03/12/2003 12:00AM

Not a job for the squeamish


ARCADIA, Calif. - Mark Johnston is an Eclipse Award-winning jockey of respectable reputation and healthy common sense who has made a name for himself on the Maryland circuit competing against the likes of Edgar Prado and Rick Wilson. Johnston knows how to win (3,038 to date) and works hard for his money, so it is no surprise that he has decided to pick up stakes and try California at the prime-time age of 32. Only one real question remains.

Is he nuts?

Hasn't he heard? Doesn't he realize that Southern California has been replaced by the Bermuda Triangle, a place of dark karma and terrible dread where jockeys are being eaten alive? Riders walk around feeling like they have targets painted on their silks. Compared to this, ice hockey without a helmet is a stroll in the park.

"Not another one," said Leonard Rodriguez as the racetrack ambulance pulled up again at the emergency entrance of Arcadia's Methodist Hospital last Saturday afternoon.

Rodriguez is sort of the ER's concierge, a friendly, familiar face who can usher the helpless guest to the right window for faster service. For the past three weeks he has been greeting a steady stream of riders from across the street at Santa Anita, prompting Rodriguez to shake his head in numb wonder.

"Man," he said, "they're dropping like flies."

Julie Krone, my wife, thought she got away lucky after last Saturday's first race when all she did was take a nasty blow to the nose from a tightly packed clod of dirt as she rode the $12,500 claimer Like Flying into the first turn.

The blow opened both nostrils and sent blood flying into her goggles. Thus blinded, she had to rely on the mercy of fellow riders and the survival instincts of her filly to complete the course. When she came to a stop, blood covered her mouth and chin, like Hannibal Lecter after an especially good meal. Nick Hines, who trained the filly, took one look and thought his jock had been hit by shrapnel.

"I was sick, man. I was speechless. Or maybe I was awestruck," Hines said. "I didn't know if the horse had hit her or what. But if I took a hit like that, I would have fallen off the horse."

Hines, it should be noted, is built like a pulling guard.

Krone shrugged it off - "T'was only a flesh wound," she said - cleaned up the blood and got ready to ride the rest of the card. Then two hours later she broke her back.

On a scale of 1 to way-out-there, the circumstances that sent Krone hard to the ground at the start of the day's fifth race were definitely strange.

She was on the French horse Sublet for trainer Ian Jory in a race beginning at the top of the hillside course. When the gates opened, Sublet took his first step with his head, hitting the turf face first and spiking his jockey like a football after a touchdown.

"I've never had a horse do that in my life," said Krone. At last count, she had ridden more than 20,000 races.

"That horse just disappeared," said Jay Slender, Santa Anita's starter. "It was like he was standing on glass. Then he stumbled, and when that happens your heart just stops, because these riders get hurt the most when they go down like that and end up underneath the horse."

The damage, as widely reported, was bad enough: three compressed vertabrae in the mid-back and fractures to the transverse process bones on the left side of lumbar vertabrae 2 and 3, where the muscles ripped away from the spine. She also has a sore shoulder, a bruised elbow and an abiding gratitude that she still can move all 10 fingers and all 10 toes.

So the adventure has commenced, with a front row seat at the healing of a professional athlete. In nearly 30 years of covering the sport, this reporter has paid plenty of visits to the hospital rooms of fallen riders - Gary Stevens, Eddie Delahoussaye, Fernando Toro, Chris McCarron, Laffit Pincay Jr. - in order to bear witness to the damage that the game can inflict on the human anatomy.

Last Saturday was the first time, however, that I was invited to spend the night. There was a lounge chair in Julie's room, manufactured sometime during the 1970's and contoured like a coach seat in a cut-rate airline, offering the only chance for rest.

I should have checked with an expert. I should have sought the advice of Jeanine Pincay, for instance, who had just left the hospital with her husband, Laffit, after his treatment for a fractured cervical vertebra.

"He was there three nights when they finally said I could stay," Jeanine said. "Laffit took one look at that recliner and told me, 'Go home. You'll never get any sleep on that.' "

Pincay was wrong. I had a series of three or four restful, 15-minute naps, pretzeled into a chair designed for anything but comfortable repose.

Thank goodness, though, we got to go home by Monday. Now Julie can heal and be good as new again, just as she has done so many times in the past.

Only problem is, I've got this pain, right here in my back . . .