Classic Ladies - By Dan Liebman

When Patricia Cooksey was beginning her riding career in 1979, she was advised to list her name as “P.J.” because many trainers would not ride a female jockey. When she retired in June 2004, Cooksey had been aboard 2,137 winners, second all-time among women riders.

Cooksey also made history when she became the first female jockey to win a stakes race at historic Churchill Downs, guiding Bestofbothworlds to victory in the 1986 Pocahontas Stakes.

The following year at Garden State Park, a young lady named Linda Rice won her first race as a trainer. Rice didn’t have to hide her name. Women have always been more accepted on the backside, and Rice was a natural for the profession, a third-generation horseperson. She is the daughter of highly respected horseman Clyde Rice, a former trainer who has operated a training center in Florida since leaving the racetrack.

Linda Rice tried college for a couple of years, but the lure of the racetrack finally won out. Racing has been much the better because of her decision. When Saratoga closed its 2009 session Sept. 7, Rice, like Cooksey, had made history. She stood atop the trainer’s standings at one of the country’s most prestigious meetings, making her the first woman to win the trainer’s title at a major United States racetrack.

It was not the first time Rice had made history at a racetrack. In 1998 she became the first woman to train a grade I winner at Keeneland, when she saddled Tenski to win the Queen Elizabeth II Challenge  Cup Stakes. She had won her first grade I just a month earlier when Things Change took the Spinaway Stakes.

Rice finished second in the Saratoga standings in 2007, and last year, in the Mechanicville Stakes at the Spa, she tightened the girth on the first four finishers—Ahvee’s Destiny, Canadian Ballet, Silver Timber, and Karakorum Elektra. That result should not have surprised anyone because the previous year, Rice ran one-two-three in the New York Stallion Fifth Avenue Stakes at Aqueduct with Canadian Ballet, Sweet Bama Breeze, and Noble Fire.

Every August during the Saratoga meeting, the annual induction ceremony is held at racing’s National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame across the street from the racetrack. This year’s honorees included steeplechase conditioner Janet Elliot, the first woman trainer and second female—the other being retired jockey Julie Krone—to be enshrined.

Elliot has led the National Steeplechase Association’s annual earnings list six times and her runners have earned three Eclipse Awards.

Of course, the success of women in racing is not restricted to the U.S. In France, fourth-generation horseperson Criquette Head-Maarek, the daughter of former trainer and leading breeder Alec Head, is arguably the greatest female trainer in the world. Trainer Gai Waterhouse has won numerous training titles in Australia, and two years ago joined her father, Tommy “T.J.” Smith, in that country’s Hall of Fame.

In 1983, Penny Chenery, Allaire duPont, and Martha Gerry became the first women to become members of The Jockey Club. Since then, 11 other women have become members and there are 10 current members—Helen Alexander, Josephine Abercrombie, Ramona Seeligson Bass, Alice Chandler, Chenery, Lucy Young Hamilton, Dell Hancock, Viola Sommer, Stella Thayer, and Charlotte Weber.

It would be impossible in a single column to portray accurately the importance women have played, and continue to play, in racing. Suffice it to say it has been significant and covers every aspect of the industry: owner and breeder; trainer and jockey; veterinarian and researcher; buyer and consignor; groom and hotwalker; track and racing official.

We are reminded of how special the accomplishments of females are when we watch Rachel Alexandra.

Perhaps those who only have a casual interest in racing still more easily recognize the name Mine That Bird than Rachel Alexandra. But, those in the industry recognize how special Rachel Alexandra is.

And Linda Rice, Janet Elliot, and P.J. Cooksey help us remember the contributions of women to the Thoroughbred industry.


Leave a Comment:

steve s

Women should be steered to being doctors or something.

Leave pushing around animals to the men

15 Sep 2009 2:27 PM

Given the huge preponderance of woman in horse sports in this era, racing is likely to rely on female contributions in all aspects for the foreseeable future.  And racing will be a great deal more humane for it.

15 Sep 2009 4:09 PM
Karen in Indiana

steve s, you are funny. ha ha

15 Sep 2009 5:28 PM

I took a lot of slack for asking an outside jockey, Kristy Petty, to ride at Del Park.  I was told I was in La La Land.  She won by a nose coming from way out of it.  I was in La La Land.  The best exercise riders are women.  Do I have to remind anyone, Rags to Riches female exercise rider felt something wrong.  It took weeks for the powers to be see what she was feeling.  

15 Sep 2009 9:32 PM
John T.

Venita Williams trained the winner

of the world renowned steeplechase

this year the Grand National as did another female before her Jenny Pitman.Here in Canada Josie

Carroll is having another banner year with the highlight so far winning the Alabama.

I had no idea P.J.Cooksey rode that many winners,the female jockey

that I think never got the credit she deserved was R.C.Smith who rode for many years on the tough New York circuit and went on to marry the world famous dancer Fred Astaire.Among the present day female jockeys Chantal Sutherland

may not be as strong in the finish

as some of her male counterparts but she has a great pair of hands on a

horse and it,s really paying big dividends as she is the second leading rider at Woodbine.So yes females can be just as sucessful with horses as they can be with men.Do you think it might have anything to do with the fact both can be temperamental?

15 Sep 2009 9:57 PM

Hey Steve S: doesn't everyone say men ARE animals ???

15 Sep 2009 10:53 PM

Steve S, are you my college Dean from years ago?

I remember begging to work (for free) at the limited number of TB farms in my area while I was in college (animal science)...I even got patted on the head by one manager telling me I was a "nice little girl" but "girls didn't belong in racing..." I ended up working for a Standardbred stable walking hots, grooming, exercise girl, etc...they didn't care if you were a guy or gal, just if you were good, LOL.

Congrats to LR and the other ladies, and "you, go, filly", to RA.

Rachel A. (for real)

16 Sep 2009 10:56 AM

Steve - Thank God that we are in an age where the "old school" thinking is as outdated as you. If someone can make the cut, it doesn't matter if it's a man or woman. I think that PJ Cooksey helped forge the way and should be remember as such.

16 Sep 2009 12:50 PM

I don't understand why people are surprised that women can and do excel with horses.  We spend most of our lives getting animals bigger and stronger than us to do what we want them to.  Horses, husbands, really, what's the difference? ;)

16 Sep 2009 9:48 PM

Steve S., I suspect (hope?) you are being sarcastic, but in case you are not:

The bogus issue of women's ability with horses aside, if you really believe that the best way to deal with horses (or any animal, really) is by "pushing around", then you have not spent enough time around them.

I invite you to consider the difference between authority and force.

Hint: there is a difference.

17 Sep 2009 12:29 AM
steve s

IGUESS IT"S the grooms that keep horse in line

17 Sep 2009 2:28 PM
Virgil Wolfe

You all might be interested in checking this out: JOCK is a feature length documentary about the first generation of female jockeys who in the late 60's and early 70's fought for the right to professionally ride.

17 Sep 2009 3:58 PM
Golden Gate

In case you have never seen this website it is great. The creator has tried to interview every female jockey past and present:

17 Sep 2009 10:22 PM

I've run up against steve s's for

most of my life,it never took me very long to prove my worth at any thing I applied for.  I enjoy a variety so I've done a lot of very different jobs,none of them were traditional female jobs.  Such as auto mechanic,offset press

man and shop foreman,ranch

hand,horse I

left each job, I was told I had

it back if I passed that way again.  Doing your very best is what really crosses the gender gap!

18 Sep 2009 12:27 AM

Linda Rice means more to racing than even Rachel Alexandra.  Yes she is a filly for all time but you can't rule out a woman that can run the Spa the way she did this year and every year she runs a horse there!  She is a legend in her own right and deserves to be in the Hall Of Fame with everyone else!  Go LINDA!!!!

20 Sep 2009 6:24 PM
stanley marcinkowski, Plowville, Pa

I love GRASS racing and was a huge fan of trainer Michael Dickinson. When he retired to give full attention to his Tapeta racing surface I began to follow trainer Linda Rice AND I am rewarded for doing so. She is a great trainer!

22 Sep 2009 2:55 PM

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