To reach winner’s circle, this couple will go the distance
In the loosest use of horse-racing terminology, they have been a coupled entry.
Since last fall, jockeys Mike Smith and Chantal Sutherland have gotten up together, gone to work together and, sometimes, raced down the home stretch at Santa Anita together.
“I’ve never beaten him in one of those head-to-heads,” Sutherland says.
She is 33, a rising rider with movie-star looks. He is 43, an established veteran with a place in the Hall of Fame.
They have dated since the summer of 2005 and have lived together in Sierra Madre since last fall. In a scene from one of the first episodes of the reality TV show “Jockeys,” Sutherland moves in and immediately starts to squeeze Smith out of most of his closet space.
“It got even worse,” he says.
Sadly, for him and for horse gamblers who love how Sutherland brings in the longshots, he is getting back some of that closet space. Sutherland is moving out. She won two races over the weekend at Santa Anita, including Sunday’s first aboard Bullybullybully, and will ride one horse today in the last race before boarding an airplane and flying away.
Smith won an $800,000 race in El Paso on Sunday, but he will keep Southern California as his headquarters.
It is not what is seems. No breakup. No nasty fights -- other than a couple that are now ancient history.
Sutherland is going back to where she had her greatest success, where she gets a better pick of horses, where she’s not standing in line at Santa Anita behind a wall of legends the likes of Garrett Gomez, Aaron Gryder, Alex Solis, David Flores, Corey Nakatani, Rafael Bejarano, Victor Espinoza and, yes, Mike Smith.
Sutherland is going home to Woodbine in Toronto. There, she is among the track’s leading riders. There, she has twice won five races in one day. There, the purses are huge because of the revenue produced from the adjacent slot machine casino.
There, she can put to work all that she has learned from her instructor and partner.
“Mike has taught me so much,” she says. “Watching what he does out there, and then being able to sit down with him later and have him explain is invaluable.”
Smith says he understands, says he is proud of the jockey Sutherland has become and says, “She’s gonna do really well. I’ve got a good feeling about it.”
He also says he’ll miss her, despite his newfound closet space.
The Woodbine meeting starts Friday and will run each Friday, Saturday and Sunday until May, when it adds Wednesday and Thursday and continues through early December.
“You can’t believe how cold it gets, running on some of those winter days,” Sutherland says, adding that winter hangs around a long time in Toronto. “I talked to a friend back there the other day, and she said it was 7-below zero.”
The plan is for Sutherland to stay at Woodbine until returning for the next winter meeting at Santa Anita. The plan is also for her to return to Southern California when she is asked to ride a high-quality horse in a big-money race.
Smith says he will see lots of her by flying red-eyes -- Sunday nights to Toronto, Tuesday nights back. (Gamblers beware of plunking your money down on Smith in early Wednesday races).
“We have done the red-eye so often between here and Toronto that the flight attendants started calling us by name,” Sutherland says. “Pretty soon, we’d seen all the movies twice.”
Smith won’t race at Woodbine as much as he will visit. He doesn’t have a Canadian work visa and can only ride American-owned horses at that track.
In some ways, it will be better for them to watch each other from afar rather than from a nose or a neck away.
“We argue sometimes about races we are both in,” Sutherland says. “In a stakes race [the Grade II Strub, Feb. 7], Mike was on a hot horse named Blue Exit and I was on a 40-1 named Victory Pete. In the stretch run, I got pushed out a little just as Mike was sailing past and we bumped a little. Blue Exit missed winning by about a neck and we didn’t speak for three days.”
Said Smith: “I remember that stakes race. She [Sutherland] didn’t help my chances.”
On Oct. 5, 2008, her last day riding at Woodbine before she made the move to join Smith in California, Sutherland rode four winners but missed the winner’s circle with her last mount, the aptly named Runoff to LA.
She says she loves it here, loves the weather, had just gotten started with boxing workouts at Freddie Roach’s Wild Card Gym in Hollywood -- “I have pink gloves,” she says -- and has dreamed of riding at Del Mar.
So don’t be surprised if she’s running off to L.A. occasionally even before December. She left plenty of clothes at the Smith condominium in Sierra Madre, where she is confident she can always find extra closet space.