In the saddling Paddock at Belmont Park late last Saturday afternoon, 15 minutes before the start of the 125th running of the Belmont Stakes, trainer Flint (Scotty) Schulhofer lifted Julie Krone onto the broad back of his towering bay colt, Colonial Affair, slapped him on the side and sent them on their way. "You can do it," Schulhofer told Krone.
Krone gathered the reins and headed for the track as though sensing, in the chill gray air, the destiny that awaited her. Patting Colonial Affair on the neck, Krone leaned forward and said, "Let's go out and make some history."
That, of course, is precisely what they did. Showing the patience, intelligence and tactical savvy that have made her one of the nation's leading performers in a game long dominated by men, the 29-year-old Krone became the first female rider in history to win the Belmont Stakes—the first, in fact, to win any leg of the Triple Crown. As Krone galloped toward the winner's circle a few minutes after the race, her face bespattered with mud and the applause of thousands ringing in her ears, an ebullient George Martens, a former jockey who is Colonial Affair's morning exercise rider, was the first among a charging entourage to greet her. "Beautiful job, Julie!" said Martens.
Looking down at him, she said, "How do you stop cryin'?"
"You don't," Martens said.
While Colonial Affair's handlers led him and his rider into the winner's circle, a nearly speechless Krone spotted Bobby Duncan, head of the starting-gate crew, striding behind her. "I won the Belmont, Bobby," she kept saying. "I won the Belmont, Bobby!"
If this was the finest moment in Krone's 12-year career, the mood quickly turned sour when word spread that the most consistent of this year's 3-year-olds, Prairie Bayou, who had won the Preakness three weeks earlier after having finished second in the Kentucky Derby, had broken down on the backstretch. Jockey Mike Smith had tried desperately to pull Prairie Bayou to a stop, to prevent him from compounding his injury, but the gelding was hobbling so badly that he lost his rider.
Smith was not hurt when he fell to the muddy track, but by the time Prairie Bayou stopped running, he had suffered multiple injuries to his left front leg: a compound fracture of his cannon bone, two shattered sesamoid bones in the ankle and a broken pastern. For the young chestnut's owners and handlers, the worst of all racetrack nightmares had begun.
Even before Krone and Colonial Affair had reached the winner's circle, Prairie Bayou's trainer, Tom Bohannan, was dashing across the broad expanse of Belmont's infield lawn to get to his horse. At the same time, one of his owners, John Ed Anthony, his face a chalky mask, was walking up the homestretch, trying to find a ride to the stricken animal.
Prairie Bayou's leg was so severely injured that it was impossible to save him. So, 30 minutes after the colt broke down, a veterinarian destroyed him by administering a lethal injection. Smith, Bohannan and Anthony came to the end of the afternoon together, in tears.
What made the death of Prairie Bayou especially wrenching was that he was the second horse in this year's Triple Crown races to die as the result of injuries. While running down the backstretch in the Preakness, Union City shattered the sesamoid bones in his right front ankle and had to be destroyed. Such fatal injuries have been rare in Triple Crown races. Union City was the first horse to be put down because of an injury sustained in a Triple Crown race since Black Hill had to be destroyed after breaking down in the 1959 Belmont Stakes. While there has been considerable speculation since the Preakness that physical problems may have contributed to the breakdown of Union City (SI, May 24), no such suspicions attended Prairie Bayou's appearance in the Belmont.
Back at the barn, half an hour after his horse had been destroyed, a distraught Anthony was at a loss to explain what had happened. "The question that everyone has is, How can a horse galloping along well within himself, absolutely sound, hit the ground and break himself up like that?" said Anthony. "I don't have an answer. Let me emphasize that this was an absolutely sound horse, perhaps the soundest horse in the barn. He was galloping along at a very slow pace, in the back of the pack, doing what he'd always done, under no stress—it's something you can't explain. A bad step might wrench an ankle or cause a minor injury, but here the horse shattered his leg beyond repair."
As dusk fell, an air of gloom pervaded Bohannan's barn, and stable workers walked the shed in silence. Prairie Bayou's stall, number 18, was dark and empty. A sign next to the stall door announced it as the home of the 1993 Preakness winner. "Horrible, just horrible," said Bohannan's assistant, Lee Taylor. "He was the neatest horse. Like a big old dog. You could do anything with him. They say you're not supposed to get attached to them, but it's hard when you're with them from 4:30 in the morning to six o'clock at night. He was like a pet."
If the loss of Prairie Bayou hung a sadness over the Belmont, there was no obscuring Krone's performance. Her victory demonstrated what many horsemen and horseplayers have known for years—that Julieanne Louise Krone, all 4'10½" and 100 pounds of her, is not only the most capable and accomplished female ever to ride a racehorse, but also one of the nation's finest jockeys, period. Krone rode her first winner, a beast named Lord Farkle, on Feb. 12, 1981, at Tampa Bay Downs, and it wasn't long before she was going head and head with the best riders in New Jersey, where she was the leading jockey at Atlantic City for two years running, in 1982 and '83.
She was, quite simply, on her way. In 1987 she became the first woman to win a riding title at a major racetrack when, at Monmouth Park near the Jersey shore, she led all riders, with 130 wins. She won two more titles at Monmouth, in 1988 and '89, and three more at the Meadowlands, from '88 to '90, before she switched her tack to New York. In 1992, when she led all riders at Belmont Park's spring meeting, with 73 victories, her mounts won a whopping $9.2 million. Krone was ranked ninth in the nation in money earned that year, and she found herself riding for some of the most powerful trainers on the Belmont Park grounds, including Hall of Famer Schulhofer.
For years one of the chief criticisms of women riders has been that they lack the strength to compete with men, particularly in the last eighth of a mile, when tiring animals need to be pushed and muscled to the wire. "Julie's as strong as anybody," says Schulhofer. "She can get down and knuckle on a horse with the best of them. She doesn't get beat by too many noses. She'll ride with them all the last eighth."
Krone grew up on a farm in Eau Claire, Mich., riding horses from an early age, and she brought to the racetrack an uncanny knack for getting nervous, high-strung animals to relax for her. "She's got a great feel for horses," Schulhofer says. "They just respond to her."
Krone and Schulhofer certainly had Colonial Affair figured out on Saturday. After a mediocre 2-year-old season in which he won only once in four starts—a maiden race at Aqueduct—Schulhofer gave Colonial Affair the winter off in Florida and raced him lightly this spring. A son of 1981 Kentucky Derby winner Pleasant Colony, out of a mare by the English champion Nijinsky II, Colonial Affair is bred for distance, and Schulhofer started aiming him for the 1½-mile Belmont Stakes on April 9, when he hoisted Krone aboard the colt for a seven-furlong allowance race at Aqueduct. Colonial Affair exploded the last eighth of a mile and won by 8¼ lengths.
A month later at Belmont Park, Krone kept him off the pace in a second allowance race before driving him to the lead inside the eighth pole. He won by almost two lengths. Finally, in his last prep race leading to last Saturday, Schulhofer saddled Colonial Affair for the nine-furlong Peter Pan Stakes, again at Belmont, on May 23. This time Krone kept him too close to the pace, not letting him relax, and he took the lead coming to the eighth pole. "My horse was bored making the lead," Krone said. "He was floating around like a kid goofing off." Virginia Rapids blew past him deep in the stretch to win by almost two lengths. "We learned from that race," Schulhofer said.
One of the knocks against Krone was that she had come up short in the major races, because, for all the winners she had ridden—2,550 through last year—Krone had won only five Grade I stakes. On the eve of the Belmont, Schulhofer told her, "They say you can't win the big ones, but this is just another race. Let him relax the first part of it. Be patient. You can do it."
Indeed she did. Riding Colonial Affair with a confidence that has become her signature, Krone let him drop back, but not too far back, and then took him wide down the backside to keep him clear of the mud-slinging leaders up front. "You don't want horses to get so much dirt in their face that they become discouraged," she said later.
Heading into the far turn Krone had Colonial Affair out of trouble, and she could feel him running into the bridle. She kept chanting to herself, "I have a ton of horse, I have a ton of horse." At the half-mile pole, into the far turn, she could feel the colt surging into the bit. "I said, 'Now he's ready,' " recalled Krone. "No horse was running as strong as my horse."
Fifteen years earlier, when she was 14, Krone had watched on TV when the young Steve Cauthen won the Belmont and the Triple Crown on Affirmed. She turned to her mother, Judi, and said, 'Mom, I'm going to be a jockey.' "
Now, turning for home, with Colonial Affair sweeping four-wide past the field, her mind flashed back to that far-off afternoon in 1978. "I am going to win the race I watched on TV when I was a kid," she thought. Then she said, "It was like a dream come true."
Heading into the stretch they were a sight, those two: this giant thoroughbred, more than 68 inches tall at the withers, and on his back this sprite with the muddy face and the straw-blonde hair, pushing and shoving and bouncing him home. By the time they had sailed past the eighth pole, Colonial Affair led by three lengths. He won it by 2¼, and Schulhofer and Krone had won their first Belmont.
Schulhofer greeted Colonial Affair and Krone at the gap leading to the winner's circle. "I told you that you could do it!" he hollered up to Krone, and then he turned to a bystander and said, "She rode the horse to perfection."
Down in the jock's room an hour after the race, Krone called her mother in Florida. "I'm on the ceiling," Judi told her. "Come scrape me off."
Krone called her father in Michigan: "Hi, Dad. I won the Belmont!"
Outside the jock's room the man who had ridden Secretariat to the Triple Crown in 1973, Ron Turcotte, wheeled up in the chair to which he has been confined since a riding accident left him a paraplegic in 1978. "You're so happy you don't know where you're goin', right?" he said to Krone.
"I'm delirious," she said.
"You just rode yourself into the record book," Turcotte told her. It took a mile and a half in the mud for her to get there, with a tragedy to endure along the way, but this was Krone's day.