LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The red-headed girl who shocked Maryland horse racing with her daring debut in 2005 was coronated as an elite jockey Friday at Churchill Downs.
Rosie Napravnik won the Kentucky Oaks on Believe You Can. She is the first woman to win the most important race for 3-year-old fillies in its 138-year history, and she did so in front of a crowd of 112,552.
"This is how it feels to have your dreams come true," Napravnik said.
Believe You Can convincingly won a late duel with Napravnik, a former Hereford student and top jockey in Maryland, extending her fist in celebration as she crossed the finish line.
She had pulled even with Broadway's Alibi, ridden by John Velazquez, near the turn for home and took the lead at mid-stretch.
"It was almost intimidating," Napravnik said. "I thought, 'Here we go. Either we go get it or we don't."
Napravnik became emotional in her post-race interview on the track.
"I cried a little," she said. "But I don't think I'm done crying yet."
Napravnik, who also won the 12th race, began the week hoping to get another ride in the Kentucky Derby — she finished ninth last year on Pants on Fire, the best finish by a woman in that race — but her horse, Mark Valeski, was pulled.
Napravnik won her first race at Pimlico, guiding Ringofdiamonds to an early lead in June, 2005 when she was 17. "Since I was about 7 years old, I've dreamed of becoming a jockey," she said that day.
She won 45 races in her first 44 days at Laurel Park that fall before breaking her collarbone, the first in a string of injuries. She won the spring title at Laurel in 2006, made the jump to Delaware Park look easy and was an Eclipse finalist for top apprentice jockey. She's overcome three other major injuries — a spinal compression, broken wrist and broken leg — and became the first woman to win meet titles at Delaware and notoriously rugged Fiar Grounds in New Orleans.
Believe You Can owner Brereton Jones couldn't believe he was meeting Napravnik the first time he met her.
"She doesn't look hard enough. She doesn't look tough enough," he said. "She's an attractive, pretty girl."
But Friday, the former governor of Kentucky called her "the coolest customer I have ever seen ride a horse."
Said trainer Larry Jones: "I don't know what her super strong suit is that makes her so good. She just is."
Napravnik, he said, transfers confidence to the horses. And she admitted to trying to tamp down her hunch prior to the race.
"Before, I was really thinking, 'I really think I'm going to win this race,'" she said. "It's never good when I think that. I'm like, 'Don't admit it to yourself.'"
In recent years, the Oaks has been used to bring attention to the fight against breast cancer. Its slogan is "Ladies First."
"It's great for all the women in the industry, and in the world," Napravnik said when asked about the significance of her win. "I'm just happy to represent that."
Second time around
Baltimore native Larry Collmus feels less nervous this year, his second as the voice of the Triple Crown.
Even though he knows, going into Saturday's fairly open Kentucky Derby, he probably shouldn't be.
"Last year, the way it set up, it actually turned out 100 times better than I thought it would," the Mount St. Joseph graduate said. "By the time they turned for home, I could keep my eyes on the horses in front. This year, with the speed, I may have a lot of closers to watch."
That Animal Kingdom, a horse with strong Maryland ties, won his Triple Crown debut was gratifying for Collmus. He grew up hanging around the state's track, calling races into a tape recorder and made his debut in 1985 at Bowie.
"[Trainer] Graham Motion is one of the classiest people you can meet," he said. "It's always good to see Maryland, which has a lot of pride, do well."
Though he won't make a prediction about Saturday's race, he's impressed with Union Rags. Collmus is the announcer at Gulfstream Park, where the Michael Matz colt had his ill-fated ride in the Florida Derby.
"He's an aboslutely gorgeous horse," he said, "who simply had a brutal trip. I certainly think he's capable."
The only scratch for the Kentucky Derby, My Adonis, will race at Pimlico Saturday in the Canonero II Stakes. My Adonis was the first horse ever put on the also-eligible list for the Derby, but no spot opened.
My Adonis is the even-money morning line favorite at the featured Cananero II, which often sends horses to the Preakness and/or Belmont.