November 9, 2014 / 9:04 PM / 3 years ago

U.S. jockey Rosie Napravnik leaves the Sport of Kings on top

Oct 31, 2014; Santa Anita , CA, USA; Rosie Napravnik aboard Untapable celebrates victory of race nine of the 2014 Breeders Cup Championships at Santa Anita Park. Mandatory Credit: Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

(Reuters) - Rosie Napravnik's soft features and affable nature belie her grit on the racetrack.

Over the last decade, Napravnik's rivals never wanted to look over their shoulder in the stretch and see the jockey not-too-affectionately dubbed "the girl" bearing down on them.

It too often ended in defeat.

"Rosie is a fierce competitor," said Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens. "Tough. Very focused. She's great at what she does. A good jockey is good regardless of gender.

"She finishes strong. There are a lot of male riders out there that don't have what it takes. She has what it takes."

With a record-setting resume and in the prime of her career, Napravnik pulled a shocker during the Breeders' Cup last weekend when she announced her retirement. "The girl" with the red hair and high cheekbones was pregnant and quitting the sport.

Napravnik, 26, broke the news after winning one of the biggest races of her career, the $2 million Breeders' Cup Distaff aboard the prized 3-year-old filly Untapable.

For weeks Napravnik had pondered how to announce her retirement. The New Jersey native figured it would be some time during the Breeders' Cup, perhaps Sunday, the day most horsemen and reporters would leave California's Santa Anita Park for the journey home.

But after her headline-making triumph aboard her all-time favorite horse, Napravnik knew the time was right to reveal that the male-dominated Sport of Kings was losing its queen.

She said after the race she was quitting.

"It was just super, super special going out with a win on Untapable," Napravnik said in a telephone interview. "It was such a prestigious race for my career no matter when it happened.

"To be able to retire on that note is really, really gratifying."

TOP FEMALE

Napravnik is currently sixth among all jockeys in North America by earnings with $13.53 million in 2014, and is the nation's leading female rider.

Over her career, she has nearly 1,900 wins with earnings of more than $71 million. The only female to compete in all Triple Crown races, Napravnik in 2012 broke the total wins and earnings record for a woman jockey previously held by trailblazer Julie Krone.

She is eight weeks pregnant and will still be involved in racing, working in the New Orleans barn for her husband, trainer Joe Sharp.

"She just started working here as, sort of, my assistant and she wants to be a part of the operation," said Sharp. "It's just change of pace and a different walk of the same business.

"I think she'll be as good at this as she is in anything."

Napravnik said she may get back in the saddle one day but for now, at least, quitting the sport is not something that keeps her awake at night.

"Since I was a kid I put 1,000 percent of myself into being a jockey," she said. "I've put everything into racing over the last 15 years. I want to do the same when it comes to motherhood.

"If I was to come back it would be in a few years. I just don't know."

She did, however, leave the door open.

"Having retired as young as I am and having kids now, it does give me an even better opportunity to come back, to re-think it, if I want to," she said. "I just don't know how I'll feel."

The 51-year-old Stevens, who retired once but came back and still rides, thinks Napravnik will return.

"There's no doubt in my mind because of her competitiveness, she'll be back," he said.

Editing by Mary Milliken and Eric Walsh

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