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'Judge me on my talent, not my sex,' says Kentucky Derby's female jockey

From Francesca Cumani, CNN
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Fri May 3, 2013
Jockey Rosie Napravnik, her face still splattered with dirt from the track, won the Rachel Alexandra Stakes with horse Unlimited Budget in New Orleans on February 23. Jockey Rosie Napravnik, her face still splattered with dirt from the track, won the Rachel Alexandra Stakes with horse Unlimited Budget in New Orleans on February 23.
HIDE CAPTION
Rosie Napravnik: Out in front
Rosie Napravnik: Out in front
Rosie Napravnik: Out in front
Rosie Napravnik: Out in front
Rosie Napravnik: Out in front
Rosie Napravnik: Out in front
Rosie Napravnik: Out in front
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • America's most prestigious horse race, Kentucky Derby, kicks off this Saturday
  • Rosie Napravnik hoping to be first female jockey to win "Run for the Roses"
  • Gender hasn't hampered success -- has actually helped it
  • Rise to the top involves grueling regime, rising at 5am, suffering five major injuries

Editor's note: Winning Post is CNN's monthly horse racing show. Click here for program times and latest features.

(CNN) -- She's got some of the softest hands in the business. But just because jockey Rosie Napravnik has a gentle touch, doesn't mean she's a push over.

Quite the opposite. The 25-year-old is a lean, mean, riding machine. And this Saturday she plans on wrapping those tender palms around the most coveted trophy in U.S. horse racing.

Could this be the first female to win the Kentucky Derby in the 139-year history of the race?

Ahead of the "Run for the Roses" -- the first race in the American Triple Crown -- Napravnik remains cautiously optimistic.

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"I'm very physically fit. I'm strong. I'm not just a little string bean female that weighs 100 pounds -- and that's why I ride horses," she told CNN.

"I think my horse Mylute is going to be a live longshot. He's very laid back, he's not bothered by much, so the crowds shouldn't get to him -- he's definitely the type of horse that you want to have in a race like this."

Read: 'History has been written' for Kentucky Derby's black jockey

Gender game

The young woman from New Jersey isn't just the most successful female jockey in the country -- she's one of the best jockeys full stop.

Napravnik is the fifth-highest earning jockey on the circuit today, last year amassing a fortune of more than $12.4 million in prize money.

In 2012, her horses finished in the top three in nearly half the races she entered.

Not that Napravnik is immune to playing on her gender to help raise her profile in this male-dominated sport.

"For a female jockey it's a little bit harder to get yourself established. But once you can get over that hump and prove that you're a competitive rider, and win races, it's irrelevant what gender you are," she said.

"To be honest, the female aspect has worked to my advantage in a lot of respects -- just with publicity and being recognized for things that I've accomplished which may not have been such a big deal if it was just another male jockey."

Read: Jockey who refused to stay in the kitchen

Childhood dreams

Napravnik was exposed to horses from a young age -- her father worked as a farrier, while her mother trained event ponies.

But it wasn't until she stumbled across an old video of the Triple Crown as a youngster, that she discovered racing.

"I saw this video called the "Jewels of the Triple Crown" on VHS -- I didn't have television so I would just watch this video over and over again," said Napravnik.

"I was just inspired by it and that's when I decided I wanted to win the Triple Crown."

I'm not just a little string bean female that weighs 100 pounds -- and that's why I ride horses
Rosie Napravnik, jockey

Read: The art of living forever -- equine taxidermy

At seven-years-old, Napravnik followed her older sister into pony racing -- seen as a training ground for wannabe jockeys.

Her sister eventually left the track, but Napravnik pursued her Triple Crown dream and by the time she was 16-years-old was working as an apprentice jockey.

"Learning how to ride when I was so young, learning how to communicate with horses, has given me a great foundation in horsemanship," she said.

"It's a stereotype to say that all female riders are finesse riders. A lot are. But there are also men that have that finesse factor as well."

Dedication

Like many jockeys, Napravnik's rise to the top has gone hand-in-hand with a punishing routine.

She's suffered five major accidents and taken a total 15 months off work due to injuries. But the talented young rider shrugs off the risks as just a part of the job.

"I don't think about the danger factor," she said. "It's something I've had a lot of experience in and I try to avoid it as much as I can.

A typical day involves waking up at 5am and competing in up to 12 races late into the evening.

It's only after her day's work is done, that Napravinik will have a meal, such is the pressure on jockeys to meet strict weight restrictions.

Read: A weighty issue -- Hidden world of jockey heaving bowls

Family ties

It can be difficult balancing a grueling career and social life. But once she finishes smashing the record books, Napravnik hopes to pursue another dream -- starting a family.

"There's still a lot of things that I want to accomplish in my career so I'm going to try and get all of that out of the way first -- my husband and I are very excited about having a family."

But first things first. There's a Kentucky Derby to be won -- and Napravnik might just be the woman to do it.

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