What once was a mainstay for Hollywood celebrities and gamblers alike looking to cash in on a few pari-mutuel tickets, today the racetracks ofAmericahave become something much different. Live horseracing, known to many as â??The Sport of Kings,â? has certainly seen better days. The sport is being challenged by competition from more entertainment options and gambling outlets (including casinos and poker rooms in 38 states), lotteries, online gambling, as well as online wagering platforms allowing horseplayers to wager from anywhere. In the late 1950s, horseracing was the number two sport inAmerica, falling just behind baseball. Now, the racetracks seem more desolate than ever except on major racing days. Many tracks are left to rely heavily on revenue from adjoining casinos, referred to as â??racinos,â? to supplement purses. And tracks without that revenue source are feeling the effects from nearby casinos, many in neighboring states.
Without a doubt, horseracing needs a jolt of adrenaline to bring the level of interest back to what it once was. Winning a quick hand of blackjack or a roll of the dice doesnâ??t hold a candle to the thrill one gets from successfully handicapping a field of thoroughbreds, especially when your picks cross the finish line first and you take your ticket to the window to claim your winnings. Even if you donâ??t win, you have two thrilling minutes to imagine your investment crossing the line in first place. However, unless you are basing your wagers on names, numbers or colors, horseracing requires analysis of multiple variables, from past performances and bloodlines to track conditions and distance of the race. It not only requires your financial investment, but also the consideration and discipline to pick your spots to cash in. Maybe thatâ??s what makes it so magical, but maybe thatâ??s what also makes it so difficult to market and attract the masses the way it once did.
It seems over the past decade, one friend of horseracing has been media companies and their production of mainstream movies and mini-series. These films have captured the thrill and excitement from not only a fan and gamblerâ??s perspective, but also the stories that take place behind-the-scenes every day on the backsides of tracks across the country and throughout the world. While there have been countless horseracing films dating back to the 1930s, the most recent big sweep of the big screen began with Seabiscuit (2003), starring Jeff Bridges and Tobey Maguire. The movie brought to life the story of the 1933 racehorse that captured the hearts ofAmerica, and looked at the relationships that existed between the owner, trainer and jockey with the odds-defying horse. The film grossed nearly $150 million and showed that the public still had a spark for horseracing. In addition, the book Seabiscuit: An American Legend, written by Laura Hillenbrand, was a great read that captured the magic of the entire storyline of the famous horse.
Then in 2010, Walt Disney Pictures produced an in-depth look at one of the most popular horses in history in the movie Secretariat, starringDiane Lane, John Malkovich and Margo Martindale. The story of the super horse of the â??70s known as â??Big Redâ? has been told time and again, but none as magnificently portrayed as in this film. What started as a shaky racing career blossomed into a unique late-running style that captured the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes holding record times and margins of win. The popularity of of the 1973 superhorse was enormous, and he packed the seats of every racetrack at which he competed. The interest lied heavily on people wanting to â??say they saw him runâ? and not on having a lot of wagering interest on the heavy favorite. But, regardless of the reason, people were in the stands watching and wagering on the races.
In addition to the big screen, television has also played a big role in telling the story of the thoroughbred industry. Animal Planet launched a reality show called Jockeys that followed several top jocks both on and off the track, showing a behind the scenes look at what really happens in the locker rooms. One of the featured female jockeys on the show was Chantal Sutherland. Sutherland not only rides, but also has branched out into other endeavors, including modeling, appearances at casinos and a jewelry line found at CaldwellSutherland.com. A Canadian by birth, Sutherland began riding when she was 23 years old. She saw greener pastures in theUnited Statesand made a run for theCaliforniaracing circuit.
â??In high school, I worked on a farm galloping thoroughbreds and always wanted to be a professional athlete. I wanted to play field hockey forCanada, but was cut from the World Cup team because I was just not good enough and too small,â? commented Sutherland. â??Then one summer, I decided I wanted be a jockey and pursued it and fell in love with the industry.â?
Once she started riding professionally, Chantal was enthralled with the travel and the people she met along the way. â??I had no idea the culture that existed when I started. I was motivated by people like Angel Cordero and the lifestyle of traveling to places likeDubai.â? In the show, one of the main storylines was Sutherland, and then boyfriend and jockey, Mike Smith, and their relationship on and off the track. In the series, they broke up causing tension between the two.
Then, in the 2011 Breedersâ?? Cup Classic race at Churchill Downs, the story continued when Sutherland was riding 14-1 Game on Dude and leading the race coming down the stretch. Unfortunately for Chantal, the 14-1 Drosselmeyer, ridden by none other than her ex, Mike Smith, came out of nowhere to pass her and win the $5 million race in an exciting finish.
â??It was probably the biggest moment of my career,â? commented Sutherland about the race. â??I was so proud about how he [Game on Dude] ran that day. I know he got beat, but he tried so hard. However, my biggest goal is to be in the Kentucky Derby one day, so I am holding out for that!â?
Jockeys was popular, but not popular enough for the network to pick it up again. That obstacle didnâ??t stop Chantal from pursuing other endeavors. Her latest project is an upcoming HBO Series, Luck, premiering January 29, 2012. The network has a winning track record of great short series with shows like Sopranos, Entourage, Deadwood and Boardwalk Empire, just to name a few. Forecasts show Luck will live up to HBOâ??s high expectations. It features top actors, includingDustinHoffman (an owner who gets jailed for some mix-ups he encountered at the track) and Nick Nolte (an old washed-up trainer who spots a diamond in the rough with a promising horse).
The addition of top jockeys, like Gary Stevens and Sutherland, make the series spot-on. â??Luck is going to blow your mind. The camera angles are unbelievable, with the focus on the horses breathing and close-ups of their eyes and galloping at full pace. They did an amazing job capturing the moment of the race,â? Chantal added. â??The cameras were right in my face when I was riding. It even seems fake it looks so real. They also did a really great job capturing the sub-cultures of the racetrack, so I think it will be another big hit for HBO.â?
As in other productions, the storyline is intriguing as it follows the owner and trainer of an aspiring thoroughbredâ??s quest for the winnerâ??s circle and some of the antics that transpire along the way. HBO is known for top-quality filming, and we donâ??t expect them to stray from that with Luck.
Hopefully shows such as these will help horseracing fans and novices alike understand the ins and outs of the sport. What the fans see when they wager on the horses isnâ??t exactly the whole picture. Jockeys are athletes who have to adhere to a strict workout regimen and diet. â??Itâ??s hard work being a jockey, especially being a female. I work hard to stay in shape by running every day and working with a trainer. I have to be careful because the more I train, the more muscle I put on and the heavier I get. But I have to put on muscle to compete with the guys because they are strong.â?
When it comes to the popularity of horseracing and keeping the public aware of the sport, Sutherland feels the perception and education of the public need to change. â??Marketing has to continue to be strong and embrace social media and good concepts to attract the younger market. The Breedersâ?? Cup did a really good job with that and I think it should be done more throughout the year. We also need to have better coverage and camera angles for watching the races. People need to be able to see what itâ??s like to be a jockey on the horse, like NASCAR does with the drivers giving the fans the perspective from inside the car. If they could do that, I think it would help the market a lot.â?
Chantal also feels there is an education void when it comes to todayâ??s novice horseplayers. â??When people get to the racetrack for the first time, they look at the program and think they are reading Japanese or some other language. Itâ??s hard to grasp all the information for a race and what it all means. InCanada, the racetracks have girls going around teaching people how to bet and how to read a race program,â? explained Sutherland. â??If we can simplify the process for people and make those first racetrack experiences easier, I think they will enjoy it more and be more inclined to come back.â?
In addition to being a jockey, Chantal has ventured into other areas including a jewelry line, modeling and making appearances at casinos such as Southpoint Casino inLas Vegas. â??I know I am not going to be a jockey forever, so I like to get my name out there with other projects. It not only helps me and my career, but I also think it helps horseracing by getting involved with some of these other projects,â? she commented. â??While these shows and projects are a lot of work, I feel they are ultimately very beneficial for the industry.â?
So, with the added boost ofHollywoodsharing the excitement of horseracing, we will see if the real life drama is enough to bring the time-tested Sport of Kings back to its throne and capture the hearts and passion of mainstreamAmerica. If so, it will be an awesome ride!
Special thanks to Caldwell Sutherland for the pictures in this article. The jewelry worn by Chantal in the pictures can be found at Caldwellsutherland.comÂ