Julie Krone Rides Headlong into Racing's Record Books as the Winningest Woman Jockey

updated 05/02/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/02/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

It's still early on the back side of Belmont Park, the racetrack in Elmont, N.Y. The mist has yet to burn off, and the air is filled with the perfume of racetracks everywhere: manure, hay, damp earth. The woman in the wheelchair fills her lungs. "God, I love it," she says as she rolls toward the stables. "I miss it when I'm away."

She has come to Belmont to watch her best friend, Julie Krone, "breeze" a couple of horses. Krone, 24, is the reining queen of racing. "Your basic total success," says the woman in the wheelchair. Indeed, last month Krone became the top female jockey when she broke Patricia Cooksey's record of 1,203 career victories. She's one of only three riders, male or female, ever to win six races in one day at Monmouth Park in Oceanport, N.J., and the first woman ever to win four in a day in New York. Riding against the "big boys," such as Angel Cordero and Robbie Davis, she is among the top five jockeys at Aqueduct in Queens, N.Y. She has told trainers, "If you want a 'girl' jockey, get someone else. With me, you get reckless and aggressive."

Krone comes out of the stable, perched lightly atop Most Orphan. She grins at the woman in the wheelchair, whose name is Julie Snellings. Krone loves to tell the story of how the two met in 1980. She was a know-it-all apprentice just breaking in at Tampa Bay Downs in Florida. Snellings, then a stewards' secretary, had the temerity to offer some riding advice to the 16-year-old. "I said, 'If you're so smart, how come you're not riding?' " says Krone. "Then she rolled out from behind her desk in her wheelchair. I wanted to crawl into a hole."

Snellings, 30, had been the best woman rider of her time on the Maryland and Delaware circuits—destined, some say, to have the success that Krone is enjoying now. But her career was cut short after just six months. At Delaware Park on Aug. 25, 1977, during the second race, a horse cut in front of Snellings'. Her own mount tripped and went down. "My horse landed on top of me and broke my back, damaging my spine," she says. "I was paralyzed instantly. Jockeys might not admit it," Snellings goes on, "but that's their worst fear. Death is over quick. Being paralyzed is something you have to live with for the rest of your life."

After her accident, Snellings eked out a living doing a variety of clerical jobs at tracks. She felt sorry for herself. Then Krone came along, and Snellings took her under her wing. "She had great talent, you could see that right away," says Snellings. Krone also had the right attitude—feisty. "She was different than I was," says Snellings. "The trainers used to complain I was too ladylike a rider. But Julie was tough, tomboyish." Snellings found Krone an agent. She lobbied top trainers like Bud Delp on the kid's behalf. "It wasn't like she gave me my career back," says Snellings, who now works as a claims clerk at Maryland tracks. "But I enjoyed it. At that point in my life, I thought I had nothing to live for."

Krone quickly moved up from Florida to ever bigger tracks in Delaware, Maryland and then New Jersey. Along the way, she helped heal some of the wounds, at least the psychological ones, that her friend had suffered. After her accident, Snellings was hurt when other jockeys shunned her. Jockeys, as a class, tend to be only slightly less superstitious than, say, voodoo priests. They see omens, usually bad ones, everywhere. Yet seven years ago, in an act requiring considerable bravado, Krone put on Snellings' old riding outfit and told her, "I'm going to change your luck." When she went out and won three races at Delaware Park, Snellings was ecstatic. And on Aug. 25 at Monmouth, nine years to the day after Snellings was hurt, Krone calmly won her landmark 1,000th race. A more prudent jock would have called in sick rather than tempt fate. "I used to get depressed on the 25th," says Snellings. "But Julie made it my lucky day."

Krone's ascent has had its downs as well as ups. There was a 60-day riding suspension for smoking marijuana when she was 17. "Stupid," she says, "and all past. I love riding more than anything and was crazy to jeopardize it." Then there was the spill Krone took back in 1983. She broke her back and was out for four months. "When I came back I was probably more reckless and aggressive than ever," she says.

And let's not forget her celebrated 1986 contretemps with jockey Miguel Rujano at Monmouth when he slashed her across the face with his whip. As he waited in line at the scales afterward, Julie decked him with an overhand right. "I'm not what you would call butch," says the 4'10½", 100-lb. Krone in her munchkin voice, "but I was pissed." Round two came at the swimming pool adjacent to the jockeys' room. Rujano jumped her and they both fell into the water. He pushed her under. She escaped and hit him with a lawn chair. Both were fined $100, 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.

That tenacity was evident early in her life. Growing up on a farm in Eau Claire, Mich., Krone wanted nothing more than to ride like her mother, Judy, who raised and trained show horses. She warmed up on the family dog—and on the goat and pig next door—before her mom would let her go out riding alone. "She made a horse out of everything," recalled her father, Don, a college photography teacher. "If she couldn't find a racehorse, she'd jump on our backs and make racehorses out of us."

These days, the racehorses are real enough—and the purses are big enough—for Julie to drive a red Porsche 924S. She has a two-bedroom condo in Cherry Hill, N.J., and a two-story house in Atlantic Beach, N.Y., that's large enough to comfortably shelter Julie, her agent, Larry (Snake) Cooper, and her fiancé, trainer Terry Gabriel, 29. There's even a room reserved for Julie Snellings when she comes for one of her frequent visits from Maryland. Take today. The two Julies are in the living room yukking it up. Krone, hanging on the back of her friend's wheelchair, is daring her to pop a couple of wheelies. After the laughter dies down, the conversation takes a more philosophical turn. "If you could race again, would you?" asks Krone. The reply is immediate. "If someone gave me the choice between walking again or riding for just one month...I'd take the month," says Snellings. "When I was riding, that was the best time in my whole life." Her friend nods. "It's worth it," says Julie Krone. "It's almost worth it."

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