Updated on 09/16/2011 7:05AM

Cooksey dreams of next victory

Tina Hines
P.J. Cooksey (right) and fellow jockey Greta Kuntzweiler.

ARCADIA, Calif. - There are many important milestones in P.J. Cooksey's life. August of 1979 . . . her first winner, at Waterford Park. November of 1983 . . . first woman to win a $100,000 race. May of 1984 . . . the second woman to ride in the Kentucky Derby. February of 1988 . . . passed Patti Barton as the leading female rider of all-time. June 18, 1992 . . . the birth of her daughter, Chelsea Ann.

As far as Cooksey is concerned, though, time started fresh on Jan. 3, 2002, when she received the last in a series of chemotherapy treatments. Asked if she is cured of the cancer detected in her breast just nine months ago, she will reply, "Absolutely!" with all of the passion that went into her 2,123 victories as a jockey.

"I can't say there wasn't a time that I wondered, but I'm not going to dwell on it," said Cooksey from the Louisville home she shares with husband, John Neal, an outrider at Churchill Downs. "I look at it as just another chapter in my life. Good riddance. Page turned. Moving on." She was diagnosed last September after finding a small lump in her breast. A mastectomy was performed within weeks, followed by chemotherapy, then breast implant surgery. The mastectomy was a success. The chemo was awful. And when she got to the implant, there was a slight hitch.

"I thought about getting upgrades," Cooksey said with a laugh. "But then I decided, naw, I'm not that vain. I told the doctor to just make it the same size as my other one. But he couldn't, he said, because they didn't make implants that small. He'd already gone ahead and ordered two bigger ones." This is a woman you want on your side, a self-confident, self-described tomboy raised with three brothers, a sports fiend who excelled in softball and tennis, and a jockey who refused to take no for an answer when they found out this guy "P.J." was really a girl. Her given name is Patricia Joen.

As a four-time champion at Turfway Park and frequently among the top 10 at Churchill Downs, Cooksey is the undisputed queen of Kentucky racing. When the queen disappeared last fall, people noticed.

"I must have gotten a stack of cards a foot high," Cooksey recalled. "I couldn't begin to count all the flowers that I got. Neighbors brought food. The outpouring I received is what kept me going. It was so neat to go to the mailbox every day and find a card or a letter, and from people I hadn't heard from for many years.

"I haven't figured out yet what lesson I'm supposed to learn from all this," Cooksey added. "The hardest part was thinking that I might not get to watch Chelsea grow up." When she was little, Chelsea would bring her coloring book to the track and wait for her mother in the women's annex of the jockeys' room. "Did you win?" she would ask. On the good days Cooksey got to say yes.

Then came her mother's illness, and 9-year-old Chelsea became more than just P.J.'s little girl.

"She shaved my head for me when my hair was falling out," Cooksey said. "I'd go to her with a wig and ask her how it looked. She'd say, 'I don't like the wig, mom. I like your head better.' " Chelsea also asked the hard question. "Mom, will I get cancer?" As far as Cooksey knew, she was the first woman in her family to be diagnosed with a malignancy.

"I didn't want to scare her, but you can't lie," Cooksey said. "So I told her, 'Not if you eat right.' I wish I'd known at her age what we know about nutrition now." During her recovery, Cooksey maintained a self-imposed exile and stayed away from the backstretch.

"It hurt too much," she said. "Even looking at a picture on the wall of a pack of horses drives me crazy. Remember, I didn't retire. I had no choice. I'm not even sure I'd know how to quit." Maybe she won't have to learn, at least for awhile. In two weeks she will be allowed to begin galloping horses again. In the meantime, she has been working at Churchill Downs in the media department. On Oaks and Derby Day, she will appear as a guest analyst on the local WAVE-TV from the track. After that, she could be making a comeback at the age of 44.

"It feels like the desire is still there," Cooksey said. "If I can come back, I'll work hard and make something happen. I can't wait to win my first race again. I just know it's going to happen, and sometime soon.

"But then," she added, "I'm not sure if I might not jump off and say, 'That's it!' You know what I mean? Or I might think, 'Yes, this is where I belong.' " Either way, this time the decision will be all hers.