By Liz Mullen

Mike Repole may not be a household name to most sports fans, but investment bankers certainly have his number.

The 42-year-old co-founder of Vitaminwater invested big and hit it big as a thoroughbred racehorse owner in the last few years. He will start not one, but two contenders in this Saturday’s Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Over the past year, Repole has been on the receiving end of calls inquiring if he wants to buy all or a piece of several major league sports franchises. Investment bankers know Repole is flush with cash after selling Vitaminwater for $4.2 billion in 2007.

Mike Repole stands with Uncle Mo, who won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile last year. “Listen, when the [New York] Mets were looking for a partner, I was involved there,” Repole said. “I have talked to the New Jersey Nets about moving to Brooklyn. People call me about the [New York] Islanders. It’s not like it hasn’t hit my radar 400 different times. Do I get calls on the Philadelphia 76ers just before they sold? Do I get calls on the Charlotte Bobcats? Yeah.”

Repole said that someone even called him about buying a 1 percent share in the New York Yankees in the last few months. That floored him, not only because he didn’t know you could buy 1 percent of the Yankees, but because the Queens native is a diehard Mets fan.

Repole said there’s a “100 percent chance” that he will own a piece of an MLB, NHL, NFL or NBA franchise in the next several years, but he plans his entry into sports team ownership the same way he got into horse racing — slowly.

In the meantime, he’s helping to bring much-needed exposure and investment to horse racing. Joined by the likes of Under Armour founder Kevin Plank and celebrity chef Bobby Flay, this new breed of horse owners brings new approaches to the business of horse racing and helps make the sport more relevant to casual sports fans.

“Owners like Mike Repole, Kevin Plank and Bobby Flay are the future lifeblood of the sport,” said Greg Avioli, former Breeders’ Cup CEO and current CEO of The Stronach Group, which owns Santa Anita Park and Gulfstream Park. “There haven’t been too many of them come along in the last decade and we are lucky to have them.”

Energetic voices

Barry Weisbord, who co-chairs the Breeders’ Cup enhanced experience committee, said having owners like Repole, Plank and Flay is not only good for the Breeders’ Cup, but it’s great publicity for horse racing in general. He recalled a story The Associated Press ran about Flay winning a big race at Belmont Park this year.

“What does that message say?” Weisbord said. “It says that Bobby Flay, who can spend his time anywhere, was at Belmont Park on Saturday. His horse won and that is where he chooses to spend his time.”

Kevin Flanery, president of Churchill Downs Racetrack, echoed that sentiment. “It is great to have people who are passionate about the sport, who are new faces to the sport, energetic voices that the public is familiar with.”

Flanery added that Churchill Downs was fortunate that Plank, Repole and Flay not only all ran horses in last year’s Breeders’ Cup at the track, but won one of the races.

Plank owns Shared Account, a filly that won the Filly and Mare Turf last year and is expected to defend her title in the same race this year. Flay owns Super Espresso, a candidate for the Ladies’ Classic, and More Than Real, who won last year’s Juvenile Fillies Turf.

One of Repole’s horses, Uncle Mo, won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile impressively last year, which established him as the favorite for this year’s Kentucky Derby.

Unfortunately, Mo was scratched due to illness, but his stablemate, Stay Thirsty, finished 12th in the Derby and went on to win the prestigious Travers Stakes at Saratoga this summer. Both Mo and Stay Thirsty will run in the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic. Additionally, Repole intends to run Stopspendingmaria, a horse he named after his wife, in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies.

Learning the business

Repole started going to the races as a fan at Aqueduct in New York when he was 13, but started buying horses only seven years ago. And he started small, buying relatively inexpensive horses that ran in races where they could be claimed for a certain price. “I could have bought $200,000, $300,000, $400,000 horses, but I decided to start with $20,000 claimers.”

Repole knew he loved horse racing as a fan, but wasn’t sure he would like it as an owner. He wanted to learn the business, including the jockeys, trainers and the other owners, the competition.

Repole said he’s been shocked watching other wealthy people who get into horse racing by spending millions on horses and then taking a very hands-off approach.

“If everyone ran their businesses the way they run their horse racing businesses, they would never have been successful and they probably would have been out of business,” Repole said. “I just think that some owners come in with a fistful of money and think they are just going to win graded races like it’s so easy, and it’s not.”

It wasn’t until about three years ago that Repole felt he thoroughly understood and loved the business of being a horse owner enough to really dive in. He started spending hundreds of thousands on racehorses and hired the leading trainer in purse earnings in North America, Todd Pletcher, to train them. Pletcher, in an email, said that Repole’s hands-on personality, as well as his business plan for buying 1-year-old and 2-year-old horses, is different than most owners for whom he’s worked.

“He sticks closely to his budget and doesn’t stray too much, and this has worked well for him,” Pletcher wrote.

Repole’s plan is to buy 20 to 25 horses a year, every year, for the next few decades. “I can’t ever say never, but I never spent more than $500,000 on a horse,” Repole said. “I go to sales and I see horses that sell for $1 million, $1.5 million, $2 million. … There are a lot of owners who spend two times or five times or 10 times what I spend and aren’t having the same success.”

Repole said he likes to spend between $200,000 and $500,000 on a horse. Uncle Mo cost $220,000 and Stay Thirsty cost $500,000.

As of mid-October, Repole Stables led all thoroughbred horse owners in North America for graded stakes wins.

While he’s enjoying his investment in horse racing, Repole said that buying at least a piece of a U.S. team sports franchise “is on my bucket list.” Although he’s a rabid Mets fan, Repole would not say which sport he might invest in.

But when he does make that move, he will take the same approach he did to racehorse ownership: Start with a relatively small investment and learn the business inside and out. If he likes it, well, then he would be prepared to go all in.

“You know how to get started in something?” Repole asked rhetorically. “Either start real slow or jump in like no one’s ever jumped in before. I mean, Mike Repole knows two speeds: 0 to 10 miles an hour, and then over 100 miles an hour.”