Despite missing the break and finding himself in last position on the turn for home, Abdulla al Mansoori's Desert Encounter was able to weave his way through the pack and burst to the front for a repeat score in the Grade 1 Canadian International. Ridden by Andrea Atzeni on behalf of trainer David Simcock, the 7-year-old gelded son of Halling was the second choice at 3-2 in the wagering. The final time for 1 1/2 miles over Woodbine's turf course rated “good” was 2:28.62.
“The plan was to jump slow and he probably jumped a stride slower than I would have liked,” said Atzeni, who was riding Desert Encounter for the first time since their success here last year. “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.
“He's a good horse, he likes it here. He loves the ground. And, I think he's actually a better horse than he was last year.”
The favorite at even money, Ziyad was quick off the blocks to take the lead by a length over Pumpkin Rumble. He set fractions of :26.31, :52.26 and 1:16.93 while the compact field covered only about six lengths behind him. Pivoine and Nessy were a joint third in the early going, while Alounak traveled in fifth just ahead of Desert Encounter.
Rounding the far turn, Ziyad held the lead as long as possible but Atzeni was planning out a path for Desert Encounter. Once in the straight, he guided the horse between rivals and weaved his way into clear running, making the lead by the eighth pole.
Alounak tried to make a race of it in the final stages, but Desert Encounter had the race won and crossed the wire a half-length to the good. Ziyad had to settle for third, while Pivoine finished fourth.
“Coming into the straight, obviously, I had options,” said Atzeni. “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.”
Bred in Ireland by Tally-Ho Stud, Desert Encounter is out of the Invincible Spirit mare La Chicana. He was a $54,086 yearling purchase at Tattersalls, and seems to be improving with age. The gelding earned his first group victory in 2017 in the G3 Legacy Cup at Newbury, and in 2018 ran third in the same race before his triumph in the Canadian International. This season Desert Encounter entered the International off a three-race win streak, and the victory improves his overall record to 12-4-7 from 31 starts for earnings of over $1.4 million.
Philip Robinson, racing manager for owner Abdulla Al Mansoori, left the door open for Desert Encounter to return next year and attempt to join Joshua Tree, who also won the race in 2012, as the only three-time International winners.
“It would be lovely,” he said. “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?
“The last three of 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.”
Desert Encounter was a fifth Woodbine graded stakes crown for the Simcock yard, with Trade Storm (Grade 1 Woodbine Ricoh Mile), Sheikhzayedroad (Grade 1 Northern Dancer), and Caspar Netschar (Grade 2 Nearctic) all visiting the winner's circle here in 2014.
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