Our North America blogger Alex Brown meets one of his racing idols: Canadian jockey Chantal Sutherland
Chantal Sutherland is glamorous. She is gorgeous. But don’t let that fool you. Chantal Sutherland is a terrific jockey who strives to learn and improve.
On Tuesday I had the pleasure of sitting down and having lunch with Chantal. She even paid for the gathering. I’d persuaded her to meet up on the basis that I would be able to help her with her online brand (as well as being an exercise rider I am an IT expert by trade). 5,400 searches for “Chantal Sutherland” on Google per month makes Chantal one of the most popular sports figures in horseracing in North America. I checked. I suggested that might be a terrific opportunity for her to determine and develop her brand: glamorous, athletic, dedicated. And in return for my tips she agreed to answer some questions about herself for Eclipse Magazine:
Chantal has ridden horses since she was a small child: show jumping, three-day eventing. The types of riding that make you a good horsewoman. She took a break for a couple of years in her teens. Horse “burn out” perhaps. During that time she played field hockey. She was good, just not quite good enough for the best level. Her competitive instincts were not satisfied. She also did some downhill skiing. She is an adrenaline junkie. During her college years, she got back to the horses. This time galloping racehorses at a farm, and then at the track. Her sights were set. In 2000 Chantal Sutherland rode her first race.
Chantal met with success early. She won two Sovereign Awards in 2001 and 2002 for being the leading apprentice jockey in Canada. No small feat. Despite this, her early success waned and she needed a change of scenery. In the winter of 2003 she was in Florida, a typical rest stop for those working the Woodbine meet. Instead of returning to Woodbine in the Spring of 2004, Chantal went to New York to work with Allen Jerkins. “This change provided me with the opportunity to work with other riders and to learn from other riders,” she says, “It’s the best thing that I have done for my professional career.”
She adds: “It was hard. But I learned a lot.” She learned from some of the best jockeys in North America. When she returned to Woodbine she was a better jockey. She was also a better person. She had matured and returned with a focus and a renewed belief. And she was prepared to continue to improve.
Personally, I met Chantal last year during my first meet at Woodbine. While she had a relatively slow start to the meet last year, she gained terrific momentum through the middle of the meet. She was winning races in bunches. Literally, she rode five winners in one afternoon. She was third in the jockey standings and gaining on Jimmy McAleney and Patrick Husbands. And then, rather than compete to complete the jockeys’ race she left Woodbine to pursue her other passions of media, marketing and TV work: she had been selected to appear in the first series of the show Jockeys, a ‘docu-soap’ filmed in Southern California, following seven jockeys at the 2008 Oak Tree Meeting culminating in the Breeders’ Cup World Championships. It is a fine balance for Chantal. Her success in media is and will be driven by her success as an athlete.
She continued riding in California during the filming of Jockeys and came back to ride the odd weekend at Woodbine. This change certainly killed any momentum she had for the jockeys’ race at Woodbine last year. Apparently though it matters little for someone riding as well as Chantal Sutherland.
For this year’s Woodbine meet, which began in April, Chantal is riding better than ever and is in a comfortable second position in the jockeys’ standings, behind her good friend Patrick Husbands. She rides in pretty much every race and her instincts, style and timing are as good as they have been. “I can anticipate more now and see how races will unfold before they unfold,” she explains. “Earlier in my career I was more reactive. Now I am more atuned.” She is, however, the first to admit that she has room for improvement. She mentioned a recent visit of jockey Stewart Elliot as a case in point. She opened a gap for him, a mistake she readily concedes but won’t repeat so easily.
Chantal is an easy person to be around. We discussed many topics outside our shared interests of horses, although our horse interests also extended to horse welfare and the horse slaughter issue. She wants to get involved.
Chantal is also very spiritual. She asks for guidance and believes it helps her overachieve, which she does with ease. She is close to her family. “My parents, sister, brother, and nieces are all very supportive,” she says, “and my success has been aided considerably by the support I have received from my three agents, Pat Parente, Tommy Ball and John Bell.” She and John Bell, her current Woodbine agent, are friends and work well together.
Chantal enjoys the idea that she can be a role model for women who want to pursue horseracing. “I am definitely proof that if you really want to achieve something, then with hard work and dedication, you can,” she says. It has not always been easy being a woman in a world that is dominated by men: “Recently I arrived in the paddock and the owner did not realise a woman was riding his horse. He tried to convince the trainer to switch jockeys,” to no avail. Chantal won the race. “ I was not asked to ride the horse back!”
But being a woman also helps Chantal stand out. She is different. She plays up the glamour side of who she is. She was wearing blue nail polish during our lunch. Her iPhone has a pink-encrusted case. She had just come from a hair appointment. She does believe, though, that strength is super important to being a successful jockey, male or female. “And for women, strength in the upper leg and shoulders is critical.” She works very hard to achieve and maintain that strength.
Chantal has numerous goals. “I want a riding title at Woodbine.” Patrick Husbands will be among those attempting to deny her that goal. “I want to ride in the Breeders’ Cup again.” Her ride on Mine That Bird last year was her first Breeders’ Cup experience. “I want to ride in the Kentucky Derby.” She did receive a call about riding Mine That Bird for the Kentucky Derby this year. It just did not pan out. Chantal’s goals are ambitious, but no doubt with the determination and focus that Chantal has displayed thus far, they may well be attainable.