DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Chantal Sutherland will make history Saturday as the first woman jockey to ride in the world's richest horse race. She hopes many more will follow.
Sutherland will ride Game On Dude in the $10 million Dubai World Cup, the latest breakthrough for the 36-year-old rider from Toronto. She is one of several dozen female jockeys racing in North America, and perhaps the most well known.
"I don't feel pressure. I feel really honored and grateful," Sutherland said. "As soon as the gates open, I think I've made history. I hope I'm one of many to come in the Dubai World Cup and hope I see more women making it at this level. There are a lot of great female jockeys."
Sutherland remains somewhat of an anomaly in the male-dominated, tradition-rich sport of horse racing where owners often hesitate to give females a chance and women lack the kind of role models and support network enjoyed by the male jockeys.
But the 12-year veteran said things are gradually changing.
More women are getting rides in big races like the Kentucky Derby and Breeders' Cup Classic. Their numbers are slowly increasing in the U.S., Australia and Europe. The industry, too, is starting to recognize the benefits of female jockeys — especially when it comes to attracting a new audience to a sport that is struggling to stay afloat financially.
"Sometimes, it is a little bit of a boys' club. I think all women can agree with me," Sutherland said.
"However, sometimes I get a lot of support because I am a woman," she added. "I've gotten a lot of media attention because I'm a woman. I've marketed myself and by marketing myself I've gotten more opportunities to get on other horses and other owners want to ride me because of that ... It kind of balances itself out."
Hayley Turner, one of Britain's most prominent female jockeys, agreed that attitudes toward women in racing are changing. She, too, will make history as the first woman to ride in a thoroughbred race at the Dubai World Cup meeting. She is scheduled to ride Margot Did in the Al Quoz Sprint, a Group 1 race that precedes the World Cup.
"It is a first, isn't it? People will make a big deal of it," said Turner, whose profile has skyrocketed after she won two Group 1 races last year.
"There has to be a first for everything," she said. "Next year when there are a few more girls, it won't be a big deal. I think it's been part of my career having these breakthroughs. It has been nice to be able to do it. But then it's nice now that it's normal as well. People can accept you for a jockey, rather than as a girl riding well."
Sutherland, who first contemplated becoming a jockey at 13 after seeing a female rider sporting a bandanna at her local track, admits the early days were a struggle. She was told by Hong Kong race organizers that they didn't see the benefits of using a woman jockey and then was almost pulled off a horse by an owner in California who didn't realize she was a woman until she was in the paddock. She won the race but the owner never used her again.
She also endured heartbreak in 2009, when 50-1 long shot Mine That Bird charged up the rail to steal the Derby. Sutherland had been his regular rider, lost him for two races during a change of trainers, then showed up at Churchill Downs three days before the race with a promise from one of the owners that she would get the mount for the big race. It went to veteran Calvin Borel instead — she learned about the change in the Daily Racing Form.
Sutherland said she never let any of those incidents get her down, insisting she "couldn't care less" when an owner over the years has doubted her ability.
"You have to stick it through and believe in yourself. You can't give up," she said. "So many times people told me I can't do this or can't do that. My nature is that I don't listen very well. I'm very determined and I believe in myself. My parents brought me up that way. Thank God for that. I don't let anything stand in my way."
By persevering, Sutherland has emerged as one of North America's top jockeys. She has earned $45.6 million in purses and won 908 races in Canada, Florida, New York and now California. She became the first woman to win the Santa Anita Handicap last year on Game On Dude and finished an agonizing second in the Breeders' Cup Classic in November, losing out to the long shot Drosselmeyer, who was ridden by Sutherland's ex-boyfriend Mike Smith.
With the success have come opportunities off the track — turning her into one of America's most recognizable jockeys.
She has had billboards dedicated to her in Los Angeles and has been the face for jeweler Caldwell Sutherland designs. She has also appeared in several television shows, including the horse racing reality show "Jockeys" and the recently canceled HBO series "Lucky."
While some jockeys may grumble that she gets the offers only because she is a woman, Sutherland embraces her newfound celebrity status. Mobbed by cameras on her arrival at the Meydan Racecourse in Dubai, Sutherland gushed how she "felt like a superstar."
"As far as the other jockeys, I'm sure at first there was some jealously for the attention. But now, I think they sort of blow it off as 'she is the princess'," she said. "I hope they see it as a good thing for racing. Without the attention and without bringing more people to the industry, we are in trouble."
Her rising stature has brought expectations — a victory Saturday could further bolster her status and possibly lead to a ride in the Melbourne Cup or Royal Ascot. A loss, in contrast, could raise doubts about her ability to win big races.
But Game On Dude co-owner Bernie Schiappa insists he is sticking with Sutherland "win, lose or draw."
"She is a competitor. She is fit. She works very hard at what she does," said Schiappa, recalling her extensive preparations before the BC Classic. "Everyone says you can have a different rider. But you know what? She earned the right to ride this horse and she proved she can do it."
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