She gives the place a new look

Times Staff Writer

Chantal Sutherland isn't just turning heads at Santa Anita these days, she's winning races and generating talk.

And not just because the 32-year-old jockey in 2006 made People magazine's "100 Most Beautiful People" list alongside the likes of Angelina Jolie and Nicole Kidman. Or because before that she had a four-page spread in Vogue that included a photo of her on a horse wearing a skin-tight body suit.

Sutherland, after success in Canada, is proving she can hold her own in Southern California's tough jockey colony.

"The proof is in the pudding," Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens said. "She has become the queen of the longshots. She has won several photos against top jockeys, which shows she is a strong finisher."

Her victory aboard 8-1 shot Lightmyfirebaby in the Irish O'Brien Stakes on St. Patrick's Day gave Sutherland her 12th win of the meet and her first stakes victory.

"This is really amazing," she said after the race. "To win my first stake at Santa Anita . . . it's really cool; it's out of this world. This is the best time of my life. To be winning races like this here at Santa Anita, it's just awesome."

Barry Abrams, the trainer of Lightmyfirebaby, said: "I use Chantal on a lot of my horses. She gets along with my nervous, nutty horses. She calms them down. She does a great job."

The next day, Abrams was still beaming.

"If you have a horse that can win, she can get the job done," he said. "I'm as confident when she's on a horse as I am when it's [Eclipse Award winner] Garrett Gomez."

Her 12 wins through Monday averaged a win payoff of $22.22. A $20 wager on each of her 77 mounts would have resulted in a profit of $1,126.

She had three mounts Thursday and in the eighth race rode 23-1 shot Grizhead Red to a strong finish for third and a $10 show payoff.

Sutherland, who came from Toronto in December to ride at Santa Anita for the first time, said: "I never thought I would do this well. I came here to better myself as an athlete, but I came here with no expectations. I didn't know how I would do. It's been an amazing experience. It's been like a dream."

Her Santa Anita dream, however, probably will end soon. Although she says she's not 100% sure, she plans to return to Toronto's Woodbine Racetrack on April 8. That would mean she would miss the final two weeks of the Santa Anita meet.

"I think I'm pretty set that I'm going to go back," she said. "It's a hard decision. But the money is so good at home, and I've worked hard to make good relationships with people there. I don't want to turn them down."

She was named Canada's top apprentice jockey in 2001 and 2002. And in 2002 she was one of Canada's highest-paid female athletes, earning $5.7 million in purses in seven months.

In 2005 she tested the Florida and New York circuits and finished seventh in the jockey standings at Saratoga.

But she now says she has fallen in love with California.

"I'd really like to go to Del Mar" this summer, she said.

Craig Dado, that track's head of marketing, said, "That would be great for us. We've been talking the past three years about coming here. Our only concern was, would she get enough mounts and could she win races? She's shown that she can at Santa Anita."

But Sutherland's boyfriend of 2 1/2 years, Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith, isn't so sure that going to Del Mar is a good idea.

"You just can't pick up and leave for six weeks in the middle of a meet," he said, referring to Woodbine. "You don't want to risk burning any bridges."

As for her returning to Woodbine next month and leaving him behind, Smith said, "It's not an ideal situation, but you deal with it. What matters is, what's best for her."

Sutherland grew up in the Toronto area, where her father, Hugh, owns two horse ranches. One is 50 acres, the other 35, and the smaller one has a training track.

Sutherland began riding ponies at age 5 and soon was showing horses and participating in equestrian competitions.

After going to boarding school at age 13, Sutherland returned to her father's estate for the summer when she was 16 and began galloping thoroughbreds. It was at that time that she began having thoughts of someday being a jockey.

But first there was college at Toronto's York University, where Sutherland majored in psychology and mass communications.

She also was on the field hockey team and was good enough to try out for Canada's national Junior World Cup team.

After recently going on a ski trip to Big Bear with Sutherland and a group that included her agent, Tom Ball, and jockey Michael Baze, trainer Bob Baffert said, "She is one heck of a skier, just an all-around great athlete."

"I love to go fast," Sutherland said.

And now she's going pretty fast toward the top of her profession.

"She could become the best female jockey since Julie Krone," said Allen Gutterman, Santa Anita's marketing chief. "It's great for horse racing to have someone like Chantal, so charming and so attractive, doing this well."

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larry.stewart@latimes.com

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