07/28/2011 2:50PM

Sutherland adjusts to big horse, Del Mar's quirks

Barbara D. Livingston
Chantal Sutherland will ride Kevlar Kid in Saturday's San Diego.

Do not be misled by the cultural snobs. Just because San Diego is about as far away as you can get from New York City in the continental U.S. without being at sea is no reason to think it is not a metropolis of sophisticated delights.

Sure, there’s not much out here in the way of pro sports teams, unless the Padres are your idea of a pro sports team. The last time San Diego rose to any serious amount of national attention was in 1996 when the Republican party held its national convention in “America’s Finest City” and nominated Bob Dole for President. How did that work out?

San Diego staged a pretty good U.S. Open in 2008, in case anyone remembers, when Tiger Woods and Rocco Mediate turned golf into opera at Torrey Pines. Tiger broke his leg winning, then things got worse, while Mediate has been “Rocco Who?” ever since. But you can’t blame all that on the town.

In fact, San Diego and its sprawling county of more than three million souls may be the last, best hope to fuel any sort of renaissance in ontrack business for California’s Thoroughbred racing franchise. Del Mar remains a healthy drawing card, with all numbers trending upward so far this summer. In the meantime, conversations about a second Del Mar season of some kind have moved from pipe dreams to memos on cocktail napkins, which at least is a start.

This is a good time, then, to celebrate all things San Diego (did I mention the zoo?) with another running of the race that carries its name on Saturday afternoon.

The San Diego Handicap has been around since Del Mar hit the ground, in 1937, and with only a handful of exceptions it has been a main track 1 1/16-mile event throughout its 67 runnings. Native Diver won it three times in the mid-1960s, earning about $35,000 for the trouble. Canadian Horse of the Year Kennedy Road gave Charlie Whittingham one of his five San Diegos, which was only fair since Charlie was born there. Champion Bates Motel won the San Diego, as did Northern Afleet, now best known for fathering Afleet Alex.

And if you take a look at the winners of the past 10 runnings of the San Diego you will find the winner of the Kentucky Derby (Giacomo), the Dubai World Cup (Well Armed), the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (Dakota Phone), the Pacific Classic (Skimming), the Godolphin Mile (Grey Memo), and a horse who missed by a lip in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint (Taste of Paradise).

The 2011 field pales badly by comparison, so let’s not. Aggie Engineer and Spurrier will renew their rivalry, although it’s more a coincidence that these two 6-year-old warriors have shown up in the same races six times over the past year and a half, as well as a tribute to their durability. Golden Itiz seems both fresh and ripe to run a big one after his comeback win at Hollywood Park, while Don Tito stretches out after some admirable sprints.

The horse on the rise, though, would appear to be Kevlar Kid, owned by Spud and Alice Williamson and trained by Carla Gaines, who dispensed with his conditions in two crackerjack performances at Hollywood Park after being introduced to Chantal Sutherland.

“He’s big,“ Sutherland said. “Very big.”

This is not a surprise, since Kevlar Kid is a son of the imposing Rock Hard Ten.

“When I ride him I sit further back, keep my reins a little longer and drop my irons,” Sutherland went on. “When they’re that big, you just try to get in a rhythm with them. Once they get into that rolling speed you don’t ever want to get them stopped.”

Sutherland is riding her first full season at Del Mar. She has been enjoying the restaurants, the beach, and the many diversions featured in local guide books. Unfortunately, there was no one volunteering information about a couple of tricky spots around the track.

“You know that spot at the head of the stretch where the rail kind of straightens out?” she asked.

The answer was yes, and it’s a real hoot, as the “curve” of the rail directs horses more towards the center of the track than keeping them hugged to the inside path.

“The first time it was like, 'Hey, how’d I get in the middle of the track? 'I was just on the rail!’ ” Sutherland said. “It’s kind of unusual.

“Then there’s the elbow out of the chute on the turf course,” she added. “I was cutting it a little tight, so the stewards called me in and told me I had to wait a little longer before coming over. After the next time I rode it they thanked me for making a quick correction.”

Although Kevlar Kid never has been embarrassed in eight starts, his best races have come over the synthetic surface at Hollywood. This will be his first appearance at Del Mar.

“I like the track,” said Sutherland, who has also had considerable synthetic experience at Woodbine in her native Canada. “The kick-back’s not bad. Positionally, I find you’ve got to make sure you’ve got something left over for the end, because it can be tiring for the horse on the lead.”

Kevlar Kid has been on the lead in his last two races, both daylight victories.

“Sometimes halfway through the race he’ll start cruising away,” Sutherland said. “You think, ‘Oh my God, it’s too early.’ But that’s what he likes to do.”

Last time he liked it very much, throwing down a 103 Beyer Figure in a Hollywood allowance race that has Sutherland encouraged about winning her first big one at Del Mar.

“If we run that race, we’re going to have a good day,” she said. “We’ll be popping champagne later.”