August 16, 2022

Desert Encounter, Sheikha Reika give Atzeni Grade 1 double at Woodbine

Desert Encounter bested fellow European invader Thundering Blue in the Canadian International (G1) (Michael Burns Photography)

Jockey Andrea Atzeni wasn’t riding the most heralded of the English imports that invaded Woodbine Saturday for the Canadian International (G1) and E.P. Taylor (G1), but he did ride the best.

In the 1 1/2-mile International, worth $623,914, Atzeni had to make up only six lengths to pass all 10 rivals in the final quarter-mile aboard Desert Encounter, who wore down compatriot and 3-1 favorite Thundering Blue to win by a length in a time of 2:28.88 on the good turf.

Bettors allowed Desert Encounter to drift to 8-1 from his 6-1 morning-line price, and he paid $18.20 to win for owner Abdulla Al Mansoori and trainer David Simcock. Finishing 4 1/2 lengths behind Thundering Blue was second choice Focus Group, who was followed by Tiz a Slam, Spring Quality, Markitoff, Johnny Bear, Bandua, English Illusion, Khan, and Funtastic.

“He traveled good into the race and I followed the favorite all the way through, Thundering Blue. 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,” Atzeni said. “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.”

This was the fourth career stakes win for Desert Encounter, who entered the International off a close third-place effort in his title defense of the Legacy Cup, formerly the Arc Trial, at Newbury. His best previous placing in Group 1 company had been a third in the 2017 Eclipse (G1) at Sandown.

“His form has been really good,” said Philip Robinson, the owner’s racing manager. “His last run he was very unlucky; it went really soft and his jockey didn’t do anything wrong, but he just got there in that ground and the horse took him there too soon, and he hit the front a hundred yards from the post and he just died right on the line and the other two just came and got him, so he was a little bit unfortunate. This is better ground today and he loved it.”

Robinson suggested Desert Encounter might next race in either the Japan Cup (G1) in late November or at the Hong Kong International Races at Sha Tin in December.

In the $384,668 E.P. Taylor, for fillies and mares over 1 1/4 miles, Atzeni led Sheikha Reika to another one-two finish for Europe as the three-year-old Shamardal filly outfinished longshot French invader Golden Legend by three parts of a length. Santa Monica, the 5-2 favorite, was a neck behind in third.

Owned by Sheikh Mohammed Obaid Al Maktoum and trained by Roger Varian, Sheikha Reika paid $14.10 after completing the course in 2:05.10. Rounding out the order of finish was Starship Jubilee, Proctor’s Ledge, Pollara, Sky Full of Stars, Elysea’s World, and Summer Luck.

“I think she would’ve won a bit more comfortable if the race had gone a bit faster,” said assistant trainer Michael McGowan. “The ground was a bit loose, which doesn’t suit her – she likes fast ground, so I was a bit worried because the leaders went slow enough to stay where they were. The last 50 yards, she really picked up and took off.”

This was the Group stakes debut for Sheikha Reika, who entered off a 4 1/2-length triumph in the John Musker Stakes over 1 1/4 miles at Yarmouth. Sheikha Reika has now won or placed in seven of her eight career starts.

In the $207,692 Nearctic (G2) over six furlongs, 9-1 chance Hembree rallied to win a three-way photo over pacesetting Yorkton and Hemp Hemp Hurray. The filly Lady Alexandra, the 8-5 favorite, weakened to ninth in the field of 11.

Claimed by Three Diamonds Farm and trainer Mike Maker for $50,000 in April, Hembree was winning for the third time in his last four outings and for the first time in stakes company. He paid $20 after covering the distance in 1:08.95 under Irad Ortiz Jr.