LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Chantal Sutherland is pretty. OK, she's very pretty. Or, if you prefer to veer off into the modern idiom, she's a knockout.
She has been a model, she has her own line of jewelry, and if Game On Dude wins Saturday's $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic, Natalie Portman should play Sutherland in a made-for-TV movie. Or maybe Sutherland could play herself; she did two seasons on the Animal Planet's "Jockeys" series, and she'll appear on HBO's upcoming "Luck."
Now, can we please put that behind us and move on to what's important: Sutherland can ride a racehorse. On Friday at Churchill Downs, she'll ride Great Hot in the Filly & Mare Sprint, and Saturday she'll be on Game On Dude. One has a prayer, and the other a chance; so Sutherland could become only the second woman (Julie Krone being the first, in 2003) ever to ride a Breeders' Cup winner.
When Sutherland arrives here at Churchill Downs later this week, the cameras, like so many fraternity brothers, will line up to get a look at her. Every television station in town will probably beg for an interview, and she'll go on a brief media tour. When she walks into the paddock during the prelude to her million-dollar date on Friday, she'll radiate charisma. And so it might be difficult to move on and rather easy to forget or overlook or subordinate what's important here: The lady can ride a racehorse; she has a rapport with racehorses; she loves to ride racehorses. And as Great Hot approaches the starting gate, Sutherland's photogenic smile will harden into the game face of a highly conditioned, fiercely competitive professional athlete.
Perhaps some preconceptions need to be filed away with the high school diploma or shoved into a drawer with the argyle socks. The sport has to get used to the fact that women, even very pretty women, can ride. Racing's moving in that direction, and when it arrives it'll be able to celebrate its being one of the few major sports in which men and woman can compete as equals.
"I like her a lot as a rider," Great Hot's trainer A.C. Avila said. "She's aggressive, a lot more aggressive than a lot of those males she rides against."
In the Raven Run Stakes at Keeneland, Sutherland and Great Hot were blocked in traffic, behind horses, but they waited patiently. In the turn, Sutherland explained, she saw some movement ahead and knew she had enough horse underneath her to make a bold move for a hole or else create one. And so at the top of the stretch, Sutherland cut the corner, sending Great Hot down to the rail. As the leader drifted out, Sutherland encouraged Great Hot right-handed to slip glissando through an opening and to the lead, and then in midstretch, where others rallied to threaten, the jockey quickly switched the stick to her left hand. They won by a nose. The lady can ride a racehorse.
Still flattered when people ask her for an autograph, Sutherland said she can't believe she's a celebrity. "I'm just a kid from Canada," she said. "And I'm very grateful to be here."
Sutherland grew up in Toronto, on a horse ranch, and competed in equestrian events while, she said, always dreaming of becoming a jockey. After she graduated from York University with a degree in communications and psychology, she pursued her dream, even to the dismay of her father, Hugh.
But now her dad's proud, as he should be, because he can bear witness to his daughter's work and dedication. Sutherland, quite simply, has made herself a good rider; she has brought herself from a horse farm in Canada to the richest race in North America, with a little help from Game On Dude; and it has been a triumph of volition.
"I've worked very had to get here," she said. "I worked 12 years to get here. And I work hard every day."
Sutherland has become a denizen of the gym, and she runs about 25 miles a week. She said she would challenge anybody in the jockeys' room to a test of fitness. She'll be up at 6 o'clock Thursday morning to work a few horses here and get a feel for the Churchill surface. And none of it she does because she wants to be a model or an actress. The lady can ride a racehorse, and she has no desire to do anything else.
"When you're coming down the hill on the Santa Anita turf course," she said, "and the horse is moving smoothly underneath you and you feel that rhythm, that motion, and then you turn into the stretch and hear the roar of the crowd, and it comes at you like it's out of some canyon -- that's the most exciting thing I can imagine. The modeling -- ah, that's OK. But if a horse runs for you, you're the luckiest person in the world."
And horses run for her, especially Game on Dude, a headstrong gelding whose exuberance can overflow. Prior to the Goodwood Stakes at Santa Anita, Sutherland and the horse's trainer, Bob Baffert, discussed strategy and decided it would be best to allow Game On Dude to use his talent to advantage, to use, in other words, rather than restrain his speed, and just let him roll.
At the start, he hesitated a moment and then seemingly tried to duck in, but Sutherland quickly straightened him into stride. In the first turn, Game On Dude hit his high cruising speed and positioned himself to force a rapid pace. As if delighted with this scenario, he just kept rolling. Having disposed of the early leader, Tres Borrachos, Game On Dude took an advantage into the stretch, where, of course, the late threats soon appeared. Sutherland encouraged Game On Dude left-handed and then right-handed and then left-handed again, all the while pushing with the other hand, as though entreating him to persevere, willing him to win. He did, by a half-length. And then Game On Dude galloped out well beyond all the other horses, as though he had plenty left and had just enjoyed a little stretching of the legs.
"He has so much stamina," Sutherland said, her own exuberance bubbling forth, along with considerable respect for her teammate in the Classic. "He's a wonderful horse."
Since then, she said, Game On Dude has continued to get stronger and more aggressive, his eagerness growing daily. "And now we're going for it," she said, sounding nothing like a model, but very much like an outstanding jockey.