Game on, says Sutherland, in race for equality

US jockey poised to push back the frontiers at racing's global gathering in Dubai this evening

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Between its global billing and unique milieu, the richest race meeting on the planet undeniably reproves parochial perspectives, whether in those distant lands whose champions converge in the desert tonight, or among observers not so far afield. British Turf professionals, certainly, always go home with a fresh understanding of Sheikh Mohammed, and their relatively trivial role in his life and ambitions. But while they may also develop reservations about the pace of change here – too frenetic, perhaps, in some respects; and not fast enough, in others – then they should also recognise that the ruler's vision for his homeland, as a hub between different cultures, operates in both directions. If a woman could ride the winner of the Dubai World Cup, after all, then it would not just be newcomers to this region whose assumptions can be challenged.

To some, Chantal Sutherland may satisfy male expectations rather too handsomely. In tandem with her riding career, the "glam jock" has gained broader celebrity in the United States through fashion shoots and television work, including a role in the racing drama, Luck. And while she has handled media fascination with practised charm, she has steadfastly dead-batted questions about the kind of statement she might make, on behalf of women's rights in the Middle East, by winning on Game On Dude. As a guest here, she does not want to say anything that might give offence. At the same time, however, she may suspect that the potential impact of her deeds would scarcely require the amplification of words.

And nor, in fairness, does she feel her example a sufficient breakthrough in her own country, or others that pronounce themselves liberal. As she remarks, of the tiny percentage of female jockeys plying their trade on the North American circuit: "You know, we're not one per cent of the population."

Her very presence here, then, is a significant statement. "I've always had big dreams but when they come to fruition – well, just don't pinch me," she said. "I don't want to wake up. I feel no pressure. I feel honoured. As soon as the gates open, I think I'll have made history. Because I'm here, it'll open doors. But women are tough. Whether I win or lose, it isn't going to stop them. They're coming!"

She recalls one occasion in California when the owner of her mount only realised in the parade ring that his trainer had booked a female rider. He promptly tried to have her replaced, even as she was in the saddle, but was not permitted by the rules. Sutherland then won the race, but he never let her ride for him again. She refused to be goaded. "If you don't want me, I don't want you," she said. "I'll just find somebody else and beat you. It's your problem. Too bad you have that problem. But I hope you have a daughter one day."

At 36, and recently married, Sutherland has no plans to start a family herself. A relatively late starter, in her native Canada, she hopes that this new frontier will not be the last – starting, with luck, at Royal Ascot in June. In the meantime, she will enjoy sharing the palatial jockeys' room at Meydan with Hayley Turner, whose ride on Margot Did a couple of hours earlier will qualify her as the first woman to ride at this meeting.

Sutherland feels that their respective breakthroughs, either side of the Atlantic, confirm an extra dimension in the female jockey. "Some of the best riders in the world, like Frankie Dettori or Mike Smith, have a light, more tolerant touch with horses," she said. "And I think women, by nature, because we bear children and deal with kids, are maybe more tolerant than a man. That's only my opinion. But I do think we have a lot more patience with horses. We don't maybe get after them, get too aggressive with them."

It was this relatively tender touch that enabled her to retrieve the mount on Game On Dude, having initially partnered him only on account of his light weight in the historic Santa Anita Handicap last year. Two elite male riders could not get the same tune out of the horse in his next starts, and she has ridden him ever since, including when second in the Breeders' Cup Classic. "He has such a big heart," she said. "I've never ridden a horse in my life that tries so hard."

But it is the heart of his charismatic trainer, Bob Baffert, that has redoubled attention on the horse who so matches his name. Baffert was rushed to hospital after a cardiac attack on Monday, but the dual World Cup winner has recovered so well that his trademark shock of silver hair and dark sunglasses will apparently be seen in the parade ring, after all.

And that is just one of the many yarns woven into the richest of tapestries today. Others include the retirement, after four rides tonight, of Richard Hills – for 15 years the retained jockey to Sheikh Hamdan – and a new beginning, equally, for Silvestre de Sousa and Mickael Barzalona alongside Dettori in the service of Godolphin.

Then there is the unprecedented strength of the Ballydoyle raid. For many years, the Co Tipperary stable's owners at Coolmore – traditional adversaries of the Maktoum family, both on the track and at the sales ring – had nothing to do with this meeting. After a successful rapprochement last year, however, this time Aidan O'Brien has sent over four of their best older horses, as well as two three-year-olds in the UAE Derby. In the big one, So You Think will be ridden for the first time by the trainer's son, Joseph, who also renews his partnership with St Nicholas Abbey, winner of the Breeders' Cup Turf, in the Sheema Classic.

Sutherland tops the bill, however. How she would love to be first among equals. "But all I know is this," she said. "When you're racing for 10 million dollars, everyone's gonna bring their gun."