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THE BREEDERS' CUP | Randy Harvey

Serious Jockey Has Funny Cide

October 25, 2003|Randy Harvey

Sometime early this morning, before the races begin at Santa Anita, Julie Krone will saunter over to Barn 97 and introduce herself to Funny Cide.

She'll pet him, maybe even comb him or give him a treat, and speak to him gently so that later, when she climbs onto his back for the first time before one of the world's most prestigious races, the Breeders' Cup Classic, they won't be strangers.

"Horses remember your voice a little, especially mine," she says, making a joke about her high-pitched voice, which is not much more than a squeak.

When Sackatoga Stable, which owns Funny Cide, announced a couple of weeks ago that Krone would be aboard the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner, replacing Jose Santos, who had another commitment for the Classic, some in the horse racing world were incredulous.

Funny Cide is a strong, willful horse who some contend cost himself a chance to win the Triple Crown this year because his workout three days before the Belmont Stakes was too fast. The assistant trainer, Robin Smullen, who was exercising him that morning, said she couldn't hold him back.

So you'd guess that trainer Barclay Tagg would want a power jockey on Funny Cide. Instead, he chose Krone, who, at 4 feet 10, 105 pounds, is anything but.

Of course, the idea that there is such a thing as a power jockey makes Krone laugh. Even the biggest jockeys, who might have 10 or 12 pounds on her, are not going to win a tug-of-war with a 1,200-pound thoroughbred.

"Like we're really going to overpower them," Krone said. "That's not how it works, pal."

The decision to enter Funny Cide in the Classic was controversial, made more so by Tagg's comments that it was the owners' decision. The owners say Tagg suggested it.

Funny Cide has raced once since the Belmont. That was 83 days ago, a third-place finish in the Haskell at Monmouth Park, after which he developed a lingering illness. He is listed at 8-1 on the morning line, which is probably generous.

But Krone is loyal, even to a horse she has never ridden.

"I don't know how anybody could knock a Kentucky Derby winner or a Preakness winner or a horse trained by Barclay Tagg," she said.

She said she would whisper in Funny Cide's ear the same words she did to Colonial Affair before they won the Belmont together in 1993.

"C'mon, buddy, let's go make history."

*

My favorite story about Julie Krone, the one that tells me the most about her, was on salon.com a few years ago.

On the night before she left home in Michigan, to become an exercise rider and groom at Churchill Downs at 15, she waited up for her mother, Judi, who was working the late shift as a bartender.

When Judi arrived at 1 a.m., she and Julie saddled their horses and went for a ride, singing "Don't Fence Me In."

Krone's mother, a riding instructor, was supportive of her decision to become a jockey. But she said her father threatened to disown her and her grandmother wrote her a two-page letter, trying to persuade her to finish high school and choose a more conventional career.

"To this day," Krone said Tuesday, "I haven't finished the letter my grandmother wrote."

She went on to become one of history's most successful jockeys, earning election to racing's Hall of Fame in 2000.

That was the year after she retired at 36, having recovered physically from two horrific accidents but not mentally. Depression, diagnosed as post-traumatic stress syndrome, forced her off horses. She said she heard voices before races, telling her she was going to fall off and die.

"I would wake up in the morning and feel I didn't want to be a jockey anymore," said Krone, whose depression deepened with a divorce and her mother's death within the last two months of 1999. "I lost my heart."

So when Krone, who had moved to California to work as a commentator for TVG, decided last year she would resume her career at 39, there again were people trying to talk her out of it. And when she suffered a serious back injury March 8 of this year after an accident in the starting gate, they waited for the announcement that she was retiring for good.

Instead, she asked her doctors when she would be riding again.

They told her six months.

She told them three.

"I had that old feeling back, that I would sacrifice a body part to win a race," she said.

It took her four months to recover, but she was ready for opening day at Del Mar. At one sports book in Las Vegas, odds against her winning the riding title were 1,000-1. She didn't. She finished second, three wins behind Patrick Valenzuela. So the 8-1 odds against Funny Cide don't look so long to her.

*

If she does win today on one of her three mounts, among them 7-5 favorite Halfbridled in the Juvenile Fillies, it will add to her list of firsts.

She will have become the first female jockey to win a Breeders' Cup race, after having become the first female jockey to win a Triple Crown race, the first female jockey to have won a riding title (she has won five) and the first female jockey in the Hall of Fame.

These distinctions almost annoy her.

Asked after her victory on Colonial Affair 10 years ago how it felt to be a "girl" and win the Belmont, she said, "I don't know. I've never been a boy and won the Belmont."

Yet, some jockeys still take it as an assault on their manhood when she beats them.

According to the Daily Racing Form, some of the jockeys gave Valenzuela a hard time after one loss to Krone because he was "beaten by a girl."

Valenzuela retorted, "In case you hadn't noticed, that girl is the only one giving me any competition out there."

Krone is remarried, to Daily Racing Form columnist Jay Hovdey, and said she's happier than ever. She also said she's riding better than ever.

It's a sweet story, so sweet, she said she read in one column, that if she won on Funny Cide "it would make everyone's teeth fall out."

You might not want to bet on Funny Cide, but don't bet against Krone. And never, ever fence her in.

*

Randy Harvey can be reached at randy.harvey@latimes.com.

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