The $100 Million Superhorse Powering This Year's Kentucky Derby

  • A fleeting star on the racetrack hits it big in breeding shed
  • “He would have been American Pharoah before American Pharoah”

The $100 Million Superhorse Powering the Kentucky Derby

In the Queens accent that coats every word Mike Repole rattles off, horse isn’t so much horse as it is hawse. So big horse, by extension, is big hawse.

A decade into his foray in the thoroughbred industry, Repole -- serial entrepreneur, die-hard New York Mets fan and life-long railbird -- has a big hawse on his hands. A very big hawse. His name is Uncle Mo. A brilliant, albeit somewhat fragile, star on the racetrack, Mo is quickly making an even greater splash in the breeding shed and putting his stamp on this year’s Kentucky Derby.

Uncle Mo in 2011 at Churchill Downs.

Photographer: Gary Jones/AP

From his very first crop of three-year-olds, the age that colts compete in the Derby, a trio of horses have emerged as contenders in the race, including the favorite Nyquist. For perspective, consider that there are some 1,600 stallions in America producing progeny that compete for just 20 spots in the Derby. And consider that it took the country’s dominant top stud, Tapit, almost a decade to pull off the same feat (coincidentally, as it were, also this year).

This kind of success brings great financial reward. Repole estimates his horse is now worth a cool $100 million. Optimistic? Certainly, but not necessarily out of the question. Run the math. Repole figures Mo’s stud fee could rise from $75,000 today to as much as $150,000 in 2017, an increase that industry insiders say is feasible. Then factor in about 200 matings per season and combine that with the fact that at age eight, he could spend almost two more decades in the breeding shed. Even if he were to tail off markedly in coming years, the money still piles up quickly.

For Repole, the horse has all but guaranteed that his thoroughbred-racing venture will be profitable for as long as it lasts, a rarity in an industry where most owners run up big financial losses year after year. “Uncle Mo has paid for every single losing-proposition horse I can ever own in my life,” he says.

Repole, 47, has done okay in his more traditional business ventures too. He co-founded Glaceau Vitaminwater -- which Coca-Cola would later acquire for $4.1 billion -- as well as BodyArmor, the sports drink company, and was a major investor in Pirate’s Booty snacks.

Mike Repole, right, with Outwork at Aqueduct Racetrack on April 9.

Source: Eclipse Sportswire via Getty Images

As a kid growing up in the shadow of Shea Stadium and Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens, he loved the Mets and thoroughbreds. When it came time to pick out colors for his racing silks, he went with Mets’ blue and orange. And in early 2011, he even began mounting a bid to purchase the franchise. It fell through. A month later, things got worse. Uncle Mo, undefeated and at that point the overwhelming Kentucky Derby favorite, was upset at Aqueduct and diagnosed afterwards with a rare liver disease. He disappeared for four months, made a brief comeback and then went out with a dud: a 10th-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

It was some two years earlier that Repole had plucked the colt out of a Kentucky auction ring. Even as a baby, he was impressive: a big, leggy thing with a shiny brown coat. Repole won the bidding at $220,000. When Mo arrived the next spring at trainer Todd Pletcher’s barn in upstate New York, it became immediately clear this was no ordinary animal. He had this massive stride, Pletcher recalls. “He was a ground-gobbling machine.” His debut race came that August. He won by 14 lengths.

A Stud’s Life

Mo spends his days now at Ashford Stud, a breathtaking expanse of rolling fields and limestone-and-oak barns set deep in the Kentucky bluegrass. The world’s most famous living thoroughbred, American Pharoah, calls Ashford home too. Coolmore Stud, the Irish breeding powerhouse that operates Ashford, bought stakes in both colts late in their racing careers. (Repole didn’t want to talk much about the deal terms beyond saying that he retained a “healthy” piece of Uncle Mo.)

Pharoah arrived at Ashford to great fanfare after capturing the Triple Crown last year. His debut stud fee was set at $200,000. Only Tapit, at $300,000, commands more. Mo, by comparison, started out at just $35,000 back in 2012. For while his career had begun brilliantly enough -- he easily captured honors as top two-year-old colt in 2010 -- his struggles as a three-year-old blunted enthusiasm in the breeding community.

Repole still seems a bit haunted by the ‘what ifs’ of it all. What if he had stayed healthy, what if his training hadn’t been interrupted, what if he had made it to the Kentucky Derby? There’s a hint of vindication in his voice when he talks about the success of Mo’s offspring on the track. He sees it as proof of how great his colt was going to be: “He would have been American Pharoah before American Pharoah.”

Derby Contenders

That Mo’s babies have hit the track running is undeniable. His debut crop of two-year-olds earned more money than those of any other stud in America last year. And so far in 2016, his offspring have made $4.8 million, enough to place him third on the stallion rankings list even though he has no older thoroughbreds competing on the racetrack yet.

Nyquist at the Breeders Cup Juvenile in 2015.

Photographer: Horsephotos/Getty Images

On Saturday, his trio figures to have a big shot in America’s most prestigious race. Nyquist, last year’s two-year-old champion, is undefeated in seven starts; Mo Tom is a late-running colt that’s well regarded by horsemen; and Outwork, a speedball that Repole himself owns, has suddenly emerged as a prospect with lots of raw ability.

When asked to think of another horse that has had this kind of start to a stud career, Doug Cauthen, a Kentuckian who’s been buying and selling thoroughbreds for decades, pauses a bit. He tentatively offers up Tapit, but then pulls back -- no, even he didn’t have this much immediate success -- before idly tossing around legendary names from last century. “It’s hard to compare him” to others, Cauthen concludes. He’s sure of this, though: In the fall, farm managers across the bluegrass will start making plans for next year’s breeding season, and when they do, Uncle Mo is “going to be the hot horse.”

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