TORONTO — It was an abysmal start but a stirring finish for Desert Encounter at the $800,000 Grade 1 Pattison Canadian International.
The seven-year-old Irish-bred overcame a dreadful start to successfully defend his title in the 1 1/2-mile turf race Saturday. Desert Encounter became the first repeat winner of this event since Joshua Tree (2012-'13).
But Desert Encounter certainly didn't have the look of a champion at the start when he got out of the gate last in the six-horse field. And he remained there until the final quarter-mile before exploding to overtake leader Ziyad, the even-money favourite, for the half-length victory and fourth straight win overall.
Winning jockey Andrea Atzeni wasn't the least bit concerned by Desert Encounter's miserable start.
"The plan was always to sit last," he said. "The plan was to jump slow and he probably jumped a stride than I would've liked.
"But it's a mile and a half, it's a long way, it's a small field so we were never panicking. He's a good horse, he likes it there . . . I think he's a better horse than he was last year."
Desert Encounter, with Atzeni aboard, captured last year's race at 8/1 odds, finishing a length ahead of favourite Thundering Blue.
"Very impressed with (Atzeni)," said Philip Robinson, the racing manager for winning owner Abdulla Al Mansoori. "He didn't lose his nerve.
"He stayed on the inside and the gaps opened up."
And like Atzeni, Robinson wasn't worried about Desert Encounter's start.
"He's a better horse switching off without horses around him," Robinson said. "If it had jumped off and gone really quick, it might've been a concern but they went nice and steady.
"He was able to back into the race without using any energy so it was fine."
Desert Encounter, the 3/2 second pick, posted a winning time of 2:28.62 on a good E.P. Taylor turf course at Woodbine Racetrack. French-bred Alounak, at 13/1 odds, took second as Ziyad held on for third.
The remaining finishers, in order, were: Pivoine; Pumpkin Rumble; and Nessy.
"Coming into the stretch I obviously had options," said Atzeni, who rode Desert Encounter on Saturday for the first time since last year's International. "I thought the French horse was the one to beat and I tracked him up the straight and picked him up very nicely.
"He (Desert Encounter) was the best horse in the race."
Desert Encounter paid $5.30, $3.60 and $2.20 while Alounak returned $10.90 and $4.60. Ziyad paid $2.10.
Holger Faust, the manager for Darius Racing — which owns Alounak — was happy with his horse's second-place finish.
"We expected to come for good prize money and that worked out," he said. "We wanted to be in second position behind Ziyad because we knew Ziyad would try to make it post to post.
"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. But I saw Desert Storm was travelling a little bit better in the straight and that's why I was fighting for second place."
Ziyad surged to the lead at the start and remained there heading into the stretch. But the British-bred four-year-old couldn't keep either Desert Encounter or Alounak at bay coming home.
Desert Encounter earned his fourth victory in eight starts this season and 12th in 31 career races. And the $480,000 winner's share pushed the gelding's lifetime earnings past $1.3 million.
Robinson left the door open for Desert Encounter to return next year and attempt to join Joshua Tree (2010, 2012-'13) 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."
And another victory would move Atzeni into a tie with Robert Watson, Frankie Dettori and Ryan Moore for most International wins for a jockey.
Meanwhile Starship Jubilee, with Woodbine's Luis Contreras aboard, captured the $603,200 Grade 1 E.P. Taylor Stakes, a 1 1/4-mile turf event for fillies and mares, in 2:03.29 for her 14th career victory. German-bred Durance, at 16/1 odds, was second in the 10-horse field ahead of Platane, a British-bred 17/1 pick.
And Jesse Campbell, another Woodbine jockey, rode 24/1 longshot City Boy to victory in the $280,900 Grade 2 Nearctic Stakes over six furlongs on the turf. The horse — bred and co-owned by the late Gustav Schickedanz — earned its first win since 2017.
This report by The Canadian Press was originally published Oct. 12, 2019.