LEXINGTON, Ky. — In the paddock, it’s not uncommon for Rosie Napravnik and Joe Sharp to barely acknowledge each other, or not to do so at all.
In the past they have shaken hands, in polite jockey and trainer fashion.
“I did tell him maybe a year ago,” Napravnik said, “I said listen, I’m not going to come in the paddock and shake your hand; that’s just ridiculous.”
Joking, she added: “I said, if you want, I can kiss you on the cheek.”
Napravnik, the star female jockey who is currently fifth in earnings, and Sharp, an assistant to the trainer Mike Maker, have been married for 2 1/2 years and been together for five.
The two are often competitors on the track. But in the 140th Kentucky Derby, they’ll be rooting for the same horse: Louisiana-bred Vicar’s in Trouble, who is one of Maker’s three horses in the race, one Sharp has worked with closely and one Napravnik will pilot.
“We’ve always said, ‘Man, wouldn’t that be cool if we were in the Derby together,’ ” Sharp said. “It is something that we’ve talked about and something that we’ve hoped.”
When Vicar’s in Trouble, a 30-1 shot in Saturday’s race, won the Louisiana Derby in March, Sharp said he knew the colt was a different kind of horse.
“I think his story in his own right is kind of is just kind of special,” Sharp said. “So the whole combination was the ideal scenario.”
The story about how Napravnik, 26, and Sharp, 29, comes with different memories from each.
Years ago, in Maryland, a friend asked Napravnik “to inquire about the kid who was working over there who was cute,” she said.
When she found out that he had a girlfriend, the conversation did not go much further.
“He remembers me being a really snobby, stuck-up kind of girl and not speaking to him,” she said, “but I don’t understand how he thought that because I was outgoing and inquiring about him.”
“I may have been snobby to him because he had a girlfriend, and I had a crush on him,” she said.
The two met years later at Delaware Park, and Napravnik did not realize he was the same person.
He asked her to ride a horse he was training at Penn National. The horse “got a tough trip” and finished second — so Sharp left his number for Napravnik in the jockey room “so I could buy her dinner at least for driving all the way up there and riding the horse,” he said.
But she never called.
“I actually got her number from somebody else and called her when she’d already left, and she was kind of avoiding me,” he said.
But the two eventually ended up in the same friend circle, and got together a few months later.
Napravnik has ridden Vicar’s in Trouble for every race of the colt’s career, including his win in the Louisiana Derby and third-place finish in the Risen Star. Sharp has worked with him since October, when he ran his first race, at Keeneland.
“Joe really liked Vicar from the very beginning; he was working with him before he ever ran,” Napravnik said. “He actually told me about him way in the beginning before he ran. He said, ‘This horse is Louisiana-bred I can’t wait to take him to Fair Grounds.’ ”
Fast forward seven months, and Vicar’s in Trouble will make his Derby appearance.
Maker, who also has Harry’s Holiday and General A Rod in the race, spoke highly of the couple on their own merits.
“Joe’s like any other assistant,” he said in a teleconference last week. “He’s married to a jockey that we use frequently. He shows up and does his job and that’s about it. Rosie does well for us and there’s no special consideration because she’s married to Joe or anything of that nature.”
But the connection does make the Derby run even more exciting, said Ken Ramsey, who owns Vicar’s in Trouble with his wife, Sarah.
Ramsey is close to the couple, and said they have even taken his grandson canoeing.
“They go together like ham and eggs, they’re a very nice couple, they’re very well thought of,” Ramsey said.
Although Napravnik and Sharp work together on the track, competition is inevitable. As the leading rider at the Fair Grounds and in the top overall, Napravnik rides for different trainers — and often at different tracks than her husband.
“She’s not always riding for us, and we’re competing against each other often,” Sharp said.
That’s where the professional relationship on the track and in the paddock comes into play.
“We don’t treat each other any differently than we would any other competitor,” Napravnik said.
But, “there’s plenty of times I’ll be watching a race and our horse starts to fade through the pack then I’ll start looking to see if Rosie’s got a shot to win it,” Sharp said.
Competing at the level they do in the horse racing world also means spending weeks apart at different meets. After the Derby, Sharp will go to Belmont for six weeks while Napravnik stays at Churchill. Then Sharp is back at Belmont for three weeks in the fall until the two meet up at Keeneland.
But, all things considered, “We’re actually very fortunate as far as being able to be at the same place most of the time,” Sharp said.
They live in New Orleans during the summer, and just bought a house in Louisville for the Keeneland and Churchill meets.
The couple keep busy, especially leading up to Derby. Racing still occurs on a daily basis, and there are many events, promotions and interviews to attend to.
Napravnik did promotions for Snickers Bites last year, and she and Sharp both appeared in a commercial for Wild Turkey.
Napravnik has also done interviews this year with Vogue and Elle — not publications that are traditionally interested in horse racing.
In the little downtime they do have, Napravnik and Sharp enjoy hiking, kayaking and playing with their three dogs. They also spend time with Sharp’s 9-year-old daughter, Aiyana, who they bought a pony for last year.
They also don’t stick just to horse talk while at home — but they don’t mind it, either.
“Neither of us come home and feel like we don’t want to talk about horses,” Napravnik said. “We enjoy what we do, so obviously we enjoy talking about it.”
If Vicar’s in Trouble wins the Derby on Saturday, there’s no doubt he would be talked about in their household for some time to come.
“Obviously it’s an ideal situation for her to ride a horse that I’m involved with in the Derby,” Sharp said. “It’s the best-case scenario.
“But if she was riding for someone else I’d be pulling for her as well.”