Monday, May 28, 2012

Sutherland fired up about 'Awesome' Oaks contender

You could be excused for thinking I’m taking the piss when I report that the connections of Woodbine Oaks contender Awesome Fire met in the men’s room at Woodbine in 2010.

“I met Nick Gonzalez for the first time in the washroom beside the Finish Line Bar, the day before the Queen’s Plate,” laughs owner Hugh Sutherland.

“He said, ‘I’m Chantal’s brother Hugh’,” confirms Gonzalez. “He asked if I wanted to come back to the bar for a beer and several drinks later, and two promised tickets to the Queen’s Plate, we’ve been friends ever since.”
Hugh Sutherland at Woodbine

Gonzalez, a respected conditioner at Woodbine and Fort Erie, put on quite a show in the Plate as Big Red Mike, owned by Terra Racing and trained by Gonzalez, ran his eyeballs out to win the Gallop for the Guineas and a chance to meet the Queen.

“He’s been hooked ever since,” smiles Gonzalez. “We formed a trainer-owner partnership after that.”

The 39-year-old Sutherland, president of Urban Fire - - a luxury fire place company, purchased Awesome Fire following the 2010 CTHS Yearling Sale, when the Strong Contender-Awesome Lass filly didn’t meet her reserve.

“I didn’t understand what an RNA (Reserve Not Attained) was,” explains Sutherland. “She was bought back for $7,000. So, Nick and I went and tracked down the breeder, who was Spring Farm.”

They found Awesome Fire being loaded onto a trailer on the Woodbine backstretch, ready to head back to the farm.

“I offered $10,000 for the horse and they were a bit discouraged because he’d paid a lot for the stud fee and the half-sister won a stake race before the sale and they missed that in the auction,” he recalls.

That half-sister of Awesome Fire, Secret Wish, won the Algoma Stakes and a year earlier was ninth in the 2009 edition of the Woodbine Oaks, won by Milwaukee Appeal.

“Nick haggled with him and we got her for the $10,000 plus $2,500 if she ever won a race.”
Awesome Fire having a laugh

The filly was immediately taken off the trailer and walked into an adjacent stall.

“And then Nick said, ‘Let’s go have a beer,’” he laughs.

Several months later, Sutherland suffered his first shock as a horse owner.

“I got the bill from Woodbine, which was on my dad’s account, and he put it on my desk and it was for $100, 000,” exclaims Sutherland. “I just about had a heart attack. I had a cold sweat and didn’t know what to do, so I called the nice lady at the track and said, I don’t know what happened, I didn’t have that many beers that night. I only bought her for ten!”

Fortunately, the clerk managed to steady Sutherland’s rapid heart rate, “She said, ‘I’m so sorry, I put in an extra zero by mistake!’”


Awesome Fire developed over the winter into a solid filly and in July, about a month before she was set to debut, Sutherland decided it was time to gauge the talent of his prized purchase.

“Chantal was coming up for the Queen’s Plate to ride Pender Harbour and I said, ‘Channy’, can you go on my horse and let me know if it’s any good.

“I sat up (in the grandstand) there where (trainer) Mark Casse and (racing analyst) Jim Bannon sit and then I see ‘Channy’ go around the track in a work with a few other horses and she blows by them and she gives the big hand pump.”

Certain he’s got a good thing, the excited owner races to the backstretch for a first-hand report from his sister.

“She said, ‘Hugh, finally our family has a good horse. This is going to be a good thoroughbred’,” smiles Sutherland.

With visions of win photos and trophies dancing through his mind, the excited owner asked what type of race his filly might win.

“And she said, ‘She’ll win a $32,000 claimer’,” he laughs. “And I said WHAT!”
Awesome Fire cools off at Woodbine

Awesome Fire’s debut was a huge disappointment as the chestnut filly finished sixth, and last, defeated 20 lengths at odds of 19-1 in a $62,500 maiden claiming event.

“She was sick her first race so we knew that she’d do really well the second time out,” says Sutherland. “We knew it would be a risk dropping her in for $40,000 but my dad assured me no one will take a horse that was 20 lengths back, and sure enough she won and kept winning.”

Awesome Fire wintered in Ocala, Florida and following a difficult three-year-old debut at Gulfstream, where the filly, despite her name, didn’t take kindly to the heat finishing last, returned to Woodbine with renewed vigour to finish fourth in April’s Fury Stakes.

“It’s been a fabulous experience,” says Sutherland. “There are young entrepreneurs like me who are so excited to own horses and do what I’m doing right now. I’m up against some big boys like John Oxley and Eugene Melnyk, these are multi-millionaires, and I’m a guy who bought a horse for ten grand and I’m in a half a million dollar race. Isn’t that the dream of horse racing?”

He reveals that the entire Sutherland family grew up dreaming about horse racing.

“I’m the middle kid,” he says. “My younger sister is Chantal and my older sister is Dominique and she is exactly like Chantal…but blonde.

“Dominique used to be a better rider than Chantal but she took a different profession. When they were kids, Dominique would clean up and Chantal was always trying to be as good as Dominique. If Dominique would have been a rider, she’d have been something special but she blew her knee out playing soccer, and couldn’t do horse racing.”
Sutherland with Emma-Jayne Wilson and Martha Gonzalez

Considering his diminutive siblings, it’s hard to imagine the 6’4 middle brother had any chance to be a jockey. However…

“My nickname in high school was ‘Smurf’,’ he laughs. “I was Chantal’s height up until grade 12. We were all tiny. I think I was 5’4 until grade 12 and hit puberty and then I grew an insane amount over the summer. I was 6’2 in my last year of high school, my friends didn’t recognize me.”

Regardless, the affable brother readily admits that whatever riding gene was passed along to his talented sisters skipped a generation.

“I was the guy who was mucking the stalls,” he laughs. “They put me on a pony one time and I fell off many times and I though this is not for me. I’d rather watch them run.”

That said, his pride for his sister’s riding accomplishments matches his own massive stature, even if she won't be on hand to ride the filly on Sunday.

“We always knew Chantal would be good, but we didn’t know how good she’d be,” he says.

His excitement over Sunday’s Oaks knows no bounds.

 His Twitter feed, @Urbanfireman, allows him the opportunity to share that excitement with his sister, @JockeyChantal, and Emma-Jayne Wilson, @EJWilson81, who will pilot Awesome Fire in Sunday’s Oaks.

“@EJWilson81 @jockeychantal congrats today Emma on a near track record. Keep the stake wins coming ;) go AF," proclaims a recent tweet.

And then, with a nod to his younger sister’s acting career, he channels a possible victory speech for Sunday taken straight from the pilot of Luck where trainer Turo Escalante cashed large when his own Mon Gateau took the cake at long odds.

“As Turo Escalante would say in Luck,” starts Sutherland, summoning up his best impression of the shady trainer portrayed by John Ortiz. “What a surpriiiise!”

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