03/10/2011 3:11PM

Q&A: Mike Repole

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Michael Amuroso

Owner of unbeaten Uncle Mo, last year’s champion 2-year-old male, who makes his 3-year-old debut Saturday. He also owns Gotham Stakes winner Stay Thirsty.

Birthdate: Jan. 21, 1969, in Queens, NY

Family: wife, Maria

Got into racing because . . . “Growing up in Queens, I loved all sports. When I was 13 or 14, I would jump on the bus and go to Aqueduct. When I couldn’t go to Aqueduct, I’d go to the Grand Avenue OTB. I used to read Russ Harris’s column in the Daily News growing up. Something about racing always intrigued me. I don’t suggest 13- to 17-year-old kids use handicapping as a thinking exercise, but no doubt handicapping as a kid provided a great thinking exercise and no doubt influenced the way I think now. Very few times in business do I miss something. That’s because I’m looking at every angle.”

How excited are you about Uncle Mo’s race this weekend? “From a scale of 1 to 10, a 10. From an anxiety level, a 22. I couldn’t be more excited. You better like roller coasters to get into this sport. There are a lot of highs and lows and a lot of loops. And sometimes they don’t provide seat belts. I know this could last two more years or two more hours. When I dreamed years ago of having a horse that people would talk about, I thought about the exciting part. I didn’t think of all the pressure.”

Describe the feeling of having the acknowledged favorite for the Kentucky Derby: “We’re down by two points with one second left, and I’m taking the last shot. I love that. I’m very driven. That’s why my company is called Driven Capital, and I have a horse named Driven by Success. It’s one thing just to be the Derby favorite. But the hype, people talking about the Triple Crown, Seattle Slew, Affirmed, Secretariat − that’s something. The sport needs a superstar colt. It’s great we had Rachel Alexandra, great we had Zenyatta. But it’s been 33 years since the Triple Crown. Whether it’s Uncle Mo, Soldat, To Honor and Serve, or Dialed In, the sport needs a Triple Crown. It would get worldwide attention. Obviously, I’m pulling more for Uncle Mo than the other three.”

You also have Stay Thirsty, so it’s not like you’ve got a one-man band at this point: “To have one horse in a lifetime like Uncle Mo is incredible. Having two in a lifetime in the same year is unexplainable and unimaginable. My job is to be the coach or the general manager and put the team together. I’ve got a dream team. Todd Pletcher trains, and I’ve got Jim Martin, Jim Crupi of New Castle Farm, and I brought Ed Rosen on board as my pedigree expert.”

Ever been to the Derby? “One time, 2008, Big Brown. I got into the paddock. I was with my wife. As soon as the Derby was over, it was such a great experience, I told my wife that the next time we come here, it will be with a horse that we own. I didn’t know if it would be three years, 13 years, 23 years, or 33 years. If I’m fortunate that Uncle Mo and Stay Thirsty make it, I’ll be there. If they don’t, I won’t.”

You are a big Mets fan and use their color scheme as your stable colors: “My parents, aunts, and uncles first took me to Shea Stadium in 1975 or 1976. But it was the 1986 team that hooked me. I was 17 years old. They captivated New York. They had a swagger about them. They persevered, won with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning. That team meant a lot to me.”

You’ve tried to buy a portion of the Mets. What would you rather do − own a baseball team that wins the World Series or own a horse who wins the Derby? “Easy − the Kentucky Derby. There are 30 teams in Major League Baseball. One out of 30 win it. Being in the Kentucky Derby is one of the biggest accomplishments as an owner. It’s almost like making the Final Four in college basketball. To me, getting to the Derby is like the final 20. It’s a huge, huge, accomplishment. Winning it is a miracle. So many people who have been in the game for generations haven’t won it. As a sports accomplishment, it’s second to none.”

You are also a graduate of St. John’s University and a huge booster of the school. Any predictions for March Madness? “I’m really a die-hard fan. One reason I went there in 1986, growing up I used to take the train to Penn Station and watch Chris Mullin vs. Patrick Ewing, sitting in the 400s, the highest level, at the Garden. The place was electric. I studied sports management at St. John’s. I loved, loved, loved sports. It’s exciting to be involved in the program, help them get where they are. [Coach] Steve Lavin has done a great job with the basketball team. I think they can make a run. They’re back.”

Do you think more young, wealthy entrepreneurs like yourself can or will get into racing? “I sure hope they do, but at the stage of where the game is right now, and where the industry is right now, I wouldn’t discourage them, but I wouldn’t encourage them, either. I think racing is the worst marketed sport in the history of sports. If not for the passion of the fans, the sport wouldn’t exist. Racing has done almost everything wrong to the fan, and for some reason the fan sticks around. Any track can do whatever they want. There’s no governing body like NASCAR or the NFL, no one person to go to. It would take me a year to turn it around. You start with the fan. Everything else comes underneath. The fan who shows up with $20 in his pocket is just as, if not more, important than the gambler who shows up with $2,000. Racing doesn’t get that. It’s all about the handle. All the brands I’ve built are about education, awareness, and trial. This sport doesn’t educate owners or fans. Awareness? Ask people what they think about racing, and it’s a 77-year-old man smoking a cigar, or a blue blood from Kentucky. Is that perception or reality? You have to change that.
The third thing is trial. Pretend you are a fan and you went to Aqueduct for the first time last weekend. You saw some good racing. You can say Aqueduct is under construction, but Aqueduct on its best days looks like crap. If someone happens to find their way to Aqueduct, they’d find their way out as fast as possible. And I bleed New York. It’s why Stay Thirsty came up for the Gotham. It’s why Uncle Mo will go to the Wood Memorial, provided everything goes well Saturday. Tracks across America need better customer service, better food, a better environment. It’s all about your experience. There’s tons of focus on the sport from April to June. Two months. Why can’t it be a 12-month window?
The day Blame became a superstar was the day he was retired. Nobody knew who he was. I knew, and you knew, but he became a superstar the day he was retired. Maybe we need an older-horse program, more million-dollar races for older horses, some sort of Triple Crown at the end of the year for them. Keep the sport relevant year round. All sports change. I’m not a fan of the Triple Crown having two weeks between the Derby and Preakness, and three weeks later the Belmont. It’s not fair to the fan. It’s not fair to the horse. Last time I checked, does the NFL play with leather helmets? That’s what this is. Change has to start now. For people who want to keep it like it was in the 1950s, they won’t have to worry, because in 10 years, there won’t be a sport, and you won’t have to worry. You don’t have to embrace change. You have to institute change.”

Best horse seen? “Probably Uncle Mo. He’s the best horse I’ve seen in my life. I’m being semi-sarcastic, but really not. I didn’t see Seattle Slew, Affirmed, or Secretariat. Mo is 3 for 3 and won the Eclipse Award. Not only do I see him, but I feed him carrots, Pirate’s Booty, peppermints, get to go watch his works. I would put Easy Goer, Zenyatta, and Rachel Alexandra up there. Zenyatta was 19-0 when I didn’t see her. The one time I saw her, she lost. The Mosses probably think I’m a jinx.”

Hobbies? “I play tennis. I used to play a lot of basketball, but once I turned 37 or 38, it just didn’t work for my body. It was bad math − two hours of fun and two weeks of pain.”

Future ambitions? “At this point, I just want to spend as much time as I can with family and friends. Last Saturday, we had 45 people in the winner’s circle, won two graded stakes, and then everybody came to my house for a party. That was a day. Racing brings family and friends together. That’s one thing I love about horse racing. You can’t put a price tag on that.”