Chantal Sutherland, who will ride at Ellis Park for the first time this summer, became the first female jockey to win California's prestigious Santa Anita Handicap and Hollywood Gold Cup, capturing those races in 2011 and 2012, respectively, on Game On Dude. Sutherland also finished second in the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic on the Bob Baffert-trained Game On Dude in 2011 at Churchill Downs in a race that one-time fiance Mike Smith won on Drosselmeyer. Also that year, she won Keeneland's Grade 2 Lexus Raven Run on Great Hot, defeating future two-time champion Groupie Doll and Mizdirection, who went on to beat boys twice in the Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint.
Before moving her tack to California, Sutherland was among the top jockeys at Woodbine Racetrack near Toronto, including in 2008 going 3-for-3 on Canadian 2-year-old champion Mine That Bird, who subsequently was sold and the next year won the Kentucky Derby at 50-1 under Calvin Borel. Sutherland was out of riding races for the better part of four years, returning to Woodbine in the spring of 2018. She came to Kentucky this spring after riding at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans for the past two winters. Ellis Park publicity director Jennie Rees spoke with Sutherland recently at Churchill Downs.
What brought the switch from California to a New Orleans-Kentucky circuit?
“I've always wanted to ride in Kentucky; it's been a dream of mine to come here. New Orleans and Kentucky link together, so I thought that was the best move coming from California.
“California was good to me, but it was just so competitive to make a good living, to save money. It's very expensive in California. Compared to Kentucky, to live here is more comfortable financially. I just love the freshness of the air. It's beautiful. The farms are amazing here. There are a lot more trainers to ride for. It seems like there are a lot more horses, more diversity. If a trainer has a horse that doesn't suit here, there's another track nearby. California is an island by itself.”
You're going to ride at Ellis Park. What do you know about Ellis Park?
“I don't know anything about Ellis Park, other than I heard it's very hot. My agent (Rocco O'Connor) is the paddock (analyst). A lot of people say it's fun. I'm excited to try a new track and see how that goes. I'm already having a great summer but looking forward to Ellis.”
You won a good number of graded stakes in California and before that a ton of races while based at Woodbine, including 159 in 2009 and 152 in 2010. It's different now in your career, especially since you didn't ride races for parts of four years. How did that impact trying to get restarted?
“Taking a break for four years, out of sight out of mind. It did have a negative effect for coming back and trying to get in with everybody. A couple things worked against me. I did get hurt but also, I worked for a trainer and put a lot of eggs in that basket, hoping I'd have a great Del Mar and that kind of fell apart, too. One of the most important things for a jockey is to have a lot of trainers to ride for, because if the barn has a bad year, it can reflect on you as a jockey. You need a lot of horses to be a top jockey.
“To make a comeback after not being around so long, it has been a challenge. But I think I'm doing well and I'm happy with how it's going. I'm grateful for how it's going. Would I love to be leading jockey again? Yeah, for sure. Would I love to win three a day, ride 10? Yeah. But it's very competitive all over the United States.”
The Ellis Park riding colony pretty much will be Churchill Downs minus a couple of riders who go to Saratoga. You'll know the riders well.
“The depth of the riding colony here is strong and deep. In my career, it's always been like that…. With California being a little shaky right now, you've got some California jocks coming here. There are a lot of jockeys who are really good. There is so much purse structure, everybody is out, everybody is working. You have to fight for it.”
But you know what it's like to have to claw and scratch your way to get to the top, perhaps more so than some. While women have made great strides as riders, you're still definitely the minority. Having done that once, how does that prepare you for doing it again?
“I know the hard work it takes to get to the top or to do well. But as you get older, you get wiser. Even though the game humbles you, you get used to how the cookie crumbles. You've got to roll with the punches. You're going to win, you're going to lose. There are a lot of highs but even more lows. You get to find your way and stay steady in the middle somewhere.
“I love what I do. I'm healthy and I'm happy. Part of it is just enjoying life. I think people see that, and I think also horses love that. As long as you say healthy and can do it again tomorrow, it's awesome.”
Why did you take the hiatus – which at the time I believe was announced as a retirement — and then why did you come back?
“The reason I took the time off is that I had just gotten married and thought I was going to have a baby. That didn't work out. I was just going to take time off and see if that could happen, and my brother tweeted that I was retiring. So we kind of had to roll with that punch. I was really not happy with him. I ended up getting divorced and no baby, so I decided I wanted to come back to horse racing. That's something I love and am passionate about. I did take off pretty much at the top of my career, when I was in the Breeders' Cup. But at the time, it's what I thought was going to happen; I was 37. Now I'm here and excited to be doing what I'm doing and happy where I'm at.”
Marriage is overrated?
“Yeah (laughs). It's the leading cause of divorce, I've heard.”
What was the injury you had in New Orleans in early 2018?
“I was in a grass race. A horse fell and I broke my collarbone and had surgery there. And I broke my knee, and I have a rod in my leg and some pins. But Tulane Hospital was incredible, and I was able to come back in two months. Yoga got me through all of it, because you really have to stretch those tendons and muscles to get back to the flexibility I need to be a jockey, and the balance. I'm 150 percent now.”
I understand you're being taught golf by Corey Lanerie, who might be the best golfer in the jocks' room, although Robby Albarado might disagree.
“Yes, Corey is teaching me. We're having a great time at it. His daughter, Brittlyn, is playing now, too…. It's nice to see, because they've been through so much and it's been tragic (with the death of Lanerie's wife, Shantel, a year ago). So golf right now is really helping keep everybody happy. I love golf. I didn't know I'd even like it. I think women should try it younger. They'd probably have less children — no, I'm kidding! But it's a great game. It's just wonderful when you hit the ball right; it feels so good. I just like the camaraderie, and now I play with a bunch of girls on Wednesday night.”
Anything you want people to know where you are at this point of your life?
“I definitely feel like this is going to be home. I love Kentucky. I love the people.…. I'm really healthy and in a great spot physically, with yoga and my cyclebar class I do and golf. My mind is good. Your ego is more in check as you get older, and also with yoga and meditation. I feel so in tune with what I'm doing with horses. Of course I'm really competitive. I want to be back on top. But I'm also taking it one day at a time and loving and enjoying it.”
You finished second in the Breeders' Cup Classic at Churchill Downs on Game On Dude, who led until passed in the final few strides by Drosselmeyer. Good memories or bad memories?
“Yeah. My dream was always to have Donna Barton Brothers after the Breeders' Cup come and interview me on the pony and have the crowd going wild and winning that race. But (coming to) the wire and knowing that Mike Smith was coming with his horse and Billy Mott, strong trainer, that stretch here that day seemed the longest stretch ever in the world. It was heart-breaking, but I felt a great sense of accomplishment too, because I got so close.
“Donna did come after the race to interview me the race. But it was more like 'So how do you feel? Your ex-fiance just beat you.' You know, it was bittersweet, but that's horse racing. Just another notch under my belt, and how things go in this game: You're almost at the wire, and then something changes. But that's just life. It's always ever-changing. But as long as you're healthy and doing what you love, that's all you can ask for.”
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