LOUISVILLE, KY. — Mike Repole tries to visit his favorite equine child at least once a year, but it had been 18 months when he made the hour drive from Churchill Downs to Ashford Stud on Wednesday afternoon.
This year's Kentucky Derby would be a time to celebrate regardless. Repole's contender, Outwork, won the Wood Memorial and is a popular choice to upset Nyquist on Saturday. But the bond runs deeper in this case. That's because Outwork is a son of the horse Repole went to visit — Uncle Mo.
"It makes it so much more special, because I knew Uncle Mo would be a one-in-a-generation type horse, and that he's still giving to us through his babies … it's special," he said.
Repole is a New Yorker through and through. He grew up in Queens, skipping school in favor of placing bets at nearby Aqueduct Racetrack. He made his fortune selling the beverage company he cofounded to Coca Cola and used the profits to build his racing stable.
Repole bought Uncle Mo as a yearling and entrusted him to Todd Pletcher, the New York-based trainer who routinely leads North America in earnings.
The horse was his first and truest love in the sport.
"Listen, he knows me. He gets my scent. He gets my voice," Repole said. "We spent a lot of time in Ocala, Fla., when he didn't even have a name. A lot of time when he first got to Todd's barn in May, before his first 2-year-old race in August. I was at every single race. I never spent more time in the barn with a horse than I did with Uncle Mo for 2½ years. They say you're supposed to love all your children the same. But he'll always be my favorite."
Uncle Mo was a top contender for the 2011 Derby until Repole was forced to scratch him the day before the race because of a liver disorder that caused the horse to lose substantial weight. He ultimately retired Uncle Mo to stud after a 10th-place finish in that year's Breeders' Cup Classic.
Repole has had two other horses in the Derby, but Outwork — a horse peaking at the right time, according to Pletcher — appears to give him his best chance to win it since the day Uncle Mo scratched. And the 47-year-old owner is having the time of his life this week.
His wife, Maria, cradled the couple's 10-month old daughter, Gioia, beside Outwork's stall on Thursday morning. "Dada!" she cried as he bopped from one cluster of childhood friends to another. His brother had kept him out late all week, and he was looking forward to the arrival of his parents and his 89-year-old grandmother.
It's fitting that Repole has made the Derby a family affair, because the race could end up as a battle between Uncle Mo's sons. He also sired race favorite Nyquist and Mo Tom, owned by New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson.
Nyquist's owner, Paul Reddam, is among those who consider Outwork a serious threat to win.
"He's got speed," Reddam said. "People talk about how slow the last part of the Wood was. But of course it was slow, because they flew the first half, and the horse that Outwork went with, Nat King Cole, was nowhere. And Outwork kept going."
That's also Repole's read on the Wood, which scared off some handicappers because it was such a sluggish race.
"It was a wet, thick, tough, drying out track that got slower throughout the day," he said. "Anybody who tries to get a figure out of it is just wasting their time. At the end of the day, there were eight horses in that race, and he was the fastest of eight. Slowest Wood in history? Doesn't matter. Maybe he'll run the fastest Derby in history."