In the span of five weeks, owner Mike Repole has gone from sought after to afterthought.
As the Triple Crown season concludes with Saturday’s 143rd running of the Belmont Stakes, Repole has an opportunity to return to the headlines if longshot Stay Thirsty can upset Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom, Preakness winner Shackleford, and several other more high-profile contenders in the 1 1/2-mile classic.
Repole doesn’t think it’s as far-fetched as some might suggest.
“Animal Kingdom paid $43, Shackleford paid $25, I think the winner of this race will pay $40,” Repole said in a recent telephone interview. “Why not Stay Thirsty?”
Still, coming in with a horse that is 20-1 on the morning line is not how Repole envisioned this year’s Belmont Stakes, a race he says he covets more than any other because he’s a native New Yorker.
As the owner of last year’s 2-year-old champion, Uncle Mo, Repole said he dreamt about the possibility of coming into Saturday’s Belmont attempting to become the owner of the first Triple Crown winner in 33 years.
“I’m not going to tell you I didn’t think about that,” Repole said.
Uncle Mo, who was brilliant winning his three starts last year including the Grade 1 Champagne and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, never got to the Derby or the Preakness. After winning his 3-year-old debut, in an overnight stakes at Gulfstream Park in March, Uncle Mo finished third as the 1-10 favorite in the Wood Memorial on April 9 at Aqueduct.
The horse was diagnosed with a gastrointestinal tract infection, but was sent to Louisville to prepare for the Derby. But when trainer Todd Pletcher took the horse off of medication within a week of the Derby, Uncle Mo regressed and, on the day before the race, he was officially scratched.
It wasn’t until June 3 when Uncle Mo was diagnosed with Cholangiohepatitis – a rare disease affecting the liver and specifically the production, secretion, and distribution of bile – that a true diagnosis of the colt’s internal issue was made. The horse has been based at WinStar Farm since May 9 and may begin light training there next week.
After watching the first two legs of the Triple Crown play out, Repole said his toughest moment came watching Shackleford win the Preakness in what was the slowest final time [1:56.47] for that race since 1984 when Tabasco Cat also ran 1:56.47.
“Who knows what Mo would have done in the Derby, there are 20 horses and the best horse doesn’t always win,” Repole said. “But that Preakness we would have won by five or 10 lengths – there’s no doubt in my mind. He would have sat behind Flashpoint and Shackelford and mowed down Shackledford. You could have picked the number and he would have won by.”
Now, Repole is hopeful, but far from certain that Uncle Mo will make it back to the races. From June 3 to June 5, Uncle Mo gained 81 pounds.
Under Repole’s new dream sequence, Uncle Mo could return to Pletcher’s barn by mid-July and possibly be ready to run in the King’s Bishop, a seven-furlong Grade 1 race at Saratoga on Aug. 27. The dream also includes starts in the $1 million Pennsylvania Derby at the end of September and the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs in November.
“That’s my dream scenario,” Repole said. “But I also know he could never race again, too. I got to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic in order to pay these three vets.”
Repole said he wasn’t as depressed as some would think when he was forced to scratch Uncle Mo from the Derby. He said he considered himself fortunate that he was still able to have another runner in the race, even if Stay Thirsty finished 12th.
“I can’t blame the horse for being sick. it just wasn’t meant to be; 99.99 percent of owners when they scratch their horse from the Derby don’t have a Stay Thirsty to fall back on,” Repole said.
Before Uncle Mo developed into the champion he was at 2, Repole actually had higher hopes for Stay Thirsty. Repole purchased Stay Thirsty for $500,000 at the Fasig-Tipton 2-year-old in training sale in February 2010. He is a son of Bernardini out of the Storm Bird mare Marozia, who produced Andromeda’s Hero, the distant second-place finisher behind Afleet Alex in the 2005 Belmont Stakes.
“When I bought this horse, I was looking for a horse that could run long,” Repole said. “I loved Bernardini, I loved that his mom produced Andromeda’s Hero who was second in this race. I think he’s the type of horse that can run steady fractions and keep going over a long period of time.”
That Stay Thirsty ran well in sprint races as a 2-year-old was a bonus. After running second in a 5 1/2-furlong race at Belmont last July, Stay Thirsty won a six-furlong maiden race at Saratoga in August and finished second to Boys At Tosconova in the four-horse Grade 1 Hopeful going seven furlongs at Saratoga in September. In his first start around two turns, he was beaten 14 1/2 lengths by Uncle Mo in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs.
In his 3-year-old debut, Stay Thirsty won the Grade 3 Gotham at Aqueduct by 3 1/4 lengths, one week before Uncle Mo won the Timely Writer at Gulfstream.
But things took a negative turn for Stay Thirsty after that. He got hot in the paddock at Gulfstream and finished next-to-last in the Florida Derby. In the Kentucky Derby, he was within four lengths of the lead while racing unimpeded for the first six furlongs. But when the real running began, he stayed one paced.
“When the momentum of the race picked up on the far turn, he didn’t throw in the towel, he kind of stayed on evenly,” Pletcher said. “That could bode well for a mile-and-a-half race.”
After the Derby, Stay Thirsty returned to Belmont Park, where he has put in three solid workouts over the main track, according to Pletcher.
“It’s really hard to analyze much of what the preparation was at Churchill,” Pletcher said. “We literally trained on a sloppy track for three weeks. My take on it now, having run [Stay Thirsty] at Churchill on two dry tracks and watching him train here is that he likes Belmont more than he likes Churchill. We’ll see if that holds true or not.”
Repole said he doesn’t mind going into the Belmont under the radar and doesn’t feel like he’s going into the race without a chance.
“I really feel like the horse can go a mile and a half, I feel like he relished the five weeks off. I know he’s training well,” said Repole, before noting there is only a 12-horse field in the Belmont. “I guarantee this, he won’t do worse than he did in the Kentucky Derby.”