She's the man

Top female jockey Julie Krone led the pack, but don't bet on many women to follow

The tall, deep-voiced security guard looked at his buddy, a squat cowboy in droopy trousers cinched at crack-level. "It's a woman thing," he said, as dozens of fans lined up in the Lone Star Park paddock for autographs from a tiny girl jockey with a hamster face, darting hands, and stringy blonde hair.

"Yup," his friend said.
Julie Krone, the most successful female rider in the history of thoroughbred racing, scribbled her name in blue marker for a youngster only slightly smaller than she. Her "J" swooped around to form a smiley face.

"So there!" Krone chirped.
The kid walked away, clutching a visor with her heroine's name on it. And that is the way Grand Prairie will remember Krone on her last day of racing, a windy Sunday afternoon when she drove home three straight winners to screams of "Julieeeee!" from the little girls and boys leaning over the rail in winner's circle.

Krone had called it quits after 18 years of racing; her glorious career was marred only by the frequent injuries that led her to question her talent, her temperament, and her will to go on after numerous broken bones and bouts with depression. Earlier this year, in the midst of a highly successful meet at New Orleans' Fair Grounds racetrack, Krone quietly made the decision to retire while she still possessed dignity and the use of all her limbs.

"It was just about as perfect as it could be," Krone would say at the end of the day in Grand Prairie, pulling on her wee-girl persona for a small group of racing writers who gathered at a news conference behind the jockey's room. "I thought I was a princess."

It was all so cute, sweet enough to trigger a migraine, mushy enough to melt in your hand.

And sure enough, her last day at the races would be memorialized in numerous articles, nauseating in their sameness, proclaiming the ground she'd gained for women in a tough-little-man's sport.

With the official list of cliches posted beside their computer terminals--making strides, opening doors, pounding paths, blazing trails--writers for women's magazines no doubt will follow with similar fare. It's a woman thing, they'll say, squeezing their words between perfumed ads and Maxi pad coupons.

Only it isn't. And it never was.
When Krone flew home to New Jersey with 3,546 winners to her name, ranked as one of the year's top 10 riders in wins and one of the top 20 in money earned by her mounts--the better gauge of the competition she keeps--she proved nothing about gender, nothing about changing times, nothing about progress.

That's because Julie Krone is a freak. A world-class talent, a 100-pound phenomenon with gnarled hands, scarred limbs, and an incongruous squeak-toy voice.

If she has proved anything, it is about great race riding, the skill and ferocity and intuitive horse sense that can push an ornery, underachieving animal from plodder to winner. If anything at all, it is that racing abides only the toughest competitors, athletes who suffer the inevitable bone-crushing spills yet summon enough courage to fight off the devil--like Krone says she literally did during 18 days on a morphine drip--and come back for more.

"That was payin' some dues," she said Sunday, recounting how she saw a vision of the devil shuffling through her drawers and standing beside her hospital bed, where she lay with a shattered ankle and bruised heart after a horrific spill in 1993. "That was payin' some dues."

Krone, bowing out in her prime at 35, is the only female rider ever to sustain a career in the top ranks of her sport, winning meets at New York's Belmont Park, New Jersey's Monmouth and The Meadowlands, and Florida's Gulfstream Park, among other quality tracks. She ends with an excellent 17.3 lifetime win percentage and $81 million in earnings, dozens of lengths ahead of the other female jockeys, topping the score even of some Hall of Fame male race riders.

In some ways, modifying "rider" with "female" only trivializes Krone's accomplishments. You'll catch it for saying so, but that's because the majority of women jockeys aren't all that good. Just ask the trainers, men and women who'd put a marmoset in silks and stick it on a horse if they thought it could win.

Girl riders, they say, don't have the muscle to control a headstrong thoroughbred that fights for the lead at the expense of burning all its speed. Girl riders don't finish strong. They flail at their mounts with limp left whip hands as the closers sweep by.

The numbers, trotted out to show the progress women jocks have made in thoroughbred racing, actually tell another story.

The second most successful female rider in terms of money earned is Donna Barton, but she only won with 12.2 percent of her mounts. Next in line is pioneering jock P.J. Cooksey, with 11.9 percent winners. Then there's Diane Nelson, struggling on the competitive New York circuit with 11.3 percent.

Numbers two, three, and four on the all-time ladies' list: Mediocre all of them.

You have to get to Vicky Aragon, number five, to find a spark. This is the black-haired, freckled whelp who wasn't above whacking her fellow riders with a whip when they crossed her. Numerous suspensions and a serious spinal injury have combined to slow her down, but she's won a ton of races in Washington state on a much less competitive circuit than Krone frequented and brings home a tough 16.1 percent winners.

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