Strangely enough, two horses from England blossomed in the $800,000 Canadian International Championship Stakes in forboding conditions: a slate grey sky, thunderous clouds driven by a stiff, frigid wind, a capricious sun that didn’t warm anybody’s hearts.
Irish-bred Desert Encounter and English-raced Thundering Blue drew away from the rest of the field in the stretch to dominate the race, with Desert Encounter finally getting his Grade 1. He was a late developer, with only a couple of races at age two, and he was lightly raced at three. Now six, the son of Halling has finally found his footing. He won by length at odds of 8 to 1 over favourite Thundering Blue, after breaking slowly and coming from last to first in the 11-horse field.
On the lawn after the race, British owner Clive Washbourn yelled boisterously, raining insults on Desert Encounter’s head after the winner appeared to lug in and cause Washbourn’s Thundering Blue some uncomfortable moments before the wire. Blue was also blocked and bumped in the stretch. But he finished 4 `1/2 lengths ahead of third-placed Focus Group, a U.S. entry. Washbourn quickly congratulated the winning connections moments later.
Thundering Blue, a 5-year-old horse, spent most of his career in the handicap division in England and progressed from a “below-average” handicapper to a pattern race contender in about 12 months. He won a Group 2 race at York, then owner Washbourn paid a 75,000-pound supplementary fee to enter him in the Grade 1 Juddmonte International Stakes at York. The horse needed to finish no worse than fourth to recoup that investment, but at odds of 50 to 1, he finished third behind top European Roaring Lion.
Thundering Blue won the Grade 3 Stockholm Cup International in late September: that was a significant effort not only because it was his first start in a pattern race, but also because the horse had never flown in an airplane and he’s doesn’t particularly love travel. Washbourn, described as a “massive enthusiast,” hugged the jockey and jumped up and down after the win. “I’m sorry if I’m vulgar,” said the insurance man. “But what’s the point of owning a racehorse if you can’t scream YEAAAA!”
He lost his voice that day.
Trainer David Menuisier, trainer of Thundering Blue, had never raced a horse at Woodbine before. David Simcock, trainer of Desert Encounter had: in 2014 it seemed as if he couldn’t lose at Woodbine. He won the Northern Dancer with Sheikhzayeroad, the Woodbine Mile with Trade Storm and the Grade 2 Nearctic Stakes with Caspar Netscher.
It’s the seventh time in the past eight races that a European horse has won the International. Bullard’s Alley at odds of 42 to 1 won last year for his U.S. connections. The last Canadian-bred to win the race was Thornfield in 1999 – 19 years ago.
Canada’s top finish in the Oct. 13 race, Tiz A Slam, finished fourth for Chiefswood Stable after stalking the pace on the outside and tiring toward the end of the 1 ½ mile race. Johnny Bear, a two-time winner of the Northern Dancer Stakes at Woodbine was seventh after being caught wide early, and English Illusion at 23 to 1 finished ninth in front of his 30 supporters.
It all seemed to be a case of who could last the distance.
And if your name was Andrea Atzeni, so much the better. The 27-year-old Italian-born jockey won his first International in four tries, and targeted and followed Thundering Blue throughout the race. Desert Encounter’s kick even took Philip Robinson, a former jockey-turned-racing manager for winning owner Abdulla Al Mansoori by surprise.
“I thought the horse was going to go run second when he pulled out [because] the other English horse [Thundering Blue] quickened up well,” he said, figuring Desert Encounter would finish second. But Desert Encounter found another gear in the last 200 metres.
Fran Berry rider of Thundering Blue, thought he was on the way to a win, too, and watched in amazement as Desert Encounter blew past.
After winning the International, Azteni hustled away from photographers to ride the next race, the $500,000 E.P. Taylor Stakes for fillies and mares – and he won that, too with French-bred Sheikha Rieka, at 6 to 1, who came from fourth place to win by three-quarters of a length over French-bred Golden Legend. She in turn was only a neck ahead of the powerful mare Santa Monica, which went off as the 5 to 2 favourite after having won the Dance Smartly Stakes earlier this year at Woodbine for top U.S. trainer Chad Brown.
Canadian entry Starship Jubilee finished fourth in the nine-horse field. She set the pace and led until the final 70 yards of the 1 ¼-mile race.