10/16/2003 11:00PM

Krone's fast track to success

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In her comeback after 3 1/2 years in retirement, Julie Krone is riding better than ever at age 40.

ARCADIA, Calif. - The whirlwind summer of Del Mar had ended, then came a brief vacation, then right back into the dizzying opening weekends of Santa Anita's Oak Tree meeting, with a plethora of Breeders' Cup prep races. It went by in an instant for Julie Krone.

So, one day last week, on a dark day at Santa Anita, with her husband and stepson out of town, Krone drove from her home in Carlsbad, Calif., to nearby Del Mar racetrack, walked into the paddock, and stopped.

She took in the sight of the three lawn jockeys placed around the paddock. The three are painted with the silks of the horses who won the Pacific Classic, Del Mar Futurity, and Del Mar Debutante. Krone won them all. Oblivious to her small dogs running circles around her, Krone let the pride of seeing those colors wash over her.

"I just wanted to relive that time," Krone said. "I was standing and looking around, and thought, damn, what a summer. It just flew by. It was nice to be still for a moment."

That is a rare moment. Krone is 40, but she has the zest of a teenager. She is out in the morning working horses, then rides a full slate in the afternoon. She interacts animatedly with race fans - especially children - on her way back after races, engages in playful, between-race verbal sparring with other riders, and basically acts like the pesky, tomboyish sister who always wanted to play baseball with the boys.

"She needs to be active. That's her physiology," said her husband, Jay Hovdey, the Daily Racing Form executive columnist.

It has been nearly one year since Krone ended a 3 1/2-year retirement and decided to return to riding. By any objective standard, her comeback has been a rousing success.

Despite a fractured back suffered in a March spill, which kept her sidelined for four months, Krone has made an instant impact on the Southern California circuit. She finished second in the jockey standings at Del Mar, giving Patrick Valenzuela a tussle until the final few days. Krone has secured at least four mounts for the Oct. 25 Breeders' Cup races at Santa Anita, including on the unbeaten Halfbridled, who should rule as the shortest price of the day in the Juvenile Fillies, and Funny Cide, the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner, who will run in the Classic.

Most of all, she is joyously, unabashedly, happy.

"I love racing so much," she said enthusiastically. "Just participating, to get to go out and do something you love every day, is such a thrill. It's energizing. I really love the relationship with horses. Horses are why I'm here. The Thoroughbred is such a unique athlete, such a unique species."

After Krone retired in April 1999, she dabbled in radio and television work, fell in love, moved to California, and got married. In the summer of 2001, she took a job galloping horses for trainer Richard Mandella during Del Mar's season. She started to get the urge to ride again.

"At first I didn't believe it," she said. "I never missed it, until it showed up."

Any thoughts of comeback were put on hold, however, when Krone got pregnant. She wanted to have a child. But that fall, she had a miscarriage. "That was pretty intense," she said. Would she have attempted the comeback if she had had a child? "That's impossible to answer," she said.

In the summer of 2002, she again heard the siren call of race riding. This time, it was even more intense. While working as a television analyst at Hollywood Park, Krone said she "noticed I was jealous of the jockeys."

"I wanted to ride," she said. "When I'd hear someone had taken off and they needed a rider for a horse, I would think, 'I could so ride that horse.' "

Later that summer, she again worked for Mandella at Del Mar. One morning, Hovdey was stopped by Humberto Ascanio, the assistant to trainer Bobby Frankel. "She's going to ride again, isn't she?" Ascanio asked.

Krone kept saying hello to jockey agent Brian Beach when he would stop by Mandella's barn. Not long after, she asked Beach if he would be her agent.

"She was sending out signals to the people who pick up on those signals," Hovdey said. "It became more and more apparent that she was moving toward that, even without her articulating it."

Mandella picked up on it, too. When Krone finally let Mandella in on her secret, he simply said, "I know."

"She was desperate for work," Mandella said, joking of why he first employed Krone as an exercise rider. "She was sitting at the side of the road with a sign that said, 'Will work for food.' Since she's small, I didn't think she'd eat much food." Turning serious, he said, "When she rides, she looks like someone took wax and melted it over a horse. The first day I saw her gallop, I realized she was phenomenal on a horse.

"Her first summer with me, she was just going out and having fun. I didn't know her that well. The next year, I could see something in her eye the very first week at Del Mar. By the third week, I could tell she was thinking of it. I gave her my support. I thought it was a great idea. I think the racing world is the richer for it."

There was plenty for Krone to consider, both professionally and personally.

"I had to be in a very good place with a strong personality, and be a strong rider, to come back," she said. "Whether I could then pull it off was another story. But I knew I would work hard, stay in the moment, and focus. If you're young and you want to be a jockey, no one can talk you out of it. I was at that place."

There also was her family - Hovdey and his then 19-year-old son, Ed.

"Ed was very excited to see his stepmom ride, because he had become such a racing fan by then," Hovdey said. "I could sense it coming, so I had time to work on my reacting. I'm sure I said something flip. You know me."

"He was very supportive," Krone said. Joking, she said, "I think first he said he would divorce me, and then he said if I didn't finish in the top five, he'd be embarrassed."

Krone, who had 3,666 winners through Thursday, said she did not believe she had to prove herself again to a new audience. Rather, she said, she felt a "big responsibility" to live up to the standards of being the only female member of racing's Hall of Fame.

"That's a driving force," she said. "There's a lot on the line, anywhere from ego to pride, to proving a point, or just that I love racing. But I didn't feel any pressure."

Since Krone had ridden primarily in the East before her retirement, she was viewed warily by many Southern California trainers, and with indifference by many of the jockeys. Both icebergs have melted away.

Mandella has been her biggest supporter, putting Krone on Halfbridled, the Del Mar Debutante winner, and Siphonizer, who won the Del Mar Futurity. Trainer Ron McAnally tabbed Krone as a replacement for the injured Gary Stevens to ride Candy Ride in the Pacific Classic. Trainer Eoin Harty, who has many young horses, has used her frequently, too.

"She's super-confident. She's a great horsewoman," Harty said. "She seems to learn a lot about a horse just from the time they leave the paddock until they arrive at the gate. She rides with total confidence. She tries extremely hard, and with these young horses, she tries to teach them something. And her enthusiasm level is contagious."

In the jockeys' room, at first, "the riders were standoffish," Krone said. "It took a while. Now, it's nice."

Krone has become one of the boys. At Santa Anita, Krone has a specially built cubicle in the jockeys' room that offers privacy to her and fellow rider Joy Scott. But Krone does not stay put. She emerged for an interview on Thursday afternoon, and before walking through the main part of the jockeys' room warned the male riders to "put away your ukuleles."

On a wall in the jockeys' room there is a photo of Krone, taken recently in Hawaii, in a grass skirt. The photo has since been plastered over with the faces of Ryan Fogelsonger and Victor Espinoza.

The ultimate example of acceptance came this summer at Del Mar. After a race in which Krone narrowly defeated Valenzuela, several riders teased Valenzuela about being "beaten by a girl." Valenzuela grabbed the intercom microphone in the jockeys' room and said, "In case you hadn't noticed, that girl is the only one giving me any competition out there."

"She'll come in and hang out. She's one of the guys," said jockey Luis Jauregui. "She brings a lot of energy into the room. She's got a positive attitude. She's sincere. And she's a great rider."

When the day ends, Krone tends to be a homebody. She went out for dinner more often while recuperating in the spring from her back injury - her plastic body cast was a great conversation starter - but now that she is riding regularly again, she heads home, often after first getting a massage. At home - she rents a place near Santa Anita while racing is there and at Hollywood Park - Krone unwinds by playing with her dogs and with complex jigsaw puzzles. "No borders, five extra pieces, and three hidden ones. They're hard ones," she said.

It is a lifestyle that she craves.

"It's an indulgence. It's a 14-hour day," Krone said. Race riding, she said, "has the ability to transform you and take you to a point of such concentration and intensity that you don't think of anything else.

"It's like a good book, only it goes by faster."