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Horse racing: Napravnik chasing history in Kentucky Derby

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — She started out her career disguising her gender, riding under the initials A.R. Napravnik. In the male-dominated world of horse racing, Anna Rose Napravnik figured she’d have better luck if nobody noticed a woman’s name in the track program.

With her red hair tucked under her helmet, she blended in with the male jockeys in their brightly colored silks, white pants and polished black riding boots.

Nine years later, Rosie Napravnik — whose mother-in-law is Sara Escudero, who was born and raised in Watertown — is one of the rising stars in the sport, having long ago discarded her ruse. Now the 26-year-old from New Jersey will try to make history this weekend and become the first woman to ride a Kentucky Derby winner.

She’s achieved firsts before. She was the first woman to win the Louisiana Derby, and did it twice. She also was the highest-placing female rider in the Kentucky Derby, finishing fifth last year aboard Mylute. She was the first woman to win a riding title at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans in 2011, with 34 more victories than the runner-up.

She was the first woman to win the Kentucky Oaks, a $1 million race run on Derby eve, and has a strong chance to win it again Friday with early 4-5 favorite Untapable. Her mount in the Derby on Saturday is 20-1 long shot Vicar’s In Trouble.

“When I think about the things I’ve done in my career, it seems like I just started yesterday,” said Napravnik, a winner in her very first race just days after finishing her junior year in high school.

“I’ve been in so many different places. I’ve been so lucky to have ridden some of the horses I’ve ridden. It keeps building, and getting better and better and better.”

Not much would be better than winning the Derby on her third try.

She’s facing a built-in challenge: Vicar’s In Trouble drew the dreaded No. 1 spot in the starting gate. With 19 horses on his outside fighting to move inside to save ground, he and Napravnik will be under the gun when the gate springs open.

“He gets out of that gate fast every single time,” she said. “If I have to ride somebody out of there, I’m glad it’s him.”

Amid the hustle of race week, Napravnik has been doing her homework, using her computer and smart phone to watch replays of previous Derbies. She’s been focused on the horse in the No. 1 position. The rail extends into its path, so horse and rider need to be quick to avoid running into it.

Eight horses have won the Derby from the No. 1 post, most recently Ferdinand in 1986. Citation, the 1948 Triple Crown winner, started from there.

“It’s probably not as bad as people think it is,” she said. “I think I’ll be able to get Vicar into good position.”

Vicar’s In Trouble is owned by Ken and Sarah Ramsey, a Kentucky-based couple who are among the sport’s most successful owners.

“Rosie has ridden him in all of his races,” Ken Ramsey said. “She knows what to do.”

Napravnik’s riding style can be as fiery as her red hair. After the Derby, she’ll serve a four-day suspension for causing the disqualification of Bayern from first to second in last weekend’s Derby Trial at Churchill Downs.

Napravnik and Bayern made contact with Embellishing Bob in the final furlong, and his jockey lodged an objection against Napravnik. The stewards agreed and changed the order of finish, elevating Embellishing Bob to first and dropping Bayern to second.

“Sometimes you go over the line, but it’s all about getting the nostril in front,” she said.

Uncle Sigh to honor vets

Uncle Sigh will don blinkers with a yellow hood bearing a purple heart in the Kentucky Derby. It’s another show of support by Wounded Warrior Stables for military veterans injured or killed in Afghanistan.

The colt is trained by Gary Contessa, whose wife Jennifer is a Watertown native.

George “Chip” McEwen, a longtime horse owner, adopted his stable name two years ago and donates 10 percent of the horse’s purse earnings to several veterans’ organizations. First place in the Derby is worth $1.4 million.

“It’s not about me, it’s about them, and getting them in the forefront of people’s minds again because it’s easy to forget we’ve been at war since 2001,” said McEwen, who owns Uncle Sigh in partnership with Anthony Robertson.

McEwen was moved to action several years ago after seeing a disabled veteran get helped off a flight.

“It was then that I realized that I had to do more for people like that than buy a wristband or a T-shirt to support them,” he said.

He has invited several wounded veterans to join him at the Derby.

“We’re excited to have them here,” he said. “It’s a special day for us and this horse. Every horse owner’s dream is to get to the Derby. We’re hoping for a miracle, like everybody else.”

Uncle Sigh is 30-1 on the morning line. He is 1 for 5 in his career, running fifth most recently in the Wood Memorial. The colt wears blinkers to narrow his vision and filter out distractions.

Second favorite Hoppertunity

Hoppertunity, the 6-1 second choice in the Kentucky Derby, was scratched from the race Thursday morning because of soreness in his left front foot.

The injury was a blow to trainer Bob Baffert and to the quality of the Derby field. Hoppertunity had run well against Derby favorite California Chrome in the Santa Anita Derby, and that was without an aggressive push from jockey Mike Smith. Many observers believed he was peaking just in time for Kentucky.

With the scratch, Pablo Del Monte joined the field of 20 for Saturday’s race, and Churchill Downs handicapper Mike Battaglia bumped Wicked Strong to a 6-1 second choice. The odds also dropped for Candy Boy, Intense Holiday, Tapiture, Danza and Vicar’s in Trouble. With Pablo Del Monte slotting at post 20, the horses that drew posts 12 through 20 each moved inside a spot.

Baffert said his horse took a few uncomfortable steps Wednesday after his morning workout on the track. He said Hoppertunity looked fine later in the day. But Thursday morning, Baffert again noticed something amiss with the colt’s stride.

“When he turned, he was a little bit off,” Baffert said. “He still looks good. He warmed out of it, but there’s something pinching him or biting him on that foot.”

Baffert said a veterinarian examined Hoppertunity and found no obvious injury. But the trainer’s gut told him to pull the plug.

“The horse is fine,” he said. “It’s not like he came up with a career-ending injury.”

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