Stepping into Chantal Sutherland’s home in Huntington Beach, California, the first thing to catch the eye are two Pomeranians disco-dancing on the other side of wide glass doors. They’re waiting impatiently to be allowed in. One is tinged Barbie-pink, and resembles a Bed Bath & Beyond shower puff mysteriously brought to life.
“That’s Q-Tip and Wile E Coyote,” says Sutherland, dropping armfuls of Christmas shopping to the kitchen floor. “You can let them in if you want. I’ve just got to go and change out of these clothes. I rode in them, and my husband’s allergic to horses.”
That Sutherland’s husband, Dan Kruse, 47, the scion of a pastrami and bacon business, breaks out in hives at the mere whiff of a horse has been a less urgent household problem the last 18 months. For during this time, Sutherland has been following pursuits more compatible with the equine-intolerant.
Sutherland made history when she rode Game On Dude in the $10m Dubai World Cup in 2012, becoming the first woman to ride in the world’s richest race. Photograph: Kamran Jebreili/AP
First she completed a course in interior design. Then she earned her real estate license. Between times, she stays in shape. This past weekend, she and her husband put themselves through the 10-mile, three-hour plus mud-slog of a Spartan Race.
“I’m faster than he is,” Sutherland had said, when asked who won. “I had waited back for him, but because I’d got wet and cold he told me to kick on and leave him.”
Only now, Kruse’s allergy-free existence is drawing to a close as his wife prepares to swap weekends spent scrabbling in the mud for a life spent on another kind of dirt – that on which she made her name as one of the nation’s leading jockeys.
While Rosie Napravnik has been the most prolific of all contemporary female riders on the racetrack, Sutherland has been perhaps the most visible beyond it. She’s done television shows (like HBO’s ill-fated Luck), pulled a Lady Godiva in the pages of Vanity Fair (more on that later), graced billboards (as the ubiquitous face of Del Mar Racecourse), and holds the dubious honor of being one of People Magazine’s 100 Most Beautiful People.
But that’s not to say she hasn’t earned her stripes in the saddle.
A two-time Sovereign Award winning apprentice jockey in Canada, Sutherland, 39, is a multiple big-race winning jockey who has made a habit of notching notable firsts: the first women to ride the winner of the Santa Anita ‘Big Cap’ Handicap, the first female jockey to win the Hollywood Gold Cup, and the first woman to ride in the $10m Dubai World Cup – the world’s richest race.
In spite of these accomplishments, Sutherland quit the sport over three years ago jaded, tired and dispirited with the way she thought she’d been treated by the industry (though she has already returned once to ride for an eight-month stretch).
“I do have unfinished business,” Sutherland will later admit. But right now she puts a positive spin on what lies ahead.
“I just want to give 150% to each horse,” she says of her return as she takes a pew on the opposite end of her sofa, changed and horse-odor free, Wile E Coyote and the pink shower puff avatar roaming freely over the two of us. In cool pastels and capped with a vaulted ceiling, the room around us is noticeably absent of racing memorabilia (none of the win-pictures and trophies found in your typical jockey’s abode).
Sutherland sits neatly, self-possessed with her hands clasped before her, eyes the color of worn emerald. She dismisses my suggestion that some within the industry might be a little skeptical of her latest comeback. “No, not at all,” she replies, tersely. “They’re great with it. This is for me, to just be the best that I can be.”
The Sutherland story springs not from humble origins, but from an outwardly idyllic upbringing on a farm north of Toronto, Canada, near a town called Caledon – all green rolling hills and sprawling woodland, prime fodder for a Robert Bateman painting.
Sutherland’s father, Hugh, founded Canadian Tire, an automotive and hardware store. He and his wife, Diane, built it up to be one of the largest of its kind in Canada. Hugh swam competitively at college. Diane was a keen tennis player. “I just think we have crazy, crazy competitive genes.” And both parents fostered that same drive in their children (Sutherland has a sister and a brother).
“My mum, she was like, ‘if you want to be in the Olympics, you’ll be in the Olympics. If you want to be the greatest jockey ever, I’m going to follow you there.’ She made me believe I could be president of the United States.” Sutherland’s father, however, was as uncompromising as her mother was aspirational.
“At meal times, breakfast, dinner, he would say to all of us, ‘get down and give me ten pushups.’ Then we would have to get up and say ‘thank you sir.’ He would do it when we went to restaurants, too. My mom would say, ‘don’t do that.’ For my whole childhood I thought that was normal. He had us mucking out stalls, taking care of the farm. Horses came first.”
For a good portion of Sutherland’s teenage years, it looked as though her future lay in sports outside of the equestrian world, in soccer and athletics and other team games. “Then, at boarding school, I got really good at field hockey. I even played for Canada.” She dreamed of the Olympics. “I tried for the Junior World Cup team, but I was put on the traveling team.”
As her Olympic hopes winnowed away, her love of horses – and horse racing – grew. During summer vacations while at boarding school, she started riding thoroughbreds, which she continued to do when she transferred to York University in Toronto, dual-majoring in psychology and mass communications.
“When I was in my last year, I needed to make a decision about my career.” Which is when she landed on the idea of becoming a jockey – an idea initially dismissed by Sutherland’s father. He wasn’t the only one to tip cold water on the idea.
“We were having dinner at my boyfriend’s parents’ house. At the dinner table, Mickey, my boyfriend, because he’d been drinking a little bit, decided that he would tell his dad that I wanted to be a jockey. Everyone started laughing. And I’m like, ‘Why are you laughing?’ He said, ‘You can’t be a jockey, you don’t have it.’ So, I said, ‘What do I need to have?’ He’s like, “You need someone like Angel Cordero to teach you.’”
Hall of Fame jockey Angel Cordero was one of North America’s leading riders at the time, though a name unfamiliar to Sutherland.
“So I asked: ‘Where does he live?’ ‘Oh, Florida,’ they replied, and laughed some more. But I think I was so determined back then – naïve too. I got up, and said, ‘Thanks for dinner but I’m going to leave early.’ I was kind of mad at Mickey, and really hurt, deep down.”
Sutherland took the humiliation and turned it on its head, scoured the phone book and narrowed her search to two Angel Corderos in Florida living close to a racetrack.
“I dialed the first number. Angel answered, and I said, ‘My name’s Chantal Sutherland, I hear you help aspiring jockeys become jockeys.” He said, ‘Where do you live?’ I said, ‘Canada.’ And he asked me, “Could you come here?” I got a ticket a month later, spent a year in the States, came back to Canada and won two Sovereign Awards.”
This rather truncated re-telling of events belies the graft put into kick-starting Sutherland’s career. Cordero, she said, was supportive of her, but tough. “He was hard, no nonsense.” When she wasn’t working, he would put her through her paces on a mechanical horse. They played horse racing video games to help foster her tactical awareness in a race. “All the while he kept asking me, ‘Is this really what you want to do?’”
When Sutherland returned to Canada to begin her race-riding career at Toronto’s Woodbine Racetrack, success wasn’t immediate. “My first 60 races I was zero for 60.” But all of a sudden it “just clicked”, she said. She rode her first winner on 9 October 2000. The next year, she was crowned Canada’s leading apprentice jockey – a feat she repeated the following year when she rode the winners of 136 races and bagged almost $6m in prize money.
Invariably, success courts attention, and attention courts envy. “There’s always a couple of bullies on the field, and I had one or two. There was one in particular, my nemesis, Todd Kabel, and he was mean.”
“He wasn’t just mean to me – he was mean to all the jocks. But when I started doing well, I had the target on my back. For the guys, he would grab their balls before they broke from the gates. For me, he would play mind games. He’d shout out in a race, ‘Chantal’s coming up the rail,’ and he would go up the rail before another guy would shut me off.” (Kabel, one of Canada’s top jocks, has a checkered history of assault and domestic battery.)
Typically, as young male jockeys learn their craft, seasoned veterans take them under their wing. (A perfect example is current wunderkind Drayden Van Dyke who has enjoyed the guidance and support of top jockeys Mike Smith and Gary Stevens during his ascent up the ladder.) Despite Francine Villeneuve paving the way for female riders in Canada, she was a rare visitor to Woodbine, and Sutherland found herself largely alone between races.
“I remember going into the women’s jocks room and crouching down by my box crying, and no one’s there. So as a woman, you had no camaraderie in the room. There’s no one to bounce stuff off. Say, if you rode a bad race, your friend could say, ‘Hey, it’s not so bad.’ But you’re kind of alone, and you’ve got to learn to dig deep if you’re going to make it. I think a lot of girls were like, ‘This isn’t for me.’”
2005 was a pivotal year for Sutherland. Her marriage to trainer Mike Wright had crumbled after only seven months. “Things were going really bad.” And so, leaving those fragments behind, she headed to New York. “I always wanted to ride in the States, so I went for it.”
In New York, Sutherland struck up a partnership with veteran Hall of Fame trainer Allen Jerkens, who had given much impetus to jockey Julie Krone’s illustrious riding career. “He never told me much if I did well, but he would defend me out on the racetrack. He was a great, great guy.” And while in Florida, she met Hall of Famer Mike Smith, her on-and-off partner for the next five years.
“I remember hanging out with Mike, Johnny [Velazquez] and Gary Stevens all the time. They would start riding the equicizer [mechanical horse] at night, late, making fun of each other, and I would learn from that. They would share secrets, about what they think would work.”
(One late-night clandestine revelation involved a trick to get a horse to stretch for the finishing line: “you take your whip and tap it under the chin, not hard, but enough so they stick their nose out. I did it once, and the horse won. But I got pulled into the stewards for it because it’s illegal. I told them it was an accident, and I’ve never done it again.”)
By 2007, Sutherland’s career acquired a new seasonal pattern: summers spent at Woodbine, winters at Santa Anita in California. The quality of mounts steadily improved, too. 2009 was a banner year. She was the second leading jockey at Woodbine, with earnings of $7,588,868 and 139 victories. The following year, she finished 13th in the US with earnings tickling the $9m mark.
Then along came Game On Dude, or ‘The Dude’ – the horse that would later define both the zenith and nadir of her career.
Together, she and ‘The Dude’ were the Ginger Rodgers and Fred Astaire of American thoroughbred racing. They danced big race dances on the west coast and beyond. Even when they didn’t win, they courted the sort of hoopla that typically follows matinee idols. “When we were second in the Breeders’ Cup [Classic], it was an unbelievable fanfare. It took me two hours to get back to the jock’s room, what with all the autographs.”
She also achieved that which eludes so many other successful jockeys – recognition beyond the racetrack. The modeling (Annie Liebovitz photographed her for Vogue) led to the endorsements (Del Mar, Bet America, cosmetics firm Mistura), which led to the television shows such as HBO’s Luck, alongside Dustin Hoffman, and the reality TV show Jockeys.
Animal Planet produced two seasons of Jockeys, which followed the lives of Southern California’s colony of riders. The relationship, often tempestuous, between Sutherland and Smith was a central conceit of the show. “I did it because I wanted to show the world that horse racing was really cool. I don’t regret it one bit.” Her star was flaring bright. But fewer sports are more effective at recalibrating the scales of fortune than horse racing.
Many female riders are eager to downplay gender differences – keen to cast themselves as one of the boys. But throughout her career, Sutherland has pushed against this narrative in subtle fashion, as with her modeling career (fewer things seem more remote from the machismo of race-riding than the pages of Vogue and Vanity Fair), as well as in ways more conspicuous.
In 2011, a jock’s-room incident between Sutherland and another jockey prompted the California Horse Racing Board to conduct a sexual harassment seminar for the riders. She’s keen to keep names and details absent. “We’ve moved on from that, and besides, I’ve still got to see these guys day in, day out.” But what the incident highlighted were some of the disparities in facilities between the male and female riders.
“Now I’m all fired up and on the offensive. I wanted a bigger sauna in the women’s jock’s room at Santa Anita. We had this little tiny box. Only one person could use it, and by then, there were quite a few female jocks. The men had much larger sauna. I’m like, ‘I know my rights as a woman – we should have everything that they have.”
The racetrack management acted immediately to install a new sauna, she said. “As soon as I asked for it, we got it. They were amazing.” Some of her male counterparts in the saddle, however, were less impressed with the renovations.
“The whole friggin’ jock’s room went ballistic. Finally, I addressed the guys personally. I did ask some of the girls to come with me but they didn’t show up, and I thought to myself, ‘Just perfect, it’s how it always is: I have to show up to defend myself against 50 guys.’ In the end, [jockey] Garret Gomez sided with me. He talked to the guys and they calmed down. And not one guy from that day forward has teased me again.”
Does she consider herself something of a trailblazer? “I didn’t come to racing to be a trailblazer – I just want to ride and go home and put money in the bank.”
Trailblazer or not, Sutherland courts a sizable following on social media, which has its drawbacks. When she posed naked on horseback for Vanity Fair, the reaction from many fans was swift and vociferous.
“I had a lot of fans who defended me. But many said, ‘She’s ruining the game.’ Between Twitter and Facebook, it was wild. I just stopped reading it – I just wanted to be riding, not worrying about all the craziness.”
Then came the $1m Pacific Classic at Del Mar in August of 2012. She and ‘The Dude’ looked as though they had the race won, only for Sutherland to drop one of her reins with less than half a furlong to run. In the shadow of the wire, jockey Joel Rosario aboard Dullahan swept past them to victory.
Sutherland’s mistake in the 2012 Pacific Classic cost her dearly.
Had Sutherland lost the race when she lost the rein? The connections of ‘The Dude’ thought so, and Sutherland promptly lost the gig with her old dance partner.
“After that, things got frigid at the track. I wasn’t getting the mounts – part of that was my attitude. I was sour, bitter, tired.” So sour that in October 2012, she announced her retirement.
“I didn’t want to get out of bed, which is not like me. I love to work, love to be around people, love to be around horses. But, none of this was making me happy. I was lost. And then I decided, ‘This is it, I’m retiring.’ I remember [jockey] Alex Solis said, ‘Don’t retire – everybody does this. Just say you’re taking a break.’ But my brother had already put it on Twitter that I’m retiring, so I continued with the story.”
Here, Sutherland, clock-watching for the past 20 minutes, apologizes as she cuts the interview short – she has to head to the gym. But we’ll finish it soon, she promises.
We meet again at Santa Anita Park two days later on the sort of clean, cold early California morning in winter that seems wrung out of a bucket of ice water. Sutherland’s waiting to work a horse at 9am, and we take a seat overlooking the track. She’s decked in riding gear, hat, boots and gloves – strokes of pink here and there for good measure.
In the cool light of morning and in the environs of the racetrack as opposed to the comfort of her home, I had expected Sutherland to be a little less candid than she was two days ago. I was wrong.
As we launch back into the topic of her retirement, she continues to dissect that period with cool clarity – a remnant, she says, of having attended the Landmark Forum, a program that promises on its website to bring about “positive, permanent shifts in the quality of your life, in just three days.”
“When I retired I had a negative attitude. I was bummed out, tired. I’d had enough. I just wanted to be alone. It’s emotional, racing – you’re on everyday.” Landmark held a mirror up to the motivations behind her behavior, she says (with the hint of a born-again).
“I had this breakthrough moment when I realized that with people who don’t support me, I have a tendency to run away from them. I axe them out of my life. I felt that, at the time, by taking me off Game On Dude, they weren’t supporting me. I had this mindset whereby I thought, ‘If you’re not going to ride me on your horses, I don’t want to be in horse racing.’ Meanwhile, that was a bad attitude. I wish I’d done [the Landmark Forum] 17 years ago – I’d have been a better jockey, for sure.”
Since retiring in 2012, Sutherland has already made one comeback. Nevertheless, she says that the simple matter of age means she’s approaching her latest return with a greater sense of urgency. The thought of eventually leaving the sport on her own terms is an enticing one, too – as is the possibility of securing a mount in the nation’s biggest race. “I think the Kentucky Derby is the one that eluded me.”
Sutherland rode Mine That Bird to most of his wins at two years of age, after which the horse was sold. Still, one of the new owners apparently contacted Sutherland before the Kentucky Derby to offer her the mount – a mount that eventually went to jockey Calvin Borel, who rode Mine That Bird to a famous 50-1 Derby victory.
“I was so close,” she laments. “That’s the one I think of. I don’t know if there’s a possibility of getting back there, to Kentucky. But anything’s possible.”
As we prepare to wrap the interview up, she stops me short. “You asked me the other day why I think there aren’t more women in horse racing.” (I hadn’t asked this specific question, but it’s clear that Sutherland has given the issue much thought)
“I have a theory,” she says, as we descend the grandstand. “The guys play golf or play cards with the trainers. It’s still a boys’ club. But it’s not like [trainer] Richard Mandella can tell his wife, ‘I’m going to play golf with Chantal for the afternoon.’ I can’t build those kinds of relationships with trainers outside of the racetrack. So, I have to build those kinds of relationships here at the track of a morning. But mornings are a busy time for the trainers – they’re working. So, I think I’m at a disadvantage for that. And I think all female riders are.”
Are the other riders pleased to see you back, I ask, as we prepare to go our separate ways. She says that they are, before pausing and offering this parting shot: “I just hope they don’t call me the grandma.”