06/25/2004 12:00AM

Cooksey: 'I'm leaving my second home'


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Patti Cooksey waved her whip, then paused a second or two longer than usual when looking skyward. She quite possibly was asking for just a little more help. Getting through the final few furlongs of a career that had made her one of the most successful jockeys of her gender had not been easy for Cooksey, and as she dismounted from her final ride Thursday at Churchill Downs, she knew the hardest part was just beginning.

"I'm sad," she said minutes later, choking back as many tears as she could. "I'm real sad."

She is 46, an age at which many jockeys are still active, and the end did not necessarily have to come so soon for Cooksey. But her riding services had been far less in demand recently than in her heyday, and there also was the sense that perhaps she already had dodged enough bullets to keep tempting fate.

After beating breast cancer in 2001, then overcoming serious leg injuries from a spill in 2003, she found herself climbing aboard cheap horses who did little justice to her great career and who might have been one errant step away from putting her in another perilous position.

The time to retire, it seemed, had finally arrived.

"I'd always told myself that when I lost the desire, then it would be time to go," she said, adding that she would miss her fellow riders most of all. The racetrack, she said, "is our second home, and it's kind of like I'm giving that up and leaving my second home and second family."

And so Patricia Joen Cooksey has left the saddle not only armed with some of the most impressive statistics and accomplishments ever compiled by a woman in North American racing, but also with a glowing reputation for having maximized her potential through a combination of talent, determination, and hard work.

"There might have been women riders who were just as good as Patti," said former jockey Donna Barton Brothers, who rode alongside Cooksey for much of the 1990's. "But they didn't work as hard, and they didn't have the determination. Nobody was going to tell Patti that she wasn't going to be the leading rider just because she was a girl."

In a career dating to 1979, Cooksey won 2,137 races, a total surpassed only by Julie Krone, the only woman jockey elected to the Racing Hall of Fame. Cooksey also was only the second woman to ride in the Kentucky Derby, the first in the Preakness, the first to win a $100,000 stakes race in California, the first to win a stakes at Churchill, and a four-time leading rider at Turfway Park.

But her legacy is less about what she did than who she was. Cooksey was known for her fighting spirit, her high standards of personal conduct, her outgoing personality, and her welcoming smile. The argument might well be made that she was as well-liked and respected as anyone in Kentucky racing for the last quarter-century.

"Patti was a good rider, a good horseman, and a good athlete," said Brothers. "But she also went out of her way to help people. When I first came to Kentucky in 1993, I learned as much riding with her in one meet than I'd learned the three previous years. She was always there if you needed her. She had a much deeper well of experience and was willing to share whatever she knew. I gained a tremendous amount of respect for her."

Tim Kegel, who employed Cooksey when he was a trainer and who later worked as her agent, said she "always conducted herself like a true professional. She's all class, is what she is."

Patti Barton, Brothers's mother, was the winningest female rider with 1,202 wins until Cooksey passed her on Feb. 28, 1988. Krone passed Cooksey just a few days later.

"When my mom started riding in 1969, she was one of the first half-dozen women licensed," said Brothers. "Patti came along 10 years later, so by then the trail had already been blazed for women.

"But Patti took things to another level, especially here in Kentucky. She created a degree of respect that wasn't there before for women riders. By the time she really got going, people were taking her as seriously as the best male riders around."

Cooksey, who in recent years began doing publicity and television work in racing, said she will continue to stay semi-active in those roles. She also will maintain contact with her many friends in racing, partly through her husband, John Neal, Churchill's lead outrider.

Churchill is making plans to honor Cooksey next weekend, when the spring meet closes. Emotions may run high again for Cooksey, but this time, with her family and colleagues at her side, help will be closer at hand.