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Rosie Napravnik in the Derby 

The first woman to win the Fair Grounds' leading jockey title. Now she's headed to the Kentucky Derby

click to enlarge Jockey Rosie Napravnik takes the winner's bouquet after guiding Pants on Fire to a first-place finish in the Louisiana Derby. - PHOTO COURTESY FAIR GROUNDS/HODGES PHOTOGRAPHY

That girl just imposed her will," gasped a dazed gambler standing near a cashier's window at the Fair Grounds Race Course. "That wasn't supposed to happen!"

Everybody who knew anything about horse racing said Mucho Macho Man would walk away with the Louisiana Derby March 26. But 23-year-old jockey Rosie Napravnik had other ideas.

"She took a horse that nobody, I mean nobody, thought could win, and just because she was riding, beat a horse everyone was talkin' about, that had crushed it last race — by seven-and-a-quarter lengths," the man added. "That horse that nobody cared about is going to Kentucky."

The gambler, the kind of guy who stays down below the grandstand and bets on horses in Dubai, was clearly shaken by the upset. I, however, had bet on Napravnik and Pants on Fire. I'd known she was going to win; she told me herself.

Hiding in the jockey listings under the gender-neutral alias A.R. Napravnik — Anna Rose — the Morristown, N.J. native has been racing as a pro since she was 17, winning races at Pimlico in Laurel, Md., and Aqueduct in the Queens borough of New York.

This year she came to New Orleans and is turning the racing world on its ear. Before winning the $1 million Louisiana Derby, Napravnik clinched the riding title for the season at the Fair Grounds with 110 wins, 31 ahead of second-place jockey Shaun Bridgmohan. Napravnik is the first woman to do that in the track's 139-year history. She's ranked second in the U.S. in terms of wins and sixth in earnings ($3,329,078). Like the horse she rode into the winner's circle, Napravnik has largely flown under the radar.

Pants on Fire, an enigmatic 3-year-old colt, was entered in the Louisiana Derby almost as an afterthought; his owners admit he was only a rabbit. Now he will compete at Churchill Downs in the 137th Kentucky Derby May 7, and Napravnik has earned the chance to ride him — and a shot at becoming the first woman ever to win the Kentucky Derby. Outside of thoroughbred racing, however, the world has barely noticed Napravnik. That could change soon.

Three days before the Louisiana Derby, I crossed paths with the young jockey while catering a birthday party for an 11-year-old near the Fair Grounds. Although there was a life-size poster of Justin Bieber and other pre-teen trappings, the guests were mostly grownups. The father was a horse trainer, and these were horse people. When not offering sweet potato-fried shrimp to little girls and middle-aged men drinking beer while their wives danced the Cupid Shuffle, another server and I played a game we called "Guess the Jockeys."

The first ones were easy to pick out in the crowd, even without their jockey silks: the slight olive-skinned man, a tall guy with a bow to his walk and a baby-faced kid with skinny legs. I even suspected a girl with pigtails wearing a British flag jacket, but as our count passed 10, I never picked out Napravnik. I recall seeing her — short ginger hair fashionably cut below her ears and retro caramel-colored sunglasses — dancing with a young girl. But I never guessed she was a jockey.

After the DJ had finished playing, I happened to be in the front hall at the same time as the woman with the ginger hair. Mike Stidham, the birthday girl's father, introduced us and told me Napravnik was riding 11 races on Derby Day. That seemed like a lot, and I asked her if she knew all the horses well. Napravnik said she knew some of the horses, but had never even ridden a few of them, which seemed a challenge in a high-stakes race.

click to enlarge Pants on Fire (foreground), a long shot ridden by Napravnik, won the $1 million Louisiana Derby by a neck March 26. - PHOTO COURTESY FAIR GROUNDS/HODGES PHOTOGRAPHY

"A horse is a horse," she said. "All of them are different, but it's just like riding a bicycle. You tell them what to do."

I asked her for advice about betting on Derby Day, and her answer was simple. "Bet on me," she said. "To win?" I asked. "To win," she answered. "In every race?" I asked. Her hint of a smile left no doubt about the answer. Napravnik told me the names of the horses she knew best, and I wished her good luck. I recall thinking later that she is, quite possibly, the most confident person I've ever met.

Regardless, the thought of betting on her to win 11 races was intimidating, although Stidham had explained how Napravnik had dominated the season. I decided to narrow the odds. The last weekend in March was already hot with fat dollops of clouds scattered in a blue sky. I showed up at the Fair Grounds wearing a straw hat and with $80 in my pocket. My plan was to bet on the third, fourth and ninth races, then leave for an evening catering job.

I had looked up Napravnik's statistics to see how well she was doing and found she was No. 6 in the world in terms of earnings. But it wasn't until I heard her name in the grandstands — people screaming "C'mon Rosie!" — that I really understood her appeal. Here was a woman beating men in a male-dominated sport, mildly amused that she wasn't supposed to.

The first race was already finished when I sat down, and Napravnik was riding a horse with 9:1 odds in the second. Easy money, I thought, but decided to watch this one play out. Napravnik rode Fast Tip hard out of the gate and took the lead by the first turn on her way to an easy victory. It was a missed opportunity for me.

The next run, a $100,000 stakes race, went to Napravnik on Upperline, but the odds had fallen to 6:5 and I didn't make much. In the third, she was riding Bind, a ridiculous favorite at 1:9 odds, but after leading most of the race, Bind was edged out in the final 16th.

Napravnik finished fourth in the sixth race, and though she steered a 6:1 horse to place in the seventh, I was beginning to lose faith. I had a $20 ticket on Workin for Hops in the ninth race. Napravnik led the pack most of the way, but a crowd of mad horses made a late kick and Hops finished fifth. I started to see a pattern. The horse that set the pace and led most of the way almost never won; it was the horses with the energy to accelerate down the straightaway who crossed the line first.

That was that. Now it was time for me to go work pouring drinks for strangers. I walked to the betting room to cash out my early winnings. Every betting machine and cashier had a line 20 deep, and while I waited for my turn I kept looking at the screens showing the odds for the next race — the Louisiana Derby. This race had tugged on my imagination every time I had looked through the program: Pants on Fire at 10:1 odds; Mucho Macho Man the clear favorite at 9:5. Earlier in the week, Mucho Macho Man had been touted in print as "part of a grand plan," "could be a Kentucky Derby favorite," while the only thing I had found on Pants on Fire was that he was a fast starter, and that the "rabbit" strategy was to have him take an early lead and his stable-mate, Nacho Business, supposedly the better horse, would follow.

click to enlarge Napravnik is the first woman ever to win the Leading Jockey trophy in the 139-year-history of the Fair Grounds Race Course. - PHOTO COURTESY FAIR GROUNDS/HODGES PHOTOGRAPHY

I had a feeling Napravnik had one more win in her that afternoon (she had three), and following her last loss, I could see her look of disgust all the way from the top of the grandstands. I had an hour before my job started and $5 in my pocket. There was time for one more race.

Liking the 10:1 odds and getting two horses for one, I went for the dual entry: 1 for Nacho Business and 1A for Pants on Fire.

Dusk was coming under a sleepy blue sky and the breeze carried notes of whiskey. The grandstands were jam-packed; a different crowd had arrived for the big race: thick-necked men in suits escorted busty blondes or venerable wives with stretched faces, all emanating the aura of the money at stake.

I kept watch over the pink 1A on the board as odds were updated, convinced that Napravnik, Pants on Fire and I were going to win. The only question was how much? With 4 minutes to post time, the odds dropped as low as 4:1, and then came back up. I felt strangely calm as I opened my crumpled program and read the results from Pants on Fire's races this season: denied, weakened, stumbled start.

As the horses approached the gate, the crowd hushed. Then they were off.

The horses flew by. As they approached the first turn, Pants on Fire was on the inside vying for the lead, and Mucho Macho Man was a length back in third. Pants on Fire was chasing Lion Drive, which had preposterous 99:1 odds. Onto the backstretch Napravnik kept her spot half a length back, and through the turn I could barely discern the pink of Pants on Fire's silks on the outside, making the move he wasn't supposed to have in him.

As they came into the final stretch the announcer chanted, "Pants on Fire in the lead down the quarter pole," and for a moment I doubted, thinking he'd peaked too early with the whole straightaway left to go. Lion Drive seemed to falter, and Mucho Macho Man and Nehro, another long shot, were furiously bearing down during the final furlong. Running like a spirit animal possessed, Pants on Fire refused to give ground and Napravnik drove him on. The announcer, excited at two dark horses running neck-and-neck, kept pace, saying "Nehro closing fast — and it's Pants on Fire for Rosie Na-Prav-Nik!" Pants on Fire won by a neck, with Mucho Macho Man a half-length behind.

I slipped through the stunned crowd and hopped down the steps to the cashier. A TV showed Napravnik and Pants on Fire being led to the winner's circle while the corpulent women behind the counter kept repeating, "Aw, Rosie," in disbelief and "Damn, Rosie!" in frustration.

"She's gonna be a star," I said as I gathered my winnings.

"She is a star," an annoyed, tired woman corrected me.

Had I simply taken Napravnik's advice and bet $20 on her to win every race, I would have won $602.

As I pedaled my bike past fish frys on the way to my job pouring Chardonnay for party guests I remembered Napravnik saying, "A horse is a horse." She had turned a rabbit, an unheralded colt, into a prize thoroughbred headed to the Kentucky Derby and a chance at the Triple Crown. Pants on Fire is still a long shot (the Associated Press last week put his odds at 44:1) and has to beat Mucho Macho Man again, not to mention the fastest horses in all the land. Napravnik, however, is not. "Bet on me. To win," she had told me. Logic told me to doubt, but after my limited experience with Rosie Napravnik, I wouldn't advise betting against her.

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