In the starting gate at the 137th running of the Kentucky Derby today will be one A. R. Napravnik — that is, Anna Rose Napravnik. The New Jersey native will be the sixth woman to ride in the Derby since the “Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports” first occurred in 1875 in Churchill Downs in Louisville. Should Napravnik win the race on her horse, 3-year-old Louisiana Derby champion Pants on Fire (a 20-1 shot), she would become the first female jockey to win the Kentucky Derby.
Here’s Napravnik winning the Louisiana Derby on Pants on Fire:
Napravnik has 1,121 victories to her name — with the total purse winnings for those horses at nearly $30 million — since she got her jockey’s license at the age of 17. She won her first victory on the track astride her first mount, Ringofdiamonds, on June 9, 2005. But when she started running, she rode as A. R. Napravnik because, as she told the New York Times, “I didn’t want anyone to know I was a girl.”
While noting that the “racetrack is still a man’s world,” Napravnik also says:
“Every day I hear a trainer or owner say ‘I don’t want to ride a girl or you’re not strong enough.’ But I also can tell you I’m riding horses now for a lot of those guys I heard it from.”
The Star-Ledger describes Napravnik’s upbringing on a horse farm in New Jersey horse country:
Ambition accelerated Napravnik at an early age. She began racing on a 12-hand pony at age 7, and quickly progressed through each division. At 13, she tagged along with a friend to a local steeplechase event and was introduced to Hall of Fame horseman Jonathan Sheppard.
“She always had a certain poise for her age. She seemed to have a quiet self-confidence,” said Sheppard, the leading American steeplechase trainer in history who also trained two Breeders’ Cup winners over flat surfaces.
After Napravnik won a junior horse race for Sheppard at 16, she decided her lifelong dream was worth pursuing full time.
She left Warren Hills High School after her sophomore year and followed her older sister Jasmine to Maryland. Napravnik moved in with Holly Robinson, a horsewoman, and she began galloping horses in the mornings while attending Hereford High School in Parkton, Md., during the afternoons. In the evening, she caught up on missed credits at night school.
“I was so overworked and tired and you know what, it didn’t even bother me,” Napravnik said. “It was exactly what I wanted to be doing.”
The hard work paid off. Legendary Maryland trainer Dickie Small gave Napravnik her first professional mount in June 9, 2005, at Pimlico on a long shot named RingofDiamonds. And in her very first race, Napravnik went to the lead and never looked back.
The Star-Ledger notes that Napravnik ranks seventh among jockeys in the United States according to Equibase, which is the official source for thoroughbred racing information. She’s crossed the finish line 92 times in 445 starts and won first, second or third place 52 percent of the time.
Among female jockeys, Julie Krone is the only female rider in the Hall of Fame; she was the first woman to win a Triple Crown race when she won the Belmont Stakes aboard Colonial Affair in 1993. The first woman to ride in the Kentucky Derby was Diane Crump 1970; Rosemary Homeister was the last in 2003. As the New York Times observes, “none have finished higher than 11th.”
Will Napravnik aboard Pants on Fire finish higher? Or even show, place or win?
Based on her record and her persistence, Napravnik’s already winning the most important race of all, showing that she is indeed “strong enough” — more than good enough — to ride all the way to the winner’s circle.
Below is a video of Napravnik describing her career goals:
Photo of Napravnik by WEBN-TV