She may not be a Maryland native, but Rosie Napravnik remembers galloping horses at Pimlico Race Course before she even earned her jockey's license, then winning the first race of her career at the oval in 2005.
Now one of the leading riders in the nation, on May 18 she'll become just the third woman to ever ride in the Preakness (gr. I) when Mylute gives her a shot at becoming the first female rider to win the second jewel of the Triple Crown.
If 25-year-old Napravnik thinks of that distinction, however, it is only when brought up by members of the media. At a morning press conference the day before the big event, the rider who grew up racing ponies in New Jersey made sure to state where her focus lies.
"I'm not doing this because I'm a girl, I'm not trying to win because I'm a female jockey, I'm just trying to win the race," she said.
With Mylute, a steel-gray son of Midnight Lute trained by Tom Amoss for GoldMark Farm and Whisper Hill Farm, Napravnik has already made history. The two finished fifth in the May 5 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I), best placing ever achieved by a female rider. That hard-closing finish was also the closest any of the five Derby runners who wheel back for the Preakness ever got to Orb, a formidable favorite going into the 1 3/16-mile event.
"Orb seems like a very good horse and one that's moving forward, but Mylute is definitely coming along too," said Napravnik. "He's a little bit of a slow learner but I think he's really waking up and improving as a racehorse. He's really getting that competitive drive, and he's got a powerful kick."
The Preakness will be Napravnik's third ride on Mylute. They won an allowance race together at Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots in December and finished 3 3/4 lengths behind Orb in the Derby. Mylute, the 5-1 second choice on the morning line, drew post 5 in the nine-horse field. Orb has the rail.
"We followed him last time in the Derby," Napravnik said of Orb. "We do have a little bit of an outside advantage on him, We'll have to see how the race sets up and we'll have to move forward a couple of lengths. I do think that Mylute is moving forward."
Napravnik knows Pimlico and said it will suit Mylute's closing style.
"I think that this track is stereotypically called a speed-biased track, but, honestly, I've ridden on this track a million times and I really think that it's a fair track," she said. "I don't think it's going to be any disadvantage to us coming from behind, and it's a very long stretch."
Looking back at the Derby, Napravnik said she might have attempted to place her runner a little closer to the pace; Mylute raced 18th, 17th, 16th, and 9th at points of call from the quarter-mile to one mile before making his run.
"A lot of people had said that he broke bad, which is not true, he broke fine, with the group, and just dropped back," the jockey explained. "If there was anything I would change, maybe just not be quite as far back. But he's got a great running style, he's very relaxed, he's very easy to ride (and) move in and out wherever you want to go. What I really learned about him is that his class is coming out and he's really improving, so I'm really excited about this race."
Napravnik moved to trainer Holly Robinson's farm in Sparks, Md., in the summer of 2004 and started exercising horses.
"I can't really imagine spending my life doing anything else other than being around horses," she said. "I was the kid, when I was three years old, hugging the horse's leg. I've just grown up with horses my whole life, they've been a part of my life and they definitely always will be."
She won her career debut aboard Ringofdiamonds for trainer Dickie Small June 9, 2005. Now it's nearly eight years, another 1,543 wins and more than $49 million in purse earnings later, including her biggest victory to date, the 2012 Kentucky Oaks (gr. I) aboard the aptly-named Believe You Can for former Kentucky governor Brereton Jones and trainer Larry Jones.
"I don't know if I've ever had such a focused moment where I thought I just had it," Napravnik recalled. "Even before the race started, I had everything visioned of how it was going to work out and I just made everything happen the way I wanted it to. It was definitely one of my proudest moments and one of the best races I've ridden, and couldn't be for better people."
While most jockeys would call a Kentucky Derby victory the most important achievement in racing, Napravnik said the Preakness carries extra significance for her as well. She will be the first female rider to contest the event since Andrea Seefeldt finished seventh in 1994.
"I would say they are head-and-head," she said. "The Derby would mean so much for my career and to so many people. The Preakness would really be a great personal accomplishment. I don't know which would be more exciting. I haven't won either yet, so I'll let you know when it happens."