The memories of Mine That Bird and Super Saver -- longshot winners of the last two runnings of the Kentucky Derby, neither of which would win another race -- remain fresh, so it is both difficult and inadvisable in March to form more than vague opinions about the new crop of 3-year-olds.
This sport needs a superstar colt and people want to see a Triple Crown winner ... I want Uncle Mo to be that horse.
”-- Mike Repole, owner of Uncle Mo
It is, however, safe to say that no one in the racing game is having more fun these days than Mike Repole, whose champion 2-year-old, Uncle Mo, sets foot on the road to the Derby on Saturday at Gulfstream Park in the Timely Writer Stakes, a race created for the convenience of the Breeders' Cup winner and his connections, who would otherwise have run at Tampa Bay Downs. The race at Gulfstream comes a week after trainer Todd Pletcher unwrapped the progressive, Repole-owned Stay Thirsty in the Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct, a race he won with a matter-of-fact, thoroughly professional effort. If Repole was not already the King of Queens, a huge, jubilant crowd in the winner's enclosure after the Gotham suggests that he is now.
Repole, product of a working-class Queens neighborhood, St. John's alumnus, self-made billionaire, his fortune built on the idea of putting vitamins and flavoring in water, has put his arms around a passion for racing that rivals his uncanny business instincts. He has put his money where his dreams are and is now the dominant owner of thoroughbreds in his home town, a place where the sport's history is written by the old-money stables of the American aristocracy. Repole represents a 180-degree changing of the guard.
Repole paid $500,000 -- $300,000 more than he paid for his 3-year-old potential superstar, Uncle Mo -- for Stay Thirsty, the son of Bernardini who broke his maiden in his second start last year, and subsequently finished second to Boys At Tosconova in the Grade 1 Hopeful and fifth to Uncle Mo in the Grade 1 Breeders' Cup Juvenile. At a time when 3-year-olds often make significant leaps forward in pursuit of potential, his effort in the Gotham suggests strongly that this colt is a player in the chase toward the Kentucky Derby.
"I couldn't be any happier for this horse, because I keep hearing about Mo's shadow' and stablemate' and this is one of the top six 3-year-olds in the country," Repole said after the Gotham. "Today is all about Stay Thirsty and I think he showed that when you get away from Boys At Tosconova and you get away from Uncle Mo, this is a pretty special horse."
At the moment, though, Stay Thirsty remains in the shadow of his stablemate, who many, including his owner, see as a colt with the potential to provide the sport with the transcendent 3-year-old star for which it has longed since the 70s. That would require that Uncle Mo, who has been nothing short of amazing on every day he has run, sweep the Triple Crown, which has been unwinnable since 1978.
All owners of horses dream of winning the Derby, In his dreams, Repole admits, Uncle Mo and Stay Thirsty arrive at the wire at Churchill Downs in a dead heat, giving the Vitamin Water mogul two Derby winners, a nocturnal vision shared only by the most wildly optimistic. But horses with such talent inspire impossible dreams.
The rise in Stay Thirsty's profile notwithstanding, Uncle Mo remains at the vanguard of Repole's and trainer Todd Pletcher's advance on Louisville and the Derby, a race to which 363 other 3-year-olds are nominated, perhaps a Mine That Bird or Super Saver among them. It cannot at this point be said with any degree of certainty that he will stay 10 furlongs in Kentucky, let alone the 12 required of the Triple Crown champion at Belmont. It can be said, however, that Uncle Mo's potential at this point is as boundless as the task he faces is daunting.
To wit: Since 1985, no Breeders Cup Juvenile winner has run in a Belmont Stakes, a towering hurdle that Uncle Mo must clear if Repole's dreams are to come true this year. During that period -- a quarter century -- only two Breeders' Cup Juvenile winners -- Street Sense, and Timber Country -- have run in the Preakness.
In the abstract, this is fodder for discussion of the fragile nature of the modern thoroughbred, the ravages of medication or the impact of the Breeders' Cup on the Triple Crown. At face value, however, these are not anomalous, but alarming streaks that extend over too many years to defy inquiry if not explanation. Negative streaks, however, do nothing to the collective hope of the sport's fans and participants that this will be the year and Uncle Mo the horse capable of sweeping the Triple Crown.
"This sport needs a superstar colt and people want to see a Triple Crown winner," Repole said. "I want Uncle Mo to be that horse."
Paul Moran is a two-time winner of the Media Eclipse Award, and has received various honors from the National Association of Newspaper Editors, Society of Silurians, Long Island Press Club and Long Island Veterinary Medical Association. He also has been given the Red Smith Award for his coverage of the Kentucky Derby. Paul can be contacted at email@example.com.