For the second straight year, Abdulla al Mansoori’s Desert Encounter overcame a tardy start, and a dawdling pace, to top a European finish in the $606,261 Canadian International (G1) at Woodbine. And once again the David Simcock veteran was upstaging an up-and-coming favorite.
Last October, Desert Encounter went off at a generous 8-1 when nabbing fellow British invader Thundering Blue. Saturday’s renewal featured a much smaller field of six, and the defending champion, riding a three-race winning streak, received much more respect at odds of 3-2. But the gaudy formline of Ziyad made him more enticing, and that French shipper ranked as the even-money favorite.
When the gate opened, the lackadaisical Desert Encounter spotted the field several lengths. Ziyad, the pacesetter by default in a race devoid of speed, was in no particular hurry, and Desert Encounter had no difficulty drawing within hailing distance at the rear.
Local hope Pumpkin Rumble shadowed Ziyad through splits of :26.13, :52.26, 1:16.93, and 1:41.23 on the good going, but couldn’t maintain his position when the real running started. Ziyad was holding the inside stalker, Britain’s Pivoine, but the other two Europeans were emerging as greater threats. While Germany’s Alounak began to gain on the outside, Desert Encounter was the eye-catcher among the pack.
Reunited with jockey Andrea Atzeni for the first time since the 2018 Canadian International, Desert Encounter was full of run scything purposefully between Ziyad and Alounak. The Halling gelding shot past to prevail by a half-length and completed 1 1/2 miles in 2:28.62.
Alounak, the 13-1 longest shot on the board, outperformed his odds to collar Ziyad by a neck at the wire. This marked the third time in his career that Ziyad couldn’t pull off a front-running gambit, and he’s clearly better with a target. The favorite barely saved third by the same margin from the 12-1 Pivoine, who kept on dourly to close the gap in the all-European superfecta. Pumpkin Rumble beat Nessy, the full brother to 2017 Canadian International shocker Bullards Alley, by a half-length to win the North American intramural.
Desert Encounter became the third repeat winner of the Canadian International in its turf incarnation, emulating George Royal (1965-66) and Joshua Tree (2012-13). Joshua Tree’s double was adding to his first trophy achieved in 2010, and Desert Encounter might attempt a triple himself in 2020.
“The plan was to jump slow,” Atzeni recapped, “and he probably jumped a stride slower than I would have liked. But it’s a mile and a half, it’s a long way, it’s a small field. So we were never panicking. The plan was always to sit last and come through them. So I wasn’t too worried about it.
“Coming into the straight, obviously, I had options. I could have gone around them but I decided to go inside. I thought the French horse (Ziyad) was the one to beat and I tracked him up through the straight and picked him up very nicely. He was the best horse in the race.”
Holger Faust, racing manager for Alounak’s owner Darius Racing, was watching Desert Encounter.
“To be honest, I was always looking with one eye on our horse and one eye on Desert Encounter because I really expected Desert Encounter to be very strong and I had the feeling – because I do know my horse – that he would catch Ziyad,” Faust said. “But I saw that Desert Encounter was traveling a little bit better in the straight so that’s why I was fighting for the second place.”
Desert Encounter, who pushed his earnings into seven-figure territory on Saturday, has compiled a mark of 31-12-4-7, $1,317,674. The seven-year-old was racking up his fourth straight win, after the Glorious (G3) at Goodwood, the Winter Hill (G3) in course-record time at Windsor, and the Legacy Cup (G3) at Newbury. He’d also won the latter in 2017, the same season as his famous third at 50-1 in the Eclipse (G1). This campaign, Desert Encounter has also placed third in the Dubai City of Gold (G2) during the Dubai World Cup Carnival and the Princess of Wales’s (G2) during Newmarket’s July Festival.
“He’s a good horse, he likes it here. He loves the ground,” Atzeni said. “And, I think he’s actually a better horse than he was last year.”
Al Mansoori’s racing manager, Philip Robinson, commented on Desert Encounter’s progress.
“The last three or four races he’s just never stopped improving, he’s still improving. You expect it maybe from a four- or five-year-old but I think mentally he’s improving so much. He’s enjoying his racing…he’s just in a very happy place this moment.
“It would be lovely,” Robinson added of a three-peat bid next year. “I dare say if he’s still a happy horse like he is now, for sure, he’ll be back. He enjoys it here, why not?”
Locally based runners defended home turf in the other two graded events on the card, Starship Jubilee furnishing a far more logical victory in the $457,121 E.P. Taylor (G1) than the 24-1 City Boy in the $212,874 Nearctic (G2).
Blue Heaven Farm’s Starship Jubilee, Canada’s champion turf mare for the past two years, looked as imperious as ever when repeating in the September 14 Canadian (G2) at about 1 1/8 miles. The one scruple was her record over the E.P. Taylor’s 1 1/4 miles. Her lone victory in four tries at the trip came via dead-heat, not outright, in the 2017 Dance Smartly (G2), and she’d tired to fourth in the 2018 E.P. Taylor.
The six-year-old model of Starship Jubilee proved up to the task. Dispatched as the slight 7-2 second choice, the Kevin Attard mare attended 3-1 favorite Red Tea, the best fancied of the four European shippers. Red Tea dictated slow fractions of :26.50, :52.07, and 1:17.34 on the course that had just been upgraded to good. But the Irish raider came up empty as Starship Jubilee pounced on the turn.
Under regular rider Luis Contreras, the two-time Sovereign Award winner forged clear into the stretch. A trio of European sophomores pursued her – Germany’s Durance and France’s Platane outkicking Britain’s Imperial Charm – but Starship Jubilee stayed on too doggedly. She crossed the wire a length up in a final time of 2:03.29.
Durance snatched runner-up honors by a head from Platane, and Imperial Charm checked in another length adrift in fourth. Next came Holy Helena; Si Que Es Buena, who didn’t break cleanly; Gaining, who was bounced around on the inside going into the first turn; Red Tea; A. A. Azula’s Arch; and the ever-trailing Secret Message.
The start was messy enough for the stewards to conduct an inquiry before declaring the race official. Starship Jubilee broke outward from post 8, and Holy Helena did so arguably to greater effect from post 5, coming right across Durance, and there was a fair amount of crowding as the field sorted itself out in the opening furlong.
Attard mentioned that Starship Jubilee might have run herself into the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf (G1).
“It might be on the table now,” her trainer said.
A fantastic claim for $16,000 at Gulfstream Park in February 2017, Starship Jubilee is now a millionaire with $1,138,487 in earnings from a record of 31-14-4-3. The Florida-bred daughter of Indy Wind has also won the past two runnings of the Sunshine Millions Filly & Mare Turf as well as the 2017 Nassau (G2), and her stakes placings include this summer’s Nassau, Dance Smartly, and the Ballston Spa (G2) at Saratoga.
“Last time, she relaxed really nice going 1 1/8 miles,” Contreras said of her Canadian title defense, “and today, (Attard) told me if they want to give you the lead, take the lead, but she didn’t need the lead to win this race. This filly came out really well trained and she was amazing today. She always gives me something no matter what at the end and I just was so comfortable on the last turn. When I saw no one was coming close to us on the front end, I was just waiting for the stretch to make a run and she just exploded.”
“It being a mile and a quarter is always tough,” Attard said, “but it being a Grade 1 and being in our backyard, that kind of helps soften the blow. She was so convincing when she won her last start and she came out of that race in great shape. She’s worked really well in the interim and Luis gave her an incredible ride today. I’ve been fortunate to make some good claims in my career but…she’s the pinnacle right now. This is my first Grade 1 win and I want to thank Adam (Corndorf) and Bonnie (Baskin) of Blue Heaven Farm for buying her and allowing me to train her.”
In contrast, Nearctic stunner City Boy was making just his second career stakes appearance, his only prior attempt being a seventh in the 2017 Charlie Barley. Moreover, the City Zip gelding hadn’t even won since taking an entry-level allowance during that same summer as a sophomore, but he’d placed in a pair of recent course-and-distance allowances.
Trained by Michael Keogh for the Estate of breeder Gustav Schickedanz and Donald Howard, City Boy worked out a stalking trip early with regular rider Jesse Campbell. Up front, Yorkton blazed the way in :22.54 and :45.13 on the yielding course. The chasing Richiesinthehouse put his head in front in midstretch, only to have City Boy head him in turn, and Reconfigure loomed alongside. City Boy got the nod over Reconfigure in the three-way finish while negotiating six furlongs in 1:08.18.
“I just thought if no heavy hitters shipped in, it would be worth taking a shot,” Keogh said of entering City Boy. “And, that’s what happened.”
Blind Ambition, the 2-1 favorite, rallied for fourth after hopping at the start. Irish shipper Woody Creek, bet down as the 7-2 second choice from an 8-1 morning line, got off a beat slow herself and ground her way into fifth. Yorkton faded to sixth, followed by Lookin to Strike, Admiralty Pier, and Boreal Spirit.
City Boy sparked a $50.70 win payout and enhanced his bankroll to $297,148 from his 16-3-6-2 line. The Ontario-bred five-year-old is a half-brother to multiple stakes-winning sire Vibank. Their dam, stakes vixen Princess Ruckus by Bold Ruckus, is a half to Canadian champion, multiple Grade 1 star, and noted sire Langfuhr.
Since Schickedanz only just passed away in June, Keogh commented on the poignant nature of the victory for connections.
“It’s been a long year, this one… a difficult year. It’s great (to win the Nearctic). I’m just going to savor the moment. This one’s for Gus.”