05/15/2013 2:16PM

Pimlico: Ex-riders race to fight cancer in Lady Legends

Barbara D. Livingston
Patricia Cooksey (left) salutes the crowd at last year's Lady Legends for the Cure along with, from left, Zoe Cadman, Jill Jellison, Jennifer Rowland Small, Barbara Jo Rubin, Mary Russ-Tortora, Cheryl White, and Mary Wiley-Wagner.

BALTIMORE – For Patricia Cooksey, kicking down doors in the male-dominated world of riding was akin to the fight she faced back in 2001, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

“It was about as tough as battling 11 other male riders in a race,” she said. “The odds are always stacked against you. Sometimes, you just have to approach it like you do riding: Just pick up the reins, take a tight hold, and hold on.”

Cooksey, 55, will literally be picking up the reins Friday at Pimlico Race Course for the fourth running of the Lady Legends for the Cure. She is one of eight retired female riders who will compete in a six-furlong allowance designed to raise awareness of the fight against breast cancer. It is the fourth race, and it has a post of 1:30 p.m. Eastern. Pimlico will match the ontrack amount wagered on the Lady Legends winner and make a contribution to the Komen Maryland Affiliate.

Cooksey won 2,137 races in her career, third all-time among female riders in North America. Her competition Friday is Barbara Jo Rubin, 64, who was the first woman to win a race in the United States, in 1969 at Charles Town; Abigail Fuller, 54, who was the regular rider of champion Mom’s Command; Mary Russ-Tortora, 59, who became the first female rider to win a Grade 1 in the 1982 Widener at Hialeah Park; defending champ Jennifer Rowland-Small, 60; Zoe Cadman, 38; Stacie Clark-Rogers, 48; and Cheryl White, 59.

“It’s a very well-bet race, and people really enjoy it,” Cooksey said. “It means everything to us. It gets the attention of the nation. Breast cancer is serious. One in three women are going to be diagnosed. It’s becoming very prevalent in younger women. It’s not your grandmother’s disease anymore.”

“It’s an important cause,” Rubin said. “We’ll make $100,000 for breast cancer awareness, just in this one race.”

Both Cooksey and Rubin have lost friends to cancer recently. Cooksey said she will be riding Friday in honor of Wende Bell, the 56-year-old wife of Darley America president Jimmy Bell, who died May 9.

The Lady Legends race also is a chance for fellowship among the fraternity of retired female riders.

“We all come from different parts of the country, and it’s a wonderful reunion every year,” said Rubin, who is based in Illinois.

Rubin trains horses and riders in dressage, and Cooksey is with the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission. Both said they begin physically preparing for the Lady Legends race months in advance.

“It’s not easy,” said Cooksey, who in 1985 became the first woman to ride in the Preakness, finishing sixth aboard Tajawa. “It’s not like we gallop every day. I start training at the gym and start going to the track exercising and breezing horses to get ready.”

“It takes two to three months, sometimes more, to get ready for this one race,” Rubin said.

Pimlico will “pink out” for Friday’s card, which is led by the Grade 2, $500,000 Black-Eyed Susan. The horses competing, as well as those used to pony runners to post, will all wear pink saddle towels, and for the first time, the starting gate will be pink for Friday.

Jockey Challenge series on Friday

Another rider-themed event at Pimlico on Friday is the Jockey Challenge. It pits eight riders over four races (the second, third, fifth, and seventh), with the winner to be determined based on points for finishes. Patrons can place win and exacta bets on the outcome of the competition. The wager closes before the second race, which is scheduled for 12:30 p.m. Eastern.

The riders set to compete are Forest Boyce, Javier Castellano, Kristina McManigell, Rosie Napravnik, Edgar Prado, Gary Stevens, Emma Jayne-Wilson, and John Velazquez. The group has won a collective 23,000 races, with mount earnings in excess of $1 billion.

The points structure is 12 for a win; 6 for second; 4 for third, and 3 for fourth. There also will be $34,000 in prize money awarded to the riders, on a tiered scale based on the points earned. The jockey who wins the competition, for example, will earn $12,000, and second is worth $7,000.

In a new wrinkle to the competition, the Jockey Challenge field of riders is equally divided among men and women. Pimlico also will keep track of which “team” earns the most points to award bragging rights in what is billed as the “Battle of the Sexes.”

The Jockey Challenge is in its fifth year at Pimlico. Past winners include Castellano and Kent Desormeaux.

◗ The riders involved with both the Lady Legends race and the Jockey Challenge will take part in an autograph session between 10-11 a.m. Friday at Pimlico.