Once-retired, oft-injured, Krone tall in saddle again

Feisty jockey, 40, primed for elite Breeders' Cup

Horse Racing

October 21, 2003|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

ARCADIA, Calif. - The ambience of Santa Anita Park, snuggled against the San Gabriel Mountains, is stunning. As the sun rises on a crisp morning and illuminates the stony peaks, the track becomes bright and bathed in splendor.

Yesterday, Santa Anita shone even brighter because of a jubilant and dynamic middle-aged woman who flitted from place to place with a radiant smile and a glowing countenance. Julie Krone was back, and considering how happy she looked, it's hard to believe she'd been gone so long.

One of the most widely known jockeys in history, Krone retired in 1999 as the first female to compete consistently with males at the top level of any sport. After a retirement of nearly 3 1/2 years, she began competing again one year ago. Now, at 40, she has reclaimed her place at the summit of her sport, competing for riding championships on the tough southern California circuit and securing superior mounts in the Breeders' Cup on Saturday at Santa Anita.

"I'm so humbled at this point and happy to have so many live mounts," Krone said on one of the few occasions she stood still long enough to answer reporters' questions. "Breeders' Cup week has just really given me another jump-start, another spark."

Although Krone's assignments in the eight Breeders' Cup races are still being finalized, she is slated to ride the speedy Siphonizer in the $1.5 million Juvenile and the undefeated and electrifying filly Halfbridled in the $1 million Juvenile Fillies, as well as the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Funny Cide in the $4 million Classic.

Richard Mandella trains the 2-year-olds, and Barclay Tagg trains Funny Cide. Two of the country's most respected horsemen, they lead the Krone cheers.

The California-based Mandella is perhaps most responsible for Krone's comeback. He began letting her breeze horses for him two summer ago at Del Mar.

"Until she worked for me in the morning, I didn't realize quite how good she was," Mandella said. "That first day, she was phenomenal. She looked like somebody took wax and melted it over a horse, and that's what she looks like when she rides."

Tagg has teamed with Krone to win races since she was an 18-year-old apprentice in Maryland. Since beginning to train Funny Cide last year, he thought that Krone would be a perfect fit for the high-spirited horse whose instinct to run off sometimes supersedes his rider's command to hold back. Tagg tabbed her to ride Funny Cide in the Classic after the gelding's regular jockey, Jose Santos, signed on to ride Volponi, last year's winner.

"I've put her on some miserable old horses," Tagg said of Krone. "Horses that run to the outside don't run to the outside with her. Horses that run off don't tend to run off with her. She's got a magic touch with a horse."

Krone has not won a Breeders' Cup race in 14 tries, although she twice finished second - in 1988 with Darby Shuffle in the Juvenile Fillies and in 1995 with Mr. Greeley in the Sprint. Even though she hasn't ridden in the Breeders' Cup since 1996, Krone is the star of this one. NBC, which will broadcast the races, is planning a segment on 48 hours in the life of Julie Krone.

Tagg understands the allure of her story.

"She should get the Eclipse Award for comeback of the century," Tagg said.

Krone rose to the top of her profession through a combination of unflinching determination and instinctual riding skills. She not only out-rode her male competitors but also occasionally out-fought them.

Her best-known altercation occurred in 1986 at Monmouth Park after a jockey, angered by what he perceived as interference by Krone's mount, slashed her in the face with his whip as they pulled up their horses. When they dismounted, Krone decked him with a punch and later, as the fight continued by the jockeys' pool, slammed him with a pool chair.

Krone became the only female jockey to win a Triple Crown race, with Colonial Affair in the 1993 Belmont. She is the only female jockey elected to racing's Hall of Fame. She graced the cover of Sports Illustrated and appeared on Late Night With David Letterman and The Tonight Show.

Less than three months after winning the Belmont, Krone was nearly killed in a horrific riding accident at Saratoga. A horse impeded hers, causing hers to crash headfirst into the turf and to catapult her through the air. She landed on her right ankle and then was kicked in the chest by an oncoming horse's hoof.

The ankle was shattered, requiring two surgeries and the insertion of two steel plates and 14 screws. After returning to the races, she was injured again, in 1995, in a spill at Gulfstream Park.

Krone eventually underwent therapy for depression and what was diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder. She began riding tentatively, and then, with her mother dying of cancer, retired in April 1999.

She said at the time she was too sore to continue. But yesterday, she said her mother's illness had a lot to do with it.

"I didn't want to play the my-mother-has-cancer card," Krone said. "But it got too personal. It sapped my energy."

Krone spent the final months of her mother's life caring for her. She dabbled in race analysis and commentary.

"Then I just drifted away from racing a little bit," Krone said. "I hardly gave racing a thought. Boy, what was I thinking?"

Shortly after coming back, however, she fractured her back in yet another spill. Four months later, she returned again. She finished second in the jockey standings at Del Mar this summer and won the meet's three biggest races. She won five races in one day earlier this month at Santa Anita.

Now, she beams in between breezing horses in the morning and winning races in the afternoon. Measuring 4 feet 10 1/2 and weighing 100 pounds, the irrepressible jockey who has won 3,669 races is back.

"And," said Mandella, the trainer, "I think the racing world is richer for it."

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