Mike Repole has been a breath of fresh air for Thoroughbred racing since he became an owner. The co-founder of Glaceau, the maker of VitaminWater and SmartWater, got into ownership in 2002 but became a major investor and player in 2008.
The outspoken native of Queens, N.Y., found the big stage quickly as owner of Uncle Mo , champion 2-year-old male of 2010 following his win in the Grey Goose Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (gr. I). He’s on the biggest stage this week as the owner of a pair of contenders for the May 7 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) in Uncle Mo and Gotham Stakes (gr. III) winner Stay Thirsty .
Repole’s investment to get to the Derby has been substantial. Stay Thirsty was a $500,000 investment out of last year’s Fasig-Tipton Florida 2-year-olds in training sale. Uncle Mo was a $220,000 purchase out of the 2009 Keeneland September yearling sale.
Both colts are trained by Todd Pletcher, winner of last year’s Derby with WinStar Farm’s Super Saver . Pletcher has been instrumental in Repole’s success, and vice versa.
“I’ve been spending $3-3.5 million a year,” Repole said during a May 1 press conference on the backstretch of Churchill Downs. “I usually spend about $2-$2.2 million at the yearling sales and $1-$1.2 million on 2-year-olds. We have 25 2-year-olds that are in training right now.
“In the beginning, I told Todd I was going to have a budget, and every year I was going to buy a certain amount of yearlings and 2-year-olds. If Uncle Mo doesn’t win anything or wins the Triple Crown….I want to be in this game for the next 60 years. I don’t want to be one of those guys who comes in and spends $10 million and finds out that it would have been cheaper and more exciting to buy a yacht.
“My CFO can’t stand this sport...but I have the final say.”
Even with a major influx of capital, the Kentucky Derby is not an easy race to win. Many have tried and many have failed.
Pletcher certainly knows how tough it is. Prior to last year’s breakthrough with Super Saver, the five-time Eclipse Award-winning trainer was winless with 27 starters.
“I have a healthy enough respect for how hard this race is to win,” he said. “It’s without a doubt the hardest American race to win. It’s not always about having the best horse. There are so many variables to being a success. When you think of the Point Givens and horses like that that aren’t able to win. No matter how confident you are, or how your horse is coming up to the race, or how well you think he’s prepared, there is a dynamic about this race that makes it more difficult than all of the other ones. Some of it is hard to explain and some are fairly simple. You break down the pace scenario, the size of the field, the difficult run to the first turn, the track condition.”
Regardless of the conditions, Repole is preparing for the Derby. He noted by Thursday his entourage would grow in 100.
“Ninety-nine will have a great time and I’ll be miserable,” he said. “I’ve been dreaming of this moment of having a Derby horse since I was 13. Two years ago, I Want Revenge was scratched the day of the Derby. So until they get to that starting gate…the dream was have a horse in the Kentucky Derby. Now I have the opportunity to have two horses out of 20. That’s unimaginable and unexplainable.
"I always tell people about how blessed I am, but to honest with you, to win is important and I’m the most competitive guy in the world. I want to win this race, but if these two horses get to start in the race, I’m going to be a happy guy.”
Sounds like the brash new “kid” in the game has already read the owner’s manual.