Racing turns its rheumy eyes to the Queens guy who made Vitamin Water

Uncle Mo at Gulfstream Park. (Bob Hardt)
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"When the horse arrived, it turned out indeed to be a superlative animal."—from a Taoist tale recounted by J.D. Salinger

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla.—Mike Repole was happy. After a four-month layoff, his undefeated horse, Uncle Mo, ran his first race as a three-year-old colt and swept away the competition on an inexorable path to the Kentucky Derby.

"It's the first time in three months that I've taken a deep breath, so it kind of feels good to take a deep breath,'' said Repole, standing in the winner's circle at Gulfstream Park on Saturday after Uncle Mo easily dispatched four relatively unknown rivals.

This was not a competitive race—it was the equivalent of a tune-up opponent fed to a heavyweight champion before the real title bout. But the win was nevertheless an important step for Repole and his trainer, Todd Pletcher.

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While Repole, a Queens native and would-be New York Mets owner, won't admit it, he's hoping to do nothing less than to revive horse racing in the United States through Uncle Mo.

After Mo's phenomenal win in last November's juvenile Breeders' Cup, people involved with horse racing began hoping that he could be The One: the horse that not only wins the Triple Crown (winning the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes) but an animal that seizes the country's popular imagination and helps propel racing back into the company of mainstream sports and out of the dim, stale-beer-smelling corner it currently occupies.

While Mo is an impressive horse, it's the 42-year-old Repole who makes this dream possible. Born to a working-class family in Middle Village, Queens, he graduated from St. John's University and made his fortune by co-founding Glaceau, the company that makes Vitamin Water, and then selling it to Coca Cola for $4.1 billion in 2007. He's also the money behind Energy Kitchen and Pirate's Booty. If nothing else, he is an accomplished marketer, with a knack for making something very big out of nothing.

Repole has devoted a fair amount of his time and burgeoning fortune to his racing hobby. Over the last seven years, he built up his stable to the point where he may have two horses in the Kentucky Derby, Uncle Mo and the lesser-known and lesser-regarded Stay Thirsty.

If all goes according to Todd Pletcher's original master plan for Uncle Mo, the horse's next and final race before the Kentucky Derby will be next month's Wood Memorial at Aqueduct, a race track that has considerably less charm than Gulfstream, but is one that Repole grew up with. Uncle Mo would likely face another weak field there, but that's fine, Repole says.

"For the Wood next month in New York, half of Queens will be there, and half of Long Island," he told me.

Whether that happens or not—it's still possible that the Repole camp will choose to rest the horse an extra week before Kentucky, skipping Aqueduct—Uncle Mo's big New York appearance will be at the Belmont Stakes in June, where he would have a chance to become the first Triple Crown winner in 33 years.

Even Repole feels compelled to sound a cautionary note about the chances of bringing off a feat of this magnitude.

"It's such a delicate game," Repole said. "I could get a call from the stable and be told that my horse is standing on three legs."

As I talked to the veteran racing reporters in the Room 9-like press box at Gulfstream, it became clear just how desperately the sport needs a superstar—and how much its supporters (and dependents) are banking on Mo.

"My preview story for today's race was a brief on page 12,'' one of them said, dyspeptically.

His editor, he added, "doesn't know anything about horses."

There's no cheering in the press box. But if Repole can make a big, splashy success of Uncle Mo, the silent roar will be deafening.

Bob Hardt is the political director and executive producer at NY1.