Sound the horns, there's a new documentary soap opera on the tube.
"Jockeys," a 12-episode series that airs Friday nights on Animal Planet, takes viewers behind the hooves for a look at the big stakes and little riders in the sport of kings. The show follows seven riders: Hall of Famer Mike Smith, his girlfriend and Canadian jock Chantal Sutherland, young gun Joe Talamo, veterans Jon Court, Aaron Gryder and Alex Solis, and Aussie Kayla Stra.
I spoke with Chantal Sutherland on a day when the Southern California rain was keeping the 33-year-old inside (cleaning the oven, to be exact), with time to chat about her life on the track, her relationship with Smith and her recent TV endeavors. Last year, racing mostly at Woodbine in Canada (she also rode in the Breeder's Cup), Sutherland rode 116 winners and her horses earned over $5.9 million.
Here's what she had to say:
AP Photo/Kristie Bull/graylock.com
Chantal Sutherland and Hall of Famer Mike Smith are stars on the track -- and now on reality TV.
Page 2: You are no stranger to publicity. We've seen you in Sports Illustrated, Vogue and People magazine's "100 Most Beautiful People" list. With that and the TV show, are you recognized all over town?
Chantal Sutherland: Sometimes people recognize me, if I'm wearing pigtails, or if I'm with Mike. Mike has always been recognized a lot. As I've said before, he's a little, baldheaded Mexican! I can't go anywhere without somebody pointing him out. (Laughs) But since the show it happens more often. We'll go in the drug store or Target and people will be like, "Oh my God, are you the two jockeys?" Or usually it's, "Oh my God, Mike Smith! We love you and Giacomo!' He gets a lot of that. It's funny and flattering, and it's nice. It feels good to be recognized for what we do. ... Although we also have those people who will come up and say, "You -- I lost all my money on you!"
Do you and Mike sit down and watch the show together on Friday nights?
We do. We usually have a bunch of people over and we watch the show all together. We haven't seen the episodes before, so we're watching it as everybody else sees it. It's funny because we've never seen ourselves on TV like that, so it's really interesting to see how you act and how you move and how you speak. It's weird, and then, each time it's like, "Oh gosh, I hope I don't say anything stupid." The feedback I've gotten so far has been really positive, though. Everyone from our friends to the reviews in the paper; people seem to think it's interesting and different and genuine.
How did Mike win you over? What's the story of how he won your heart?
It's pretty funny, actually. Mike called me from California one day when I was racing in Saratoga. I remember thinking, "How did you get my number?!" But he just said that he was going to be coming out to the track and he asked if he could take me out to dinner. I remember saying that I didn't really know him that well and he just kept calling and finally I said that he could take me to dinner but it would be with my whole family because my brother, my sister, my parents were all there to see me, too. He said he'd take out my whole family. I thought he was crazy, but he did: He took us all out -- there was like 10 of us -- and he paid for the whole dinner and he was so nice. And after that I thought, well, I guess I owe him another date, and that was that. It's been 3½ years now.
What was your first impression of Mike?
The very first time I saw Mike it was seven or eight years ago. It was well before that weekend in Saratoga. I was working at a bar and grill and he came in and I knew who he was but I didn't know him at all and, honestly, I looked at him and I thought he was gorgeous. You know when you stare at somebody because you think that they are just so good-looking? So that was then. I didn't talk to him or anything but I noticed him right away, so it's funny to think about where we have ended up. He's great.
When you guys sit down at the dinner table, is it hard not to talk about horse racing?
No, actually. We talk about racing right after a race; we usually immediately come up to each other and ask if they saw it and what they thought and we get feedback from each other, which is really great. But beyond that we don't talk about it all the time. In fact, usually at the dinner table we talk about Mike feeding our dog table scraps! He has this thing where I swear he does it to make her like him more than me. He's made quite a little beggar out of her. That's how our dinners go.
Speaking of dinner time, I think it's interesting that the show highlights the eating habits and weight struggles of men in ways that we usually think of as women's issues. It documents guys "flipping" to keep the weight off. How common is that?
There are some jockeys that flip, but a lot of them don't. These guys are so intense that most of them do it the right way. But even that is really intense -- it's running up the mountain six miles every day, and getting in the sauna, and going to the gym -- that kind of thing. It's crazy either way, but it's because they know that they have to keep the weight off. That's all there is to it. That's the job. Racing horses and winning provides such gratification that's all you focus on. That's the payoff. You do this for that.
How do you keep the weight off?
Well, I'll say it's not easy to keep yourself between 100 and 112 pounds every day of every month of the year. Especially for women. I'm a woman; once a month I retain water and I crave chocolate and sugar. Those are the toughest days. I'm very in tune to my body and know that I want to eat everything but know I can't. That's when I end up being in the sauna a little bit more than usual, but for the most part, I just train hard every day with a trainer in the gym. I do Bikram yoga, and I run outside on trails to break it up all the time so my body doesn't get used to anything.
Is it weird sharing a locker room with the guys?
That's a frequently asked question and it's a good one. The guys are like brothers and they treat me so well. They joke with me like I was a sister. I feel like, if there was ever a time when I needed them, they would stick up for me, any one of them. They're all really cool guys and we have a really interesting family dynamic. It's professional and it's respectful and they make me enjoy going to work. It's one of the most healthy and supportive work environments you can imagine. They are such classy guys.
Even Joe Talamo?
Ha, yes, even Joe Talamo. He's a huge personality. He comes across a little bit cocky on the show, but he's such a wonderful person. He's so sarcastic and you think, "How can someone so young be so sarcastic?" But that's a tribute to him and who he is. He does have respect for the sport and for the veteran riders. The guys joke that he's an old soul in this young body. He's just hilarious. I really got to know him through the show, and he had us laughing, telling stories, talking all the time in that way he talks and makes up stories. He's always happy and he's just a fun guy to be around.
Do you remember your first race ever when you were a kid?
Yes, I do. I was so nervous. It was on a dirt surface and I was on a horse named Call Me Annie. We finished dead last, but the minute it was over I knew I was hooked.
What are your favorite silks?
I love pink silks, and I like the white ones with the Canadian maple leafs on them. I feel confident in those.
Do you have any superstitions?
I try to stay away from them because they can make you crazy, but I do have one. I don't even know why but I've just always done it -- I don't walk on handicapped parking spaces. I don't like to step on the blue lines. I always step over them. I don't know what the deal is. I don't know if it's a fear of injury, or a disrespectful thing, or if I just don't want to think about something like that happening. I have no idea, and Mike always asks me what the heck I'm doing when we're together and he sees me step over a blue line. I don't know. People do strange things. Other than that, I have this one gold cross that I have to wear when I ride.
What's the best part of being a jockey?
Just being happy with what you do. I'm just so lucky -- my office is a racetrack. That is something I'm very thankful for. It's exciting and it's challenging and there are a lot of emotions and nerves that come with it but right there before the gates open, before that minute and a half or two minutes of the race, it just hits you. This is what you train for, this is what you do; there's nothing else like it. I'm doing what I love.
Mary Buckheit is a Page 2 columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.