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Jockey Rosie Napravnik blossoming ahead of time

There is little about Rosie Napravnik's life that doesn't move with head-snapping speed these days — whether she is guiding a horse through a stretch run or hustling after the morning works to satisfy some of the people who have made her among the most in-demand figures in Thoroughbred racing.

The notion of getting any significant time off was all but squashed when the 23-year-old became the first female jockey to win the riding title at Fair Grounds last month. And as much as Napravnik tries to soak in everything about her right now, she knows the real perspective isn't going to hit until the storm settles down just a tad.

"I definitely feel like I've been putting in my dues, but I also feel like it was just yesterday when I started," Napravnik said at Keeneland Thursday. "Even from last year it's kind of like 'How did I get here from there?'"

Napravnik created her frenetic situation by riding better than she ever has in her life, getting on some of the best horses of her career, and turning virtually every major opportunity in her path into a springboard toward the next big thing.

The jockey colony at Keeneland has long been regarded as one of the toughest in the nation, and this spring's loaded lineup of riders received a boost when Napravnik decided to take her tack there for the full meet for the first time in her burgeoning career.

If ever there was a time for Napravnik to test herself against some of the best in her sport, now couldn't be more ideal. Not only did the Morristown, N.J., native run off with the Fair Grounds meet title — posting 110 wins, 31 more than runner-up Shaun Bridgmohan — she earned herself a chance to ride in her first Kentucky Derby when she guided Pants On Fire to an upset victory in the Grade II, $1 million Louisiana Derby, also becoming the first female rider to capture that race.

This past November saw Napravnik ride in her first two Breeders' Cup races, and on Saturday Napravnik will have a chance to collect the first Grade I win of her career, on Willcox Inn in the $750,000 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland.

Considering Napravnik only began riding full time in 2005, her ascent is notable for both its speed and the level-headed way she has gone about it.

"I've been riding for less than six years, and every meet I've moved on to I can look back and say, 'Wow, I've improved so much since whenever,'" said Napravnik, who ranks sixth in the nation among all riders with $3,149,529 in earnings through Monday. "I feel like I've been improving since I started. There is never any point where you can stop learning.

"Style-wise, I try not to have a style. I try to be as well-rounded as possible. Being more well-rounded is what will make a jockey the most successful, I think."

Though soft spoken, Napravnik radiates a cool determination that has been part of her core since about the time she could walk.

With her mother Cindy running a sporthorse training facility in New Jersey, Napravnik took her first turn in the saddle at age 2 and was competing on the Mid-Atlantic pony racing circuit by the age of 7.

By age 13, she had spent a summer galloping horses for Hall of Fame trainer Jonathan Sheppard. Not only was Napravnik's raw talent evident then, so was the fact she had the temperament and know-how to endure what is a famously brutal line of work.

"You could tell she had a kind of poise," Sheppard recalled of his early time with Napravnik. "She didn't say a lot, but she seemed to pick up on things very quickly. And if you asked her to do something she didn't think was quite appropriate, she'd kind of give you a bit of a look, but that's good. You need a bit of spunk to survive in this game."

It was not long after Napravnik left high school in 2005 to become a jockey full time that many other horsemen picked up on the traits Sheppard noticed.

Her first full season of riding in 2006 was nothing short of eye opening as she won 300 races, took the meet titles at Pimlico and Laurel Park, and was an Eclipse Award finalist for outstanding apprentice rider.

Napravnik's mettle would be tested over the next couple seasons because of a series of significant injuries, including a spinal compression, a badly broken wrist and a broken left leg, which sidelined her for three months in 2008. Each time she returned to saddle, however, she did so as resolute as ever.

"I never set the bar too high for myself, but I've always accomplished everything and then moved on to the next step," said Napravnik, who in December became the first female jockey to win the riding title at Delaware Park. "We did a lot of shipping around, I've had some exposure in New York, I've ridden at Saratoga. It's just kind of breaking through into that top level and people becoming familiar with me."

Napravnik has kept moving forward in her career because of an ability to take whatever is tossed at her — good or bad — and handle it all with seeming ease.

If a race strategy doesn't go as planned, she relays her post-race information as calmly and accurately as if she were in the winner's circle. Her steady hands have been credited with saving energy in many a mount, and if the repeated comparisons to former female riders such as Julie Krone grates on her nerves, Napravnik doesn't let on.

"She has a natural touch with the horses. She's always getting a lot of run out of them, getting them to relax and finish," said trainer Michael Stidham, who conditions Willcox Inn and has regularly called on Napravnik to ride his horses. "She seems to have a real even temperament. She can get beat, and even though I'm sure it's bothering her inside she never really lets it show.

"I remember her saying the Louisiana Derby was her first fist pump. For a rider to have ridden as much as she has and to have never done that after a race, tells you she was pretty excited about that."

Napravnik's agent, Derek Ducoing, has been fielding many requests for her time, and that figures to go into overdrive should Pants On Fire stay healthy and take his fresh-faced rider into the circus that is Kentucky Derby week.

The whirlwind of activity that comes with participating in the race will only be matched by the emotions of being part of it. Like everything else in her world, Napravnik isn't letting that stage intimidate her.

"When people say, 'What's your goal? Is it to win the Derby? The Breeders' Cup?' I say I just want to be competitive at that level. I want to be riding in those races more than once," Napravnik said. "The Derby is not the one race I feel I have to win to feel like I accomplished anything, but the new level I'm breaking into is my dream, and to ride in the Derby kind of confirms it. I feel like I am where I'm supposed to be."

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