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Horse Racing

Former star jockey Rosie Napravnik enjoying retirement, preparing for motherhood

They saw it as a loose plan, one that might play out over years. Until then, she would remain the high-profile sports star and he would get the new family business off the ground.

“It took a month,” Rosie Napravnik says.

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She learned she was pregnant with her first child at the beginning of October, less than a month before she was to ride the great filly Untapable in the $2 million Breeders' Cup Distaff. She and her husband, trainer Joe Sharp, guarded the news closely as the race approached.

Napravnik rode to victory, no surprise for one of the top jockeys in the country. And then she stunned her fans and peers, announcing that she would walk away from her ascendant career to become a mother and assistant trainer.

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“It was too storybook,” she says. “Beforehand, I almost felt like I couldn't possibly win the race, because it was too perfect. Could this really happen? It couldn't have been planned any better … not that it was planned.”

She punctuates the last line with wry laughter. Her son is due the second week of June, and she has spent the past six months away from the cruel pressure and constant physical pain of riding. She almost certainly would have had a mount in the May 2 Kentucky Derby and probably in Saturday's Preakness as well. But the nation's top female jockey — well, former — swears she has no itch to be in those races.

“Why would there be any agonizing?” she says. “I'm 100 percent happy with what I accomplished.”

That resume includes two Kentucky Oaks victories, two Breeders' Cup wins and three years as one of the nation's top 10 money winners. Napravnik, 27, was honored for those accomplishments at Pimlico Race Course on Thursday, though her pregnancy was far too advanced for her to make the trip from Kentucky, where she and Sharp manage his barn of 45 horses. She began her riding career in Maryland and considers it one of her racing homes.

Her sister, Jazz, accepted the Maryland Jockey Club's Award of Merit at the traditional Alibi Breakfast.

But Napravnik wants everyone to know she's content.

“I think the most common reaction initially was, ‘Oh, no, Rosie got knocked up. She'll have the kid and be back in July,'” she says, laughing again. “But it was never like that.”

“She's a lot happier now, hands down,” Sharp confirms. “Just more mentally settled.”

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As the leading female rider in the United States, Napravnik was a crossover star in a sport desperate for them. She recently appeared in a Ram Trucks commercial. During the weeks leading up to major races, fans, especially young girls, swarmed her for autographs.

As a young jockey, Napravnik resisted the attention paid to her gender. She wanted to be a great rider, period. But as time went on, she accepted what she meant to fans. She was thrilled, for example, when in 2012 she became the first female jockey to win the Kentucky Oaks, perhaps the nation's top race for 3-year-old fillies.

She's still not sure she handled the spotlight gracefully. Her focus on the next race was so intense that she didn't always engage with admirers.

"She got into it for her and only for her," Jazz Napravnik says. "I think she was reluctant to accept she'd become a role model. It wasn't until last year that she really accepted the impact she could make on people's lives."

Growing up around horses

The next challenge for Napravnik will be raising a family in the all-consuming world of a big-time racing barn. Her husband says she'll get exactly one week off after giving birth. And it's not entirely clear that he's joking.

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“I don't know if he realizes the realities of breast-feeding,” she says.

At least both parents-to-be are used to rising for work at 4 a.m.

Already, Sharp has plans to install a swanky Pack 'n Play in the tack room of his barn, where the baby will share space with a fish tank and a cageful of rabbits.

Napravnik is close to her siblings and hopes to have a second child soon. But she says she won't push her children into racing. She notes that her brother, Colt, never took to it.

“My parents always had the attitude of, ‘You can be whatever you want to be,'” she says. “It's a grueling world, so if it's not right for my son, that wouldn't be a bad thing.”

Napravnik, a New Jersey native, knows what it's like to grow up in a barn. Her father, Charles, was a farrier, and her mother, Cindy, rode and trained event horses. When she was still in high school, Napravnik moved to Maryland to be with her sister, who also had become a trainer. At age 15, she apprenticed with the late Dickie Small, a veteran Maryland trainer known for mentoring young riders.

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Napravnik turned pro in 2005 and rode the Maryland circuit until 2008, ranking sixth in wins among North American jockeys in only her second year.

“She rides as smart a race as anyone,” says Scott Lake, a veteran Maryland trainer who frequently put her aboard his horses in those years.

Napravnik recalls fellow riders wondering whether she was stuck up. That was because her sister had warned her not to talk to the older men who dominated the jockey colony.

Of course, she ended up marrying a horseman anyway.

Sharp, 30, is a former jockey and the son of a trainer. He and Napravnik became close over the years as he assisted trainers Mike Stidham and Mike Maker and she frequently rode their horses. They began dating in 2009 and married in 2011.

Sometimes they opposed each other in significant races, but those close to them say that was never as juicy a storyline as it sounded.

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“They really support each other,” Jazz Napravnik says. “They've only ever been a good match.”

Sharp left Maker's employ in September to start his own barn, which has flourished — a good bit of timing, considering the sudden absence of Napravnik's riding income. The couple maintain bases in both New Orleans, where Napravnik became a star riding the Fair Grounds circuit, and in Kentucky.

She threw herself into becoming the best assistant trainer possible, relearning basic tasks she hadn't performed since she was 14. The work suited her meticulous nature.

Asked whether Sharp, an intense personality around the track, ever scolded her, Napravnik says: “No, because I never gave him a reason to.”

“There you go,” Sharp says with a laugh. “She really is the best assistant I could ask for. She's a 10, and I wouldn't say that if it wasn't true.”

Enjoying being a fan

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This new life has allowed Napravnik to enjoy her sport from perspectives she never considered when she was a star rider.

She spent part of the day of the Kentucky Derby on the backside at Churchill Downs, sitting with friends as they swapped stories and ate barbecue. The relaxed atmosphere couldn't have been more different from the pressure of mounting a horse in the race, with 170,000 people bellowing.

“No madness,” Napravnik says.

She was home in time to watch on television as American Pharoah, her pick, won the race.

Jazz saw her recently and says: “She looked wonderful. There's a tension that's gone.”

Napravnik only recently stopped going to her husband's barn in Louisville every day. She rode ponies until about a month ago. Asked what her doctor had to say about this, she replies: “We didn't discuss it. Horse people are just different than normal people in society. It's a plain fact. … We all feel more comfortable on top of a horse.”

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Sharp trusted her to know when it was time to dismount, though as his pregnant wife walked horses to the track, he'd occasionally warn: “Watch out; they'll kick.”

“It's OK; they all kick,” Napravnik would reply.

With Napravnik gone, no other female rider has stepped into the top rank of the sport. Inevitably, fans ask whether she'll come back some day.

Her sister and husband guess no. Napravnik isn't quite so definitive.

"I don't think about a comeback at all," she says. "I can't say never. But I don't have to come back if I don't want to, and that's the most wonderful thing."

childs.walker@baltsun.com

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