“This is a ‘Mike from Queens’ event,” Mike from Queens said. “It’s pretty special.”
That was evident from the moment Mo Donegal crossed the finish line first in the 154th Belmont Stakes on Saturday, fulfilling a racing dream for co-owner Mike Repole, a guy who grew up in Middle Village, Queens, attended St. John’s and still is a part-time resident of Long Island — “28 days [a year],” he said — but mostly lives in Florida.
“So surreal,” he said.
Repole, 53, who built his fortune in the enhanced water business, arrived at the post-race news conference perspiring and parched, and immediately asked for a bottle of water.
It had been a wild 45 minutes or so by then, spent celebrating with a massive contingent of friends and family, including his parents, wife, daughter and brother Gerard, a retired New York City police officer.
A couple of dozen members of his group listened to him answer questions in the news conference, but he estimated he had spoken to 2,000 people during the day. “This is my hometown track,” he said.
There were grammar school, high school and college friends, former fellow Key Food grocery stockers, restaurant servers, track workers, and “just guys from Queens and Brooklyn,” he said.
Repole finished second in the 2011 Belmont with Stay Thirsty, and never quite got over it until Saturday.
He bought a quarter of Mo Donegal — a son of Uncle Mo, a beloved horse he still owns a piece of — shortly before the Kentucky Derby. He also is a part-owner of Nest, the filly that finished second, through another partnership.
Jerry Crawford, CEO of Donegal Racing, said, “I think it's kind of cool that we could facilitate him in his hometown.”
Mo Donegal wore Repole’s blue-and-orange silks, chosen in honor of his favorite baseball team, the Mets.
At the Belmont draw on Tuesday, Repole was in the presence of the winner’s trophy and jokingly said, “Be careful with my trophy.”
After the race, Repole said he wanted to take a picture with the trophy but was warned by several people that would be a jinx.
“If nobody was there, I would have done it, and then I would have posted Tuesday’s picture and Saturday’s picture side by side,” he said.
Repole was interested in racing long before he was rich. He said he mostly visited Aqueduct and Belmont because he never had a car that could make it all the way to Saratoga.
“It felt like this was meant to be,” he said. “I’ve got 75 people at every race telling me, ‘This is the one; this is the one.’ They’re wrong every time. They were right this time.”