Just three years ago, Mick Ruis was a hands-on owner of a large scaffolding company that was a major supplier for the U.S. Navy. In rapid succession, Ruis sold most of the company, earmarked proceeds to build a prominent racing stable, and in his first foray in the yearling sales market uncovered the exceptionally talented Bolt d’Oro, who now stands as the current favorite for the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve, with Ruis himself as the horse’s trainer.
At age 57, a former high school dropout with a track record of business success and millions in the bank, Ruis admits he has taken on one of his stiffest challenges in competing with the likes of Hall of Fame trainers Bob Baffert and Jerry Hollendorfer on the Road to the Triple Crown. He is confident he has the right horse and the right approach to pull it off, beginning on Saturday in the Grade 2 San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita Park.
“The real world is where the real pressure is,” said Ruis, a native of El Cajon, Calif., who first became enamored with horse racing when he visited the old Agua Caliente racetrack in Tijuana, Mexico, as a teen. “This is supposed to be relaxing, but when you get a horse like ‘Bolt,’ it is not so relaxing. You just want him to be able to prove himself.”
This is Ruis’ second foray as an owner-trainer. After selling a previous business, he oversaw his own stable at a lesser level and scale between 2005 and 2007, before putting horse racing on hold for about a decade. He returned with loftier goals, a much-bigger budget, and once again, he was going to be right there in the thick of the day-to-day operation.
An owner training his own Triple Crown prospect is not exactly a novelty — just in the last few years, trainers Beau Greely, Bill Kaplan, Tom McCarthy, Ron Moquett, and Jamie Sanders have all made it to the Kentucky Derby with a horse they owned or co-owned.
Ruis is in a different “do-it-yourself” category along with Bill Curran and Myung Kwon Cho, who essentially went straight from the business world to running their own barns. None of them, whether lifelong horsemen or businessmen horsing around in a second career, have had a Derby prospect quite like Bolt d’Oro, who is the 6-1 individual favorite on the morning line for the latest Kentucky Derby future wager that opens Friday and runs through Sunday.
Bolt d’Oro stormed to the forefront with a debut sprint win last summer at Del Mar, followed by a Grade 1 triumph going seven furlongs in the Del Mar Futurity, but he really showed his hand with the chance to go around two turns in Santa Anita’s Grade 1 FrontRunner Stakes, powering through the stretch for an eye-popping win by 7 3/4 lengths. He went forward as one of the hottest favorites in the history of the Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, only to come up short with a troubled trip, bobbling at the start and getting hung seven-wide on the first turn, before making a creditable rally to finish third.
Freshened at the end of last year, he has turned in seven workouts since Jan. 27, topped off by a razor-sharp half-mile in :46.40 on Monday that was the fastest of 93 at the distance that morning.
Ruis said when he first began training in 2005, he asked a lot of “dumb questions” of fellow trainers, learning on the fly. That experience provided a foundation for this revival of Ruis Racing Stable, and he has a built-in sounding board with four barn employees who are licensed trainers, including his daughter, Shelbe.
“We are sure lacking Baffert’s experience, but we have good horse people in the barn and we are right there, all day everyday, and we know Bolt,” Ruis said. “At this point, he has learned his lessons. He knows how to rate, he has the speed, he has great ability, and he has grown up over the winter and is bigger and stronger. We had a little issue with a pulled muscle where we had to skip [last month’s Grade 2 San Vicente Stakes] but that was never a race he had to make. He is fit and we just have to keep him happy and sound, and he will do the rest. That is what we are focused on everyday. I think the more brains you pick, you can get off track and second guess what you do day in and day out.
“I am trying to keep it as simple as I can. I have done a lot of tough jobs in my life. This is tough because it’s not like building something where you have the materials and you have the plan for you and your team to execute and that’s all there is to it. It’s a horse, so you never know from one day to the next what you might have to deal with. We just want to keep him going the right way.”
Ruis and his farm trainer, Ike Green, plucked Bolt d’Oro out of the Fasig-Tipton Saratoga sale of selected yearlings in 2016, paying $630,000 to secure the colt from the consignment of Denali Stud. Ruis said he was a standout both physically and mentally, and his demeanor continues to be a key asset for the path in front of him.
“He is just so mellow,” Ruis said. “When Javier Castellano worked him the other day, he stood there with the pony for 10 minutes before he went in the gate like it was nothing. It was a good work for him because he went with a speed horse and that horse is so fast coming out of the gate that I knew he would jump out in front and Bolt would have to come from behind and get a lot of dirt kicked in his face, and he responded just like I wanted.
“Javier told me afterward that for the San Felipe he would like to give the horse a good warm-up and gallop him up to the gate, to make sure he is wide awake. We don’t want him waking up halfway through the race.”