LAS VEGAS--For a horse that has not been in a race in nearly four months, it is amazing how much has been swirling around Bolt d’Oro.
He has had the first of what may be two changes of jockeys, he gave his connections a scare merely waking up one morning this winter, and he is no longer the consensus favorite to win the Kentucky Derby.
“When I first put him up he was bet all the way down to 7-1,” said Johnny Avello, who runs the race book at the Wynn Las Vegas. “At 7-1 he received zero money. Now is the time to move him back up.”
Ignoring for the moment the lack of value at short odds, this was like a lack of familiarity that bred bettors’ contempt. Without a recent race to make an impression, Bolt d’Oro was moved this week to 14-1 at the Wynn, dropping him to third choice behind two horses that were held steady in the futures – Sham Stakes winner McKinzie at 8-1 and last year’s 2-year-old champion Good Magic at 12-1.
“It’s tempting (to make a bet), because that’s really good odds,” Bolt d’Oro’s owner-trainer Mick Ruis said this week on VSiN’s racing podcast. “But if we win that race it’s a $2 million purse, and the horse is probably worth another $15 million. I don’t think I could put enough down to make a difference.”
The fork in the Derby handicapping road for Bolt d’Oro comes two weeks from Saturday, when he finally runs back in the $400,000 Grade 2 San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita. But not with Corey Nakatani. Instead it will be Javier Castellano riding. For now. Come Derby time it may be Víctor Espinoza.
“I wanted to have someone that could be here every day that could step in if Javier decided not to ride Bolt after the San Felipe,” Ruis said. “How better could we get than a guy who’s won three Kentucky Derbies, a couple Dubai World Cups and a Triple Crown? Víctor was real happy to come help us out.”
So how is it that Bolt d’Oro does not race yet this year but goes through potentially three jockeys?
First, Nakatani fell out of favor with Ruis after he took Bolt d’Oro parking-lot wide in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, turning him from an undefeated, 7-10 favorite into a third-place disappointment last November at Del Mar. So Ruis said last month that he would switch to Castellano. That is when Nakatani made it known through his agent – his son Matt – that he did not want to be Bolt d’Oro’s morning rider if he did not also get the call for races.
“I don’t really want to get into that,” Ruis said. “That ain’t going to get us nowhere.”
Because Castellano, based in the east, might choose to ride a different horse for another trainer on Derby day, Ruis recruited a Hall of Fame alternative with Espinoza, based in California. Espinoza took Bolt d’Oro through a workout at Santa Anita on Tuesday morning that was clocked at 1:01 1/5 over five furlongs.
“If (Castellano) decides he wants to stay back there on one of Chad Brown’s or (Todd) Pletcher’s horses that works for us,” Ruis said. “I don’t think I’m getting anything less with Víctor Espinoza.”
Then Ruis circled back to the earlier question.
“After I had to read that Corey was not going to be an exercise rider for Javier, I must have had 10 jocks come in – and these were Hall of Fame jockeys – saying, ‘I’ll work the horse for you in case something happens.’ We’re on no shortage of jockeys to ride Bolt d’Oro.”
The jockey shuffle and the hard feelings that may have come with it were nothing compared with the biggest threat to Bolt d’Oro’s 3-year-old campaign. That was a rude awakening at his barn in late December.
“We had a scare when he cast,” Ruis said, referring to when a horse sleeps in an awkward position that prevents him from getting up without the risk of getting hurt. “Boy, I had to cringe to watch him. We did everything we could to see if he was hurt. It just ended up being a pulled muscle.”
But it still cost Bolt d’Oro his chance to race two weeks ago in the $200,000 Grade 2 San Vicente Stakes, a seven-furlong sprint that is turning into a de facto Derby prep, considering it was a stepping stone for Nyquist and Exaggerator on their way to a one-two finish in the 2016 Kentucky Derby.
As Ruis pointed out, how Bolt d’Oro performs next month will go a long way toward re-establishing his place as a Derby favorite – or turning him into a modest long shot. As bettors await his return they have turned elsewhere to put their money, including one WinStar-owned, Bob Baffert-trained horse that has soared in futures wagering this past week.
Justify, a front-running colt sired by Scat Daddy, won by 9½ lengths as an odds-on favorite Sunday, making an impressive debut in a $54,000 maiden race at Santa Anita.
“I opened Justify this week at 300-1,” Avello said. “That’s a big number for a horse trained by Baffert, but it was awful late in the game. But he was bet at 300-1, and he was bet at 100-1, and he was bet at 50-1 and 30-1, and he’s down to 25-1. He’s still got a long way to go, but he might be really good.”
The very mention of Justify’s racing record – or lack of it – brings to mind the dog-eared fact that only Apollo in 1882 ever won a Kentucky Derby without having raced as a 2-year-old.
Then again, he commands respect simply because he is from the Baffert barn. So is the Wynn futures favorite McKinzie, which may tackle Bolt d’Oro in the San Felipe or wait until mid-March to race in the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park. Not only is he 3-for-3, but he carries the sentiment of fans who knew the recently deceased man for whom he was named – Los Alamitos track executive Brad McKinzie.
“There’s a little more rooting interest there, too,” Avello said, “but that horse has done nothing wrong. Three starts. They’re all good. It’s Baffert. Why not?”
Racing notes and opinions:
Text messages unearthed by a Melbourne tabloid reveal the depth and breadth of a drug scandal in Australian racing. The Herald Sun published the most incendiary texts that appear to confirm widespread doping of racehorses tied to the Aquanita Racing operation. Trainers Robert Smerdon and Liam Birchley were among those mentioned in the messages. They were among eight people who were hit with 271 charges that will be heard in April. I lived in Australia from 2004 to 2007, and I came to appreciate the hay, oats and water culture that supposedly permeated racing there. But I also came to look askance at Australians who looked down on American racing’s administration of equine medication. Do the words “glass houses” mean anything?
Trainer Mark Casse is one of 10 finalists for this year’s National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame class. He is among three trainers still in the running. Considering his success in both the U.S. and Canada he is worthy of getting in. Gio Ponti also deserves a place after winning three Eclipse Awards as a turf specialist. Nakatani and the retired Craig Perret stand out among the jockeys who made the cut. The other finalists include trainers John Shirreffs and David Whiteley; jockey Robby Albarado; and horses Blind Luck, Havre de Grace and Heavenly Prize.
British trainer Charlie Appleby said that Gold Town, the winner of last week’s UAE 2,000 Guineas at Dubai, will be sent to the Kentucky Derby. That was the gist of a story in the Racing Post, England’s answer to the Daily Racing Form. One problem. Gold Town has not qualified to run for any roses. If he wins the UAE Derby, then so be it. But the presumption over there is that that is a mere formality. Good luck with that. (And don’t get me started on the UAE Derby’s straw-man status as a Derby prep.)
The grandstand at Turfway Park in northern Kentucky will get a $25 million makeover if plans revealed this week become a reality. General manager Chip Bach did not establish a timeline for the project, which is largely being done to allow for the expansion of potentially profitable historical-racing games. Those are the betting machines that show old races without any specifics about the horses. If somehow this ultimately helps them get rid of the fake dirt on the track there, all the better.
This racing column is posted every Friday morning at VSiN.com. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod, also posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. This week’s guests are Bolt d’Oro’s owner-trainer Mick Ruis and horseplayer/author Peter Thomas Fornatale of the Daily Racing Form. Please subscribe and post a review where available at Apple Podcasts, Google Play Music and Stitcher.