For a horse who has never carried the franchise label within his own barn, Stay Thirsty has methodically put together his own MVP campaign where his owner Mike Repole is concerned.
It was Stay Thirsty, after all, who gave Repole his first thrill of winning a major Kentucky Derby prep race when he took the Grade III Gotham Stakes this March.
And if there was one thing that helped temper Repole's angst over having to scratch his champion colt Uncle Mo from the Derby the day before the race because of illness, it was the fact Stay Thirsty was still able to carry his blue and orange silks in the first leg of the Triple Crown.
As a lifelong New Yorker, the idea of having a starter in the Belmont Stakes always had a little extra meaning for Repole. Sure enough it is Stay Thirsty — still lacking in spotlight — who is set to make that milestone happen.
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While the past year has provided Repole a gauntlet of emotions, with Stay Thirsty poised to start in the 143rd Belmont Stakes this Saturday, the many experiences help put it all in perspective for the charismatic entrepreneur.
Crushing as it was to not see his reigning juvenile champion Uncle Mo get to run in any of the Triple Crown races, not every owner is fortunate enough to have another horse pick up the mantle as Stay Thirsty has.
Even though the son of Bernardini finished 12th in the Derby, the fact he was in that starting gate and still has the opportunity to win a classic is why Repole flat-out refused to throw himself a pity party.
"I don't know too many owners that can scratch their horse the day before the Derby and still have a horse run in the race," Repole said. "I was 0-for-27 in graded stakes races until Uncle Mo won the Champagne, and I've won six graded stakes since then. I've won a Breeders' Cup, I have an Eclipse Award winner, so I can't be any more grateful and appreciative of what I have.
"I said before I always wondered why I was given both Uncle Mo and Stay Thirsty in the same year, and now I know why."
As has typically been the case for Stay Thirsty, he heads into the Belmont as somewhat of an afterthought — lost in the shadow of his rivals.
Since winning the Gotham by 31/4 lengths, the bay colt hasn't been a factor, running seventh in the Grade I Florida Derby prior to his Kentucky Derby outing, where he was beaten 111/4 lengths by winner and fellow Belmont contender Animal Kingdom.
Considering Stay Thirsty soundly defeated Toby's Corner — the horse who later bested Uncle Mo in the Grade I Wood Memorial — in the Gotham, it stands to reason he has more ability than his last two outings demonstrate.
With no apparent excuses to be found for his Kentucky Derby effort, however, the Belmont is Stay Thirsty's chance to prove he is strong enough to remain a threat in the sophomore division.
"He's as good as he can be coming into the race," trainer Todd Pletcher said. "We're hopeful that he can handle the mile-and-a-half distance. We won't know until we try it but his pedigree suggests he could handle it. We're under the radar a bit. There's no pressure so we can just come into it and have fun."
No race exposes distance limitations in a horse's bloodlines like the 11/2-mile Belmont, so Stay Thirsty's stamina-laden pedigree should have every chance to exert itself.
Another aspect of Stay Thirsty's ability is his tactical speed. Unlike his last two races where he had to come from well off the pace, Repole expects his colt to be sitting just off the leaders as he makes his way around his home oval.
In the four races of Stay Thirsty's seven career starts where he has been on or near the lead, he has not finished worse than second.
"I think if (Preakness Stakes winner) Shackleford wasn't in the race, we might find ourselves on the lead," Repole said. "I think we'll be very forwardly placed.
"It really depends on Shackleford. If he goes in :23 and :47, we'll be 8-10 lengths behind him, but if he goes in :49 we'll be right behind him."
The weeks leading up to the Kentucky Derby were filled with speculation about Uncle Mo's health, a factor Repole says took something away from the experience of having his first starter in the race.
Stay Thirsty may not have the talent and accolades of his stablemate. He has, however, become a go-to player in his own right.
"The reason why I'm going to enjoy this more than the Derby is, the four weeks going in with Mo was more about is he or isn't he," Repole said. "But being a kid from New York, it's really, really special to be pointing a horse in this direction. When Stay Thirsty ran 12th in the Derby .... we celebrated until 4 a.m. so I can imagine what the party would be like if he won the Belmont."
Say this about Team Valor founder Barry Irwin, he is not afraid to be blunt.
During a media luncheon at Rockefeller Center on Tuesday, Irwin engaged in a little gamesmanship while expressing his confidence in Team Valor's Kentucky Derby-winning colt Animal Kingdom for Saturday's Belmont Stakes. The famously outspoken Irwin said he didn't view Preakness Stakes winner Shackleford as his horse's biggest threat considering the 11/2-mile distance of the race.
"I'm not concerned at all about Shackleford," Irwin said. "Mucho Macho Man (third in the Kentucky Derby) is the horse I'm worried about."
Dale Romans, who conditions Shackleford and has trained for Irwin in the past, shot back: "That's not the dumbest thing Barry's ever said, but it's close."
Though Shackleford's pedigree suggests he would have trouble getting the Belmont distance, recent history is on his side where rubber matches between Derby-Preakness winners are concerned. The last Derby winner to triumph in a showdown was 1984, when Swale won the Belmont over Preakness Stakes winner Gate Dancer, who was sixth.
Romans and Graham Motion, trainer of Animal Kingdom, have each expressed how a rivalry between the two would be good for racing. Whether or not that continues after the Belmont is up for debate because Irwin indicated Tuesday he might not point Animal Kingdom toward either the Haskell Invitational or Travers Stakes this summer.
"After the Belmont Stakes, the Breeders' Cup Classic would be a long-term goal at the end of the year," Irwin said. "But I have my own idea of how to get there that wouldn't include the Haskell or Travers."
Alicia Wincze Hughes