Tuesday, March 1, 2011
Mike from Queens
By Bob Ehalt
Michael Repole might be on top of the racing world with the sport’s most celebrated horse, but that hasn’t changed a guy who refers to himself as simply “Mike from Queens.” He’s still the quintessential New Yorker.
Repole was born in the Big Apple some 42 years ago, growing up with his parents and grandmother in a small, non-descript home in Middle Village, Queens, that helped to forge a unique closeness with his brother.
“The house was about 1,500 square feet and we had a backyard that was about 15 feet wide,” Repole said. “My brother and I shared the same bedroom until I was 28, then he did me a favor by getting married and moving out. We had our own beds but they were about 12 inches apart. It made all of us close.”
Given the neighborhood, Repole naturally grew up a huge Mets fan, learning a valuable life lesson through the help of players like Mookie Wilson and his ubiquitous partner in baseball lore, Bill Buckner.
“That 1986 Mets team personified New York,” Repole said. “I loved their style and grittiness. They had a swagger. They were two runs down with two outs in Game 6 of the World Series and won. If there was one team that motivated me in life it was them. They taught me to never give up.”
When it came time for college, the kid from Holy Cross High School stayed close to home and enrolled at nearby St. John’s.
“Seeing Chris Mullin, Mark Jackson and Walter Berry and all those great St. John’s basketball teams made me want to go to there,” Repole said. “The basketball program is the school’s front porch. I love the school and I’m proud to be an alumnus.”
Being on Long Island, not far at all from Aqueduct and Belmont Park, he also developed an early interest in horse racing, often frequenting the now shuttered OTB on Grand Avenue in Maspeth.
“I would get off the bus after high school and go into the OTB to bet the late double,” Repole said. “I was young, but they never checked ID’s back then and if I had trouble, I could always find an old man there to put in the bet for me. I loved handicapping and watching horses run. Handicapping was a thinking exercise for me with all of the variables involved in it. I know handicapping at a young age helped forge the way I do business now. It taught me about risk versus reward and taking chances.”
In the years since those youthful days in Queens, it was Repole’s amazingly keen business skills that added an incredible twist to his life story. He lived what is nothing more than a daydream for 99.9 percent of the population. He co-founded a company named Glaceau, which turned Vitaminwater and Smartwater into such a brilliant success that in 2007 his company was bought by Coca-Cola for a pretty tall glass of water -- a reported $4.1 billion.
And now, even though he could buy an island anywhere in the world, it’s Long Island that remains his home.
“New York is in my blood,” he said. “You can take Mike out of Queens, but you can’t take Queens out of Mike. I’ll always be a kid from Queens. I wouldn’t trade growing up in Queens for anything in the world.”
He still roots for the Mets and even entertained thoughts of buying a share of the team when owner Fred Wilpon recently announced he was willing to sell a piece of the club. Repole has since cooled on the idea because Wilpon seems intent on adding a partner who would do about as much as pitcher Oliver Perez did last year.
“I do envision that one day I’ll be involved in a sports team and obviously the Mets made sense for me. I respect what the Wilpons are doing and under the right circumstances I might be interested, but under the current circumstances, it’s not right for me,” Repole said.
If you were watching the St. John’s vs. Duke basketball game at a sold-out Madison Square Garden a few weeks back, you probably saw Repole, one of the school’s most avid boosters, sitting on the Red Storm bench during their stunning 93-78 victory.
“They had a fund-raiser offering a seat on the bench for the Duke game and no one was going to outbid me for that,” said Repole, whose latest ventures -- and success stories -- are Pirate Booty snacks and the Energy Kitchen health food chain. “Coach (Steve) Lavin was good enough to give me the first seat on the bench so now I’m 1-0 as a coach and that win came against the great Coach K (Mike Krzyzewski) and Duke. I think I’ll go into retirement undefeated.”
And, Repole still loves horse racing, though he no longer needs the help of elderly gentlemen to wager on any of the 80 or so horses he now owns and races in the orange and blue -- think Mets -- silks of Repole Stables. He bought his first horse in 2004, starting out at the lower end of the market with a stable of claimers. More recently, he’s opted for quality over quantity, reducing his stable by about 40 horses and building it around moderately priced yearlings and 2-year-olds.
The results have been almost as good as his luck with Glaceau. He led all New York owners in wins in 2009 and won the owners title last year at New York’s centerpiece meet, Saratoga.
“Winning one race in New York is like winning five anywhere else,” Repole said.
He also has the good fortune to own the horse that currently is the sport’s most electrifying runner. Repole is the proud and quite anxious owner of Uncle Mo, last year’s undefeated 2-year-old champion who has become racing’s latest rock star. It’s been 33 years since a horse last swept the Triple Crown, and judging by his dominance last year, Uncle Mo surely has the necessary talent and ability to end that drought.
“I could be in this game for another 200 years and I’ll never have another horse as fast as Uncle Mo. I’m blessed to have him,” Repole said.
That Uncle Mo has drawn comparisons with some of the sport’s greatest stars is hardly just hype. Trained by five-time Eclipse Award winner Todd Pletcher, Uncle Mo’s three races as a 2-year-old -- a maiden win at Saratoga, the Champagne Stakes at Belmont and the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs -- were astonishing. Not only did he win those races decisively, by a combined 23 1/4 lengths, he did it effortlessly in times and speed figures that left longtime observers shaking their heads in disbelief.
Len Friedman, a partner with the Manhattan-based Ragozin Thoroughbred Data, said Uncle Mo’s 2010 races comprised the fastest collection of races ever by a 2-year-old.
“His first three races are fast as I’ve ever seen a 2-year-old run. He’s a freak, just like Secretariat or Dr. Fager,” Friedman said.
While Uncle Mo is still about two weeks away from his 3-year-old debut in a minor stakes at Gulfstream, the $100,000 Timely Writer on March 12, the excitement is already percolating. A Facebook page for Uncle Mo has nearly 3,000 friends, he has more than 400 followers on Twitter and the colt’s workouts generate more attention than graded stakes.
“He seems like America’s horse,” Repole said about a colt he purchased at a yearling sale for $220,000. “This sport needs a superstar colt and people finally want to see a Triple Crown winner. I want Uncle Mo to be that horse.”
If all goes well in the Timely Writer, the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct on April 9 would be the final tune-up for Repole’s speedy son of Indian Charlie before the Kentucky Derby on May 7. There are still about nine weeks between now and the famed First Saturday in May, and Repole admits he’s not immune to the pressure and anticipation that grows exponentially stronger with each passing day.
“For 30 years I dreamed about having a horse like this, but in my dreams there was not anxiety like what I’m feeling now. I never expected the excitement to hit me like this. You can get bipolar over this,” Repole said.
Helping to soothe Repole’s emotions are daily updates from Pletcher that Uncle Mo is doing just fine in Florida as he prepares for what could be a storybook campaign.
“Todd keeps using the word ‘excellent.’ Uncle Mo has filled out over the winter and gotten bigger,” said Repole, who owns another top Derby candidate in Stay Thirsty, who is expected to make his 3-year-old debut in the March 5 Gotham at Aqueduct. “(Jockey) John Velazquez got on him the other day and Johnny said he felt a little stronger.
“The way we’re drawing it up, it’s a three-race strategy, just like the one we used last year. We’re hoping the Timely Writer will be like his maiden race, the Wood will be like the Champagne and the Derby will be just like the Breeders’ Cup. The Timely Writer should be a good starting point for him because it’s a one-turn mile. He’ll be forced to stretch his legs because he’ll be pushed harder.”
Repole said he is not na´ve, and he understands how fragile race horses can be, so he tries not to look too far into the future. Yet what looms on the horizon for such a gifted horse is nearly impossible to ignore. Say he wins the Derby, and then the Preakness two weeks later, on the afternoon of June 11, a date with destiny will come for Repole and his horse in the Belmont Stakes. Yes, Mike from Queens just might bask in the glow of racing’s greatest accomplishment with his feet firmly planted on his beloved Long Island. Not even a Hollywood screenwriter could script a finish better than that.
“I want to sleep at night, so I try not to think about coming to Belmont with a Triple Crown on the line,” Repole said. “But if that day ever comes, all I know is that win or lose it will be a great day because it will mean I won the Derby and Preakness, and if you asked me right now if I’d take winning the Derby and Preakness and losing the Belmont, I’d sign up for it. Would I be devastated at losing in the Belmont? No, because the Derby is a part of history. I’ll take that.”
Exactly what fate has in store for Repole will be revealed in the next three to four months. Winning the Derby, much less the Triple Crown, requires a blend of talent, luck and heart that only the rarest of horses possess. For now there’s only speculation about what can happen, but with Repole’s Midas touch and the karma that could be waiting for him at Belmont Park in June, the words of Tug McGraw seem as apropos now as they were in 1973 for Mets fans: “You gotta believe.”
And what are your thoughts on Michael Repole and Uncle Mo. Can they win the Kentucky Derby? The Triple Crown? Is New York behind “Mike from Queens?” Let’s hear your comments.