10/30/2002 1:00AM

Just call me Tommie (as in Aaron)


ARCADIA, Calif. - My wife intends to return to competition in Friday's fifth race at Santa Anita Park. On Saturday she has two mounts in the 13th edition of the Cal Cup, the biggest day of the Oak Tree meet. Beyond that she is looking forward to the opening of the Hollywood Park fall meeting next Wednesday, Nov. 6.

I have reviewed our vows with care, and frankly, I am stumped. I found the part about richer or poorer, in sickness and in health. That was clear enough. There was some plighting of troth, whatever that is, and promises back and forth of loyalty and love. But at some point my mind must have wandered, because nowhere in the words we exchanged on our wedding day do I find anything referring to exactas and quinellas.

Still, I should not have been surprised. No one ever loved her job more than Julie Krone. When she walked away from race riding in April of 1999 it was hard, but it was necessary. I was there when it happened, at Lone Star Park, and when she said "that's a wrap" I had no reason to doubt her. I was a reporter. I wrote it down.

Three and a half years have passed since that day. Things change. And while I do not profess to be an expert on the first 37 years of Julie Krone's life, I have borne close witness to the last two. One thing, if anything, is absolutely certain: If she does not ride, she will surely explode.

There were signs along the way, commencing last summer. Pre-dawn disappearances to ride horses in workouts at Del Mar. A bale of hay in the backyard, rigged up with a saddle and reins. Then came the whips, bundled and brightly colored. "One for every kind of horse," she explained. I like the red one.

My friends are worried. But not about her. They wonder if I can take the heat. They picture me hiding in a grandstand alcove, curled in a fetal position with a Racing Form over my head, waiting for Trevor Denman's voice to subside.

How will I react, they ask, when I hear the name-calling from disgruntled gamblers, flinging expletives at my one true love after losing a race at even-money? My wife, thank goodness, already gave me the answer.

"Just agree with them," she said. "They won't know what to think."

My editor has suggested that this has never happened before - a sports writer married to a Hall of Fame athlete. Perhaps that is true. I promise to take notes. As a celebrity couple, however, we leave something to be desired. In the greater world, we come off more like the baseball brothers Hank and Tommie Aaron. One of them hit 755 home runs. The other hit 13. Call me Tommie.

"You've just become the Bill Clinton of horse racing," cracked Hollywood Park's Allen Gutterman, who used to be a friend. "The only questions you'll get now will be about your wife."

So far, he's right. The return of Julie Krone is headline news, and I am obliged to acknowledge its impact on the game. My favorite reaction, however, comes from the well-meaning cavemen still roaming the landscape, ever baffled by issues of gender. They want to know why I would let her do such a thing. Don't I know a girl like her could get hurt out there? I checked the calendar. Yep, it's 2002.

And then there are the guys who cut through chromosomes and reach right to the heart of the matter. Guys like Paco Gonzalez, who knows what it is like to devote heart and soul to a profession of passionate choice. When informed that Julie Krone would be resuming her career he said, simply, "Why not?"

On Feb. 11, 1969, at age 37, Bill Shoemaker returned to competition after spending 13 months on the sidelines, recovering from the worst injury of his career. It took that long to repair the femur of his right leg, which was broken in two.

"You wonder if you're going to be able to do it as good as you did before," Shoemaker said. "You might not show it, but the nerves inside are jumping up and down."

On the day Shoemaker returned, he won with all three of his mounts. After the first one, those nerves stopped jumping up and down. He was back to work, doing what he loved.

"Work is not man's punishment," wrote George Sand. "It is his reward and his strength, his glory and his pleasure."

Sand, it should be noted, was born Aurore Dupin, a woman who took a man's name in a man's world and became one of the most famous novelists of the 19th century.

Julie Krone was born Julie Krone and is still Julie Krone.