Family business: Ex-jockey Rosie Napravnik settles in as assistant trainer of Derby contender Girvin

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — For a few minutes each morning, Rosie Napravnik resumes her familiar position as a rider climbing aboard a Kentucky Derby contender, Girvin, and leading him to the track at Churchill Downs.

If her life had taken a slightly different path, perhaps she'd have the mount Saturday on this very same horse, who laid waste to the competition in Louisiana all spring.


But that's no longer Napravnik's reality. Next to her and Girvin, on a white pony, is her husband, Joe Sharp. He's the Derby contender's trainer. She's the assistant trainer and in this special case, the exercise rider.

Come Saturday, Napravnik — who began her stellar riding career in Maryland — will happily hand Girvin's reins to Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith. She'll watch the race from a box with Sharp and their sons — near-2-year-old Carson and 9-month-old Tucker. It will be a big day for the family business.


"It's a huge deal," Napravnik said.

Trainer Joe Sharp, right, leads Kentucky Derby entrant Girvin, left, ridden by his wife Rosie Napravnik, a former jockey, back to Barn 33 after a morning gallop at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky., Thursday, May 4, 2017.

Albeit from a different angle than the triumphs she experienced as a jockey, which included two Breeders' Cup and two Kentucky Oaks wins before her retirement in fall 2014.

"It's definitely a different perspective," Napravnik said. "Being around this horse every day, getting on him and having watched him develop, it's definitely just as, if not more, rewarding than riding the race. As a jockey, we knew horses as much as we needed to know them. But it's more fun for me to know the day to day and have an actual relationship with the horse."

She's also a deeply proud wife.

Sharp is just 32 and has been on his own as a trainer less than three years. The fact he already has a horse in the country's most famous race marks him as a rising star.

But the experience has brought plenty of stress. About two weeks ago, Sharp discovered a quarter crack near the heel of Girvin's right front foot. Since then, he's scrambled to keep the colt in Derby shape, training him in a swimming pool and using special Z-bar shoes to protect his front feet among other measures.

"I haven't gotten nervous because I haven't had a chance to," the baby-faced trainer said. "I've been so preoccupied. People say, 'It's your first Derby, you must be nervous.' But it's like, 'Nope, haven't had time.' "

Napravnik never used to feel pressure until the day of the race. Now that's flipped on its head. She exhales when she and Sharp reach the paddock and hand their horse off to the jockey.


Girvin, a 15-1 shot in the morning line, finally gave his team peace of mind Saturday, when he reeled off an impressive 5-furlong workout at Keeneland with Napravnik aboard.

Former jockey Rosie Napravnik exercises Kentucky Derby entrant Girvin for her husband, trainer Joe Sharp, at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky., Thursday, May 4, 2017.

Sharp said it's invaluable to have his wife as the exercise rider in such tense moments. Not only was she a world-class jockey, he trusts her assessments without needing to waste a second thought.

"And the price is right, too," he joked Thursday after Napravnik took Girvin, in regular shoes, to the track.

"It's really nice on days like today when we have an issue like the new shoe," he continued. "She's been on him every day and obviously has a good feel for a horse. I can only see so much, but she can come back and give me feedback. So we can kind of double-team it. … We're definitely very fortunate to have each other to work with."

She said: "I feel like he's going to have more confidence in my opinion than most people, just because of our relationship and he knows I'm going to be 100-percent honest. We work really well together and we're always pretty much on the same level. So I think it's definitely an advantage for him."

Napravnik was the most successful female jockey in the country 21/2 years ago when she stunned racing fans by announcing her retirement and first pregnancy immediately after riding the great filly Untapable to victory at the Breeders' Cup.


Since then, she has thrown herself into motherhood and helping Sharp get his barn off to a successful start. She relishes the mundane details and unglamorous tasks inherent to her second career. On Thursday, for example, she happily slipped away to hose off her gear while Sharp handled a barrage of television interviews. Last year, the couple bought a farm in nearby Simpsonville, and she mucks out stalls in the predawn hours before work at the track even begins.

"I just can't get enough of it," she said.

Nor can her elder son, Carson, who's spent nearly every day of his life steeped in racing. Sharp thinks nothing of holding the boy with one arm while he boosts a jockey onto a horse with the other.

At home, Carson loves to throw an exercise saddle on the arm of the couch, pick up one of his mother's old custom whips and race around the house shouting, "Go Girvin! Go Girvin!" He treats his toddler playpen as a starting gate, saying, "They're in the gate and they're off" every time he exits. Napravnik noted that he already tucks the whip under his armpit like a seasoned jockey.

"Nobody taught him how to do it," she said. "He's just been in the paddock, observing."

Those who know Sharp and Napravnik love watching them work together.


"They complement each other so well," said Girvin's owner Brad Grady, a Texas oil and gas entrepreneur who gave Sharp some of the first horses that allowed him to start his own barn. "Rosie's riding career speaks for itself. And then you got Joe who had a riding career that helps him immensely when he trains."

Grady, who first bought horses in 2008, has long believed Sharp is headed for big things. He met the trainer in part because his daughter was an avid Napravnik fan. Grady wanted her to ride his horses. And with her came an introduction to Sharp, who was then a precocious assistant to trainer Mike Maker.

"I think I want this more for Joe than I do for myself," Grady said of a Derby victory. "He's an impeccable horseman and a good man, great family man. … He's got as good a work ethic as any human I've ever seen."

When Girvin's previous jockey, Brian Hernandez Jr., opted to ride McCraken in the Derby, some observers speculated that maybe, just maybe, Napravnik might ride her husband's star horse. She acknowledged that there was a part of her that felt she knew Girvin better than any other rider.

"But that's just a little bit far off from reality," she said. "There's a lot more that would have to go into it than just the great story it would be. I don't need that kind of pressure."