How to beat Tepin? That’s the $400,000 question for First Lady entrants

Champion Tepin, seen here winning the Grade I Jenny Wiley Stakes at Keeneland in April, headlines a field of 10 in Saturday’s Grade I First Lady Stakes.
Champion Tepin, seen here winning the Grade I Jenny Wiley Stakes at Keeneland in April, headlines a field of 10 in Saturday’s Grade I First Lady Stakes.

Conventional Thoroughbred racing wisdom says you should never avoid a spot due to the presence of one horse. If the sport has taught the world anything over the years, it is that all sorts of unexpected results can happen once the starting gate flies open.

Without the belief that tremendous odds can be beaten, few would ever send their charges postward against any champion. Such optimism is what the connections of nine challengers clung to Wednesday afternoon as they signed up via the Keeneland entry box to take on the mare who just doesn’t inspire much confidence that she is primed for defeat.

“We just found out Tepin is running, so that’s kind of depressing,” trainer Michael Stidham deadpanned this week.

Uplifting as she may be for the sport as a whole, reigning champion turf female Tepin has been a source of angst for her rivals the last 12 months and counting. For eight straight races, the daughter of Bernstein has literally traveled the world besting challengers of both genders, a streak she will put on the line once more when she breaks from post No 2 in a field of 10 entered for the Grade I, $400,000 First Lady Stakes on the Keeneland turf Saturday.

The 1-mile First Lady is one of five graded stakes on Keeneland’s blockbuster Saturday card, which also features the Grade I, $1 million Shadwell Turf Mile and Grade I, $500,000 Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity.

That nine others will try and dethrone the oft-proclaimed “Queen of the Turf” speaks to the innate hope that is necessary at racing’s top level. Still, there were tones of resignation coming from more than one horseman at the prospect of facing the 5-year-old mare. Stidham stated he would be happy if his charge Secret Someone came out of the 8-furlong test with a Grade I placing, with similar sentiments echoed by Brad Cox, trainer of fellow entrant Cash Control.

“Any filly or mare is always looking for any piece of a Grade I, so we would probably go hoping for a piece of it,” Stidham said. “To think you’re going to go beat (Tepin) would be kind of pipe dreaming, but you never know. That’s horse racing. Things happen. And like I said, we’d be happy if we got any piece of it.”

Added Cox, “The expectations are maybe to run second or third. We know that mare is probably the top grass mare in the country, or the world. It would be big for (Cash Control) to get a Grade I placing. So we’re going to take a shot and see what happens.”

Much of what has allowed Tepin to morph into the most feared turf miler in the world is how uncomplicated she is to handle. She is versatile enough in her running style that she will sit wherever jockey Julien Leparoux opts to place her. She can handle whatever ground comes up. And she knows when to save herself and when to lay it all on the line.

In her first start since becoming the first North American-based horse to win the Group I Queen Anne Stakes at Royal Ascot on June 14, Tepin defeated males once more in the Grade I Woodbine Mile on Sept. 17, winning by half a length despite being short of top fitness.

“She’s not the easiest to train simply because she doesn’t put as much into her training as some horses do. She benefits from running,” trainer Mark Casse said of his stable star. “In Woodbine, she only won by (half) a length, but if you watched galloping out, she never let anybody goes by. She’s starting to get to where she plays with competition — which is a little bit of a concern.”

Tepin certainly toyed with her competition in the First Lady Stakes last year, winning by 7 lengths en route to capturing the Breeders’ Cup Mile last October. The level of respect she commands is such that trainer Graham Motion opted to enter his filly, Miss Temple City, against males in the Shadwell rather than knock heads with the champion mare.

It’s a move that has already paid off once this year as Miss Temple City became the first filly to win the Grade I Maker’s 46 Mile at Keeneland in April when Motion picked that spot instead of facing Tepin in the Grade I Jenny Wiley. He got a birds-eye view of just what he was dealing with when Miss Temple City and Tepin shipped to Royal Ascot together. While the two distaffers got along famously in their time overseas, Motion respectfully wants to avoid the six-time Grade I winner as much as his sporting nature will allow.

“I think it’s remarkable. I’m not sure people even realize how amazing it was what she accomplished (at Royal Ascot) and to come back and run like she did (at Woodbine),” Motion said of Tepin. “I’m not crazy about running against her in any race, and I don’t question anything they do with her or her ability.

“The only time Miss Temple City got to walk home in front of her was on the gallops (in England).”

Alicia Wincze Hughes: 859-231-1676, @horseracinghl

Keeneland Fall Meet

Dates: Oct. 7-29 (No racing Monday or Tuesday)

Times: Gates open at 11 a.m. and first post is 1:05 p.m. each day.

This weekend: Fall Stars Weekend features nine graded stakes races worth $3.7 million over three days, including five Grade I races.