I first met Mike Repole two years ago in the Saratoga paddock. He was not yet well known in racing circles as he was in the business community, where he proved himself to be a visionary and extremely successful businessman.
The reason I introduced myself is because I was curious about a fellow St. John’s University alumnus, especially after learning he took a class, Introduction to Racetrack Management, a course I taught for two years as an adjunct professor before Repole enrolled.
I figured the best time to introduce myself was prior to the day’s fifth race. There was a good chance he'd be there since there was a significant amount of chatter on a first-time starting two-year-old he owned. The word was out that the colt could run, and was confirmed when a youngster called Uncle Mo opened as the 3-5 favorite.
After winning by about a sixteenth of a mile, Uncle Mo went on to become the 2010 juvenile champion after repeating his smashing debut in both the Grade 1 Champagne and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile to follow. The future for Uncle Mo and Repole as major players seemed secure. As it turned out, however, Repole had better fortune than his young champion.
Repole impressed as being driven, which is naturally what occurs when your creation results in parlaying a $100,000 business plan into a $4 billion score for himself and his partner. As my people--and Repole’s people say, buona salute.
“He is the highest level of maintenance you can have as an owner. He asks a lot of questions about everything,” his trainer, Todd Pletcher, told The Business Review. Pletcher, not known for hyperbole, trained 20 of Repole’s horses at the time of the interview. “He likes winning,” understated Pletcher.
When it comes to the title of Saratoga's leading owner, obsessed may be more appropriate. And with more claimers needed to fill Saratoga's 10- and 11-race cards, Repole threw money at the quest, often cutting his claiming horse’s value in half in order to dominate weaker rivals.
And with the help of another of his trainers, Bruce Levine, that’s exactly what his horses did. When the meet ended and the number of winners counted, Repole had 13, a total that enabled the Queens native to win his third consecutive Saratoga title.
This shooting-fish-in-a-barrel approach didn’t endear him to his competitors, which is perfectly understandable yet totally acceptable. As the racetrackers say, money is the way you keep score—and win titles. The year before Uncle Mo debuted, Repole’s horses were 0-for-36 at Saratoga.
In particular, Uncle’s Mo’s meteoric rise and the success of Travers winner Stay Thirsty enabled Repole to become one of the sport's major players virtually overnight, and is wasn’t long before the newcomer felt free to speak his mind, sometimes intemperately.
An example of Repole’s budding involvement into industry business occurred after former Breeders’ Cup President Greg Avioli reneged on a handshake agreement with former NYRA President Charles Hayward to have Belmont Park host the event instead of going to Churchill Downs back-to-back.
That, coupled with the announcement that juveniles would not be allowed to compete with Lasix in 2012 Breeders’ Cup events, resulted in Repole’s volunteering to put up millions of sponsorship dollars so that Belmont Park could compete directly with Breeders’ Cup. The wise guys immediately dubbed the event “the Bleeders’ Cup.”
While his heart might have been in the right place, Repole’s provincialism was showing. The statement was taken by many, myself included, that Repole was acting in a manner that put himself above the sport.
There even were unconfirmed rumors that the NYRA was considering doing just that, with or without Repole's money; running all its Grade 1 fall stakes in direct competition with Breeders’ Cup. Fortunately, pragmatism won the day.
So I was prepared to reject Repole’s recent notions out of hand, but I could not.
“Ninety percent of the sport is being run the wrong way, and I’m being complimentary,” Repole told the Business Review. “Without a total overhaul, we might not make it 10 years. I really think the sport is in true jeopardy,” Repole said. “And that’s a shame.”
“He’s a little more brash than I am,” said Food Network celebrity chef Bobby Flay, also one of Pletcher’s owners. “But maybe the sport needs that…If I didn’t have that passion, I don’t know if I’d still be in the game.”
Then Flay added: “Nothing has changed in decades. The facilities are older, the people running it are older, and the ideas are all older.”
TOMORROW: From Tedium to Apathy With a Side Trip to Monotony