Any discussion of Patricia “P.J.” Cooksey’s trailblazing career as a jockey has to involve her boxing record, unsanctioned as those bouts were.
“I had three fistfights,” she said proudly, “and I’m 3-0.”
Cooksey was born in Youngstown, Ohio, and, with three older brothers to deal with, she learned to assert herself at an early age.
“They didn’t go easy on me or give me any breaks,” she said.
The thick skin she developed – the willingness to let fists fly when necessary – served her well during a 26-year riding career that began in 1979. She won her first race with Turf Advisor at old Waterford Park (now Mountaineer) and soon learned that her toughness would be tested time and again in a male-dominated industry.
“I just couldn’t stand down,” Cooksey said.
She won over reluctant trainers through her willingness to exercise horses for free in the morning if they would allow her to stay on them during races. She took on all kinds of mounts; no horse was seemingly too hard to handle for her.
“I really felt I could get a horse to do what I asked him to do,” she said, “instead of making him do something.”
She often needed a harder edge when it came to male competitors. They tested her in all kinds of ways during the heat of battle, sometimes all but forcing her into the rail. If they could intimidate her until they sent her packing, they would.
But she proved to be a quick study who would not blink.
“Any time I got shut off, I learned my lesson,” she said. “When the opportunity came, I could show them I learned my lesson well.”
Instead of retreating home to Ohio, she advanced her career by leaving Waterford for iconic Churchill Downs, which was not exactly ready for her arrival.
“Can you show me where the women’s jocks room is?” she asked a security guard.
“I’ve been here about 10 years,” he replied. “I don’t think we have one.”
“Well, show me the men’s room,” she countered. “I’ll change there. I don’t care.”
Churchill Downs initially accommodated her by having her dress in a trailer used to store cleaning equipment. The only direction to go from there was up, and she soon made a number of breakthroughs.
She became the first woman to ride in the Preakness, finishing sixth aboard Tajawa in 1985. She was the first woman to ride a stakes winner at Churchill Downs, the first to win a $100,000 stakes in California, the first to receive the Mike Venezia Memorial Award for outstanding sportsmanship and citizenship (in 2004). She was the second woman to ride in the Kentucky Derby.
Cooksey was diagnosed with breast cancer in September 2001. Although she was sidelined for most of 10 months, the disease could not bring her down.
“After all the adversity I had on the racetrack, that prepared me for my cancer diagnosis,” she said. “The approach I took was, ‘What do I have to do to beat it and win?’ ”
After a mastectomy, reconstructive surgery and extensive chemotherapy, she won.
Of course, she did. This, after all, is a tough-as-nails woman who rode 2,137 winners from among 18,266 starters, according to Equibase, in helping to pave the way for female riders to come.
Cooksey would not change anything, from the use of bare knuckles to the makeshift dressing quarters to her successful battle with cancer.
“It’s not what happens to you. It’s what you do with what happens to you,” she said. “I had a wonderful career.”
- Served as 4-foot, 10-½ inch point guard on women’s basketball team at University of Akron
- Played drums as member of Akron’s marching band
- Enshrined in Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame in 2002
- Rode her last race on June 25, 2004, finishing third at Churchill Downs
- Worked as ESPN reporter during 2006 Breeders’ Cup