LOUISVILLE — Mike Repole stood near the outside rail on the backstretch at Churchill Downs, watching the Derby horses gallop on an overcast morning. His gaze sharpened as the two horse he co-owns, Vino Rosso and Noble Indy, went by. Repole wore a dark T-shirt featuring a vintage pickup truck and the message: “Old School: Life is Good.”
It couldn’t be much better for the 49-year-old Nassau County resident, whose 2-year-old daughter’s name, Gioia (Italian for joy), matches his mood. He has two graded-stakes winners in the world’s most famous race, the one he wants most. It’s been seven years since Repole’s first Derby, and being there was glorious despite how it turned out. His superstar Uncle Mo was scratched the morning before the race because of a rare liver ailment, and stablemate Stay Thirsty finished 12th.
“The feeling now is completely different,” Repole told Newsday Thursday. “That was a pretty stressful week, and it’s like anything else in life, the first time you do something you’re nervous.
“Never did I think that seven years later I would be back to the Derby for the fourth time. It’s surreal, and I can’t believe it. I always say there’s no guarantee you’ll ever get back here again. I’m so happy and feeling so blessed, and I’m making sure I enjoy every second of it.”
The Derby hasn’t treated him kindly. Like Stay Thirsty, Repole’s Overanalyze (11th in 2013) and Outwork (14th, 2016) finished far back. In the big picture, not a big deal. Thanks to Uncle Mo, Repole became a major player on the international stage by making a stallion deal with Ireland-based Coolmore, the worldwide leader in racing and breeding.
“Mo” is his horse of a lifetime, and he’d be anybody’s. It would be nearly impossible to top what the handsome bay has done on and off the racetrack. Repole Stable’s all-time earnings exceed $35.8 million, far less than what Uncle Mo’s genes are worth. Besides being an undefeated 2-year-old champion, he’s a record-breaking sire. Repole named him after the sports term for momentum, and he’s been unstoppable as a daddy horse.
Pedigree experts compared his start at stud to those of Danzig, Storm Cat and A.P. Indy, among the top stallions of the past 30 years. In 2016, an unbeaten colt from Uncle Mo’s first crop, Nyquist, won the Kentucky Derby, making Repole feel like a proud grandfather.
He spent Wednesday in the Lexington area, first visiting Uncle Mo at Ashford Stud. “Mo is the man,” Repole said. “He looks great, and he’s achieved legendary status. It’s incredible what he’s done at stud. Knowing a horse I owned is going to be a part of racing history for a long time is kind of overwhelming.”
Then Repole went to WinStar Farm, where he keeps yearlings and weanlings, a dozen of each, all sired by Uncle Mo. He owns a percentage of the 10-year-old and a breeding share, and mates him with “10 to 15 mares” each spring.
“It’s so beautiful in the bluegrass country, with mares running through the fields with their foals,” he said. “Any racing fan who comes to Kentucky should go see that.”
Todd Pletcher, who trained Uncle Mo, will saddle Vino Rosso and Noble Indy for the Derby. Pletcher has two Derby trophies, and said Repole asks when he’s going to get one for him. Pletcher won last year with Always Dreaming, co-owned by Vinnie Viola, who also co-owns Vino Rosso. Maybe Viola’s luck will rub off on Repole.
“Noble Indy (3-for-4) hasn’t done anything wrong, and Vino Rosso is like a maturing teenager who keeps getting better,” Repole said. “He’s by Curlin, and the more distance you give him, the better he gets.
“If Uncle Mo had been healthy, he would have won the Derby. But of all the ones I’ve been in, I think this is my best chance to win, even though it’s the toughest Derby I’ve seen in my life.”