Mike Repole experienced the highs and lows of thoroughbred racing on Saturday afternoon at historic Saratoga Race Course before a crowd of 43,050, where in the course of an hour the horse owner nearly swept two nationally televised Grade 1 races with his top two talented sophomores.
In an incredible reversal of fortune, Stay Thirsty, the horse that was the 2010 Juvenile champion Uncle Mo's workout companion at the start of the year, emerged as the leader of the 3-year old division by winning the 142nd running of the $1 million Travers Stakes.
A half hour earlier, Uncle Mo, Repole's Derby hopeful in May, lost a photo finish in the Grade 1 $250,000 King's Bishop by a nostril to the late closing Caleb's Posse.
Repole was more than ecstatic with Stay Thirsty's performance: "There's no doubt in my mind he's the best 3-year-old in the country. The best 3-year olds ran in this race, and to me this was the 3-year-old championship right here, unless someone else steps up and wins the Classic."
The co-founder and former owner of Glaceau, the maker of Vitamin Water, has had a roller-coaster ride of a racing season. When his Derby co-favorite Uncle Mo scratched the Friday before the Kentucky Derby with a rare liver disorder, his focus turned to the unassuming and underhyped Stay Thirsty. After a disappointing 12th place finish in the Derby, he rebounded in the Belmont finishing second, before winning the Grade 2 Jim Dandy last month. Saturday afternoon he became the ninth colt in history to sweep the Dandy-Travers double.
Stay Thirsty found himself forwardly placed early on, a running style which has not been the norm for him. Winning jockey Javier Castellano, who rode Stay Thirsty's sire Bernardini to victory in the 2006 Travers, was surprised at his colt's early run.
"I didn't expect to be on the lead. He gave me a little bit of a hard time for the first part of the race. He settled down and I was able to put him outside. I think that was the key to winning the race," said a jubilant Castellano in the post-race news conference. It was the second consecutive Travers victory for Castellano, who won last year with Afleet Express.
Top flight trainer Todd Pletcher came within Uncle Mo's nostril of sweeping three consecutive Grade 1 races starting with the Ballerina winner Hilda's Passion. As for Stay Thirsty's next race, Pletcher already has a plan that leads to the Breeders' Cup Classic.
"We'll look to the Jockey Club Gold Cup; we know he likes Belmont and he likes 1 1/4 miles. We need a bridge between here and the Breeders' Cup and that's the most likely one."
In a year where no older horse has assumed the reins on Horse of the Year, who knows what the Travers champ could achieve should he continue his good fortune.
As for Uncle Mo's return to the races, Pletcher was emotional describing his ultra-talented colt's comeback.
"We had a little bit of bad luck with Uncle Mo. He hopped at the start and pulled off his right hind shoe," Pletcher said. "I don't know if that impacted his performance or not. For Uncle Mo it's not really about the King's Bishop. We wanted so much for him to come back and redeem himself and show everyone what he actually is. I think we came really close to actually doing that."
Where Uncle Mo will show up next is anyone's guess, but his performance off the long layoff was a sign to his doubters that he will still have to be reckoned with as the year progresses. The Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile could make logical sense as the race to shoot for in November.
For thoroughbred racing, it was a terrific display of the emotions that make the game so exciting for its diehard fans. A national television audience was treated to two of the best races of the season and while the Saratoga meet starts to wind down, the momentum is starting to build for the Breeders' Cup at Churchill Downs in November.
"It's a roller-coaster game, it's a bi-polar game," said Repole. "What we just saw in the last half hour for Todd Pletcher and Mike Repole, the low, the highest high, all within 30 minutes. It's a tough loss with Uncle Mo and probably the best win of my life here with the Travers," Repole exclaimed.
Saturday's roller-coaster ride may be over, but Repole may not be ready to get off.
Gene Kershner is a Buffalo-based turf writer and handicapper who blogs at equispace.blogspot.com and tweets @EquiSpace.