Rosie Napravnik never forgot who her friends were.
Especially not those who carried her to victories earned long before she was a household name in racing circles, and before the crew of 60 Minutes trained their spotlight on her, asking how it felt to be among a handful of women ever to race in the Kentucky Derby.
Before her 5th place finish at the Derby this year aboard Mylute, and last year’s historic victory at the Kentucky Oaks, as the first female jock to win that race, Napravnik kept an eye out for a dappled gray gelding whose star was fading, even as hers was rising.
She watched as Old Ironsides, a classy gray who powered to two victories with her in his glory days, was swapped around in claiming races. And as he continued to decline, she put the word out that when he needed to retire, she’d be there.
Race name: Old Ironsides
Barn name: Sugar
Dam: Sister Two
Foal date: March 28, 2001
Earnings: $123, 395Then on Labor Day weekend five years ago, while she was holed up at home recuperating from a broken leg, the pale gentleman arrived at her doorstep “dead lame” but full of promise.
“He was a horse I fell in love with” right away, she says. “First of all, he’s gorgeous. When he was a little younger, he was a dappled gray. He’s 12 now and he’s more of a flea-bitten white, but he’s just a gorgeous animal.”
Nicknaming him Sugar, Napravnik turned him over to her mother, a Maryland-based show-horse trainer, while she returned to the rigors of horseracing. And when she could, she visited her old friend and galloped cross-country, her mother and sister alongside, joyously “jumping everything we could.”
Idyllic fun ran headlong into grim reality however, when, one day while surfing Facebook, Napravnik was confronted with a “horrible video” of horse slaughter.
Unable to shake the graphic images from her mind, she brought the subject up with good friend and Thoroughbred advocate Lorita Lindemann, and the conversation quickly turned to other old friends. Namely, Old Friends Equine.
“We were discussing slaughter and she started to tell me the story about Michael (Blowen) and how he founded Old Friends,” Napravnik says. “I was so impressed that a man with no obligations (to horseracing) wanted to help these horses.”
She was so impressed with the mission of the world-renowned Kentucky facility, which is a retirement home to legendary equine champions, that last year, she met Blowen and soon offered to join the Old Friends Board.
“It’s such a good idea to have all these champions, and it’s a great way for the people to give back to these horses, for all the success, the entertainment, and the glory,” Napravnik says. “After riding at Saratoga in $90,000 races, I know that many horses will need homes one day. Any one of these champions today needs a place to retire.”
Even champion riders themselves, might one day need to come up with a career Plan B, she notes.
“I can relate to the horses because I don’t have a second career planned for myself,” she says.
But with her friends around her, life is pretty good these days for Rosie Napravnik and her sugar-white Thoroughbred.
She missed her favorite horse too much to leave him behind while she went to work at Belmont Park, so Sugar has been retrained as a track pony.
“About a year-and-a-half ago, we brought him to Belmont and my husband schooled him to be a stable pony under western tack,” she says. “We were concerned he would kick, because he used to kick out going into the starting gate. But he has turned into the best stable pony, and my husband (Joe Sharp) uses him.”
More and more, Napravnik is buoyed by the growing awareness about ex-racehorses, and the desire people and organizations have to help them. Though her busy schedule limits her off-track time, she proudly affiliates herself with Old Friends, and is heartened by the successes of Thoroughbred programs and charities.
“I feel like whether it’s an off-track Thoroughbred program, where a horse is being re-schooled, or if it’s a horse too broken down, or infertile (to work), we need to give them a place to retire,” she says, noting that it’s great to see the rise in awareness, and the growing reach of retirement and rehoming programs, as well as the all-Thoroughbred horse shows. “There are so many horses who need an outlet.”