Louisville, Ky. Rosemary Homeister Jr. blew kisses to fans, embraced fellow jockeys and clicked pictures with a pocket camera in her first moments at Churchill Downs Tuesday morning.
Homeister was savoring every moment and feeling little pressure as she prepared to become the fifth female to ride in the Derby when she guides Supah Blitz on Saturday.
"My motto is, 'Think positively, and positive things will happen,"' the 30-year-old Homeister said. "This is a highly emotional business, but it's amazing being here. I'm filled with energy."
The Florida-based Homeister, the winningest female rider in the country in 2000 and 2001, grew up at Calder Race Course in Miami, where both her parents were jockeys.
Her mother became a trainer in the late 1970s, and the younger Homeister was soon breaking yearlings and exercising horses.
Homeister Jr. became a full-time jockey in 1992, causing confusion in the Calder programs.
"The fans used to think my mother was training and riding for other trainers at the same time," she said. "They were changing my name to 'Rosie' and 'Roseanne.' I said, 'My name is Rosemary. Just put a Junior on the end."
Homeister Jr. immediately set herself apart with success, winning the 1992 Eclipse Award as the top apprentice rider in North America.
Homeister Jr. never considered her gender a drawback, but discovered quickly that many owners and trainers did.
"Many still have that notion that they don't think a woman is strong enough to ride their horses," she said. "But as time goes on, I wear them down with my charm. Eventually, they get to know me as a jockey, and not a female rider."
Manny Tortora, who trains Supah Blitz and is based at Calder, took a chance on Homeister at the outset. Tortora gained confidence in female jockeys through his daughter-in-law, Mary Russ, who won the 1981-82 Tropical meet at Calder.
"I've been very lucky with female jockeys, and Rosemary rides horses really well," he said. "She's equal to a lot of male riders."
Homeister Jr. has ridden Supah Blitz in his last three races, finishing second in the Fountain of Youth and Aventura Stakes, and fourth in the Florida Derby.
Tortora and Supah Blitz owner John Bush considered finding a jockey with Derby experience, but Tortora decided to give Homeister the opportunity of a lifetime.
"I was going to wish them well with whoever they chose," Homeister said. "When Manny called me and said, 'Well, you ready to ride in the Derby?' That took my breath away."
Homeister will join Diane Crump, Patti Cooksey, Andrea Seefeldt and Julie Krone as the only women to ride in the Derby. Cooksey finished 11th aboard So Vague in 1984 and Krone was 11th aboard Suave Prospect in 1995, the closest any woman has come to a victory.