Mike Repole’s Kentucky Derby Diary: ‘A Kid From Queens’ Living a Dream

The Life
Forte Mike Repole Churchill Downs Kentucky Derby
Mike Repole with champion Forte this week at Churchill Downs. Repole and his friend Vinnie Viola co-own the morning-line favorite for the 2023 Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Prominent owner Mike Repole is living the American dream. He grew up in Queens, N.Y. His mother, Anna, was a seamstress and his father, Benny, was a waiter. He developed a passion for racing while making frequent trips to nearby Aqueduct Racetrack.

weekend TV schedule

Thursday, May 4: 12:30-6:30 p.m. on FS2; post time varies on FanDuel TV

Friday, May 5: 10:30 a.m.-6:30 p.m. on FS2; 1-6 p.m. on USA Network; post time varies on FanDuel TV

Saturday, May 6: 10:30 a.m.-6:30 p.m. on FS2; noon-7:30 p.m. on NBC; post time varies on FanDuel TV

Sunday, May 7: 2-6:30 p.m. on FS2; post time varies on FanDuel TV

Repole soon became an entrepreneur after graduating from St. John’s University with a degree in sports administration. He made an indelible mark on the beverage industry as co-founder of Glaceau, maker of Vitaminwater, and BODYARMOR SuperDrink, a sports drink manufacturer. Vitaminwater sold to Coca-Cola for $4.1 billion in 2007. BODYARMOR sold to Coca-Cola for $8 billion in 2021.

That allowed Repole Stable to become a major player in racing. He comes off a huge season in which Mo Donegal  and Nest provided him with a one-two finish in the Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets , a race he long coveted, before Forte captured the FanDuel Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Presented by Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance to emerge as 2-year-old champion.

Repole, 54, seeks his first Derby winner with Forte. Forte swept both of his starts this year by winning the Fountain of Youth Stakes and the Curlin Florida Derby Presented by Hill ‘n’ Dale Farm at Xalapa for Hall of Fame trainer Todd Pletcher. He will break from post 15 in a full 20-horse field and was established as the 3-1 morning-line favorite for the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve by oddsmaker Mike Battaglia.

Repole shared his emotions and his insights with followers of America’s Best Racing in a diary written with Tom Pedulla.

My background allows me to fully appreciate the excitement that surrounds Derby week. I have never forgotten where I came from and I never will.

Mike Repole Vinnie Viola Forte Hopeful Stakes Saratoga
Repole and Viola celebrate one of Forte's wins. (Eclipse Sportswire)

This is a dream. I’m a kid from Queens. I’m not supposed to even come to this race, never mind own a horse in the race, never mind own the Derby favorite with good friend and partner Vinnie Viola. So, everything is such a bonus, man.

I know how hard it is just to get this far. People ask me “What is the secret sauce to your success?” The answer is simple. I worked 18 hours a day seven days a week for 30 years. It really comes down to sacrifice, work ethic, and putting in the time.

No one understands better than I do how hard it is to win the Derby. I came here in 2011 with Uncle Mo, a brilliant horse as 2-year-old champion, and had to scratch him the day before the biggest race of his life with what turned out to be a rare liver disorder. That is the thing about the Derby. It’s now or never. Your horse is only 3 on the first Saturday in May one time. There are no second chances.

With Uncle Mo, I knew going into his 3-year-old year that we were in some trouble. He did not have the same spark to him. He just was not right. But as hard as they tried, Todd and a team of veterinarians were unable to determine what was wrong.

With Forte, he has been training the same way since last May. He’s just very consistent. He does everything right. He’s just a special horse. Talent with brains. The complete package.

Forte Kentucky Derby Mike Repole
Repole enjoying his time with Forte. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. has described Forte to me as turnkey and push button. You want him inside, you want him outside, he is comfortable either way. You ask him to wait, he waits. You ask him to go, he takes off. And he has a huge will to win.

He had a very difficult time in the Florida Derby after drawing post 11 due to the quick run into the first turn and the short stretch at Gulfstream Park. He had so much to do at the top of the stretch that I thought we would be lucky to finish third. But when you talk about a horse accelerating in the last 100 yards, I will never forget the way that horse accelerated in the last 100 yards of the Florida Derby.

I am really happy Forte had five weeks between that hard race and now. That went into our thinking when we chose the Florida Derby as his final prep. He’s had plenty of time to recover and he’s acting like he is as ready as he can be.

We will not have any excuse in the Derby from post 15. I did not want to be too far inside where you can get shuffled back or too far outside and lose a lot of ground. Fifteen will do just fine.

Many people are saying there will be a lack of pace in this Derby. I don’t see that. When 10 trainers think there is no speed in the race, seven horses are going to go out really fast. With so much at stake, the Derby always has pace.

I am 0-for-6 in the Derby, 0-for-7 if you count Uncle Mo, the greatest adversity I could ever face. This is the best chance I have ever had. I have a horse that is 6-for-7. I know he is the best horse in the race. But you never know what is going to happen when they break from the starting gate.

Mike Repole Todd Pletcher Kentucky Derby Churchill Downs Forte
Repole with trainer Todd Pletcher. (Eclipse Sportswire)

With a 20-horse field, what happens going into the first turn? Can Irad work out a clean trip for Forte and keep him out of trouble? When you are coming down the stretch, who is going to stop in front of you?

There are so many variables. You can run this race 20 times. Maybe the best horse wins it five times and loses it 15 times. Forte might be the favorite, but last year the horse with the highest odds won the race. You never know when another Rich Strike might come along.

There are so many things that can go wrong, but I do not allow myself to think about all of that. I told my family the other day, “If he wins, we’re going to have a great time. If he loses, we’re going to have a great time.”

My brother, Gerard, a retired New York police officer, and childhood friends John Camus and Damien Sausa have been with me all week. Maria, my wife of more than 20 years, and our 7-year-old daughter, Gioia, are coming in closer to the Derby. So are my parents.

There will be 75 of us, family and extended family. No matter what happens with Forte, I am always aware of the fact that being here with all of them is a huge win. It’s almost as if we cannot lose.

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