Paulick Report Forum brought to you by Breeders’ Cup: Repole – Mo Responsibility for Owners
To say Mike Repole is competitive would be a massive understatement. To say he’s a successful entrepreneur and businessman doesn’t do justice to his track record of building brands like Vitaminwater, Smartwater and Pirate’s Booty healthy snacks. To say he has a passion for Thoroughbred racing and the equine athletes…well, you get the idea.
New York-native Repole, now 41, started going to the track when he was 12, always wanted to be a horse owner, and has now realized that dream. In the unbeaten Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner Uncle Mo, he’s got one of the hottest and most talented 2-year-old colts racing has seen in many years. He’s got the kind of enthusiasm this game needs, witnessed by the big kiss he planted on trainer Todd Pletcher’s cheek right after the Juvenile.
Just as important, Repole brings a sense of social responsibility to racing. I first heard him talking about it last summer during a radio interview on Sirius/XM’s “Down the Stretch” with Dave Johnson and Bill Finley. Racing, he said, needs to do a better job of caring for its retired athletes.
To that end, Repole is doing more than talking. Just this week, he announced that five retirement programs – the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, Old Friends, Turning for Home, Akindale Thoroughbred Rescue and the Exceller Fund – will receive a total of $50,000 from Uncle Mo’s earnings in the Breeders’ Cup. This is not the first time Repole has supported horse retirement programs, but it’s the first time he’s gone public with a challenge that other horse owners should do the same thing.
“There are so many wonderful charities throughout our industry and so many dedicated volunteers who work tirelessly for the welfare of our equine friends and I commend them all,” Repole said in a press release announcing the donation. “It is my hope that other Breeders’ Cup winners and top stakes winners follow suit and continue to donate to their favorite horse charities.”
Repole spoke with the Paulick Report about that challenge, along with his passion for the game and his 2-year-old sensation.
Why is the issue of Thoroughbred retirement so important to you?
For me it’s very obvious. I’ve been a fan long before I became an owner, and I always loved the racehorses. I loved the competition, the handicapping, but there is a real passion the horse brings out. As a horse owner, when I first got in the game by claiming horses, I learned that things happen. They don’t always work out. I always made sure I took care of my own horses. To me it was just second nature. I thought it was something everybody did.
As I’m in the game longer, I began to hear about trainers getting stuck with horses because owners didn’t want to provide for them, they don’t want to donate to retirement programs. When you buy a horse you have a responsibility to that horse to make sure you get him a great home. If you have 10 children and seven were successful and three were not successful, would you just throw those three aside? When I first heard about horses going to slaughter, it made me sick to my stomach.
One of the first horses I claimed was Kid Ziggy. I claimed him for $40,000 in 2005 and the horse was vanned off. I put him in rehab for 15 months and when he came back he won for fun. Next time out the injury reoccurred and I had to get him a home. I gave a good donation to a horse charity and found out he’s now a riding horse with some 13-year-old girl and I’m ecstatic. I’m thrilled. All of a sudden last year I get a call from someone telling me Kid Ziggy is in a kill pen. I didn’t even know what a kill pen was. I said I gave a donation to find him a good home and this person explained to me that some charities don’t have contract for life to take care of the horses. I might have donated to the wrong charity. I then had to pay $800 to get him out of the kill pen and another $5,000 to a charity to save him again.
As an owner I thought I was doing the right thing the first time, but four years later I had to do it again. The horse probably cost me $80,000 or $90,000. So I started asking questions about the different charities, the retirement contracts, whether they’ll take the horses back. Are they lifetime contracts?
In the press release announcing your donation to the five horse retirement programs, you issued a challenge to other owners who won Breeders’ Cup races or have stakes winners in their stables. Why?
I get a little upset with some owners. If you can’t afford to take care of the horse you should get out of the game. I spend about $3 million a year on horses; there are some who spend more and some who spend less than me. But if I can spend that much, shame on me if I can’t donate 5% or more to a horse rescue. How can you not? It’s unfathomable that this happens. It’s an owners problem, not a horse problem. Look, without these horses, you wouldn’t have a job. Bloodstock agents, trainers, jockeys, racing office people wouldn’t have a job. It’s our responsibility to give back to these horses. I don’t like the spotlight on me, and that’s why the press release said that Uncle Mo is giving the money, not Mike Repole. But if you won a Breeders’ Cup race, give money. If you won a stakes race, give money.
I have to say it doesn’t fit the stereotype of a guy who grew up in Queens, became a fan and horseplayer and then an owner, to have this passion for the animal. What’s at the heart of that?
I’m not insulted by the stereotype question. All you need to do is spend 15 minutes with my grandmother and my father and realize why I do what I do. I am truly blessed with the greatest friends and the greatest family. My grandma taught me if you have the opportunity to give back, you give back. Most of what I do is under the radar but this is a problem in our game and someone has to step up. We have the worst marketed sport in the world and it needs help. In 10 years if it’s not marketed better, it won’t even exist.
What attracted you to racing as a kid?
The drive, the competition, trying to forecast the future. The winning, watching a horse run at 45 miles an hour is like watching Michael Jordan play basketball. It’s like seeing Roy Halladay throwing a no hitter in the playoffs. If I didn’t own Uncle Mo I’d be his biggest fan. To watch this horse gallop along at a cruising speed, and then see him take off when Johnny (jockey Velazquez) pushes a button, it’s amazing. I loved watching Rachel Alexandra, Zenyatta, Quality Road. I’m just a fan of racing, and I’ve been going to the track for 25 years.
What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned as an owner?
I would say that I have probably eight different businesses and 80% of the success is the vision, strategy and a good game plan, and 20% of it is luck. Horse racing is just the opposite: it’s 20% game plan and 80% luck. Having said that, a big advantage for the Repole Stable is that not many people have a game plan. We do, and we’ve got a great team, with my racing manager Jim Martin, Jimmy Crupi helping pick out yearlings and 2-year-olds and Ed Rosen looking at pedigrees. They’re my LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade, my dream team.
Speaking of that, why don’t more professional athletes own racing stables once they’ve retired from their sport?
I think No. 1 we do a horrible job marketing the sport. Two, we do a horrible job educating owners. And three, there are many dishonest people in this game. There are many people who would look at someone and say, “This is my score for the year. Next year I’ll look for my next pigeon.” If I said I’ve got $5 million to spend, instead of spending $2 million this year, $1 million next year and $2 million the year after that, too many agents would spend it all by the end of the week. I have a budget: $3 million a year. I spend between $100,000 and $300,000 on a yearling, and I’m never afraid to be outbid.
You once described yourself as a really bad loser. How does that work in a sport where winning 25% of the time is really good?
I am the most competitive person you’ll ever meet. I named a horse Winaholic, which I want to trademark. It’s someone who’s addicted to winning. Winning 20% to 25% is great for an owner, but for me that means you lose three out of four times. When a horse runs second, to me it’s the first loser. I’d rather be last than second. Being second? I can’t stand second. I’d rather be last than second. I have learned when you lose three out of four that it makes that one of four that you win more meaningful. Going 0-for-36 at Saratoga in 2009 made winning the meet as leading owner this year that much more special. Being 0-for-36 in Graded Stakes and then winning the Champagne with Uncle Mo made that more special. Four weeks later, I win a Breeders’ Cup and I’m 1-for-2 there.
How excited are you about 2011 and the road to the Kentucky Derby with Uncle Mo?
You know what? I am very excited, but I’ve got to be honest: it’s something I’ve dreamed about and thought about for 30 years. It’s gone from surreal to real, and I’m calmer than you can imagine.
I always knew I’d have a special horse. I am truly blessed and so appreciative. You can ask Todd Pletcher about this. Fifteen months ago we had dinner on Long Island at Rothmann’s Steak House. It lasted three hours. I spoke for two hours and 55 minutes, and he spoke for five minutes while I went to the men’s room. I was 40 at the time and he was 43. I told him one day I’m going to have a special horse, you’re going to be the trainer, and it will be the best horse you ever had. While he was downing his Grey Goose he’s probably thinking “This is just some loud mouth from New York.” I don’t know if he’ll tell you Uncle Mo is the best horse he’s ever had, but he’ll tell you he is the best 2-year-old he’s had. When Uncle Mo won the Juvenile, I was jubilant. I said, “Didn’t I tell you this was going to happen?”
In Mike Repole’s own words: How to build a brand
Profile: Portfolio’s takes on Repole