GIRL FLYING LIKE A G-5
On a recent visit to the Fair Grounds with my brother Trey, we were lucky enough to sit outside the jockey’s room and chat with jockey Anna Napravnik. While in the paddock, she may be all business, but during our brief encounter in between races she was open, friendly and possessed southern-like hospitality and charm.
Anna Rose Napravnik, “Rosie” to her friends, fans and family, came to the Fair Grounds after becoming the first female jockey in 73 years of racing at Delaware Park to capture the riding title. Rosie says she didn’t come to the Fair Grounds with any expectation she would be the leading rider, but with five weeks left in the meet she has the title squarely in her sights. Rosie has a 17-win lead and she is getting excited about it. Claiming this riding title as a female, at the oldest race meet in the country against such veteran riders as Robby Albarado, Miguel Mena and Shaun Bridgmahon would be another first.
Rosie credits her continued successes to arriving in the Big Easy with a plan. She sought the help of someone local to secure mounts on the many Louisiana-breds. She found that in longtime local agent Derek Ducoing. Rosie wanted to work with top-level trainers like local Sturges Ducoing, Bret Calhoun and Michael Stidham. She says the “Michael Stidham outfit was a big part of the reason I came down here.” It doesn’t hurt that Stidham’s assistant trainer Joe Sharp is also Rosie’s boyfriend.
Yes, I know guys, sorry, she’s spoken for.
She credits these people and many more in helping her focus on what is important to her success. She also credits her fans. She said there are a lot of people that come out to see her ride. She gets excited when she sees them cheering and yelling, “Go Rosie!” I could see on her face she gets a kick out of that. “I love it down here” she says with a big smile.
It is not surprising that our locals, in and out of the sport, have welcomed this newcomer from the East Coast. The sport of horse racing, however, is very competitive. Some Fair Grounds veterans wondered early on if this 5’1, 112 pound girl could hold her own riding down here against the big boys. They tested her spirit, her abilities and her toughness. Rosie admits proudly and eloquently, “the Fair Grounds is the toughest jockey colony I have ever ridden in a meet.” She said nothing extreme happened, but she was given a hard time in a few of her early races. The veterans would try to push her out of position or get her “locked in” during a race. Her understanding of the competitiveness in the sport and her steady even-keeled demeanor kept her focused. It didn’t take long for the veterans to realize Rosie was more than capable of competing against them. Her 17-win lead is evidence enough.
Rosie believes there are challenges in being a female jockey, but there are also advantages. She says by (mostly) sticking to a healthy diet she isn’t confronted with the same riding weight issues that haunt many male jockeys. Some worry that female Jockeys might not be as strong as their male counterparts and will have trouble controlling the 1,200-pound rockets they ride. Rosie doesn’t need, nor have time for, any additional weight training. Her physical fitness and strength comes from a lifetime of very long days riding and racing.
The one area Rosie does feel pressure – family. She knows she wants one someday, maybe even before thirty. So, at 23 she knows someday soon she will start feeling the clock ticking on her career. Her male counterparts certainly don’t have this worry, but, for now, it isn’t at the top of her list either. She is focusing on the job she loves.
Her passion for racing is clear. You can trace it to when she was seven-years-old racing ponies with her sister. She remembers begging her mom to let her put her stirrups up higher and let her out of the arena so she could cantor the pony as fast as she could go. And now, except for in the early waking hours, Rosie says, “It doesn’t feel like a job,” adding, “There is never any lack of excitement. There are always new horses to ride, new people to meet and new places to travel to.”
But make no mistake, the professional sport of thoroughbred racing may have a place for girls but it is NOT for sissies. Riding these powerful animals at 40mph while balancing on a strip of leather and two pieces of metal can take its toll. High physical energy, mental energy and stamina are required to perform well and remain safe. In order to stay at peak performance and prevent jet lag, Rosie says earned naps are as frequent as she can get them, even between races at times in the jockey room. Cornell social psychologist James Maas might have had Rosie in mind when he coined the term power nap.
In a sport where horses and jockeys fall, sometimes getting seriously injured, Rosie has had her share of bruises, bumps and broken bones. At the inquiry of a family friend we attend the races with, I asked Rosie how she overcomes her fear after a big spill. Without hesitation she stated, “Fear cannot be a factor. If you’re scared, you’re dangerous to yourself, your horse and your fellow horsemen.” She added, “If you fall and get hurt, you put it behind you and focus forward.” There are those who say jockeys have to have ice water running through their veins because they need to be so cool. Rosie is no exception. “I do not allow myself to feel the pressure so I can focus on exactly what I want to do,” she said. In her own words Rosie describes a kind of courage that can only be defined as wanting something so badly that no perceived risk is enough to stop you. She said that after a serious injury, the first question 99% of jockeys will ask is “when can I get back to riding?”
There aren’t many, if any, who would question Rosie’s courage, passion or commitment. Those traits are what have helped her get to where she is today. But, there is more.
When asked what makes her a good rider, a top jock, she says she finds it hard to articulate. Rosie has been doing it so long that it just comes natural and with little thought. Just because Rosie has trouble putting into words something that has become almost involuntary over the years, don’t mistake that for a lack of knowledge. This young woman is smart. And more importantly, she is a smart rider. She has maturity and horse instinct way beyond her youth.
She was eventually able to explain to me a few of the things she does that she attributes to her being a top jockey. I don’t want to give all her secrets away, but one thing she discussed was her calm, steady nature. She believes this demeanor creates opportunities for her to develop mutual trust between her and a horse.
This bond proves very beneficial when the crucial time comes to ask a horse to deliver everything he has and more. She talked about how this works well with one of her favorite horses on the grounds, 3-year-old Kentucky Derby hopeful, Action Ready. Rosie says he can get anxious at times, but she has developed a mutual trust and allows Action Ready to calm himself to where his trainer, Bret Calhoun wants him to be. She loves racing Action Ready, not only because he is a quality horse, but also because the tall, beautiful, jet-black horse whose ears are always perked loves the thrill of racing as much as she does. “We get each other.”
I went out to the track to get one last look around before putting this in final form. It was a gorgeous, 75 degree and sunny day here in New Orleans so my family and I went outside by the rail of the track to take a look at the horses as they were approaching the finish line. Not surprisingly, there she was, speeding down the track like a G-5 jet, out in front and winning another race!
If you’re looking for a sport that has speed, power athletes, thrills, chills, jet streams, fantastic sights and sounds, passion, history, the chance to meet new people, watch amazingly athletic animals perform, win some money or party till the money runs out, then get yourself down to the races.
Spring is definitely in the air in New Orleans and everything is coming up “Rosie” at the Fair Grounds Race Course. Come on out, take a look for yourself and give Rosie a shout out!
Ps: I asked Rosie if she was coming back next season. Her reply: “ABSOLUTLEY!”