This Saturday is the Kentucky Derby, an event famous for mint juleps, big hats, and approximately two minutes of high-stakes horse racing.
If you’re a casual spectator, you’re looking forward to the Derby-themed parties but know little to nothing about the horses and jockeys who will be featured in the race itself. Allow me to introduce you to someone worth rooting for: Rosie Napravnik, the only female jockey in the 140th Run for the Roses.
Rosie is one of just six women who have ever ridden in the Derby. In 2011, she rode Pants on Fire to a ninth-place finish — at the time the best ever recorded by a female jockey (that same year, trainer Kathy Ritvo’s Mucho Macho Man finished third, the best Derby finish ever for a female trainer). Napravnik set a new record last year, guiding Mylute to a fifth-place finish. Saturday, she’ll climb aboard Vicar’s In Trouble, the Mike Maker-trained horse she rode to a victory in the Louisiana Derby in March.
Napravnik has become one of the most accomplished young jockeys in horse racing, but her story calls attention to the challenges that women still face in certain professions and highlights the determination and courage necessary to break through a glass ceiling.
Until 1968, there were no female jockeys in pari-mutuel races (professional horse races with a particular betting system, like the Kentucky Derby). This changed after legal battles in Maryland, after which states began allowing women to receive jockey licenses.
At first, male jockeys threatened to boycott races which included female jockeys, effectively preventing them from participating. But women got a chance to demonstrate their skills in following years when Diane Crump earned her first mount in the Kentucky Derby in 1970 and Barbara Jo Rubin became the first woman to ride a race winner a few months later. In the 1980s and 1990s, riding legend Julie Krone shattered numerous records and, aboard Colonial Affair, became the first woman to win a Triple Crown race in the 1993 Belmont Stakes.
Although the racing climate is far friendlier now, female jockeys still face certain barriers. Only 75 out of the 750 licensed jockeys in the US are women, and few are featured in top contests.
For some female jockeys, like Rosie, obstacles on the racetrack are something they can and will overcome. According to the New York Times, Rosie Napravnik “initially rode under the name A. R. Napravnik to hide that she was a woman so she could secure mounts more easily.” It’s unclear exactly why some owners and trainers prefer male riders, but speculations include the relative strength of male jockeys and the idea that male jockeys fall better and suffer fewer injuries due to their physiology. (To this, Rosie might say that skills are as important as strength and all athletes experience injury—it’s one’s resilience that matters).
Rosie’s journey to the top hasn’t been easy. In a 60 Minutes interview last year, she reported examples of intimidation from male counterparts — such as being put in a “tight spot” between two horses — and jeers from coworkers, like “go home and have a baby.”
Yet Rosie is determined to make history by becoming the first woman to win the Kentucky Derby in its 140 years of running. Napravnik and Vicar’s In Trouble, who opened as a 30-1 longshot, have a tough road — no horse has won the Derby from the No. 1 post position since Ferdinand in 1986 — but she’s overcome the odds before. She’s already the first woman to win the Louisiana Derby (Vicar’s In Trouble’s victory was her second win there); she’s the first to win a meet title at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans. She became the first woman to win the Kentucky Oaks, the Derby’s sister race for fillies, in 2012, and she will sit aboard favorite Untapable in the Oaks today. Last year, she became the first woman to ever earn a mount in all three Triple Crown races in the same year.
As Rosie says — and has proven — the best way to deal with sexism is to beat the antagonists on the tracks and prove that women have what it takes to be the best.
This Saturday, let’s root for Rosie to do just that.
Sarah Rutherford works for Georgetown Law and volunteers as the Communications Manager for Lean In DC. Sarah is originally from Pittsburgh and remains loyal to her black and gold sports teams.