Riders gear up for Female Jockey Challenge, Lady Legends for the Cure

Fillies and mares, both equine and human, will be in the spotlight for the third consecutive year on Friday as The People's Pink Party takes over Pimlico Race Course

Fillies and mares, both equine and human, will be in the spotlight for the third consecutive year on Friday as The People's Pink Party takes over Pimlico Race Course.

A joint effort between Pimlico and Susan G. Komen for the Cure, the world's largest breast cancer organization, the annual springtime event was created in 2010 to help raise money and awareness in the fight against the disease.

Seventy-five percent of the funds raised will go to the Komen Maryland Affiliate to use for community outreach programs in Maryland. The remaining 25 percent will go toward breast cancer research.

In addition to the Grade 2, $300,000 Black-Eyed Susan for three-year-old fillies and Grade 3, $300,00 Pimlico Special, Friday's 13-race card is highlighted by the Lady Legends for the Cure III race, featuring an elite group of eight retired female champion jockeys, and the second annual Female Jockey Challenge, which brings together seven of the sport's top active lady riders.

Carded as the 4TH race, the Legends race is a $45,000 allowance on the main track at six furlongs that includes four also-eligibles. The 9-to-5 program favorite is Bellagio, to be ridden by Mary Russ-Tortora, who finished eighth last year.

The first female to win a Grade 1 stakes race, Russ-Tortora is one of six Legends that return from the inaugural event, which was the first pari-mutuel race featuring retired female riders. Profiled on NBC Sports, it was also filmed as the climatic ending to the feature length documentary in production, JOCK, chronicling the story of the first generation of lady jockeys.

Mary Wiley-Wagner, who rode Mass Destruction to a 6 1/2-length victory last year, is back to defend her title. Married to Maryland Jockey Club starter Bruce Wagner, she ranked among the country's top five apprentice riders in 1983 and briefly returned to competitive riding in 2010.

A breast cancer survivor, her win in 2011 came 18 months to the day after finishing her final chemotherapy treatment. She ran fourth in 2010.

"I'm very excited," Wiley-Wagner, 48, said. "I'm extremely competitive. Having won it last year, the non-competitive side of me, if there is one, thinks it would be very nice to see someone else win it. Then, the real me says, 'Uh, no.'

"I'm sure every other rider out there feels the same way. We root each other on and say a prayer together before we go down to the paddock, but as soon as we throw a leg over our horse, it's each woman for herself. Ride safe, but everybody's out there to win."

Also back are Patti "PJ" Cooksey, a breast cancer survivor and one of only two women to ride in both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness; Barbara Jo Rubin, the first female to win a pari-mutuel race in the United States; Cheryl White, the first African-American female rider; and Jennifer Rowland Small, the top pioneer female rider in Maryland during the 1970s.

New to the competition this year are Jill Jellison, who ranks seventh among female riders with 1,853 victories between 1982 and 2010, including a career-high 241 in 1989; and Zoe Cadman, who won 311 races from 2000-04 and now works as an analyst for HRTV.

"I'm more excited about it than I thought I would be," Wiley-Wagner said. "I kind of thought that maybe the third time, you know, it's been done. I'm excited that we're going to have a couple of new riders; that's going to be fun. It looks like it's going to be a really, really good race. I'm very excited."

Wiley-Wagner is pleased with the way the event has grown, both for the charity and the industry it represents.

"The first year I think no one really knew what to expect," she said. "I think a lot of us riders were concerned whether everyone was going to take it seriously enough and really do what it takes to be fit enough. While we're only riding one race, you have to be pretty darn fit, and you have to keep in mind that anything can happen out there. Everyone has stepped up to the plate each year, and I think they are all looking forward to it as much as I am.

"Not only is it for a great cause, but I think it's also great for racing. I have so many friends and associates that came out the first year, people who had never been to the races before. They came out to support me and the other legends and some came out just for the cause, and they told me after the fact that they had such a great time. Almost all of them came back last year and are coming back again this year. It's a great day and a great celebration of Maryland racing and of what people can do when they pull together for a great cause."

The Female Jockey Challenge has been expanded for 2012. Rosie Napravnik, who leads all female riders this year in wins and purses, and Emma-Jayne Wilson, the Canadian-based defending champion, both return for Pimlico's second annual edition. They are joined by fellow returnees Forest Boyce and Vicky Baze, and newcomers Rosemary Homeister, Tammi Piermarini and Greta Kuntzweiler.

The challenge was expanded from six to eight riders this year, but will be without Abby Fuller, who dropped out following the death of her father, Peter Fuller, on Monday. Peter Fuller bred and owned Mom's Command, who Abby Fuller rode to the New York filly Triple Crown in 1985.

In the challenge format, riders will earn points for finishing first (12 points), second (6), third (4) and fourth (3) in four designated races: the 2ND, 3RD, 5TH and 7TH. The jockey with the most points at the end of the competition will be crowned champion and take home top prize of $10,000.

"This is the best female jockey challenge, not only that I've ever been in, but probably one of the best female jockey challenges there's ever been," Napravnik said. "They really have done a great job of picking out the elite female riders in the country, which makes it more competitive. It's fun to get together with the girls that really have been successful, and it's great to be included in what they call the elite riders in the country."

On May 4, the 24-year-old Napravnik became the first female rider in its 138-year history to win the Grade 1 Kentucky Oaks when she guided Believe You Can to a three-quarter length victory. Eight days later, she was the first woman to ever win the 58-year-old Grade 2 Peter Pan at Belmont Park, aboard Mark Valeski.

Runner-up to Julien Leparoux for the 2006 Eclipse Award as top apprentice rider, Naparavnik tied Baze for fourth in last year's challenge.

"I've been in a few of these jockey challenges before, and I seem to have the worst luck," Napravnik said, "but, I still like to do it. It's really fun, and I'm looking forward to being back."

Participants from both the Challenge and the Lady Legends race will take part in an autograph session on the first floor grandstand trackside starting at 10 a.m. (EST).