Jockey Victor Espinoza saw something special in the Del Mar Futurity.
Owner and trainer Mick Ruis thought he had something very special in the FrontRunner Stakes.
Now, more than half a year later, they get to find out if Bolt d’Oro is the best horse in an extremely talented field Saturday when the 144th Kentucky Derby will be run at Churchill Downs.
Thing is, carrying the weight of high expectations, Bolt d’Oro hasn’t crossed the finish line first in three races since he won the FrontRunner on Sept. 30 at Santa Anita by 7¾ lengths.
Saturday he will have his third different jockey in four races.
It’s been a bumpy road.
“We were hopeful after the FrontRunner,” Ruis said. “People were saying he might be an early blooming 2-year-old who has a lot of maturing to do and other horses will catch up to him. I said BS.
“This horse was like a kid in junior high where some guys have beards and others haven’t even gone through puberty. Well, he was the kid who hadn’t gone through puberty. He was still growing into his body. He was winning on raw talent and heart, so we were hoping.”
Bolt d’Oro’s next test was the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, where he finished third as the favorite. It was Corey Nakatani’s last ride on the horse.
“It was a wide trip all the way around and with that short stretch at Del Mar, you ain’t going to make up much if you don’t get going,” Ruis said. “We got beat by Good Magic. He got a better trip. That’s all I can say about that.”
Bolt d’Oro got some time off, but as he prepared for his 3-year-old campaign, something seemed a little bit off. A nuclear scan was ordered and showed he had a pulled muscle. Nothing devastating but enough to delay his return to the track.
During the time off, Ruis hired East Coast-based Javier Castellano to be the new jockey.
“I just happened to run into Mick in the parking lot at Santa Anita,” Espinoza said. “He tells me Javier is going to ride his horse. I say, ‘What? What happened?’ I said, ‘I’m here.’ He said, ‘I didn’t know you wanted to ride him.’ I said, ‘I didn’t know you were going to take off the other jockey.’”
Bolt d’Oro came back on March 10 to run against McKinzie, an excellent colt for trainer Bob Baffert. After a classic stretch run, Bolt d’Oro came up a head short. But stewards ruled that McKinzie had interfered and Bolt d’Oro was placed first.
“Going into the San Felipe, we had only two good workouts,” Ruis said. “So, what he did in that race with his heart and his talent. Like you saw, when we got moved up to the winner’s circle, we had to almost carry him in there. He was just beat tired.”
What followed was the Santa Anita Derby where Justify, another top horse for Baffert and the Derby morning-line favorite, beat Bolt d’Oro by three lengths.
“You think he’s going to bounce [following a good race with a bad one] going into the Santa Anita Derby,” Ruis said. “We got a 101 Beyer [speed figure] in the San Felipe. He actually got a 102 Beyer in the Santa Anita Derby. I hope that was a bounce with a 102.
“We could have run around two times, but we weren’t going to beat Justify that day. But Bolt got a lot out of that race.”
After the race, Ruis found himself in need of a new jockey as a very conflicted Castellano chose to ride Todd Pletcher’s Audible in the Kentucky Derby. Castellano has a long relationship with Pletcher, who trains where Castellano usually rides.
Espinoza, a three-time Derby winner who also won the Triple Crown, was ready to take Castellano’s place.
“It just happened that Bolt d’Oro was open at the right time and I was there,” said Espinoza, who had worked the horse a few mornings.
“He has the ability to win the Kentucky Derby. He’s such a powerful horse. He’s really calm. He doesn’t get too excited when he’s around a lot of noise. That walk [from the barns] is wild. A lot of noise in there and some horses can’t take it that well. They can lose a lot of energy by the time they get to the gate.”
All of which brings the group to the first Saturday in May, as the 8-1 fourth choice.
Oddsmaker Mike Battaglia said after the draw on Tuesday that if there was no Justify, Bolt d’Oro might have been the race favorite.
If Bolt d’Oro wins on Saturday, it will be only the third time since 1913 that an owner-trained horse has won the Derby.
Ruis, who brought a contingent of about 25 to the Derby, is now ready for the regality of a Kentucky Derby.
“I’m buying a brand new white T-shirt to go underneath my Men’s Wearhouse sports jacket,” the sartorially challenged Ruis said. “I think it was $200-something. But it was buy one, get one free. So, if I have to go to the Preakness I’ll have my next jacket and it’ll be a new one.”
That might be worth a whole new suit.