11/04/2010 12:24PM

Repole hit it big on and off track

Barbara D. Livingston
Mike Repole, who sold his business for $4.1 billion, bought Uncle Mo – reluctantly – for $220,000.

As an entrepreneur, Mike Repole was always in search of the next big thing. On more than one occasion, he found it.

As a Thoroughbred owner, Repole is in search of the sport’s next big horse. In Uncle Mo, he may have found that, too.

Based on two impressive wins, including the Grade 1 Champagne at Belmont Park last month, Uncle Mo has stamped himself as the leading 2-year-old in the country. A third victory in Saturday’s $2 million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs will not only cement a championship, it will make Uncle Mo the winter-book favorite for next year’s Kentucky Derby.

For good measure, Repole also has the unheralded Stay Thirsty, the Grade 1 Hopeful runner-up, running in the Juvenile. His pedigree suggests that he should revel in two-turn races such as Saturday’s 1 1/16-mile Juvenile and next spring’s Triple Crown races.

“There are 30,000 foals born every year, and I have two of the top five,” Repole, 41, said, shaking his head. “That’s not lucky, that’s like being blessed.”

Before getting lucky and blessed in racing, Repole was lucky and blessed in the business world. In 1999, he became co-founder of Glaceau, the company that created Vitaminwater and Smartwater. In 2007, Repole and his business partner, Darius Bikoff, sold the company to Coca-Cola for $4.1 billion.

In 2008, Repole bought Pirate Brands, a company that makes healthy snack foods known as Pirate Booty. In 2 1/2 years, annual sales of Pirate Booty products have doubled from $50 million to $100 million. Repole’s goal is to increase that to $500 million within five years.

Repole also is the head of Energy Kitchen, a chain of healthy fast-food restaurants at which no product is more than 500 calories. There are currently 11 Energy Kitchen stores – 10 in New York City. Repole has contracts for 62 additional stores along the East Coast and has a goal of establishing 1,000 stores over the next 10 years.

“This is my 40-1 shot,” Repole said of Energy Kitchen. “Pirate Booty is my 2-1 shot. Vitaminwater has already won the Triple Crown – twice.”
Repole, a son of a waiter and a seamstress, grew up in Queens and would go to the track – mostly Aqueduct – in his youth. A graduate of Holy Cross High School, Repole majored in sports management at St. John’s University where his goal was to become head men’s basketball coach.

That dream faded when Repole realized the time it would take. But, as he likes to think of it, Repole has been the head coach of three major businesses and now a growing racing stable.

Repole’s first foray into horse ownership was in 2004 when he privately purchased Da Rodeo Man for $22,000 and lost him for $15,000 in a claiming race that the gelding won at Philadelphia Park. His first winner in New York came in 2005 with Gatito Forte, a horse he had trainer Kathleen DeMasi claim for $40,000. In his one and only start for Repole, the horse won for $50,000 and was promptly claimed.

As he chose to improve his stock, Repole hired Bruce Levine to be his primary trainer. The two had a good run, winning owner and trainer titles at Monmouth Park and Meadowlands in 2008. Repole, who employed other trainers as well, was second leading owner on the New York Racing Association circuit that year.

In 2009, Repole ended up leading owner in New York, despite going 0 for 36 at Saratoga, the premier meet on the circuit. Levine endured a 1-for-48 meet, and shortly after Saratoga, Repole began to move some horses to other trainers.

By early 2010, Repole had moved virtually all his horses from Levine, who had decided to spend the winter in south Florida trying to get Buddy’s Saint, a horse he trained for another client, on the Kentucky Derby trail. Repole was upset that Levine could not come up to New York twice a week, as he originally planned, to check on his horses.

By then, Repole had started attending horse sales in a continuing effort to improve his stock and had shifted some more horses from Levine to Todd Pletcher, the four-time Eclipse Award-winning trainer.

Repole has a high-energy, in-your-face personality, in stark contrast to Pletcher’s stoic, low-key demeanor. Still, Repole sees some of the same qualities in Pletcher that he sees in himself.

“We have two totally different personalities, but at the end of the day the things we have in common are we’re both very passionate and we’re both very competitive people,” Repole said. “If I tell you I’m the most competitive person you’ll ever meet, I got news for you – Todd Pletcher is a nose behind me.”

Pletcher is part of a team of horsemen and advisers Repole has assembled. Repole’s longtime friend Jim Martin is his racing manager; former trainer Jimmy Crupi picks out his yearlings and raises them as 2-year-olds; Pletcher helps with the selection of 2-year-olds; and Repole recently hired Ed Rosen to be his pedigree expert.

“I got LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh,” Repole said, referring to three NBA stars who joined forces to play for the Miami Heat.
Repole believes that success in business is 80 percent game plan, 20 percent luck. He believes the opposite is true in horse racing.

The luck factor in business was evident on May 25, 2007, roughly four months before the U.S economy began to tank, when Repole and Bikoff sold Glaceau for $4.1 billion. At one point, they had turned down a $2.1 billion offer.

“Building a billion-dollar brand was all business and doing it right,” said Repole, who noted that 65 investors and 600 full-time employees as well as he and Bikoff shared in the sale. “The timing of the sale was all luck. We could not have sold at a more perfect time; probably 99 out of 100 entrepreneurs would have told you they had a feel. It was all God-given luck.”

Repole used his good fortune to open a real estate company and put his only brother, Gerard, in charge. Gerard had been a New York City cop for 13 years.

“To me, one of the best things about [selling] Vitaminwater was getting my brother off the streets of New York City,” Repole said.

Repole’s purchase of Uncle Mo at the 2009 Keeneland September yearling sale also could be considered luck. Uncle Mo is a son of Indian Charlie. A year earlier, at the same sale, Repole purchased a son of Indian Charlie for $200,000. The horse, whom he named Arrr Pirates Booty, is 0 for 7 and is now running in claiming races. The impetuous Repole automatically built a dislike for progeny of Indian Charlie.

So, he was quickly dismissive of Martin and Crupi when they advised him to buy a son of Indian Charlie 14 months ago. Reluctantly, Repole told Martin to bid up to $200,000 for the colt. When the bidding reached $210,000, an agitated Repole – by phone and only at the urging of Martin and Crupi – agreed to go to $220,000.

“If somebody goes $221,000, he’s somebody else’s horse,” Repole said. “I hung up the phone and never in my time did I feel like I just wasted $220,000.”

As much as Repole didn’t like Uncle Mo – sports slang for momentum – was as much as he liked a son of Bernardini whom he purchased for $500,000 at the Fasig-Tipton 2-year-olds in training sale at Calder in February. The horse, Stay Thirsty, is out of the dam Marozia, who produced 2005 Belmont Stakes runner-up Andromeda’s Hero.

As a native New Yorker, Repole said the race he wants to win more than any other is the Belmont Stakes.

Stay Thirsty is 1 for 3, with a second in the Hopeful after stumbling at the start. Repole refers to him as “Rodney Dangerfield,” because he gets no respect.

That is probably because of the dynamic way Uncle Mo has won his first two starts. After winning his debut by 14 1/4 lengths on Travers Day at Saratoga, Uncle Mo won the Champagne by 4 3/4 lengths, running the second-fastest time (1:34.51) in 64 runnings at the distance. It was Repole’s first graded stakes win as an owner after running 27 horses in 26 graded events.

Repole will have an entourage of 40 family and friends at Churchill Downs, including his wife, Maria, and his grandmother, with whom he remains very close.

“Of course I want to win this race, but at the end of the day, Stay Thirsty and Uncle Mo just made this a three-day trip for friends and family that is priceless,” Repole said. “I like to say there are 100 owners in Repole Stable; I get stuck with the bills, they get stuck with the fun.”