In late May, Winnipeg-born jockey Chantal Sutherland was still courting a long-shot hope—that she’d ride the champion thoroughbred Mine That Bird in the US$1-million Belmont Stakes, the third race in the Triple Crown, which ran in New York last Saturday. Sutherland has a history with the gelding who captured popular imagination after his stunning upset win at the Kentucky Derby against 50-to-1 odds. She’d ridden him to victory in three stakes races at Toronto’s Woodbine Racetrack last year and was aboard when his ankle was injured by another horse during the 2008 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Santa Anita racetrack in Arcadia, Calif. For a heady minute, she thought she’d be riding him in this year’s Derby, the equestrian equivalent of Broadway, having flown to Louisville in early May to track-test him—a tacit agreement to ride a horse. But that same night she learned from the racing form that the mount had been given to American jockey Calvin Borel, who would go on to win the Preakness, the second Triple Crown race, aboard filly Rachel Alexandra. Now, less than two weeks before Belmont, it was undecided whether Rachel Alexandra would run. If she did, Borel would ride her, leaving Mine That Bird an open mount.
“You never know what could happen, a week before, a day before,” says Sutherland, sitting outside the jockeys’ room in the bowels of Woodbine a week before the announcement that Borel would ride Mine That Bird at Belmont. She has been working since dawn exercising horses in cold grey drizzle yet she’s a radiant presence in canary-yellow sweats and Ugg boots, her hair pulled into a ponytail, her manicured nails painted candy-apple red. She speaks of her love for the horse (who ended up placing third at Belmont the same day Sutherland won Woodbine’s far-lower-profile $170,275 Eclipse Stakes). But she’s also shrewd enough to know his success benefits her even indirectly: “Every time he wins or runs, my name gets mentioned,” she says. “It’s good publicity.”
Few jockeys have had better—or more—publicity than the 33-year-old Sutherland who, in her nine years of professional racing, has brought a fresh-faced cover-girl glam to a sport usually associated with muck, manure, and characters with names like Jimmy the Hat. In 2006, Annie Leibovitz photographed her in a skin-toned bikini astride a galloping thoroughbred for Vogue’s “Shape” issue (the five-foot-two, 111-lb. jockey was inspiration for “short” women). That year, People named her one of its “100 Most Beautiful People.” Mistura Beauty Inc., an Ottawa-based cosmetics company, signed her last year as its face, a contract that ended in April. Sutherland is also a star of the Animal Planet reality show Jockeys, whose second season begins on the Discovery channel in September. Like The Hills only with horses, the suspense-filled program follows the lives of seven jockeys at the Santa Anita track, offering a rare glimpse into the high-stakes sport of kings—its jubilant highs (“Riding a race is better than sex,” enthuses Australian jockey Kayla Stra) and its harsher realities, which include eating disorders and financial instability. Jockeys have a complex relationship with one another, Sutherland says: “We’re competitors but we’re also family. When you get out in a race you hope that guy’s your friend. You don’t want people to swing out and cut you off.”
The stealthiest jockeying is shown to take place off the track at the stables as unknowns try to persuade trainers to hire them. “All it takes is one good horse, one big win,” is a Jockeys tag line. Keeping weight down is an obsession. One rider admits he weighs himself 15 times a day. Bulimia is casually referred to as “flipping.” “Weight’s constantly on your mind,” says Sutherland. Being a woman adds to the pressure: “Once a month, I’m four pounds heavier. The boys lose five pounds sweating in the sauna. I lose one.”
Sutherland’s romantic relationship with Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith, an intense 48-year-old known to eat only eight bites of any meal, was a first-season subplot; she’s shown tearfully pulling up stakes in Toronto to move in with him in California, where she immediately annexes his closet space. The relationship is maniacally competitive: in one scene in a restaurant, they bet hundreds of dollars over whether Smith can flip a wine cork on its end. The rivalry continued off-screen, says Marjorie Kaplan, president of Animal Planet. “They’d drive in separate cars and race each other on different routes to see who could get there faster.” (Adding to the soap operatic serendipity, Smith rode Mine That Bird to second place in this year’s Preakness.)
The relationship is now over, and Sutherland is back at Woodbine. “I was hoping Mike would propose,” she says. “It’s been four years now and I can’t wait, depending on him to marry me. I love him; I assumed we’d be together forever. But I have to look after myself now.” And the best place to do that is in Canada, where average purses are twice as big as they are in the U.S.
Sutherland, known as “Princess” among her fellow jocks, is friendly and sweet-natured, though clearly possessed of steely will. She calls her high-risk career “my destiny” and credits Oprah’s “Follow your dreams” mantra as her inspiration. She was raised amid privilege on a horse farm in Caledon, Ont. When she boarded at Lakeview College near Peterborough, Ont., she brought her horse Sparrow Hawk along. After earning a degree in psychology and mass communications at York University, she trained as a jockey against the objections of her father, who wanted his daughter to pursue a safer, more lucrative line of work than riding a 1,200-lb. beast 45 miles an hour down a muddy track. His concerns are justified. Jockeys are killed every year. Last month, U.S. champion Rene Douglas was paralyzed after a fall. And while top jockeys can make millions, money is made only if a horse places. Even then, a jockey’s take is 10 per cent before costs, which include 25 per cent to an agent. “We can make money, but we’re risking our lives,” says Sutherland, who has suffered three concussions but has never broken a bone in a fall.
Her career began auspiciously: she won the Sovereign Award as Canada’s top apprentice jockey in 2001 and 2002. In 2003, she earned $5.7 million in purses in seven months. The next year, she won $1.3 million and hit a slump. Her marriage to Woodbine trainer Mike Wright Jr., which ended in 2005, made her the target of criticism that she had a conflict of interest. “Who I was married to was exploited,” she told the Toronto Sun: “I don’t blame the jockeys. They want your horse and they’ll do what they need to do to get it.” In 2005, she went to race in New York and Florida; in 2007 and 2008, she rode at Santa Anita, where she ranked in the top 10.
She’s now ranked second at Woodbine with 2009 purse earnings of more than $1.5 million. The fact her profile eclipses that of top jockey Patrick Husbands can be attributed to the fact she’s a beautiful woman in a sport that’s 90 per cent men. Those numbers are changing, says Sutherland, who speaks enthusiastically about the “girls’ room” at the track. “We support each other,” she says. She also has a big fan base of young girls who write, telling her they want to be jockeys. “I tell them to finish school first,” she says.
Despite women’s advancement, discrimination still exists, says Hall of Fame jockey Angel Cordero, Jr., now an agent, who has trained with Sutherland. “Racing people are reluctant to help girls—I don’t know if it’s male chauvinism but I think they can do the job as good as us,” he says. He believes she will break barriers, comparing her to Julie Krone, who won the 1993 Belmont Stakes, the only woman to win a Triple Crown race. “Chantal’s great,” he says. “She’s a beautiful rider.” Michael Doyle, a trainer at Woodbine, speaks of Sutherland’s patient, intelligent style. He also credits her agent, John Bell, for securing good mounts: “I think she could be first [ranked] by the end of the year.”
“People want high-profile jockeys the way women want designer shoes,” says Sutherland, who has been active in getting her face out there. A few years ago, she sent photos of herself to the men’s magazine UMM. When she saw that Go Go Luckey, the company behind MTV’s hit reality show Laguna Beach, was producing Jockeys, she cajoled Smith to take part: “I said ‘Mike, this is going to be huge.’ ” The program, which was expanded to hour-long episodes in the second season, has benefited her professionally. “Owners want to put me on horses. They see how hard I work—they see the passion,” she says. She’s using the platform to scope out a new cosmetics deal to replace Mistura. Company founder Andrea Marcus praises Sutherland. “She’s an exceptionally lovely woman,” she says. But she ended the contract because she didn’t see any sales bump. She was also frustrated that Sutherland’s racing schedule prevented her from appearing at the Golden Globes and the Oscars: “I thought it was a great opportunity to get her foot in the door with the Hollywood set because it has always been Chantal’s goal to get more TV stuff going.”
Horse racing remains a niche sport, Marcus says: “Jockeys don’t have the same profile as football players or tennis players; they’re just not that commercialized yet.” That’s another barrier Sutherland is trying to shatter. Her girly website jockeychantalsutherland.com went live two weeks ago, featuring a cursor that sprinkles sparkles like Disney’s Tinker Bell. A bevy of “Chantal”-branded products are in the works, says Sutherland’s off-track agent Vicki Rossi, including an “eco-friendly essential oil” in a riding-boot-shaped bottle, a Chantal doll and jewellery lines—one for women, one for girls. They’re also angling for a spot on Dancing with the Stars. “It’s a really hard contract to get,” says Sutherland.
Despite her father’s entreaties to retire, Sutherland plans to ride for another two or three years. Female jockeys who don’t want children can ride to 40 or 50, she says. “But in my heart, I want a family.” She’s deciding whether to spend next winter racing in Japan or Hong Kong, where the purses are big, or to go to California to seek a horse for the next Derby season. As they say in the ever-tumultuous jockey orbit, all it takes is one good horse, one big win.