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High-dollar debate: Can El Cajon's Mick Ruis turn Bolt d'Oro into Kentucky Derby winner?

Sorting through the myriad Kentucky Derby arguments for and against Bolt d’Oro seems a bit like mining for a conclusion on Coke versus Pepsi or the merits of baseball’s designated hitter.

For each pro, a con. For each resounding exclamation point, a nagging question mark.

The horse owned and molded by El Cajon native Mick Ruis poses the ultimate Derby Day debate. As the run for the roses prepares for its 144th start Saturday at 3:46 p.m. San Diego time, Bolt d’Oro finds himself smack dab in the middle of the betting-window bickering — almost literally, given his No. 11 post position — in arguably the most intriguing Derby of all time.

Storied trainer Bob Baffert won the sport’s biggest race four times, including the launching pad to a Triple Crown with American Pharoah in 2015. This week, Baffert hit rewind to the FrontRunner Stakes on Sept. 30 at Santa Anita.

Bolt d’Oro dominated Baffert-trained Solomini, a career winner of nearly $800,000, by 7 ¾ lengths.

“He looked like, that’s the Kentucky Derby winner,” Baffert said. “He’s getting back to that point.”

A case for Bolt d’Oro: The FrontRunner.

A case against: He needed a steward’s ruling to move from second to first against Baffert’s McKinzie at the San Felipe, meaning he hasn’t crossed the line first in three consecutive races.

A case for: A win at the Grade I Del Mar Futurity over highly regarded Zatter.

A case against: A third-place finish to two horses in the Derby field, Good Magic and Solomini, at the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile in November. Then, a three-length loss to Derby favorite Justify at the Santa Anita Derby.

A case for: Ruis picked up Victor Espinoza for the mount after Javier Castellano opted to ride Todd Pletcher-trained Audible. Espinoza has won the Derby three times, meaning a win would leave him just one short of the all-time record.

A case against: Espinoza’s history with Bolt d’Oro is limited to a pair of workouts at Santa Anita. Does Castellano know something — beyond his longtime loyalty to Pletcher — that we don’t? And how much chaos at the steering wheel can a Derby hopeful handle, after a run of three jockeys in four races?

And on and on and on.

Ruis offered a glimpse behind the curtain at the jockey change. He felt he had a commitment from Castellano from the Santa Anita Derby through the Triple Crown races. Castellano’s agent, Mike Lakow, said that wasn’t the case and termed it a likely misunderstanding.

To attempt and sweeten and seal the deal, Ruis offered Castellano a share of breeding profits when Bolt d’Oro begins his post-race life in January. Ruis estimated that would translate to at least $3 million and possibly much more, depending on races to come. Lakow confirmed the offer.

Espinoza marveled at the opportunity left in the wake of the failed negotiations.

“I was excited because I think he’s the right horse to be on in the Kentucky Derby,” Espinoza said. “I’ve watched all the races of every contender.”

Hall of Fame jockey and NBC analyst Jerry Bailey finds himself focused on a couple of things related to the Ruis contender.

“It’s always a good sign when you see a horse that has a taxing race, like the Santa Anita Derby was, to come out of it at least not losing weight,” Bailey told the Union-Tribune this week. “That’s the best barometer to see what a race took out of a horse.

“He actually looks as big as he was or bigger than he was at the Santa Anita Derby. That’s a good sign.”

Another observation, per Bailey.

“The distance is his friend,” Bailey said. “He’s one of the few in here that gets better with the extra furlong. A lot of them will stay the same, a lot of them it will hurt. Not him.”

So the slicing and dicing continues.

Ruis leans on another case-for nugget in the spirited deliberations swirling around his colt. The Daily Racing Form’s Beyer Speed Figures, a key analytic, shows Bolt d’Oro’s top totals of 102 and 101 remain better than every Derby horse not named Justify.

“And that horse (Bolt) is getting better,” Ruis contended. “He’s tough.”

Ruis already has vowed to wager at least $20,000 on Bolt d’Oro to win, with a potential $48,000 futures-bet winner that a friend bought in Las Vegas after Bolt d’Oro’s loss in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile already parked in his pocket.

So Mick, settle the beverage debate: Coke or Pepsi?

“If we win, we’re not just going to party,” Ruis said. “There’ll be a lot of tequila shooters that night, I guarantee you.”

No sense in arguing that.

bryce.miller@sduniontribune.com; Twitter: @Bryce_A_Miller

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