The winningest woman jockey in thoroughbred racing history, Julie Krone has shattered records throughout her two-decade career, including having the distinction of being the first woman to ride to the winner's circle in a Triple Crown race. But records were not the only things shattered in the course of Krone's streak. She has suffered career-threatening injuries, most notably a smashed ankle in a 1993 on-track spill that could have ended her riding or even taken her life.
Like Mother, Like Daughter
Though countless little girls dream of glory on horseback, Krone had the single-mindedness, the physical attributes, and the emotional toughness to make her dream come true. Julieanne Louise Krone was born in 1963 near Benton Harbor, Michigan. Her first trainer, champion, and sometimes adversary, was her mother, Judi
Krone, a woman who lived and breathed horses. It was Judi, a former high-school equestrian champion, who put her diapered two-year-old on the back of a palomino and sent the animal trotting off to show a prospective buyer how gentle the horse could be with children. Julie instinctively sat the trot, then took up the reins and guided the horse back to Judi. It was Julie who began living her mother's dream: "Every time she looked out and saw her baby girl gliding bareback across the field, wearing nothing but a pair of shorts, holding nothing but a handful of mane, [Judi] would feel tears filling her eyes," wrote Gary Smith in a lengthy profile of Julie Krone for Sports Illustrated. "Tears of love, tears of jealousy. Her little girl's childhood was the childhood she had read about in all those books, the childhood she should have had, she would have had, if only she hadn't been a girl in a three-story apartment house in Chicago."
Indeed, horses both bonded and divided the Krone family. In one corner was Judi, who let dishes pile up and clothes clutter the house while she spent hours training the family's horses, dreaming of a career in the saddle she herself would never realize. In the other corner was husband Don Krone, a photography and art instructor, who lost himself in his darkroom night after night. "There was love in a house like that, but sometimes you had to cock your head in a different way to see it," as Smith wrote. "No dinners together around a table, no Easter baskets."
Julie Krone grew up fierce and fearless, a riding daredevil who never stopped to consider the consequences. She never cried, even when thrashed by the tempestuous Judi as punishment for fighting. At the same time, Julie's mother painstakingly trained her, corrected her, and encouraged her. At age five, Krone won the Berrien County Youth Fair Horse Show in the under-18 division, besting competitors three times her age. But even then, "Judi would snap at the girl for letting her elbows bounce during the ride, then wait until she was gone and say to Julie's friend.… 'Wasn't she great?'," noted Smith.
A Love of Speed
For all her precocious dedication, Krone was also possessed of the body of a perpetual child. She topped out at four-foot-ten, petite even by jockey standards. Her high-pitched voice got the girl ridiculed in high school; she took comfort in her animals and her poetry. She nearly ran off to join a circus after impressing the owner with her stunts on horseback, then backed out when she decided she didn't trust the man. But Krone's heart belonged to racing. She hung a racetrack picture on her bedroom ceiling, studying the turns as she fell asleep clutching a riding crop.
Time could barely catch up with Krone's ambition. Too young at fifteen to work at Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby, the would-be jockey had her mother rectify the problem by forging a birth certificate. Krone began her professional career as a "hot-walker," cooling off the thoroughbreds after their workouts and races.
|1963||Born July 24, in Benton Harbor, Michigan|
|1979||Goes to work at Churchill Downs|
|1980||Becomes apprentice jockey|
|1981||Makes professional debut, February 12|
|1992||Rides in Kentucky Derby, finishing fourteenth|
|1993||Rides in Belmont Stakes, finishing first|
|1993||Suffers serious injury, August 30|
|1994||Returns to racing|
|1995||Marries Matthew Muzikar|
|1995||Rides in Kentucky Derby|
|1999||Announces retirement from racing|
|2002||Marries second husband, Jay Hovdey|
|2002||Announces return to racing|
But Krone wanted more—much more. She became an exercise rider and by 1980 had advanced to apprentice jockey. On February 17, 1981, Krone won her first race on a horse called Lord Farkle, in Tampa, Florida. But the ride to the winner's circle was never an easy one, and could be particularly tough for a woman. Thoroughbred racing had a longstanding men-only culture; the first professional female jockeys, including Barbara Jo Rubin , faced bias, suffered numerous indignities, and even endured the threat of physical violence. As for Krone, her own idiosyncrasies, including a penchant for brawling and a conviction of marijuana possession, threatened to undercut her budding career. In one notable example, Krone angered another jockey, Miguel Rujano, who took his whip to Krone's face. She retaliated by delivering a roundhouse punch, which escalated into a shoving, chair-throwing melee. "Both were fined $100," noted People writer Jack Freidman, "but Krone had scored some points by giving the lie to that old canard that women aren't tough enough to ride with the men."
Still, there was no denying Krone's gift for working with thoroughbreds. She was known as a rider of unusual patience, able to settle down on a galloping horse and let him run relaxed until the moment he needed her guidance to take the lead. The wins and titles piled up through the 1980s. Years of riding anonymous animals at small tracks prepared Krone to move to quality thoroughbreds at sites like Pimlico, Saratoga, and Churchill Downs. It was at the latter location that Krone rode her first Kentucky Derby, in 1991. That same year, she became the first woman to ride in the Belmont Stakes, the second jewel of the Triple Crown.
History at Belmont
Though she did not win either Triple Crown race in 1991, Krone returned for the Belmont Stakes, held in Elmont, New York, in 1993. She was assigned the long-shot Colonial Affair. "Let's go out and make some history," she reportedly said to her horse as they made their way to the track. And history was made that June 5, as Krone became the first woman to drive home a Triple Crown winner, riding a race characterized by Sports Illustrated writer William Nack as dominated by "patience, intelligence and tactical savvy." The Belmont win highlighted Krone in many fans' eyes as one of the best jockeys of her time, regardless of gender. That summer a writer for England's Economist sang her praises: "In an industry in which so many are obsessed by money—owners, trainers, and the midget millionaires who flog horses down the track—Ms Krone is a refreshing exception. She talks about few things other than her [horses], and she does this as an indulgent young schoolmarm would speak of her well-bred girls."
If the Belmont victory represented a career high, fate soon came crashing down. On August 30, 1993, riding in a race in Saratoga, New York, Krone was piloting Seattle Way down the homestretch when a horse to her inside, Bejilla Lass, cut in front of her. Standing in the stirrups, Krone screamed, "No, no!" But the warning came too late. The foreleg of Seattle Way clipped a hind leg of Bejilla Lass, and Krone's mount catapulted onto the hard turf. It was not Krone's first fall, but this crash was devastating, shattering the jockey's ankle. The damage was compounded when a passing horse caught Krone in the chest with a thrusting hind kick.
In Nack's article, the crash was recounted as "a kind of eerie free fall through spinning shadows, turning light to dark to light again." The injuries were instantly, horribly apparent: an right elbow bone protruding through the skin; a mutilated right ankle. "I've had bones that were broken clean in two," Krone told Nack, "but this was beyond that.… 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."
The Long Road Back
Krone underwent two operations in nine days to repair the broken fibula and shattered tibia. A three-week hospital stay and an eight-month recovery followed. But Krone was lucky: had she not been wearing an equestrian safety vest that day, her doctor reported, the blow to her chest from the horse's hoof would likely have killed her. During Julie's recovery, Judi Krone rallied to her daughter's side.
Awards and Accomplishments
|1981||Won first race in Tampa, Florida|
|1982||Leading jockey at Atlantic City, New Jersey, 1982-83|
|1987||First woman to win four races in one day|
|1987||First woman named top rider at a major racetrack|
|1988||Meadowlands champion, 1988-90|
|1988||Named all-time winningest female jockey|
|1991||Rode in first of two Kentucky Derby races|
|1991||First woman to ride in Belmont Stakes|
|1992||Ninth-ranked jockey in the nation|
|1993||First woman jockey to win a Triple Crown race|
|1993||ESPY award, Outstanding Female Athlete; Women's Sports Foundation Sportswoman of the Year; Glamour Top 10 Women of the Year, CBS News top five Women of the Year|
|1994||Made comeback from serious injury|
|1995||Published autobiography, Riding for My Life|
|1999||Retired with record $81 million in career winnings|
|1999||Julie Krone Classic race named in her honor, Lone Star Park|
|2000||First female jockey inducted to Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame|
Where Is She Now?
Julie Krone, the winningest woman jockey in the world, hung up her tack in April, 1999, after establishing her place in sports history. Two traumatic injuries, in 1993 and 1995, had sapped from Krone the love of speed she had nurtured since she was a child. But in October, 2000, Krone made an appearance in Lexington, Kentucky, piloting the harness racer Moni Maker to a new world-record finish in a race for trotters-under-saddle. And in October, 2002, the Hall of Fame inductee announced her return to thoroughbred racing. After three and a half years of retirement, Krone rode Justly Royal at Santa Anita Park on November 1, 2002.
But even as her body began to heal, Krone faced a new adversary: fear. The child who grew up on the back of a galloping horse for the first time gained a sense of the danger inherent in her sport. Nightmares, insomnia, depression, and pain plagued her; "there was even a time when Krone wondered whether she would ever make it back," wrote Nack. But the thirty-year-old was determined to return to the saddle. "Getting used to living with the pain. That's been the hardest thing so far," Krone told Dean Chang in a Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service wire story. "It only hurts when I walk. And sleep. And skip and run. But not when I'm riding."
Krone made her comeback in 1994 and on May 26 that year rode her first post-accident winner. But in January 1995, just days after the pins in her still-healing ankle were removed, she fell again during a race at Florida's Gulfstream Park, this time breaking both hands. This crash, though physically less devastating than the Saratoga incident, seemed to be the final straw for Krone. "That was too much," she was quoted by Mark Beech in a Sports Illustrated article. "I had always been like, 'I can't wait!' But I just didn't want to ride anymore. It was miserable." Krone did stay in the sport for four more years, even riding another Kentucky Derby. She announced her retirement in April, 1999.
The racing community was quick to recognize Krone's contribution to the sport. In 2000, a year after Judi Krone's death from cancer, Julie was elected to the Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, New York, the first woman jockey to be so named. Married twice, Krone has admitted her intentions on starting a family; she also became a spokesperson on behalf of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), an illness that affects one in thirteen Americans.
Krone realizes that the numbers attached to her name—20,000 mounts, 3,500 winners, and $81 million in purses—are the stuff of record books. What matters more, Krone said in a Knight-Ridder/Tribune New Service wire story by Gil LeBreton, is the fact that she was able to provide an example. "Athletes tend to be known for their success," she said. "But I would rather have some little girl say, 'Oh, Julie Krone fell down but she came back. She wasn't afraid.'"
SELECTED WRITINGS BY KRONE:
(With Nancy Ann Richardson) Riding for My Life. Little, Brown, 1995.
Great Women in Sports. Visible Ink Press, 1996.
Krone, Julie, and Nancy Ann Richardson. Riding for My Life. Little, Brown, 1995.
Beech, Mark. "Julie Krone, Star Jockey." Sports Illustrated. (May 21, 2001).
Chang, Dean. "Julie Krone Making Her Comeback in a Very Public Way." Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service. (May 8, 1994).
Friedman, Jack. "Julie Krone Rides Headlong into Racing's Record Books as the Winningest Woman Jockey." People. (May 2, 1988).
"Julie Krone Inducted into Hall of Fame." Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service. (August 7, 2000).
"Julie Krone Sets Record in Her Return." Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service. (October 6, 2000).
Kindred, Dave. "Living to Ride." Sporting News. (May 15, 1995).
LeBreton, Gil. "The Princess Rides off Like a Queen." Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service. (April 19, 1999).
Maranto, Gina. "A Woman of Substance." Sports Illustrated. (August 24, 1987).
Nack, William. "Bittersweet Victory." Sports Illustrated. (June 14, 1993).
Nack, William. "The Ride of Her Life." Sports Illustrated. (June 13, 1994).
Smith, Gary. "She Who Laughs Last." Sports Illustrated. (May 22, 1989).
"The Woman's Touch." Economist. (August 14, 1993).
Sketch by Susan Salter
Overcoming gender prejudice, her tiny stature, and a series of debilitating injuries, Julie Krone (born 1963) became thoroughbred racing's top female jockey and the first woman to win a Triple Crown race and be installed in the sport's Hall of Fame.
Krone was not the first woman to compete in the male-dominated world of thoroughbred racing—her entry into the sport came almost a decade after several female pioneers fought difficult battles to become jockeys. But the prejudice against women succeeding as jockeys still remained when Krone started her career. Krone soon proved that female jockeys could be as tough and competitive as men.
Judi Krone was a riding instructor and former Michigan state equestrian champion, and she first put her daughter Julie on a horse when the child was only two. Judi Krone was trying to sell a palomino and hoping to demonstrate the steed's gentle nature. The horse trotted out, and the toddler reached down for the reins, tugged them, and brought the horse back. From then on Julie Krone loved horses and had one driving ambition: to ride in races.
Born in Benton Harbor, Michigan, on July 24, 1963, young Julie learned about horses from her mother. "Mom taught me all the ways to introduce a young horse to bridle and saddle, and how to train a horse to want to please a rider, which ultimately creates a positive experience for both horse and rider," Krone wrote in her autobiography, Riding for My Life. When Julie was six, the family moved to a farm in nearby Eau Claire. Julie and her older brother, Donnie, had free rein. "There were no fences to keep us in, no locked doors, rules, or set mealtimes," Krone later wrote in her autobiography. "I was as wild as the animals on the farm, and just as free." Her father, Don, was an art teacher and photographer who liked to take shots of young Julie taking back flips off a horse. Her parents did nothing but encourage her to ride, often recklessly. On one occasion she rode bareback and standing into the barn, ducking her head only at the last minute. She won her first ribbon at a horse show in an 18-and-under event when she was only five.
As a child, her main challenge was a horse named Filly. "Filly was elusive, naughty, and at times downright mean," Krone wrote in Riding for My Life. Filly would frequently run away with Julie on her back. "I credit Filly with teaching me to ride well. Just by being her nasty self, she taught me more than any other horse or instructor… Everything I did with Filly was an experiment. But by experimenting I learned to ride instinctively. There are some things a rider has to learn by touch, by reaction—lessons no instructor can give." When she later became a jockey, Krone would earn a reputation for having a close, instinctive rapport with her mounts. It all came from her immersion in horse riding and training as a youngster, following the lead of her mother but learning everything by doing it herself.
Krone was not interested in school—the only classes she liked were art and gym. Horses were always uppermost in her mind. Sometimes she slept with her whip, and she often dreamed of riding in races. As a sophomore in high school, she almost joined a circus as a trick rider, but changed her mind at the last minute. When she was 15, shortly after her parents divorced, she wrote in her diary: "I'm gonna be the greatest jock in the world because I think I can. I know I can." A few months later, her mother predated her birth certificate by three months so she could pass for 16 years old and get a job as a groom and exercise rider at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky. She worked there a few months, then raced that summer in Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio. In her senior year she dropped out of high school and moved to Florida to live with her grandparents and work as an exercise rider at Tampa Bay Downs. When she arrived at the track, officials there mistook her at first for a much younger girl, because she was so small. It took a lot of convincing for them to give her a job. Within five weeks, she had won her first race at that track.
At an adult height of 4 foot 10 inches and barely weighing 100 pounds, Krone was small even for a jockey (whose average height is 5 foot 3 inches). And although other women had become jockeys starting in 1969, prejudice still lingered against the idea that a female could control a 1,200-pound thoroughbred. Krone not only looked like a pixie, she had a squeaky, high-pitched voice that also made it hard for her to command respect. But she learned to compensate. She developed a bone-crushing handshake, and she earned respect by refusing to give into intimidation by other jockeys and patronizing by owners and track officials. Often, other riders colluded against her, closing gaps and boxing her horse in by the rail. "Men just didn't want to be beaten by a little girl," she later wrote in Riding for My Life.
From the start, though, her special command of horses' emotional language set her apart from the rest of the pack. She won by coaxing horses rather than by whipping them, using her hands to communicate with her mounts, as she had done since she was a little girl. "She rode in this tight little ball that a horse hardly seemed to notice on its back," wrote Sports Illustrated's Gary Smith. "Other riders had to yank back on a colt that was chomping to run too soon in a race; she barely had to move her hands. Other riders had to slash the whip 15 times down the stretch; she might get the same acceleration with two."
Though gentle and patient with horses, Krone could be a terror with people who defied her or tried to subjugate her in any way. For years, she figured she needed to be more macho than the men she competed against just in order to survive. "I thought if I showed any feelings, they would be taken for weakness," she told Smith. After jockey Yves Turcotte hit her horse with his whip during a race in 1982, she shoved him off the scales during the post-race weighing. She punched jockey Miguel Rujano in 1986 after his whip hit her ear during a race, and then she hit him with a lawn chair. She was fined in 1989 for fighting with jockey Joe Bravo. These altercations earned her suspensions, but they also sent notice that she refused to give into pressure or intimidation.
Top Rank and Hard Knocks
By age 25, Krone was acknowledged as the best female jockey in history. She was the first woman ever to win five races in one day at a New York track, the first woman ever to win a riding title at a major track, and one of three jockeys ever to win six races on one card. She had ridden 1,200 winners and won $20 million in purses.
Krone had a wild streak that belied her little-girl voice and appearance. Mercurial and exuberant, but occasionally depressed and broken, she drove a red Porsche and never let personal relationships interfere with horse riding. In 1983—the year she won a second track title at Atlantic City and missed four months with a broken back after coming off a horse during a workout—officials at Pimlico Race Course in Maryland found marijuana in her car; she was suspended for 60 days and went into drug rehabilitation.
Even when she had proven herself a winner, Krone had to fight prejudice. Others picked on her riding style because it was so different—and called her a "diabolical" rider. She was always patient during races and sometimes was criticized for hanging back in the pack too long, waiting for an opening. But the horses she rode were so responsive to her gentle touch that her smart, studied riding could be mistaken for passivity. And win or lose, she was always kind to her mounts. "If I don't need to use the whip, I don't," she wrote in her autobiography. "A horse's trip is more enjoyable if I can coax him forward by pushing gently with my hands.… If a horse enjoys his race, he's going to try even harder next time."
In 1992, Krone became the first woman to ride in the Kentucky Derby. The following year, she became the first female winner of a Triple Crown race, riding 13-to-1 long-shot Colonial Affair to victory in the Belmont Stakes—"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," wrote William Nack of Sports Illustrated. Two months later, in a race accident at Saratoga Springs, New York, Krone was thrown from her horse and kicked in the chest by another horse, bruising her heart and shattering her ankle. Only a heavy protective vest saved her life. It took her nine months to recuperate and return to riding. "I felt powerless," she wrote. "I've always been able to take care of myself, fight for myself, depend on myself." But she refused to quit. "I spent years trying to prove how tough a rider I was, trying to show the world that male or female, I was a talent," Krone wrote. "To show any weakness felt like failure to me."
In 1995, she married television reporter Matt Muzikar, riding six races at Saratoga the day of the wedding. She was back at the track to ride six more races the next morning.
In January 1996, riding at Florida's Gulfstream Park, she suffered another accident, breaking both her hands. That accident made her lose her nerve, and the facade of toughness she had maintained for so many years shattered completely. After six weeks, she returned to riding but did terribly. "Horses felt my anxiety, they got weird, they reared up," she said, according to Mark Miller in Salon. "I had been given a magical talent to positive-image a loser right into the winner's circle.… And then suddenly it was all gone, and I was exhausted." Krone became suicidal and was diagnosed by a psychiatrist as having post-traumatic stress disorder. She recovered by taking anti-depressants and finally finished her high-school degree.
Krone never regained her top form, but by the time she retired in 1999, she had won 3,545 races and more than $81 million in purse, piloting 17 percent of her steeds to the winner's circle. The year she retired, she and Muzikar divorced. In 2001, she married Jay Hovdey, a racing writer. They lived in Del Mar, California, and she took up surfing.
In November 2002, Krone surprised the horse world by coming out of retirement, and she quickly won 20 more races. Unfortunately, it did not take long for another setback. In March 2003 she was in an accident at the starting gate at Santa Anita; she fractured two backbones and suffered three compressed vertebrae. Three months later, showing her customary grit, she was back racing. In the 2003 Del Mar meeting she rode 49 winners, including the $1 million Pacific Classic. In November 2003, Krone became the first woman to win a race in the prestigious Breeders' Cup, on the back of favorite Halfbridled, steering the horse from far outside the pack to win. In December 2003 Krone suffered two fractured ribs at Hollywood Park where she had been in the lead, but later told Sports Illustrated she would be back sometime in February.
Krone was inducted into racing's Hall of Fame in 2000. At her acceptance speech, standing atop a milk carton to reach the microphone, she said: "I want this to be a lesson to all kids everywhere. If the stable gate is closed, climb the fence."
Krone, Julie, with Nancy Ann Richardson, Riding for My Life, Little, Brown, 1995.
Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service, August 7, 2000; October 24, 2003.
People, December 6, 1993; June 26, 1995; September 11, 1995.
Sports Illustrated, August 24, 1987; May 22, 1989; June 14, 1993; June 13, 1994; May 21, 2001; November 3, 2003; January 26, 2004.
"Julie Krone," Salon,http://dir.salon.com/people/bc/2000/12/19/krone/index.html (December 30, 2003).