Less than 30 seconds into the sixth race at Belmont Park, at the end of that broad, beckoning swath of loam and sand that is the racetrack's backstretch straight, Julie Krone found herself sitting precisely where she wanted to be on a sunlit afternoon in late May. Her hands still, her feet on the dash, she was rocking on the back of just the right horse, a dark bay filly named Consider the Lily, her favorite racehorse of all, and rushing toward just that place on earth and moment in time for which she had so long been waiting.
They had broken from the gate on the lead ("Lily was a little bit anxious," Krone says), but by the time they had gone 200 yards, Krone had settled her in, letting two other light-foot Annies, Hayley's Abby and Anthony's Pleasure, sprint quickly past her. In a trice Lily was three lengths off the pace, while Krone, striking her classic pose, was sitting like a piece of porcelain statuary, all 100 pounds of her motionless as she waited behind the leaders racing hell-bent for the turn. Krone is a strong, savvy and fearless rider, but patience is really her signature on the dotted line, the special attribute in a riding style that has put her among the top two or three riders in New York—"She is the best rider in New York," says Hall of Fame trainer Sylvester Veitch—and she's a national figure in the sport.
So there she was, lying third as the field of six swept past the half-mile pole on the turn, all the while thinking:
Keep waiting. Keep waiting...wait...wait...wait....
As the horses charged the bend, Lily picked up the beat, closing on the leaders. Krone sat chilly, barely moving on her.
In the grandstand, by the winner's circle, the crowd quickened as Hayley's Abby sailed past the ‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö‚à´ pole, 660 yards from the wire. Cries went up. "Come on, Julie!" Fists spiked the air. Heads craned over the homestretch fence. Photographers scrambled. Hayley's Abby spun off the turn for home, a length and a half in front. Lily and Krone were three wide, just outside Anthony's Pleasure. Krone did not move.
They straightened into the stretch, 380 yards from the wire. Krone sat very still.
Julieann Louise Krone, 30 years old, had been waiting nine months for this, waiting from the moment her ordeal began, through all the pain and doubts and anxieties that had so besieged her; through the shattered bones and the hole through which she could see the shiny nub of her left elbow; through the operations and the morphine, the casts and crutches, the needles and wheelchairs; through those nightmares about the devil who smelled like smoke and visited her hospital room at night, taking all that she possessed; through the months of hobbling on one leg, unable to mount a horse; and, finally, through the days of fearing that she would never come back and the depressions that kept her for hours in bed and the months of rehab-cum-boredom that led her, ever so slowly, back to the horses on her farm and at the track.
On Aug. 30, 1993, coming off the turn for home in the third at Saratoga, a race of 12 maidens on the grass, Krone was tooling along in fifth place on the 2-1 favorite, Seattle Way. Krone was about to set her down for the drive when a horse in front of her on the inside—Bejilla Lass, with Filiberto Leon riding—suddenly moved to the right, into Krone's path. Standing up, she screamed, "No, No!" It was too late.
Seattle Way's left foreleg grabbed one of Bejilla Lass's back heels, and Krone's mount crashed headfirst to the turf, catapulting her, end over end, through the air. Krone landed hard on her right ankle and ended up sitting on the grass and facing one of the oncoming horses, Two Is Trouble, who was bearing down too fast for jockey Jorge Chavez to snatch her out of Krone's way. Two Is Trouble's flying hoof slammed into Krone's chest, knocking her into a backward somersault. Chavez looked back in horror as his horse galloped on through the lane.
"I saw her lying there, not moving," Chavez says. "I thought, Oh, no.... I hope she's all right. I tried to avoid her, but it was too fast."
The instant she felt Seattle Way and Bejilla Lass clip heels, Krone was caught in a kind of eerie free fall through spinning shadows, turning light to dark to light again. "You are falling and your eye watches things travel by," Krone says. "Have you ever been swimming in the ocean? And you try to ride a wave and you get caught in the wave, all of a sudden you are tumbling over, and you think, 'There's the shore,' but suddenly you're turning over and bumping your head on the sand and you go, 'Wow! Which way is up?' Then another wave hits you and you turn over again and think, 'Let me outta here!' That's what it's like, and you are lying there with whatever's left."
Whatever else she was left with, the Fates had contrived to leave her alive. Krone had been wearing a protective vest for more than a year, ever since jockey Jerry Bailey had urged her to don the optional piece of gear, and doctors have told her that without the vest the filly's blow to her chest likely would have killed her. Krone suffered a cardiac contusion, a relatively minor injury that has since healed. Not incidentally, the New York Racing Association has since made the two-pound vests mandatory equipment for all jockeys at its tracks.
The fall, as X-rays would reveal, had turned her ankle into a ruin of fragmented bones. When Krone landed, twisting as she planted the foot in the grass, the concussion and torque shattered the bottoms of the tibia and fibula and caused extensive soft-tissue damage. Krone had been hurt before—the standard jockey allotment of broken bones, bruises, tears and pulls—but never anything so devastating. By the time her agent, Larry (Snake) Cooper, had reached her, she was holding her ankle in her right hand and her left arm in the air, revealing the wound in the crook of her elbow.
"You could see my elbow socket," she says. "I couldn't move my arm. My right leg was so hot, like someone had put it in a fire, a heat that I had never felt before. I've had bones that were broken clean in two, so you can tell when something's broken and it's not so bad, but this was beyond that. This was like I could feel how mutilated it was. Normally you can say things to separate yourself from the pain: 'O.K., breathe. Do yoga. Don't lose control.' But with this, there was no control. My neck hurt and I couldn't breathe. I had no faculties. I was in outer space. I tried to pass out, but I couldn't. I swear, if I'd had the choice then, I would have contemplated suicide because it hurt so bad."
In the emergency room at Saratoga Hospital, the morphine softened the pain to the point that it was merely intolerable. By then, her ankle had swollen so badly that removing her boot became a medical ordeal on the order of an amputation. She howled when a doctor tried to cut it off. "Let Tony do it!" she cried. Stepping aside, the doctor handed the scissors to her valet, Tony Millan, who perspired like a surgeon under O.R. lights as he sliced and snipped the boot free.
The injury ended the most dazzling year of Krone's life as a rider, one that began with her leading all jockeys at Gulf-stream Park, in Florida, where she had seemed to raise her game to an almost magical level. Newsday's veteran handicapper, John Pricci, a longtime Krone observer, watched with fascination for nearly two weeks at Gulfstream. "She was in the sweet spot of every race I saw her in," Pricci says. "I mean, Julie was in a zone."
To trainer John Parisella, who had put her on his horses for years, she had become a rider who had truly found herself. "I always thought Angel Cordero was the best rider I ever saw," Parisella says. "But down in Florida last year, she was on his level. It was scary."
She brought it all north to New York that spring. On June 5 she became the first female jockey to win a Triple Crown race when she drove Colonial Affair to victory in the Belmont Stakes. At Saratoga she battled Mike Smith for the riding title. She was on live horses in every race. On Aug. 8, in a race for 2-year-old maiden fillies, she rode Lily, the baby she had been schooling in the mornings out of trainer Allen Jerkens's barn. Krone came charging off the pace to win by six lengths; Lily was a maiden no more. On Aug. 20, Krone joined Ron Turcotte and Cordero as the only riders to win five races in one-day at the Spa.
All of which heightened the pain of the fall on closing day. Even amid the agonies of the emergency room, Krone found a way to sort of ride out her card, telling Millan to call the jockeys' room and explain to John Velazquez, Lily's substitute jockey, how to ride the filly in the Spinaway Stakes, the feature race that day. Millan listened dutifully to her instructions and called the jocks' room from the hospital. "I'm relaying a message from Julie," he told Velazquez. "Be real easy with her in the gate. Don't play with her head. Loose-rein her out of there and let her sit behind horses." Lily finished sixth that day and suffered an injury that would keep her from the races until that afternoon in May when she and Krone would be reunited at Belmont Park.
For Krone, the travails had only just begun. At Saratoga Hospital she underwent surgery to align and stabilize the ankle and was fitted with a temporary cast. The next day, Aug. 31, she was flown to New York City and taken to the trauma center at Staten Island University Hospital, where Frank Ariosta, an orthopedic surgeon, viewed the damage, "It was the kind of break you see in high-speed vehicle accidents," Ariosta says. "Or in parachutists, people who jump from a height and land on one foot."
Ariosta performed two operations in nine days. On Sept. 1, using six screws, he attached a stainless steel compression plate to the broken fibula, thereby returning the leg to its normal length. On Sept. 9, Ariosta affixed a second compression plate, with eight more screws, to the shattered tibia. He then fitted her leg with a brace, rather than a cast, to permit her to move her foot. As a jockey, with her feet planted in the stirrups, she needed what therapists call "dorsi flexion"—the ability to flex both heels downward, toes up. Her rehabilitation had begun.
Krone was in the hospital for three weeks, and for all that she went through, it might as well have been three years. The nightmares began haunting her—they returned through all the months she felt the pain—and she would wake up screaming in the night to her mother, Judi, who often camped out in Julie's room. "My mother would leave her bed, and the devil would be in her bed when she got up," says Krone. "Everything I owned, he'd try to take. He was very tall and had on black, and wherever he went, there was a smell of smoke."
Just as vivid were the fears and doubts that now troubled her. Krone had been racing since she was 17, and despite the spills and brushes with disaster, she had never really faced the violent perils of the sport until she found herself writhing in agony on the deep Bermuda rug at Saratoga. Krone was born with a sense of derring-do, with what seemed like a lifetime waiver from the harsher penalties for taking chances, and now she was facing something different. "It was the first time she'd experienced any fear about the horses and racing," Judi says.
During the long and difficult convalescence she was forbidden to ride horses. She would hobble down to the barn at her farm in Colts Neck, N.J., Just to inhale the smells of oats and hay, to hear the horses munching in their stalls, to smell the leather hanging in the tack room. "I'd go to the house and just lie on my bed and sob," she says. "I've spent most of my life riding horses; the rest I've just wasted. I can never, never get enough. I cannot live without them; it's impossible. I can come to the track, ride six in the morning, ride nine races and then go home and ride my three jumpers. It was so traumatic not to be part of that."
There was even a time when Krone wondered whether she would ever make it back. Late in February she was trapped in a depression triggered by the constant pain—"I'd be up all night 'cause my ankle hurt so badly," she says—but she fought her way through it, doing therapy every other day. By the middle of April, after she spent a week riding one of her jumpers, Peter Rabbit, in the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia, doctors proclaimed her well enough to gallop racehorses in the morning. It was as if she had been unshackled from a sinking galley.
Early in the morning of April 21, Krone drove the 75 miles from her farm to Belmont Park, where she began the five-week regimen of working and exercising thoroughbreds in preparation for her return to racing. On that first day back, as she cruised the stable area at Belmont, visiting favorite horsemen, Krone saw Leon. "Hey, Filiberto," she teased him. "Next time you wanna make a right turn, put on your blinker." He smiled meekly, looking chagrined.
Krone was soon back riding Lily in the mornings, and toward the middle of May, sure enough, with Krone's own comeback looming at the end of the month, she and Jerkens found a May 26 allowance race that suited the horse. Krone was walking a horse to the main track starting gate one morning when she spotted Cooper. "There's a race for Lily next week," Krone called to him.
"How far is it?" he asked.
"Three quarters," she said. "I got on her this morning, and she is wild. She'll win, Snake. She will win."
Krone returned to the races on May 25 and finished third on her first mount, Baypark, in the fourth, and eighth aboard Life Boat in the eighth. By then she had come to terms with the risks of riding a fragile, 1,000-pound animal doing 35 mph in swerving traffic. "I know it's a dangerous business," she says, "but I still have the passion for racing and getting into the winner's circle."
That night, after the races were finished, she walked into Jerkens's barn and fed Lily a bunch of white grapes. Krone is fluent in two languages, new English and Old Equine: "I told her, 'Now, Lily, both of us have to get our status back as being the tops.' Lily said, 'Got any more of those grapes?' "
At 3:29 p.m. on May 26, Krone was still winless in her comeback but was now sitting poised and chilly, ready to pounce, as she and Lily bounded through the top of the final straight.
They were in second place with 360 yards to the wire. The[3/16] pole flashed by on the left. And here all the waiting ended. With Hayley's Abby beginning to tire on the rail, Krone started driving with her arms. In a burst she Pulled alongside Hayley's Abby, opened a length lead as she and Lily made the eighth pole, and pulled away in the final eighth to beat Waving the Flag, with Leon aboard, by a length and a half.
Suddenly there was Krone, a few ecstatic moments later, hopping off the filly in the winner's circle and heading up the tunnel toward the jocks' room, her cars ringing with salutes: "Way to go, Julie." And "Julie, where's my kiss?" And "Julie, you're back!"
She took off sprinting, pumping her right arm as she went, singing, "Yes...yes...yes!"