The Montana wilderness is not the typical spot you would expect to find a $630,000 yearling colt learning the ropes of the racing game.
Studded with 25 alpine lakes and endless wildflower meadows, the foothills of the Jewel Basin offer expansive views of Flathead Valley to the west and Hungry Horse Reservoir to the east. It's also the location of the Ruis Ranch where the breaking and the daily exercising routines of young thoroughbred prospects takes place.
When owner/trainer Mick Ruis placed the winning bid at the 2016 Saratoga Yearling Sale, his prized dark bay colt was sent straightaway to Ruis' 80-acre ranch on the outskirts of Bigfork where he would spend the next five months in Big Sky country. Galloping one day in a pasture, the colt's exceptional athleticism was on full view from a picture window in ranch manager Ike Green's home. At the same time Green was watching the 2016 Summer Olympics, in particular Usain Bolt, the all-time great Jamaican sprinter.
A native of Wyoming, Green picked out the colt at the Saratoga Sale.
"He just looked like a man among boys to me," said Green, in an interview with the Flathead Beacon local newspaper. "When I turned him out in the pasture and he ran, he barely picked up his feet. He just floats."
The name Bolt d'Oro seemed a perfect fit.
If racing fans were looking forward to the next great rivalry in the $400,000 San Felipe Stakes on March 10, they got it, in spades. McKinzie and Bolt d’Oro-- Nos. 1 and 2 respectively in the Kentucky Derby Media Poll-- fought head-to-head the entire length of stretch with McKinzie prevailing by less than a head. But, then the inquiry sign flashed. The Santa Anita stewards took 12 minutes scrutinizing the stretch run and unanimously decided to disqualify McKinzie for drifting out and impeding his rival nearing the finish line. Despite the controversy, fans got treated to the scintillating race they were promised. The 1 1/16-mile San Felipe was run in 1:42.71.
After a suspect ride in the 2017 Breeders' Cup Juvenile, Ruis replaced Corey Nakatani with east coast-based Javier Castellano, a three-time Eclipse Award winner.
"I was concerned a little bit in the last part of the race, especially around the last sixteenth," said Castellano. “I think that my horse tried to hold back to force inside and we had some contact. They say he tried to intimidate my horse and that is why I couldn’t get past him. I wish it would’ve just been the two horses running straight in the race. We were the best two horses in the race. I just want to see who the better horse is.”
“That’s some bull... Javier had a better story, I guess,” said Bob Baffert, McKinzie's trainer. “I’m shocked, after the way he hit us at the top of the stretch. I don’t know what they’re looking at, but apparently he talked them into it. That’s why they should never talk to the jockeys, just watch it themselves.”
Bolt D'Oro vaulted to the top of the Kentucky Derby Leaderboard with the 50-point first place prize in the qualifier, increasing his total to 64. A son of Street Sense, McKinzie was awarded 20 bringing his total points to 40.
Bolt d'Oro is the son of Medaglia d'Oro who led all stallions in North America with seven different Grade-1 winners in 2017, including a pair of Breeders’ Cup winners. He also sired Hall of Famer Alexandra the Great and sure to be inductee Songbird. Bolt d'Oro's mother is Globe Trot, a daughter by stamina influence A. P. Indy.
In his 2017 debut Bolt d'Oro broke slowly but won handily at Delmar, then scored in the Del Mar Futurity. The colt turned in a monster effort with a 7 3/4 length romp in the Front Runner Stakes in late September, earning a 100 Beyer Speed Figure. He went off as the 3-5 favorite in the $2 million Breeders' Cup Juvenile but a slow break from post 11 had the colt running wide the entire trip. Bolt d'Oro covered a whopping 78 feet (about eight lengths) more than the victorious Good Magic, finishing third by 5 1/4 lengths. His season earnings totaled $576,000.
At his home base at Santa Anita, the powerful colt arrives early each morning and stands at the track entrance for a few minutes, taking everything in. The colt's calm demeanor and focus at the racetrack can be attributed to his time spent at Ruis' Montana ranch. The young horses spend a lot of time out in nature, reveling in clean air, high altitude and cold weather. When the young colts and fillies are broken they are taken on trail rides up through the mountains where they see deer and elk, bears and birds, wolves and mountain goats-- all living their lives in the wilderness while a short distance away the young horses live theirs, preparing for high-priced stakes races in southern California.
"Nowadays a lot of young racehorses go straight to the racetrack and their minds are not ready yet ready," Green explained. "We let them be horses. They travel alongside trucks and tractors that come down the road. While other horses might get spooked by a deer suddenly jumping out from a tree, it didn't faze Bolt. Nothing seemed to bother them when they get to those big races. When our horses leave for the racetrack, they've seen everything."
Known as "Mr. Ruis Cowboy," Green has worked at the ranch for two years and helps select horses at sales. He is responsible for the early training of Ruis' young thoroughbreds, starting with halter-breaking for homebreds to outfitting older colts and fillies with their first saddle and bridle. His wife Aidan also works in the ranch's operation. They have two young children.
Born and raised in a rough and tumble part of San Diego, Ruis left high school his senior year and took a job delivering scaffolding. He moved to Columbia Falls, Mont. to be near his sister, where he began a successful contracting business, which he eventually sold for $2.5 million and began to dabble in the thoroughbred industry. A few years later he built the even more successful company American Scaffolding which became the largest provider of scaffolding for U. S. Navy shipyards.
Over the past decade Ruis has spent millions on redevelopment projects in Columbia Falls. In March 2016 Ruis sold his majority ownership in American Scaffolding for a reported $78 million and returned to racing buying high priced colts and fillies yearlings at Saratoga and Keeneland as well some top 2-year olds at sales in California, Florida, and Maryland. Ruis began his training quest by peppering Santa Anita conditioners with questions during their backstretch morning conversations. He passed the trainer's test gaining his license in 2017.
Racing in the green, yellow and white silks of Ruis Racing, Bolt d’Oro now has four wins from five starts and $816,000 in earnings. His next race is slated to be the $1 million Santa Anita Derby run at 1 1/8 mile where he could take on wunderkind Justify on April 7.
New Kid in Town -- While Bold D'Oro and McKinzie are now a solid 1-2 in most Derby polls, they've got company coming up fast. In just his second start, on March 11, Justify was spectacular, again. Heading into the far turn, the striking chestnut colt pounced on pacesetter Shivermetimbers and in a flash was three lengths clear leaving the quarter pole. He cruised home to an easy 6 1/2 length victory in the one mile allowance race at Santa Anita being geared down to a gallop late and stopped the clock in 1:35.73.
“That was extremely impressive,” said jockey Mike Smith. “He passed the two turn test with flying colors. For a young horse, he has a great mind. That might allow him to catch up (on the Derby Trail) even sooner than a normal horse, because of the talent and the mind to go with it. That (acceleration around the far turn) came so natural. He switched leads and naturally opened up his stride and was two in front. I was like ‘Wow.' I didn't ask him to move and he just did that extremely easily. I know that was just a mile, but he could have galloped another quarter-mile if he had to."
A Kentucky-bred colt by Scat Daddy, he is out of Stage Magic, by Ghostzapper. Justify earned a 104 Beyer in capturing his career debut by an eye-catching 9 1/2 lengths at Santa Anita Feb. 18. A $500,000 purchase at the 2016 Keeneland September yearling sale, Justify is owned by China Horse Club, Head of Plains Partners, Starlight Racing, and WinStar Farm.
Still lacking any Derby qualifying points, Justify is expected to run in the $1 million Santa Anita Derby (Grade-1) on April 7. A first or second should put Justify in the starting gates for the Kentucky Derby on May 5. Then he must defy the “Curse of Apollo,” that no unraced two-year-old has gone on to win the Derby since Apollo in 1882.