Was there anyone
more spontaneous than Julie Krone? Was there anyone more free? She could hang
out with anyone she pleased, come home and leave the house as she pleased, skip
her homework or a day of school. Wasn't the job of a parent, her mother
reasoned, to make a child grow into an independent human being? And the freer
the girl became, the tighter she squeezed her pillow at night, the wilder
became a longing inside her that she couldn't put into words: A fence, oh god,
please give me a fence! And the wider and wider the starry skies grew above
her, the more her gaze narrowed to that far-off crescent moon. She didn't need
an education (it's all just a bunch of coplacation), she didn't need a bra, she
didn't need anyone. All of you, watch: Julie Krone is going to be a jockey.
almost none of this today. She can recall the crick in the leg of a $5,000
claimer she rode five years ago at Laurel, but a stab in her own heart two days
ago...where did it go? What happened to it? "No one in history has ever had
the talent that I do for blocking out painful things," Julie Krone says.
"It's strange. It's like none of it ever happened to me." She was young
and on fire and memory was like a fast thoroughbred's flanks—reach back and
give it one good sting with the whip, and off you shot into tomorrow.
She got a job at
Churchill Downs as a groom and an exercise rider in 1979, the spring before she
turned 16. She lived with trainer Clarence Picou and his wife, Donna, but
returned home after three months, when her relationship with Donna went wrong.
In the middle of her senior year, she dropped out of high school and flew to
Tampa. She would live with her grandparents, she decided, and make her stand at
Tampa Bay Downs.
wouldn't let her through the entrance gate. There she stood, in boots and jeans
and freckles, a 4'8½" little girl who must have swiped her daddy's helmet.
There it stood—a fence. She walked alongside it for a little ways. Oh, you
teachers who scolded, you neighbors who cringed—what would your children do
now? Judi and Don Krone's daughter looked up, tightened her grip on her
résumé—a manila envelope full of pictures of her on horses, a few clippings
saying she had won some fairgrounds races—dug the toe of her boot into the wire
mesh, climbed the fence and headed toward the barns.
A woman riding by
in a car stopped. She thought she had found a little girl who was lost. She
picked the girl up and took her to see Jerry Pace, a trainer who happened to be
the woman's boyfriend. "So," said Pace, "I'm told you want to be a
said the girl. "I'm gonna be a jockey."
Pace concealed a
grin, took her out to the training track and put her on a horse. Five weeks
later, in February 1980, she was sitting on a gelding named Lord Farckle in the
winner's circle at Tampa Bay Downs, trying to get a nonchalant look screwed on
her face. Her first 48 mounts: nine wins, four seconds, 10 thirds. She caught
the eye of Julie Snellings, a former jockey who had gone to work in the racing
secretary's office at the track after both her legs were paralyzed in an
accident at Delaware Park 2½ years earlier. Snellings persuaded her former
agent, Chick Lang, to let the 17-year-old runt fly up to Baltimore and take a
shot at Pimlico.
Julie got off the
plane carrying her clothes in cardboard boxes tied with string. Chick and Jean
Lang took her out to dinner. The waitress handed her a kiddie menu. She balled
it up and flung it away. Slowly, she began to realize just how many fences
remained to be climbed. "You've got to understand," says trainer John
Forbes. "Nobody took girl riders seriously—they were a joke. Nobody thought
a girl was strong enough. The jockeys didn't ride harder against them; if
anything, they rode a little easier, because nobody wanted to be the one to get
a girl hurt, and nobody worried that a girl might beat him. It ate Julie up, to
be considered a girl jockey. I introduced her to someone as a 'jockette.' She
kicked me in the shins."
convince them that a girl could ride racehorses seemed hopeless. So she tried
to convince them that she wasn't a girl. No jewelry, no makeup, no nail polish.
No dresses, no perfume or ponytails. No smiles for the winner's circle photos,
no riding room for a jock inside her on the rail. She walked and talked like a
boy, spit like one, blew her nose with an index finger and a snort. She
wandered through the barns each morning as if in a fever, passing out carrots
to the horses, doughnuts to the human beings, pleading with trainers to let her
ride their horses or at least to glance up from their newspaper and look at
tricks. She shook the hands of owners and trainers hard enough to make them
wince—see how strong she was? She bit the inside of her lip each time they said
things that made her want to cry, bit it so hard she made a sob come out
sounding like an expletive. "How tall are you, anyway?" a few of them
would ask. "Four-foot-10-and-a-half, 102 pounds," she would say and
rock up on her toes, "same as Shoemaker." Or she would go the other
way. When she lost with a favorite and fans screamed, "Go wash dishes,
Julie! Go make babies!" she would put out her lower lip and hang her head,
use her little-girl looks to turn their rage to pity. She would chase down
every horse that bolted during its morning gallop, find out who trained it,
walk it back to its barn and squeal, "Hey, Joe, got your horse for you! How
'bout letting me ride it?" God, that voice, it cut through concrete. Like
sonar, it went the length of the shedrow and came back again.