Mike Repole is undeterred. He is determined to enjoy the Kentucky Derby, “despite the race,” despite his failure to be a factor in seven previous tries and despite the lingering anguish associated with the best horse he’s ever had.
“If you can scratch the Derby favorite the day before the Kentucky Derby, how much tougher can this game get?” the billionaire horseman asked. “If you can survive that, you can probably handle pretty much anything in this game.”
Twelve years since Repole decided against sending an ailing Uncle Mo to the starting gate on the first Saturday of May, 2011, the effusive entrepreneur will again chase the garland of roses this Saturday with this year’s morning line favorite, Forte.
For the moment, at least, Repole still regards Uncle Mo as his most brilliant horse, potentially “American Pharoah before American Pharoah,” if not for the rare liver disease that reduced his racing career to a relative footnote compared to his superlative stallion service.
Repole’s lingering disappointment is tempered, though, by his semi-limitless dollars. He is one of the favored few among thoroughbred owners with the means and the motivation to continue chasing his equine dreams after absorbing an early, agonizing gut punch.
Repole attends auctions with the confidence that comes from having sold two companies to Coca-Cola, both for multiple billions, and the bidding bravado built by spending others into submission.
“When they run out of money,” he says, “I’ve still got money.”
Repole paid $110,000 for Forte at the 2021 Keeneland September Yearling Sale. He attributes the comparatively modest price to the horse being placed near the end of the sale, after other wealthy owners had departed and many of those who remained had depleted their available funds.
The dark bay colt has already earned more than $2.4 million while winning the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and establishing himself as the Derby favorite with a dynamic come-from-behind finish in the Florida Derby.
Churchill Downs oddsmaker Mike Battaglia made him the 3-1 Derby favorite following Monday’s Derby draw, despite the colt’s No. 15 post position and whispered worries about his top-end speed. (His half-mile breeze Saturday at Churchill Downs spanned 49.80 seconds and was ranked No. 96 of the 150 horses working that day).
It may be that Forte is merely the most accomplished of an unspectacular crop of 3-year-olds, and not a truly transcendent talent. It may be that he is neither the equal of Uncle Mo nor either of the two Triple Crown winners commanding lower stud fees at Coolmore’s Ashford Stud, American Pharoah and Justify.
Not that any of this will matter very much if Forte happens to finish first.
“It’s a thrill to be in the race,” Repole said, “and to come in here with a really live shot. The horse is not going to be 25-1, 30-1, 40-1 or 50-1, which my horses have been.
“To have a real chance to win this race, I try not to think about it. The last two weeks, I made myself so busy just to distract myself. I did more business in the last two weeks than I’ve done in a year, just to make sure I’m completely busy and so tired at night. It’s not that I want to go to sleep; I have no choice. I’m so tired.”
He was standing in Churchill Downs’ Aristides Lounge after the draw, clutching a pair of microphones to accommodate local television stations and explaining how owning the Derby favorite was both a blessing and a burden. When one of the TV reporters retrieved his microphone before shifting to another subject, Repole cautioned, “the other guys are boring.”
Repole may not have been referring specifically to Todd Pletcher, but Forte’s record-setting trainer remains the most colorless high-profile personality in the sport, as buttoned-down as Repole is boisterous.
The two contrasting characters bonded through their experience in 2011. Though Pletcher won his first Derby in 2010 with Super Saver, he said at the time he had never had a horse as good as Uncle Mo.
One of Uncle Mo’s offspring, Mo Donegal, won the 2022 Belmont Stakes for Repole and Pletcher.
“I wanted to win the Belmont,” said Repole, a native New Yorker. “I was very open about it. This (the Derby) was always the second one.
“It might not be this year. Might be next year. But I’m going to die trying. . .I can’t get into words now if I was blessed enough to win it, and I’d probably have less words then than I do now.”
To date, Repole’s Derby horses have finished no better than fifth. He remains undeterred, and also rich.