On as perplexing and puzzling a day as New York racing has seen in decades, Queens native Mike Repole learned how life can imitate art in the most jarring of manners.
On Friday night, less than 24 hours before his superstar colt, Uncle Mo, was scheduled to run in the $1 million Wood Memorial at Aqueduct, Repole spent the evening watching the movie “Secretariat.” Considering how the unbeaten Uncle Mo, last year’s 2-year-old champion, has been compared to the famed 1973 Triple Crown winner it seemed an appropriate choice.
Until Repole got to the part where Secretariat finished a shocking third in the Wood.
Now fast forward to late Saturday afternoon, when Repole stood in the paddock at Aqueduct, answering a string of questions from a pack of reporters, looking for an answer for why Uncle Mo ran third as an odds-on 1-9 favorite to the victorious Toby’s Corner ($19.40) in the Wood.
Let’s just say Repole probably wished he had gone out and seen “Arthur.”
“It was kinda stupid to watch that race,” said the New York-born and bred Repole, who grew up in Middle Village and attended St. John’s University. “When it got to the Wood, I should have shut it off.”
A jinx tied to a movie seemed as good an answer as any for a loss by a horse that has been billed as the heavy favorite for the Kentucky Derby.
Trainer Todd Pletcher said Uncle Mo grabbed a quarter in his front leg (one leg hitting another) coming out of the gate, and he opened a coin-sized gash, but he discounted that as a reason for why last year’s undisputed 2-year-old champ would finish a weary third behind as undistinguished a stakes runner as Toby’s Corner.
“The cut isn’t much of an excuse,” Pletcher said. “(Jockey John) Velazquez said (Uncle Mo) was never relaxed. I can’t say I’m shocked, but I am disappointed. I can’t say if we’re going to the Kentucky Derby or not going to the Kentucky Derby. We’ll see how he comes out of this race. It’s up to Uncle Mo.”
Repole, who has been betting on horses since his teenage days when he would sneak into OTBs, took the loss in the stride. He voiced an understanding of the game and its relative place in life.
“You talk about perspective. A 46-year-old guy comes down with cancer yesterday,” Repole, a major St. John’s sports booster, said, referring to news that Red Storm coach Steve Lavin has prostate cancer. “If you told me Uncle Mo would finish third and Steve Lavin wouldn’t have cancer, I’d take Uncle Mo running third anytime.”
As much as Repole rationalized the loss, he, too, could not offer a reason for a loss, that coupled with an injury to Premier Pegasus earlier in the week, threw the Triple Crown chase into mass confusion. Now Uncle Mo and Florida Derby winner Dialed In loom as the most likely wagering choices in the Run for the Roses -- if Uncle Mo stays the course.
Uncle Mo, in his second start of the year, came away from the gate well, despite his awkward first few steps. A winner of the ungraded Timely Writer Stakes last time out, he seemed to be cruising along down the backstretch of the mile-and-an-eighth race, posting easy splits of 47.98 seconds and 1:12.28. Turning for home, he led by a little more than a length, and the Wood seemed destined to be a replay of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, a race in which Uncle Mo exploded in the stretch run to win by 4 1/4 lengths.
“I thought he would pull away and win by 10 lengths at that point,” Repole said, who watched the loss with 120 of his family and friends.
Yet on Saturday, when jockey John Velazquez asked for a response, there was none. Maybe it was a lack of conditioning after an easy win in the Timely Writer. Yet whatever the reason, Uncle Mo came up empty in the final furlong as Toby’s Corner and Arthur’s Tale went by him on the outside, with Toby’s Corner winning by a neck.
Uncle Mo faded to third, 1 ¼ lengths behind the winner, who covered the nine furlongs in an unimpressive 1:49.93.
The same winner who was third behind Repole’s other 3-year-old stakes winner, Stay Thirsty, in the Gotham at Aqueduct last month. Playing a game of connect the dots with Uncle Mo, Stay Thirsty and Toby’s Corner does not paint an encouraging picture for Team Repole.
“Stay Thirsty beat Toby’s Corner by (4 ¼) lengths and Uncle Mo could beat Stay Thirsty by 10 lengths, so something didn’t work out today,” Repole said. “I don’t know what happened.”
Adding to Repole’s confusion, Stay Thirsty finished seventh in the Florida Derby last weekend after his win in the Gotham. Now, in light of Uncle Mo’s stunning loss, his two aces are both question marks for the Derby, yet Repole believes he has one more ace up his sleeve.
“I would bet that Todd Pletcher will find out what went wrong with Stay Thirsty and Uncle Mo,” Repole said. “I would bet my life on Todd Pletcher.”
And if Uncle Mo does indeed head to Churchill, don’t be surprised if Repole tries watching “Secretariat” on the first Friday night in May. Not to give away the ending, but Secretariat rebounded from his loss in the Wood to sweep the Triple Crown.
Lightning doesn’t strike twice, but Mike Repole would be a pretty happy guy if life imitates art twice.