This year’s Kentucky Derby gives three women the chance to break the gender barrier


Saturday’s Kentucky Derby is the 137th time horseracing fans will mix up the Mint Juleps and brace themselves for “The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports.” And in the previous 136, only 12 female trainers have sent horses into the race and only five female jockeys have taken the ride. None have placed higher than 11th.

This year, however, brings a real chance that one of two female trainers — Kathleen O’Connell or Kathy Ritvo — or jockey Anna “Rosie” Napravnik will change that.

O’Connell, who’s been working with racehorses since 1970, originally wanted to be a veterinarian. But despite graduating in the top 10 of her class with a 3.8 grade point average, she couldn’t get in. At the time, veterinary schools didn’t believe women would finish the program, but would meet a man and drop out to get married.

She’s had more than 10,600 starts, 1,300 victories and $21.5 million in earnings. And in 2009, she became the first woman to earn a training title in the history of the renowned Calder Casino & Race Course in Florida. Her Derby horse, Watch Me Go, has 50-1 odds, but if track conditions are right, he is a solid contender. Only two years ago, 50-1 shot Mine That Bird scored a stunning win.

Napravnik, who’s riding her first Derby at age 23, is coming off a decisive win in last month’s Louisiana Derby with colt Pants On Fire. She will be the first woman jockey since 2003 to make the Run for the Roses.

The horse’s trainer, Kelly Breen, said choosing Napravnik for the race was not difficult: “She knows how to win,” he said. And that’s what she’s always wanted. At age 7, Napravnik said she was going to be the first woman to win the Triple Crown. She just thought she would do it by the time she was 16. (She won her first race in 2005.)

“It’s still a man’s world,” she told reporters this week. “You still get that just about every day: ‘I don’t want to ride a girl. The owner doesn’t want to ride a girl. You’re not as strong, you’re not as this, you’re not as that.’ It’s probably not nearly what it used to be, but it’s still out there.”

Proof of the gender barrier comes in the form of Chantal Sutherland, who was Mine That Bird’s regular rider until a change of trainers two races before Churchill Downs. One of MTB’s owners, however, promised Sutherland that she would get to ride him in the Derby. That didn’t happen. She found out she wouldn’t get the mount from reading the Racing Form — and never learned why.

Napravnik has suffered a series of major injuries and still has a rod from her left angle to below the knee, but that hasn’t deterred her. And even if we don’t see her in the winner’s circle this year, I have a hunch we should remember her name.

Ritvo and her horse Mucho Macho Man are the sentimental favorites for Derby 137 because a few years ago, both looked like their racing days were over. Ritvo received a heart transplant in 2008 due to cardiomyopathy, which otherwise would have killed her. Her father and one of her brothers already had died from the disease.

A few months before the transplant, the horse that Ritvo lived to train was born — and showed no signs of life. Then he suddenly jumped up and galloped away. Since then, he’s been in the top three of seven of his eight lifetime starts. At just under three, Mucho Mucho Man is the youngest horse in the Derby.

Both horse and trainer are loving life these days and would certainly love to make history on Saturday. But Ritvo has a different perspective than most of her competitors. She says, “I’m very serious about my job and what has to happen with the horse, but other than that, I don’t worry about it. It’s all good.”

Any horseracing fans among us? Who’s your pick for the 137th Kentucky Derby? Do any of the women have a chance to win the roses?