Monday, April 16, 2012

Chantal's 'Golden State' of mind

Chantal Sutherland, who left her comfortable home at Woodbine Racetrack following a strong 2010 season, made an emotional return to the Rexdale oval last weekend.

Chantal reaching for the stars

If it seems like more than one full year has passed since Sutherland headed west to California, it is only because of the remarkable list of accomplishments she’s added to her already impressive resume.

Off the track, Sutherland took a role in the acclaimed, but now cancelled, HBO series Luck, which was her second television adventure following the documentary TV series, ‘Jockeys,’ which featured her relationship with fellow jockey, and now ex-boyfriend, Mike Smith. Sutherland has been interviewed by Playboy; modelled for countless magazines; and even launched a jewellery line.

On the track, the Winnipeg-born jockey won her first Grade 1 event taking the 2011 edition of the Santa Anita Handicap with Game On Dude. The horse, nicknamed G.O.D by some, took Sutherland on a heavenly racing journey that included a second Grade 1 score in the Goodwood Stakes at Santa Anita, which was followed by a heartbreaking second-place run in the Grade 1, $5-million Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Sutherland and Game On Dude wins the Big Cap

That $5-million defeat came with a twist: the horse that passed her in the final sixteenth of a mile, Drosselmeyer, was ridden by her ex.

Sutherland, who married her new beau, Dan Kruse, in a private ceremony in Long Beach, California on March 21, and only recently returned from a trip overseas where she became the first female jockey to ride in the $10-million Dubai World Cup, came home to Woodbine last weekend for a much needed break.

“It feels good and familiar to be home,” says Sutherland, still sporting Bob Tiller’s orange silks following a third-place finish in Saturday’s sixth race.

Given her many accomplishments, it’s no surprise that Sutherland, who won 136 races and just shy of $8-million at Woodbine in 2010, has no regrets about leaving Woodbine, even if she does miss her family and friends.

Chantal ready to burst into action...

“If I’d stayed in Canada, I wouldn’t have been able to have any of these experiences,” offers Sutherland. "In the years that I rode here, I never got to travel to Dubai or the Breeders’ Cup.”

Sutherland was also moved to return home, ever so briefly, to offer her condolences to the family of her friend and mentor, the recently deceased Mike Colterjohn, DVM, who managed illustrious Gardiner Farms for more than two decades.

“He was like a second dad,” says Sutherland, who started working on Colterjohn’s farm when she was 16-years-old.

“He taught me how to break babies,” recalls Sutherland. “I started hanging out with Mike and his ex-wife, Moira Gunn, when I was 12. I’d go in the truck with Mike everywhere. We’d foal babies. He was huge in getting me into the sport, for sure.”

Future's so bright, she's gotta wear shades

Sutherland has certainly come a long way since her first lifetime win back on October 10, 2000 at Woodbine aboard a bay gelding named Silver Bounty.

And she grimaces at the memory of her first added-money score at Woodbine aboard the hard-knocking Biddy’s Lad in the $132,875 Bull Page Stakes on July 29, 2002.

“I remember I fell off in the first race, I had a spill,” says Sutherland. “But I got back up and I won.”

That modest front-running score aboard Biddy’s Lad is a long way removed from her recent trip to Dubai where she piloted Game On Dude in the $10-million Dubai World Cup

“It was unbelievable,” smiles Sutherland. “You can’t imagine the money they spend. I should have taken pictures of the jock’s room, it was phenomenal. It was like a castle. Just gorgeous. It was like being in the penthouse of a hotel. They spare no expense for the fireworks, the parties, the dinners. It was incredible.”

While the accommodations were first class, the racing experience left much to be desired as jockey and horse struggled to acclimatize to the heat and humidity. A gate incident also hampered the duo’s chances.

“The horse beside me had the blindfold on, and the blanket, and he started freaking out and the whole gate shook,” starts Sutherland. “My horse hit the front of the gate and it didn’t open and then he sat down…even though that happened I thought, ‘It’s okay, we can make it up from here.’ I tried to let him get into his rhythm but at the quarter pole he was done.”

Sutherland and Game On Dude compete in the Dubai World Cup

Despite finishing twelfth, Sutherland is hopeful she will be reunited with Game On Dude soon and have a second shot at Breeders’ Cup glory.

“He tried, I had horse, but I think he hit a wall and after, he was really panting,” recalls Sutherland. “I was soaking wet myself, it was really hot.”

Sutherland’s wanderlust will continue this summer when she heads to Ascot to ride in the first ever all-female team at the Dubai Duty Free Shergar Cup at Ascot on August 11 with fellow jockeys Emma-Jayne Wilson and Hayley Turner.

Chantal and Curling Rocks rallying to the wire

Most important for Sutherland though, is getting back to her adopted home of California where she will continue to work to establish herself as a top rider.

Suthlerland admits that it can be frustrating trying to land a quality mount at Santa Anita where she currently has 12 wins in 116 starts, compared to the 83 wins notched by leading rider Rafael Bejerano with 383 mounts.

“The field sizes are small and it’s hard for a jockey to tap into the top three,” says Sutherland. “It’s tough, I wish there were bigger fields because then a jockey who isn’t a leading rider could break in a little easier.”

Suthlerland, who managed a pair of third-place finishes in six starts at Woodbine over the weekend, illustrates her point of how a jockey can influence a race, and maybe earn a few mounts, with a colourful description of her ride on Curling Rocks in Saturday’s sixth race.

Chantal and Curling Rocks fight to the finish

“That race I just rode, it was wild,” says Sutherland, who rallied from off the pace to finish third with the Tiller trainee Curling Rocks. “I was in the 9-hole and there were 10 horses, it was awesome. There’s different movement (in races with large fields) and that’s when I think a rider can improve or do well or capitalize, and maybe one guy gets shuffled back and another is going slow. It’s fun to be able to read a race and pick your spot.”

Chantal and Curling Rocks gallop out strong

Sutherland knows that it won’t get any easier for her when she returns to California, but she’s not one to give up without a fight.

“It’s hard to go in knowing you’re going to be riding a 20-1 shot, it becomes humbling but I still learn every day,” says Sutherland. “But if I work hard, I still believe I can do well. I also have some nice horses like Game On Dude. It’s feast or famine. It’s not as consistent as it was here. However, to establish myself here (at Woodbine) took a long time and I’ve only been a full year in California and I have to give myself a chance.”

Happy in her new marriage and refreshed and rejuvenated from a quiet weekend home near family and friends, Sutherland is ready to return to California and earn her place amongst the elite riders at Santa Anita.

“I think in California these past few months, I was kind of burned out,” admits Sutherland. “I have to start again. It’s been 13 years (working as a jockey) and I don’t know if I needed a break, but I feel good again and I want to start working hard again.”

Good luck in California!

And that thought of working hard brought the now 36-year-old Sutherland back full circle to words of wisdom offered by her friend and mentor, Colterjohn, so many years ago when she was barely a teenager.

“Mike would make me work very hard,” recalls Sutherland. “He’d say, ‘The more you work, the more you want to work. The less you do, the less you want to do’. He was a worker and he’d probably kick my butt if I didn’t work hard.”

And then picking up her goggles, Sutherland extends a well-manicured hand to say good bye and utters the words that will carry her onto her next racing adventure, “I’ve got to get back to work.”

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