How Uncle Mo got his mojo back for another shot at glory
Last year's runaway Juvenile hero did not show for the Derby, but is in town again with unfinished business
Some people might tell you that it was typical of Mike Repole to declare so breezily this week that his colt, Uncle Mo, would be too fast for Frankel over a mile. More instructive, however, was the way he allowed the assembled press to absorb the sacrilege before breaking into a grin, adding the rider "on dirt", and taking his leave. Here is a man who only has so much to say because he knows you will probably grant him the last word.
Repole's investment in thoroughbreds has given the American sport a new accent. And here he is, in the bluegrass country, introducing blue-collar self-belief to his questioned champion. Last year, Uncle Mo won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile by a street. He returned in May for the Kentucky Derby, but was a late scratching and was subsequently diagnosed with a rare liver disorder. After a summer off, the colt has regrouped sufficiently to start favourite today for the Breeders' Cup Classic – even though he remains a magnet for rumour and doubt.
His owner does not hide his exasperation. Holding court on the back stretch, he gestured towards his trainer's barn. "I don't know if you guys know but there's a guy in there with five Eclipse Awards," he said. "And I don't overrule Todd Pletcher. I might argue with him, I might bust his chops a little bit, but I don't overrule him. If he says Mo should go in the Mile instead, he goes in the Mile. All I read is that Mo has no chance of getting a mile and a quarter, but Todd does not think the distance is going to be an issue. Mo just has this incredible stride and he never gets tired. When he's right, he's spectacular. He was one of the top two-year-olds of all time, in the top five no question. And there's no doubt in my mind he's the most talented horse in this race."
Such conviction is consistent with the sale for $4.1bn (£2.6bn), in 2007, of the drinks company Repole had co-founded just eight years earlier. This, remember, was the son of a waiter and seamstress from an Italian community in Queen's. As a kid, he would cut school to go to Aqueduct.
"I'd go to the track and put two dollars on a horse," he said. "I fell in love with them coming down the stretch at 45mph, and fell in love with handicapping [betting]. I used it as a thinking exercise, looking at trainer changes, distance changes, surfaces and jockeys. It helped me in my business life, looking at all these variables."
Still only 42, Repole now has 80 horses and two of them have made the Classic. He thinks the odds against Stay Thirsty are too big, but cannot disguise his infatuation with Uncle Mo. "It's some irony that the Classic is in Kentucky this year," he said. "When I left here in May I didn't even know if I'd ever see him again. For him to be doing what he has, since he came back, is impossible. You are only a three-year-old on the first Saturday in May once in your life, and sometimes you're not right on the day. But coming here, it feels like he's got another shot."
Uncle Mo owes his christening to a term for momentum in sports psychology. "I always used it in my business life," Repole said. "I always wanted Uncle Mo on my side. Todd gets 80 of the best two-year-olds in the country, and as soon as he started saying he didn't have anything to go with this one, I knew that he would be Uncle Mo. Did I think he was going to be this good? No. I knew he was the best of 80. I didn't know whether he was the best of 30,000. But he was."
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