Five years ago, Mike Repole knows you wouldn’t have believed him.
You wouldn’t have accepted it as truth if he sat at that Churchill Downs podium the morning of May 6, 2011 and told you that missing the Kentucky Derby with the horse who had brought him his first Grade I win, his first Breeders’ Cup victory, his first Eclipse Award as an owner was not his main source of angst. Even knowing a Thoroughbred can only be a 3-year-old on the first Saturday in May one time in their life.
“And Uncle Mo missed his opportunity,” the New York-bred entrepreneur deadpanned when recalling the stress-ridden weeks that culminated in that somber news conference the morning of the Kentucky Oaks.
It wasn’t missing the once-in-a-lifetime chance that caused Repole’s sullen look. He and trainer Todd Pletcher had spent the week watching the juvenile champion’s bay coat go dull and his frame dropping weight with no specific explanation from some of the country’s best veterinarians. Forget being ready for the biggest race of his life. Repole just wanted someone, anyone to tell him that Uncle Mo was going to get better.
“I don’t know if people would have understood it if I would have told them five years ago, but….I wasn’t stressed about missing the race,” Repole said. “Uncle Mo as a 2-year-old gave me the greatest thrills I could have in racing. I owe that horse a lot more than he’ll ever owe me.
“It was about me being stressed that I had all the top vets in Kentucky and New York and no one knew why he was losing weight and every single test we came up with…. it was very hard to figure out what he had. ... I was worried about him surviving. Normally when the doctors can’t figure out when something is wrong with a horse and a horse continues to lose weight, that’s not a good sign.”
Yes, Uncle Mo would recover to race again. No, he was never quite the same. But Hollywood-type endings sometimes take time to materialize. And five years after the liver disease, cholangiohepatitis, denied him the chance to show his full potential on the track, Uncle Mo is getting his chance at some unfinished business.
Ever since his first crop of foals began running, Ashford Stud stallion Uncle Mo has been neck-and-neck with leading sire Tapit for bragging rights as the hottest stallion in North America. From that initial crop of 167 live foals, Uncle Mo is slated to have a remarkable trio of offspring in the 142nd Kentucky Derby on May 7: unbeaten juvenile champion Nyquist, graded stakes winner Mo Tom and Repole’s own homebred, Grade I winner Outwork.
To me, Uncle Mo is a stallion that is right up there with Tapit and I think, in the next couple years, maybe even a Storm Cat.
Tom Amoss, trainer of Mo Tom
Every owner of a top horse who retires to stud has the wish and a prayer that said stallion will be the next breed shaper. As the record-setting, leading freshman sire of 2015, Uncle Mo is already going full speed down that path.
His 2015 progeny earnings of $3,675,294 established a record for a freshman sire, breaking the previous mark held by Tapit. When Nyquist rallied to capture the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Keeneland last fall — the same race his sire won in 2010 to cement his own Eclipse Award-winning campaign — it stamped him as the clear leader of his generation, a title he maintains as the current favorite for the first leg of the Triple Crown.
“I never thought that Uncle Mo could ever be as good of a stallion as he ever was a racehorse, but I am 100 percent positive now he will be by far a better stallion than he even was a racehorse,” said Repole, who retains an ownership interest in Uncle Mo. “It’s crazy to say this but he’s going to change the bloodline in U.S. racing for the next 30, 40, 50 years. He’s that impactful as a stallion.”
Like father, like sons
Uncle Mo’s presence once more on the first Saturday in May wouldn’t be as storybook were it not for his old connections trying to make him the first stallion to have a Kentucky Derby winner in his first crop since Birdstone (Mine That Bird, 2009). No horse was more fitted to that role than Outwork, who went into the books as the first-ever winner for his sire.
Trained by Pletcher and ridden by Hall of Famer John Velazquez – who also piloted Uncle Mo – Outwork earned his place in the Kentucky Derby in just his fourth career start when he captured the Grade I Wood Memorial on April 9, five years to the day after his sire suffered his first career loss in that spot.
A striking physical specimen, Outwork broke his maiden at Keeneland last April then went to the sidelines until this February because of what Repole termed “some minor baby stuff.” The ambitious plan Repole and Pletcher devised for the colt this year was to go from allowance company into a graded stakes and ultimately into a Grade I prep. Except for Outwork getting beat a length in the Grade II Tampa Bay Derby by stablemate Destin, it’s the rare time in Thoroughbred racing when a plan was executed to near perfection.
“It’s kind of a cool thing, just any time that you have an offspring of one of the horses you’ve trained, I think there’s extra satisfaction in that,” Pletcher said. “It’s just a lot of fun for us to see how great Uncle Mo’s doing as a stallion now. It’s phenomenal what he’s been able to accomplish in his first crop, so you see a lot of similarities in some of his offspring and Outwork kind of has the same physique and look and it makes it extra special.
“It’s kind of a fairy-tale story really when you think about it, especially since we had to scratch Uncle Mo the day before the Derby.”
The sample size may still be relatively small, but the stamp Uncle Mo has put on his best offspring is distinct. They have a quiet professionalism about them — good minds, as trainers like to say. They share the same relatively plain coloring as their sire. And they waste little time showing they can run like heck.
“There was definitely a buzz about Uncle Mo and how his babies were looking like runners, but you never know until they run,” said Doug O’Neill, trainer of Nyquist, recalling when his brother, Dennis, picked the colt out at the 2015 Fasig-Tipton Florida Select 2-year-olds in training sale. “Fortunately, we jumped ahead of the hot Uncle Mo train.”
For the time being, Uncle Mo’s babies also carry the same knock that hung like an albatross around their father’s neck. Even before he was diagnosed with his initial intestinal illness following his stunning third-place finish in the 2011 Wood Memorial, there were questions about whether the son of Indian Charlie’s bloodlines would let him prevail over the Derby’s 10-furlong distance.
Repole scoffs at that notion in hyperbolic fashion, saying “there is no doubt in my mind that if we had a healthy Uncle Mo in 2011, he would have done what (Triple Crown winner) American Pharoah did last year.” Considering the only time Uncle Mo raced over 1¼ miles was when he ran 10th in the 2011 Breeders’ Cup Classic, his final career start, it’s now up to his children to give Repole’s faith legs.
“Whether it’s my horse or some other Uncle Mo, I think that question is going to be put to rest this year,” said Tom Amoss, trainer of Grade III Lecomte Stakes winner Mo Tom. “To me, Uncle Mo is a stallion that is right up there with Tapit and, I think, in the next couple years maybe even a Storm Cat. I think he’s a very good stallion and that’s being reflected in the most recent sales and how much his progeny are going for. His first crop … he was an unknown quantity (last year). But that’s no longer the case.”
A matter of time
Fittingly, the 2016 Kentucky Derby prep season has largely been a mano a mano duel between Tapit and Uncle Mo as the former also is set to have three Kentucky Derby starters in Mohaymen — whom Nyquist defeated in the Grade I Florida Derby — UAE Derby winner Lani and Arkansas Derby victor Creator.
Five years ago, Repole and Pletcher ran out of time in their attempt to get Uncle Mo right for the race they thought would be his coronation. Now, they believe it’s only a matter of time before his bloodlines end up finishing what he couldn’t in the American classics.
“I don’t know when it’s going to be, but Uncle Mo is going to have a Kentucky Derby winner, I’m sure about that,” Repole said. “He’s got big crops this year and the ones after that. And the future crops now, with his stud fee at $75,000 and even higher quality mares in the future, the sky is the limit.”
6:34 p.m. Saturday (NBC-18)