I’m trying to remember when I first saw Chantal Sutherland, or even heard of her for that matter.
Just about everyone else can remember where they were when other strikingly beautiful blonde women athletes were tacked to the walls of every teenage boy’s bedrooms (OK, ceilings) in America. Maria Sharapova winning Wimbledon in 2004. Anna Kournikova and her yard-long braid down the center of her back, Craig Kilborn making hilarious, though strangely perverse comments about her during tennis highlights. Brandi Chastain tearing off her jersey after winning the 1996 World Cup. Natalie Gublis in golf. Nala in the Lion King (don’t hate).
Sutherland is every bit as athletic (maybe more so) than the above women. Damn, I follow horse racing and I can’t remember when Sutherland blew up onto the scene. Maybe that will be the case for others as well. I will, if nothing else, remember her leaving the sport that gave her a platform and 12,531 Twitter followers (make that 12,532).
It must have been Jockeys. Yeah, it probably was Jockeys. This show, which aired on Animal Planet, aimed to illustrate the world of being a jockey heading toward the Kentucky Derby. Racetrack insiders saw jockeys Garret Gomez, Joe Talamo, Mike Smith and knew who they were. Then there was Mike Smith’s girlfriend. A woman, 11 years his junior, also a jockey, who played the token role of lover for the “Love Under 5-feet-3-inches.”
That’s Chantal Sutherland. Her hair under a jockey helmet, or under a ball cap, or tied up in pigtails, she made your head spin. Those cheekbones. That smile. And she could ride.
In 2008 she was the regular rider of Mine That Bird, a runtish gelding who would go on to win the 2009 Kentucky Derby at 50-1. Except Sutherland was not aboard. She rode this horse closer to the lead and it wasn’t until Calvin Borel took him way back and literary skimmed the rail coming down the homestretch that Mine That Bird realized his potential. Sutherland flipped her gourd on Jockeys, saying that was her Derby horse, that she could have won the Derby. Sorry, Chantal, no. Only Calvin Borel is dumb (I mean that in the most affectionate way possibly) and fearless enough to guide a horse through a slit of daylight no wider than a textbook. Only him. Sorry.
But, if nothing else, seeing those perfect teeth and chiseled cheekbones and long, silken hair on the air waves of Jockeys made Sutherland the poster girl of horse racing.
Her website gives shows that she’s not just a jockey. With a mug like hers and body to boot, you better believe it says jockey/actress/model—in descending order of ability, I presume. But what will she be without the title of jockey? She’ll just be another pretty face in an ocean of Barbie dolls. Horse racing made her special.
There she was plastered to the side of a billboard, toes in the irons atop a thoroughbred and her river of hair undulate in the wind. She says, “Follow me to Santa Anita Park!”
And when her relationship to Mike Smith devolved, Del Mar saw fit to use it.
She got swept up in a “Battle of the Exes”: a match race between her and Smith aboard a couple nags at Del Mar. “We’re both very competitive,” said Sutherland. “Everything’s a competition.”
So on August 7, 2011, Sutherland entered the gate aboard Parable in the 2-hole while her Hall of Fame jockey and ex-boyfriend entered Post 1 with Joker Face. Smith made easy work of this race, gunning for the lead, keeping Sutherland and Parable to his outside the entire way around the oval. He kicked clear, and in an otherwise inconsequential trip around the track, Smith pumped his fist a couple times under the shadow of the wire.
A TVG announcer said, “No dinner and wine for Chantal.”
By this time, the racing world had bit of an edge when it came to Sutherland. After all it’s always been a male-dominated sport. Julie Krone cut her teeth and won some big races as a jockey. She’s considered the greatest female rider of them all. But she didn’t possess the million-dollar sex appeal of Sutherland. Or. If she did. She kept it under wraps.
But that would come a bit later. After Sutherland got the Big Horse.
Ah, the Big Horse. They call him Game On Dude and he was a front-running beast. Sutherland broke from the far outside post in the $1 million Santa Anita Handicap, or the Big Cap, famously won by Seabiscuit all those years ago.
Turning for home, three horses were across the track. Sutherland went to the stick and bumped a horse hard to her right. She then went head-to-head with a fast charging competitor. Bob, bob, bob, and the nose went to Game On Dude and Chantal Sutherland, the first female jockey ever to win the Big Cap. There was a long inquiry. Did she come over on that horse? Did she impede his chance to win? Maybe so, but were the stewards going to pull down the first female jockey ever to win the Big Cap? Nope. They didn’t. And there she was, her arms spread out to her side with a smile wider than the Pacific Ocean.
Eight months later she was aboard Game On Dude again for the 1 ¼ mile Breeders’ Cup Classic, America’s richest horse race at $5 million. Sutherland broke Game On Dude on top, seamlessly and without worry. She took him to the front with a fluidity belied by the thunderous traffic of 48 hooves turning dirt into dust.
She led for a mile and then a mile and an eighth. She went to the left-handed stick and Game On Dude bore in. The wire loomed just 100 yards away at this point. Then. Down the center of the track. Came an old friend. Mike Smith. Aboard Drosselmeyer. Blitzed from out of the clouds, the fastest moving horse of 12 when it mattered. He pulled up along side Game On Dude and locomotived past to win by a length.
“You got to be kidding me — Mike Smith, aaaaaah,” Sutherland said in good-humored frustration in the New York Times. “I never saw them coming.”
And we never saw how quickly the end was coming. Within 11 months, she’d be done with racing. Swear it off and move on to whatever it is beautiful people do.
But first she needed to get naked.
Bo Derek wanted to shoot Suthlerland. She wanted to frame Sutherland up and capture the allure that is Sutherland’s wonderful body. For a Vanity Fair shoot, people brought in a big, bay horse and put Sutherland up on his back with the same Number 8 saddle cloth that Game On Dude had worn in the 2011 Breeders’ Cup Classic.
Sutherland, nude, stands with her toes in the irons, in a bent-over crouch, hood-ornament still, with her blonde hair falling in ribbons past her shoulders. The horse looks positively uninterested which is a bold-faced insult to every man in America.
Derek writes, “There’s something special about the way jockey Chantal Sutherland rides a Thoroughbred racehorse. You notice it right away: you can always pick her out of a tightly packed field of 15 riders and horses. Her position in the saddle is positively feline, very sensual, and when she makes her move to take the lead, she gets impossibly low on her horse’s back.”
And she saved her kindest words for last and what makes it all the more poignant now that Sutherland has given up the game, or given up on the game. It’s hard to tell which.
“Jockeys are considered, pound for pound, among the strongest athletes in the world. But if a woman is generally 30 percent weaker than a man, just how strong must Chantal be to compete equally in arguably the most dangerous sport? She’ll tell you the strongest part of her sculpted body is her big toe. Yes, that’s the first point of contact that creates the leverage that controls a horse running at 40 miles per hour. The reins are a mere suggestion.”
If jockeys ride horses, then fear rides jockeys.
Jockeys are never more than snap of a horse’s cannon bone from death. Yes, jockeys get mangled, thrashed, gashed, broken, battered, paralyzed, and even killed. The horse goes down and the rider is at the mercy of physics. Air tangents. Equal and opposite reactions.
A 1,200-pound mammal leaves a nasty imprint on a 100-pound mammal. No matter how slick and jock is, he or she is a busted collar bone from losing his or her mounts. The horses train and they need a rider and there’s always one coming up the pipeline. Always another born from the belly of Peru or Mexico or Puerto Rico.
On July 18 at Del Mar Sutherland took a spill coming out of the gate. Her horse veered to the left and she aborted. She hit the ground hard and soon sat up. She was fine and rode again later that day. It wasn’t a spill that broke a bone, but maybe it was enough to have her think that as long as my body remains in tact, I have a life.
Running backs in the NFL have been known to quit while they still had tread on their tires. Jim Brown. Robert Smith. Barry Sanders. I doubt they’re walking with as much of a limp had they remained armored and in the league. Maybe Chantal’s back was breaking and all it took was one more straw to break it.
The favorite. Again. Chantal Sutherland took Game On Dude wide into the first turn in the Pacific Classic at Del Mar. She pressed the pace down the backstretch and took the lead under the urging of her horse. She opened up a length around the turn and straightened out with plenty of horse. Did she move too early? Was she going to lose anyway to an artificial-track phenom in Dullahan (third in this year’s Kentucky Derby)? She was second by just a length. That’s all it took, however.
Trainer Bob Baffert found another rider for his Big Horse.
"Rafael [Bejarano] is our main rider and we wanted to have our No. 1 rider on our No. 1 horses," Baffert said. "With the big fall races coming up, we just felt comfortable having Rafael on Game On Dude. It was difficult for me when I told Chantal about the decision. It's been a fun ride and we made history together, but we just felt it was time to make the change."
That was September 12. Just a few weeks later on October 6, Sutherland failed a breathalyzer test at Woodbine, was removed from her mounts for the day, handed a $300 fine and a five-day suspension.
Then on October 21, she announced she was done. Just like that. Up in smoke. Her body intact. Ready for the bounties of 40 or 50 more years of fear-less endeavors. Her smile still casting the shine of a thousand diamonds. Amazingly, balanced, she retires with 931 wins, 930 seconds, and 987 thirds from 7,350 mounts, putting her in the money 39 percent of the time.
So I don’t remember her entry, but I’m left with an image greater than any of her magazine covers, billboards, or pinups. Maybe even greater than her 100-yard dash of a career that started in O’ Canada.
“Maybe I’ll cut loose and have a cheeseburger or some pizza,” Sutherland said on her website.
Deservedly so. Amen.
To contact Brendan O'Meara, visit his website. Follow him on Twitter.