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The Apprentice

June 22, 2004|Bob Mieszerski | Times Staff Writer

Two years ago, Mick Ruis had yet to gallop his first thoroughbred.

Now, the teenager from Poway -- he turned 17 on April 14 -- is in the top 10 in the jockey standings at Hollywood Park and has to be considered the front-runner in the race for the Eclipse Award as the country's outstanding apprentice.

Through Sunday, Ruis had ridden 105 winners, more than any other apprentice, and topped apprentice earnings with slightly more than $2 million in purses.

The second oldest of seven children, Ruis grew up in racing. His father, Mick Sr., has owned thoroughbreds for 10 years and bred horses for the last seven, and his namesake enjoyed going to the track.

"I went to Del Mar the most because it's the track that was the closest to us," the younger Ruis said. "I went to Santa Anita once or twice and Hollywood Park once. It was a cool atmosphere."

Even so, despite his size -- he is 5 feet 3 and about 105 pounds -- Ruis said he had no thoughts about becoming a jockey.

"It never crossed my mind," he said. "My uncle said it had crossed my dad's mind since the day I was born."

What helped change the young rider's outlook was an introduction to Gary Stevens in 2002. Stevens, the Hall of Famer currently riding in Europe for trainer Andre Fabre, had ridden for Ruis' father.

"Gary wanted to know if I wanted to ride," Ruis recalled. "He said he could see it in my eyes that I did. When I turned 16 [and would be eligible for a license], he said he would teach me how. That's when I really got into it, really started working hard, galloping horses."

Later that year, Ruis began exercising horses for Rick Taylor, the owner of Special T Thoroughbreds.

"I used to get up at 4:30 a.m., drive with somebody to Temecula [about 45 minutes away] seven days a week and get on about 8-14 horses a day," he said. "Rick let me get experience on his horses. He trusted me. He might have been hard on me, but everything he said was the truth. He helped me get to where I am now.

"When I started galloping, I was able to get horses to relax pretty well, even though I was inexperienced. I felt really comfortable on a horse and that's when I knew this is what I wanted to do."

Even so, there were moments when Ruis was ready to quit.

"It was tough,'' he said. "I didn't want to continue, but my dad said it was a good opportunity and it would eventually pay off. I listened to him. He was right. It did pay off."

The senior Ruis, who sold his construction company a couple of years ago, told his son that it was fine if he didn't want to ride, but, if that were the case, he would have to work instead at the family ranch in Descanso.

"After a couple of days, Mick decided he wanted to ride again," said Mick Sr., who added that he tried to see his son at least once a week. "There are no words to explain how proud I am of him. We're looking forward to Del Mar."

After his early mornings on horseback, Ruis, who was involved in an independent work-study program, spent time with his studies, then ran or biked to Poway High to work out with the wrestling team.

As a sophomore, Ruis finished second in the state in the 103-pound weight class. He won 29 of 30 matches.

"If I wouldn't have ridden and concentrated on wrestling, I might have been able to win the championship," he said. "But, I don't have any regrets. The opportunity I had to actually do both things was amazing.

"If I hadn't wrestled, I don't think I would be where I am today. Wrestling taught me a lot about discipline."

He got his jockey's license when he turned 16 and was on his first mount a month later at Hollywood Park. After beginning his career 0 for 22, he won aboard Aetha on June 19, 2003.

"I was really excited, but not as excited as I thought I would be," he said. "It took a lot of pressure off and everybody was happy. I think I felt a sense of relief more than anything."

Still, Ruis wasn't fully ready to compete here, his inexperience evident.

"Now that I look back, I was still too green to even have a license," he said. "It's dangerous out there. I still make green mistakes, just not as many."

At the urging of Stevens, veteran agent Ivan Puhich, and others, Ruis moved to Turf Paradise near Phoenix last September to gain experience. Ruis, who continued to ride locally on Wednesdays and Thursdays, more than held his own in Arizona.

In fact, when he left Turf Paradise in February, he had a commanding lead in the jockey standings, having won 110 races.

"Scott Stevens [Gary Stevens' older brother] had told Gary that it would be a good place for me to go," Ruis said. "I got a lot of business and it was the best move I've made besides coming back here.

"Scott immediately took me under his wing. He's like a second dad to me." Scott Stevens, who is riding at Canterbury Downs in Shakopee, Minn., said Ruis would continue to be successful even after losing his five-pound apprentice allowance after the Del Mar meeting. .

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