Mick Ruis beat his horse to this year's Kentucky Derby. Bolt d'Oro arrived Monday at Churchill Downs on a plane from California. Ruis got to town two days prior, because the 57-year-old comeback story just couldn't wait.
Couldn't wait to sleep in his new house, that is. Ruis and wife Wendy recently purchased Chestnut Farm, 4 miles from Keeneland on Lexington Road in Woodford County. The couple agreed to buy the 169-acre property sight unseen, visited it two weeks later, then waited four months to spend their first night, exactly one week before the Derby.
"The place has so much character; I think the house was built in the 1840s," said Ruis on Tuesday outside Bolt d'Oro's barn. "When we get through with training on Thursday and Friday we're going back to sleep there again."
That's the thing about Ruis, who has successfully built and sold two companies, found himself $1 million in debt after his first leap into the Thoroughbred industry, then jumped back in again. When Mick Ruis goes in, he goes all in.
And, oh yeah, he owns and trains Bolt d'Oro, a two-time Grade 1 winner who at 8-1 is the co-fourth choice for Saturday's 144th Run for the Roses.
"I'm not feeling like, oh, wow, this is a once-in-a-lifetime thing. I plan on being here next year with another horse," Ruis said Tuesday. "But I've come to appreciate how hard it is to get here."
Ruis got here through hard work. A high school dropout in his hometown of El Cajon, near San Diego, Ruis went to work for a scaffolding company and ended up owning the business, Quality Shoring, which he sold for $2.5 million in 2003.
That gave him the money he needed to feed his love of Thoroughbred racing. His initial entry didn't go well, however. Five years later, and with six months still left on his business non-compete agreement, Ruis was divorced with three kids and $1 million in debt. He sold his horses and moved to Montana, where his sister lived. While shopping for a house, he noticed the picture of a woman on a wall. That woman is now his wife.
After the non-compete expired, Ruis returned to San Diego and started American Scaffold, which he sold 80 percent of to John Lehman, former secretary of the Navy under Ronald Reagan, for $78 million in March 2016. Ruis still runs the company, which works with an estimated 50 Navy ships daily.
The sale gave Ruis the capital to return to take a second shot at the horses. Only this time, he got in big, first paying $375,000 for future Grade 1 winner Union Strike, trained by daughter Shelbe. He then paid $630,000 for Bolt d'Oro, a WinStar Farm bred son of Medaglia d'Oro, whom Ruis sent to his Montana ranch to run with the elk for five months.
Ruis currently has 32 horses in training, all of whom he himself trains with the knowledge he gleaned by picking the brains of Hall of Famers such as Richard Mandella and Bob Baffert.
"Mick has a business background and he has a strong passion for horse racing," Baffert said recently. "He's surrounded himself with good people and he's got a big, beautiful horse that can really run."
As a 2-year-old, Bolt won the Del Mar Futurity and FrontRunner Stakes, making him the Breeders' Cup Juvenile favorite. Alas, a wide trip left him third behind winner Good Magic and runner-up Solomini.
A pulled muscle pushed Bolt's 2018 debut to the March 10 San Felipe, where he finished second to McKinzie but was placed first by disqualification. "I had to pick him up in the winner's circle he was so tired after that race," Ruis said.
On April 7, Bolt lost by 3 lengths to Baffert's Justify in the Santa Anita Derby, but still posted an impressive 102 Beyer Speed Figure, leaving some to believe he has been overlooked this week.
"I'm hoping so, because you don't know how much money I brought to bet on him," Ruis said. "We had to bring in three different compartments so they didn't think we were laundering money."
Meanwhile, Ruis wants to repay people who have helped him along the way, including Spendthrift Farm owner B. Wayne Hughes, the 84-year-old Public Storage magnate. Bolt d'Oro is to stand as a stallion at Spendthrift, so as a Christmas present to Hughes, Bolt will run in the Spendthrift silks Saturday.
"I've been in racing a long time and I've never seen anyone do that. It's a very nice thing," said Hughes at Tuesday's post position draw. "The only problem with it is I'm hoping Mick doesn't think this is my last Derby. I plan on being back here next year."
Whatever happens Saturday, so does Mick Ruis.
Kentucky Derby 2018 field