As impressive as the crowd of 28,101 was in their presence within the Keeneland grounds, they were even more notable in how they collectively came to a hush as the results of the Grade I, $400,000 First Lady Stakes became indisputable in the final strides.
It had been more than a year, after all, since reigning champion turf female Tepin had entered a starting gate and not ended up in the winner’s circle. Going off as a 2-to-5 favorite, all expectations were for her to use the one-mile turf test as a vehicle to stretch her eight-race win streak in her quest to secure a repeat victory in the Breeders’ Cup Mile at Santa Anita Park next month.
You throw enough obstacles at an athlete, however, and even the best of performers will finally bend. Under bold handling from Hall of Fame jockey Kent Desormeaux, Photo Call was the straw that broke Tepin’s streak Saturday, running out to a massive lead on the front end and having far more in reserve than expected to pull a 2 ¾-length shocker at odds of 29-to-1 over the mare regarded as the world’s best in her division.
“It’s horse racing,” Norman Casse, top assistant to his father, trainer Mark Casse, calmly explained of Tepin’s defeat. “I think she ran a good race. I just think the other horse had a little better trip and things got to go her way. We got beat today, that’s all.”
Until Photo Call hit midstretch and it became clear the multi-length advantage she had established was not going away, there were still hearty cheers coming from the stands trying to will Tepin to what would have been her ninth straight win, her seventh Grade I victory and her second straight win in the First Lady itself.
Photo Call had her own game plan, however, that she was determined to force down everyone’s throat. Where Desormeaux said he had orders from trainer Todd Pletcher to get the 5-year-old daughter of Galileo “covered up” in the early going, that idea was quickly squashed as the duo darted to the lead out of post No. 10 and opened up a seven-length advantage as she hit the half-mile mark in :47.29.
“She was aggressive and getting her covered up was not going to happen,” Desormeaux said. “My job at that point was just to calm her down, settle her down and get around the racetrack as smooth as I could and have some run left.
“She came into the far turn and hit another gear, and then threw her ears up three or four jumps later. It would have taken something even more freakish than Tepin to keep up with her at that point. She was just phenomenal.”
Tepin, who had rated third down the backstretch, responded with her run when roused by jockey Julien Leparoux around the final turn. After a season that has seen her notch top-level wins in three different countries — including a historic victory in the Group I Queen Anne Stakes at Royal Ascot on June 14 and her most recent triumph over males in the Grade I Woodbine Mile on September 17 — the 5-year-old daughter of Bernstein could only do so much as Photo Call hit the wire in 1:35.62 to earn her second Grade I triumph in 21 career starts.
“We may have left her a little too much to do but Julien still rode his race,” said Norman Casse, who had his spirits lifted one race later when Leparoux guided Classic Empire to victory in the Grade I Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity. “We were never meant to come over here fully cranked. We backed off her after the Woodbine race and … we were hoping for the best. The goal has always been to win the Breeders’ Cup Mile, to repeat in there. And I haven’t lost any confidence in her.
“I think we’re still set up to do that. And she’ll move forward from this race.”