Canadian International scouting reports: Thundering Blue, Desert Encounter, Khan
Three Europeans invade Woodbine in hopes of reclaiming the Canadian International (G1) trophy that eluded the transatlantic brigade last season. It took a once-in-a-lifetime effort by Tim Glyshaw’s late stalwart Bullards Alley to snap the Europeans’ seven-year winning streak here in 2017, on soft going that won’t be a factor on Saturday.
If one European brings a current gilt-edged formline – 2-1 morning-line favorite Thundering Blue – fellow British shipper Desert Encounter has the sneakier look of a 6-1 value play.
The idiosyncratic gray is a testimony to the skill of trainer David Menuisier and partner Kim Johnstone, who’ve managed to draw out his latent talent while smoothing out his quirks. Once Thundering Blue graduated from the handicap ranks to proper Group performer, Menuisier thought of this target, and he also harbors Japan Cup (G1) ambitions.
The Kentucky-bred by Exchange Rate is out of the Forestry mare Relampago Azul (“Blue Lightning”). His dam is a half-sister to multiple Grade 2 winner Imperialism, the third in the 2004 Kentucky Derby (G1), from the further family of millionaire Colonel John, hero of the 2008 Travers (G1) and Santa Anita Derby (G1).
A $175,000 Keeneland September yearling who brought £190,000 ($282,226) at the Tattersalls Craven Breeze-Up Sale at two, Thundering Blue was unraced as a juvenile and famously took 10 starts to break his maiden. But that’s not quite an indication of his ability, for he was regarded well enough to debut in the 2016 Wood Ditton at Newmarket, traditionally a spot to unveil sophomores thought to be useful. Sidelined after a fifth that day, he was eventually gelded that fall (so not a first-time gelding as listed here) and brought back at four.
His futility continued until he stepped up in trip to 1 1/4 miles last summer, when the combination of maturity, switching off early, and added ground made him a different horse. After rocketing into a near-miss third from a hopeless position at Epsom, he finally scored his first win over the same track and trip.
Thundering Blue then added two more handicaps in rapid succession to make it a hat trick, winning at Newmarket (veering sharply left then right again), and at Sandown, motoring from the tail of field to beat progressive sophomore Monarchs Glen (subsequently a Group 3 winner). The 6-1 favorite for the Cambridgeshire, the time-honored nine-furlong handicap, he closed for seventh of 34 on the cutback in trip. Wandering to the open space between the two groups didn’t help.
Reappearing in another historic handicap, the April 25 City and Suburban at Epsom, Thundering Blue was fifth to the ill-fated Ajman King, in a comeback he was said to need. He duly moved forward to capture a York handicap as the favorite, with something up his sleeve, but never got involved in Royal Ascot’s Duke of Edinburgh when 11th of 17 on the stretch-out to 1 1/2 miles.
Thundering Blue was back in his element at York. A rallying second to 20-1 front runner Euchen Glen in the 10 1/2-furlong John Smith’s Cup set him up for his stakes debut in the course-and-distance York S. (G2). Up in time to beat fellow handicapper Brorocco, he also bested the underachieving favorite Elarqam and classy South African mare Smart Call.
Given his proficiency around 10 1/2 furlongs at York, connections gambled to supplement him against the big guns in the August 22 Juddmonte International (G1). Bettors ignored him as the 50-1 longest shot on the board in a field crammed with Group 1 winners. If no match for the rampant Roaring Lion, Thundering Blue got the last laugh with a hard-charging third that turned a tidy profit on the cost to supplement. He finished just a half-length off Poet’s Word, and in front of a not-quite-cranked Saxon Warrior. His other proven Group 1 rivals also underperformed – Benbatl, Without Parole, Latrobe, and Thunder Snow.
Thundering Blue ventured to Sweden to get foreign shipping experience, as an explicit learning experience for Woodbine, and justified favoritism in the September 23 Stockholm Cup International (G3). He didn’t have to equal his Juddmonte performance to defeat fellow handicapper Crowned Eagle in the all-British exacta. But he did prove that he can handle 1 1/2 miles just fine.
If the Canadian International isn’t as tough as the Juddmonte, it’s much deeper than Stockholm, and arguably better than the York S. Thundering Blue is plenty capable, on a big left-handed course that might remind him of York, but this is a fresh challenge. On the plus side, for a horse who’s not the most straightforward ride, Fran Berry stays aboard.
Like Thundering Blue, Desert Encounter also boasts a Group 1 placing at 50-1, only his may have slipped off the radar since it came in last summer’s Eclipse (G1). Well adrift of Ulysses and Barney Roy, Desert Encounter outkicked favored Cliffs of Moher and Decorated Knight, among others, to snatch third.
Desert Encounter’s ensuing record doesn’t appear as flashy as Thundering Blue’s since he’s been competing at a higher level, and trying more Group 1s. Another who learned his trade via the handicap route, the veteran has recently cycled back to form for trainer David Simcock, always worth a close look at Woodbine.
Simcock’s shippers have historically performed well here, most memorably in 2014, when he swept the Woodbine Mile (G1) with Trade Storm, Northern Dancer Turf (G1) with Sheikhzayedroad, and Nearctic (G1) with Caspar Netscher.
By Halling out of a full sister to Group 2 winner Allied Powers (seventh in the 2009 Canadian International), Desert Encounter was sparingly raced at two and three, turned a handicap hat trick of his own at four, and emerged as a Group performer at five. He earned his way up the stakes ladder with three fine efforts in listed company, including a victory in the 2017 Buckhounds at Ascot, before his Eclipse placing.
Desert Encounter scored a Group breakthrough in last September’s Legacy Cup (G3) at Newbury, gaining revenge on Second Step who’d denied him earlier in the season in the Tapster at Goodwood, but was unable to land another blow at the elite level. Sixth behind Enable in the King George VI & Queen Elizabeth (G1), he ended the year with a better fifth behind Cracksman, Poet’s Word, and Highland Reel in the Champion (G1) back at Ascot.
Largely disappointing through the first half or so of 2018, Desert Encounter alternated solid placings to Poet’s Word in the May 24 Brigadier Gerard (G3) and to Godolphin’s Emotionless in the July 21 Steventon S. with flops in the Dubai Sheema Classic (G1) on World Cup night, the Prince of Wales’s (G1), and the King George.
But Desert Encounter may have turned the corner with back-to-back respectable efforts. Granted, the first came in a listed stakes, the August at Windsor, where he handily dismissed the Godolphin pair of Game Starter and Prize Money.
Desert Encounter’s title defense in the September 22 Legacy Cup at Newbury is more instructive, albeit in a half-length defeat. Grinding to the front on soft ground, he labored late and got nabbed by two smart rivals – sophomore Young Rascal and Juddmonte’s Mirage Dancer.
While Desert Encounter brings a more exposed look than the upwardly mobile Thundering Blue, he has form of his own, and rates a win contender on his day.
German shipper Khan is the international with the most to prove. From the up-and-coming yard of jockey-turned-trainer Henk Grewe (who also has Sky Full of Stars in the E.P. Taylor [G1]), he sports the colors of Darius Racing, the same owner as Parveneh (eighth in the 2016 E.P. Taylor) and Wasir (third in the same year’s American St Leger [G3]).
A half-brother to multiple German Group 1-winning highweight Kamsin, the Santiago colt was unraced at two, and rushed into the 2017 classic picture after breaking his maiden second out. That was probably a case of too much, too soon, for the May 4 foal, who was eighth in the Oppenheim-Union-Rennen (G2) and 12th in the German Derby (G1). Even a drop into allowance company didn’t help him regain the winning thread, and Khan settled for placings at Deauville and Vichy. Third in the 1 3/4-mile German St Leger (G3), he was fifth in the Grosser Preis von Bayern (G1) in his seasonal finale.
His 2018 campaign was much the same. Khan posted a string of unplaced efforts, notably in the Oleander-Rennen (G2), Grosser Hansa-Preis (G2), Grosser Preis von Berlin (G1), and Grosser Preis von Baden (G1).
No wonder he went off at 20-1 in the September 23 Grosser Preis von Europa (G1). That was the day Khan put it all together, buoyed by ground so soft at Cologne that they didn’t use the starting gate. Watch how they lined up abreast old-school – his French jockey, Clement Lecoeuvre, said he didn’t understand the starter’s instructions in German! No harm done. Khan kept on merrily as the rest floundered in the mire.
While it’s possible that the light bulb just went on, Khan’s performance smacks for all the world like the product of circumstances. He’d used similar tactics before to no avail, and worn cheekpieces too, so neither explains his sudden form reversal. Ground conditions won’t be in his favor at Woodbine, presaging a likely regression to his typical effort at this level.
According to galopponline.de, Grewe credited Darius’ Racing Manager Holger Faust for running him in the Europa rather than the trainer’s idea of another crack at the German St Leger. Faust also made the call for the Canadian International.
Thundering Blue photo courtesy Michael Burns Photography/Woodbine via Twitter