Norm Casse couldn't help but worry.
Standing along the Keeneland rail as the field prepared to load for the Grade I, $400,000 First Lady Stakes, the son and top assistant to trainer Mark Casse looked at the soft turf course, looked at the outside No. 11 post the filly Tepin would break from, and saw more than one legitimate excuse for things to — once again — not go her way.
"I don't know if she's going to like this stuff," Norm Casse thought aloud.
When jockey Julien Leparoux let Tepin roll to the front of the 11-horse field at the head of the lane while barely moving his hands, it became clear the unhappy campers would instead be the 10 challengers behind her.
The sting of two brutal losses at Saratoga was washed away by the best performance of Tepin's career as the 4-year-old filly rolled to a 7-length victory. The effort cemented plans for her to face males in the Breeders' Cup Mile at Keeneland on Oct. 31.
The First Lady was one of five graded stakes races, including three Grade I contests, that highlighted a blockbuster Keeneland card.
Tepin is nothing if not a deserving heroine. Robert Masterson's filly is inches away from being unbeaten in six starts this year as she was nailed on the wire by Hard Not to Like in the Grade I Diana at Saratoga on July 25 and then beaten a head by Dacita in the same fashion in the Grade II Ballston Spa on Aug. 29.
Her connections have had enough heartache this season. And as fired up as she was in the paddock Saturday, Tepin let it be known that on this day, she was going to make life easy.
"At about the eighth pole I was looking for someone to come running because of the last two times," Mark Casse said. "A mile is her game. The thing about her is she runs on any turf course, anything you throw at her. And she sure cherished it today.
"I thought today she was sharper than ever. When I put Julien on I said 'Hang on because she is fired up.'"
Tepin's year could serve as a microcosm for the entire Casse operation this season: highs and lows of the gut-punching kind.
One week after Tepin scored her third straight win on the year and first career Grade I victory in the Just a Game Stakes at Belmont Park and one day after they saddled Noble Bird to victory in the Grade I Stephen Foster Handicap, Casse-trainee Danzig Moon — who ran fifth in this year's Kentucky Derby — was euthanized after suffering a fatal injury in the Plate Trial Stakes at Woodbine on June 14.
"You know it's been a crazy year, it's been one of best years and one of our worst years," Mark Casse said. "I still kind of watch with one eye open when I watch these races, but to see her (Tepin) become what she's become is amazing."
What Tepin has become is a total beast over the 1-mile distance with the kind of early cruising speed that allows her to make her own luck.
Leparoux artfully hustled her up into striking position out of post No. 11 and had her just off the flank of pacesetter Cara Marie without losing much ground as they went through fractions of 24.38 and 48.90 over a course rated soft.
When Tepin advanced outside on the far turn and overtook Cara Marie at the head of the lane, the race was on for second as the 8-to-5 favorite hit the wire seven lengths clear of runner-up Crowley's Law while stopping the teletimer in 1:37.04.
"There's going to be more pace in the Breeders' Cup (Mile), but if she runs the way she did today, she fits in there for sure," Leparoux said.
Tepin improves her record to six wins from 14 starts with $1,375,973 in earnings. Though she is entered in the Fasig-Tipton November sale, Mark Casse said that was mostly a precautionary move — "in case something happened and we decided to retire her" — but a 2016 campaign for her would be more likely.
"As long as she is healthy and happy, she's going to run another year," Mark Casse said. "She's always shown a lot of potential, it's just taken her a little while to get it all together."