Call Rosie Napravnik what you will – a trail blazer, a pioneer, a woman of extraordinary talents – but first there's this: The reason Napravnik is such a compelling story in the run-up to the Kentucky Derby has little to do with her gender and everything to do with the fact she is one of the world's best jockeys.
So while Napravnik will try to strike a blow for aspiring female riders everywhere when she pilots Mylute in the Kentucky Derby – no woman has ever ridden a Derby winner – she also will try to do justice to the art and craft of race-riding. In the crucible of the Kentucky Derby, when split-second decisions can separate winners from also-rans, will Napravnik have the wherewithal to succeed? About that, horsemen say, there is little doubt.
It probably goes without saying that Tom Amoss, the trainer of Mylute, is a big Napravnik fan. When it comes time to move the late-running Mylute into contention in the Derby, Amoss is confident Napravnik will be right on schedule.
The reason Napravnik is such a compelling story in the run-up to the Kentucky Derby has little to do with her gender and everything to do with the fact she is one of the world's best jockeys.
“Her biggest strength is tremendous knowledge of pace,” Amoss said. “For those who don’t understand that, a fifth of a second is a length in horse racing. That means one second is five lengths – it’s not hard to understand that knowing where to place your horse to give it the best chance to finish on the end is extremely important.
“And second, she just has an ability to communicate with horses that I haven’t seen since Pat Day. He had it, Rosie’s got it, and I don’t know how to define it. It’s a God-given gift.”
High praise there; Day is in the National Racing Hall of Fame. Napravnik is 25, and a little more than seven years into her career. But what a career it is shaping up to be. Napravnik was second in the nation in wins through April 30 – only the remarkable Joel Rosario had more – and Napravnik's mounts had amassed more than $4.3 million in earnings through the first three months of the year.
“She just has an ability to communicate with horses that I haven’t seen since Pat Day. He had it, Rosie’s got it, and I don’t know how to define it. It’s a God-given gift.”
Napravnik has ridden Mylute just once, in an allowance race at Fair Grounds the day after Christmas. The horse won by more than 10 lengths. Napravnik would have been back on for Mylute's start in the Louisiana Derby on March 30 but had a commitment to ride 2-year-old champion Shanghai Bobby in the Florida Derby the same day.
When Shanghai Bobby washed out as a Derby contender, Amoss reached back out to Napravnik, and she has been aboard for most of the gray colt's pre-Derby breezes. But it has been a team effort; Shaun Bridgmohan, who rode Mylute to a second-place finish in Louisiana, was in the saddle for what Amoss said was Mylute's most important move, a six-furlong workout at Churchill Downs three weeks before the Derby.
In the course of Mylute's transformation from age 2 to 3, Amoss decided that a change in tactics would be beneficial. Instead of laying just a few lengths off the pace, as he did in most of his seven starts last year, Mylute was conditioned to relax behind the leaders and make one concerted run.
“We took his blinkers off for the Louisiana Derby,” Amoss said “The idea was to relax and make one run at the group late in the race, to sit back and make a run. That was our plan and it worked well. That’s going to be our plan in the Kentucky Derby; we have mimicked our training regimen exactly. All that work has been finished. We’re happy where we are. The horse is ready to go.”
Napravnik has ridden Mylute just once, in an allowance race at Fair Grounds the day after Christmas. The horse won by more than 10 lengths.
But rallying from the back of the pack in a 20-horse race can be daunting, even more so if the pace is slow. The tempo could indeed be moderate in this year's Derby, partly the result, Amoss believes, of the new Road to the Kentucky Derby points format that is heavily weighted toward top performances in the traditional Derby prep races. There are no rabbits in this year's field.
“The new points system puts a lot of emphasis on the races in March and April and much less on the 2-year-old races,” Amoss said. “It takes a lot of precocious horses out of the equation. Precocious means speed, and that’s what happened this year. So a horse like Mylute who likes to come from the back of the pack … this year, the Kentucky Derby is a race where pace comes into question.”
Napravnik “bring so much to the table,” Amoss said, but she may have to bring the kitchen sink to get past the leading group if they steal away on a soft pace. On the other hand, a fast pace could help vault Mylute and Napravnik into the winner's circle. And bet on this: The joint will go crazy if Rosie wins the roses.
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