02/14/2016 11:13AM

Watchmaker: Tepin confirms status as America's top turf runner

Tom Keyser
Tepin looked impressive winning her 5-year-old debut in the Endeavour at Tampa Bay Downs.

It’s always good for the game when a champion returns to the races, and it’s even better when a champion returns the way Tepin did Saturday.

Tepin, the Eclipse Award-winning female turf horse of 2015, made her 5-year-old bow in the Endeavour Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs.

(Right here, as an aside, let’s pause for a second and extend thanks to owner Robert Masterson for bringing Tepin back for another campaign when it would have been easy for him to retire or sell his mare on the heels of a championship season.)

Anyway, what Tepin did in the Endeavour was put on a clinic of class. I mean, she was 1-5, so she was expected to win, and she got an easy trip on top of it all prompting a slow early pace. But all of that seemed to dissolve when Tepin used a bold turn of foot to power away with complete authority through the stretch.

In a greater sense, this was as perfect as first starts of the year get. This outing knocked the rust off, and even though Tepin won big, it was obvious she did not unduly extend herself while still leaving tons of room for improvement. Tepin trounced males in the Breeders’ Cup Mile on Halloween, and now she sets her sights on another start against males on Keeneland’s turf course in the April 15 Maker’s 46 Stakes. I can’t think of an active turf male horse who can compete with Tepin right now.

Other Saturday notes:

But Bolo might be close.

I really liked Bolo’s winning performance in the Arcadia. A lot. In his first start since his debacle in the Belmont Derby last July 4 when he went from looking like a certain winner down the backstretch to being vanned off, Bolo had circumstances stacked against him Saturday.

For one, he was meeting an opponent in the multiple Grade 1-winning Obviously who was primed for his best performance after nearly holding off the red-hot Flamboyant in the San Gabriel at a nine-furlong distance that is beyond his best, and who was now cutting back to his absolute favorite distance of one mile.

Then, Bolo drew what I call the dirty work trip of stalking the loose-on-the-lead Obviously. Bolo had to work just hard enough early to keep Obviously reasonably honest up front, otherwise Obviously would be long gone. At the same time, those early efforts can only compromise Bolo’s late run.

So it is to Bolo’s considerable credit that he kept on persevering through the stretch and eventually took the measure of Obviously strides before the wire. Bolo’s win margin was only a neck. But for me, his performance was better than that margin would suggest.

*Calculator’s successful return to action in an allowance race at Santa Anita four races after the Arcadia was interesting, to say the least.

Calculator, who was twice second in Grade 1 races while still a maiden in September of his 2-year-old year to eventual Triple Crown winner American Pharoah, and who was making his first start since getting his maiden win in the Sham Stakes 13 months ago, had a few obstacles to overcome Saturday. He wasn’t fully cranked because this was, after all, a starting point back. He got left (which he has done before), and made an enormous middle move into a second quarter run in 22.65 seconds to reach sharp contention.

For those reasons, it’s understandable that Calculator, who looked like he would win by many turning into the stretch, actually wound up having to work to beat Fusaichi Samurai by a neck. And let’s not forget, too, that Fusaichi Samurai, who won his only previous start, also has a license to be a good horse.

In any case, talent has never been an issue for Calculator, and he could be a significant addition to the older dirt male division this year. I just hope to see a step forward from him next time, specifically in the areas of leaving the gate, and making more judicious use of the big run he owns. That way, Calculator can truly maximize his intriguing potential.

*The El Camino Real Derby and the Sam F. Davis were two-turn stakes for 3-year-olds Saturday that technically had to be classified as Kentucky Derby preps. The El Camino Real is actually a Derby points race with 10 points going to the winner, and the Davis is the local stepping-stone for the March 12 Tampa Bay Derby. But in a real sense, I seriously doubt either race will be of meaningful impact on the Kentucky Derby picture.

Frank Conversation, who made the El Camino Real Derby his second straight stakes victory at Golden Gate (he won last month’s California Derby), is a nice colt – on Golden Gate’s synthetic Tapeta, and on turf. Frank Conversation’s two attempts to date on dirt were poor, and the last I checked, the Kentucky Derby is still run on dirt.

Destin faced an unusually weak field in the Davis, especially after favored Gettysburg gave way abruptly going into the far turn. So even though he won decisively, and did so around two turns, which I concede is an important point, I can’t buy into Destin until he is competitive with some horses with real chops.