When Julie Krone walked away from the game in 2004 it appeared that she took with her any chance that a female jockey would ever win the Kentucky Derby. Krone never won a Derby, but she could have. Unique among all female riders at the time, she was often given the opportunity to ride some of the most talented horses in the sport and won many prestigious races, among them the Belmont Stakes and a Breeders' Cup race.
But the wait for the next Krone is over. In fact, the next Krone might turn out to be better than the original.
Rosie Napravnik, just 23, will be aboard Pants On Fire when the horses charge out of the gate Saturday at Churchill Downs. In the process, she will become just the sixth woman to ride in America's most important horse race.
She probably won't win. Though he won the Louisiana Derby with Napravnik aboard, Pants On Fire is not among the top contenders in the race. But getting a mount in the Derby, even on a long shot, is an important step on the way, and it proves that Napravnik is now considered one of the top tier riders in the country. This is likely the first of many Derby rides to come.
What trainers undoubtedly like about Napravnik is that she wins. Starting out in 2005, she went into Thursday's races with 1,121 winners out of 5,997 mounts. She's won with 19 percent of her rides.
At the same point in her career, Krone's numbers weren't as good. Beginning her career in 1981, by the end of 1986 she had won 843 races from 6,104 mounts, good for 14 percent.
Krone ended her career with 3,704 winners. Napravnik still trails her by 2,583 wins, but the target is not the least bit out of reach. She won 205 races last year and if she can keep up that pace she will pass Krone in 13 years, when she is 36, still prime years for a rider. Of course, she has to stay healthy, something that proved to be a problem for Krone.
Trainer Michael Stidham has won stakes with both Krone and Napravnik. The similarities between the two, he says, are striking.
"Yes, I really believe she can turn out to be as good as Julie," he said. "They both impressed me in the way they have a natural feel for the horses. When it comes to getting along with a horse and putting them in the right spot in a race, with both, it's something that is very natural."
Stidham isn't alone. Many trainers say that Napravnik has a touch that is hard to find, a feel for horses and an ability to get them to relax and run to the best of their abilities. She learned those things from her mother, who raised her kids around horses and had them riding at a very young age. Krone's upbringing was virtually the same; she was always around horses.
Napravnik's career took off in 2006 when she won 300 races and was runner-up in the voting for the Eclipse Award as the nation's top apprentice. As all jockeys do, she slowed down in her first year without the apprentice tag, winning only 89 races in 2007. But she hit her stride again in 2008, winning 186 times.
In 2010, she won the riding title at Delaware Park with 126 winners and followed that with a riding crown at Fair Grounds. Winning 110 races there, she clobbered the competition. Shaun Bridgmohan was next with 79 victories. The type of thing that gets you recognized by the top trainers in the sport, the Fair Grounds title was the most notable accomplishment of her career
What Napravnik has to do now is pass the test of time. Stidham believes she will.
"She has the right attitude to do this," he said. "The one thing about riders, especially young riders, is that when they have success some of them let it go to their heads. Rosie is very even tempered. She doesn't get too high on herself when things go really good or too low when things don't go well. She always has the same attitude and that's a big part of being able to stay around and do well for a long period of time."
Krone proved that she could win against the very best competition, at places like Gulfstream, Belmont, Saratoga and the Southern California tracks. That's a step Napravnik still has to take. But there's no reason to think some day she won't be a top-5 rider at a place like Saratoga. Talent and drive don't appear to be issues.
Krone remains No. 1 and will be so for a long time to come. But she might want to start looking over her shoulder.
Bill Finley is an award-winning racing writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated. Contact him at email@example.com.