"I just left my box, ran toward the winner's circle," Jazz Napravnik said.
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Pimlico, Baltimore, MD, USA
"It's always good to get back to a place where I had so much support early in my career," said Rosie Napravnik, who took classes at Hereford High School before deciding to skip her senior year and chase a long-held dream. "So many of the faces are the same, and the feelings will come back."
The story of Napravnik's arrival on the Maryland racing scene is well known. Encouraged by Jazz, who was beginning her career as a horsewoman in the area, Rosie spent the summer before her junior year working with trainer Richard Small. She quickly impressed by serving as an exercise rider for some of the most powerful horses in the barn and was persuaded to stay. She enrolled in a program at Hereford that would allow her to keep riding in the mornings and take classes in the afternoon and at night.
She made her debut at Pimlico a year later, winning her first race. That year, 2005, she won win 71 races in 514 starts for more than $1.3 million in earnings. The next year, she won racing titles at Pimlico and Laurel and was runner-up for the Eclipse award for outstanding apprentice, to Julien Leparoux.
But that impressive start was almost delayed. Rosie had seen friends back in her native New Jersey drop out of high school and felt determined to finish her education. At first, Jazz agreed.
"You think about your little sister — my best friend my whole life — going into such a dangerous business where there are no guarantees," said Jazz, 29, "and you want her to take every step to make sure she has another plan if she needs it."
But Small, among others, told Rosie that she had enough talent to begin her career. Jockeys can ride for decades, but building a reputation as a young rider is important. Jazz was finally convinced when she saw that her sister was talented — and fearless.
"Once I saw how damn good she was, I knew it was right," Jazz said. "And they say that, until that first fall, you don't know if it's a hobby or a career. And Rosie, she doesn't even worry about that."
Said Rosie, who eventually completed her GED, "My dream was right there. I knew I'd find a way to get a diploma, but with this career I just felt like it was time to go."
Rosie, like many jockeys, has been involved in serious falls and has broken her leg, wrist, and collarbone and suffered a fractured vertebrae. She's described the experience of a fall to Jazz by saying she tries to move all her body parts, then calculates how much time she might miss based on what hurts; she's been out of the saddle for almost a year of combined time due to injuries.
"She just has that mentality that you have to have," said Jazz, who frequently talks with her sister over the phone. "She knows the risks."
Jazz hears about her sister's falls now when Rosie's husband, Joe Sharp, calls.
"He and I don't talk much, so if he's calling, I say it right away, 'Is she OK? How's her head?'" Jazz said.
Jazz almost didn't make the trip to Kentucky. Rosie had been scheduled to make her second start in the Kentucky Derby on Mark Valeski, but the horse's owners decided he'd be better served pointing toward the Belmont (she led him to a win at the Grade II Peter Pan, and he could race in the Belmont). Jazz, though, had a special feeling about how Rosie would do the day before the Derby and decided to make the trip from Monkton.
"I've been around horses and horse racing a long time," Jazz said. "I don't really have a gut instinct about a race. That was a very strange thing."
Jazz, who lives and trains horses in Monkton, will begin her daily sessions an hour early Friday so she has time to get to Pimlico. Rosie will be facing six other jockeys in a contest that will award points based on finishes — 12 for first, six for second, four for third, three for fourth — in the second, third, fifth and seventh races. Rosie will also ride Wildcat's Smile, a 10-1 choice on the morning line, in the Black-Eyed Susan.
"I've fought to be seen as one of the boys, because there are still owners and trainers who won't put a girl on a horse," said Rosie, who once raced under the name A.R. Napravnik to conceal her gender. "So when you can get some of the best women in the country together to run in a format like this, that's very special. And I get to do it where I started."