She could have just stayed put and gone through a routine she had already mastered.
The $700,000 Just a Game Stakes at Belmont Park was Tepin’s shot across the divisional bow 12 months ago. It was that 1-mile race where she served notice to what the North American turf ranks were in for, notching the first of what would be three Grade I wins during a Breeders’ Cup-winning, boys-smacking, Eclipse Award-honored campaign.
She could have gone back in that same spot this past weekend and been arguably the most overwhelming favorite of any of the five Grade I races that dazzled the Belmont Stakes undercard. But, her connections know what the 5-year-old mare is capable of, which is why they had to do something different.
They had to find something worthy of the distaffer who refuses to stay in one comfort zone.
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“If you look at the money it’s not anything to do with the money,” trainer Mark Casse said of the reigning champion turf female last week. “We could be running (in New York) for the same purse money. But it would just be doing the same thing she’s done. So you know, (owner) Mr. (Robert) Masterson, being the sportsman he is, he is always looking for new challenges.”
After six straight victories over three different distances dating back to October 2015, Tepin has gone overseas to try and lock down a legacy. The Casse trainee tops a field of 14 in Tuesday’s Group I Queen Anne Stakes on the opening day of England’s Royal Ascot meeting, her second try against male rivals — she defeated the other sex during her 2 1/4 -length win in the 2015 Breeders’ Cup Mile.
She’s considered I think one of the better turf fillies that have been around for a long time and if she gets beat over there, I don’t know how much that’s gong to hurt her. I think if she can win there, it will make her one of the greats of all time.
Mark Casse, trainer of Tepin
American success at Royal Ascot has been scarce. In 2009, Wesley Ward became the first U.S.-based trainer to win during the prestigious meeting and has since scored Group I success there when Undrafted captured the 2015 Diamond Jubilee.
With Tepin’s superiority becoming increasingly clear, the venture to Royal Ascot bounced in her connections’ minds all winter. She proved she could handle soft ground when she won the Grade I First Lady Stakes at Keeneland last October by 7 lengths. The boys had no answer for her on Breeders’ Cup day and this season, she has added the versatility of winning at distances of 8 furlongs (Grade II Churchill Distaff Turf Mile), 1 1/16 miles (Grade I Jenny Wiley and Grade III Endeavour) and 1 1/8 miles (Grade II Hillsborough).
She has shown no sign of being anything but the best she’s ever been. And so, after some last-minute debate brought on by concerns over Tepin not being able to race with her equine nasal strip in England, the decision was made to let her make a case for being among the best turf females ever.
“I don’t want to let her down … Mr. Masterson doesn’t want to let her down. That’s the big concern, that’s why it was such a tough decision,” said Casse, whose team is making its first Royal Ascot venture. “But you know, ultimately, she’s considered I think one of the better turf fillies that have been around for a long time, and if she gets beat over there, I don’t know how much that’s gong to hurt her. I think if she can win there, it will make her one of the greats of all time.”
The Canadian Hall of Fame trainer humbly insists that the best decision he has made in Tepin’s development was surrounding her with an all-star team.
Norman Casse, son and top assistant to his father, has been Tepin’s day-to-day overseer since she came to their barn as a 2-year-old. He recalls a filly who could be a handful at times but was always blazingly fast, so swift in fact that she breezed in company with the late Danzig Moon prior to his fifth-place finish in the 2015 Kentucky Derby — and actually ended up outworking her stablemate.
“From Day One we thought she was a special horse,” Norman Casse said. “The funny thing is the first time we worked her out of the gate, we got her going in like :34 out in :46, some crazy-fast work for a 2-year-old filly. We knew we had something really special but the only thing you worry about with horses that are really fast is whether they are just fast. And she proved otherwise.
“The only reason why I worked her with Danzig Moon is … I thought that Tepin was the only horse in the barn that could stay with Danzig Moon at the time. That was about the time I thought, ‘Man, she’s at a whole other level.’”
It is no coincidence Tepin’s maturity has bloomed since jockey Julien Leparoux landed in her irons. Since getting on her for the first time in an allowance victory at Gulfstream Park in March 2015, the pair have lost only twice in 11 outings, when they got nailed at the wire in both the Grade I Diana and Grade II Ballston Spa last summer.
Leparoux has formed a perfect bond with his mount. Under his guidance, Tepin has become the consummate professional, willing to come off the bridle and rate just as easily as she can dictate pace should no other want the task.
“It’s almost like a perfect marriage,” Norman Casse said. “It’s made Julien change a little bit and made her change a bit and together they’re kind of like a dream team.”
Added Leparoux, “She relaxes a lot more than she used to. I believe that since she goes out and wins so easily every time our confidence level is that much higher.”
Tepin looms as the favorite in the Queen Anne, but there are circumstances that must be conquered. She will be racing over a straight-mile course without the anti-bleeder medication, Lasix, or her nasal strip in a setting she has never seen.
Norman Casse conceded that the enjoyment of the journey is clouded by the pressure of leading over a mare with such expectations. Mark Casse says he made a point to tell his son — and himself — to try and have a little fun. Because this moment and this horse are the definition of once-in-a-lifetime.
“I’m going to try really, really hard not to get myself too nervous. We have to be proud to just be there,” Mark Casse said. “It’s just truly a team effort.”
What: Group I Queen Anne Stakes
Where: Ascot Racecourse, Berkshire, England
When: 9:30 a.m. EDT
Distance: 1 mile (turf)
Purse: 600,000 pounds (about $855,000)
For: 4-year-olds and up