10/09/2016 11:11AM

Watchmaker: Photo Call's upset of Tepin born of pre-race maneuvering

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Photo Call's victory over Tepin was by almost three lengths.

Certainly the biggest shock of the day Saturday, the last big day of prep races for next month’s Breeders’ Cup, was Tepin’s loss in the First Lady at Keeneland. But it wasn’t just that Tepin could finish only second at 2-5 that was so surprising, it was also the manner in which the First Lady upset was sprung.

Photo Call, of all horses, bounded to the early lead and quickly dared everyone else in the First Lady field to catch her. It wasn’t like Photo Call hadn’t shown speed before. She had. This year. In all of her recent races. But those races in which Photo Call showed speed were all slow-paced, extended-distance events, most of which she didn’t even run particularly well. So when Photo Call opened a sizeable early lead through a second quarter-mile in a fast 23.19, you could be forgiven if you were wondering what happened to the real Photo Call, and who is this imposter?

Yet even when Photo Call turned for home with a gigantic lead that seemed in double-digit territory, I still kind of thought that Photo Call would tire and Tepin would catch her, just as Tepin did last March in the Hillsborough when Isabella Sings tried the same, front-running gambit. Only this time, Photo Call was a much better horse than Isabella Sings (even if she hadn’t shown it in a while), and Tepin wasn’t going to have her tank emptied in the stretch, not with the Breeders’ Cup just four weeks away.

Photo Call held on to win by almost three lengths. And this was the first time Tepin was beaten by open lengths since August 2014, a staggering 26 months ago.

Tepin’s connections were up front beforehand about not wanting to take too much out of Tepin on Saturday, which is why she went in the First Lady in the first place instead of the Shadwell Turf Mile against males. They didn’t want her to have to run an “A” race, and she didn’t.

That said, this is now two straight races from Tepin since her historic victory at Royal Ascot that were not “A” performances. She did beat males winning last month’s Woodbine Mile, but that was not Tepin at her top. I know very well to never, ever underestimate a champion, and Tepin is absolutely all of that. But this is something to think about as she now targets a defense of her title in the Breeders’ Cup Mile.
The irony of Saturday is Tepin lost against a female, and Miss Temple City prevailed over males in the richer Shadwell Turf Mile, a race she ran in, in part, to avoid having to face Tepin.

This is the second time this year Miss Temple City opted for a Grade 1 start at Keeneland against males instead of taking on Tepin. She won the first one, too – last April’s Maker’s 46 Mile the day before Tepin won the Jenny Wiley.

Miss Temple City’s connections might consider sending a very nice gift basket to Tepin’s people. But don’t make the mistake of taking Miss Temple City as a mere lucky opportunist. She is very good – she ran much better than her two losses at Saratoga would suggest on paper – and she beat a stronger group of males in the Shadwell than she did in the Maker’s 46.

But for me, the Shadwell was all about Ironicus’s fast closing second. This was Ironicus’s first start since his troubled-trip second to none other than Flintshire in the Manhattan on Belmont Stakes Day due to foot issues, and he might have gotten up had not an opponent shifted out in front of him in mid-stretch. In any case, Ironicus is now primed for a peak performance in the Breeders’ Cup Mile, and I think he is very dangerous in that spot.

One other standout turf female who raced on Saturday must be mentioned here, and that is Lady Eli. Lady Eli, so breathtaking in the first phase of her racing career, made it all the way back from the scourge of laminitis to win the Flower Bowl. And now she sets her sights on the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf, for which she is America’s top hope.

This is just a remarkable story. Remarkable, too, was the rousing applause fans in attendance at Belmont Park on Saturday gave Lady Eli on her return to the winner’s circle. Downstate New York racing fans throw receptions such as this around like sewer covers. So it was great to see, and thoroughly deserved.

Saturday notes:
** Sadly, the devaluation of the once-great Jockey Club Gold Cup continued Saturday (you can read my thoughts on the matter here: http://www.espn.com/horse-racing/story/_/id/17742465/belmont-fall-stakes-get-spotlight) with Hoppertunity’s decision over Effinex and three others.

I don’t want to knock Hoppertunity. He’s had the tall order of facing California Chrome, Beholder, and Shared Belief in several of his races and, like many others, he was simply not up to the task. Still, Hoppertunity’s only victory in his 13 starts immediately preceding the Gold Cup was a nose decision in the San Antonio last February over Imperative, another who rarely wins. Let’s just say this Gold Cup was not a key prep for the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

** I liked both preps for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile – the Champagne and the Breeders’ Futurity. The Champagne was a terrific race. Practical Joke got up by a nose despite a bad start over Syndergaard, who was admirably game after setting a scorching pace and fighting back after getting hooked by Practical Joke in mid-stretch. These are two fine colts.

Classic Empire also showed a lot of substance winning the Breeders’ Futurity decisively. Because he wheeled and lost his rider at the start of the Hopeful (won by Practical Joke), the Breeders’ Futurity was Classic Empire’s first representative start in three months, and he was stretching out to two turns for the first time, to boot. Moreover, Classic Empire was wide throughout, a concession of ground that would have been significant in almost any situation, but one that was even more noteworthy considering the inside appeared to be very live Saturday on Keeneland’s main track. This was a very strong effort.

** On the face of it, the Frizette seemed like a strongly run race, with Yellow Agate getting up by a head over Libby’s Tail, with a chasm of more than nine lengths back to the third finisher. The clock says otherwise, however. Yellow Agate’s winning Beyer Figure was a modest 77, only marginally better than the even more modest 73 Beyer Dancing Rags was assigned for winning Friday’s Alcibiades.
For the record, Classic Empire and Practical Joke each earned 88 Beyers.