Updated on 09/17/2011 11:44AM

Newfound respect for Krone's talent


ARCADIA, Calif. - When Julie Krone made the decision to retire from riding, her reasons were compelling. In the aftermath of a horrific, bone-shattering spill, she lost her nerve in the saddle. She became cautious and tentative. Horses felt her tension, she believed, and didn't respond to her touch as they once had. Her body was also no longer able to withstand the stress of day-to-day competition.

After she rode her last race in April 1999, Krone ended a career unmatched by any member of her sex. She was not merely the most successful female jockey of all time, with more than 3,500 career victories; she was the only woman who had ever competed on even terms with the best male athletes in a sport demanding physical strength. It was reasonable to wonder if racing would ever see another female rider as good as Krone in her prime.

The answer to that question is now known; there is indeed another female jockey as good as the young Julie Krone. It is Krone in the second phase of her career.

When Krone announced last year that she was going to attempt a comeback in California, her plans were greeted with widespread surprise and skepticism. If she had lost her competitive edge in her mid-30's, what were the chances that she could regain it at the age of 40? Day after day, she has given a persuasive answer to that question. Krone was the second-ranked jockey this summer at Del Mar, where she won the $1 million Pacific Classic. She is third in the jockey standings at the current Santa Anita meet.

She will be a significant factor in the Breeders' Cup here Saturday, as she rides Funny Cide in the Classic, Siphonizer in the Juvenile, and the heavy favorite, Halfbridled, in the Juvenile Fillies.

Krone had quit the sport with no thought of returning. She married Daily Racing Form columnist Jay Hovdey, moved to Del Mar, and distanced herself from the horse racing world. She took up surfing. She gardened. But in the summer of 2001, as the Del Mar racing season was about to begin, she said: "When the horse vans started pulling in, something clicked in me."

She saw trainer Richard Mandella and asked, "Do you need anybody to gallop horses?" Mandella did, and Krone was back at the track in the mornings.

The next summer, as Krone worked for him again, Mandella said, "I could see something in her eye - I could see she was thinking about coming back."

In the fall of 2002, Krone was watching the races at Hollywood Park when a horse and rider went down in a bad spill, bringing back some of her own painful memories. A companion asked her: "Do you still want to be a jock?" Krone understood at that moment that she had to attempt a comeback.

"I knew," she said, "that I'd trade my well-being if necessary for the chance to be a jockey again."

To prepare herself, Krone worked as she had never done before, because the fast-paced style of California racing is more demanding that anything she had experienced in the East. She exercised with a personal trainer, ran, swam, and galloped horses to get fit. She went to the barns every morning and introduced herself to trainers she didn't already know. She hired a top agent, Brian Beach. She got off to a fast start at Santa Anita last winter, and was third in the jockey standings as of March 8, when one of her mounts bobbled at the starting gate, dumping Krone to the ground, breaking bones in her back. Her comeback was stymied just as it was gathering momentum.

Spills and injuries in the past had affected her psyche, robbing her aggressiveness. But this time she was angry, frustrated, and impatient to get back into action by the time Del Mar opened in July. To the amazement of her doctors, she did so. And to the surprise of everyone, she battled Patrick Valenzuela for the riding title.

Valenzuela - making a comeback of his own from years of substance-abuse problems - is now California's No. 1 rider, and he took Krone's challenge seriously. When Krone was on a speed horse, he would often gun his mount from the gate to engage Krone into a head-and-head duel. In the collegial California jockey colony, theirs appears to be a pitched and personal rivalry. Krone remarked: "I have nothing to say about Pat except that he is an extremely competitive person; he's always trying to win. He brings my game up."

In other ways, too, riding in California elevated Krone's game. For most of her career she had been regarded as a patient jockey who depended more on finesse than muscle. But she adapted quickly to the speed-oriented nature of racing in the West, and she will gun horses aggressively from the gate when circumstances demand. She is effective on any type of horse.

Something else has changed since she came to California: She is being regarded as one of America's elite riders much more than in the past.

Even when she was winning prolifically in the East, Krone wasn't often tapped to ride the nation's best horses. She has had only 14 mounts in previous Breeders' Cup races, few of them on top contenders. But Krone's reputation has reached new heights since her comeback. When Gary Stevens was injured this year, and trainer Ron McAnally needed a new jockey for undefeated Candy Ride in the Pacific Classic, he picked Krone to ride in the $1 million race. Because Jose Santos was committed to ride Volponi in the Breeders' Cup Classic, trainer Barclay Tagg needed a new rider for Kentucky Derby winner Funny Cide; he chose Krone. Mandella has been using Krone frequently on the horses in his powerful stable, including the undefeated filly Halfbridled.

Krone thinks she understands the reason for her elevated status. "I have the experience of riding 22 years," she said, "but I have the passion that I did when I was in my 20's riding at Monmouth Park. Maybe people can tell that."

(c) 2003, The Washington Post