics. “Put him in a good position leaving the starting gate.”
“The fans have really been great,” Rosie noted. “I had a lot of fans at Fair Grounds and that’s just an unbelievable feeling. People are cheering me on and they’re happy to see me do well.”
Regardless of whether Pants on Fire wears the garland of roses Saturday, the future looks rosy indeed for Rosie.
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