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Jockey silences neigh-sayers

Published on Friday, 18 Dec 2009
Chantal Sutherland with fellow jockeys (from left) John Murtagh, Ryan Moore and Christophe Lemaire at last week's International Jockeys' Championship.

Wanting to prove people wrong can provide powerful motivation, as Chantal Sutherland found when she first told a dinner party of 10 or so friends about her plan to become a professional jockey.

"Everyone thought it was hilarious," says the Canadian star who was in town last week for the Cathay Pacific International Jockeys' Championship. "They couldn't stop laughing at me, but I just thought I'm going to show you it's possible and I'm going to find the people who will help."

So, having concluded the only way to learn was from a racing legend such as Angel Cordero Jnr, the next step seemed obvious. It was to call up directory enquiries in Florida and start ringing all the Corderos in the phone book until she found the right one.

"I flew down there and talked him into teaching me," says Sutherland, revealing the trademark determination that has since helped her ride more than 450 winners and earn purses totalling many millions of dollars. "I had always wanted to be an athlete, but at five foot two [1.57 metres] I needed to find a sport that would let me be good [professionally]."

Her decision, of course, was no mere flight of fancy. Rather, it was the result of applied logic and a process of careful self-evaluation learned while taking a degree in communications and psychology at Toronto's York University. In particular, a course in occupational psychology had taught the basics of career guidance, emphasising the benefits of finding work that matched four key criteria. It showed that people who generally did best were those with a job involving something they loved, were passionate about, were good at and which allowed them to make money.

"For me, the only one that fit was to be a jockey," she says.

Indeed, after tallying the various signs, it was hard to reach any other conclusion. Growing up on a farm where her father owned and trained horses, Sutherland had two ponies by the age of five and took part in dressage and jumping events until going to boarding school at 13. There, her competitive instincts drew her more towards downhill skiing and, later, field hockey, which culminated in a call-up for the Canadian squad for the junior World Cup. "I wanted so badly to be in the Olympics for hockey, but I was getting beat up and realised I obviously wasn't built for it," she recalls.

It took a summer job at university, riding horses on a farm in Ontario, to reignite her first passion and accept that "maybe this is what I was meant to do". The idea didn't thrill her father, who felt that, having already gained a pilot's licence, she should be aiming to join an airline. But he eventually came round and helped to arrange try-outs galloping horses at a local track under the eye of a professional trainer.

Now at the top of her game, Sutherland has no hesitation in describing herself as "the luckiest girl in the world". She splits her year between Woodbine in Toronto, her base from April to December, and Santa Anita in California. The usual six-day week can entail early-morning trackwork, race meetings with anything up to 11 rides, burgeoning media commitments and intensive gym sessions.

"I've come to accept that I'm not as strong as the guys, so I do a lot of weightlifting, for the upper body especially, and a lot of cardio," she says. "I also study my races the night before to know everything about the other jockeys, how they ride and the past performances of the horses."

This preparation extends to plotting special diagrams for each race. They show where, ideally, to be at the break and at mid-race, who to follow and which horses to be well away from.

"But so many things happen in a race that you still have to go with the flow," Sutherland says. "That's why the trainers I get along with best are those who say: `This is what the horse is like, but you are not handcuffed to my instructions'. It gives me the freedom [to decide]."

She says there are inevitably ups and downs, hot streaks and poor runs during a season. That is just part of the job. It means, though, that jockeys must have strong personalities, resilience and an acceptance that if a horse is not great, you simply have to ride it out.

Since joining the professional ranks back in 2000, Sutherland has enjoyed the combination of fierce competitiveness on the track and genuine camaraderie off it. There is a high level of mutual respect with other jockeys but no quarter asked or given during an all-out tussle down the home straight.

"It takes serious guts to do what we do," she says. "In a race, they are tough and treat me just like a guy, but at other times they are so nice."

Her immediate goals include riding in a Kentucky Derby, more Breeders' Cup events, a winter season in Hong Kong and riding at Ascot. An ever-higher profile has brought a modelling assignment for Vogue, a starring role in two seasons of Jockeys, the Animal Planet reality TV series, and her own line of cosmetics in Canada.

While taking nothing for granted, Sutherland hopes for at least five more years in the saddle and might go into broadcasting after that.

"I believe in God and in asking the universe for what you want," she says. "The world has so much to offer - you should never believe in limitations."

This is the final article in the current series of Women of Distinction.

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