In a Kentucky Derby dominated by familiar names, rich partnerships and international breeding empires, Mick Ruis stands as the proud exception.
Not only does the folksy Southern Californian train Bolt d’Oro, an 8-1 co-fourth choice in the morning line, he owns the colt thanks to a $78 million windfall from the scaffolding company he built up and sold.
“When you spend your own money for a horse, I think you have a lot more interest in him,” Ruis said. “I picked him out at the sale. We raised him on the ranch. We brought him to California, where we started training on him. To watch him go from a yearling, to get broke, to doing this, you get more attached to him. We’re a small operation with 30 horses in our barn, so we know every one of them. He’s family.”
This is Ruis’ second spin in the thoroughbred business. The first time around, he bought and trained some good horses, but the operation fell into financial ruin. Ruis picked himself up, built concrete reservoirs for a few years and used the money from that to purchase American Scaffold, the company that would produce his fortune.
He jumped back into the racing business two years ago, looking for a tax write-off to mitigate the $17 million IRS toll from the sale of his company. He has been too successful for that plan to work, he joked. In year one, he purchased Union Strike, a Grade 1 stakes winner. In year two, he paid $630,000 to acquire Bolt d’Oro from WinStar Farm.
The colt quickly established himself as one of the most promising prospects in this gifted class. He went off as the favorite in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Even though he finished third in that race, many handicappers pegged him as the early Derby favorite coming into this year.
But Bolt d’Oro has consistently finished just back of his top rivals, whether it was Good Magic in the Juvenile, McKinzie in the San Felipe Stakes (though he won by disqualification there) or Justify in the Santa Anita Derby.
Despite those losses, Ruis has joked that he brought a suitcase full of cash to bet on his horse in Saturday’s Derby.
“I wouldn’t trade places with anybody,” he said. “Our horse looks fantastic. If we would’ve won Santa Anita, where we got second place, we would’ve had 500 cameras here and we’d be 3-2 morning line odds. But I kind of like that we’re under the radar a bit.”
Hofburg generating backstretch buzz
Like Derby favorite Justify, Hofburg arrived at Churchill with just three starts.
But as a 20-1 choice in the morning line, he’s generating excitement among bettors looking for an underdog.
“I absolutely hope they’re right,” Mott said. “We like the way he’s doing. We like the way he’s going into it. So I wouldn’t say they’re wrong.”
Despite Hofburg’s thin resume, Mott said the horse began showing signs of real talent and professionalism last June. He raced once as a 2-year-old, broke his maiden in early March at Gulfstream Park, then surprised everyone but his trainer with how well he handled the serious competition in the Florida Derby, won by Audible.
That rapid rise, combined with his excellent form during morning workouts at Churchill, has handicappers buzzing.
Though he made his reputation at Churchill and has already been in the Hall of Fame for 20 years, the 64-year-old Mott has never had a horse finish better than eighth in the Derby. He said he’s not haunted by that gap in his record.
“It never kept me up at night,” he said.
Wet weather looms
After forecasts earlier in the week called for a warm, sunny Derby Saturday, predictions have turned and trainers have begun facing questions about how their horses might handle a wet track.
As of Thursday afternoon, the National Weather Service called for a 50-percent chance of overnight showers and thunderstorms heading into Saturday and a 40-percent chance of showers during the day.