NEW YORK -- Mike Repole is a New Yorker through and through. The kid from Queens used to play stickball and schoolyard basketball, and he loved those bus rides to Aqueduct Racetrack so he could bet on the horses.
He went to college down the road at St. John's and wanted to be the basketball coach. He cheered like crazy for the New York Mets and wanted to be their general manager. He turned his sports management background into a billion-dollar payday as a co-founder of Glaceau, the maker of Vitaminwater and Smartwater. He's the majority investor in Pirate Booty snacks, maker of Pirate's Booty, and the managing partner of New York-based Energy Kitchen, a healthy fast-food chain.
Repole also owns Uncle Mo, the top Kentucky Derby contender and heavy favorite for Saturday's $1 million Wood Memorial at the Big A.
The energetic 42-year-old Repole always wanted to own horses.
"It was in my blood at 13 years old," he said Thursday morning outside trainer Todd Pletcher's Belmont Park barn, with Uncle Mo a few yards away in his stall. "I knew I couldn't be a trainer, hotwalker or groom. Or a professional gambler. So I always wanted to be on the investment side of horse racing."
Thanks to his winning touch as a businessman, Repole is making a big splash in the game with Uncle Mo. The 3-year-old bay colt, purchased for $220,000 at the 2009 Keeneland September sale, is unbeaten and unchallenged in four races. Win No. 5 is expected in the 1 1-8-mile Wood against nine less-distinguished rivals.
"On paper, there isn't a horse you would expect is going to run the kind of race it would take to beat Uncle Mo," Pletcher said this week but noting that some 3-year-olds could improve dramatically from race to race. "We just want to see more of what we've seen from Uncle Mo every start of his life, and that is brilliance."
Many of Repole's pals from the schoolyard and college days have been along for Uncle Mo's brilliant races. Repole calls them his "entourage" and they and his family play a big role in Repole Stable, which was started about seven years ago.
His friends had no doubt that once Repole began investing in thoroughbreds, he'd wind up a winner.
"Playing sports, it was always win, win with Mike," said longtime pal John Camus, one of Repole's group at the track Thursday morning. "When he started this, I probably could have told you then he'd have a Kentucky Derby winner one day. He will find a way to make it work."
So far, so good.
Uncle Mo won his debut by 14 1/4 lengths at Saratoga last year, won the Grade 1 Champagne by 4 3/4 lengths and closed his 2-year-old championship season with a 4 1/4-length win in the Grade 1 Breeders' Cup Juvenile. He won his only start this year, in the Timely Writer, by 3 3/4 lengths at Gulfstream Park on March 12.
A list of 500 friends and family members could show up for the Wood, but Repole said his official party will total 100, including his grandmother. The others will have reserved tables at the track.
Repole isn't kidding himself, though. He knows he's not a one-man show, and since he's always tried to go first-class, he didn't shy away when it came to hiring the best in the racing industry.
Pletcher, a five-time Eclipse Award winner, trains many of his horses, and two-time Eclipse winner John Velazquez rides Uncle Mo. Repole also hired some of the top names to pick out horses -- Jim Martin is his racing manager, Jimmy Crupi selects yearlings and Ed Rosen is his pedigree adviser.
Before he bought his first racehorse, Repole was used to being the boss. Not at the racetrack, and for a while he had a hard time handling his new role of going to the races and "writing a check."
"Here, I'm just a spectator," he said. "It's up to Todd. It's up to Johnny. It's up to the grooms, it's up to the assistant trainer and it's up to, most importantly, Uncle Mo. So for a Type-A personality to finally sit back and realize you can't do anything else but give him a carrot ... either you realize that or get out of the game. And I'm in the game. It's been in my blood since I was 12, 13 years old and it just won't come out."
Especially now. Not when he truly believes he has the best 3-year-old in the land.
"This is a once in a generation horse," Repole said. "And I just happen to be fortunate enough to be the owner. If I didn't own Uncle Mo, he'd be my favorite horse. I am in awe of my own horse."