'Judge me on my talent, not my sex,' says Kentucky Derby's female jockey

Story highlights

  • America's most prestigious horse race, Kentucky Derby, kicks off this Saturday
  • Rosie Napravnik hoping to be first female jockey to win "Run for the Roses"
  • Gender hasn't hampered success -- has actually helped it
  • Rise to the top involves grueling regime, rising at 5am, suffering five major injuries

She's got some of the softest hands in the business. But just because jockey Rosie Napravnik has a gentle touch, doesn't mean she's a push over.

Quite the opposite. The 25-year-old is a lean, mean, riding machine. And this Saturday she plans on wrapping those tender palms around the most coveted trophy in U.S. horse racing.

Could this be the first female to win the Kentucky Derby in the 139-year history of the race?

Ahead of the "Run for the Roses" -- the first race in the American Triple Crown -- Napravnik remains cautiously optimistic.

"I'm very physically fit. I'm strong. I'm not just a little string bean female that weighs 100 pounds -- and that's why I ride horses," she told CNN.

Female jockey aims to win Derby
Female jockey aims to win Derby

    JUST WATCHED

    Female jockey aims to win Derby

MUST WATCH

Female jockey aims to win Derby 02:32
PLAY VIDEO
Gary Stevens' successful Derby return?
Gary Stevens' successful Derby return?

    JUST WATCHED

    Gary Stevens' successful Derby return?

MUST WATCH

Gary Stevens' successful Derby return? 02:38
PLAY VIDEO
The challenges of endurance racing
The challenges of endurance racing

    JUST WATCHED

    The challenges of endurance racing

MUST WATCH

The challenges of endurance racing 03:32
PLAY VIDEO

"I think my horse Mylute is going to be a live longshot. He's very laid back, he's not bothered by much, so the crowds shouldn't get to him -- he's definitely the type of horse that you want to have in a race like this."

Read: 'History has been written' for Kentucky Derby's black jockey

Gender game

The young woman from New Jersey isn't just the most successful female jockey in the country -- she's one of the best jockeys full stop.

Napravnik is the fifth-highest earning jockey on the circuit today, last year amassing a fortune of more than $12.4 million in prize money.

In 2012, her horses finished in the top three in nearly half the races she entered.

Not that Napravnik is immune to playing on her gender to help raise her profile in this male-dominated sport.

"For a female jockey it's a little bit harder to get yourself established. But once you can get over that hump and prove that you're a competitive rider, and win races, it's irrelevant what gender you are," she said.

"To be honest, the female aspect has worked to my advantage in a lot of respects -- just with publicity and being recognized for things that I've accomplished which may not have been such a big deal if it was just another male jockey."

Read: Jockey who refused to stay in the kitchen

Childhood dreams

Napravnik was exposed to horses from a young age -- her father worked as a farrier, while her mother trained event ponies.

But it wasn't until she stumbled across an old video of the Triple Crown as a youngster, that she discovered racing.

"I saw this video called the "Jewels of the Triple Crown" on VHS -- I didn't have television so I would just watch this video over and over again," said Napravnik.

"I was just inspired by it and that's when I decided I wanted to win the Triple Crown."

Read: The art of living forever -- equine taxidermy

At seven-years-old, Napravnik followed her older sister into pony racing -- seen as a training ground for wannabe jockeys.

Her sister eventually left the track, but Napravnik pursued her Triple Crown dream and by the time she was 16-years-old was working as an apprentice jockey.

"Learning how to ride when I was so young, learning how to communicate with horses, has given me a great foundation in horsemanship," she said.

"It's a stereotype to say that all female riders are finesse riders. A lot are. But there are also men that have that finesse factor as well."

Dedication

Like many jockeys, Napravnik's rise to the top has gone hand-in-hand with a punishing routine.

She's suffered five major accidents and taken a total 15 months off work due to injuries. But the talented young rider shrugs off the risks as just a part of the job.

"I don't think about the danger factor," she said. "It's something I've had a lot of experience in and I try to avoid it as much as I can.

A typical day involves waking up at 5am and competing in up to 12 races late into the evening.

It's only after her day's work is done, that Napravinik will have a meal, such is the pressure on jockeys to meet strict weight restrictions.

Read: A weighty issue -- Hidden world of jockey heaving bowls

Family ties

It can be difficult balancing a grueling career and social life. But once she finishes smashing the record books, Napravnik hopes to pursue another dream -- starting a family.

"There's still a lot of things that I want to accomplish in my career so I'm going to try and get all of that out of the way first -- my husband and I are very excited about having a family."

But first things first. There's a Kentucky Derby to be won -- and Napravnik might just be the woman to do it.

        Winning Post

      •  Bode Miller (L) and Morgan Miller attend 140th Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on May 3, 2014 in Louisville, Kentucky. (Photo by Mike Coppola/Getty Images)

        Ski star Miller plans new 'voodoo'

        He's won six Olympic medals on two legs, but Bode Miller's future will ride on four -- can he replicate his skiing success in the "Sport of Kings"?
      • Flanders Mud

        Ex-jockey molds new career

        As a jockey, Philip Blacker lived for the thrills and spills of horse racing. As a sculptor, his work captures the horror of World War I.
      • Zebra Mombassa in the English countryside, 1980s.

        Queen's 'horseman' tames zebras

        Ever thought zebras couldn't be tamed? Think again. Gary Witheford has a remarkable way with wild animals -- which he proved after a pub boast.
      • The ancient art of horse taming

        The internet went wild for so-called "horse yoga" -- but there was something deeper going on that reconnects humans with the animal world.
      • Runners canter before racing during the Laytown race meeting run on the beach on September 08, 2011 in Laytown, Ireland. (Photo by Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images)

        Quick sand: A race like no other

        The going is always soft and the only permanent building is a toilet block. It's the antithesis to the pomp of Royal Ascot ... welcome to Irish beach racing.
      • The Crow Fair and Rodeo takes place in Montana each summer.

        World's largest teepee city

        Each August, over a thousand tents and hundreds of horses converge on Little Big Horn River in Montana for the Crow Fair and Rodeo.
      • Rider Jon Marc goes for victory in the Indian Relay

        America's best sporting secret?

        Little-known outside the tribes of the Rocky Mountains in the American northwest, Indian Relay is a "magical" horse-racing relay.
      • Jockey Gary Stevens looks on after a race prior to the 139th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on May 4, 2013 in Louisville, Kentucky. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

        'This is middle-aged crazy'

        Now in his 50s, one of the world's most successful jockeys explains why he gave up acting to return to the sport that nearly crippled him.
      •  An infrared camera was used to create this image.) A horse and exercise rider head to the main track for morning training at Belmont Park on June 4, 2014 in Elmont, New York.

        More rare than a moonwalk

        More people have walked on the moon than have won the fabled Triple Crown of U.S. horse racing. California Chrome is seeking to square that score.