ECLIPSE CHAMPION TEPIN SET TO MAKE 2016 DEBUT SATURDAY

by Mike Henry

To their connections, they are once-in-a-lifetime horses. The kind that defy common wisdom, get better with age and show large measures of enthusiasm for training and competition.

Oh yeah, don’t forget an abundance of talent.

Robert E. Masterson’s 5-year-old mare Tepin fits the bill on all counts. Her 2016 debut, which is scheduled to take place in Saturday’s Grade III, $150,000 Lambholm South Endeavour Stakes on the grass at Tampa Bay Downs, has been eagerly anticipated by insiders and horse racing fans since her dominant victory in the Breeders’ Cup Mile on the turf at Keeneland against a field of males on Oct. 31.

Tepin nailed down an Eclipse Award as 2015 Champion Grass Female with that effort, to go with three other graded-stakes victories, including the Grade I Longines Just a Game at Belmont and the Grade I First Lady at Keeneland.

Her trainer, Mark Casse, is making no secret of his desire to put Tepin in position for a run at another Breeders’ Cup triumph and back-to-back Eclipse Awards. He is tentatively planning to point her to the Grade I Maker’s Mark Mile against males at Keeneland on April 15.

“We feel she is training super,” said Casse, whose son Norman Casse is mainly responsible for the Kentucky-bred’s day-to-day care. “She is the same Tepin we saw last year, and we’re expecting big things from her again.”

Julien Leparoux, who rode Tepin in each of her seven 2015 starts, has been named to ride her in the mile-and-a-sixteenth Lambholm South Endeavour.

The daughter of Bernstein-Life Happened, by Stravinsky, is one of four horses entered by Casse for the Festival Preview Day Presented by Lambholm South card, which offers $650,000 in stakes purses. Post time for the first of 12 races is 12:15 p.m. The Lambholm South Endeavour is the eighth race on the card.

Other expected starters from the Casse barn include owner Gary Barber’s 5-year-old mare, Lexie Lou, in the Lambholm South Endeavour, with Antonio Gallardo slated to ride; Barber’s 3-year-old gelding Whatawonderflworld, in the Grade III, $250,000 Sam F. Davis Stakes, with Jose Lezcano in the irons; and John C. Oxley’s 6-year-old horse, Sky Captain, in the Grade III, $150,000 Tampa Bay Stakes, with Gallardo aboard.

The Sam F. Davis, to be contested at a mile-and-a-sixteenth on the main dirt track, is the fifth race on the card. The Tampa Bay Stakes, a mile-and-a-sixteenth turf event, is the 10th. Also on the card is the $100,000 Suncoast Stakes, a mile-and-40-yard main track race for 3-year-old fillies carded as the ninth race.

While Tepin shows all signs of being eager to return to action, Casse expressed concern that three of her last four workouts at Palm Meadows Training Center in Boynton Beach on Florida’s east coast came on the dirt because of rainy weather. She finally returned to the turf last Saturday, posting a four-furlong breeze in 49.45 seconds.

“It has been a bit of a challenge getting her ready because of the weather. That said, all systems are go,” the elder Casse said. “She is a tough horse and a good work horse, and that helps you because those kind of horses put a lot into it. I believe in confidence, and she has a lot of confidence. She got into a groove last year and hopefully it will keep going.

“The field she beat on Breeders’ Cup Day – I am still amazed by it, and very proud of her,” added Casse, who also won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf with Catch a Glimpse. “Tepin has really thrived under Norman’s care.”

Lexie Lou took the first step toward getting her groove back in a turf allowance/optional claiming event on Jan. 13 at Tampa Bay Downs, finishing third behind Bureau de Change and Lovely Loyree, both entered in the Lambholm South Endeavour.

That was the first start in almost a year for Lexie Lou, who won the Queen’s Plate against males as a 3-year-old en route to being voted Canada’s Horse of the Year, Champion 3-Year-Old Filly and Champion Grass Female. She scratched her left eye last summer and was given the rest of the year off.

Casse and Barber are still discussing whether to bring Lexie Lou back in the Grade II, $200,000 Hillsborough Stakes on the Tampa Bay Downs turf on March 12, but for now, she is ticketed to take on Tepin and the others Saturday. “We’re trying to get her back into peak form, and our feeling is she needs to get another start,” Casse said. “I think her last race was a lot better than it looked on paper; she probably ran 60 feet more than the winner.”

The Lambholm South Endeavour Field also includes multiple graded-stakes winner Lady Lara, from the barn of trainer William Mott; Grade I winner Photo Call, trained by Todd Pletcher; and multiple-stakes winner Partisan Politics, trained by Chad C. Brown.

Casse is encouraged by the prospects of his two other stakes entrants. The New York-bred Whatawonderflworld, set to take on six rivals in the Sam F. Davis, has won three of four starts, including the Ocala Breeders’ Sales Championship at the Ocala Training Center on Jan. 26.

Ocala has an all-weather track surface, and Whatawonderflworld has yet to compete on dirt. “He has trained well on dirt, and with his breeding (by Tiz Wonderful, out of the Victory Gallop mare Celtic Sunshine), there is no reason he shouldn’t like it,” said Casse, who added that Whatawonderflworld overcame a troubled trip to defeat 11 foes in Ocala.

“The thing that impressed me is that he went about eight wide on the first turn and 3-to-4 wide on the far turn and was able to outrun horses,” Casse said, opining that the horse lost 8-to-10 lengths combined on the turns. “Three of his four wins have been in restricted races, but they are still wins.”

The 12-horse Tampa Bay Stakes shapes up as an extremely competitive race. Sky Captain will be making his first start since Nov. 15, and while his ledger includes a victory in the Grade III Dominion Day Stakes at Woodbine in July of 2014, he has not entered the winner’s circle in six subsequent starts.

“It is a tough race for him to come back, but we feel Tampa Bay Downs is a good place to get started,” Casse said. “It is a great turf course and a safe turf course, and that’s important. We’re excited to get him back going.”

Thoroughbred racing at Tampa Bay Downs resumes Friday with a 10-race card beginning at 12:42 p.m. The track is open every day for simulcast wagering, no-limits poker action in The Silks Poker Room and golf fun and instruction at The Downs Golf Practice Facility.