07/12/2012 12:46PM

Q&A: Patti Cooksey, former jockey and current Ellis Park steward

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Barbara D. Livingston

Once the leading female jockey in wins, Cooksey retired from a 25-year riding career (1979-2004) with 2,137 wins, now third behind Julie Krone and Rosemary Homeister. She was the first woman to ride in the Preakness when she finished sixth aboard Tajawa in 1985. She has worked for the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission since 2005, currently serving as director of public relations, and she was recently hired as a state steward at the Ellis Park meet that began July 4. She serves alongside another state steward, Barbara Borden, to form the first majority of females as stewards at a Kentucky track.

Age: 54

Residence: Shelbyville, Ky.

Family: daughter, Chelsea

You called yourself P.J. when you first started riding so that trainers wouldn’t know your gender by looking at your name. So do we call you Patti or P.J.? I’m trying to remember to answer to Patti, because I think it’s a little more professional, but most people at the track still call me P.J. I guess I’m still trying to figure out who I am (laughs).

You’ve often talked about how women’s jockey quarters were either non-existent or highly inadequate when you first started riding. How are the stewards’ accommodations at Ellis now that women are dominant? It’s great. We have plenty of room. It’s a great view from up there in the stand.

As a breast-cancer survivor, how has the disease changed your perspective on life? I caught it very early and was very vigilant about it. If you ride for 25 years, you know your body from within a half-pound, and I could tell something wasn’t right.

A lot of people think cancer is something that happens to somebody else. What it’s done is made me realize it can happen to you, so I try to do the right thing every single day and treat everybody, no matter who it is, with respect. It’s kind of like riding races – you know in the back of your mind that you could go down, but you don’t dwell on it. Having cancer, you know it’s there but you don’t dwell on it although you know it could raise its ugly head at any time. I just live day-to-day and wake up smiling and stay positive because I’m so thankful to have another day.

You are pulling double-duty with the racing commission and the new steward job. What do you foresee your year-round duties will eventually become? I absolutely love my job with the racing commission, dealing with the public and the people in the industry. (Being a steward) was something I wanted to put in my back pocket, maybe if Kentucky ever needed someone. I love my weekends off and holidays off, so, at least right now, I don’t think I want to be a steward full-time. This is just giving me the opportunity to fill in when it’s needed.

Is it an antiquated practice for stewards to talk to jockeys after an inquiry has been called? I think it’s only fair that the jocks are allowed to express their views. Video is a whole lot better than it used to be, and it gives the stewards a lot to work with. Bottom line for the stewards is that they still have to make their judgment going on what they see, regardless of whether a jock is whining or trying to be persuasive.

Best horse you ever sat on, and best horse you’ve ever seen? The three best I ever sat on were Monarchos, Richter Scale, and Lt. Lao. I rode Monarchos in his first race and got on him quite a bit in the mornings when he was 2.

As for the best I ever saw, I was just so impressed with Zenyatta. She was an awesome, awesome mare and the first horse that popped into my mind.

Do you still dream about riding races? I don’t really dream about it, but I do love getting ready for the Lady Legends race at Pimlico every year. I think I still look pretty good on a horse, switching sticks, hitting left-handed. But I think it’d be really hard at my age to keep riding. I retired pretty healthy with no metal or screws in my body, and I’m happy with having my feet planted firmly on the ground now.

Who was the most influential person in your career? Wow, there have been so many people that had so many roles. If I had to name one, I’d say Pat Day was very influential, the way he acted during and after a race. I learned a lot from him about how to maintain the proper demeanor.

How do you feel about the growing role of women in the industry as jockeys, owners, trainers, broadcasters, officials, etc.? I love telling the story about my first time at Churchill Downs in 1980. I wound up dressing in a little trailer where the mops and brooms were kept. Obviously we’ve all come a long way. Women riders have really come a long way, and there are some truly awesome ones out there right now. I really don’t think you can separate the genders anymore. It’s no longer a male-dominated sport, that’s for sure.