Desert Encounter, closing stoutly on the outside under jockey Andrea Atzeni, ran down the 3-1 favourite Thundering Blue in the closing yards to score by a length and lead a 1-2 sweep for European invaders in Saturday’s Grade 1, $800,000 Pattison Canadian International at Woodbine Racetrack.
Owned by Abdulla Al Mansoori and conditioned by David Simcock, the six-year-old Desert Encounter was recording his first Grade 1 win while defeating 10 rivals in the 1 1/2-mile turf race for three-year-olds and upward.
“He travelled good into the race and I followed the favourite all the way through, Thundering Blue,” said Atzeni, who was winning his first Canadian International in his fourth attempt.
“I thought he was the one to beat and he’s a horse that’s got such a high cruising speed and then when he saw me, he actually got a very good turn of foot as well. You can’t get to the front too soon because once he gets to the front, he thinks he’s had enough, but he’s a horse that has a lot of ability and it’s great for the team at home, great for David and the owner and everybody involved.”
Desert Encounter, breaking from the No. 10 post, was angled over to the rail by Atzeni and was next-to-last as Funtastic, one of two Chad Brown-trained runners in the Canadian International along with Focus Group, seized command and led through a quarter in :25.67.
Tiz A Slam stalked in second with Markitoff close behind on the inside, but the scenario changed heading into the backstretch, as Bandua, the lone three-year-old and the longest shot on the board at 36-1 moved boldly to take command and opened up a clear lead through a half-mile in :51.12 and six furlongs in 1:16.17.
Tiz a Slam was maintaining his position heading into the final turn while Funtastic was spinning his wheels on the inside and Johnny Bear held a good stalking position on the outside.
Thundering Blue, hemmed in on the rail around the turn, swung out in early stretch and took dead aim on Bandua, who was still leading through a mile in 1:40.15 and 1-1/4 miles in 2:04.43.
With a furlong to go, Bandua was done and Thundering Blue had hit the front with Tiz a Slam clinging to second place.
Desert Encounter had entered the picture by this point, however, and asserted his superiority in the late going while stopping the clock in 2:28.88 over “good” going and denying the favourite, who had seemed on his way to victory.
“I had a great trip,” said Fran Berry, who rode Thundering Blue. “It didn’t go quite as quickly as I had envisioned through the first two turns. It was quite steadily run until we turned to the backstretch, then the race got going, but I was always comfortable. I knew I had a good bit of horse and I was prepared to stay in and ride the rail until we got into the stretch. When I picked it up, we got a perfect split right at the right time. That’s when I said, ‘It’s game over, I’m going to win here,’ but I couldn’t believe [Desert Encounter] joined us as quickly as he did and then went by us.
“My horse raced well, but [Desert Encounter] just had a kick that surprised me.”
Focus Group closed from far back to finish third as the second choice at 4-1, four and a half lengths behind the runner-up with Tiz a Slam hanging in for fourth at 13-1.
Spring Quality was another three-quarters of a length back while finishing fifth in an even effort.
Rounding out the order of finish were Markitoff, Johnny Bear, Bandua, English Illusion, the German invader Khan, and Funtastic.
Philip Robinson, the racing manager for owner Abdulla Al Mansoori, said trainer Simcock specifically pointed Desert Encounter to the Canadian International.
“David Simcock has been here on a few occasions,” Robinson explained. “He loves it. I think he’s had this race in mind for a long time for this horse. He said that this is the race for him. And he set out his program throughout the whole season to (prepare) him to come here. It worked out. He got it dead right.”
Simcock was winning his first Canadian International after finishing third in the 2015 running with Sheikhzayedroad, who had won the previous year’s Grade 1 Northern Dancer. Trade Storm had captured the Grade 1 Woodbine Mile on the same 2014 card.
Travelling head lad Ian Russell has been with Simcock for eight years and checked in with Desert Encounter last Monday.
Bred in Ireland, Desert Encounter was winning for the eighth time in 23 starts with his best previous tally coming in the Group 3 Legacy Cup at Newbury last September. The son of Hailing had finished a solid third in that same race last time out prior to this overseas venture.
Desert Encounter returned $18.20, $7.90 and $5.40 with Thundering Blue ($5.40, $3.50) completing the $2 exacta of $95.10. Focus Group ($3.60) rounded out the $2 trifecta, which paid $501.70, with Tiz a Slam juicing up a $1 superfecta worth $2,792.40.