Mike Repole grew up going to Aqueduct and Belmont Park, where the seeds were planted for his horse racing fandom.
The Queens native and current thoroughbred owner won’t be able to be back at Belmont on Wednesday for its delayed opening day, but the significance of horse racing being the first sport to return in New York from the coronavirus pandemic is certainly not lost on him.
“Racing being back in general, I think, is great for the sport. But racing being back in New York, I think, is even bigger,” Repole, the owner of Repole Stables, told The Post. “Obviously New York was hit so hard by the pandemic and so many cases … I think it’s even more special that Belmont is opening. It’s one thing when someone is quarantined and they’re watching Tampa Bay Downs or they’re watching Gulfstream.
“But the ability to know that, you know what, there’s a glimmer of hope in the future because that track — a half hour away from me, 10 minutes away from me, an hour away from me — is doing business, I think it gives people some hope and promise that even though there will be a new normal, at least we’re going to get to some sense of normalcy.”
Repole will have a vested interest in the races — particularly the third race on Wednesday, when his 2-year-old maiden, the Todd Pletcher-trained Prisoner, is set to run a 5-furlong race with jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. aboard.
Despite Repole’s local roots, Prisoner may have a hard time becoming the fan favorite — not when a horse named Fauci is running next to him. But Repole has high hopes.
“When they usually start and we like them, if he breaks his maiden, you talk about hope in the future and being a champion 2-year-old and 3-year-old Derby contender and maybe one day win the Belmont Stakes, like something I’ve dreamed about since I was a 13-year-old kid,” the St. John’s grad said.
While Repole said racing was the last thing he was worried about over the past few months as COVID-19 plagued the country, he still had to figure out what to do with his horses in the interim. He sent half of them to a farm in Ocala, Fla., to get a break while the other half went with Pletcher to Gulfstream Park in Florida, where racing never stopped.
Now, they are shipping horses back to New York with Belmont reopening for races Wednesday and Saratoga opening for training Thursday.
Like fans, owners are not yet allowed at Belmont, but Repole understands the top priority.
“My thought today about no fans is a lot different than it was three months ago,” he said. “The No. 1 concern is safety of people. We always talk about horse racing, how important the safety of the horses is, but this has now changed that the safety of individuals that work with these horses are in jeopardy every single day they go out, too.”
Precautions have been taken on the backstretch at Belmont to protect the health and safety of its workers, as training has continued to go on throughout the pandemic despite the lack of races. Those efforts have brought everyone “a little closer,” Repole said, and opened the door for racing to return in New York.
“Hopefully horse racing first, and then the Rangers, the Knicks, the Nets and the Islanders, and the Mets and the Yankees, and football starting and getting this virus under control and trying to stay ahead of it,” Repole said.
“We need something to root for. Being in New York and New York being hit so hard, there’s going to be a very good feeling about a sporting event in New York that is going to be different than just sports opening up in general.”
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