Now 52 and living in Kentucky, Cooksey returns to Baltimore this week to break new ground again in the inaugural Lady Legends for the Cure Race™, the first pari-mutuel race featuring retired champion female jockeys, on Friday, May 14.
Also on Friday’s card is the second annual $50,000 Pimlico Jockey Challenge pitting eight of the nation’s top jockeys in four designated races competing for top prize of $14,000, including defending champion Kent Desormeaux.
Retired since June 2004, Cooksey ranks third all-time among female jockeys with 2,137 wins. She finished sixth of 11 horses aboard Tajawa for trainer Keith York in the 1985 Preakness, won by Tank’s Prospect.
“I haven’t flown into BWI since 1985 when I came to ride in the Preakness,” Cooksey said. “It was a lot of fun. It was a big media blitz, being the first one, of course, so that was great. I’ll tell you what, I’m just really excited and looking forward to it.”
Joining Cooksey in the Lady Legends lineup are Maryland’s own Andrea Seefeldt Knight, the only other female to ride in the Preakness and one of only two to also have had a mount in the Kentucky Derby; Barbara Jo Rubin, the first woman to win a pari-mutuel race in the United States; Mary Russ Tortora, the first female to win a Grade 1 stakes race; Gwen Jocson, a winner of 763 career races from 1989-99; Jennifer Rowland Small, the top pioneer female rider in Maryland during the 1970’s; Cheryl White, the first African-American female rider; and Mary Wiley Wagner, a breast cancer survivor who ranked among the country’s top five apprentice riders in 1983 and is married to Maryland Jockey Club starter Bruce Wagner.
Like Wiley, who had her last chemotherapy treatment in November 2009, Cooksey is a breast cancer survivor. In addition to her wins, she had 2,185 seconds, 2,120 thirds and $19,890,479 in purses in a 26-year career that ended in June 2004.
“What an awesome event,” Cooksey said. “It’s hard to put it into words. It’s just awesome for them to put it together and for Pimlico and the Maryland Jockey Club to go way, way, far above and beyond for a cause which is very dear to my heart. I’m just so excited.
“That’s what’s so special about it, being a breast cancer survivor and bringing awareness to breast cancer and, hopefully, giving women who are either newly diagnosed or have just been recently diagnosed, or are 20-year survivors, that life doesn’t end with a diagnosis. There’s always hope and there’s always a new day, and you just have to make the most of each one.”
Cooksey has been taking her “comeback” seriously. She will ride Cleric, a 4-year-old gelding trained by Chris Grove for owner Dogwood Stable in the Lady Legends race, a $30,000 six-furlong allowance on the main track for 3-year-olds and up. Cleric is coming off a 3 ½ -length win at Pimlico on May 1.
“Are you kidding me? I’ve been working my tail off,” Cooksey said. “I can see me not doing anything and then falling off and blowing the whole thing. I hired a trainer, lost 10 pounds, getting solid as a rock and finding my balance. Just getting back on horses, the first one it was a little rocky up there.
“The trainers have been real kind putting me on the sweetest, nicest, easiest horses until I started getting my legs under me a little bit. Then I started breezing them out of the gate a half-mile, five-eighths. I’ve had to work very hard but I’ll tell you what, it’s been an awesome journey for me, mentally, physically and spiritually to work through this. It’s been great.”
Cooksey was surpassed by Hall of Famer Julie Krone on March 6, 1988 for most wins by a female rider. She won NYRA’s Mike Venezia Memorial Award for exemplary sportsmanship and citizenship in 2004.
“I was very blessed to be successful with my riding career,” she said. “It’s going to be so awesome. I’m just picturing this wonderful sisterhood.”
Seefeldt, 47, has a similar feeling. She has participated in other female jockey challenges in the past both in the U.S. and overseas, the last coming at Remington Park in 1994.
“It’ll be fun to see the other riders,” she said. “It’ll be great to meet Barbara Jo Rubin. I’ve never met here and I’ve always wanted to thank her for making my career possible. It’ll be great to see the rest of the women that I have ridden with, like Patti Cooksey. It should be fun.”
Retired since 1994, Seefeldt won 604 races and $7,956,863 from 6,248 mounts starting in 1981, including 37 stakes. She won seven stakes on Star Minister, and the 1991 Pennsylvania Derby on Valley Crossing for trainer Dickie Small.
In 1991, Seefeldt also became the third woman to ride in the Kentucky Derby, finishing 16th aboard Forty Something. Three years later, she joined Cooksey as the only other female to ride the Preakness, running seventh with Looming.
“I don’t consider myself a legend,” said Seefeldt, who lost her mother to breast cancer. “I’m awfully flattered and honored to be included in the race. It’s for a good cause, and that’s why I’m doing it. I also hope that it helps Maryland racing some. I’ve got a lot of local friends that are coming out that have never been to the races. Hopefully, it will help generate a few more fans of racing.”
Rubin, 60, became the first woman to win a race against a man at a recognized track when she guided Cohesion to victory at Charles Town on Feb. 22, 1969. That same year she was the first woman named to ride in the Kentucky Derby, though her horse, Picnic Fair, was scratched before the race. Diane Crump became the first female to ride in the Derby in 1970.
When she retired in January 1970, Rubin, who overcame polio as a child, had 22 wins from 89 mounts, winning 11 of her first 22 starts.
Tortora, 56, won the Widener Handicap on Feb. 27, 1982 aboard Lord Darnley at Hialeah, becoming the first woman to capture a Grade 1 race. She won 520 races and nearly $6 million in purses from 1980-94.
Jocson, 43, won 376 races in 1991 on the Philadelphia-Atlantic City circuit, and retired in 1999 with 763 career wins. Small, 57, rode from 1971-77 and finished with 192 wins. Wagner, 46, won 275 races between 1983 and 1997, and White, 56, had 257 wins from 1971-99. Her first ride came on Ace Reward, a horse owned by her mother and trained by her father, Raymond, the trainer of two Kentucky Derby horses.
The inaugural Pimlico Jockey Challenge was won last year by Desormeaux, one of Maryland’s all-time leading riders who won six Pimlico riding titles in the 1980s and is and a two-time winner of the Preakness. He finished with 22 points, two more than Javier Castellano and four ahead of Garrett Gomez.
All three return to the competition this year, along with Julien Leparoux and Ramon Dominguez, who finished fourth and fifth, respectively, in 2009. New to the challenge lineup are John Velazquez, Jeremy Rose and Rosie Napravnik.
Riders will earn points for finishing first (12 points), second (6), third (4) and fourth (3) in four designated races on Friday: the third, fifth, seventh and 10th. The jockey with the most points at the end of the competition will be crowned champion and take home $14,000. Other prize money is $10,000 for second, $8,000 for third and $3,500 for fourth through eighth.
The Maryland Jockey Club has teamed up with the Jockeys’ Guild for the event, and will make a $5,000 contribution to the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund.
Eclipse Award winner as top jockey in 2004 and 2005, Velazquez is named on the program favorite in two of the four races, Titanic Win (7-2) in the third, a five-furlong turf sprint, and Back to Therapy (2-1) in the fifth, going six furlongs on the dirt.
Leparoux, the defending Eclipse Award winner, is on early favorite Dixieland Melody in a wide-open seventh race at 1 1/16 miles on the main track, while Dominguez – who already has 132 wins and nearly $4.5 million in earnings in 2010 – rides solid top choice Phosphorescent in the 10th, scheduled for five furlongs on the grass.
For Fans, a Jockey Challenge Wager will be available, offering win and exacta betting with a $2 minimum. A free souvenir poster showcasing the eight participants will be handed out to the first 3,500 fans in attendance.