byNina Fedrizzi| Oct 5, 2017
“She’s a two-time Kentucky Oakes winner and one of the most successful and well-known jockeys in North America, but these days, Rosie Napravnik has rediscovered an old passion: three-day eventing. This week at the Retired Racehorse Project’s annual Thoroughbred Makeover, Napravnik will be competing Aztec Brave, a horse who’s new to eventing competition—but not new to Rosie.
That’s because Aztec Brave was one of the first horses that Rosie’s husband, Joe Sharp—a leading trainer whose horse, Girvin, won both the Louisiana Derby and the Haskell Invitational this year—claimed when starting his own string. “When we first got him, he didn’t like to go to the track—he was a pretty sour kind of guy. He became one of Joe’s favorite horses and just kind of a loveable character. He’s not a big horse, he’s kind of like a little guy with a big attitude,” Napravnik jokes.
“[Aztec Brave] became the barn favorite and he was kind of a great racehorse. He was worse than third maybe once in his career for us, and after being claimed for $30,000, he won three stakes.”
Sharp trained “Aztec” for two years, retiring him sound from the track after winning his third stakes victory. Aztec’s owners, Brad and Misty Grady (who also own Girvin), gifted the horse to Rosie and Joe upon his retirement. At that time, though, the question of just what his second career might be remained a mystery.
“He’s not a big horse, he’s kind of like a little guy with a big attitude.”
“He didn’t strike me as the racetrack pony type, which is what we would do with most of Joe’s horses,” Rosie says, adding that the decision to enter Aztec in the Thoroughbred Makeover was originally a bit of an afterthought. Upon further consideration, though, the idea had merit: it was a cause that Rosie believed in (she’d competed previously in 2015), and the training required for the eventing competition would provide the perfect foundation for Aztec’s future as an all-purpose horse.
“I decided that after the racetrack, he will hopefully develop into what my horse [“Sugar”] has been for me, which is my all-purpose horse. If I want to go fox hunting, we’ll go fox hunting. If we want to go to an all-Thoroughbred jumper show, we can just go there,” Napravnik explains. “Doing the eventing discipline—obviously that’s where my passion is—but it’s also very well-rounded in all those things that I want [Aztec] to do as an all-purpose horse. And then he’ll be Joe’s horse, [although] it might be a couple of years down the road.”
Though she gravitated to racing ponies before she moving on to Thoroughbreds in her teens, Napravnik, 29, began her riding career in eventing, working her way up to Training level by the age of 12. The jumping and speed aspects of three-day she loved. The dressage, not so much.
“I would say dressage was probably the reason I became a jockey,” Rosie jokes. “It wasn’t my favorite phase, so I obviously didn’t put as much effort into it. I didn’t appreciate what and why I was doing it. Now, trying to master that skill, I wish I’d paid more attention when I was a kid. I had to basically start from scratch, but I’m sort of uncovering this basis from the dressage that I had and building on it at the same time.”
For the most part, Rosie has found a willing partner in Aztec, though their Makeover journey together hasn’t been entirely smooth. As late as September 20, the OTTB’s participation in the competition remained uncertain due to a persistent foot soundness issue. And while many of the participating Thoroughbreds began their retraining in early 2017 (they can start as soon as December 1, 2016), Rosie and Aztec didn’t officially kick off their partnership until the beginning of June.
I would say dressage was probably the reason I became a jockey.
Even with the most mild-mannered of candidates, this would make for a significant uphill climb. But Aztec has never exactly been ‘mild-mannered’.
“He’s the first horse that I’ve started from scratch myself, so I think any of them would be a challenge for me. But he does kind of have a chip on his shoulder, and he’s got a little bit of an attitude,” Napravnik says. “Not that he’s not willing—he actually loves to jump and he loves cross country. But the flatwork for me is just a challenge in itself because I’m not that good at it. He’s got kind of that crabby attitude toward it as well—we’d both rather just go jump cross-country!”
Despite the challenges, however, Napravnik is looking forward to Aztec’s Makeover debut, and hopes he won’t be the last OTTB candidate she can introduce to a successful second career. While she was still competing as a jockey, Napravnik says she left another one of her former racing mounts—her personal horse, Old Iron Sides (barn name “Sugar”)—with her mother Cindy, herself a trainer, to be restarted. Today, he and Rosie are competing successfully together at Training level, and the process of watching Sugar’s transformation helped to spark Napravnik’s own interest in retraining racehorses.
“It was when I started to come down and ride him that I couldn’t believe [my eyes]—he was just so willing to please and so happy learning new things and doing what he was doing,” Rosie says. “That was sort of my first exposure to that kind of transformation, and I was really wowed by it. Ever since then, I had it in the back of my mind about doing something like retraining horses off the track. It just took me years to get to where there was an opportunity to do it.”
Though it hasn’t been for lack of trying. Since her retirement from competitive racing in 2014, Napravnik has been busy juggling an intensive traveling schedule thanks to her role as assistant racing trainer to Joe, exercise rider for the couple’s racehorses, and mom to two young boys—Carson and Tucker. Meanwhile, Rosie and Joe have also been busy developing their own, 44-acre farm in Simpsonville, Kentucky, where they’re currently boarding 10 horses in six stalls.
“Even with the most mild-mannered of candidates, this would make for a significant uphill climb. But Aztec has never exactly been mild-mannered.”
“I’m struggling with waiting for the electric to get hooked up, and waiting for driveways to be put in, so everything is just muddy. We’ve done so much since we got here and there’s still so much to do,” Napravnik says. “I always wonder if there will be a day when we can stop having projects!”
A new farm, a new career, a young family, and a new riding discipline might sound like a lot to take on in just a few years. But if there’s one thing that’s remained consistent in the Napravnik/Sharp household, it’s the couple’s devotion to their horses—both on and off the track. “Thoroughbreds [are] really all I’ve ever known. I’m totally biased and should not judge any other breed of horse,” Napravnik says. “But at the same time, I wouldn’t want to ride anything else.”
-Photo credit: (left) flickr.com/Bill Brine; (right) facebook.com/Rosie Napravnik.
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