It is hard to find a greater achievement than the Triple Crown of American Thoroughbred racing. The task is uniquely difficult as it requires a horse to overcome three races, at three separate tracks, at three different distances, all in the matter of five short weeks.
Up until recently, the task seemed so difficult to achieve that many were of the opinion that it needed to be made easier. People talked of allowing more time between each race, allowing the horses to recover quicker, or simply limiting the fields to only those who competed in the Kentucky Derby (the first jewel) to eliminate fresher competition.
Those calls were silenced when American Pharoah ended a 37-year drought, delivering us our first Triple Crown winner in decades. By capturing an unaltered Triple Crown, American Pharoah showed us what true greatness looks like, what it could do, and how sweet it could be. The difficulty of the task is what makes it great, and it is that difficulty that defines true champions.
After American Pharoah conquered the unconquerable task, there seemed to be nothing left. The impossible had been made possible and, when its conqueror left, an enormous void was left behind him. With him gone, with the most difficult task imaginable accomplished, what would be left to thrill us now? Who would take up such a heavy mantle?
Would it be Nyquist, the undefeated Kentucky Derby winner? Nope, he tasted defeat in the Preakness Stakes.
How about Songbird, the undefeated champion who evokes memories of the great Rachel Alexandra? The potential is there, but unfulfilled thanks to a low-grade fever.
No, the answer to our question, the oasis to our thirst for greater heights comes not from the glamorous three-year-old division, but from the least likely place of all — a female turf miler.
Tepin, an unassuming bay filly — at the time — with three white feet, wasn’t even on anybody’s radar in 2015 during the reign of American Pharoah. She quietly won her first Grade I in the Just A Game Stakes (coincidentally, the same day that American Pharoah ran away with the Triple Crown).
Unlike American Pharoah, however, Tepin lost her next two outings and was quickly forgotten, lost in the great shadow of the Triple Crown Champion.
After those two losses, however, Tepin returned with a vengeance in the Grade I First Lady Stakes. There she demolished her female foes by an eye-popping seven lengths. The performance was so powerful that her connections pitted her against males in the Breeders’ Cup Mile… and she won again, impressively. Unfortunately, her win would once again be overshadowed by American Pharoah. However, instead of the Breeders Cup being her swan song, it represented just the beginning.
This year, Tepin took her first four starts with disdainful ease. Even when her opponents challenged her by opening up a 14-length chasm with three furlongs left to run, Tepin still won. It didn’t matter that she had five more lengths to make up in the final call, she still ran her competition down in machine-like fashion.
After her fourth consecutive win, which came in the Churchill Distaff Turf Mile, the connections of Tepin decided to race their wonder mare at Royal Ascot, in the Group I Queen Anne Stakes.
This was the moment American racing fans had been waiting for, the moment when the connections of a potentially great horse upped the ante. The moment when they allowed their horse the chance to accomplish what only a truly great horse can.
In the Queen Anne Stakes, Tepin would be faced with a plethora of obstacles. She would be facing the world’s best turf milers in open company. She would need to do this while in a foreign land, without the aid of medication or her breathing aid (a nasal strip), while running over a completely straight course that ends with an uphill climb to the wire.
As if the aforementioned trials weren’t enough, the skies opened up, drenching the turf course at Royal Ascot. By the time the race was ready to be run, commentators were saying that the turf course was the worst they had seen it since 1971. So now, on top of everything else, Tepin would need to overcome an extremely wet and tiring course — the likes of which she had never seen.
When the gates opened Tepin broke forwardly, placing herself at the head of her half of the pack. Her jockey, Julien Leparoux, bided his time with the mare. When there was a quarter-mile left, he asked her the question we had all been waiting for and, without a split second of hesitation, Tepin seized control of the race.
The favorite, Belardo, tried to run at her, but Tepin refused to let him by. Digging down, she staved off his challenge to take the Queen Anne Stakes by half a length.
With this win, Tepin did the one thing that could possibly be conceived as more difficult than winning the Triple Crown. She became the first American-trained horse to win a Group I race, beyond six furlongs, at Royal Ascot.
Wesley Ward has sent two-year-olds over to win stakes before during the Royal Ascot meet, but never has an American-trained horse been able to successfully ship over to England’s most prestigious meet and claim victory in one of their most prestigious Group I events.
With this win, Tepin ran straight out from under the shadow of American Pharoah, giving us fans the level of greatness we have all been searching for. It may not have been the way we envisioned it, but Tepin delivered nonetheless.
We have been searching for another great horse to fill the void left behind by American Pharoah.
Now, finally, we have one.