Updated on 09/16/2011 8:54AM

Dreams of a Comeback Kid

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ARCADIA, Calif. - The smile that seems permanently etched into her face and her place in the standings at the recently concluded Hollywood Park meeting are the tangible signs that jockey Julie Krone's comeback has been a success.

Yet below the surface, Krone has a competitive streak that will not be satisfied unless she's at the top, and the comeback may be her biggest challenge. It is only the rarest of athletes - like hockey's Mario Lemieux - who can return from an absence of more than three years and lead the league in scoring. Even Michael Jordan has been unable to do it.

But Krone, 39, has come far closer to Lemieux's example than Jordan has. By any objective measure, her comeback has gone well. After a brief tune-up during the final days of Santa Anita's Oak Tree meeting, Krone's business steadily increased at Hollywood Park, where she finished in seventh place with 16 victories, ahead of such entrenched riders as Kent Desormeaux and Corey Nakatani.

Krone won the Vernon Underwood Handicap with 52-1 shot Debonair Joe, whom she rides in Santa Anita's opening-day Malibu Stakes on Thursday. More importantly, she continues to impress a group of trainers and owners who largely knew of her Hall of Fame accomplishments by reading about her exploits in the East, where she was based before leaving the game in the spring of 1999 with 3,545 winners. They had never seen her ride in person.

"I've had 100 people look at me and say we never saw you ride," Krone said. "These are people I never got a chance to be around, that I'm meeting for the first time."

They like what they have seen.

"I like her love of the horse, her enthusiasm, and her ability to put a horse into the race at any point in the race," said trainer Nick Hines, for whom Krone rode two winners on Sunday's closing-day card at Hollywood Park. "She has a great work ethic. She attunes herself to the horse. Matching a horse and a rider, that to me is the key to winning. She tries to have some chemistry with the horse."

Krone, however, is not satisfied.

"I'm extremely competitive," she said just days before the Santa Anita opener. "I'll never be satisfied unless I'm the leading rider."

Returning meant a sea change in lifestyle for Krone, who had settled into a routine of riding for pleasure, surfing, and spending time at her Carlsbad home with her husband, Jay Hovdey, executive columnist for Daily Racing Form. She now spends most of the week at an apartment near Santa Anita, then returns home on dark days. For that, though, Krone was prepared.

"A lot of thought went into everything," she said. "Planning helped. For instance, I'm so totally engulfed in racing that I haven't seen my jumping horse in a while, but I expected that. Everything has been what I expected it to be."

On the track, though, Krone has had to make adjustments. Getting in sync with horses, she said, came back the quickest. Becoming aerobically fit, plus learning the nuances of riding on the Southern California circuit - familiarizing herself with other jockeys' tendencies, for instance - took longer.

"The rhythms of the whole scheme of racing - developing a relationship with a horse in the morning, then seeing things come full circle in the afternoon, developing their assets - that came the easiest and the quickest," Krone said. "When I walk out on the track in the morning, I'm so glad to be here. It's an appreciation. It's so fun.

"I was very confident I would do well. I'm very confident. That's one of the reasons I came back - you couldn't stop my confidence. But I didn't expect it to take as many races as it did for me to feel I was where I wanted to be. I can breeze seven in the morning, and ride six in the afternoon now. I'm at my peak. I'm very lucky that I don't have a weight problem. I'm strong and healthy. I weigh 102 pounds. After dinner, 103.

"I felt strong galloping horses, but aerobically I wasn't where I wanted to be," Krone said. "I did cardio and stuff. I did wind sprints and push-ups before I started riding again. I don't even need to warm up now. Before, I had to get here two hours early. Now, I can hop on a horse and feel really good.

"The relationship with a horse was the same. But my eyes weren't as fast. I mean, in New York, I would know instantly that it was Bailey who crossed over, and up there is Chavez on a horse that's going to stop. There was a quick continuity of things. It took longer to know the scheme of the race here. I wouldn't know Espinoza's body, or Valdivia's body. When I rode in the East, I could look at the back of someone's hand in a race and I instantly knew who it was.

"Last week," she said. "It became instant again. That's how it feels. At first, I would pull up after a race and think I missed something. Now, I'm seeing everything."

The other mechanics of race riding came back quickly. Krone said working horses in the mornings the past two summers, for trainers such as Richard Mandella, kept her sense of pace sharp.

"He's such a stickler," she said of Mandella. "He gave really precise details, right down to galloping out."

And Krone said she never felt apprehensive riding in a group of horses in the afternoon, believing her relationship with horses would always put her in the right spot.

"If I'm sitting on a horse that's talented and relaxed, he's always going to be in the right place at the right time," she said. "The less I interfere with a horse, the better they run."

Krone said she had no expectations when she returned. "I couldn't. I had to stay in the moment," she said. And though she says she won't be satisfied unless she is leading rider, it is obvious that she is enjoying this second act of her riding life.

"I'm more patient, and stronger," she said. "There's a lot of experience and success in my pocket to go on. The racehorse psyche is the most fun thing for me - getting in their head, helping them perform. It's a real kick. That's the reason I came back."