Chantal Sutherland chasing history at Classic
In a small annex to the jockeys' room at Santa Anita Park near Los Angeles last week, Chantal Sutherland sat in front of her stall on a stool that once belonged to Julie Krone.
Around her were not-so-subtle signs that the four jockeys in the room were different from the ones next door. Makeup bags surrounded the sink, and above the stalls were the neatly stacked towels Sutherland chooses because she knows they won't end up in the men's stalls: They're pink.
On Saturday at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky., Sutherland will attempt to become the first woman to win the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic. Not even Krone -- the first female jockey to win a Triple Crown race, the Belmont Stakes in 1993 -- could accomplish that feat, although she did win the 2003 Juvenile Fillies on Halfbridled.
"The longer I've been a rider, the more experience I have, I realize how amazing she was to do what she did," Sutherland said.
Sutherland's mount is Game On Dude, a 10-1 shot in the field behind morning line favorite Uncle Mo.
Until now, Sutherland, 35, has been known for her good looks, her success as a rider in her native Canada and her past relationship with Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith, but never for reaching the grand stages of American racing: the Triple Crown races and the Breeders' Cup Classic.
The 5-foot-2, 111-pound jockey has been photographed by Annie Leibovitz for Vogue, named to People's "Most Beautiful People" list and featured along with Smith and others in the Animal Planet series "Jockeys" as well as in the upcoming HBO drama "Luck."
Game On Dude, a 4-year-old gelding, gave Sutherland the biggest win of her career in March in the Santa Anita Handicap, Southern California's premier race. Sutherland survived a tense 12-minute stewards' inquiry into a bumping incident before the result became official, making her the first woman jockey to win the Big 'Cap.
"I was very confident that I was OK and I kept a straight path," she said.
Sutherland also claimed the Goodwood Stakes on Oct. 10 in Game On Dude's last outing, earning the berth in the Classic.
"Under pressure, like in big races, she doesn't get nervous," said Bob Baffert, the Hall of Fame trainer who has put five riders on Game On Dude in 10 races but has stuck with Sutherland in the past four Grade I stakes.
"I've seen some riders come out, and you can tell they're nervous and feeling the pressure," Baffert said. "I've never seen that in her. But again, this is going to be the biggest race of her life."
Smith, Sutherland's former fiance, will be five stalls away in the starting gate for the Classic aboard Drosselmeyer, a 15-1 shot.
The pair are friendly but no longer are close after breaking up in 2010, the end of a six-year office romance they conducted while competing on 1,000-pound thoroughbreds at breakneck speeds.
Sutherland said she is happy in a new relationship with Dan Kruse, an executive in a family meat-manufacturing business near Los Angeles. Smith is single.
Under pressure, like in big races, [Sutherland] doesn't get nervous. I've seen some riders come out, and you can tell they're nervous and feeling the pressure. I've never seen that in her. But again, this is going to be the biggest race of her life.Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert
But with Sutherland now making Southern California her full-time base, she and Smith still race against each other almost every day.
"For other people to see, it seems like there's something, but there's nothing there," Sutherland said. "I've raced in races and he's right beside me. I've talked to him in races, but I talk to all the jockeys. It's nothing unusual."
They even consented to a promotional match race at Del Mar Racetrack near San Diego in August called "The Battle of the Exes."
Smith won, but said he feels he made a misstep with some of his comments.
"I think I might have taken it too far and hurt her feelings a time or two," he said.
"I think we both did it for racing," she said. "It drew a large crowd, I think, because there's always going to be that struggle between men and women.
"We're fine with it. We're always going to have a good friendship. We don't chitchat, or still have a beer or a cocktail. But we have an inner peace between us, I think."
Smith -- who has won each leg of the Triple Crown and took the 2009 Classic aboard Zenyatta after winning on Skip Away in 1997 -- said this could be a big weekend for Sutherland, who also will ride Great Hot in the Filly and Mare Sprint on Friday.
A win by the jockey and sometime-model in either race with ESPN cameras all around would be the sort of boost racing always grasps for.
"She's great for the game. She really is," Smith said. "It would be incredible for her career. But I wouldn't say she's not nervous. She hides it very well."
Baffert, mindful of the clamoring after Sutherland for promotional and media events, has cautioned her to concentrate on horse racing, even though she says she enjoys the sort of busy days she spent last week when she was filmed for a car commercial one day and followed by an ESPN camera crew the next.
"I keep telling her I want her to stay focused," Baffert said. "I've been through the Triple Crown. The three races, and those three weeks before the races, are so emotionally draining. She's got to be careful. She needs to focus on riding right now."
Game On Dude, part-owned by former major league manager Joe Torre, is a horse that wants to be out front, and Sutherland said that is how they will try to best a field led by Uncle Mo and the second favorite, filly Havre de Grace.
Krone will be watching, knowing Sutherland has a chance to plot another point in the invisible arc of women riders.
"I was too young to appreciate it then, but as you grow older, you do," said Krone, now 48, retired and the mother of a 6-year-old girl. "To think it took Kathy Kusner going to court in Maryland to become a jockey..."
Kusner, an Olympic equestrian, sued to force the Maryland Racing Commission to issue her a jockey's license in 1968.
Krone remembers the days when separate quarters for women riders were not as nice as those at Santa Anita Park and Churchill Downs now. They were sometimes in the far reaches of the track, without food or access to replays.
"I'd go into my little jocks' room and it was like an isolation chamber," she said.
"I think the novelty, if Chantal was to become the first woman to win the Classic, is that one by one, the 'firsts' are getting etched out."