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Chantal Sutherland Plays the Field

Article By Paula Parisi on The Equestrian News

Jockey Chantal Sutherland veered from tradition when she decided to work the Del Mar meet this summer, rather than heading back to her native Canada to ride at Woodbine. But Sutherland isn’t one for following formulas. The only thing she likes to be predictable at is winning.

Chantal Sutherland, ready to race at Del Mar. (Photo by Michael J. Marten)

Chantal Sutherland, ready to race at Del Mar. (Photo by Michael J. Marten)

“When you pick a meet, you kind of have to stick with it because you have to build business, but after the winter here and the success I’ve had with Game on Dude, I really wanted to hold onto him,” she said.

The duo won the Santa Anita Handicap and came in second by a nose in the Hollywood Bowl Cup. Now they have their sights set on the Aug. 28 Pacific Classic, a $1 million race at Del Mar. She describes the four-year-old gelding as “very sweet, and very responsive. He’ll go if you just chirp at him.”

Setting up shop at Del Mar offers a few plusses. It puts her closer to Hollywood, where she’s developing an acting career. She was a series regular on Animal Planet’s “Jockeys,” and has a role on HBO’s new series “Luck,” which premieres in January. On a more personal note, Del Mar is the fulfillment of a dream. “I’ve done Saratoga, which among the premier meets is, along with Del Mar, known as the most fun meets. Everyone talks about how magical Del Mar is — ‘where the turf meets the surf.’ And it’s a place where the fans turn out and are very knowledgeable, which makes it exciting. Wherever you go in town, people talk about horses and know what’s going on at the track.”

Sutherland grew up in Canada, where her father owned a Thoroughbred breeding farm. She began riding at five, competing on ponies, later progressing to hunter-jumpers and dressage. In high school, her enthusiasm for equestrian sport waned a bit as she took up field hockey, her interest was reignited in college, when she took a summer job galloping Thoroughbreds at Gardner Farms.

Once she started telling people she wanted to be a jockey, the response among friends and at the track was not encouraging. “They all laughed and said I didn’t have the skills. So I asked, ‘What would I need to do to get them?’ And they said, ‘Find [Hall of Fame jockey] Angel Cordero. He’s the Michael Jordan of racing. Get him to teach you.’ Sutherland found him through directory assistance in Miami. “There aren’t any schools, there aren’t any coaches in horse racing. It’s this very unique kind of world. So I called him, and he said ‘Get on a plane.’ I was there for a month.”

When Cordero first saw her on the Equicizer, a mechanical horse that jockeys use to train, “he said I looked like a monkey on a football. I was bounding around, and he was like, ‘This is gonna take a while!’” But Sutherland was determined, and within three days Cordero changed his tune. “If you have the will, and the natural athleticism, it’s just a matter of refining your technique,” she says. She went back to Canada and won two Sovereign Awards (the equivalent of Eclipse Awards).

Riding Thoroughbreds, Sutherland says, is a very different thing than the riding she was used to. “When you’re riding a jumper or dressage horse, and you pull back on the reins, they’ll stop. With a Thoroughbred, that will usually make them want to go faster. They’re training and they’re so fit, so strong physically, they develop strong opinions and think they should be able to do whatever they want. They’re such intense animals.”

“Good hands” and a connection to the horse is key, she says, clearly enjoying the challenges of her job. “On the track, during training, they’ll sometimes get very playful. They want to go, and they just can’t understand why you won’t let them run as fast as they can. You can’t explain that there’s this thing called the Pacific Classic, and we’re saving you for that!”

With very little stirrup and virtually no leg on the horse, Sutherland notes that it is the speed that helps to keep the rider in place. “You need the horse to go fast, because that’s how you’re able to balance yourself, on the momentum. When they go slow, it becomes awkward. The faster they go, the more fluid it is.” She compares the experience to riding a swing. “You know how you push with the forward movement? That’s how it is when you’re racing. You’re pushing with them, pushing with them, and it comes from your gut.”

Sutherland is still open to taking on new equine adventures. On her to-do list for Del Mar: polo lessons at the San Diego Polo Club. “A couple of my owners are saying, ‘You have to try!’ And I played field hockey for Canada, so the combination of the riding and hitting the same kind of ball seems to make it a natural sport for me. Anything else would be too slow.”

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