She's the man

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.

Yet Aragon, for all her vaunted aggression, doesn't even inhabit the same league as Krone. She's like a good claimer who'd fade to last in big-stakes company.

Krone is entirely different.
She is not a lady; she is a race rider. At the end of her last racing day, she would sit at the top of a class of one.

The ability to get inside a horse's head, to see beyond dark, dull, inscrutable eyes, to get a grip on his likes and dislikes and adjust the crude tactics and primitive hardware accordingly--a softer bit; a tighter hold on the reins; a purring voice urging him to relax, stay off the pace, ignore the dirt clods stinging his face.

That's what makes Julie Krone special, says top Lone Star trainer Dallas Keen.

The first time he saw her ride was at last year's National All-Star Jockey Championship in Grand Prairie. Lone Star invited Hall of Fame and top-ranked riders from all over the country to compete against one another in four races on randomly assigned mounts. Each jockey got a roughly equal share of favorites and long shots to level the field.

Krone finished second in the competition to the nation's top-ranked rider, Shane Sellers, then marked her success by doing a double handspring in the dirt.

"She really did impress me," Keen says. "I watched her, and she brought in some horses that definitely didn't look too good [on paper], but she improved them so much. I told her that night--they had a little party afterward--'Julie Krone, you can ride for me anytime.'"

Michael Stidham, another top Lone Star trainer, hooked up with Krone at the Fair Grounds racetrack in New Orleans, where she staged her latest comeback after being sidelined with a broken leg in late 1998.

Stidham had what he describes as a "real, real nervous filly" with ample talent but a dodgy disposition. He set the horse aside for Krone, who had crashed the jockey colony at the Fair Grounds early this year, hoping to revive her career one more time. The rider got to know her mount, Geiger Geisha, in the early mornings, when she'd breeze her on the Fair Grounds training track, sending soothing messages through a delicate hold on the reins.

When it came time for the filly's first race, Krone used a tactic that still impresses Stidham in its simplicity. As the trainer explains it, "With fillies, if you don't get them to relax, they'll take the race out of themselves in the paddock and post parade." You've seen it yourself if you've been to the races: wild-eyed horses washing away their strength in waves of lathered sweat.

Krone knew there was a high likelihood that that would happen to Geiger Geisha. "So in the post parade, where the normal rider would go out and warm their horse up, the normal gallop and jog, Julie just took her out there and absolutely stood her--never warmed her up one bit--just let her stand and look at the crowd."

The filly stood at the final turn, head cocked toward the grandstand, giant eyes surveying the thousands of race fans.

"It was just amazing," Stidham says. "She was just standing like a statue. I wondered what Julie was doing, but I thought to myself, 'She knows the filly. She knows what she's doing, what's best for her.'

"Then, when they were ready to go to the gate and everybody else had already warmed up, she just kind of trotted her around to the gate. And won the race."

She won it, along with Geiger Geisha's next two starts at the Fair Grounds. Krone was on her way to an extremely successful meet, where she'd win 19.2 percent of her races, eventually scoring 84 times and finishing third in the jockey's standings.

But that's when the devil paid another visit, conjuring the shadows of fears that had made Krone's many comebacks from injuries so difficult. It was February, and Krone was in the starting gate when her mount picked the most inopportune time to throw her. The half-ton racehorse pinned its 100-pound rider against the metal, squishing her knee, her arm, and her stomach.

Afterward, the guys would tease her in the jocks' room while Krone was gripping her gut in pain. "They were like, 'Oh, did you hurt your you-know-whats?'" Krone says. "It was one of those things where you laugh so you don't cry. It didn't, like, give a rebirth to any of my fears, but my subconscious said, 'This is not what I want to have happen. I do not want to be hurt again.'

"And that was kind of my choice."
On April 8, Krone announced her retirement at a news conference in New York, shocking many of her fellow riders. No one seems to go out on top in this sport. Dwindling success, a losing battle with weight, and serious injury are all that end riders' careers.

Krone, the freak, was gonna be different. She would go out on top.
She pledged to keep her last round of commitments, a couple of stakes mounts for Keen and Stidham at Lone Star Park.

It is Sunday, April 18, the finale, 20 years since Julie Krone's mom altered her daughter's birth certificate so the 16-year-old could get a job as a hot walker at Churchill Downs. It was her first racetrack job, walking horses after a race or morning workout, a first step on the way to fulfilling her dream of becoming a jockey.

She would post her first win two years later at cheesy little Tampa Bay Downs.

It wasn't long before she got hit with a lengthy suspension for marijuana use--a youthful indiscretion--and gained a reputation for riding hard, finishing strong, maintaining a catlike physique, and scrapping with the male jockeys. One fight that ended in a swimming pool has become racing legend.

Today, it's hard to reconcile the girl who clobbered her fellow jockey with a pool chair and the grown woman who's posing with fellow riders in Lone Star's paddock just before the first race.

The track has planned several events in Krone's honor, and for this one, a chef wheels out an enormous white-frosted cake decorated with Krone's caricature. As cameras click, a couple of the guys shove her face in it.

Not a good move. A track official speculates that the cake episode has "pissed off" Krone enough that she blows off our scheduled interview with the snotty line, "I think I've been gracious enough today." ("For her, that's probably true," says one of the racing writers who has covered Krone for years. Apparently, it doesn't take long to exhaust her graciousness quotient.)

Several hours later, the cake lies untouched in the jockey's quarters. It points up a dilemma: You can bake a cake for a jock, but none of these wizened, hollow-cheeked men can afford to eat it.

Not that it matters. Krone plants a rigid smile on her face through the day's festivities, but her mind clearly is on business.

Maybe she's fuming over that nasty white frosting during the second race when she somehow extracts her filly from the back of the pack, blows past a traffic jam on the final turn, and wins going away, whip popping.

She takes the next race too, with another come-from-behind ride that finds her at the wire in perfect rhythm with her mount; no whip necessary this time.

And improbably, she wins her next time up, pushing from behind again on a fast track that supposedly favors front-runners.

From then on, the intensity is evident in her face even as she poses for photographs all the way from winner's circle to the jockey's room. It is there that she turns temperamental again when a male photographer tries to shoot her while she's getting a massage.

Three consecutive wins are followed by a respectable third-place finish in the Texas Mile on Allen's Oop, Dallas Keen's horse. Krone's mother, ailing and in a wheelchair, emerges to watch her daughter race. According to Krone, it's the first time her mother has ever seen her race live.

Judi Krone, who shares her daughter's passion for horses, seems a little anxious when Julie moves onto the track for her final ride aboard Desert Demon, a tough-running 3-year-old stakes horse favored to win the $300,000 Lone Star Derby.

It's one more chance to win, to go out in the most glamorous way possible, or one more chance to end up "in the grass...with my bones poking through my skin," as Krone will say later, recalling her 1993 spill.

The end is honorable enough, but it is not a win. The blanket of plucked bluebonnets--"imported," a track official insists--will be hoisted onto another rider's horse. Desert Demon wages yet another stretch run, but comes up just short to a long shot running the race of his life.

The replay tells it all: As the two horses near the wire, a screaming voice can be heard attempting to will her horse to the lead in those final strides. Of course, it is Julie Krone.

As she pulls her horse up, she smiles and gracefully drops to the ground. She hides her disappointment well; she takes it, yes, like a man.

E-mail Dallas Observer Editor Julie Lyons at [email protected].

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Julie Lyons
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