LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- One Sunday morning, long before daylight, a text message zips across the miles between New York City and Churchill Downs. It is the final workout day for many top Breeders' Cup contenders, and although Juvenile starters Uncle Mo and Stay Thirsty are still fast asleep in their stalls, owner Mike Repole is wide awake.
"He started texting me around 5 o'clock this morning, on pins and needles waiting for the work which was at 8:30," trainer Todd Pletcher deadpans to reporters later that morning. "He's a high-energy guy, a little enthusiastic."
That's an understatement. Repole, the well-known entrepreneur who famously invested in the bottled water company Glacéau before selling it to Coca-Cola for $4.1 billion in 2007, is all about the sport of kings. He heads into Saturday's big race for 2-year-olds represented by a solid duo -- Uncle Mo and Stay Thirsty turned in their preparations for the 1 1/16-mile event in fine form Sunday morning, breezing a half-mile together in :50 3/5 seconds -- and if he could have taken every single stride of that work, Repole would have been running right along with them.
"To make it to the Breeders' Cup with not one, but two top contenders?!" he exclaims. "To own the favorite in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile?! Fifty percent of me is excited and 50 percent of me is about to puke!"
Mike Repole, 41, is a self-described "just plain lucky boy from Queens." His parents are first-generation Americans. His mother, Anna, was a seamstress; his father, Benny, was a waiter. The day Repole graduated kindergarten, he had more education than both of them combined.
"They just wanted me to be happy in life," he says. "They taught me about perseverance and how to handle adversity in life. If you would have rewound their lives 25 years ago, owning racehorses and going to the track is not something we should be doing. I'm just very grateful and happy I've gotten to share this experience with them and with my grandmother."
Repole graduated from St. John's University in Jamaica, N.Y., with a degree in sports management in 1991. He says his ideal job would have been as general manager of the New York Mets, but when that position was not readily available, he climbed the ladder at Energy Brands Inc., the company that eventually became Glacéau and hit it big with Vitaminwater and Smartwater. The rest, as they say, is history.
In business, Repole has the Midas touch. With his help, Glacéau went from $100,000 in annual sales to its eventual worth of billions. In 2008 he put $1 million into Energy Kitchen, a chain of healthy fast-food restaurants, and sales rebounded from a near 10 percent drop in 2008 to a 13 percent rise in 2009. The company has increased sales by more than 30 percent thus far in 2010. Repole also invested in Pirate Brands, makers of the healthy snack food Pirate's Booty, and he says those sales have climbed dramatically since his involvement with the company began. And Kind bars, the healthier alternatives displayed next to all the pastries at Starbucks franchises nationwide? Yes, he owns a percentage in the company that makes them, too.
Repole's success in racing has been less immediate. He grew up going to Aqueduct and Belmont as a kid, betting $2 on all kinds of runners, watching Spend a Buck win the Kentucky Derby in 1985, thinking it would be nice to own a horse like that someday. He bought his first colt, Da Rodeo Man, for $22,000 in 2002, but didn't get his first Grade 1 win until Oct. 9 of this year. That was when Uncle Mo dove to a 4¾-length victory in the Champagne Stakes at Belmont, stamping his ticket to the upcoming Juvenile. Before that, Repole Stable went 0-for-26 in graded stakes races with five seconds and seven thirds, statistics the rueful owner recalls somewhat reluctantly.
"Not like I was keeping track," he says. "Look, when you flip a coin 26 times and call heads and it's always tails, you start to get a little nervous. I would watch the winning owner bringing friends and family to the winner's circle, the happy trainer being mobbed by reporters. I always said, 'I want that to be my horse.'"
Of course, there are those who questioned Repole's choice to get involved in the Thoroughbred industry. But the owner bristles at suggestions that he only plays at the racing game.
"It's 100 percent a business," he says. "But it's a business I'm passionate about. If I don't have a passion for something, I can't do it. When you're really passionate about something, it makes it easier in life to take the highs and the lows. When you're committed to something, you make it work. So horse racing, to me, is a business -- but I have a tremendous passion for that business and for reaching its pinnacle of success."
He learned more from losing than he did from winning, fine-tuning his operation. In 2008, before Uncle Mo and Stay Thirsty even joined the stable, Repole was already making a concerted effort to improve the quality of his stock. He reduced the size of his string, from more than 120 runners to about 85, and became New York's leading owner in 2009. In 2010 at the recently concluded meeting at Saratoga Race Course, his horses earned him top honors -- and Repole Stable walked away with more wins than any of the prestigious upstate oval's patriarchal bluebloods.
After their Sunday morning workout at Churchill, Mike Repole's two best Thoroughbreds are decked out in matching dark blue coolers trimmed with vibrant orange. They are lithe and talented, full of themselves, young athletes who know they're good. Six days before the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, their final training completed, all that remains is for Pletcher to store them in the proverbial bubble wrap and keep them happy and healthy, ready to go.
Each of these young runners stands a very good shot at winning, but Uncle Mo, a son of Indian Charlie, is the likely favorite against a field that will include the prohibitive Hopeful Stakes winner Boys At Tosconova.
"Uncle Mo is like in fifth grade," Repole says. "He's the kid that's a natural athlete, easy to spot. Everything comes easy to him, it's that God-given ability. You can just tell this is a special horse and when you hear Todd, who literally trains hundreds of 2-year-olds, say 'The sky's the limit,' there couldn't be a more impressive horse after two starts than him."
Repole, far left, celebrates in the Belmont Park winner's circle.
Pletcher agrees. On Sunday he compares the colt to Eskendereya, the brilliant 3-year-old he trained before this year's Kentucky Derby. Eskendereya, winner of the Fountain of Youth and Wood Memorial, would have been the favorite in the Derby had he not injured his left front leg in a prerace gallop.
"There are some similarities," the trainer says. "Uncle Mo has a tremendous stride to him and covers a lot of ground, which reminds me of Eskendereya. They both kind of lower their heads down and just reach out way in front of them to cover a lot of ground. Eskendereya really came into his own at the beginning of his 3-year-old year, whereas Uncle Mo found himself a little sooner, but I see a lot of similarities in the two. Both horses have speed and the ability to carry it over a distance of ground. This horse is really peaking at the right time for a race like the Breeders' Cup."
Meanwhile, the Bernardini colt Stay Thirsty is the second-stringer.
"I think he's overlooked a bit because Uncle Mo is his stablemate," Pletcher says. "But look at his résumé; it's pretty solid with two seconds and a first. The exciting thing about him is he's bred to run much further, so it's a bit of a surprise to us that he's been as precocious as he is and that he's gotten to this point already. When we bought him, we really anticipated he would find his peak as a 3-year-old -- and he still might."
"I'm changing his name to Rodney Dangerfield, because he gets no respect," Repole jokes. "He's one of the top 2-year-olds in the country, but people forget about him, and I'm just as guilty as the next guy. If I have five carrots in my pocket, Uncle Mo gets four and Stay Thirsty gets one. But I'm using it as a motivational tool. I tell him, 'If you win the Breeders' Cup, you can have them all.'"
Much of Repole's big-time success with the duo is due to his new relationship with Pletcher, the multiple Eclipse Award winner who runs one of the biggest training programs in the country. Although Repole has placed only about 12 horses with him, those horses are the cream of the crop. Pletcher, a focused professional known for his success with top horses and impeccable management skills, started training for Repole in late August of last year. He more than puts up with the fast-talking owner -- he appreciates his business savvy and down-to-earth approach.
"The thing we need to do with a guy like Mike Repole is use his ideas," the trainer says. "Obviously he's an expert in the marketing area and he knows how to sell a product. To bring a young guy in that's playing at the level he's playing at is great for the future of racing, and to use his ideas and incorporate those into racing in general, I think, is pretty smart."
Other people are constantly making suggestions: Repole should be an ambassador of racing; Repole could save the sport from its decline in popularity; Repole could make things hip and hot again. He doesn't want a high-power role, but the kid from Queens is happy to share his enthusiasm with anyone who asks.
"The board of trustees isn't my style," he says. "I'm more comfortable hanging out in the grandstand or down on the apron with racing fans who ask me do I like my horse, do I not like my horse. I'll give them my honest opinion. I do know people perceive this sport as kind of a good old boys' club and don't think that's part of the plan. To me this game is a great game, and I've said it a million times, it's just the worst-marketed sport in the history of sports."
Pletcher says those in control of the racing industry would do well to listen to Repole, a young, smart, successful businessman who represents the up-and-coming generation of owners. People like this are what the sport needs -- innovative thinkers who are passionate about the sport.
"I don't know about being a 'poster boy,' but I do want to be an advocate for horse racing, yes," Repole says. "This sport is for anybody. You can enjoy horse racing just as much owning 10 percent in one of the partnerships; it's the kind of business that brings everybody together. Let me tell you something, when I have 40 friends and family members at the Grade 1 Champagne and we win it with a horse of ours, that's like Thanksgiving and Christmas morning rolled into one."
The 2008 Kentucky Derby was Repole's most recent visit to Churchill Downs. He came here to get the feel for 157,000 people singing "My Old Kentucky Home," to watch the nation's top Thoroughbreds compete for the sport's most prestigious trophy. He wanted to experience what it would be like to visit that track as the owner of a top contender.
Years and years ago, when Repole had no money, he'd drive his wife, Maria, through New York's swankiest neighborhoods. He always told her, "We're gonna live here one day." It gave him inspiration to see what he wanted, to figure out a plan to get it. Attending the Kentucky Derby made him feel the same way.
"I'm very visionary," he explains. "So I experienced being at the Kentucky Derby and that's where I said, 'Now I have to get serious.' And I told Maria, 'Next time I go to the Derby, it's going to be with one of our horses.'"
He didn't think he'd be back to Churchill Downs with two Juvenile contenders in the meantime -- but he's enjoying every moment of the ride.
"I'm not naïve," he says. "I'm 41 years old and I know I may never, ever have another horse like either one of these. For one owner to have two in the top five, that's luck and whatever's 10 times bigger than luck, that's what it is."
Claire Novak is an award-winning journalist whose coverage of the thoroughbred industry appears in a variety of outlets, including The Blood-Horse magazine, the Times Union (Albany, N.Y.) and NTRA.com. She lives in Lexington, Ky.