May 04, 2012

Rosie Napravnik insists she's just another jockey. She's one with champion's credentials now.

Napravnik became the first female jockey to win the Kentucky Oaks, keeping Believe You Can near the front from the start before pulling away from Broadway's Alibi in the $1 million race for 3-year-old fillies at Churchill Downs on Friday.

"I wouldn't say there was pressure because the expectations were nobody had ever done it before," the 24-year-old rider said after her first Grade 1 stakes victory. "It's great for all the women in the industry, in the world. I'm just happy."

In the fillies' counterpart to the Kentucky Derby, Napravnik finally broke through after finishing second last year behind Plum Pretty aboard St. John's River.

In this one, she took the filly named for the pep talks former Kentucky Gov. Brereton C. Jones' father gave him to the front in the 1 1/8-mile race with an impressive stretch run.

"My father had told me from the very beginning when he made a little plaque to hang in my bedroom with the word `can't' on it. C-A-N-apostrophe-T with a big X across it," the former governor said. "Believe you can and you can."

The victory also gave trainer Larry Jones his second Oaks victory after winning in 2008 with Proud Spell. That celebration was cut short when his star filly, Eight Belles, broke down after a second-place finish in the Kentucky Derby the following day. She was euthanized on the track and Jones later retired briefly following health problems.

"I'm not going to bring up a lot of things in the past," Jones said. "We celebrated for 24 hours. At that point, we kind of forgot we had won the Oaks. We're going to enjoy this one."

Napravnik lost her Kentucky Derby mount this week when the Joneses decided not to run colt Mark Valeski, but this was a good consolation prize in a race delayed 35 minutes because of a strong thunderstorm earlier in the day.

"It's unbelievable. I can't even tell you what I'm feeling right now," Napravnik said. "This is what it feels like when your dreams come true."

Believe You Can followed a similar path that Proud Spell did by winning the Fair Ground Oaks in her final prep race.

"This filly gave us that `wow' factor," the trainer said. "You need that wow when you're coming in here because you're dealing with tough horses."

Believe You Can certainly had it, and Napravnik did, too.

While she won't ride in Saturday's race, she's already embracing her growing role-model status as a spokeswoman for females in the industry.

"It really comes down to a talent issue. If you're talented, it really is not going to matter what sex you are," she said. "Once you establish yourself, in my career and my experience, it only helps."

Sent off at 13-1, Believe You Can paid $29.60, $11.80 and $6.40. Broadway's Alibi returned $6 and $4.20, and favorite Grace Hall paid $3.20 to show.

Napravnik also took her next scheduled mount in the 12th race, and won that one, too.

Jones retired in the aftermath of Eight Belles' death and dealt with memory loss when it was discovered he had high levels of aluminum in his system. But he couldn't stay away from long and once he returned, Jones continued his superb development of fillies, most notably Havre de Grace, last year's Horse of the Year.

Havre de Grace was retired last month after injuring an ankle following a workout at Churchill Downs, another blow for Jones that's softened now with his newest stable star.

Broadway's Alibi had been looking for her fifth straight victory and was expected to push the pace. But Napravnik kept Believe You Can close around the first turn in front of a crowd of 112,552, the second-largest in the race's history.

Broadway's Alibi, ridden by John Velazquez, led the field of 14 until Napravnik caught the leader in the final furlong and edged away to win by three-quarters of a length.

"I just had the horse underneath me. She's just an excellent filly," Napravnik said. "It's cool to look beside you and see Johnny fading away."

Jones said he keeps giving Napravnik horses and she keeps rewarding him with strong finishes. Last year, the pair just missed an Oaks' victory with St. John's River, who lost by a neck in a photo finish.

That only motivated Napravnik more.

"Last year was kind of a tease. I was so close but not there," she said. "This year I was determined to be the one in the winner's circle and I had the right horse to do it."

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