“It’s a great time to be a female athlete, especially in horse racing,” says Chantal Sutherland, newly arrived from California to ride at Ascot on Saturday. “People are letting their guard down. It’s not such a big deal. It doesn’t matter if you’re a girl or a guy. The sport is really opening up.”
It would be a shade premature to claim that racing has now achieved equality of opportunity, certainly in Britain since Hayley Turner continues to be the only female in the top 40 jockeys on the Flat here. But Turner’s achievements are helping to shift us in that direction and on Saturday she will be joined by Sutherland and Emma Jayne-Wilson, both highly successful riders in North America, as the first all-female team to take part in the Shergar Cup, an annual jockeys’ competition.
Sutherland has the biggest name of the three, partly because of her efforts on the track; her 900 winners have brought in more than £29m in prize money and she was only narrowly beaten in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic, one of the world’s richest races. But her fame also owes much to her frequent modelling work, which has included a provocative appearance in Vanity Fair and helped her to various appearances on American television.
Modelling is a career path open to very few jockeys and Sutherland reports that all the exposure sometimes prompts her weighing room colleagues to “have a bit of fun” at her expense. “But it’s OK. They don’t really say anything but I guess it’s pretty annoying for some of them. But it’s promoting the sport and I think that most of them see that.”
It would please her immensely if her profile encouraged others to follow her lead. “I want to see more girls coming in to the sport,” she says. “There were actually a lot in Canada when I was riding there but we can let girls know that they can be jockeys. And if they can’t be jockeys, why can’t they be owners or trainers? We need to invite girls in.”
The 36-year-old takes a business-minded approach to her career, having completed her education with a university degree before breaking into racing. “Becoming a jockey when you’re a little more mature – you know, paying your taxes, paying your bills, these are important things.
“You get kids who are 16 or 17 and win big races and big cheques. They’re not even old enough to drink. The whole racing world is a party and you have to watch yourself.
“I always wanted to be a professional athlete, it just took me a while to realise it would be in racing. I played field hockey competitively for Ontario since I was 13, 14. Then I tried for the national side and made it. But it was so competitive. The girls were just so big and strong. I was getting crushed.
“Riding horses came as naturally to me as riding a bike and I decided to give it a go. I wasn’t sure I was ever going to make money at it. But I knew that’s what I wanted.”
Wilson, her fellow Canadian, will probably be the first of the pair to ride 1,000 winners, as she stands 12 short and will be flying home on Saturday night in order to ride at her home track, Woodbine, on Sunday. “On a daily basis I go out and compete against the boys and so I guess I’m my own girls’ team competing against all of the boys’ teams,” she explains. “It’s no different than every other day.
“It’s called horse racing, it’s not called jockey racing. It’s dependent upon the horse that you’re sitting on and the tools you have in your bag: the communication skills you have, what you have that you can throw at them to make them give their best.
“Those things aren’t different if you are male or female. This sport is played on an even playing field. Racing needs to celebrate that.”
Wilson has ridden once before in the Shergar Cup, as part of the international team in 2006 (“I had only just ridden out my apprentices’ claim and Hayley tells me I was useless”), but Turner is something of an old hand, with four wins from six appearances, and she is looking forward to sitting down with her team-mates and guiding them through the form of their mounts.
“Chantal and Emma-Jayne won’t need much advice from me on riding but at least I can help them with some of the homework,” Turner says. “Other than that, all that matters is to win.”