A cluster of horseplayers was standing in front of a television monitor at Pimlico on Saturday, watching the replay of the Preakness Prep. As the filly Lovin Touch rallied along the rail, her rider whipping and pumping furiously, one of the men observed, "You'd never guess that was a girl jockey," and heads nodded all around him.

To people outside the racing community, that assessment of 19-year-old jockey Julie Krone might sound like pure sexism. In fact, it is pure realism.

Although many female riders have the necessary courage and tactical sense, none has reached the upper echelon of her profession.

When they have to put a horse to a drive in the stretch, when they have to call on sheer strength, they usually can't compete with their male counterparts.

Julie Krone can. It would be fitting if she gains the distinction of being the first woman to ride in the Preakness, which she will be if longshot Disarco's Rib runs on Saturday. The day before she may become the first woman to win a $100,000 race in Maryland when she rides Lovin Touch in the Black-Eyed Susan Stakes for 3-year-old fillies.

But her greatest distinction is the fact that she is eradicating the last sexual stereotype in her profession: that women aren't strong enough to be top-class jockeys.

Krone started the way almost all the women jockeys do, with an adolescent fascination with horses. When she was growing up in Eau Claire, Mich., Krone said, "I never got off my pony. I was a nut. In the middle of my senior year, I was going crazy. I quit school and went to Florida."

Krone went to Tampa Bay Downs, and when the security guards wouldn't let her in the stable area, she climbed over a fence and started looking for a job as an exercise rider. It was not long before she was riding in competition. And as she did, she attracted the attention of a former Maryland jockey, Julie Snellings, who was confined to a wheelchair because of a riding accident. Snellings saw the potential in this newcomer and suggested that Krone come to Maryland. "They have racing in Maryland?" Krone asked.

Krone came and summarized her early career here succinctly: "I just died." To succeed in the state, it is necessary to have connections with one of the strong stables that dominate the game. Krone didn't. She had literally packed her bags and was preparing to leave for Detroit when she was offered the chance to ride for Dick Delp's strong stable. That was the beginning.

At the time, Krone was as aware of her own shortcomings as people who watched her. "Mentally, I knew what I was doing," she said, "but physically . . . "

Physically, she rode like the stereotypical girl jockey. But Krone made a conscious effort to correct her weaknesses. "To get fit," she said, "I'd ride as many horses as I possibly could. I'd ride junk and pump on them to get third or fourth, ride like a real hungry rider."

When she left Maryland last summer to ride in New Jersey, she was exposed to a more aggressive style of riding and changed her style further. In Maryland, the prevailing style is more fluid than physical, but Krone said, "When you come down the lane at Aqueduct or the Meadowlands, whack! whack! whack!"

Riding more aggressively, Krone was the leading jockey at Atlantic City and was third in the standings at the Meadowlands, where she competed against Angel Cordero Jr. and other leading members of her profession. And when she returned to Maryland at the start of the year, racetrackers marveled at her transformation.

She was still unprepossessing little Julie Krone, who weighs 101 pounds, talks with a squeaky voice and looks as if she might be 15, but she could compete head and head with just about any male jockey in the state. When she put a horse to a drive, she had both the power and the technique to urge a horse forward, to whip without losing control of the animal.

Krone's record in Maryland this year was marred by a 30-day suspension she served for possessing a fragment of a marijuana cigarette, but she has been riding excellently at Pimlico and ranks sixth in the jockey standings despite the time she missed. In the eyes of bettors, trainers and her peers, she has solidly established herself as one of the top jockeys in the state. And she can realistically dream about accomplishments that no woman has ever realized.

"When you've got a lot of ambition, you fantasize about races like the Preakness," she said. "Last year Jack Kaenel and I did a commercial for Pimlico with the Preakness trophy and I told him, 'One day me or you is going to win that trophy.' Well, two weeks later he won it. And now I have a shot, too."