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Going out a winner

Krone changed the sport, retired on her terms

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Posted: Wednesday April 28, 1999 12:04 PM

  Rare company: In 1993, Julie Krone became the first woman to win a Triple Crown race, taking the Belmont Stakes. Shaun Botterill/Allsport

Grand Prairie, Texas (CNN/SI) -- A banner that draped over the upper deck railing at the Lone Star Track said it all.

"Thanks Julie. You are the best!"

On this particular day, Julie Krone was the best and she was going out a winner.

"They're coming down to the line," blared the track announcer as the horses were about to cross the finish line. "When will it stop? Julie Krone perfect today. She's three-for-three."

But on this third Sunday in April, everything did stop for Krone. This was to be her final ride in her final race, ending a long and illustrious career.

"And the sign up there today made me smile," she said referring to the banner. "And the fans? I can't repeat it enough how wonderfully Lone Star treated me today and it was almost like even God cooperated giving me three winners and two seconds and beautiful weather and all the fans."

The important thing to note is that it was Krone's decision to put an end to a riding career filled with joy, pain and accomplishment. She was the most successful female jockey in history winning over 3,500 races and 11 riding titles while battling head-to-head, seven days a week against some of the best jockeys in the world.

Julie Krone proved she belonged in their company.

"It's not only all my winners that were acknowledged" she says, "but my tenacity and the way that I think I mean to women in sports."

During her 18-year career, Krone never played the gender card simply because soon after dropping out of high school to become a jockey, she began shattering all the myths that girls didn't have the aggressive temperament, mental toughness and physical strength to win at the highest level of racing.

Krone punctuated the point beyond dispute at the 1993 Belmont Stakes aboard Colonial Affair when she became the only woman to win a Triple Crown race.

In the process, she encouraged millions of girls that there are no boundaries.

"The young girls come up to me and say, 'Oh, I'm the high scorer on my soccer team ' or 'I play hardball' or 'I'm the pitcher for this thing' and the inspiration it gives being a winner." She adds there's more to just crossing the finish line because, "It's not winning or losing. I mean, I hate to be cliche but you always have to put in an effort."

Especially when adversity strikes which Krone can speak of with absolute believability because surrounding her triumphs were tragedies that would have finished a weaker person long ago. In 1989 a major spill at the Meadowlands left her with a shattered left arm.

Then just two months after her Belmont victory, she was involved in a horrible accident at Saratoga. Her doctor said the only worse ankle injury he'd ever seen had been on an airplane crash victim. Krone also suffered a cardiac contusion. She had literally been kicked in the heart, but it didn't crush her spirit -- nine months later she was back in the saddle.

"It's a passion for riding race horses and being in the winner circle," Krone said. "I can't emphasize enough that now I know how dangerous it is. I'm willing to make that trade-off."

Just five months later at Gulfstream Park in 1995, Krone went down again. She injured both of her hands, the tools she had used so exquisitely to coax so many horses to the finish line first. This time the mental wounds were the deepest and she needed the help of a psychiatrist to repair the damage.

While no other rider ever intimidated her, Krone admitted she had begun to lose some of her tenacity -- some of her nerve. When she returned to the race track again, she was more tentative than she'd ever been. Riding race horses had always been a labor of love. But now with her abilities compromised and her 35-year-old body aching, it had become a job.

It was time to leave.

"And now that it's all over, I feel a bit of a tug on my heartstring, and it's very special," she says. Even when the other jockeys pushed her face into a congratulatory cake? "Even right down to being put in the cake. It was a special moment for me."

What about all the falls, bumps, breaks and bruises? No contest.

"It was worth all the time I spent in hospitals and by myself and things that were those muddy days when you finish dead last 20 times and you go, 'Why am I doing this?'"

The answer was simple enough. Riding horses all these years had value and virtue. And even though Krone can finally sleep in as late as she wants, her zest for living the next chapter in her life would never allow it.

Krone's been eligible for induction into racing's hall of fame since 1996, but her name has never even appeared on the ballot. Maybe her 16th place ranking in all-time earnings doesn't have enough dazzle to impress the powers-that-be. But her many admirers say her place in history has little to do with statistics and everything to do with impact.

What Julie Krone did is change forever the way women are viewed in horse racing.

 
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