She's the man

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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.

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Julie Lyons
Contact: Julie Lyons