Uncle Mo in the Champagne Stakes.

Uncle Mo in the Champagne Stakes.

Adam Coglianese

Countdown to the Cup: Say Uncle

Mike Repole won his first graded stakes when Uncle Mo scored in the Champagne Stakes

Holy Mo-ly! Here comes Repole.

Get ready, racing, a tidal wave is about to engulf the sport and his name is Mike Repole, of Vitaminwater fame. And right now, it looks as if his horses are running on Vitaminwater.


But the drink of preference for Repole on Saturday was champagne, and there was plenty of the bubbly flowing in the Trustees Room following Uncle Mo’s victory in the Champagne Stakes (gr. I).


Repole, who grew up in Queens, has been dreaming of this day since he started coming to the track when he was 13. If you’ve never met Repole or seen him being interviewed, hold on to your hats.


In six years as a horse owner, he’s had little to show for it, and was always reminding everyone of his shabby 0-for-26 record in graded stakes and 0-for-36 goose egg at Saratoga in 2009. Then he hooked up with megatrainer Todd Pletcher, and before he knew it he was the leading owner at Saratoga in 2010, with a second-place finish in the Hopeful Stakes (gr. I) with Stay Thirsty  and an otherworldly maiden victory by UncleMo the highlights of the meet.


It was no wonder that Repole was a wreck in the weeks prior to the Champagne, which caused him many a sleepless night. That first graded stakes victory was, as Jerry Seinfeld would say, quite a matzo ball hanging out there.


So, here was Repole, having just witnessed another spectacular performance from Uncle Mo, toasting the victory in the Trustees Room in front of his family and close friends, all 40 of them. None of them, by the way, was Uncle Mo, who is not a person, but a sports term for "momentum."


The gregarious and quick-witted Repole, whose passion for the sport is infectious, had been waiting a long time to make this toast, and he was not about to tolerate anything that would delay it.


First, he had to get the attention of his mother, who was chatting nearby. “Mom, Edith Bunker, stifle it, I’m making a toast,” he said to her. Laughter.


Then, just as he got everyone’s attention, a voice was heard: “Wait Mike, they’re showing the head-on.”


“We don’t care about the head-on,” he said. “Let Todd worry about that.” More laughter.


Finally, he began his toast, but was distracted by one of the uniformed waiters directly in front of him filling people’s glasses with champagne.


“Can you stop pouring; I’m making a toast,” Repole said. “When I’m speaking, you don’t pour,” Even louder laughter.


This is Mile Repole, a shoot-from-the-hip New Yawker, who has been the perfect foil for the publicly stoic Pletcher. Together, they have formed the greatest comedian-straight man team since Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner.


As Repole said of Pletcher, “Todd is the best in the business; there’s nobody better than him. And he’s getting better with me an owner. He was a good trainer before me and he’s only going to get better as I partner up with him.”


Most of Repole's quips are for effect, and he's darn good at it. The audience loves him. And no can tell a story like Repole. He proved that by beginning his toast with his purchase of Uncle Mo.


“I want to thank (bloodstock agent) Jim Crupi and (racing manager) Jimmy Martin. Last year, they bought me an Indian Charlie at the sale who cost me $200,000 and is now in a retirement home. So, when they called me on this Indian Charlie colt last September, I wasn’t interested at all. And then, thank God, Jimmy grabbed the phone from Jim and said, ‘Mike, you have to have this horse.’


“I said, ‘Put Jim back on the phone.’ I told him, ‘Go up to $200,000.’ Jim knows specifically, if he gets me on the phone while a horse is in the ring, he goes to $200,000 and not a penny more. So, then Jim calls me from the sale and says the horse is in the ring at $200,000 and it looks like we’re gonna get him. I’m going, ‘Please, somebody bid more.’ Then someone bids $210,000. I’m about to say, ‘That’s it, I’m out of it,’ when Jim says, ‘Let’s hit him one more time.’ To be honest with you, I thought he meant Crupi. I said, ‘Go ahead and hit him, because he cost me $200,000 last year. At the end of the day, we went to $220,000 and got him, and I swear to God on my life, if the horse had gone up to $220,000 and 10 cents, somebody else would have him. So I want to thank those two guys.


“I just want to say that success is always best when shared, and if I was here with two or three people this day wouldn’t be the same. But being here with everybody just makes it so much more special.”


Uncle Mo’s emphatic victory came close to one record and broke another.


The colt’s time of 1:34 2/5 (1:34.51) was only a fifth of a second off the stakes record set by Devil’s Bag in 1983. However, the scene in the box seat section after the race shattered the record for the most raucous celebration, set by M.C. Hammer and his entourage following Lite Light’s 10-length romp in the 1991 Coaching Club American Oaks (gr. I).


Somewhere in the sea of waving arms and high fives was Repole, who was overcome with emotion as he bent down to hug and kiss his 84-year-old grandmother. Uncle Mo was already back and being circled by John Velazquez, but precious family moments such as this take precedence over everything and everyone else, including the handsome bay colt patiently waiting to head into the winner’s circle.


Uncle Mo had opened at 1-9 and would go off at 1-5 in the six-horse field, but that only made Repole more of a wreck, having to deal with the pressure of owning such an overwhelming favorite and racing’s next potential freak.


But all the worrying and sleepless nights were for nothing, as Uncle Mo set a hot pace of :22.41, :45.92, and 1:10.47, turned back the challenges of I’m Steppin’ It up and then Mountain Town, and drew off  with an impressive :24.04 final quarter to win by 4 ¾ lengths under a hand ride.


Repole was thrilled to learn that Uncle Mo had just run as fast as Seattle Slew in the Champagne, and faster than Secretariat and Spectacular Bid.


“He’s such a talented horse, he’s able to do things other horses can’t do,” Pletcher said. “The sky’s the limit. I don’t see how a horse could start his career more impressively than he has. His maiden win was as good as I’ve seen, and then to come back and run 1:34 2/5 in the Champagne is unbelievable. Sometimes you see a horse go fast early and then they coast home.  He gets stronger as he goes along. That’s what’s so impressive about him.”


After the race, Repole, still emotionally charged, was led to the Trustees Room for the traditional grade I celebratory glass of champagne


“What is this room?” he asked, as if a lifelong coach passenger entering the first-class lounge for the first time. “I’ve never seen this room before.”


Repole looked back at what was an unforgettable day. “I won the first race today with Run to Grand Ave. (trained by Bruce Levine), who is named after the OTB on Grand Avenue that I used to run to as a kid. Then, Gerard Loves Beer -- named after my brother; you can imagine what he loves -- wins a $20,000 maiden claimer (for trainer Bruce Brown). And then I win a Grade 1, having 40 friends and family here. It’s just amazing, and so surreal to have my grandmother, my wife, and my parents here. It’s what horse racing is all about.


“I also won a $20,000 claiming race at Delaware Park today. I was telling everyone if I go three for four I’m going to throw up. Who wins three races in one day and then wins a grade I?”


Mike Repole obviously does, so he better get used to it. And with the Breeders’ Cup and then the Kentucky Derby trail coming up, he also better make sure he’s well stocked with Sominex and Pepto Bismol.


A Z Doozy


One of the more successful betting angles these days is Bob Baffert synthetic to dirt. Baffert has been making a practice of sending his California synthetic track horses east and winning major stakes, and he did it again Saturday with A Z Warrior, who scored a 1 ¾-length victory in the Frizette Stakes (gr. I), upsetting the Todd Pletcher-trained R Heat Lightning, the 9-5 favorite who was coming off an authoritative score in the grade I Spinaway Stakes.


It is safe to say that the filly’s owner Ahmed Zayat is back and on a roll. With his financial issues finally behind him, Zayat is winning and placing in major stakes once again and should have several prominent runners in the Breeders’ Cup.


A Z Warrior, a daughter of Bernardini whom Zayata also bred, tracked the early pace set by 46-1 shot Coax Liberty, shot to the lead under Alan Garcia, opening up a four-length advantage at the eighth pole, and was never in any danger from the favorite, who rallied up the inside.


Zayat now has four horses pointing for the Breeders’ Cup – A Z Warrior for the Grey Goose Juvenile Fillies (gr. I), Rightly So for the Sentient Filly & Mare Sprint (gr. I), Riley Tucker for the Sentient Jet Sprint (gr. I), and Norfolk (gr. I) winner Jaycito for the Juvenile. Zayat’s impressive 2-year-old maiden winner Justin Phillip will be pointed for the Nashua Stakes (gr. III).


“It’s an exciting time,” Zayat said. "The fun is back.”


A Z Warrior had finished second in the Sorrento Stakes (gr. III) at Del Mar before a troubled fifth in the Darley Del Mar Debutante (gr. I). The Frizette was her first race on dirt.


“She’s so classy and does everything the right way,” said trainer John Terranova, who saddled A Z Warrior for Baffert. “Bob has liked her all along, and sent her here thinking she was going to excel on dirt. He sends us a lot of good ones, but this one is really special.”


As for R Heat Lightning, Pletcher said, “She had a pretty tough trip. She took a left turn leaving the gate and was actually inside the gap by the chute. She recovered and put herself in a decent position but she was just sort of boxed in. The winner snuck away from her, but we were gaining at the end.”


Keeneland Kwickies


-- So, where do you go with Gio Ponti – the more logical BC Mile (gr. IT) or a moonshot in the BC Classic (gr. I)? It has been mentioned here on several occasions that Gio Ponti could be very live in the Classic, switching to the dirt (he has an exceptionally strong dirt pedigree). After the dual Eclipse winner’s impressive victory in the Shadwell Turf Mile (gr. IT), the BC Mile would seem to be the place for him. But his connections would still not commit either way.


Why? Because the temptation of the unknown, along with a potential Horse of the Year title, a $6 million purse, and a hefty boost in stud value beckons like the lure of the Sirens. Does it make more sense to run to your proven strength? Definitely. But many a great deed has been accomplished by going against common sense.


Yes, Gio Ponti ran a terrific race, coming home his last eighth in :11 1/5 and last quarter in :22 2/5, but in the Mile, he’ll be up against far better horses than 18-1 runner-up Society’s Chairman and a less-than-100 percent Courageous Cat, who hadn’t run since the Dubai Dubai Free (UAE-I) back in March. And before anyone gets too carried away with times and closing fractions, Proviso did run a fifth faster in the Abu Dhabi First Lady (gr. IT) and came home her final eighth two-fifths faster.


Add a powerful European contingent for the Mile, headed by Goldikova, Paco Boy, and possibly Canford Cliffs and Rip Van Winkle, and it is obvious the Mile is going to be a tough spot.


But so is the Classic – probably even tougher, considering the formidable field gathering for that, as well as the unknown dirt factor. So, it looks as if the colt’s connections are between the proverbial rock and a hard place. They could always pre-enter in both and see what develops between then and entry day.


-- In the No Spinster Zone, not to take anything away from the hard-knocking Acoma, who was a deserving winner and a ridiculous overlay in the Juddmonte Spinster Stakes (gr. I), but it has to reach a point soon where the Graded Stakes Committee is going to have to re-evaluate this one-time great race and admit it has become fairly insignificant as a BC prep, attracting mostly grass and synthetic horses, and very few proven grade I runners. Perhaps that will change, but right now, the race is not attracting the best fillies and mares as it once did.


Acoma was kept in training this year to try to win a grade I, and she has accomplished that. The connections are torn between going out a winner and pushing their luck in the Ladies Classic. The third-place finisher, Hot Cha Cha, looks to be heading to the Breeders’ Cup.


-- What’s with these 2-year-old grass stakes, which are producing some of the best performances of all the Breeders’ Cup preps. First there was Winter Memories’ explosive knockout punch in the Miss Grillo (gr. IIIT) last week, and now we have another powerhouse victory turned in by the Smarty Jones colt, Rogue Romance, in the Bourbon Stakes (gr. IIIT), in which he came from 12th and last at the head of the stretch, circled the field, and blew everyone away in the final furlong, winning going away by 2 ½ lengths for Kenny McPeek. They could wind up the favorites in the two Breeders’ Cup juvenile turf races, even if the Euros come loaded. But McPeek is seriously considering the BC Juvenile for Rogue Romance.


With Darley Alcibiades (gr. I) winner Wickedly Perfect out and Dixiana Breeders’ Futurity (gr. I) winner J.B.’s Thunder doubtful for the BC Juvenile, the pair of 2-year-old stakes should have little impact on the Breeders’ Cup, but you do have to keep an eye on the respective runners-up, Harlan’s Ruby and Santiva, who both ran huge and bear watching.


-- The Thoroughbred Club of America Stakes (gr. II) was an odd race in that Informed Decision and Champagne D’Oro looked to be doing absolutely nothing, but somehow wound up third and fourth, beaten only one- and two-lengths, respectively. The winner, Dubai Majesty, is a consistent hard-knocker, but had to battle to beat a 69-1 shot by three-quarters of a length. This looks to be pretty much a throw-out race.


Prince of Jamaica


Emotions ran high following the Saturday’s Jamaica Handicap (gr. IT), where 9-1 shot Prince Will I Am came charging down the stretch to give Michelle Nihei, former exercise rider for Todd Pletcher, her first graded stakes victory as a trainer.


Also caught up in the moment was owner Susan Atkins, who owns Casa Farms in Lexington with her husband Clint. “Wow! What a boy,” she said, while trying to catch her breath.


“I can’t believe it; I was in the breeding shed when he was conceived at my friend Roxanne Martin’s farm, which is right next door to mine. I was just starting out, and I would watch him as a weanling, and he was always ahead of the pack. I had a weanling who needed a buddy, because I had only one colt, so I bought this horse from Roxanne and sent both colts to Florida to be broken. They had a lot of fun together, but unfortunately, the other horse, who I named Talesman, died as a yearling, so it was like Prince Will I Am won this for his buddy.”


Nihei had been down Belmont’s victory lane before, especially as exercise for champion Ashado. But this one was all about her. “It’s been a long time since I’ve been in this winner’s circle,” Nihei said.


Prince Will I Am, who came from 11th to win going away by 1 ¼ lengths over longshot Citrus Kid in 1:50.04, is by Victory Gallop, out of Dyna’s Dynamo, by Dynaformer, and was bred by Martin and Anzac LLC.


Nihei said they are now considering the Breeders’ Cup Turf (gr. IT) or possibly the Marathon for Prince Will I Am’s next start.


Stay tuned


With the BC preps basically over, we’ll save some of this week’s races for next week, most notably the Monmouth Cup (gr. II), the Hollywood Park stakes, the Gallant Bob Stakes, and the Hawthorne and Oklahoma Derbys, as well as Espoir City’s second-place finish in Japan Monday.


And it’s looking as if Aidan O’Brien will be sending at least four horses to Churchill Downs – Rip Van Winkle for either the Classic or Mile, Fame and Glory for the Turf, Irish Cesarewitch winner Bright Horizon for the Marathon (a race he won last year), and Fillies’ Mile runner-up Together for the Filly & Mare Turf.


Most versatile BC horse ever


It is unlikely any horse will emulate Pleasant Tap’s feat of finishing second in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint and second in the Breeders’ Cup Classic in successive years, and competing in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and Breeders’ Cup Turf prior to that. In his two seconds, he ran six furlongs in 1:09 4/5 and 1 ¼ miles in 2:00 3/5.


His 4 ½-length victory in the Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I), defeating Strike the Gold and A.P. Indy in a sizzling 1:58 4/5, remains one of the most brilliant performances ever turned in at Belmont Park. Earlier that year, he won the 10-furlong Suburban Handicap in 2:00 1/5, won the seven-furlong Churchill Downs Handicap in 1:22 1/5, and the Commonwealth Breeders’ Cup in 1:22 2/5, and was a fast-closing second in the Met Mile in 1:33 3/5.


On Oct. 8, the racing and breeding world lost a terrific racehorse and sire, and a vital link to the great Ribot through Pleasant Tap’s sire Pleasant Colony and grandsire His Majesty. It may be a cliché, but they don’t make ‘em like Pleasant Tap anymore.