Mike Repole, Horse Racing’s Loudest Critic, Is Kentucky Derby Favorite

In the world according to Mike Repole, everyone involved in horse racing is a dummy. Except him, Mike from Queens or the Commish, as some of his followers on X call him.

Stuart S. Janney III, chairman of the nonprofit Jockey Club, is clueless and tone deaf and has run the sport into the ground, Repole says. Churchill Downs Inc., which hosts the Kentucky Derby, is cheap: The $3 million purse for America’s most famous race should be much more, and the racetrack treats Repole and other owners badly.

Forget about John Stewart, a new owner bringing fresh energy and big money into the game. He is “arrogant, free spending” and such a rube that he has an “$8 haircut.”

All the above, and many others, are among Repole’s frequent targets on social media and various podcasts. Repole, a prominent horse owner who made his fortune in the beverage industry, says he is merely trying to disrupt an industry (often punctuated with profane Bronx cheers) that he likens to the Titanic heading inevitably into a looming iceberg.

“You want real or you want fake??? You want loud or you want quiet??? You want intensity or you want passive??? You want better or you want worse??? Love me or Hate me,” Repole posted on X in January, summarizing his credo for remaking the racehorse business.

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Repole smiling as he uses a sponge to wash the nose of a horse.
Repole, right, with Fierceness last week. In seven starts, Repole-owned horses have yet to win a Derby. Two more were late scratches. Credit…Matt Stone/The Courier Journal — USA Today Network

On Saturday, however, Repole will hit the mute button long enough to watch his horse Fierceness compete in the 150th running of the Kentucky Derby. The colt is the reigning 2-year-old champion and morning-line Derby favorite and perhaps Repole’s best chance to win a race that has utterly vexed him.

Officially, horses that he has owned are 0 for 7 in the Derby. Repole, however, insists his record is worse than that: Last year, his colt Forte, also the morning-line favorite, was scratched by regulatory veterinarians who determined that he was not fit enough to compete. In 2011, Repole’s colt Uncle Mo was a late scratch after coming down with a gastrointestinal infection.

“I’m 0 for 9, even though I’ve only run seven times,” Repole told BloodHorse magazine. “To me, when you scratch the morning-line favorite for the Derby, it’s a loss.”

Though Repole, 55, spoke to reporters at Churchill Downs this week, he declined to speak to The New York Times, citing its coverage last year of Forte’s positive test in New York for meloxicam, a potent nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug used to manage pain and swelling. New York regulators disqualified Forte from the Hopeful Stakes, which he won before the positive test, and withheld the $165,000 first-place check. Repole appealed, and the case is working its way through the state court system.

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Repole, who made his fortune in the beverage industry, has spent more than $300 million buying horses.Credit…Ozier Muhammad/The New York Times

Repole grew up in Middle Village, Queens, and spent ample time on the rail at Aqueduct, the bluest collar of racetracks. He got into the beverage business, building first Vitaminwater and then BodyArmor sports drinks into brands attractive enough for Coca-Cola to buy them for nearly $10 billion.

In January, Repole announced that he was merging his sneaker and apparel company, Nobull, with TB12, the health and nutrition company owned by Tom Brady. A few weeks later, Repole, a graduate of St. John’s University, promised Coach Rick Pitino’s men’s basketball program seven figures next season to help attract the nation’s best players to New York.

“Mike is clearly a genius in many ways,” said Shannon Arvin, the chief executive at Keeneland, a racetrack and auction company based in Lexington, Ky. “He’s been very successful.”

Repole has spent more than $300 million buying horses, much of it at Keeneland. He has won dozens of the sport’s most prestigious stakes races — including the Belmont Stakes on Long Island and the Travers in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. He has also made his frustration with the sport loud and clear, likening it to a “board game with no instructions.”

Since declaring himself commissioner, however, Repole has gotten more personal in his criticism. He railed against honoring the Jockey Club’s Janney with an Eclipse Award of Merit — for lifetime achievement in the sport — on the same night that Fierceness and other horses were crowned champions at horse racing’s equivalent of the Oscars.

Then he gave an unflattering review from the audience of Janney’s acceptance speech.

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Repole with Irad Ortiz Jr. after Ortiz rode Mo Donegal to victory at the Belmont Stakes in 2022.Credit…Frank Franklin Ii/Associated Press

The Jockey Club’s main duty is keeping the breed registry. It also funds research, lobbying and marketing efforts and was at the forefront of efforts to create the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority, or HISA, the federal agency that now regulates the sport.

“We never heard from him when we went through that process, which took more than five or six years to get done,” Janney said of Repole. “My view is you get things done and let people look at them and decide how they feel about it, but just talking about it doesn’t get things done.”

Stewart, who has a private equity firm and has a colt named Just a Touch in the Derby, has participated in contentious give-and-takes with Repole on social media. He believes his fellow owner has good ideas. Repole says he wants to unite owners, trainers and racetracks to take on sport’s longstanding challenges, such as postcareer care for horses and breeding practices. The problem, Stewart says, is in his delivery.

“He’s trying to act like the Elon Musk or Donald Trump of horse racing,” Stewart said. “The sport has enough problems, and we don’t need that.”

Win or lose on Saturday, Repole will continue to try to impose his will on the sport of horse racing. His worldview perhaps was best demonstrated at a recent press gaggle in the barn area of Churchill Downs. Taking a FaceTime call from his daughter, Gioia, he brandished his phone for all to see and asked her about school.

“The A students work for the C students,” he told his daughter. “Remember I told you that.”

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