10/06/2016 9:20AM

Tepin back to defend title in First Lady

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Michael Burns
Tepin's win last month in the Grade 1 Woodbine Mile made her perfect in six starts this year.

LEXINGTON, Ky. – Mark Casse might be absent Saturday at Keeneland because of Hurricane Matthew.

Better him than Tepin.

“She’ll be there,” Casse said Thursday by phone from Ocala, Fla., where emergency evacuation orders were causing gasoline shortages and canceled flights at regional airports.

Tepin will only have to take the short van ride from her Churchill Downs base in Louisville to be on hand for the Grade 1 First Lady, a one-mile race in which she will be heavily favored to remain unbeaten in seven starts this year while extending her overall winning streak to nine.

“We’re really happy with her,” said Casse, the veteran trainer whose son and assistant, Norman, has been overseeing the day-to-day care of Tepin, a 5-year-old mare owned by Robert Masterson. “Her last race,” a half-length victory over males in the Sept. 17 Woodbine Mile, “she was pretty tired after it. But she rebounded quickly. Norman took her back to Saratoga, where it was nice and cool, and we feel like she’s back to herself. She hasn’t missed a beat.”

Tepin will have regular rider Julien Leparoux back aboard when breaking from post 2 in the $400,000 First Lady. Nine fillies and mares will oppose her, most of them for the first time: Celestine and Onus are among her top American rivals, while a couple of 3-year-olds, Nemoralia and Now Or Never, are here from the U.K.

It’ll take a monumental effort from any of them to outrun Tepin, whose fabulous season will end Nov. 5 at Santa Anita when she goes for a repeat victory in the Breeders’ Cup Mile. Last year, Tepin romped in the First Lady by seven lengths before winning the Mile.

“The Mile is the goal, along with another Eclipse Award for top turf mare,” said Mark Casse. “The ultimate goal would’ve been Horse of the Year, but as long as California Chrome keeps doing what he’s doing, there’s only going to be one Horse of the Year.”

The highlight of Tepin’s season came June 14, when she defeated males in the Group 1 Queen Anne at Royal Ascot in England.

“It was an incredible experience for all of us,” said Casse. “We feel extremely fortunate with all she’s done for us already.”

Celestine (post 8, Junior Alvarado) will be making her first start since winning the Grade 1 Just a Game on the June 11 Belmont Stakes card by nearly four lengths. The 4-year-old filly has trained at Saratoga since then and shows eight recorded workouts for Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott, starting July 1.

Onus (post 9, Jose Ortiz) has done her best work over the Laurel Park turf for Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey, going 4 for 4 at the Maryland track but only 1 for 8 elsewhere. Still, the Janney family homebred has improved substantially since being an also-ran in an April 2015 maiden race over the Keeneland turf.

Nemoralia (post 5, Joe Bravo) probably will take stronger wagering action than her Irish counterpart, Now Or Never (post 4, Luis Saez), partly because of two sharp races in the United States last fall as a 2-year-old, when she was second in the Frizette and a sharp-closing third in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf.

The First Lady, first run in 1998, is carded as the seventh of 10 Saturday races, with post time set for 4:35 p.m. Eastern. It’s one of just two FallStars Weekend stakes (with the Woodford) lacking a Win and You’re In designation toward the Nov. 4-5 Breeders’ Cup. Tepin already got her Win and You’re In berth in the Woodbine Mile.

KEY CONTENDERS

Tepin, by Bernstein
Last 3 Beyers: 106-NA-102

◗ If not for back-to-back narrow defeats at the 2015 Saratoga meet, this Kentucky-bred would be on a 12-race win streak, although there’s no complaining from the Casse camp, given her career earnings now stand at more than $4 million.

Celestine, by Scat Daddy
Last 3 Beyers: 107-99-92

◗ Given the early speed she has tended to show in prior starts in combination with the four-month layoff, she figures prominently from the break here in looking to give Mott his second First Lady triumph (Proviso, 2010).

Nemoralia, by More Than Ready
Last 3 Beyers: NA-NA-NA

◗ Not only were those two encouraging races in the U.S. last year, but her form as a 3-year-old in Europe has been excellent (a Group 3 win, a Group 1 placing) if you’re willing to overlook a last-out 20-length drubbing at odds-on.

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