Three women eager to break gender barrier at Derby

LOUISVILLE Thu May 5, 2011 5:18pm EDT

1 of 2. Trainer Kathy Ritvo hooks the blanket around Kentucky Derby hopeful Mucho Macho Man after a workout at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky, May 5, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/John Sommers II

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LOUISVILLE (Reuters) - Three participants in this weekend's Kentucky Derby have a chance to leave their mark as the first woman to win the Run for the Roses.

In the 136 previous runnings of America's most famous horse race, only 14 female trainers have ever saddled up a runner and a mere five female jockeys have climbed into the stirrups.

None were able to win the Derby but there is real hope that either trainers Kathy Ritvo and Kathleen O'Donnell or jockey Rosie Napravnik can break the gender barrier in Saturday's $2.2 million race at Churchill Downs.

"I feel like I've been a trailblazer since time began to be honest with you," said O'Connell, who will saddle up the 50-1 longshot Watch Me Go. "I've been on the track since 1970. My first license said 'exercise boy' because there wasn't even a category to check for a girl.

The 23-year-old Napravnik, who will be riding a colt named Pants on Fire, has already left her mark on the male-dominated sport since getting her jockey's license in 2005.

Last year, she became the first woman to win the riding title at Delaware Park. This season she added the Fair Grounds riding title and won last month's $1-million Louisiana Derby with Pants On Fire to book their spot in the Derby.

"She knows how to win and that's a big factor," Pants on Fire's trainer Kelly Breen said when asked why he chose Napravnik to ride the horse.

"For as young as she is she has great composure. She doesn't seem to get excited. You can see some of the things in how she rides are like her personality. When she gets in a tough spot she doesn't get overly excited."

But of the three women, it is Mucho Macho Man trainer Ritvo who has really captured the imagination of the American public because of her serious health problems.

The 41-year-old suffered from a degenerative heart disease that claimed the life of her brother Lou in 1996.

Ritvo spent six months in a Miami hospital before receiving a heart transplant in 2008 that saved her and gave her a new perspective on life.

"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," said Ritvo.

(Editing by Frank Pingue)

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