Trailblazer in horse racing

Jockey Cooksey a survivor
of gender barriers, cancer

By Helen E. McKinney

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (May 2004) – Horse racing jockey P.J. Cooksey has been a symbol of courage in many ways. She has been driven by determination, strength and professionalism in a field where many others would have become discouraged long ago.
The petite, 5-foot Cooksey doesn’t like to think of herself as a pioneer in the horse racing industry. “There were a lot of women before me,” she said April 1 prior to the showing of “The Young Black Stallion” movie at the Louisville Science Center.
She referred to women horse racing pioneers Penny Ann Early, Diane Crump and Barbara Jo Rubin.

Patricia Cooksey

Photo provided

P.J. Cooksey will be in the Derby broadcast booth.

Cooksey, who lives in Shelbyville, Ky., began her jockey career in 1979 at Waterford Park in West Virginia as Patricia Joen Cooksey but quickly disguised her gender by using her initials, P.J. In a field that is extremely competitive for male jockeys, there was certainly no room for a female among them at that time. “It was tough coming up,” she said of the constant resistance she encountered.
She credits Mark Tannenbaum, then clerk of scales at Turfway Park, with suggesting the name change. Cooksey was having a hard time landing mounts when trainers would call in to name a jockey. She knew she had a chance when they only saw her initials, thinking she was an apprentice and not a female.
She’s overcome many obstacles to do what she loves best, and that is race horses. The preparation alone can be grueling, with jockeys working seven days a week, racing on the backside. But it’s worth it when you want something that bad, said Cooksey.
Born Feb. 25, 1958, in Youngstown, Ohio, she showed a preference for horses at an early age. Having graduated from Newton Falls High School in 1976, Cooksey went to the University of Akron for two years to play basketball. She favored criminology classes and almost decided on a different career path.
“I wanted to be a cop but was too short,” she said.
In 1978 she started at the bottom with a $75 a week job as a groom at Waterford Park. Later named barn foreman of a 30-horse stable, she aspired to be a jockey. On Aug. 20, 1979, she rode in her first race aboard Turf Advisor at Waterford. She quickly became Waterford’s leading rider for two consecutive years. A year later, she moved to Kentucky.
Cooksey said her favorite track is Churchill Downs. “It runs during the best weather and the surface is very soft, but I got the most opportunities at Turfway Park and had the most success there.”
One of these successes came on Jan. 14, 1998, at Turfway Park aboard Noble Annie. Cooksey became the second woman to ride 2,000 career winners in the thoroughbred racing industry.
Tom Terry, publicity director for Churchill Downs, has known Cooksey for 20 years. He cites discipline as one of her major strengths. He said Cooksey is driven, and this gives her the desire to succeed. “You have to be (driven). If not, you’re not in the game,” he said.
In 1983 she rode So Vague in the Hollywood Prevue, making her the first woman to win a California stakes with a purse of $100,000 or more. In 1984 Cooksey became the second woman to ride in a Kentucky Derby, finishing 11th aboard So Vague. A year later, she was the first woman to ride in the Preakness.
But with all of these success, Cooksey faced the largest obstacle of her life when she learned she had breast cancer. In September 2001, she underwent a mastectomy at Louisville’s Norton Suburban Hospital.
Her public fight with cancer caught the attention of the Lombardi Cancer Center at Georgetown University Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
In November 2002 she was awarded the Lombardi Symbol of Courage Award, given to a person in the sports world who faces cancer.
“Cancer changed a lot of things for me. Probably the most significant was realizing how important family and friends are,” said Cooksey. She has an 11-year-old daughter, Chelsea Ann, and her husband, John Neal, is an outrider at Churchill Downs.
While recovering, she took a position in the publicity department at Churchill Downs, assisting with Kentucky Derby credentials, said Terry. On June 26, 2002, she returned to racing at Churchill Downs, finishing second aboard the filly Gold Empress.
But her return was short-lived when on April 12, 2003, she took a nasty spill aboard Ide Rather Not at Keeneland. The three-horse spill left Cooksey with both legs broken – a fractured left femur and a broken right tibia.
One year later, Cooksey has returned to racing at Keeneland. She will be commentating for WAVE-3 TV during the 130th Kentucky Derby. John Asher, vice president of communications at Churchill Downs, said she does a great job commentating. “She has a great mind for the sport, and expresses herself well.”
Cooksey said “there is no greater feeling than becoming as one with a horse during the running of a race.” By communicating with the horse through her hands on the reins, “it’s very exciting when a horse responds to our asking and we cross the wire in front.”
Asher said that with Cooksey, “You get the complete package.” She’s worked hard to be at her physical best and her “grit and determination has gotten her through everything.”
Her determination kept her going early in her career, continued Asher. This quality “is reflected on both ends of her career.”
So as long as there is another spring in Kentucky and more horses to race, P.J. Cooksey will be found racing down the stretch.

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