Chantal Sutherland and Emma-Jayne Wilson immediately made an impact on the thoroughbred racing scene in Southern Ontario and have never looked back.
Sutherland won four times and enjoyed eight top-two finishes in her first 20 starts. Wilson won three times in 31 mounts in her first season and a year later became the first woman and only third apprentice jockey — Sandy Hawley and Mickey Walls are the others — to win the Woodbine riding title.
Now the two are closing in on Francine Villenueve’s Canadian record of 947 wins. The 45-year-old returned to racing at Fort Erie this year, but both Wilson and Sutherland already have more than 700 victories.
The two will be in the spotlight once again at the 151st Queen’s Plate at Woodbine on Sunday. The 34-year-old Sutherland will ride 30-to-1 Smart Sky. The 28-year-old Wilson will saddle 20-to-1 D’s Wando.
Wilson and Sutherland are two of several women riders at Woodbine this year, not to mention Krista Carignan, the leading jockey at Fort Erie.
While Sutherland is chasing her first Queen’s Plate title, Wilson knows the elation of trotting a horse into the winner’s circle at Canada’s biggest horse race. She won aboard long-shot Mike Fox in 2007 to become the first female rider to do so.
Living the dream
"I use to look up at this [Woodbine] grandstand driving down [Highway] 427 and dream," Wilson said. "I still look up at that grandstand during the post parade and remember how I use to dream about being here.
"I’m still very thankful that I’m living my dream because there are not a lot of people in this world that say they can do that."
Wilson likes to tell the story that a couple weeks after her 20th birthday she wrote a note to herself, promising to realize her dream of becoming a jockey. Then less than six years later she was thumbing through a book on women in horse racing and found that piece of paper among its pages. She went out the next day to win the Queen’s Plate in only her third full season of racing.
So why have Wilson and Sutherland been able to succeed at Woodbine? After all, horse racing is called the sport of kings, not queens. Yet, besides their success, one of the top trainers at Woodbine, Catharine Day Phillips, also will have a horse, Vicar Street, in the Queen’s Plate.
"I have never felt the adverse effects of being a woman jockey here," Wilson said. "But that’s something I never focussed on. I just focussed on being a good jockey. We have a very good jocks room as a whole.
"The female jockeys, we have our own separate quarters. But I would bounce things off Chantal just as much as I would some of the [men]."
Wilson always has been an athlete. She played rugby and fast-pitch baseball at Chinguacousy Secondary School. But every time she would be in a car driving down Highway 427 and past Woodbine, her thoughts would drift to her love for horses. When her parents, Lynne and Jim, would ask her what she wanted to do for her birthday, they always wound up on the track, having a picnic lunch along the rail.
She studied equine management at the University of Guelph’s Kemptville campus and had little difficulty strutting her stuff when given the chance to ride for real.
Sutherland was born in Winnipeg. She was a terrific field hockey player, competing for Canada at the world junior championship. She, too, had a passion for horses because her father trained horses and had a farm outside of Toronto.
After graduating from York University with a communications and psychology degree, she shifted from show jumping and equestrian to horse racing.
While both Sutherland and Wilson have made names for themselves across North America and have participated in the prestigious Jockeys Championship in Hong Kong, Sutherland has sprouted into other areas of celebrity.
In 2006, she made People Magazine’s list of Top 100 Most Beautiful People and she was the subject of a 2006 Vogue Magazine spread that was shot by famed photographer Annie Leibovitz. One of the photos showed Sutherland in her underwear riding a horse.
She’s been featured in the popular docu-drama Jockeys, along with her fiancée Hall of Fame Jockey Mike Smith, who will ride Giant’s Tomb in the Queen’s Plate.
Sutherland also will have a minor role in an upcoming HBO pilot for Luck, a television show starring Dustin Hoffman that centres the world of horse racing and gambling through a eclectic group of characters at a racetrack.