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July 3, 2013

Racing Runs In The Napravnik Family

“My sister and I were always so connected through the horses,” said jockey Rosie Napravnik (right), with big sister Jazz and trainer Nick Zito in the winner’s circle at Saratoga (N.Y). TOD MARKS PHOTO

It wasn’t long ago that Jazz and Rosie were just little girls on racing ponies, but today they’re the most famous sisters in flat racing and steeplechasing.

Her big sister, the pony in front of her, a career in one of the most staunchly male-centric professions in America. At 25 years old, Rosie Napravnik has been chasing someone or something her entire life.

Hers is a name often in the news, especially at Triple Crown time. Last year she became the first female jockey in history to win the Kentucky Oaks, aboard Believe You Can, and she capped her wildly successful 2012 season with a win in the $2 million Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Grey Goose Juvenile (Calif.) on Shanghai Bobby. This March she earned her 1,500th career win, and then she finished fifth—the highest placing a woman has ever achieved—in the Kentucky Derby in May aboard Mylute.

But while her career has now taken her to glamorous heights, Rosie started out as just a horse-crazy kid, looking up to her sister Jasmine, five years her senior. Today “Jazz” may be the “less famous” Napravnik sister by mainstream measurements, but Rosie followed in her footsteps as she blazed the path through the ranks of Pony Club, eventing and junior races, eventually finding her own niche as a successful steeplechase trainer.

“I always thought that Jazz was the driving force behind Rosie,” said Eclipse Award-winning steeplechase trainer Jack Fisher, who employed both sisters at points in their careers. “Both of them were very driven, but to me, it seemed that everything Jazz did was for Rosie.”

And everything Rosie did was because of Jazz.

“Leading up to becoming a jockey, my sister was my greatest influence,” said Rosie. “She was leading the way, and I was following in her footsteps. She taught me so much in not only racing and riding, but life as well.”

The Making Of A Team
Jazz and Rosie grew up in Bedminster, N.J., as the daughters of an event rider and a farrier. Jazz, now 30, was literally riding before she could walk.

“As soon as the kids could hold their heads up, they were on horses,” said their mother, Cindy Faherty Napravnik. “Jazz’s first gallop, I sat her up in the saddle in front of me, and we went for a little hand gallop. I had the perfect horse—so safe—or I obviously wouldn’t have done it. I have this picture of her after. Her legs didn’t even come off the sides of the saddle, but she had a huge smile on her face when we were done.”

Jazz proved her competitive moxie right off the bat, pinning in her first leadline class at age 2. Since Cindy ran a training and teaching business, Jazz and her younger brother, Colt, logged plenty of supervised hours in the saddle.

Exposure to Pony Club was her liaison to racing, as she witnessed the juniors prepping for the Far Hills (N.J.) races. At age 5, Jazz logged her first race on the back of the community’s most dependable pony, Taffy.

“She finished last by too many lengths to count,” said Cindy, who was pregnant with Rosie at the time. But soon a flashy, 12-hand pony named Sweet Sensation came into their lives; “Brownie” would be the start of Jazz and Rosie’s present careers.

“Because of that pony, we were able to go where we went,” said Cindy, 52. “Jazz had just turned 6 when we went to try him, and he bucked her off. I didn’t think she’d want him. So I asked her, ‘What do you think?’ and she said, ‘Oh, I want him!’ ”

With her mother’s help, Jazz’s first training project began. Brownie was a green-broke 5-year-old, and Cindy rode the pony daily, while Jazz lessoned on him. And when the time came to teach him to jump, Jazz learned gymnastics at the same time.

“He tried to buck me off five out of seven days a week for the first year or two,” Jazz recalled. “But eventually we were successful in the national Welsh pony hunters and regional eventing. And although he wasn’t ready for me to race on, he was passed on to my sister, and they topped the Delaware Valley [Point-to-Point Association] small pony [races]. And she got to play [Pony Club] games on him. So for us, that was a very special pony. He was my first really influential horse.”

“By the time I got him, he was perfectly made. She’d done all the work,” said Rosie of Brownie. “I was spoiled to death, always with hand-me-down ponies from Jazz.”

As the younger sister, Rosie wanted to do everything Jazz was doing—which had evolved from eventing into riding in the junior races. Colt was also riding then, often mounted on Jazz’s hand-me-downs as well.

“It was only a matter of time before we were able to convince my mom that it was OK for me to do it too,” said Rosie. “We all turned out to be a great team. Looking back on it, it was really such a great time of our childhood—we were all working together; it was very much a family thing.”

“We were always having fun doing it,” said Colt, who gave up riding at age 13 and turned to motorbikes; he now works on specialized “drifting” race cars. “It wasn’t like having the parents who are screaming at the softball game, but it was still serious competition. It gave everybody a great work ethic.”

Summer Schooling
When Jazz finished high school, she went to work for steeplechase trainer Bruce Miller, who had trained Hall of Famer Lonesome Glory, and Lilith Boucher in Unionville, Pa.

“My good event horse had gotten injured. I’d started schooling horses for other people, and I’d really found a love and a passion for the steeplechasing,” said Jazz. “At one point I thought I’d be a jump jockey, but after a few races, I realized I didn’t have the heart for it. It was nerve-wracking. I’d school it all at home, but in the race, near the end, when my horse was tired and the jumps looked bigger… not so much. I’m much happier giving a leg up.”

Rosie, on the other hand, didn’t know exactly how she wanted to work with horses—until she watched a film called “Jewels Of The Triple Crown.”

“I didn’t really have much exposure to flat racing at all,” she said. “I didn’t even watch my first Kentucky Derby until I was like 10 years old. And I didn’t have any idea how significant it was at that time either. A friend of mine had this VHS tape—it was each Triple Crown story. That’s where I got all of my drive from. I really wanted to ride champions. Once I was exposed to racing, that was it. I was like, ‘I want to be a jockey.’ It just clicked.”

Cindy and the children’s father, Charles, separated when Rosie was 10. Colt stayed with Charles, and the girls moved with their mother to an apartment nearby. When Jazz moved out to work, Cindy and Rosie relocated to Vermont.

But after six months there, a then-13-year-old Rosie got a summer job with renowned steeplechase trainer Jonathan Sheppard, who was located near where Jazz was working.

“The plan was for me to come live with her in Unionville, but she switched jobs then and ended up moving to a job [working for Fisher] in Maryland,” explained Rosie. “But for the sake of me and the job with Jonathan Sheppard—which was going to be very important for someone aspiring to be a jockey—she traveled to Maryland instead [of relocating].”

By the end of that summer, 2001, both Napravnik girls were working for Fisher at his Kingfisher Stable. When the summer ended, Rosie returned to New Jersey to live with her father. That’s when things kicked into a higher gear.

During that school year, Rosie’s freshman year in high school, Charles and Jazz would meet halfway between their homes in New Jersey and Maryland on Friday and Sunday evenings to transfer Rosie back and forth. She’d spend every weekend with Jazz so that she could gallop horses for Fisher, and she returned to his place the next summer as well.

“Rosie had a very great seat on a horse from the beginning, very stylish,” Fisher noted.

Meanwhile, Jazz had enrolled at Towson University (Md.), where she earned a degree in psychology. She worked two years for Fisher, and after her first year in college, she spent the summer of 2003 in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

Around that time, having watched her sister embrace some aspects of life outside horses, Rosie decided she was going to give up riding—albeit temporarily.

“I was going to be 15, and I decided, ‘When I’m 16 I can get my jockey’s license, and I’ll work with horses for the rest of my life.’ So I took a year off of horses. It was a really hard decision for me to make, because people just expected me to be in it,” she said. “But I wanted to experience being a normal kid—spending weekends in the summer with my friends. And I’m really glad I did that. I really enjoyed that part of my life.

“Some of the people in my family were afraid I was going to fall out of horses and not get back into it,” Rosie continued. “But as soon as I turned 16, I said, ‘Take me to the racetrack and let me get my license!’ ”

First Wins
After Rosie got her exercise license in 2004, she started riding for Richard “Dickie” Small at Pimlico Race Course (Md.) on weekends, and that summer, both Jazz and Rosie had jobs at the track. Jazz was working for Holly Robinson, putting herself through college, and Rosie was living with Robinson.

“That summer I learned so much, as far as getting acclimated to the racetrack. By the end of the summer, Jazz and Holly and Dickie—Dickie mostly—came to me saying, ‘Maybe you should consider staying in Maryland and concentrating on your career.’ I was really torn,” said Rosie. “I wanted to go back to where I was from and be a kid and finish high school. But I was also really excited about what I was doing.”            

She worked out a deal with the principal at a high school in Maryland, who, to prevent Rosie from dropping out, allowed her into an internship program. She went to night school to make up the other credits.

She would gallop in the mornings. “Then I’d hustle a ride back to Holly’s, get ready for school, and at 11:30, I went to school and took the bus home. But three days a week I’d have class from 6-10 p.m. My sister would pick me up those nights, and I’d stay with her. We’d go to the track in the morning.”

Rosie went to high school for three years and eventually got her GED. And on June 9, 2005, she rode her first race on one of Dickie’s fillies. And she won.

The rest is history. Rosie has since won more then 1,500 races, and Jazz started her own business, Flying Horse Farm Racing LLC, seven years ago; she’s trained winners on the flat track and on the steeplechase circuit.

While Jazz was in college, she had bred her retired junior race/event mare, Farah’s Moment, to Boy Done Good. As Rosie started riding races, Jazz was training the filly, Farah T Salute.

“She was really the first horse to put me on the map as a trainer,” said Jazz.

Rosie rode “Tye” in her first race at Colonial Downs (Va.) on June 23, 2006—and won. Jazz’s homebred also won the Palm Beach Filly and Mare Hurdle Stakes at the Palm Beach Polo Club (Fla.) in 2009 and the $30,000 Crown Royal Sport of Kings Filly & Mare Hurdle Stakes at Callaway Gardens (Ga.) in 2010. Tye gave birth to her first foal, a colt by Albert The Great, this March.

The Next Chapter
As the primary trainer for Jalin Stables, Jazz has between 10 and 20 horses in training at any given time—steeplechase and flat prospects. She’s quick to recognize the help she’s had getting to where she is today.

“My mom was the first person that I really learned from growing up with horses. But throughout my career, I’ve worked with world-renowned eventing people through Pony Club, as well as racing people. And I’ve taken something from everybody,” she said. “And I think with a diverse background I’ve developed a unique philosophy to training racehorses.”

Her philosophy, heavily influenced by her psychology training, involves a lot of cross-country conditioning, daily turnout, specialized nutrition and a drug-free environment.

“They’re athletes. Therefore we change their natural habitats and behaviors, so I try to keep them as close to nature as possible,” said Jazz. “[My psychology background] helps me understand horses better and listen closely. If you listen well enough, it will tell you everything you need to know.”

Cindy and Colt now live in Maryland; Charles is in New Jersey, and although Rosie calls New Orleans home, she’s usually off at a track somewhere.

“But Rosie and I have been close our whole lives,” Jazz noted. “And I can’t be more proud of her. This is the dream she’s had since she’s been a child. I consider us lucky that we were able to excel in the things we were passionate about.”

At the close of the 2012 season, Rosie’s earnings of $12,451,713 set a record for a female rider; the previous record for a female was set by Julie Krone in 1992, when her mounts earned $9,216,622. In addition to her Breeders’ Cup win, Rosie calls her win in the Kentucky Oaks last spring her “pinch me” moment.

“It was the female version of the Kentucky Derby. My mom and my sister were there. And the filly [Brereton C. Jones’ Believe You Can, trained by Larry Jones]—that horse in particular, she’s special to me. When I sit on her, she brings a smile to my face. She’s a champion,” said Rosie. “But I don’t think I’ve had my big break yet. I’m really looking forward to the possibilities of this year with all my horses.”

“We used to talk about Rosie winning the Kentucky Derby since we were little kids,” said Colt. “I never had any doubts that she’d do it. I joke sometimes that it makes it hard for me to look good—all of her success and celebrity. I just didn’t happen to have had job training since I was 4 years old! But really, it’s inspiring.”

Cindy can’t hide her pride all three of her children—ironically all tied to some kind of racing, in one way or another.

“People have commented about how we ‘like to go fast,’ ” she noted. “But you know, I couldn’t ask for more. My kids are all caring and look after each other. Colt is a great man. I’m so proud of Rosie—the way she can handle all the things that she does. And Jazz was the role model. I always told the kids, if you set goals, you can reach them. And Jazz set extremely high goals.”

It remains to be seen what championships 2013 might hold for the Napravnik sisters, but one thing is certain: They will continue to support one another.

“It was a very farfetched dream for a long time. To look back now and think that I’ve accomplished a lot; it’s amazing, you know, where we came from,” said Rosie. “Now, the best times are when we can win a race together or we’re working together. For us, it just seems like we’re back racing ponies and having fun and doing what we love to do. Because we still are—having fun and doing what we love to do.”        

This article appeared in the June issue of
The Chronicle Connection, the Chronicle's digital publication.

 
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