Persona: Rosie Napravnik, Jockey

Hodges Photography/Fair Grounds

Consider this about Thoroughbred horse racing: The average weight of a Thoroughbred horse is 1,000 pounds. The average speed at which it races is often in excess of 40 miles per hour. The average weight of a jockey is 112 pounds. So, when watching a race one has to think: Is riding a horse in a race akin to riding a bike down a mountain at full speed?

After considering those facts, one has to also ponder: A jockey has to have the heart of a gambler, and to take any number of leaps of faith or risks. A jockey must also trust a horse that may or may not be having a good day – and know how to deal with the bad day – and trust that the track has been groomed well. As a jockey you’re often only as good as the horses you ride, and you have to prove yourself in a business that, in the blink of an eye, can end abruptly due to an injury.

One of the top jockeys in Thoroughbred horse racing is Rosie Napravnik, who has recently become a part-time New Orleans resident and rides during the season at the New Orleans Fair Grounds. She doesn’t like to be referred to as a “female” jockey, and I can understand why. Napravnik is doing exactly the same thing as her male counterparts, so why should she be considered any differently?

It seems, though, that Napravnik – age 23, 5-feet-1-1/2-inches tall, 112 pounds – has successfully worked her way through the ranks, earning the respect of her jockey peers, horse trainers and owners. Case in point: In 2005, legendary horse trainer Dickie Smalls put Napravnik – then 17, with her new jockey’s license in hand – on her first-ever mount, Ringofdiamonds, at Pimlico Race Course. It was her first victory.

However, she was soon sidelined by one of the five injuries that have intermittingly interrupted her career since then: a broken collarbone; a spinal compression and fractured vertebrae; a broken wrist and finger; a broken tibia and fibula bones in her left leg; and a broken arm.

After each injury Napravnik has come back successfully. To name just a few incidences: In 2009, she finished fourth in the standings at Aqueduct and second at Delaware Park, where she was the top jockey in 2010 and where she scored her 1,000th career win on Laughing Charlie. Napravnik’s first year in New Orleans was in 2010, where she rode 110 winners – her closest rival, James Graham, rode 76 winners.

Of course, there’s her riding the Kelly Breen-trained Pants on Fire in the 2011 Kentucky Derby. In a field of 19 horses, she came in ninth. Yet, with apologies to Napravnik for referring to her has a female jockey, I have to report that she was the top finishing female jockey in the history of that race. And, as a female jockey, her career is often measured against Julie Krone, who’s considered the grande dame – or the benchmark – to which Napravnik is most often compared, though Napravnik has also been compared favorably to Louisiana’s own Calvin Borel.

So what’s next for Napravnik? When I interviewed her, she was only days away from her Oct. 9 wedding to Joe Sharp, who’s also in the horse racing business, working for a trainer. They will then head to New Orleans, where she’ll be riding in the majority of races on Opening Day (Thanksgiving Day), Nov. 24 at the New Orleans Fair Grounds. One of the races will most likely be the traditional Opening Day feature, the Thanksgiving Handicap.

It is a heady time for Napravnik – who, if you think about it, isn’t too far from her days from growing up around horses (she was racing ponies at age 7) – it’s just that the stakes are a bit higher, as are the thrills and the wins. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say Rosie Napravnik will be – if she isn’t already – a name to remember in the Thoroughbred horseracing world.

How did you evolve into becoming a jockey? My mother ran an event and sports-training facility, so I grew up doing dressage, as well as cross-country and show jumping. I eventually followed in my sister’s footsteps and began racing.

What do you look for when picking a horse to ride? The fastest one I can! I have an agent whose job is to find the fastest – the best – horse to ride. There are also trainers and owners who you ride for a lot, and that can come into play.

What is the relationship between jockey and trainer? It depends, as jockeys ride for so many. Some will ask your opinion and value it; some don’t want to hear it.
Who have been your mentors? My sister, Jazz; Holly Robinson, a horse trainer, who has been very influential to me; and Dickie Smalls, a horse trainer.

What do you consider your big break? I don’t feel like I’ve had my big break yet. I’ve had small breaks. I haven’t gotten to my peak yet, I’m still moving forward in my career. Very supportive people have also surrounded me in my career, and I’ve been lucky.

But do you consider the Kentucky Derby the “big opportunity?” The Kentucky Derby was a great opportunity, and so was the Breeders’ Cup. Also, the chance to start racing in New Orleans last winter, which ended up being really successful.

What is your “average” day? I wake up at 4:30 to 5 a.m. I’m then working horses between 5:30 and 6 a.m. to about 9:30 or 10 a.m. We train the horses every day, doing race prep, including once a week, I’ll do a workout sprint drill or a one-mile sprint, something like that. Jockeys work horses they’re planning to ride.

After the morning is done, I take a nap. Then, I go to the jockey’s room, get a racing form, handicap the races for the day, study the horses, then ride anywhere between one to 12 races.

What are the most races you’ve done in a day? In 2006, it was 12 races; it was during the Preakness, and I rode all the races except for the Preakness. Twice I’ve done 11 races a day in New Orleans. [Ed. Note: The average is 10 races a day.]

What is the difference between a licensed jockey and an apprentice jockey? All jockeys are licensed. The difference is that an apprentice jockey gets a weight allowance for the first year, which can actually be a selling point.

Is there a weight requirement for a jockey? No.

Do you have any superstitions? When I like a horse, I don’t admit it to myself.

Why did you and your husband choose New Orleans to live? We looked at it as an investment in the city and racing. The racing in New Orleans is pretty solid.

When you retire from being a jockey, will you stay in racing? I have no idea, really, but I think I will stay in horse racing in some degree.

True Confession: I cannot wait to have kids after I retire from being a jockey.
 

At a Glance
Age: 23 Profession: Jockey Resides: Half of each year on the East Coast, the other half in New Orleans Born: Mendham, N.J.; grew up in High Bridge, N.J. Family: Husband, Joe Sharp (who’s a trainer with Michael Stidham), and our two dogs, a pit bull mix and a Jack Russell terrier; I am the youngest of three: my brother builds custom drift cars, my sister is a horse trainer. Education: I left high school at 16 to pursue horse racing; for a year I went to school and interned, but ended up getting my GED. Favorite book: Against the Odds: Riding for My Life by Jerry Bailey (his autobiography) Favorite movie: Seabiscuit Favorite TV show: “Friends” Favorite music/musicians: I have pretty diverse taste: I like country, classic rock, pop, dance music.  Favorite restaurant: In New Orleans, there are so many it’s hard to pick. When we have out-of-town guests, our favorite place to take them is Adolfo’s. If it’s a romantic evening, we like G.W. Fins. Favorite food: Everything, but probably pasta and bread – not the best thing to eat as a jockey.  Favorite vacation spot: I don’t know what that is! I guess I’ll know when I get back from my honeymoon. Hobby: I have my own horse, Sugar, whom I ride. Joe and I also enjoy hiking with our dogs, dancing and bike riding around New Orleans.
 

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