Much thanks to Chantal for her time & to Paul Zilm @paulzilm
A successful jockey for more than 15 years, Chantal Sutherland has experienced success in both Canada and the US. A mainstay for many years at Woodbine, Sutherland has called the Southern California circuit home in recent years until this fall when she moved her business to the Fair Grounds. Sutherland took time recently to discuss her racing past, future, the current state of the industry and much more. You can follow Sutherland on twitter @jockeychantal.
5MTP: You have taken off some time over the last couple years, but have been riding since the early 2000’s and this summer you suffered an injury at Los Alamitos. As 2017 winds down and as you gear up for 2018, how do you feel about where you are at today?
Chantal Sutherland: I am feeling better about the end of the year. The beginning of the year was a little bit of a challenge. California had so many jockeys and not a lot of horses, I think it was a struggle for a lot of jockeys. I found it frustrating. The horse that injured me in July was a pick up on the recommendation of my agent which I agreed to, which I probably shouldn’t have. I did pick up the mount however, and it was nobody’s fault, it was just an accident. The horse reared up and lost her balance a little bit and then threw myself along with the trainer off balance. Unfortunately she stepped on my leg, but the good thing was it didn’t break my leg. It did cause a few problems though.
I am really kind of stubborn and wanted to ride a couple days later. I had been working really hard with a lot of Mick Ruis’ horses and had gotten on a lot of babies hoping to ride for him. He can be a really demanding trainer and he told my agent that if I didn’t get on all the horses in the next couple of days I would lose all the mounts and I had been working four months for him. Horse racing can be a bit brutal at times and I didn’t want to lose those mounts. I probably rode a little earlier than I should have and it was painful. I was able to kick on through that, but inevitably Mick Ruis took me off of his horses anyway because he decided he wanted to ride Corey (Nakatani).
Anyway, things happen and everyone has the right to take you off their horses. All of this made my Del Mar slower than I had anticipated. I then tried working again and getting new clients, but this made for a tough Del Mar. I thought about what other options do I have? Is California really working out for me? So I made a choice that I wanted to try something new, something I hadn’t done before and that’s how I got to the Fair Grounds.
5MTP: What inspired you specifically about going to the Fair Grounds?
CS: Obviously have heard a lot about the Fair Grounds. With dating Jamie Theriot who has ridden here a lot and is from Lafayette, both Jamie & Kent (Desormeaux) told me a lot about what it was like. I felt I wanted to try it. Many Canadian trainers run down here as well. I wanted to see some familiar faces and the options were either the Fair Grounds or Florida. I had been to Florida and it was ok, I just wanted to simply try something new. I really love & appreciate the way people are here, they are really down to Earth, very kind and that southern hospitality is really true. I feel very accepted and I can’t get over how nice people are.
5MTP: The life of a jockey is something most bettors and fans can’t relate to. When you are breaking into a new jockey colony, what are the positives and what are the negatives?
CS: It’s kind of like going to a new school for the first day. I am trying to come in as subtly as possible, but nothing that I do is really subtle. I try to be me and embrace who I am. I try to come in very humble, not step on anyone’s toes and get the piece of the pie that I am going to work for. I think there is enough for everybody to go around and I just plan to work as hard as I can. As for the other jockeys, at first it’s quiet and everyone is just looking at you, but I have to say, everyone has been really nice. If you show them the same respect, they reciprocate. So far it has been really good.
5MTP: This spring you celebrated your 1000th victory. When in your career did you feel like you had an opportunity to amass such a record or make this your career?
CS: Probably a long time ago when I was in Canada, doing well as a apprentice. I definitely knew this was my passion. I didn’t know if I would make any money at it though. It was definitely important for me to live my why. I wanted to live my passion and knew this was it. Everytime I lose my path or drift away, I find my way back. I have done some other things like real estate, I have my yoga license and I do love to branch out, but I always seem to gravitate back to horse racing. So with all these things I have done, I hope that in some way, maybe after I am done riding I can help the industry grow. As a rider now, I see it as a responsibility to help the game and to encourage others to really embrace the fans, market ourselves and be ambassadors for the sport.
5MTP: You have been in the industry for awhile and you have seen many changes. How do you see the sport/industry today compared to what you saw when you entered as an apprentice in the early 2000’s.
CS: It felt like the sport was never going to end. It felt like there would always be lots of racetracks open and the sport would continue to be booming. Unfortunately and sadly, that’s not a reality. When I see race tracks like Hollywood Park close and you see the younger generation not get our sport, I look at the lack of exposure. The sport is a bit exclusive on TV, it’s not mainstream and the information is getting harder to read, it’s complicated. I am not saying dumb it down, but make it more user friendly. After we did the reality show Jockeys, there were huge amounts of young apprentices that started and every apprentice I see now and have talked to watched the show. I had lots of people, little girls come up and say that they wanted to get in the industry because of it..and that was one show and it was on Animal Planet. Imagine if we could show horse racing on a Super Bowl Sunday or where everyone can see it once a week. I am afraid we are hurting ourselves by being a bit exclusive.
5MTP: The horse industry often suffers from fractured relationships and different agendas. You have track management wanting one thing, you have horsemen groups wanting another, you have bettors wanting another. If there was such a thing as a North American Racing commissioner and I put you in charge, is there any obvious changes to fix the game that you would put into action.
CS: I would put bad-ass cameras in at all the racetracks. I saw it in Happy Valley at Sha-Tin. In football there are cameras on pulley systems, I would have that so you could see the races at different angles. I would also put cameras on each jockey (forwards, backwards, side of the helmet) and would make an app that would allow bettors, handicappers and fans to be able to view from those angles. I would also have in the grandstand the same thing. Huge TV’s with high definition showing exactly that. You could pick Jockey 1, Jockey 2, etc. and let them see what we are seeing. The younger generation is very feel, touch, now and in the moment. It would be so much more exciting and thrilling. Like with race car driving, people want to feel like they are the one driving the vehicle. I would love for people to feel like they are riding the horse. I understand the horse’s head moves a little bit, but that’s why I think the camera on the side of the head could show how close another jockey’s face is to my face, a horse’s nose breathing into my ear, that’s how close we are. You could sometimes see us bumping each other, how we switch our stick. People are visual and I really think it could change the game. One last thing, Stewards always say we see one thing and the cameras see something else. Well then, flag on the play. Review that video.
5MTP: One of your highest profile mounts that I have always wanted to ask you about was Mine that Bird. Here’s a horse that you were on for 4 times and you won 3 of those. The horse ran three times in California & New Mexico after leaving Canada and then of course goes on to the Derby and pulls the biggest upset in race history. On Derby Day 2009 are you watching the race live? And if so, what emotions go through your mind as you see that now legendary run up the rail?
CS: I remember exactly. I was given the call from the Doctor, one of the owners, that the horse hadn’t been running well in New Mexico. He said that I had gotten the best run of the horse and they said we would like her (me) to ride in the derby and would you like to work the horse on the Monday before the Saturday. I actually don’t remember what day the work was scheduled for but I think it was a long weekend in Canada. I was riding 13 races at Woodbine on Friday, 12 on Saturday including in every stakes race and 2 on Sunday. My agent said look, we are really busy here, but we want to ride the horse and we will take the call, I’ll just fly in and work the horse. Well, in the meantime Calvin Borel had worked the horse and you know, I wish we had chosen differently now looking back, but the horse was 50/1 at the time and it was hard for me to give up all my great opportunities in Canada. I already had the call, so I had to stick to my integrity and my commitments. That being said, I got to Kentucky and had been dating Mike Smith at the time and we were having breakfast. My agent called and said you might want to pick up the racing form, they took you off the horse. So I flew home to Canada and when I got home I rode that Saturday. The Derby was later in the day so everyone in the jock’s room had left and I had decided I didn’t want to miss the race on my drive home. I was sitting with Emma Jayne Wilson and watching the race and exactly I remember saying, “oh my god, here he comes” and I saw him make his move. She said “No way”, I said “oh yeah look at him moving, he’s going to win the race”. You know that sense of fear, like you are about to get into a car accident or someone is going to call you with an emergency and you have that electricity going through your body. Sheer adrenaline. It was that kind of feeling.
He was a cool horse, he ran hard for me.
5MTP: Did you watch the movie 50 to 1?
CS: I have not, but obviously have heard a lot about it. I do want to watch it.
5MTP: Obviously you had a personal relationship with Mike Smith that has been documented quite a bit, but looking back more than a half a decade later, do you think the “Battle of the Exes” was a good idea? Would you do it again?
CS: I would maybe do it again. It was actually still kind of emotional as I was still not completely over Mike. I did want the fans to be able to play with it and I thought we are good enough friends that it wouldn’t be so bad. When we were doing the draw, I said, well I guess if I win, you buy me dinner. He made a bit of a comment that his new girlfriend wouldn’t appreciate that and at the time it hit a bit of a nerve, but no big deal now. The only thing I will say and I should have come back at Mike at the draw was, he was kind of cocky that day and he was so sure he was going to win no matter what and I knew one of the horses, not both, but the one was a Carla Gaines horse. I knew that horse would not win. I had ridden him before. He was the kind of horse that will not pass horses, but after the wire will run off on you. I thought, I do not get along with the horse, but I am pretty lucky and it’s a 50/50 chance that Mike gets that horse. Well, they did the draw and Mike got the other horse. In looking back, I should have jokingly said “Mike you are so good at riding, you’re in the Hall of Fame, you have how many Breeders Cups, you know what, if you’re so good, why don’t we just switch mounts?” I wish I did because he would have lost.
Anything to get the fans involved. The women & girls that showed up to cheer for me was great, it was awesome and I was grateful. If they were more evenly matched (the horses), it would have been so much more fun. Mike and I even asked for permission on how much bumping could go on? The stewards said you have to be careful, we can still give you days. I would have been rubbing him on the rail, he would have been rubbing me on the rail. We would have rode really hard against each other, that’s for sure. We were really competitive.
5MTP: What’s your favorite surface to race on?
CS: I love grass, but I also love Tapeta. Of all the dirt courses, I am actually liking the Fair Grounds. The kickback is not painful. In the morning when we train, it gets a little beat up, but on a race day though, it’s nice. It’s not too deep, not too hard. Their grass course, this is the first time I have ridden on it and I know they have fixed it, but it’s spectacular. I am very impressed. I love the turns and the grass itself is so pretty. It just feels great to ride on, it’s smooth, there’s no divots. It’s a great grass course, I’m impressed.
5MTP: What was it like to race up at Woodbine when it got really cold?
CS: You had to cover your face with a mask, it was painful. It was so cold and not really great for the horses. I am glad they went to the polytrack. Racing goes till December 9th, but I think going past November is really pushing it a little bit. It’s not just the horses getting cold, but for the jockeys, it’s just brutal on your hands and feet.
5MTP: One last question. Some people look at the racing calendar in North America and say there should be contraction or there are too many dates. When you look at the racing calendar knowing there’s only so many horses available and rides available, do you have an opinion one way or the other?
CS: It’s a double edge sword. It would be nice to have some time off, but with that being said, it gets expensive for the owners. For the trainers and jockeys, we got to keep running to keep making money. But if you could have more horses, maybe you could have a bit more of a revolving door. Then there’s the fan side of it and they get burned out. I don’t exactly want it to turn like England where the jockeys can only ride Friday, Saturday and Sunday, or just Saturday and Sunday. I don’t really know exactly how to answer the question.
I think what we need to do as a whole sport or industry is to come together as a unit. Tracks need to start getting along and helping each other. I am not saying promote each other, but work together to help the whole industry as a whole. I know they are in competition and they want to be the best meet, everyone of course wants to have the best meet. I think we have to look at the bigger picture. We have to get young trainers trained and young jockeys to come in. We need to still get people buying and selling horses. We need to keep the horses around.