Stop trainer Mark Casse if he's told you this tale before.
A promising filly is his barn debuts on the dirt at Churchill Downs and runs fourth. Though still confident the distaffer could handle either surface, Casse and his team eventually end up switching her to turf and watch her respond by becoming a divisional standout.
Proven against her classmates stateside, they put her on a plane to Royal Ascot to try and beat the best international runners at their game. There are, as always, a smattering of doubters. But they remind all who ask that they would have never signed her up for such a trip if they didn't think she could show the other side of the Atlantic what she is capable of.
"That sounds familiar—just a touch," Casse laughed from his Ocala base June 16. "I can't remember the last horse I had that did that. ... Started with a 'T.'"
The notion that lightning can't strike the same place twice has long been disproven by science. One year after sending champion Tepin to Royal Ascot to make a little American history, the Casse barn is banking on such wisdom holding up as they have another firecracker in John Oxley's La Coronel set for the prestigious meeting, this one a planned start in the Coronation Stakes (G1) over the mile course June 23.
Of all the tear-filled celebrations Robert Masterson's Tepin inspired during her two-time Eclipse Award-winning career, the vision of her striking the front a half-furlong from the finish en route to a half-length victory in last year's Queen Anne Stakes (G1) at Royal Ascot ranks as Casse's pinnacle. She became the first American-based horse to prevail in a race that counts such greats as Goldikova and Frankel as past victors. Tepin's victory, combined with the success of Wesley Ward-trained Lady Aurelia in the Queen Mary Stakes (G2), was a shot across the bow that U.S.-bred and -based turf runners could do far more than hold their own against the world's best.
With Tepin now retired, there is torch to be picked up within the division and the Casse shedrow. While she has a lengthy path to travel before she can be mentioned in the same breath as her former stablemate, La Coronel has put herself in position to start filling those shoes with an ascent that already has some parallels to the oft-proclaimed Queen of the Turf.
Like Tepin, La Coronel started her career on dirt, and finished fourth, in her debut at Churchill last June. After a fifth-place effort on the main track at Saratoga Race Course in July, the daughter of Colonel John tried the lawn for the first time with spectacular results. She bested a field that included eventual Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf (G1T) winner New Money Honey by four lengths at the Spa Sept. 5.
The class the dark bay filly showed that day took an immediate step forward next time out, when she captured the JPMorgan Chase Jessamine Stakes (G3T) by 4 1/4 lengths at Keeneland in October, an outing that prompted new weight of expectation to be heaped upon her.
"There are maybe five or ten times a year with all the horses we run, where I sit there with my mouth open like 'woah.' And she did that when she broke her maiden," Casse said. "We were so disappointed because the first time she ran, we thought she'd win and she didn't run any good. Then we ran her back and it was like, 'What the heck?' Then she got on the grass and you know the rest of the story.
"When she broke her maiden, the way she did it, it was a 'wow' moment for me and it was a 'wow' moment for (jockey) Florent (Geroux). At the time, (Canadian champion) Catch a Glimpse had won the (grade 1) Belmont Oaks and was on her tear. And I remember Florent saying, 'We've got another Catch a Glimpse here.' I really thought going out to the Breeders' Cup last year that she was our best shot."
Even after drawing post 14 for the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf, regard for La Coronel's talents were such that she was still sent off as the betting favorite. Too much ground to make up proved too much for her that day, however, as she ended up sixth behind New Money Honey at Santa Anita Park.
Upon her return from California, an even bigger excuse was discovered in the form of chips in both knees that required surgery over the winter. That extra time, and the maturity that came with it, has served her well thus far during her 3-year-old campaign, as she rebounded from a runner-up finish in the March 11 Florida Oaks (G3T) to score an emphatic 3 1/4-length win in the April 13 Appalachian Stakes presented by Japan Racing Association (G3T) over a field that featured four of the top six finishers from the Juvenile Fillies Turf.
With Ascot already on the mind at that point, Casse originally wanted to take on males in the American Turf Stakes (G2T) at Churchill May 6. When she was hit with another extreme outside post for that race, they altered course and instead let La Coronel beat up on her own gender once more, this time with a rally on the outside to best stablemate Dream Dancing by half-length in the May 5 Edgewood Stakes presented by Forcht Bank (G3T).
"When she won at Churchill, she didn't have the best of it there either," Casse said. "I thought she was four or five lengths the best that day. We know that it takes a special, special horse (to go to Ascot) and we think she is that."
La Coronel's Edgewood victory served a couple key purposes. Not only did she show she could handle being fanned wide and still come with her kick, she was unfazed by the cut in the ground from the rain that drenched the Louisville area that day.
She will not favored as Tepin was for her historic Ascot run, not with the likes of Aidan O'Brien trained Winter—winner of the QIPCO One Thousand Guineas (G1)—in the lineup. If omens are anything, however, she did travel and is stabled with multiple grade 1 winner Miss Temple City, the Graham Motion-trainee who befriended Tepin during their time in England preparing for Royal Ascot last summer.
It is all a script Casse has crafted before, complete with storybook ending. He certainly wouldn't mind repeating himself with a few different points for emphasis.
"I don't know what is going to happen. I realize we are going over to play to the heart of Europe's biggest strengths. I know their 3-year-old filly division is very strong," the Canadian Hall of Fame conditioner said. "But I don't feel like we're hunting bear with a switch."
Also of note Friday, Casse said that champion Classic Empire went for a jog at Churchill, the colt's first trip to the track since he missed the June 10 Belmont Stakes presented by NYRA Bets (G1) because of a foot abscess.
"He trained this morning. He's literally back on track," Casse said, adding that the betfair.com Haskell Invitational Stakes (G1) remains the summer target. "The good thing is we've got plenty of time to get him ready."