Stay Thirsty gives connections a thrill

Ruler On Ice, left, with jockey Jose Valdivia Ruler On Ice, left, with jockey Jose Valdivia Jr., sprints ahead of jockey Javier Castellano on Stay Thirsty to win the Belmont Stakes. (June 11, 2011) Photo Credit: AP

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Mike Repole soaked up every single moment with kidlike glee, claiming just minutes before post time of Saturday's 143rd Belmont Stakes that he wasn't the least bit nervous.

"Surprisingly, I'm not anxious at all," Repole told Newsday as he watched his horse, Stay Thirsty, being ushered from the paddock area to the racetrack. "A kid from Queens, 30 years I've been coming to this track, I've been coming to Aqueduct. This has been the race, man, and if I can just not race this race and keep this feeling for the next 20 years, I'll take this feeling."

Here's something else the Nassau County resident will take: a $200,000 payout.

That's Repole's cut of the overall $1 million Belmont Stakes purse thanks to Stay Thirsty's gritty second-place finish. The 3-year-old colt made a gallant effort, but fell short by three-quarters of a length to Ruler On Ice.

"I have to give credit to the winner," Stay Thirsty's jockey, Javier Castellano, said. "He was impressive. He never gave up. The way the race developed, Shackleford took the lead and the winner was second or third and we tried to stay with him. My horse responded so well today. I was very happy for him. He gave everything he had today.''

Starting from post 2, Stay Thirsty stalked the leaders nearly the entire way, staying within striking distance down the stretch. He moved closer to the rail at the half-mile mark, then began picking up his tempo when Castellano asked for it around the five-sixteenths pole.

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Things still were looking good at the eighth pole, but Stay Thirsty didn't have that turbo boost-like extra gear needed to catch the streaking Ruler On Ice and settled for second.

"He's bred pedigreewise to get a mile and a half, which unfortunately for these 3-year-olds, you only get to do once a year," assistant trainer Jonathan Thomas said. "So it's a shot in the dark, but we felt pedigreewise, the fact that he was training here locally, we had a really good chance if everything set up well.''

"We are very proud of him," trainer Todd Pletcher said. "It was a great effort."

Especially considering Stay Thirsty's struggles leading up to the Belmont. He just hadn't been running the same after blowing away the field by 311/4 lengths in the Grade III Gotham Stakes in his season debut March 5. He finished seventh, beaten by 163/4 lengths, in the Florida Derby, and was 12th in the Kentucky Derby -- 111/4 lengths behind winner Animal Kingdom.

But that meant nothing to Repole, whose mind was in another stratosphere.

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"It's really a great feeling right now," he said. "I've got a bunch of family and friends here. We have a little Italian wedding going on. Nobody is getting married, which is even better, and just having a lot of fun. Just really, really just enjoying the moment."

A moment -- and day -- Repole likely will never forget.

"Mike was really happy," said Thomas, who expects Stay Thirsty to compete at Saratoga in July. "Obviously, he loves to win. We all love to win. But sometimes, you've got to step back and say, 'Look, that was a winning effort.' Finishing second, we were really happy."

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