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 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.
Napravnik is a strong finisher, riding hard to the wire without always relying on her whip to urge a horse on. She hones her strength not in the weight room, but on the track exercising horses in the mornings and then riding up to 10 races in the afternoons.
"You have to have the competitive drive to want to get it done," she said.
Her eagerness began when Napravnik broke her arm falling off a pony at age 4. Horses have been her whole life, having a father who is a blacksmith and a mother who ran a boarding and training stable.
Napravnik has an extra incentive to win the Derby this year. Her husband, Joe Sharp, is an assistant to Mike Maker, who trains Vicar's In Trouble. Sharp touted the Louisiana-bred colt to his wife of nearly three years early on.
"He's really impressed Joe the whole time," said Napravnik, who won her second Louisiana Derby with the colt. "The story would almost be too good if we won the Kentucky Derby."
Napravnik enjoys the support of female racing fans, which have hammered down the odds on both of her previous Derby horses through their wagering.
"Sometimes I feel like it puts me up on a pedestal when I don't feel like I should be there," she said. "At the same time, I have learned to embrace it and be the role model that people want me to be. It's kind of inspiring to me that I've inspired other people."
Napravnik is using her Derby opportunity to do some good.
In her name, Kentucky bourbon maker Wild Turkey is donating $10,000 to Old Friends, a retirement farm for thoroughbreds. Every time someone tweets (hashtag) RideWithRosie to (at) WildTurkey, the distiller will donate $1 to Old Friends, up to $10,000. If Napravnik wins the Derby, the donation will be doubled to $40,000.
It took a while after winning the Oaks for Napravnik to realize what she had done. Winning the Derby would take a lot longer to sink in.
"When you're in the middle of trying to get it accomplished, you're focused," she said. "You don't really know until it happens. Hopefully, I'll find out."