TORONTO - Chantal Sutherland-Kruse is coming home.
The veteran jockey will ride full-time at Woodbine Racetrack this season just 18 months after retiring at the Toronto oval. But the 38-year-old Winnipeg native said that announcement came at a very busy and hectic time in her life.
"I was a little worn out from riding, I was getting married and everything was happening all at once," she said in a telephone interview Wednesday. "I just needed to take some time off . . . bottom line, I needed a mental break.
"I relaxed, I did some courses and learned more about myself and realized how much I loved racing and always want to be a part of it. And I missed home (Woodbine), I wanted to come home and give it another shot."
Sutherland-Kruse won't have to wait long for that chance. She's been named on four horses in Woodbine's 10-race opening card Saturday.
Sutherland-Kruse came out of retirement last year at Del Mar Racetrack in southern California. She had 149 mounts in 2013, finishing in the money 44 times (16 wins, 16 seconds, 12 thirds) for $675,600 in earnings.
"I really missed the horses, they're such beautiful and amazing animals," she said. "I also missed the overall experience in the mornings and being able to compete again.
"It's exciting being on a horse, a huge adrenalin rush and I guess I'm a bit of an adrenalin junkie. I love to go fast, I love to compete, I love racing, I love the camaraderie in the jocks' room. In California, most of those guys became like my brothers, just joking around. You forget it's a pretty cool place to work."
And Sutherland-Kruse said her fellow jockeys, many of whom are men, have always made her feel welcome.
"All jockeys compete and are competitive with each other," she said. "But I've met some really nice and interesting people all over the world and because we're jockeys, we have that bond.
"We have the common knowledge of what we do, the dangers we face, the risks we take to be riders. I think there's a brother-sisterhood. I respect my fellow jockeys and really like them. They're cool, interesting people."
Sutherland-Kruse, who graduated from York University in communications and psychology, returns to where she cut her teeth as a jockey in 2000. She was Canada's top apprentice in 2001 and '02, then named a finalist as the country's top rider in '09 after finishing second in Woodbine's jockey standings with a career-best 139 wins and over $7.5-million in earnings.
Sutherland-Kruse's last major season at Woodbine was 2010 when she registered 136 victories and was a repeat Sovereign Award finalist. Sutherland-Kruse enters her 15th campaign with 950 career wins — 686 coming at the Toronto track but the last here being in 2012 — and $48 million in earnings.
But Sutherland-Kruse certainly has some specific Woobine events in mind. First and foremost is the $1-million Queen's Plate, Canadian racing's crown jewel, on July 6.
There's also the $1-million Ricoh Woodbine Mile, $1-million Pattison Canadian International, $200,000 Natalma Stakes and $200,000 Summer Stakes, races that guarantee the winner a berth in the Breeders' Cup this fall at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif.
"It (Queen's Plate) is definitely a twinkle in my eye," said Sutherland-Kruse, who has never won the first gem of Canada's Triple Crown. "My agent and I are already looking for that horse . . . it's definitely a goal.
"And so are 'The Win & You’re In series,' races. Those are things definitely on my radar that I'll be trying to get and hope for."
Racing has afforded Sutherland-Kruse many opportunities away from the track. She has modelled and appeared in a television commercial for Esquire watches and in '06 was named as one of 'People Magazine's Top 100 Most Beautiful People.'
Sutherland-Kruse was also featured prominently in the reality series "Jockeys," and appeared alongside Dustin Hoffman in the HBO racing series, "Luck."
"I'm a jockey, that's my profession, it's what I love to do and it's my passion," Sutherland-Kruse said. "The modelling, acting, all that stuff came along with being a jockey and I've embraced and enjoyed it but my passion is racing.
"Those are the bonuses that come with being a jockey."
Returning to Woodbine also provides Sutherland-Kruse the chance to ride in bigger fields and for more lucrative purses, which wasn't always the case south of the border.
"It's a lot more fun riding in 10-horse fields and not three or four where it just feels like we're playing follow the leader," she said. "And I think there are a lot more opportunities here.
"I've loved California, I just never felt like I got the same kind of support that I got in Canada so I want to be here. I want to market Canada."
Sutherland-Kruse isn't sure if her absence from Woodbine will impact her ability to get rides but has no doubts that she's at the top of her game as a jockey.
"This is the best I've ever been because I've competed all over the world, I've ridden with great jockeys, I've seen so much," she said. "Physically I'm in great condition and mentally I'm right there. I'm clear, I'm focused, I'm excited and I'm happy . . . everything now has fallen into place beautifully."
And that includes on the home front, as Sutherland-Kruse said her husband, Dan, fully supports her decision to ride in Toronto. He'll continue living in southern California and the two will travel to see each other when their schedules permit.
"I don't mind travelling as I've travelled all over the world so a five-hour flight isn't as bad as 16 hours to Australia, Japan or Hong Kong," she said. "I'd like to get a good, solid foundation in right now so he's been willing enough and great enough to be the first to travel most of the time.
"Later on when I get things rolling, I'll take the Sunday red eye and be gone for two days and back Wednesday. You just make it work."
That support, Sutherland-Kruse said, is crucial.
"It's hugely important," she said. "I think it actually makes you love the person more.
"I really appreciate my husband. He's a rock star."
Still, Sutherland-Kruse isn't taking her return to Woodbine for granted, saying she's prepared to prove herself on the track.
"I think hard work pays off and I'm out there working but I don't think it's a cinch," she said. "Some of the jockeys here have established themselves and I have to respect that.
"Whatever I get I'll be grateful for, I'll just have to prove it out there on the racetrack."
And in a perfect world, Sutherland-Kruse would like to be very active throughout Woodbine's 133-day race schedule.
"I'd love that," she said. "I love the action, I love back-to-back races and being busy."