06/24/2004 12:00AM

Cooksey calls it quits after 18,251 mounts


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Jockey Patti Cooksey rode two races at Churchill Downs on Thursday before announcing her retirement from a career in which she set numerous records while helping to pave the way for other female riders to succeed.

Cooksey rode Baby Girl Malia to a fourth-place finish in the first race of the day, then guided Degenerate Gambler to a third-place finish in the second race in what was the 18,251st and last mount of an outstanding career. Cooksey, 46, retires as the second-leading female jockey in winners with 2,137, surpassed only by Julie Krone's 3,704.

Cooksey has ridden sparingly in recent years after she was found to have breast cancer in 2001 and then suffered serious leg fractures in an April 2003 spill. She said her decision to retire came with some regrets, since she believes she is still capable of performing at a high level.

"It wasn't that I felt I couldn't do the job anymore," she said. "It's just that I wasn't getting the opportunity. My heart wasn't into the hustling, the fighting to get any little mount. I'd always told myself that when I stopped enjoying it I would stop, and that's what I'm doing."

Cooksey, who was born in Youngstown, Ohio, in 1958, began her career in racing as a groom at Waterford Park (now Mountaineer) in West Virginia before riding her first race on Aug. 20, 1979. She quickly caught on, becoming the top rider at Waterford during each of her first two years, then moving to Ohio, where she became the leading rider at Beulah Park. She soon moved to Kentucky, where she said she met some resistance from male trainers, leading her to use the initials "P.J." and thus concealing her gender.

"I don't really know if I blazed any trails for women riders," she said Thursday. "But I'd like to think the success I experienced in my career helped open doors for some."

Cooksey was the leading female in wins in North American three times (1980, '81, '83) and in earnings twice ('81, '83). She became only the second female jockey, following Diane Crump, to ride in the Kentucky Derby when she guided So Vague to an 11th-place finish in 1984, and she was the first woman to ride in the Preakness, aboard Tajawa in 1985.

At one brief point in 1988, she overtook Patti Barton as the all-time leading female rider with 1,202 wins, but Krone passed her in less than a week.

Cooksey, who is easily the winningest female rider at Churchill, Keeneland, and Turfway Park, is married to Churchill's lead outrider, John Neal. Her last win, and her only win this year, came May 27 at Churchill on Donner Pass.