European shippers have won eight of the past 10 editions of the Canadian International (G1), and the raiding party brings strength in numbers to Saturday’s renewal at Woodbine. Two-thirds of the field arrive from across the pond, including the top three on the morning line.

French invader Ziyad has been installed as the even-money favorite – a reflection of his obvious appeal, although he’d prefer to have a target than be one. Defending champion Desert Encounter enters in grand form with a three-race winning streak, most recently besting Pivoine, but the veteran faces a stiffer test if Ziyad produces his best. While Germany’s Alounak has something to prove at this level, he owns some useful form, and he’ll profit if Woodbine gets all the rain in the forecast.

Before taking a closer look at the internationals, a note on 8-1 chance Nessy: he’s a full brother to ill-fated Bullards Alley, who stunned the Europeans in the 2017 Canadian International on soft ground. Nessy was most recently second in the course-and-distance Northern Dancer Turf (G1) to Godolphin’s Old Persian, who’ s bound for the Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1).

Finally, the single raider in the Nearctic (G2), Woody Creek, warrants close attention as well so we’ll include her at the end.

Ziyad

On an upward curve all summer, Ziyad comes off a stakes-record coup in the Grand Prix de Deauville (G2). The Carlos Laffon-Parias trainee eclipsed Masterstroke’s old mark from 2012 by almost a second, according to france-galop.com, in his breakthrough at the Group level.

The Wertheimer et Frere homebred sports a strong pedigree as a close relative of multiple Group 1-winning highweight Aquarelliste. Out of a stakes-placed half-sister to Aquarelliste (and to multiple Grade 1 scorer Artiste Royal), Ziyad is by outstanding miler Rock of Gibraltar, himself by Danehill, like Aquarelliste.

Gelded after disappointing in his lone appearance at two, Ziyad has been a fairly reliable character ever since. He has made the trifecta in 13 of his 15 ensuing starts, and finished fourth in another.

At three, Ziyad progressed from a maiden score at Lyon Parilly to conditions wins at Longchamp and Nantes (in the “Derby de l’Ouest”). Instead of sticking to about 1 1/2 miles for his stakes debut, the dark bay stepped up to about 1 3/4 miles in the Prix Michel Houyvet at Deauville and defeated Master of Reality (the eventual third in this summer’s Gold Cup [G1] at Royal Ascot). That made Ziyad the favorite in the Prix de Lutece (G3), but he couldn’t peg back Jackfinbar and had to settle for a clear second, nine lengths ahead of third. Over the same about 1 7/8-mile trip in the Prix Chaudenay (G2) on 2018 Arc weekend, Ziyad tired late in fourth.

Connections thought about a possible staying program for Ziyad earlier this term, but he reverted to about 1 1/2 miles in his reappearance and has continued to ply his trade around that distance. He was just nailed by fellow Wertheimer homebred Folamour in the March 26 Prix de la Porte de Madrid, and as racing manager Pierre-Yves Bureau noted, Ziyad had the tougher job. He spotted Folamour three pounds and did the dirty work on the front end. Bettors forecast improvement and sent Ziyad off as the favorite in his next two, only to have him throw in a rare clunker when 10th behind Nagano Gold in the Prix Lord Seymour and wind up a distant third to Silverwave in the Prix Bedel.

Yet Laffon-Parias kept the faith, and in fact pitched him into a deeper spot in the Grand Prix de Chantilly (G2). Now overlooked by the public as the 20-1 longest shot on the board, Ziyad nearly sprang the upset. He turned the tables on Silverwave and Folamour, and yielded only to British shipper Aspetar.

Ziyad earned his first crack at a Group 1 in the Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud (G1). Again underestimated at 14-1, he almost nicked it on the front end, just denied in the final strides by John Gosden’s Coronet. That high-class mare had missed by a whisker in the same race a year ago – to Waldgeist, Sunday’s Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (G1) winner over Enable. Although Ziyad was all out to hang on for second from Lah Ti Dar, he gained revenge on Aspetar, who got no closer than fourth. (Aspetar has come back to capture the Preis von Europa [G1], and fifth-placer Marmelo also underscored the depth of the Saint-Cloud form by recently regaining his title in the Prix Kergorlay [G2]).

Hence Ziyad brought a progressive profile into the Grand Prix de Deauville, and he duly stamped his authority. Working out a perfect stalk-and-pounce trip, he safely held sophomore Soft Light (who would finish a creditable sixth in the Arc) with favored Nagano Gold (the troubled near-misser from Royal Ascot’s Hardwicke [G2]) in third. Soft Light was getting to him late, but Ziyad had already put the race away.  

The one potential cause for pause is if Ziyad ends up making his own pace in this short field without a dedicated leader. He might well have too great a class edge on his current form, but he has been mugged on both occasions he led early at Saint-Cloud.

Desert Encounter

The defending champion’s background was explored in the 2018 Canadian International scouting report, where his back class stacked up well against his shorter-priced rivals. Trainer David Simcock, ever-dangerous in his Woodbine raids, sends him back in shape at least as good, if not better, than a year ago.

After Desert Encounter rolled from far off a slow pace to earn that elusive Grade 1, he went on winter holiday and resurfaced during the Dubai World Cup Carnival. The seven-year-old returned with a useful third to Old Persian in the Dubai City of Gold (G2), but trailed behind the same rival in the Dubai Sheema Classic (G1). He wasn’t seen again until the Prince of Wales’s (G1) at Royal Ascot, when he ran last for the second straight year.

Desert Encounter moved forward to place third in Communique’s course-record Princess of Wales’s (G2) at Newmarket’s July Festival, and hasn’t lost since. In the Glorious (G3) during the eponymous festival at Goodwood, the Halling gelding cruised from last to first under a confident Jamie Spencer ride. Defending champion Mirage Dancer was the odds-on favorite, but Desert Encounter ran like one.

At Windsor, Desert Encounter had to work harder to overhaul Matterhorn, but prevailed in course-record time in the 1 1/4-mile Winter Hill (G3).

His final prep came in the same race as last year, the Legacy Cup (G3) at Newbury, and he readily forged clear. Canadian International rival Pivoine gained belatedly without posing a threat to Desert Encounter, who was regaining the title he’d won in 2017. Last September, Desert Encounter had been dethroned in the Legacy Cup (on soft going) by Young Rascal, with Mirage Dancer, then at his peak, a near-miss second. The field assembled this time around wasn’t as deep, so his effort in victory was arguably comparable.

While Desert Encounter faces only five rivals at Woodbine – half the number he beat a year ago – Ziyad can claim to be the best opponent he’s met of late. And the ground is liable to be a bit slower than his recent spree on good-to-firm.

Pivoine

As noted in the 2019 Arlington Million scouting report, Pivoine has turned in fine efforts at about 1 1/4 miles in good-to-firm conditions. That scenario didn’t help the handicapper overcome class questions as he wound up fifth behind Bricks and Mortar, but he probably was left with too much to do, and this spot presents a different sort of opportunity.

From the yard of Andrew Balding, another trainer with Woodbine successes on his resume, Pivoine has raced twice in the interim. He retreated to ninth after chasing the pace out wide in the September (G3) over Kempton’s Polytrack, then rebounded with a closing second to Desert Encounter in the 1 3/8-mile Legacy Cup.

Although Pivoine has failed to land a blow in three tries at 1 1/2 miles, there might have been other circumstances in play in a couple of those losses. In his best result at the trip, the well-bred son of Redoute’s Choice was fourth to Crystal Ocean, Laraaib, and Raymond Tusk in Newbury’s Aston Park (G3) back in May, and a similar performance would put him in the frame here. The distance might be no obstacle in gentler North American conditions, but he won’t want too much rain.

Note that Pivoine reunites with Rob Hornby, who guided him to his biggest career win in the John Smith’s Cup in July and again rode him to his first stakes placing in the Legacy Cup. They clearly hit it off.

Alounak

Once the joint antepost favorite for the German Derby (G1), Alounak was sidelined by injury for nearly a year, and it’s taken him seven starts to regain the winner’s circle. Is it onwards and upwards from here? Or was scraping home in a German Group 3 indicative of his proper level these days?

By Coolmore’s three-time classic star Camelot, and out of a three-quarter sister to Irish highweight Emulous, the Darius Racing colorbearer looked bound for bigger things at three. The narrow winner of the Junioren-Preis in his juvenile finale at Dusseldorf opened his sophomore campaign with a romp over the same track’s Derby Trial.

Alounak also had ambitions in France, where he was given early entries in such prizes as the 2018 French Derby (G1), Grand Prix de Paris (G1), and Arc. Those didn’t look unrealistic after he placed second in the Prix Greffulhe (G2) to Study of Man, the next-out French Derby winner.

Unfortunately, Alounak never got his chance in the classics once injured. Transferred from Jean-Pierre Carvalho to Waldemar Hickst, the four-year-old resumed with a promising second in a Hoppegarten listed stakes. But he was unable to crack the top three in his five subsequent starts, a trio of Group 2s and a pair of Group 1s. Hickst wasn’t happy with his early on-pace tactics in the Grosser Preis von Berlin (G1), where he faded to fifth behind French King, Communique, and comebacker Old Persian.

Alounak finally got his head in front in the August 24 Preis der Sparkassen Finanzgruppe (G3), but his up-in-time verdict over Be My Sheriff and Royal Youmzain going about 1 1/4 miles at Baden-Baden doesn’t easily translate to this task.

On the plus side, Alounak was turning the tables on rivals who’d beaten him this season, and the prospect of softish ground holds out the possibility of improvement.  

Nearctic – Woody Creek

The Glen Hill Farm runner has been a hard-luck horse, but Woody Creek sports smart form versus males already, and her feathery 110-pound impost might help her earn an overdue stakes victory.

Trained by Fozzy Stack, who shipped Yesterdayoncemore to plunder the Del Mar Juvenile Fillies Turf, the €180,000 ($211,464) Goffs Orby yearling purchase hails from a female line responsible for several classy sprinters. Woody Creek is a Zoffany half-sister to Group 3 winner Abel Handy from the family of Dominica, who upset older males as a three-year-old filly in the 2002 King’s Stand (G2); Ya Malak, the 1997 Nunthorpe (G1) winner; and champion sprinter Cadeaux Genereux. (Interestingly Woody Creek’s dam traces to Cadeaux Genereux on her sire’s side.)

Fourth in both starts at two, Woody Creek was roughly hampered in a Leopardstown maiden and not seen again until this spring. Stack told irishracing.com that the filly was affected both physically (“quite sore after it”) and mentally (“lost her confidence badly”) by that experience. Hence she can be forgiven her first two starts this term.

Woody Creek turned the corner when rallying to take a premier handicap at Naas May 11, and she wheeled back 11 days later to make it two straight at Cork, prompting Stack to say she was “just starting to get her confidence back.” Cutting back to five furlongs for a premier handicap at the Curragh proved a bit too short, but she still finished a respectable fifth.

Up in class for the six-furlong Belgrave S. on Irish Derby Day, Woody Creek just missed to the four-year-old colt Speak in Colours, who’s since won a Group 3 and just placed third in last Sunday’s Prix de la Foret (G1). She came agonizingly close again in the Sweet Mimosa back at Naas in distaff company, with Jessica Harrington’s Servalan (whose two best efforts have come at that track and trip) heading her on the line. Woody Creek continued her seconditis in the Phoenix Sprint (G3), where Gustavus Weston fended her off by a neck.

Stack found what appeared to be a perfect spot at Ayr – the listed Arran S. for fillies and mares – only to see Woody Creek buried behind a wall of horses. Traveling well but getting out belatedly, she had to settle for fifth as the 4-1 favorite.

Woody Creek’s therefore better than her bare resume. In light of her substantial weight break, effectiveness in a range of ground conditions, and running style in a race loaded with speed, she’s the value play at 8-1 on the morning line.

Photo: Desert Encounter bested fellow European invader Thundering Blue in the 2018 Canadian International (G1) (WEG/Michael Burns Photography)