x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

An American's ride to pioneer change for female jockeys

Women jockeys are a regular sight now thanks largely to Patricia Cooksey's determination and perseverance.

Patricia Cooksey had to change her name in the record books so that trainers did not discount away her credentials without looking first.
Patricia Cooksey had to change her name in the record books so that trainers did not discount away her credentials without looking first.

She had to alter her first name. She had to steel herself against commonplace barbs and put-downs. She had to watch for a few male jockeys who resented her presence so extremely that in a race they might sabotage themselves just to sabotage her.

She turned up seven mornings per week when males did not. She befriended the wives of trainers hoping the wives would lobby the trainers. This Patricia "PJ" Cooksey often rode what she called "the leftover horses".

There are pioneers and then there are pioneers, and while one version has stoked the chatter this Dubai World Cup week, another version plied the barren days of the previous generation in the Neanderthal 20th century.

Tonight at Meydan Racecourse, Hayley Turner will become the first female jockey to blast from a starting gate on Dubai World Cup night when she rides Margot Did in the Al Quoz Sprint. "Pressure is for tyres," she says. Chantal Sutherland will become the first female jockey in the Dubai World Cup itself, aboard Game On Dude.

"As soon as the gates open, I feel I've made history," she says.

Turner says of womanhood, "I can actually use it to my advantage." Sutherland says, "Sometimes it helps that I am a woman." Turner sees "a handful" of female jockeys on the British landscape, notes their standard "getting better". Sutherland sees seven women working at Woodbine near Toronto, even if the number seems to slacken in higher realms.

Even as they talk reality shows and fashion accessories, they do some paving for ensuing generations, just as they ride a road far smoother than three decades ago, when the American Cooksey rode on rocks and boulders.

Back when the very concept of a female jockey seemed alien, Cooksey, a 21-year-old native of Ohio, turned up in West Virginia, worked in barns for US$75 (Dh275) per week and won one day in 1979 aboard a being named Turf Advisor.

A trainer named JC Williams gave her a job, and for two years she won the jockeys' title at the little Waterford track, before seeking out neighbouring Kentucky, the magic kingdom of American horse racing.

"I went there in all my glory saying, 'Here I am,'" she said yesterday by telephone from Kentucky.

"And these hardboots here were saying, 'You're a girl. No way'.

"One of the biggest things I ran into was tradition."

So began the long process of hunting a smidgen of footing in the field. "It was just so disappointing to be turned down time after time after time again," she said, "until you lifted that one little rock and under that one little rock was a trainer who would say, 'Yeah, I will give you a job'."

The one rock would follow "a whole lot of rocks and boulders".

Strategically, she changed "Patricia Cooksey" to "PJ Cooksey" so that a trainer might ring the racing office seeking a jockey, and an office hand who knew Cooksey might tell the trainer of an available "PJ Cooksey".

The trainer might agree, but when she would present herself and attempt a handshake, in those early 1980s, some would recoil. Others would relent, and she established herself ever so gradually.

Slights became part of the tapestry, and one day in Kentucky she rode a favourite who ran horribly, whereupon she trudged toward the jockeys' room, head down, evaluating. Into view burst a fan, tearing up his ticket, face reddened, expression so incensed she thought he might surmount the fence. He bellowed: "PJ Cooksey, you need to go back to the kitchen!"

She stopped, thought, and salvaged a comeback: "I can't cook, either."

Some fellow jockeys "rode with their head cocked over their shoulder looking for me all the time", she said. They "just couldn't even stand to have to ride a race with me".

One day, a male jockey took pains to shade her - cut her off - even with both solidly beaten in the entrails of a race. And this kid sister of three older brothers grew enraged, rode like mad, caught up near the irrelevant wire and commenced hitting the guy with her stick. That earned her a 10-day suspension, but by the time she retired in 2004, Cooksey had 2,137 winners on 18,266 mounts and pioneering rides in the Kentucky Derby (second woman) and Preakness (first).

At 54, on the board of the Kentucky Racing Commission, she will DVR the DWC today, and she will watch the 36-year-old Sutherland with her soaring chance.

"I'm jealous," Cooksey said.

"I want to be there, to be honest. I wish I could have had that opportunity. But one thing's for sure: I'll be rooting like heck for her."

cculpepper@thenational.ae

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