LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Mike Repole loves action. Loved it when he used to take the bus down Woodhaven Boulevard from Middle Village, Queens, get off at Rockaway Boulevard, walk three or four blocks to Aqueduct and "just kind of walk in." He went with $20. He'd bet $2 every race, more if he were winning.
That was pretty much his routine from when he was 13 to 17. He found a way for somebody to get those bets down and he kept coming back.
Fast forward a few decades and the St. John's graduate, now a successful businessman, worked his way up in Energy Brands, which became Glaceau in 1999. The next year, Repole and a partner launched Vitaminwater. In 2007, they sold the company to Coca-Cola for $4.1 billion. And that will buy anybody a lot of action.
Repole started buying horses in 2002. He claimed some, bought some at sales. By the end of the decade, he was the leading owner in New York and New Jersey. He was winning everything but the races that draw attention.
And Repole, 42, likes attention. He got it last year when he owned two-year-old champion Uncle Mo. He is getting it now with two possible Kentucky Derby horses -- Uncle Mo and Stay Thirsty.
"He's a wild man," said Parx Racing-based trainer Scott Lake, who has had horses for Repole through the years. "He's got an ego."
Lake is not saying that in a bad way. He likes Repole.
"He's funny," Lake said. "Some of the comments he makes ... "
Like, after Uncle Mo's final pre-Derby workout last Sunday when he said: "If he's not the favorite, I'll make him the favorite."
Repole is no longer betting $2.
Uncle Mo looked like the next great horse last year. This year, the colt has looked pretty ordinary in two starts. No place on earth has more rumors than Churchill Downs during Derby week. Rumors about Uncle Mo's health or lack of it have been swirling for weeks, but have reached a crescendo this week.
The official version for why the colt ran so far off his best form when third in the Wood Memorial is that he had a gastrointestinal infection. Unofficially, there are many more theories, including that the horse had some kind of unannounced surgery after his dominant Breeders' Cup Juvenile win last November.
For what it's worth, Uncle Mo was entered Wednesday to run in Saturday's race. Whether he actually makes the gate is subject to conjecture.
"It seems like the media knows more about Uncle Mo than (trainer Todd Pletcher) and I," Repole said last week. "In the last couple weeks, I've heard that he was retired, that I was just caring about what stallion farm he was going to be at and what stud fee he was going to be, and I think he came into the Wood Memorial with a wheelchair and crutches and a cast."
The man does like to talk. And that is a good thing in a sport like horse racing, which sometimes seems stuck in another century, the 19th. Repole is not politically correct and sometimes not even correct. But you have to love a man who learned to love the game at Aqueduct, the no-frills betting factory hard by the Belt Parkway.
"Aqueduct was my Saratoga, my Churchill Downs, my Santa Anita," Repole said "I mean, that's all I really knew."
Now, he knows Derby week with two contenders.
Aqueduct, Repole said, is "where the dream started." And the Derby is the dream every horse owner wants to come true.
Betting horses, Repole said, is what "helped my brain function when it comes to business."
Anybody who has ever stared at a Racing Form knows of what he speaks. Playing horses is one challenge that is never solved. But it teaches valuable life lessons that Repole put to good use.
In 2008, he bought Pirate Brands, a company that makes healthy snack food. He owns Energy Kitchen, a chain of healthy fast-food restaurants. He has family-investment and real-estate companies. He also owns 82 horses.
Repole is a big St. John's basketball fan so he has already had a very good 2011. A Derby win would make it an over-the-top year.
Given the fragile nature of the modern thoroughbred and the attrition rate in the months leading up to the Derby, just getting a horse to the Derby gate is a small victory.
"My anxiety level's higher than my excitement level," Repole said.
Even if he is not all that thrilled with the questions about Uncle Mo.
"(The questioners) should follow Charlie Sheen and Lindsay Lohan and not Uncle Mo and Stay Thirsty," Repole said.
It's not quite as bad as Repole thinks, but Derby week is not like any other week in the sport. The attention and scrutiny are intense. It is the price that is paid for the spotlight.
"I've been dreaming about this moment for 30 years and I've said this before, it's 10 times more exciting than I could have ever imagined and believe me, I imagined it to be real exciting," Repole said. "I just didn't know that it came with 20 times the anxiety, to be honest with you."
The Derby lasts just two minutes. It is all the endless days leading up to it that makes it such a fascinating piece of Americana.
Mike Repole first experienced the game in the anonymity of Aqueduct. Now, he is getting it in the crucible of Churchill Downs.