To some spectators at the Brandywine Hills Point-to-Point, the pony races, which begin at noon on Sunday, April 6, are just for fun. And yes, they are meant to be fun for both young riders aboard ponies of varying sizes and spectators, but it is interesting to note that pony races have served as the introduction to racing for many who have gone on to be top steeplechase and flat Thoroughbred racing jockeys.
Ask Rosie Napravnik, who is not only the highest-ranked woman jockey in North America, but also ranks right up there with the boys in earnings.
“If I remember correctly,” Napravnik said, “I finished last in my first pony race – the Brandywine Hills Point-to-Point. I think I finished second in my next race and soon after that my small pony, Sweet Sensation and I got the hang of it and started winning a lot.”
Although her start at Brandywine Hills was not auspicious, in subsequent years she had much success here as well as at other races.
“After Sweet Sensation, I raced a medium pony, Captain Nemo, a large pony named Rascal and then a junior horse called French Revolution. This was all over a span of about seven years beginning at age seven,” she recalled. “My sister and I raced all over the Delaware Valley area – Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia.”
Coming from a family involved in horses, Napravnik explained, “I didn’t ever need any encouragement to ride pony races. When my older sister, Jazz, who is now a steeplechase and flat racing trainer, was getting into the pony racing, my parents actually discouraged me from racing until the following year because I was only six.”
Napravnik, who has been racing professionally since 2005, is emphatic about the role pony racing played in her very successful career.
“Pony racing is absolutely the foundation of the success that I have had in my career! It gives children a chance to take all of the necessary steps to being a confident and competent rider. Racing as a child gave me a chance to step up to each level with confidence. After pony racing, I knew that I wanted to be a jockey and ride professional races.”
Due to the popularity of its pony races, Brandywine Hills has included a medium pony race this year in addition to the longstanding small and large pony races. Napravnik has generously offered to sponsor the new race. She also offers some words of wisdom to those pony riders who will be racing at Brandywine Hills. “My advice to pony race riders is safety first. That goes for rider and pony, which means that conditioning is important. Nobody should ever be doing something that they are not ready for. Preparation is the key to being safe and to winning,” she said, concluding with, “Have fun!”
A third generation point-to-point race jockey, 15-year-old Emma Meister, may be on her way to being another top jockey that got her start on the local racing circuit.
In the Delaware Valley, the Meister name is synonymous with steeplechase racing. Her grandparents were both very successful race riders as was her father. Her uncle, Billy, is still a very competitive jockey and a renowned trainer.
“When I was younger, I always watched the pony races and thought I would really like to do it, but I didn’t have a pony to race. Then one day my dad said he had a pony that I could race,” Emma said.
“I raced the pony at Fair Hill – in 2012 – and finished dead last. Not a very successful beginning,” she said. “But then we found Mookie.”
Mookie Monster was already an experienced racing pony that owner Lauren Shock had outgrown, but wanted to see continue racing. She had contacted Emma’s grandfather to ask if he knew anyone who might be a good young race rider to compete with the pony.
In 2013 Emma and Mookie Monster teamed up for the DVA race series, comprised of Cheshire, Brandywine Hills and Fair Hill, and made a clean sweep of all three large pony races.
Her family’s involvement makes racing especially fun for Emma. “My dad is my biggest fan,” she said. “He announces the races at Brandywine and when we had a really close race last year, he said he was about to pass out in the announcer’s box. He gets more nervous than I do. My grandfather always gives me a leg up and my uncle Billy gives me last minute advice.”
Emma doesn’t have a mount to race this year and has been concentrating on show jumping, but don’t count her out for next year. “I just love racing and would love to do it again if I can,” she enthused.
The Myrick Conservation Center on Route 842, approximately six miles west of West Chester and three miles east of Unionville, hosts the races on their picturesque 318-acres of rolling countryside. The gates open at 11 a.m. with the first pony race at noon. The pony races are followed by a full card of races in which top jockeys pilot their mounts over a challenging three-mile course of timber fences.
Food is available on the grounds, or bring your own tailgate picnic. The fun family day also includes children’s activities and a fabulous raffle. Admission is by the carload, ranging from just $20 to $150 for premium spots. See www.brandywinewatershed.org or call 610-793-1090 for more information or to purchase parking passes and/or raffle tickets in advance.
Proceeds from the annual Brandywine Valley Point-to-Point races go to the Brandywine Valley Association (BVA) to help them fulfill their mission of promoting and preserving the natural resources of the Brandywine Valley. Over the past decade, the popular race day has raised over $200,000 for the BVA and its programs.
For more than 60 years, the BVA has pioneered innovative programs to improve and protect the water in the Brandywine Valley. Your leader in local watershed conservation and education, BVA reaches over 12,000 school students per year and offers programs for all ages to promote the restoration, preservation, conservation and enjoyment of our region’s natural resources.