Kentucky Derby

John Clay: Mike Repole lives for horse racing

Mike Repole, owner Uncle Mo, kissed trainer Todd Pletcher after their horse won the Juvenile race at the Breeders' Cup on Nov. 6, last year at Churchill Downs.
Mike Repole, owner Uncle Mo, kissed trainer Todd Pletcher after their horse won the Juvenile race at the Breeders' Cup on Nov. 6, last year at Churchill Downs. ASSOCIATED PRESS

LOUISVILLE — Conventional wisdom says a resurgent Uncle Mo reclaiming his superstar status by winning the 137th Kentucky Derby would be good for thoroughbred racing.

We don't have to wait until Saturday to make one determination about Uncle Mo, however: His owner is a very good thing for racing.

Mike Repole is the energetic, enthusiastic, smart, funny, outgoing 42-year-old Long Island millionaire who loves horse racing almost as much as he loves his Mets, and who yesterday stole the press conference show after his two horses, Uncle Mo and Stay Thirsty, worked in the slop at Churchill Downs.

Repole on his trainer, Todd Pletcher: "I only talk to him about 18 hours a day."

Repole on his two probable Derby starters: "In a perfect world they would dead heat and I win two Derbys in one year."

Repole on his prediction that despite his third-place finish in the Wood Memorial, Uncle Mo would be the favorite on Saturday: "If he's not the favorite, then I'll make him the favorite."

So you plan on making a significant investment at the betting window on Saturday?

"I have a significant investment in him already," Repole said. "He needs to make up for the other 82."

Repole isn't some drive-by horse racing guy. He's dreamed of owning a Derby starter since age 13, when he was rooting for the Mets and spending his allowance money at Belmont Park. In 2007, when he and his partners sold Glaceau, the VitaminWater company, to Coca-Cola for a reported $4.1 billion, Repole starting putting serious money into thoroughbreds.

He said Sunday that he spends $3 to 3.5 million per year at the sales.

"My family CFO can't stand the sport," he joked. "But I get the final say, unfortunately."

That doesn't include claiming horses, some he has even claimed with Pletcher, the nation's top trainer, whose name isn't exactly connected to many claimers.

"Now that I've taught him how to fill out a claiming slip," Repole said.

The two make a terrific odd-couple team. Pletcher is the sober, serious-minded trainer from Texas who plays it close to the vest. Repole is the talkative New Yorker who wants to have fun and bust your chops, but is serious about the game.

"If Uncle Mo doesn't win anything or if he wins the Triple Crown, I want to be in this game for the next 60 years," Repole said. "I don't want to be one of those guys who comes in and spends $10 million and finds out that it would be cheaper and more exciting to buy a yacht."

How often do Repole and Pletcher talk?

"That's two questions," said Repole. "How many times do I call? And how many times does he pick up."

"I get about four to five calls a day," said Pletcher, smiling. "When he says he needs two minutes, that's 40. If he doesn't start by saying two minutes, then it's a lot more."

There have been many calls since Uncle Mo was so disappointing in the Wood and was later diagnosed with a gastrointestinal infection. Pletcher said Sunday that all systems are go for a Saturday start. He also said his stablemate, Repole's Stay Thirsty, turned in his best work.

So what will Repole do with himself the rest of the week?

"I'll come out here in the morning, then come back for the 10:30 feed, come back for the 4:30 feed. I'm going to be the nightwatchman at night," he said. "I'll spend time at some great restaurants here. The one."


"I went to — is it Jeff or Jack Ruby's?" he said. "I guess it's Jeff, I think Jack killed somebody. It's Jeff's, so I'll be going there a lot."

Mainly, he's just keeping his fingers crossed that his two horses will be in the starting gate for the Kentucky Derby.

"If these horses come in 19th and 20th, but they get to start," said Repole, "I'm going to be happy man."

"I will not," cracked Pletcher.

"What's the difference between 1-for-28 and 1-for-30," shot back Repole, referencing Pletcher's Derby record. "It's not going to lower your percentage that much, right."

The room was filled with the laughter of people having a good time.

Now that's what horse racing needs.