Driving her tomato-red Porsche 924S from one barn to another on the back-stretch at Monmouth Park, Julie Krone gets stuck behind the tack truck, so she drums a tattoo on the horn with both hands. Up since 6 a.m., she has one more horse to breeze before she can relax at the jockeys' swimming pool and handicap the afternoon's races at the Oceanport, N.J., track. Finally she sees the cause of the tie-up: It's Larry (Snake) Cooper, her agent. As he slides past in his car, she tosses a crumpled Bazooka bubble-gum wrapper through his window; he flips a fresh piece of gum through hers. "Good exchange," she says and then laughs.
Sometimes it seems that Krone is a munchkin from Oz, and that may be an apt comparison. The 24-year-old jockey is 4'10'½" and weighs 100 pounds, and the thought—and sight—of her guiding half-ton thoroughbreds across Monmouth's finish line certainly has an otherworldly quality to it. But this mite has might. With less than a month left in the track's three-month meet, Krone has a solid lead in the race for the Monmouth riding title, 29 victories ahead of Nick Santagata, a jockey who has more than 1,000 career wins. If she keeps the lead until the meet ends, on Sept. 5, she'll be the first woman ever to win a riding crown at a major track.
Ranking among the best is nothing new to Krone. Since serving her apprenticeship in 1980, she has fought her way into the top five in the jockeys' standings at meets up and down the East Coast. At Atlantic City she won the riding title two years in a row, in '82 and '83. Last year her $2,357,136 in purses made her the No. 1 female rider in the nation.
Her success hasn't made everyone happy. It has spawned backbiting on the backstretch, politely termed "professional jealousy." Krone adroitly sidesteps any discussion of what it's like to be a woman in a predominantly male sport, mainly because for her the issue is moot. Riding, she says, "is part of my bone and blood." But you don't have to be around Monmouth long to hear the stories: the male jocks who cheered when the stewards disqualified Krone after a race; fans throwing down bet tickets in disgust, saying, "I should of known not to bet on a [expletive deleted] girl"; the owner who took his horses elsewhere rather than keep them with trainers who wanted to employ Krone.
Then there was the deplorable incident that occurred in July 1986—perhaps springing from such resentments—although Krone now says jockey Miguel Rujano was simply on edge and she happened to be the one he took it out on. During a race at Monmouth, Rujano whipped her in the face. He later claimed she was riding in on him. After they got off the scales, Krone punched him. Rujano retaliated by pushing her into the swimming pool. Then Krone threw a chair at Rujano. Sam Boulmetis, the state steward, fined them both and also suspended Rujano for five days.
Steward Richard Lawrenson now says of that incident, "The guys try to intimidate women jockeys, but Julie let them know that she's not going to tolerate foolishness. She's also earned their respect as a rider."
Owners and trainers are beginning to come around, too. Cooper admits that in the past he often wouldn't tell Krone that she was being denied mounts because of her sex. But now he is turning away trainers, and she rides a full, or nearly full, card daily. Her mounts come from the stables of such respected trainers as D. Wayne Lukas and Danny Perlsweig, who trained Eclipse Award winner Lord Avie, a 2-year-old champion in 1980.
Trainers appreciate Krone's ability to read mounts and her willingness—make that her unstoppable eagerness—to talk about how the horses respond during races. Trainers also value her remarkable memory. Many months later she can recall how a particular horse performed and how a race shaped up.
Krone's father, Don, who teaches art and photography at Lake Michigan College and Benton Harbor High School near Eau Claire, Mich., where Julie grew up, says his daughter has wanted to be a jockey since she learned to ride, which was before she learned to walk. "She made a racehorse out of everything," he says. "If she couldn't find a horse, she'd jump on our backs and make horses out of us."
In the women's jockeys room at Monmouth, Krone reaches into a large manila envelope and pulls out a pile of her dad's handiwork. There's a photo of the maple tree on their farm near Eau Claire. There's a shot of older brother, Donald, on a motorcycle, wearing only underwear and a fur cap with earflaps. "Here's my first mount," she says. It's little Julie astride Twiggy the dog. "This is my first spill." That's Julie falling off Twiggy the dog. "Here's my mother. She's a spectacular horseman."
Judy Krone bred and showed Arabians in Eau Claire, but she and Don separated when Julie was a teenager. She now lives in Florida and, according to Julie, has cancer that is in remission. Mrs. Krone taught her daughter to respect horses but not fear them. During spring break of Julie's junior year in high school, Judy took her to Churchill Downs, where the 16-year-old got her first job, hotwalking horses for trainer Clarence Picou. After graduation, Julie started race riding, first at Tampa Bay Downs, then at the Baltimore area tracks. She averaged only 11 or 12 mounts a week until Bud Delp, Spectacular Bid's trainer, gave her a break. "He not only put me on Cadillacs, he also taught me about things like timing and saving ground," says Krone.
Sunning on a chaise by the pool, Krone is philosophical about her dues-paying days. Worse than the fallow times were the two major setbacks. First, a 60-day riding suspension she was given for smoking marijuana at Bowie Race Course when she was 17. "It devastated me," she says. "The thought that something could come between me and my riding was enough to spin me around." Krone worked hard to build what she calls her "apple-pie image. In this game," she says, "you can't be unattractive to anybody for any reason."
Then there was the spill she took at Pimlico in 1980. She broke her back and was off horses for four months. A long, frustrating comeback followed. "One day on the backstretch I yelled, 'I quit! I quit! I quit! I can't stand it! I've lost 10 times this week and I'm oh for 80.' "
But she rode it out. It was all part of being a jockey. To Krone, that means, "If things aren't going your way, you don't try to fix anything—you keep doing exactly the same thing, over and over and over. As long as you're riding, you have a chance to win."
On this day at Monmouth, Krone wins the early daily double. She has mounts in 8 of the 10 races. As she walks back through the tunnel after the last race, she pauses to talk to her fiancè, trainer Terry Gabriel, 29. Then she stops at the first-aid station to pick up ice packs for her left knee.
Eleven days earlier, a horse became panicky in the starting gate and fell on top of her. Damage to Krone: torn knee cartilage. Leaving the first-aid station, she hams it up, gimping like Grandpa on The Real McCoys.
It's all part of being a jockey, of being strong and in control, the way Julie Krone likes to be. "The weak ones get weeded out," she says.