08/24/2012 5:00PM

Hovdey: For Sutherland, a constant battle over style and substance


It was bad enough the stewards at Great Britain’s Ascot Race Course required Chantal Sutherland to count, out loud, the nine whip strokes that got her in dutch during a race in the Shergar Cup competition Aug. 11. Then, piling on, she was informed her four-day suspension for the whip violation would commence “in a fortnight.”

Don’t they even speak English over there?

“By then I was a little stressed,” Sutherland recalled. “I remembered my Shakespeare, ‘Julius Caesar’ and old English. But at that point I said, ‘Just tell me what that is.’ When they said two weeks I knew immediately it would fall on the Pacific Classic and Game On Dude.”

As it turned out, the British are as liberal in accommodating jockeys and their suspensions as most American officials. Sutherland got a routine OK to reschedule one of her suspension days, allowing her to keep her date with favored Game On Dude in the $1 million Pacific Classic on Sunday. Happy ending.

Not surprisingly, the British press swarmed when Sutherland showed up for the Shergar Cup.

“They kept calling me Miss California, Racing Princess of the USA, asking about the picture – things like that,” Sutherland said. “I thought it was pretty funny, but it was also kind of neat. I liked being called an ‘American girl.’ ”

Sutherland, who is from Canada, can’t go outdoors these days without someone wondering, “I know her, don’t I?” Horse racing has had its cover girls in the past – among them Robyn Smith, Diane Nelson, and Mary Bacon – famous for being glamorous as well as talented. Now, in an age of social media and accelerated familiarity, the Sutherland brand has transcended the sport to wander among the masses.

“The picture” was part of a feature with Sutherland in a recent issue of “Vanity Fair,” designed and photographed by Bo Derek, Sutherland’s friend and fellow horsewoman. Shot in the Turf Club at Santa Anita with a real, live, tranquilized horse, the image left just enough to the imagination to maintain Sutherland’s reputation as racing’s mainstream pin-up girl.

She got the predictable grief, given the hidebound stuffiness of horse racing’s culture. Julie Krone (this writer’s wife) recalled the reaction of New York stewards to a published photograph of her bare, well-muscled back, which also appeared on a Jockeys’ Guild trading card.

“They did not approve,” Krone said. “They said it was not what they expected from me. This was also after my friend Richie Migliore turned the card around, wondering what might be on the other side.”

Sutherland is tapping into the commerce of real athletes as sexual fantasies that began in earnest with professional golfer Jan Stephenson in the late 1970’s. Stephenson adorned any number of magazine spreads with a golf club as a prop. She was blonde, so she did the obligatory Marilyn Monroe oops-the-wind-blew-up-my-skirt photo. And for posterity, Stephenson posed in a large washtub filled with golf balls and little else.

By the time Gabriela Sabatini hit the tennis scene in the late 1980’s, the sports world was getting the hang of its stars doubling as sex symbols. Sabatini, from Argentina, was a classic beauty from all angles, moving with grace between her tennis career and the pages of fashion magazines. She continued to be in demand well after her retirement, in 1996.

The torch was quickly passed to Anna Kournikova, the Russian tennis player who soon became breathless grist for an international array of men’s magazines, not to mention the advertising model for a sports bra with the tag line, “Only the ball should bounce.” So true.

The fact that Kournikova never won a WTA singles tournament bothered some more than others. She did win the doubles title at the Australian Open twice. Sabatini won the singles title at Wimbledon and was ranked as high as No. 3 at season’s end three times, behind only Steffi Graf, Monica Seles, and Martina Navratilova. As for Stephenson, between photo shoots she somehow managed to win 16 LPGA tournaments and three majors.

The sports figure with whom Sutherland most identifies is race car driver Danica Patrick, the only woman to hit the board in the Indy 500. Patrick has a prolific endorsement career and a portfolio of cheesecake shots that could put Christina Aguilera to shame. She has also won exactly one race, a 2008 Indy car event in Japan.

Sutherland is determined to be known for more than her off-track image. She turned 36 in February and has won 930 races, none more important than the five major stakes she has taken aboard the Bob Baffert-trained Game On Dude. To that end, Game On Dude has become her racing life.

“As his races get closer I start to think of him all the time,” Sutherland said. “When I go to the gym I push it harder.”

Other than the 2012 Dubai World Cup, a complete throwout of a race, their most disappointing collaboration came in the 2011 Pacific Classic, in which they finished fourth, without much of a fight, behind Acclamation and Twirling Candy. The rap was Game On Dude didn’t like the synthetic Del Mar track, preferring the version at Hollywood Park, or the dirt at Santa Anita and Churchill Downs.

“I don’t think he was as good then as he is now,” Sutherland said. “He even looks bigger. He’s really into his routine. I was blown away with his Gold Cup. The track was really tiring that day, and with three-eighths to go I was worried it might be getting to him.”

Game On Dude is a free-running, 5-year-old son of Awesome Again who won the San Antonio and Californian this year wire to wire. If he’s not in front early on Sunday, he won’t be far behind.

“With his kind of cruising speed I’ve got to make sure I’m in tune with him,” Sutherland said. “That also means not going too slow. And he is becoming more versatile. Bob has been training him lately to work behind horses. That gives me a lot of options.”

In the meantime, Sutherland, newly married, continues to juggle her off-track choices. Among other opportunities, she spent the summer with her face splashed all over Southern California as the face of Del Mar.

“How could I say no?” she said. “Del Mar has always been my dream place to ride. I want people to see I’m doing it because I genuinely love the sport. Look what Danica’s meant to car racing.

“But as far as the Vanity Fair kind of stuff, I think that’s over for me,” Sutherland added. “ My father’s real proud of me, but he wasn’t too happy about that. I just wanted to show how strong we are, how much we work at it, and how beautiful horses and horse racing can be.”

With just six wins at the Del Mar meet, Sutherland is well down in the standings. She concedes it can be frustrating.

“It’s a hustle all the time, like begging, which I’m not very good at,” she said. “I love action, and I loved riding 10 a day in Canada. Right now the days can get pretty long in this room. But you can’t just walk into California and have things handed to you.”

On Sunday, Sutherland’s first ride of the day comes in the ninth race, a little after 5 p.m., aboard Game On Dude. Another long wait, but this one should be worth it.