Owner/breeder Mike Repole has called on Thoroughbred owners in the United States to band together in a new association and assert a great role in the management and enhancement of the sport.
The outspoken native of Queens, N.Y., first tipped his hand during an Oct. 8 interview at Keeneland with NBS Sports correspondent Nick Luck, who asked Repole what he felt he could do to make the sport better.
“There is not anything in the sport that is good right now,” Repole said. “I want to start an association with the biggest owners and the biggest trainers. I think it is our responsibility. When people say, ‘Who’s fault is it?’ Other than the 30-year history, I blame myself. I blame the owners. In other sports like the NFL or the NBA, the owners are very involved; they run the sport. Here we let everyone else run it for us. … It is time the owners took back this game.”
Repole, the co-founder of Glaceau, the maker of VitaminWater and SmartWater, and developer of BodyArmour sports drink, got into ownership in 2002 but became a major investor and player in 2008. In 2010, he campaigned that year’s champion 2-year-old colt Uncle Mo , who has gone on to become a leading sire. Since 2008, Repole, alone and in partnerships, has raced 13 grade 1 winners, including this year’s Florida Derby (G1) winner and 2022 champion 2-year-old colt Forte , multiple grade 1 winner and Belmont Stakes (G1) runner-up Nest , and Up to the Mark , who won the Oct. 7 Turf Mile Stakes (G1T) at Keeneland.
Despite his success, Repole told Luck, there has been a lot of frustration.
“We take it. We take it from Churchill, we take it from other tracks, we take it from other associations. This can’t happen anymore. If we want this sport to move forward, the only way is for the owners to take control,” he said.
The owner followed this interview with a more extensive call to action Oct. 9 on X (formerly known as Twitter).
“Racing needs change NOW,” Repole tweeted. “We need a NEW association led by the owners and trainers of this game that we all love and are passionate about. We need to turn selfish into SELFLESS and each do our part for the future of this great sport that is in poor health. The goal of this association will be to make all facets of racing better. We need to make it better and safer for horses, fans, gamblers, jockeys, trainers, owners, breeders, backstretch, tracks, etc, etc. This association will not just be focused on the top 10%, the goal is to make positive change for EVERYONE involved in the game. This seismic change doesn’t happen overnight but it has to start now if it is ever going to happen.”
On Repole’s short list of needed changes, he identified the following:
- Work with the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority to improve horse safety with an advisory committee of the most experienced Thoroughbred vets,
- Work with tracks on having three surfaces if possible—turf, dirt and synthetic. If not possible, push for a synthetic training track,
- “Stand up and back 99% of the trainers who devote their lives and work extremely hard,” Repole said. “There are cheaters, crooks, in every industry and facet of life, they make up a small percentage,”
- Significantly increase the purses for older horses to incentivize owners to keep them racing, which Repole said long-term will lead to breeding older and more durable horses that will strengthen the breed,
- Have every sale consignor, bloodstock agent, jockey agent, veterinarian, etc., licensed with “not only rules and regulations but fines, suspensions and penalties for everyone involved,”
- Require the testing of 2-year-olds weeks prior to being breezed at a sale and following their under tack works. “We will also ban the stupidity of a one-furlong, :09.3 breeze. I would suggest they work three furlongs or just gallop only before the auction,” Repole said.
- Promote ownership through reputable racing syndicates to get more owners in the game and at the same time educate them on horse ownership,
- Work with both Gen Z and millennials with national programs focusing on the future of racing that includes future trainers, fans, grooms, gamblers, owners, media, etc. “We need the next generation involved if racing has a future,” he said. And,
- Educate, upgrade, and innovate the gambling of this sport.
Repole’s call for owners to be more engaged was largely met with support by some prominent owners and executives with other owners organizations.
“I so appreciate Mike’s passion and willingness to put himself out there as a leader on this front,” said Eric Gustavson, owner of Spendthrift Farm, which stands 2019 champion older dirt male and Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) winner Vino Rosso , who Repole campaigned with St. Elias Stable. “He makes strong points, his intentions are for the benefit of this game we all love, and the status quo will eventually be our downfall. So, in a nutshell, I’m in agreement.”
Dan Metzger, president of the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association, said his organization has long advocated for owners to have a more prominent role in how the sports is conducted.
“We continue to support the concept of vibrant and influential owners groups,” he said. “We have seen great success in certain areas of the country with owners groups and are very anxious to learn about Mike’s ideas.”
(Editor’s note: TOBA is a co-owner of BloodHorse with The Jockey Club)
Bill Nader, president and CEO of Thoroughbred Owners of California, said while he needs to see more detail of Repole’s proposal, he understands his position that owners need to be heard and need a bigger voice industrywide.
“Whether you are big or small, ownership is a substantial investment,” he said. “The way the sport works, we are putting the players on the field, and that is the engine driving wagering and revenue. (Repole) is asking whether we have the right platform now and whether our voice is strong enough and we’re involved in decisions that impact our ongoing investment. That is what frustrates some people. I think the tracks try to be good partners, but I’m sure there are incidences where owners feel there could be a better working relationship. However we achieve that in whatever platform, as long as we can have those conversations and feel it is a sincere partnership, then we would all benefit from that.
“You have to respect the amount of money he’s put up and what he brings,” Nader added about Repole. “You can’t take owners like him for granted.”
Nader also noted that Thoroughbred racing will never be structured like the major sports leagues.
“In this sport, there are horse owners and racetrack owners. In the other sports, it is the teams and (many of them) own the venues. What Mike is talking about is more like the Players Union,” he said.
Eric Hamelback, CEO of the National Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, also said he needs to hear more from Repole about what he envisions before commenting about his proposal for a new association. He added that forming another organization may not be necessary.
“I tried to reach out to Mr. Repole and would love to sit down with him to understand what he views as needing to be changed. I’m sure there is common ground with our organization and the other major horsemen’s groups,” he said.
“It is important to remember the horsemen’s representative groups are elected, and should there be an issue with which someone hopes to see substantive change, we would love to see folks run for a position and serve on the board,” he continued. “New views are appreciated and necessary for the industry to keep pushing forward. I would hate to see a new group created just to have a new group. We have enough alphabet soup groups and need to be as cohesive as possible. We certainly need to take stances when there are differences, but differences are good, and we learn from them and educate each other.”