By Mike Farrell
While we normally focus on events along the Eastern seaboard, this time our attention shifts north of the border to Woodbine.
This is the weekend when that track is front and center with a pair of Grade 1 turf stakes on Saturday: the $800,000 Pattison Canadian International and the $600,000 E.P. Taylor for fillies and mares.
We are not overlooking the fact that Keeneland also has a Grade 1 turf event on Saturday, the $500,000 Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup for 3-year-old fillies. Let’s give our friends in the True North — strong and free — their due.
Contemplation of the International begins, and most likely ends, with Desert Encounter. It’s difficult to look past him in the 1 ½ mile race.
Let us count the ways the 7-year-old Irish bred gelding is the one to beat.
For starters, he is the defending titleholder. Overlooked at 8-1 last year, Desert Encounter rallied from 11th to pull clear to a length victory.
Trainer David Simcock returns the runner in peak form. Desert Encounter has won his last three outings, all Group 3 stakes in England, at distances ranging from 1 ¼ to 1 ½ miles.
This time, Desert Encounter finds only five rivals waiting to challenge him.
With a victory, Desert Encounter would be the first International repeat winner since Joshua Tree in 2012-13.
For players looking to beat the obvious choice, there are two likely avenues: Ziyad and Nessy.
Ziyad arrives from France fresh from a victory in the Grand Prix de Deauville (G2).
Nessy is the way to play if you fancy a North American-based runner. This will be the second straight Woodbine appearance for the 6-year-old gelding who closed from far back to be second in the Northern Dancer (G1) last month for trainer Ian Wilkes.
“I thought he ran a very good race,” Wilkes said. “He ran into a buzzsaw (Old Persian), the Godolphin horse. He’s a legitimate Grade 1 horse, he’s very good. For him to nose out two other really good horses at the wire, to get second, was a huge performance.”
Nessy has no distance limitations, having captured the 2018 San Juan Capistrano (G3) at 1 ¾ miles over the Santa Anita course.
Pivoine, Alounak and Pumpkin Rumble complete the compact field.
The E.P. Taylor is a far more competitive race with 10 runners going 1 ¼ miles, including a pair with high-profile success at Woodbine.
Holy Helena returns to the track where she captured the Dance Smartly (G2) in June for trainer Jimmy Jerkens. The winner of the 2017 Queen’s Plate against the boys over Woodbine’s Tapeta main track is a model of consistency with a mark of 8-3-2 from 19 starts.
Starship Jubilee posted a second straight victory here last month in the Canadian (G2) for trainer Kevin Attard. She set the pace before finishing fourth in last year’s Taylor.
“She has been a wonderful mare,” Attard said of Canada’s champion female turf horse the last two years. “She gives it her all each time you lead her over to the post. She’s not a big horse, but she has the heart of a lion.”
Attard will also saddle A.A. Azula’s Arch, an outsider in the field.
Trainer Graham Motion also entered a pair: Si Que Es Buena, making her first start since winning the La Prevoyante (G3) at Gulfstream in January and Secret Message who captured Woodbine’s Nassau Stakes (G2) in May.
The Woodbine card also offers the $250,000 Nearctic for grass sprinters.
Meanwhile down at Keeneland, Chad Brown (who else?) has three top contenders in final Grade 1 stakes of the meet. He sends out Café Americano, Cambier Parc and Regal Glory.
Brown is a two-time winner of this stakes with Dayatthespa (2012) and Rushing Fall (2018).
This time Brown will have competition from an unexpected source: the Queen herself with an entrant in the race named in her honor. Her Majesty will be represented by Magnetic Charm.
Mike Farrell has worked in thoroughbred and harness racing for much of his career in journalism. Mike is a turf writer, harness writer, and handicapper, covering and analyzing races at dozens of racetracks around the country. Based on the East Coast, Mike has covered the Triple Crown races and the Breeders’ Cup for a number of publications, including Daily Racing Form, as well as The Associated Press. He spends time at Gulfstream Park taking in the races, and also hits the harness racing circuit in the Northeast region. He’s been a fixture at The Hambletonian and the Haskell Invitational for longer than he’d like to remember.