Hard-luck Tepin gets shot at redemption on blockbuster opening weekend at Keeneland

Julien R. Leparoux raced across the finish line on Tepin to win the Longines Just a Game race at Belmont Park Race Track, on, June 6 in Elmont, N.Y. The filly will start from post number 11 in the Grade I, $400,000 First Lady Stakes at Keeneland.
Julien R. Leparoux raced across the finish line on Tepin to win the Longines Just a Game race at Belmont Park Race Track, on, June 6 in Elmont, N.Y. The filly will start from post number 11 in the Grade I, $400,000 First Lady Stakes at Keeneland. Invision for Longines

A nose and a head.

It was bad enough the margins that kept Grade I winner Tepin out of the winner's circle during the Saratoga meet were annoyingly minuscule. Add to that the fact her two brutal losses came in near identical fashion, and her summer campaign could easily be recalled as a bitter one.

What kept trainer Mark Casse and his son, Norman, from sinking into full-on pity parties after runner-up finishes in the Grade I Diana Stakes and Grade II Ballston Spa was some perspective delivered by Tepin herself. Running at distances just beyond her scope on a Saratoga turf course that worked against her early speed, the 4-year-old was still only inches away from leaving Spa City as the leading turf female in the country.

"At the moment when you get beat, when you get nailed at the wire, you're really disgusted," said Norman Casse, his father's top assistant. "But then you're walking back with her and you realize she's laying it all on the line for you."

Back in her old Kentucky home, Tepin will return to her preferred distance Saturday when she headlines a field of 11 fillies and mares entered for the Grade I, $400,000 First Lady Stakes at Keeneland going 1 mile on the turf.

The First Lady is part of a blockbuster Keeneland card that features five graded stakes including the Grade I Claiborne Breeders' Futurity and Grade I, $1 million Shadwell Turf Mile. Arlington Million winner The Pizza Man will break from post No. 10 in a field of 13 entered in the Shadwell while a dozen juveniles are set to go to post in the 11⁄16-mile Breeders' Futurity.

Keeneland's opening weekend teases of what is to come later this month when it hosts the Breeders' Cup for the first time on Oct. 30-31. With a winning effort in the First Lady, Robert Masterson's Tepin would probably take a swing at male rivals in the Breeders' Cup Mile rather than trying to stretch out to 13⁄16 miles in the Filly & Mare Turf.

"A mile and an eighth is probably about her max," Norman Casse said. "(The Filly & Mare Turf), that's too far for her. So realistically if we're going to run her in a Breeders' Cup race, it's going to have to be against the boys at a mile. That's a race that has been won by girls so it's not a crazy idea. But we'll get over this race first and then we'll see what we do."

In a female turf division without a clear-cut leader, Tepin has willed her way into that picture.

Though she won the Grade III Delta Princess on dirt as a 2-year-old, she was nagged by minor problems and didn't fully get on track until she opened 2015 with an allowance win over the Gulfstream Park turf on March 21.

Tepin could double as the barn pet most days, yet Casse says she gets vicious on the racetrack. There was no hint of kindness when she won the Grade II Churchill Distaff Turf Mile Stakes in gate-to-wire fashion on May 2 and, on the undercard of this year's historic Belmont Stakes, the bay filly got obstinate when it counted, holding off Filimbi by half a length to take the Grade I Just a Game going 1 mile on June 6.

"I don't know if we've ever had a horse run ultra-consistent like she has at a high, high level," Norman Casse said. "Every race she's had she's brought it."

In both the 11⁄8-mile Diana in July and 11⁄16-mile Ballston Spa, Tepin looked like she had the winning move. In each race, she sat just off Kitten's Queen through the early fractions before surging up in the final furlong. Hard Not to Like first ruined her day by nailing her at the wire in the Diana, and it was Dacita inflicting some deja vu when she caught Tepin on the line in the Ballston Spa.

Among those in Tepin's path in the First Lady are a trio of European runners including Aidan O'Brien trainee Outstanding, who finished third behind Lady Eli in the Grade I Belmont Oaks in July.

Breaking from the far outside in post No. 11, Tepin will have to be artfully guided in the early going by Julien Leparoux, though she did handle breaking from post No. 9 in the Just a Game.

"They're going to have to beat her," Norman Casse said. "She put in two big efforts at Saratoga on a racetrack that seems to play more in favor to closers running at distances she didn't like as much. So she probably gained more respect getting beat in those races than she did winning her races at Churchill and Belmont."

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