Julie Krone, thoroughbred racing’s original pixie princess, yelped in delight and maybe a bit of personal reflection when she heard Rosie Napravnik, a more recent female riding sensation, described as a “rock star” — especially at the Fair Grounds, where she won four straight riding titles before retiring to give birth to her first child.
“Yes! Exactly! You got that right!” said the 51-year-old Krone, racing’s all-time winningest female jockey (3,704 victories) whose mounts amassed $90,126,584 in purses during a career that stretched from 1981 to 2004.
During that time, Krone became the first female jockey to win a Triple Crown race (aboard Colonial Affair in the 1993 Belmont Stakes), an ESPY as Female Athlete of the Year (in 1993) or be inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame (in 2000).
Perhaps Napravnik, 26, is just as described — a curious melding of Triple Crown winner Steve Cauthen and Fleetwood Mac vamp Stevie Nicks, capable of challenging many of Krone’s records. But, with Napravnik’s shocking — at least to some — announcement that she was retiring from racing to become a mother, just after she won the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Distaff on Untapable, any of her remaining racing dreams have been put on hold.
Napravnik is married to trainer Joe Sharp, and the couple had been planning for some time to begin a family together.
“His career is brand new and thriving,” Napravnik said of Sharp. “It’s kind of good timing. He’s going to step into the limelight, and I’m going to step out.”
Krone, who is married to Jay Hovdey, executive columnist for the Daily Racing Form, can relate. She also is a mother, and she understands that there is more to life than the exultation of crossing the finish line first while sitting atop a 1,000-pound racehorse.
But Krone also knows that retirement from any profession isn’t always permanent, and the lure of the track can be just as powerful as the miracle of giving birth.
“First off, let me say that I’m a Rosie fan,” Krone said. “I love all the things she does. I think she’s been just the coolest thing ever for racing. If she doesn’t come back to it, she will be missed. She definitely will be missed.
“Rosie stepped into the arena and did some things no (female jockey) ever did. I mean, she really is amazing. When she was a really young rider in Maryland, (veteran jockey) Bill Passmore called me and said, ‘Oh, my God, Julie, you should see this girl ride!’ Bill rode with me when I was an apprentice, but I hadn’t heard from him in, like, six years. Now here he was, calling me up out of the blue to tell me about this girl who he thought was so much like me.
“Everyone in racing is drawn to someone who’s so pure, who so showcases the horses, that that person embodies the greatness of the sport we all love. When an individual comes along that’s special like that, because of personality or talent or whatever, we all sit up and take notice, because people like that don’t come along every day.
“I don’t discount the possibility that she will ride again, because she can. She’s never had a problem keeping her weight down. She loves the sport, and it’s easy for her. Look, there’s something about racing — it was like that for me, and it’s that way for Rosie, I believe — that’s encompassing. There’s this thing that takes you over, that’s bigger than yourself. You’re swept up in it, you know? You can’t stop it. You race because you have to.”
Sometimes that addictive need to keep on keeping on never ebbs. But if it does, that’s when a jockey realizes it’s time to step away. Krone understands that feeling as well.
“I was, like, 22 and I had worked something like 1,200 horses that year,” she said. “I was recovering from an injury, and I was out fishing in the Everglades with (fellow jockey) Sammy Boulmetis Jr. ... It was my first real time away from racing, and I said, ‘Oh, wow, Sammy, this is as much fun as racing!’ He said, ‘There’s a lot of things as much fun as racing.’ And you know what? He was right.
“What happened with me is, quite literally, I woke up one day, and that feeling was gone. I knew I couldn’t ride if I didn’t have the same heart and desire behind it. Oh, I could ride mechanically and it probably would be good enough to be third-leading rider at any meet. But that special thing, the thing that makes an old guy like Bill Passmore call up somebody he hasn’t talked to in a lot of years to rave about some amazing new rider, wasn’t there anymore.”
If that feeling is indeed gone for Napravnik, the only woman to have had mounts in all three Triple Crown races, Krone said fans should respect her wishes to move into the next phase of her already remarkable life.
“I’m just glad she got to share her talent with us for as long as she did,” Krone said. “She has a husband she loves, and she’s just so blissful about becoming a mom. This is what life, the real stuff, is made of — your family, your relationships with people. It can’t all be about the horses.”
Krone cited Tammi Piermarini, a 47-year-old mother of three who happens to be the second-winningest female jockey of all time (2,300-plus victories), as proof that Napravnik will always find the door open to a return to racing — if she cares to step through it.
“Tammi races every day, and she’s going to Aqueduct for the winter,” Krone said. “She’s demonstrated that you can be a rider and a mother, and be good at both. It doesn’t have to be one way or the other.”