04/20/2016 1:26PM

Hovdey: A more refined Tepin ready for Royal Ascot


If everyone agrees that the best 3-year-old filly in the land is Songbird, even though she will miss the Kentucky Oaks, and the best older mare is Beholder, even though she has yet to race this year, where do we put Tepin?

Answer: Anywhere you want.

As the reigning queen of a small island – females on grass in the U.S. – Tepin is the whole package. Wise Dan with eyelashes. She runs often. She wins for fun. She goes fast out of pure joy, as she did in last Saturday’s Jenny Wiley, and even faster when the stakes are high, as her victims in the Breeders’ Cup Mile can attest. Her secret?

“A brilliant trainer,” said Mark Casse, who laughed so hard he nearly dropped the phone.

“I wish we could take the credit,” Casse said once he caught his breath. “But if you ask me what our greatest accomplishment in racing has been, I’d have to say it’s her. I don’t know that she started out great, but she has become great.”

The trainer was making a significant distinction. Tepin’s pedigree was good enough, and as a young horse, she won a maiden race and a decent first-level allowance. But when asked to be a stakes horse, she balked. And when she finished far back in the 2013 Del Mar Oaks, owner Robert Masterson took a deep breath and suggested the filly needed time to come to terms with whatever destiny had in mind.

“We could have gone on with her,” Masterson said. “But I just thought there was more to the horse than we were getting out of her.”

From such decisions, sometimes butterflies emerge. Since her debut at 4 in March of last year, Tepin has won eight of 10 starts, including seven graded stakes. Her brace of losses occurred back-to-back during a heartbreak summer at Saratoga, where she lost the Diana by a nose and the Ballston Spa by a head.

Casse diverts considerable credit to his son and assistant, Norman Casse, when it comes to Tepin’s steady beat. While the father plays hopscotch with the racing landscape, overseeing stables in Kentucky, Florida, and Canada, the son is always where Tepin is. And Tepin will soon be taking her show on the road.

From the moment Tepin and Julien Leparoux crossed the wire at Keeneland to beat Mondialiste and the others in the 2015 BC Mile, Masterson began pondering Royal Ascot. His thinking?

“It’s the sporting thing to do,” he said.

What a concept.

Now that Tepin has returned with three easy wins this year, Masterson has let it be known far and wide that the target is the Queen Anne Stakes, a straightaway mile on June 14, opening day of the royal meet.

“I’ve raced a few horses in England and Ireland but never run one at Royal Ascot,” Masterson said. “I’ve been a few times, though. R.D. Hubbard and I used to go over there and have some fun.”

This is like saying he went to the Open with Jack and Arnie and had a few laughs. When he’s not running racetracks past or present, like Hollywood Park, Ruidoso, or Woodlands, Hubbard encourages a high level of entertainment for his immediate circle.

Masterson raced the stakes-winning filly Just Class with Hubbard and Barry Weisbord. He also was part of the ownership group Hubbard assembled to enjoy the exploits of Gentlemen, the winner of the Hollywood Gold Cup, Pimlico Special, and Pacific Classic.

Tepin has been all Masterson’s show, and it was a result of his call that she is the latest in a wave of champions who have continued to race into physical maturity. California Chrome is 5. Effinex is 5. Beholder is 6. Certainly, Tepin was a ripe candidate to cash out as a pricey broodmare in the wake of her BC Mile triumph last fall.

“I said at the time my intention was always to run her as a 5-year-old,” Masterson said. “If they’re healthy, it’s their best year because they’re mature, more experienced. And we’ve seen that in her.”

Tepin will run in the Distaff Turf Mile at Churchill Downs on Derby Day, May 7, before setting sail for England.

“She’s better off running instead of working,” Masterson said. “Just kind of give her a light breeze, and then she likes to race. It’s better than beating her up in the morning. Running every month is kind of old fashioned, I know. But it works for her. And after last year, we’re especially encouraged at the way she’s handling races beyond a mile.”

The Ballston Spa was 1 1/16 miles, while the Diana was nine furlongs.

“There was some doubt,” Masterson said. “You need more than a miler for the Queen Anne since the finish is uphill. But this year, she’s set course records at a mile and an eighth and a mile and a sixteenth, really only running the last part.”

In this decade alone, the Queen Anne has been won by Frankel, Declaration of War, and Solow. The last American-trained horse to run in the race was Animal Kingdom, who had a bad day in 2013. The last mare to win the race was three-time BC Mile winner Goldikova in 2010.

“That’s something to shoot for,” Masterson said. “Let’s hope we get there and it’s a good day for U.S. racing.”