Just before the turn of the millennium, Chantal Sutherland decided to be a jockey.
Her father counselled it was not a good idea.
As an owner of thoroughbred racehorses, he had an intimate knowledge of the sport’s dangers and as a parent he realised the pitfalls of youthful exuberance. What’s more, he did not think his daughter would make any money.
Yet in two weeks, she will become the first woman to ride in the world’s richest race when she partners Game On Dude in the US$10 million (Dh36,732m) Dubai World Cup.
“My dad is very excited and he’s coming with me,” Sutherland says of her first trip from America to Meydan Racecourse. “I told him and he said immediately, ‘I am coming with your mom’. My sister is coming with her husband and I will have just got married [to Dan Kruse] so my husband is coming, also.”
It has been a long road to recognition for the 36 year old rider whose ascent up the ladder of sporting achievement has been slow. Having painfully missed out on Breeders’ Cup success last year, the Winnepeg native is unlikely to let another gilded opportunity slip from her grasp.
In November Sutherland fell just short of becoming the first woman to win the Classic at Churchill Downs. Her father took her out for dinner beforehand to tell her how proud he was at her just being in the line-up, and she looked to have made a winning bid by scraping the rail from the front in the $5 million contest.
When Sutherland reached 300 metres out she still led and Mike Smith, her former fiance, lay in ninth place on Drosselmeyer and in a seemingly hopeless position. In just 35 strides, however, the complexion of the race changed.
Like a ghost in white silks, Smith and Drosselmeyer stealthily loomed up in the centre of the track where Sutherland could not see them and rode off in to the night with her dream.
The anguish at losing when such a defining moment in her career was within reach haunted Sutherland. Racing is a game where defeat is far more part of the fabric of the sport than victory but it seems the mental and emotional scars have only just healed. “You have to accept and be content that you rode a winning performance,” she says, although not altogether convincingly. “I think Game On Dude was the best horse in the race, but we were beaten by the situation. I know I did everything I could have done.
“Sure, I was quiet for a time after and slept a lot. I wasn’t sad, I was just like, ‘wow, I was beaten’ and had to work it all over in my mind but as time goes on you take the positives out of that experience. Let’s be honest, riding in the Breeders’ Cup is part of the good times.”
In comparison to other riders such as Mikael Barzalona, who this season was asked to ride full-time for Godolphin at the age of 20, and William Buick, Dhruba Selvaratnam’s retained rider in the UAE and a winner at Group 1 level at 21, success has been a long time coming to Sutherland.
Having ridden ponies provided by her father when a teenager she rode trackwork during her time at York University where she double majored in occupational psychology and mass communication. Not content with the danger and speed of thoroughbreds, for good measure she obtained her pilot’s licence in a Cessna 152 at Brantford Flying Club in Canada but having stalled in the sky she felt flying was not for her – we all have our thresholds.
She was riding by 2000 but it was a trip to America, where she sought out the legendary jockey Angel Cordero, that finally put her on the right career trajectory. The Puerto Rican is the only rider from his country to be inducted into the Hall of Fame and after over 7,000 victories, which included all three legs of America’s Triple Crown series, and the three-times champion jockey whipped her into such good shape that on her return to Canada she won two Sovereign awards in succession for the best apprentice rider from the jockey club there. With the Canadian season so short, Sutherland hunted for other opportunities.
She returned to America and having ridden in California it was her appearance in the Animal Planet television series ‘Jockeys’ that really propelled her to stardom, with her on-off relationship with Smith translating to the celebrity pages. Photoshoots with renowned photographers Annie Leibovitz in Vogue and a spread in Playboy shoot by former film star Bo Derek have helped to create a burgeoning media presence.
She was filming the second season of ‘Luck’, also a television series which stars dual Academy Award winner, Dustin Hoffman, and Nick Nolte, but the show was cancelled on Wednesday due to “unacceptable” risks to equine performers.
Back in racing Sutherland is in her prime and there is no greater accolade than keeping the ride on Game On Dude, especially when there are more celebrated riders queuing up to take the saddle off her. Following the injury to Animal Kingdom earlier this week, she now rides America’s premier challenger in the World Cup. Trained by Bob Baffert, the five year old has been ridden by some of the most proficient jockeys in the world. Robby Alborado won the Dubai World Cup for trainer Steve Asmussen on Curlin in 2008. David Flores has also won in Dubai on World Cup night. Rafael Bejarano is a Breeders Cup winner, Martin Garcia has won the Preakness Stakes, a leg of America’s Triple Crown, while Jeremy Rose has won two legs. And yet, it is the more tender touch of Sutherland that will coax the gelding into the stalls on March 31.
Baffert was looking for a lightweight rider for the Grade 1 Santa Anita Handicap in March last season and he chose Sutherland. Although Sutherland’s friendship with Baffert’s wife, Jill, initially had something to do with it, the pair promptly won. Sutherland was then jocked off for Flores and Garcia, who didn’t win in two subsequent runnings, so Baffert gave her the leg up again in the Grade 1 Hollywood Gold Cup and they finished second by a nose to Baffert’s First Dude.
Sutherland has been riding the horse ever since.
“I never dreamt in my life it was possible to be in a position to win the Classic with a female rider,” Baffert said. “She is friends with my wife, but it was me who made the call. I needed someone to do the weight. I would have gone with a heavier weight if I thought she couldn’t get the job done. But she did what I told her to do. When she came out of the paddock she didn’t look nervous. As sweet and naive as she comes across sometimes, she is a tough girl.”
Sutherland is naturally thankful for being allowed to take the ride on Game On Dude, but is fully aware that her talent merits her position.
“I could do the weight when Game On Dude ran in the Santa Anita handicap,” says Sutherland, explaining how she got the ride in the first place. “Bob allowed me to ride the horse but after that they then took me off for Flores and Garcia. They didn’t have the same effect that I had. Game On Dude seems to know me and I let him do what he wants to do so Bob reckons we are a great match. It feels so good to have been chosen ahead of those riders. I am so proud, honoured and privileged to have this opportunity. I think it is great for women, the USA and Canada.”
Sutherland may well believe that her presence in Dubai is great for women but she stops short of making the sort of statement that other sports people in similar positions have made in the past. She arrives on March 26 and has been inundated with interview requests but rather than use the opportunity as a platform to start a debate about the role of women across the Arab world in relation to those in North America, she would rather her actions in the irons did the talking.
“I am a guest in the country and I don’t want to ruffle anyone’s feathers. I’m just there to ride Game On Dude and I just want to win a slice of 10 million dollars,” she says. “I hope I am a role model also and can inspire young women to do what they love, dream big and be the best they can be.”
It is an approach that has worked for her well so far.