This was California's version of fall foliage, the skies turning violent hues, weird sunlight refracted through the smoke and smog. Even at Santa Anita, where 51,648 crowded in last Saturday to watch and bet the Breeders' Cup, and which was presumably safe from Southland conflagrations to the east and west, the air was turning yellow and then brown. See: a change of seasons.
Julie Krone, one of those transplanted Easterners who make up so much of California, appreciated the effect and, finding a nostalgic comfort where she could, raced through the autumnal haze and added the West Coast to her little trophy case.
Not that she'd been having trouble winning here. Since resuming her career in California after a three-year retirement from mostly East Coast racing, Krone has shaken off initial comeback doubts, serious injury and the wariness of her West Coast brethren (she has no sistern; she remains the lone notable female rider coast to coast) to establish her considerable reputation anew. She very nearly won the racing title at Del Mar earlier this season, even after fracturing vertebrae on March 8. But a Breeders' Cup win...well. As she squeaked into Halfbridled's ear at the final turn, the filly a little too complacent for Krone's money, "No, no, no! This is very serious!"
Krone and Halfbridled's victory in the $1 million Juvenile Fillies, part of that all-you-can-eat thoroughbred smorgasbord that caps the racing season each year, may not have settled the Horse of the Year debate. The $4 million Classic later in the day was supposed to do that. (It didn't; favorite Medaglia d'Oro got passed by the 15-1 Pleasantly Perfect, finishing a day bursting with long-shot victories.) But Krone's first Breeders' Cup win, the first for any female jockey, provided the day's sweetest story. "I know, I know," she said, lingering in the dirt tunnel after her race. "I read it was supposed to be sweet enough to make the teeth fall right out of your head."
The 40-year-old Krone had retired in 1999 after she suffered a substantial loss of confidence following a bone-pulverizing sp:". Since coming west, she has gotten better mounts than she ever used to be offered. (On Saturday she was aboard Derby and Preakness winner Funny Cide in the Classic.) But she wasn't buying into one of those Lifetime dramas in which the little girl perseveres, suffers some more and wins. "Maybe if I could step back," she said, "I could see it. But I don't, not now." (She had, however, already gotten her man; marriage to Daily Racing Form columnist Jay Hovdey was the reason for her move west.)
In her first life Krone was good enough to win a Belmont and make me Hall of Fame. This time around she has reminded everybody of her skills. "She really is a Hall of Fame jockey," marveled Halfbridled's trainer, Richard Mandella (winner of four Cup races on Saturday), after she steered the favorite from the far outside post to easy victory.
But Krone also set new standards for passion. Last Friday "it was hot and smoky," she said, "and after 14 hours I wasn't even in the money." She might have been discouraged once, but now she is unshakable in her optimism, in her joy of riding. Because, she said, she just knew she'd win mat Breeders' Cup.