It hit me between 2:30 and 3 in the morning. Having fallen asleep on the couch as usual, I awoke to a mellifluous voice flowing from the TV. The voice spoke of horses and racing, and after a few seconds of unscrambling my brain, I remembered that I had been watching one of my favorite racing shows, “Against the Odds,” on HRTV and must have dozed off during a commercial.
Through the cobwebs I could see the angelic face of Chantal Sutherland driving her car and talking about a family cow stepping on her foot. This could only be “Inside Information,” HRTV’s treasure chest of history and human interest stories. This show in particular was about Sutherland’s dream of winning the Breeders’ Cup Classic and her 2011 journey to Churchill Downs, where she had a great shot of fulfilling that dream aboard Game On Dude. There perhaps is no more harmonious relationship between rider and horse than that of Sutherland and Game On Dude.
We all know the ending, of course. Game On Dude looked to be home free in the Classic, only to be caught late by longshot Drosselmeyer, ridden by Sutherland’s ex-boyfriend Mike Smith, whom she has been trying the get the better of since they were featured on the TV reality series “Jockeys.” One of the more revealing photos of the BC Classic finish was a close-up shot of Sutherland looking over and seeing who it was passing her way out in the middle of the track, out of range of the gutsy and tenacious Game On Dude.
Of all the jockeys to crush her dream, it had to be Smith, and on a lightly regarded horse no less. Although they have remained friends, Smith has been a thorn in Sutherland’s side, beating her in a match race, dubbed “The Battle of the Exes,” and now the ultimate defeat in the Classic. But she handled the defeat with a smile and candor, and provided an articulate analysis of the race. The first person to greet her afterward with a hug and congratulations was Bo Derek.
But this is another year, and if everything goes right, Sutherland and Game On Dude will get another chance at the Breeders’ Cup Classic, and at the horse’s home track, Santa Anita.
It was while watching this riveting and revealing segment on Inside Information that I came to the realization that racing needs Sutherland and Game On Dude to win the Classic. Yes, what racing needs, like a Triple Crown winner, has become sort of a cliché, but racing really does need this. Our Triple Crown heroes are gone and with them went whatever star appeal racing had this year. Here we have potentially the best horse in the country -- a swift, courageous, and consistent athlete -- ridden by a jockey, who with the proper marketing campaign could be the sport’s greatest breakout star in many years.
Sutherland has it all – beauty, personality, charisma, and talent, and there is no reason she shouldn’t be as well-known to mainstream America as auto racing's Danica Patrick. She even has a first name that can stand alone. Yes, she has posed for magazines, at times in a revealing manner, and has appeared on Conan O’Brien, where she rivaled any of the so-called glamorous movie stars. But she should be plastered across the TV screen and magazines in commercials and ads and featured wherever and whenever possible. Why? Because the sport needs it.
No one will argue that racing has had an image problem lately. Through the morass of bad publicity, drug accusations, misinformation about breakdowns, and political intervention, we need people to once again see the beauty of the sport. It is difficult to accomplish when its biggest stars are retired prematurely. The horses may come and go, but the people remain, and when you can get a potential media star like Sutherland teaming up with one of the few brilliant equine stars remaining, you have to take advantage of it.
And Sutherland isn’t the only female jockey to fall into this category. There is also Rosie Napravnik, who is pretty and engaging and bursting with personality. And most of all, she is one of the most talented riders in the country, male or female. The same applies to the other top Canadian jockey Emma Jayne Wilson.
Yes, racing fans in North America are familiar with these three riders, but it has to go beyond that. They have to be more than jockeys, more than an occasional feature subject. Sutherland has to be more than an occasional model. What separates her from Napravnik and Wilson right now is that she is riding what many believe to be the leading candidate for Horse of the Year and the favorite for the Breeders’ Cup Classic. The “Inside Information” feature has to be shown beyond racing circles. It has to reach viewers all over the country.
Before the Breeders’ Cup creeps up on us, people have to know all about Sutherland – yes, visually, but also about her dream and her unique relationship with Game On Dude, and witness all the fans, young and old, male and female, lining up for her autograph. And, yes, they have to know about how her cow once stepped on her foot.
Then if Sutherland and can win the Breeders’ Cup Classic this year, and with the proper marketing and publicity, you’ll have Leno and Letterman fighting over her. You’ll have magazines hounding her for photo spreads. You’ll have her phone ringing off the hook to do commercials. Newspapers will have a ball coming up headlines, such as “The Dude and the Dame.”
OK, maybe all this merely is the result of a 3 a.m. revelation. But it is now 1 p.m. the following day and I still haven’t been jolted back to reality. I still firmly believe a victory by Game On Dude and Sutherland in the Classic can have a far-reaching effect on the industry if handled properly, and that racing will have a national celebrity and spokesperson.
That will open the door for Napravnik and Wilson. And only then will the beauty of racing – human and equine – again shine through all the murk that has clouded the sport.