Typically at this time of year, the favorite for the following season’s Kentucky Derby will be tucked up cozily in the barn of one of racing’s headline players – you know, one of those trainers with dozens of horses on the books. A barn here. A satellite yard there. A handful of Eclipse Awards on the shelf. Having entered the game early (born into it, in some cases), they payed their dues long ago along the well-trodden pathways of assistant, or barn foreman, or jockey. All very familiar. All very expected.
It’s only fitting, then, that in a year when a sledge-hammer has been taken with such glee to the status-quo, the current favorite for next year’s Kentucky Derby is found not with a Pletcher, or a Brown, or a Baffert, but instead in the barn of a former construction worker and self-made multi-millionaire – someone whose two stints as a trainer total less than four years, and who, at 57, has held his current trainer’s license for less time than the incumbent president has held office.
“We’re here to develop champions, and how fortunate are we to have Bolt d’Oro so soon,” says Mick Ruis, owner and trainer of the colt who sits atop the Derby betting. We’re stood in his office at the end of one of those mornings that Santa Anita was made to be seen in, when the heavy shroud of fog has finally lifted to reveal a world as clear as a water color. The sun’s up, the birds are singing, and everything’s rosy in barn 96: “A lot of people wait a whole lifetime for a horse like him,” Ruis adds. “He could be as good as we’ve seen for decades.”
A quick flick through Bolt d’Oro’s resume and it’s easy to see why he’s most people’s early Derby pick. He may have raced only four times, but he’s already bagged a couple of GI’s — the Del Mar Futurity and the FrontRunner Stakes, the latter in runaway fashion. Yes, Bolt d’Oro may have been beaten into third last time out in the GI Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, but even the most skeptical among us would be hard pressed to argue that the handsome son of Medaglia d’Oro wasn’t one of the unluckiest horses throughout the whole two-day Breeders’ Cup festival.
Tardy out of the gates, Bolt d’Oro raced so wide the whole way before flying home down Del Mar’s truncated stretch, rumors abound that he returned home striped in white from where he’d skimmed the outside rail. “Even at the first turn I was thinking, ‘oh god,’” says Ruis, who believes the Breeders’ Cup run should be put into context as voters cast their ballots for the upcoming Eclipse Awards. “Obviously, we’re going to say that we have the best two-year-old. But if he loses the Eclipse Award for that one race and that bad trip, it’s gonna be a shame for him because he’s proven what he can do.”
Since the Breeders’ Cup, Bolt d’Oro has been kicking up his heels, spending his days walking and sleeping and (what seems a favorite past-time of his), eating. “The night of the Breeders’ Cup, he came home and ate up all his dinner. Wanted to run again.” The original intent was to give Bolt d’Oro a two-month break, but the colt has been sucking on helium recently, meaning that it’s back to work in December, with a three-race route already plotted towards Churchill: the GII San Vincente, then the GII San Felipe, before rounding it off in the GI Santa Anita Derby.
“At first, we were thinking two [prep] races,” Ruis says. “But if he gets a cold, one little hiccup, that catches us short from our main goal, the big race. So, we figured we might as well just go three here and be really ready if we can make it to the Derby.”
To win the Derby would be an “incredible dream,” says Ruis. “We’ve got to win it first, then we’ll worry about those other races.” And, with words that are sure to echo ominously among his future opponents, Ruis believes that he’s been a “little too easy” on the colt, up to now. “In his three-year-old career, he’s gonna run. He’s gonna train and he’s gonna run. This is his year to show us all what we think he can do.”
The story of Ruis’ ascent from his hard-scrabble upbringing near San Diego is already well told. He left school before graduating and went straight into construction. Eventually, he branched out on his own, starting his own business in shoring (a type of structural scaffolding during construction). When he sold that company for a few million dollars, he set up as a trainer at San Luis Rey Downs, in Southern California.
“When I was 18 years old, I was thinking if I could get a $3,000 claimer, that would be incredible – I could own a racehorse,” he says, about an ambition he’d harbored for decades, since the days when he went racing at the old Agua Caliente track, in Mexico. “I just loved the sport. Got hooked on it.”
It was under an “old Caliente trainer called Lupe Torres” that Ruis learned the ropes. “A year after that, I got my trainer’s license.” And during his first stint as a trainer beginning in 2005, Ruis made a bit of a splash, though a somewhat limited one, checked as he was by the firepower at his disposal. “I think my most expensive horse at the time cost $10,000.” Still, after two-and-a-half years, he was taking on debt faster than water on the Titanic. He quit training, started another business, saw it grow and expand, and sold a majority share in it a few years ago for a cool $78 million – goodbye $10,000 claimers, and hello six-figure yearlings.
There’s a self-deprecating quality to Ruis that belies what is clearly no meager ambition. And it’s that same self-deprecation that affords him the distance to look at training in its gestalt – to understand the individual value of each of the component parts in any barn. “I’ve surrounded myself with the most knowledgeable people,” he says. Indeed, he has multiple ex-trainers on his payroll, including daughter Shelbe Ruis, whose name was on the trainer’s license when Ruis’ Union Strike claimed the GI Debutante Stakes last year. Then there’s stake winning trainer turned assistant Mark Rheinford. Torres, Ruis says, is “still teaching me up to this day, basically.”
And yet for all the rule books Ruis has ripped up, all the conventions flouted, there’s something about his approach that harkens back to the old school of horseracing, the gilded era, when commercial pressures weighed less on the sport. That’s because, as an owner-trainer, he’s not beholden to anyone other than himself. “The thing that I have, I can take my time,” he says. “I don’t have owners pressuring me. I don’t need to train to make a living. No one’s going to fire me if I don’t run a horse. This is a passion. When my horses are going south on me,” he adds. “they’re going to Montana for four or five months. There’s nothing better for horses than just time.”
By “Montana,” Ruis means a facility in the shadow of the mountainous Jewel Basin, near Columbia Falls, a town Ruis has invested heavily in, to spur its economic re-development. His ranch is a sprawling 80-acres with everything from emerald green pastures to indoor and outdoor arenas, the latter with heated floors. Ike Green (yet another former trainer), oversees the daily running of the ranch, and he has major input at the yearling sales, too. “To watch horses from the beginning to the end, it’s really satisfying,” says Ruis.
As the interview wraps, Ruis leads me to Bolt d’Oro, stabled at the end of the barn farthest the office. “They call him ‘Crocodile,’” Ruis warns, as we approach the stall, groom Angel Orentes hovering nearby. But when we arrive, we’re met not by flashing incisors but by a large wooly rear-end and a belly with the sort of paunch you’d expect after a mini-vacation. Within weeks, that waist-line will have shrunk. Within a month or so, the muscles will be once again tensile hard. Come May, all being well, he’ll be a physical specimen equal to any Olympic athlete.
“I’ve heard people say, ‘why don’t I let someone else with experience train him,’” says Ruis, about the shifting conversation as the Run to the Roses gets underway. “But I’m like, we’ve already gone toe-to-toe with people who have won Derbies. And we beat them.”
And given what Ruis has achieved already, you certainly wouldn’t bet against him doing so again, and again, and again…