They grew up in the outer boroughs, first-generation Italian-Americans with working-class roots and big dreams. Mike Repole’s father, Benny, was a waiter, and his mother, Annie, a seamstress. Vinnie Viola’s dad, John, drove trucks. The Repoles lived in Woodside and Middle Village in Queens; the Violas called Brooklyn’s Williamsburg section home.
“We have a lot of similarities,” Mike Repole said. “Ancestry, core beliefs, family and religion. My wife [Maria] is from Brooklyn, Vinnie’s wife [Teresa] is from Queens.”
At 13, Repole clutched his Racing Form on the bus to Aqueduct. John Viola, who loved to bet, took Vinnie to the track at age 8. Many New Yorkers have similar stories about how they became horseplayers, but none is a self-made multimillionaire with a chance to win his hometown race. On Saturday, Repole and Viola will root for a colt they co-own, Vino Rosso, in the Belmont Stakes. Repole also is running another he co-owns, Louisiana Derby winner Noble Indy.
“This is the race I want to win the most,” Repole said. “There’s not even a second.”
When his Stay Thirsty was the runner-up in the 2011 Belmont, Repole was devastated. “Second in the Belmont is a great accomplishment, but it was the toughest loss of my life,’’ he said. “For two weeks I sat in the basement and watched the replay 100 times.”
Repole, a 1991 St. John’s graduate, is the co-founder of Glaceau, maker of Vitaminwater and Smartwater, which he and partner Darius Bikoff sold to Coca-Cola in 2007 for a reported $4.1 billion. In 2011, Repole and Lance Collins started BodyArmor SuperDrink. Repole is the CEO, Kobe Bryant is a creative director and a major investor, and Kristaps Porzingis, James Harden and Mike Trout appear in its television ads.
Viola, who owns the NHL’s Florida Panthers, graduated West Point in 1977 and served in the 101st Airborne, an elite Army unit since World War I. He founded the electronic stock trading firm Virtu Financial and is the New York Mercantile Exchange’s former chairman. In 2017, Forbes estimated his worth at $1.78 billion. That year Viola withdrew from consideration as President Donald Trump’s nominee for Secretary of the Army, citing “insurmountable” difficulties in separating from his businesses.
Repole said he first met Viola “in 2005 or 2006,” when Viola considered buying the then-New Jersey Nets. Repole thought about acquiring a minority stake, but the deal never happened. In 2011, when Viola was getting back into horse ownership, Repole reminded him “there are a lot of lows, and you’re lucky to get a high.”
The advice was accurate, but Viola enjoyed the ultimate high last year when Always Dreaming, whom he owned with boyhood pal Anthony Bonomo, won the Kentucky Derby.
“Anthony and I represent everybody who went to the racetrack for the first time with their dads,” Viola said. “We never fell out of love with the sport.’’
Vino Rosso ran ninth in this year’s Derby after winning the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct. Repole and Viola gave him the name because they love wine.
They don’t come across as members of the one percent. Neither has lost his New York accent or puts on airs. You can take the boy out of Queens or Brooklyn, but you can’t take Queens or Brooklyn out of the boy, even if he becomes a world-class entrepreneur.
“I live on Long Island now, but I still think of myself as Mike from Queens,” Repole said. “You never forget where you came from.”
Before they could gamble legally, Repole and Viola would find “the nearest old man” in the grandstand to place their $2 bets. “If the horse won, it didn’t matter what it paid,” Repole said. “And the feeling now when one of my horses wins is no different than when I was 13. It’s the same excitement.”
A Belmont victory will pay $800,000. Money won is 10 times sweeter than money earned, but for Repole and Viola, lifting the trophy would be about sharing the ultimate New York moment, not the megabucks. They already have a lifetime supply of them.
“We had a big party after the Wood and drank red wine,” Repole said. “It was one of the best wins I’ve ever had.”
For Mike from Queens, only one could feel better.