A Grade 1 Double for Jockey Andrea Atzeni at Woodbine

Jockey Andrea Atzeni, aboard Sheikha Reika, enjoys the glow of winning two Grade 1 races. (Photo: Nicolle Neulist)

Jockey Andrea Atzeni, aboard Sheikha Reika, enjoys the glow of winning two Grade 1 races. (Photo: Nicolle Neulist)

Jockey Andrea Atzeni had ridden in the Canadian International thrice before, Jwith his previous best finish coming when he guided Seismos to a third-place finish in 2013.  Today, he did two placings better when guiding Desert Encounter home in the day's flagship race, with a furious late rally that carried them past favoured Thundering Blue.

Less than an hour later, Atzeni found the winners' circle at the top level once again.  He had the call on Sheikha Reika, just as he had in every one of her starts, against company tougher than she had ever faced.  Once again Atzeni carved out a trip, summoned a late rally, and kicked home to victory.

In the stakes races earlier in the card, trainers Mike Maker and Mark Casse made strong showings.  The late kick by Mike Maker trainee Hembree annexed the Nearctic (G2); Maker also trained Hemp Hemp Hurray, who finished third, only a head-bob behind Yorkton for place.  Mark Casse trainee Lookin to Strike stalked the pace and took over in the Ontario Derby, holding off fellow Casse trainee Curlin's Honor in the final stages.

Pattison Canadian International: DESERT ENCOUNTER blazes home to give Simcock another Canadian visit to remember

Four years ago, British trainer David Simcock made the most of his Woodbine visits.  He won the Woodbine Mile (G1) with Trade Storm, the Northern Dancer (G1) with Sheikhzayedroad, and the Nearctic (G2) with Caspar Netscher.  Only one of Woodbine's prizes eluded him that year: the Canadian International, in which Sheikhzayedroad ran on for third behind Cannock Chase.

This year, the Canadian International eluded him no longer.  Smicock shipped one horse to Woodbine this year -- Desert Encounter -- and he rewarded his connections by flying home on the outside to mow down 3-1 favourite Thundering Blue.

Desert Encounter came slowly out of the gate; jockey Andrea Atzeni dropped him directly to the rail and let him settle.  Meanwhile, Funtastic and Tiz a Slam led the field into the first turn, clicking off a contested opening quarter of 25.67.  Through the sweeping clubhouse turn, Bandua suddenly got keen, swept past the leading pair, and made the opening half in 51.12.  He came into the backstretch with the lead, with Funtastic and Tiz a Slam chasing just behind.  Desert Encounter tracked along the rail at the back of the main pack, with Thundering Blue just in front of him.  The pace remained similar down the backstretch, save for Johnny Bear inching forward to join the tracking group.

Through the far turn, Thundering Blue inched forward as much as he could, though he was stuck behind a wall of tracking horses.  Coming into the stretch he angled off the fence to make his run.  Desert Encounter was a bit more patient.  Atzeni continued inside at the rear into the lane, only shifting out near the three sixteenths mark.  By then, pale grey Thundering Blue had sliced through the pack.  He reeled in the leading pair of Bandua and Tiz a Slam near the furlong mark, and continued to fight on for home.

Desert Encounter, rallying outside, had better momentum.  He drew even with Thundering Blue with about a sixteenth of a mile to go, and held him off to win by a length.  It was another four and a half lengths to Focus Group, who sat dead last for much of the race but closed with interest in the final half-mile.  Tiz a Slam held on for fourth, another length and a quarter back.  Spring Quality, Markitoff, Johnny Bear, Bandua, English Illusion, Khan, and Funtastic completed the order of finish.

Desert Encounter (10) overtakes Thundering Blue (2) to score in the 2018 Canadian International. (Photo: Nicolle Neulist)

Desert Encounter (10) overtakes Thundering Blue (2) to score in the 2018 Canadian International. (Photo: Nicolle Neulist)

Desert Encounter is a six-year-old bay gelding, bred in Ireland by Tally-Ho Stud, by Halling out of the Invincible Spirit mare La Chicana.  He is owned by Abdulla Al Mansoori, and is trained by David Simcock.  The victory was Desert Encounter's eighths in 23 career starts; it was his first at the top level, and his second in Group or Graded company, after his win in the Dubai Duty Free Legacy Cup (G3) last year.  The $480,000 (CAN) winner's share of the purse brought his career earnings to $757,333 (US).

Philip Robinson, racing manager for owner Al Mansoori, explained that the Canadian International had been Desert Encounter's ultimate goal.  "David Simcock has been here, the trainer, on a few occasions and loves it, and I think he’s had this race in mind for a long time for this horse. He always said this is the race for him and he set out his program for him throughout the whole season with this aim, to come here, and it’s worked out, so he’s got it dead right."  In a post-race press conference, Robinson noted that Desert Encounter's next major goal will be the Dubai Sheema Classic (G1) at Meydan next spring, with appearances in the Hong Kong Vase or Japan Cup noted as possibilities along the way.

Atzeni noted after the race that his mount had talent, but required a judicious ride. "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.  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."

Desert Encounter stopped the clock in 2:28.88 for a mile and a half over good turf, and paid $18.20 to win.  The $2 exacta over Thundering Blue (10-2) return $95.10.  A trifecta with Focus Group third (10-2-11) came back with $501.70 for each $2 on the combination.  The $1 superfecta with Tiz a Slam fourth (10-2-11-5) paid $2,792.40.

E. P. Taylor: SHEIKHA REIKA makes her graded stakes debut a winning one

Hopes have always been high for Sheikha Reika: she was cataloged in Book 1 of the Tattersalls Yearling Sale in 2016, and she sold for 550,000 guineas (approximately $735,100 (US)).  Trainer Roger Varian signed the ticket -- and Varian has conditioned her throughout her eight-race career.  She has taken some time to develop: in her first six starts her only victory was a maiden win at Newmarket.

But, her rise up the stakes-level class ladder has been meteoric.  The listed E. B. F. John Musker Stakes at Great Yarmouth on September 19 was her first stakes try, and her first attempt at a mile and a quarter.  She stalked the pace set by favoured Chain of Daisies, and drew off to win easily.  Off that victory, she went straight to Grade 1 company.  The move turned out well, as her late kick powered her to a neck victory in the E. P. Taylor.

Starship Jubilee, well off the pace when she won the Grade 2 Canadian Stakes a month ago, instead came away sharply.  With a bit of bumping involving horses inside of her including Santa Monica, Pollara, Sheikha Reika, and Golden Legend, she had a clear path to the lead.  Though Santa Monica recovered quickly and briefly tried to go with Starship Jubilee, she instead settled back on the rail to track the leader, just inside of Proctor's Ledge.  Sheikha Reika settled in the next flight, just outside of Pollara, with the rest settled farther back.  Starship Jubilee set a comfortable pace, the opening quarter in a leisurely 26.77, the half in a still-comfortable 52.68.

Into the far turn and all the way into the lane, Starship Jubilee continued to dictate unchallenged terms, but the running was about to begin.  Santa Monica and Proctor's Ledge were being asked just behind her.  Sheikha Reika was shaken up for run three wide into the stretch, and beginning to respond, with Golden Legend winding up just behind.

Santa Monica found room between Starship Jubilee and the rail in the final furlong, and dove for an inside run.  Sheikha Reika, implored three wide down the lane, had summoned her best.  She descended three wide, with Golden Legend coming on just to her outside.  Starship Jubilee dug in and pled for the wire, but it did not come in time.

Sheikha Reika, with the most momentum, headed the pacesetter inside the sixteenth pole and edged clear to prevail by three quarters of a length.  Golden Legend battled on for second, just three quarters of a length behind the winner, outfinishing 5/2 favourite Santa Monica by a neck.  It was another half-length back to Starship Jubilee, who kept on gamely.  Proctor's Ledge, Pollara, Sky Full of Stars, Elysea's World, and Summer Luck completed the order of finish.

Sheikha Reika wrests the lead from Starship Jubilee (between), leaving her, Santa Monica (inside), and the rest to chase her home in the E. P. Taylor. (Photo: Nicolle Neulist)

Sheikha Reika wrests the lead from Starship Jubilee (between), leaving her, Santa Monica (inside), and the rest to chase her home in the E. P. Taylor. (Photo: Nicolle Neulist)

Sheikha Reika is a three-year-old daughter of Shamardal out of the Tobougg mare Screen Star, and was bred in France by Mark Johnston Racing, Inc.  She races in the colours of Sheikh Mohammed Obaid Al Maktoum, and is trained by Roger Varian.  The victory was her third in eight career starts.  She had won once before at the stakes level, romping in the E. B. F. Stallions John Musker Stakes at Great Yarmouth last month, but the E. P. Taylor was her first attempt in graded or group company.  The $300,000 (CAN) winner's share of the purse brought her career earnings up to $287,753 (US).

Jockey Andrea Atzeni, who knew Sheikha Reika well after riding her for all of her career starts, expressed worries about the ground.  "She is a big mare and the ground is probably slow – a little bit ‘dead’ for her. She’s a better filly over fast ground, but she got the job done today, which is the main thing."  Michael McGowan, assistant trainer for Roger Varian, concurred.  "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."

Atzeni's assessment of the race was similar.  "The pace was a bit slow, but it turned into a little bit of a sprint, that’s why she sort of took her time to hit top gear, but when she hit top gear, she went on to win in the end."

Sheikha Reika crossed the wire in 2:05.10 for the mile and a quarter over good turf, and paid $14.10 to win.  The $2 exacta over Golden Legend (4-5) came back with $126.00.  A trifecta with Santa Monica in the lowest rung (4-5-2) returned $558.70 for each $2 on the sequence.  The $1 superfecta with Starship Jubilee holding fourth (4-5-2-7) paid $1,765.60.

Nearctic Stakes: HEMBREE returns to his roots, rises from claimer to Grade 2 winner

Hopes were high for Hembree early in his career.  After a debut win dashing on the turf at Saratoga in 2016, he went straight into stakes company for the next two starts of his two-year-old year.  At three he kept trying turf routes, and found some placings, but didn't find the winners' circle.  He raced for several trainers that year: Joe Sharp and then Mike Maker for previous owners Ken and Sarah Ramsey, then he got claimed to the barn of Rudy Rodriguez.

He found the winners' circle again in starter company for Rodriguez at the beginning of this year, but then became a claim box darling once more.  Dropped in for $50,000 by Rodriguez for his next start, trainer Ray Handal got him; next out, Mike Maker claimed him back for $50,000, but for different owners, Three Diamonds Farm.

Hembree hasn't been back in for a tag since.  And, after his late-running score in the Grade 2 Nearctic Stakes, it's a safe bet that Hembree won't be in for a tag for a long time to come.

8/5 favourite Lady Alexandra and Yorkton both popped quickly out of the starting gate, with Yorkton seizing the lead.  Lady Alexandra instead settled to stalk about a length behind, just outside of rail-drawn Hemp Hemp Hurray.  Yorkton dictated terms through an opening quarter in 22:31.  Through the turn, the tracking pair turned up the pressure, but Yorkton kept on to make the half mile in 45.18.

Lady Alexandra made a threatening bid on Yorkton past the quarter-mile mark, but could not get the pacesetter to cry uncle.  She began to weaken but other foes were coming.  Hemp Hemp Hurray doggedly made up ground on the inside.  Meanwhile, behind, longshot Singandcryindubai had swept into the picture when turning for home, and further back Hembree was beginning to quicken under a drive.

Inside the sixteenth mark, Hemp Hemp Hurray drew even with Yorkton.  Hembree still had about a length and a half to make up on the top two, but he found his best with a sixteenth of a mile to go.  He rolled up on the outside, reeled them in, and crossed the wire a neck to the good.  Yorkton got the bob for place, a nose over Hemp Hemp Hurray.  It was another length and a quarter back to Singandcryindubai, who continued on gamely despite being outkicked.  Bushrod, Kitten's Cat, Holding Gold, Ikerrin Road, Lady Alexandra, Conquest Panthera, and Sweet Little Man completed the order of finish.

Hembree sweeps outside of Yorkton (between) and Hemp Hemp Hurray (inside) to win the 2018 Nearctic Stakes. (Photo: Nicolle Neulist)

Hembree sweeps outside of Yorkton (between) and Hemp Hemp Hurray (inside) to win the 2018 Nearctic Stakes. (Photo: Nicolle Neulist)

Hembree is a four-year-old colt by Proud Citizen out of the Langfuhr mare Knockatrina.  He was bred in Kentucky by Derby Lane Farm, LLC.  He is owned by Three Diamonds Farm and trained by Mike Maker.  Since the claim he has won three times in five starts.  The victory in the Nearctic was Hembree's first triumph in stakes company, and his fifth victory in 21 lifetime starts.  The $150,000 (CAN) winner's share of the purse brought his career earnings to $450,426 (US).

Rider Irad Ortiz, Jr. got his first Woodbine win with Hembree.  "I got a good trip," noted Ortiz.  He [Nolan Ramsey, assistant trainer for Mike Maker] told me that there was going to be some pace in front of me, so don't panic, just let him be comforable.  When I tipped him out in the stretch, he appreciated the long stretch because he was coming."

Remarked Ramsey after the race, "Probably at the quarter pole Hemp Hemp Hurray really looked like the horse to beat to me, but Irad gave Hembree a great trip, had him on the outside and closed strong, so it was an exciting finish and I’m happy with the result."

Hembree crossed the wire in 1:08.95 for six furlongs over good turf, and paid $20.00 to win.  The exacta over Yorkton (4-3) came back with $163.20 for each $2 on the combination.  A $2 trifecta with Hemp Hemp Hurray third (4-3-1) returjned $1,176.80.  The $1 superfecta with Singandcryindubai fourth (4-3-1-11) paid $15,764.45.

Ontario Derby: LOOKIN TO STRIKE heads up Casse exacta

“That was a great finish,” said Kathryn Sullivan, assistant trainer to Mark Casse.

Succinct, and true.

The field of six for this year's $125,000 Ontario Derby (G3) featured a pair of horses from the Casse shedrow, and as the field crossed the wire, the stablemates headed up the field, only a neck apart.  It was Lookin to Strike who held off the doggedly chasing Curlin's Honor to take top honours.

Strike Me Down found the early initiative, setting an uncontested opening quarter of 24.46.  Lookin to Strike stalked just off his pace through the first turn, with Curlin's Honor inside of Mr Ritz in the next flight.  Into the backstretch, Lookin to Strike switched out and prompted to the pacesetter's outside, only a neck off the pace with six furlongs to run.  Even with the bunched field, the pace remained reasonable, with the opening half done in 49.39.

Strike Me Down continued on the lead, opening up a sliver of breathing room between himself and Lookin to Strike coming into the far turn.  It didn't last long; as the field reached the apex of the bend, Lookin to Strike came back at the pacesetter's throatlatch.  Mr Ritz edged closer on the outside; Curlin's Honor hugged the rail.

Into the lane, Lookin to Strike wrested the lead from Strike Me Down.  Curlin's Honor gave chase off the rail, leaving room for the pacesetter to fade; Mr Ritz ran on from just outside Curlin's Honor.  The son of Curlin finished better between those pursuers, ranging inside of Lookin to Strike in the final furlong.

Lookin to Strike refused to let his stablemate by.  He held on to win by a neck over Curlin's Honor, stopping the clock in 1:49.30 for the nine furlongs on Tapeta.  8/5 favourite Mr Ritz ran on another length and a quarter behind, in third, a length and a half clear of Strike Me down.  Peppered and Flight Deck completed the order of finish.

Lookin to Strike strolls to the winners' circle after his stalk-and-pounce victory in the 2018 Ontario Derby.  (Photo: Nicolle Neulist)

Lookin to Strike strolls to the winners' circle after his stalk-and-pounce victory in the 2018 Ontario Derby. (Photo: Nicolle Neulist)

Lookin to Strike is a three-year-old son of Lookin at Lucky out of the Officer mare Miss Bonnie.  Owned by Gary Barber, he is trained by Mark Casse, and was ridden to victory by Gary Boulanger.  It was Boulanger's first victory in the Ontario Derby.  Casse had won it twice before: with Stealcase in 2012, and Florida Won in 2014.  For Lookin to Strike, it was his  fourth victory in nine career starts, and his first at the stakes level.  The $75,000 (CAN) winner's share of the purse brought his lifetime earnings to $147,644 (US).

Stated assistant trainer Kathryn Sullivan after the race, “Gary [Boulanger] and I were talking in the paddock and he’s so confident in this horse. He said that he could do anything – he could go to the lead, he could wait – so you’ve got to love a horse like that. He rode him really smart, really confidently, and it was a great race.”

Jockey Gary Boulanger suggests that Lookin to Strike is a horse who needs a challenge. “He kind of got a little lost when he got out there two or three (lengths) in front – he was sort of like ‘Where did everybody go? Who am I supposed to run at?’” said Boulanger. “I was kind of chirpin’ and screamin’ at him. I could hear someone coming, and he was like ‘Yeah, I’ve got something left here.’ Galloping out, he just took off again. He’s a pretty nice colt.”

Lookin to Strike paid $10.00 to win.  The $2.00 exacta over Curlin's Honor (2-1) returned $55.10.  The  $2.00 trifecta with Mr Ritz third (2-1-3) came back with $182.30.  A superfecta with Strike Me Down fourth (2-1-3-4) paid $134.05 for each dollar on the combination.

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