Before Wednesday's post position draw, owner Mike Repole was asked to assess Stay Thirsty's chances in yesterday's Belmont Stakes. He replied, "I'll let you know at about 6:45 Saturday afternoon.'''
In deep stretch, when Repole's 16-1 shot neared the lead, the Nassau County resident almost had the perfect ending to a long, strange trip through the Triple Crown. Stay Thirsty, who spent the past nine months in the shadow of stablemate Uncle Mo, fell short of winner Ruler On Ice by only three-quarters of a length and gave his owner a thrill.
Throughout winter and into spring, Repole marveled at his good fortune. He had the overwhelming early favorite for the Kentucky Derby, Uncle Mo, whose three races as a 2-year-old had been spectacular.
"To own a horse like this is amazing,'' Repole said in March before Uncle Mo made his 3-year-old debut in Florida. "To own Uncle Mo and Stay Thirsty, two once-in-a-lifetime horses, in the same year, I can't explain it.'''
Yet while Repole enjoyed having the undefeated 2-year-old champion and his promising stablemate, he never forgot how fragile thoroughbreds are.
"I know any day I can get a phone call from [trainer] Todd Pletcher and hear bad news.'''
Unfortunately, it wasn't long before he got that call, and Uncle Mo never made it to the Derby. On April 9 he suffered his first loss in five career starts, finishing third as the 1-20 favorite in the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct. Two days later, he was diagnosed with a gastrointestinal tract infection.
"When Stay Thirsty won the Gotham and Uncle Mo won the Timely Writer, I couldn't have felt any better,'' Repole said. "Then Stay Thirsty threw a dud in the Florida Derby and Uncle Mo gets beat in the Wood. It's a roller-coaster game.''
Both colts were shipped to Kentucky for the Derby, but Uncle Mo didn't look right to Pletcher, so he scratched him. Stay Thirsty finished 12th and Uncle Mo was sent to WinStar Farm in Versailles, Ky., where he is recuperating from cholangiohepatitis, a liver ailment diagnosed nine days ago.
Repole said as of Wednesday Uncle Mo had added 83 pounds. He is optimistic that he could return to light training in two weeks and begin galloping two weeks later. If all goes well, he dreams of watching him train at Saratoga and run in the King's Bishop Stakes.
But that's just wishful thinking now. If Uncle Mo can't come back, expect Repole to handle that reversal of fortune as well as he's handled the others. Throughout the spring, he never complained publicly about bad luck or soaring veterinary bills. He didn't blame his trainer, either.
Repole, 42, is a multimillionaire who isn't in racing for the money. For him, it's discretionary income for a racing fan, and as he says, "Ninety-five percent of owners lose money and the other five percent are lying.'' He's in the game for the challenge and the rush, and his mantra is "Dream big.'''
The sunshine came back for him Saturday at chilly, wet Belmont Park. Stay Thirsty, Repole's "other horse,''' got his owner's mo-jo back.
In the paddock before the Belmont, Repole savored the scene.
"It's a really good feeling right now,'' he said. "I've got a lot of family and friends here. We have a little Italian wedding going on -- nobody getting married, which is even better -- and just having a lot of fun. Really enjoying the moment. Honestly, I want to win, but I'll take first or last.'''