The last and only horse from Montana to win the Kentucky Derby was a horse named Spokane in 1889. They called Spokane the “Spirit Horse of the Rockies,” and said that the big, muscled-up colt that was born in the wild and rugged territory (Montana would not become a state until six months after Spokane’s win in Louisville) had “desperately outran the raking claws” of a mountain lion that had left scars on the horse’s body. Others claimed that the horse was fed a steady diet of a mysterious tea made from wildflowers picked by medicine men near the Flathead River, a concoction that helped the valley produce the strongest and healthiest men and the fastest and stoutest horses. It stood to reason that the tea also now gave Spokane his powers.
Spokane, like most horses from the American West, was never given much of a chance. His odds in the Kentucky Derby were 6–1. By contrast, the 1888 3-year-old champion horse Proctor Knott, named for the governor of Kentucky, was sent off as the odds-on favorite at 1–2. Proctor Knott was once called “the greatest horse that ever looked through a bridle.” But he would do no better than second place against Spokane, who caught Proctor Knott in the stretch and won the mile-and-a-half race in 2:34.5, a track record that wasn’t broken until the length of the race was shortened to a mile and a quarter.
Much of the myth of Spokane was crafted after the horse had already won the Kentucky Derby and the American Derby. Spokane had defeated the prized (and more expensive) horses from Kentucky breeding operations, and his legend as a superhorse grew after his Derby win. But when Spokane’s owner, the mining magnate Noah Armstrong, had originally sent the horse to his ranch in Montana, it was because he had low hopes for the colt. He thought the horse was “puny” and “out of proportion.” Once there, however, according to one Chicago writer, “the raw-boned brute sniffed the rare air of the Rockies, and was fed the wildflower of the Indians. He grew big and lusty, his sides expanded, his limbs became rock-strong, and turning into his third year the Illinois outcast was a thing of equine beauty.”
The medicine men and wild animals of the Montana wilderness never caught on among horse racing’s elite. In the 129 years since, no other horse raised in Montana has won the Derby, or even made a ripple in the sport. Few training operations exist in Montana; its terrain too rocky and rugged, its weather too cold, its distance from the country’s major race tracks too far. But there are still a few horses raised in Montana, and a few cowboys there, too. One of those horses just might win the Kentucky Derby this year. If he does, one of those cowboys just might be the reason why.
Ike Green grew up in the Flathead Valley of Montana, surrounded by horses. His grandfather was a trainer in Colorado, and Green’s family always had horses to ride. In the summers Green would work with his grandfather on the racetracks in Colorado. During the school year, Green would ride horses at the Flathead County Fairgrounds. As a teenager Green’s obsession with horses was insatiable. “I’d go down there and get on 15 or 20 horses every night after school,” he says. After high school, Green, who is now 38, traveled the horse racing circuit and exercised horses until trainer Cody Autrey hired him as an assistant. Green loved working with horses. He also loved life on the road, especially the gambling, drinking, and partying.
While working for Autrey in Texas training horses for the southern racing circuit in 2006, Green met a jockey named Mick Ruis Jr. Green and Ruis Jr. struck up a friendship. Eventually Ruis Jr. introduced Green to his father, Mick Ruis Sr., an unconventional owner of a stable of racehorses who was making a name for himself in the California horse-racing community. Ruis Sr. had grown up poor in the small town of El Cajon, California. He’d dropped out of high school and worked for a scaffolding company, but in the early 1990s, when Ruis Sr. was in his mid-20s, he moved to Columbia Falls, Montana, as a single father of three with $6,000 to his name. There he started his own scaffolding company, which he grew into one of the largest businesses of its kind in the United States, becoming a multimillionaire in the process.
Ruis Sr. loved gambling on horses, and, once he had the money, decided to get involved in the sport as an owner. “It was a time in my life where I could do whatever I wanted to do,” Ruis says. “I wanted to slow down and get serious into racing.” He didn’t want to trust other trainers to take care of his horses, however, so he spent four years learning to train horses and getting his own training license. “There’s an old Charlie Whittingham saying,” says Ruis, referring to the Hall of Fame trainer of the 1989 Kentucky Derby winner Sunday Silence. “‘Keep them in the dark and feed them shit like a mushroom.’ I didn’t want to be treated like a mushroom no more. I wanted to learn it myself.”
Owning and training race horses is an expensive and time-consuming affair, however. Many of Ruis’s horses were cheap and unsound. They required time and attention and returned little money from racing. His debt grew to $1 million, forcing him to leave the racing business. Four years later, however, Ruis was the largest provider of scaffolding to the U.S. Navy. He sold his stake in his company for $78 million and beat a path straight back to horse racing, this time with the money to compete with the best.
Ruis went on a buying spree at horse auctions across the country, with a bankroll that allowed him to bid against the major racing stables and buy the highest-quality horses available. He enlisted his son’s friend Ike Green to come work for him. By 2013, Green was married and had settled down after his partying days, and had caught the elder Ruis’s attention — he was trustworthy and had an eye for young horses with potential. Ruis asked Green to help him identify which horses to buy. The offer surprised Green, who didn’t think he had much in common with Ruis. For one thing, Ruis loved the day-to-day action at the racetrack, while Green preferred hunting in the woods. Ruis wasn’t much of a horse person, didn’t grow up around animals, while Green had been around horses his entire life. Ruis was outgoing and boisterous, Green more laid-back and soft-spoken. But none of that mattered to Ruis, the self-made millionaire, who was used to following his gut. It told him that Green knew horses and could be trusted. So he made him an offer. According to Green, in exchange for selecting the horses at auction that Ruis would buy, Ruis would share 1 percent of those horses’ future winnings with Green. A standard agreement in these arrangements is a commission on the purchase price, usually 5 percent, but Green quickly agreed. “I think I sold myself short,” Green says. He had spent his career at proletariat racetracks working for the sport’s B- and C-list trainers. Ruis and Green each were about to step into the big leagues for the first time, learning as they went.
For two years, Ruis and Green spent over $3 million on horses. Consignors had never heard of Ike Green or his boss before. When Green would ask them to bring their horses out to let him inspect them before an auction, they would rush him, skeptical that the Montana cowboy had the money to spend on their prime horseflesh. “When you show up in Saratoga in a cowboy hat and boots and ask them to bring their horses, they kind of roll their eyes and think you’re wasting their time,” says Green.
During the second year of Ruis and Green’s buying spree, Green showed up alone at the Fasig-Tipton sale in Saratoga Springs, New York, one of the most prestigious horse auctions in the world. Each year this sale attracts wealthy scions of industry, celebrities, and usually a few members of Saudi royalty to bid against each other for the top crop of yearlings out of world-class sires and dams. Ruis was supposed to meet Green for the sale but couldn’t make it. He gave Green permission to bid up to $450,000 on whichever was his top choice at the sale.
Of the 250 horses, Green had singled out a strong-looking son of Medaglia d’Oro, one of the most sought-after stallions in the world, whose stud fee is $200,000 per live foal. Green entered a bidding war with Rick Porter from Fox Hill Farm, one of the top stables in the United States and home to a number of stakes champions. As the bidding increased, Ruis kept texting Green that he could go higher. Eventually Porter bowed out and Ruis was the owner of a $630,000 yearling, the most expensive horse he’d ever purchased. When Ike Green was signing the ticket to take possession of their new horse, a reporter asked him where he was taking the horse. “Bigfork, Montana,” Green replied. The reporter was stunned that a horse of this caliber would be hauled off to somewhere like Montana.
“I thought he might have lost consciousness,” Green said of the reporter. “Then he just walked away. That’s no bullshit. I suppose he figured we were crazy or stupid.”
Before a horse can be trained to race, it first has to be “broke,” which is to say it needs to learn to accept its equipment, obey commands, and welcome a rider on its back. These are not easy skills for a young horse to learn, and opinions on how to teach them have differed for as long as horses have pulled and carried men and machines. Even the term “broke” is a throwback to the old West, when cowboys convinced wild horses to let them ride them by holding on while the horse furiously tried to buck the rider off, “breaking” the horse’s spirit through force. Today, horses aren’t actually “broken” at all, but are instead coaxed slowly over a period of months. The process is typically conducted with deliberate caution. In Ocala, Florida, where the weather is pleasant and there are several training centers to prepare yearlings for racing, horses are pampered in comfortable paddocks and led slowly around soft training tracks, sometimes kept in stalls most of the day to minimize the risk of injury. But Green thought young horses do better to run free in a pasture. A horse could be injured anywhere, anytime, including in a stall. “The more room they got, the safer they are.”
Ruis had plenty of room for his new and expensive horses. In 2016, as he was getting back into racing, Ruis found an 80-acre ranch on the outskirts of Bigfork, Montana, near the Jewel Basin of the Flathead National Forest. Green thought the Montana ranch was the perfect place for him to break Ruis’s new yearlings, rather than an ostentatious training center in Ocala. He believed that the cold climate and the mountain bent grass would make their horses stronger, healthier, and more resilient. And he believed that letting their yearlings run free in pastures on a real ranch in the Montana foothills would give the horses a psychological edge: They’d be happier and better behaved.
Green proposed his idea to break in the yearlings at Bigfork to Ruis, but the millionaire was hesitant. For one thing, the Bigfork ranch was 1,500 miles from Southern California, where Ruis stabled and trained his horses for the racetrack. That was a long way if he needed to bring any of the horses back for some rest or recuperation if they got hurt while training or racing. More importantly, however, he wasn’t in love with the idea of his expensive yearlings running in wide-open fields at full stride. All it would take would be one errant step into a hole or a trip over a tree root to break one of these horses’ legs and end their racing career before it even began — and put Ruis out hundreds of thousands of dollars. “But Ike said, ‘If they’re gonna get hurt they’ll get hurt running around or hurt on the track. Let’s let them run around and get strong,’” Ruis says. “My kids are wrestlers and it made sense to me.”
Ruis brought Green and his wife, Aidan, to the ranch in Bigfork along with 10 yearlings, including the $630,000 purchase from Saratoga. He asked the Greens to live on the ranch and run the operation for him, breaking all of the yearlings and then sending them to Ruis at the end of the winter to begin training for the races. When their plane landed, Green remarked that he hadn’t been back in Montana in 20 years. Ruis was surprised. “You’ve been here before?” he asked Green. Ruis had no idea that Green had graduated from high school a few miles from his Bigfork ranch. Though Ruis lived much of the year in Montana, he had met Green on the racetrack circuit. He never had any idea that Green was from Ruis’s adopted home. Surely fate had brought the two men together in this place.
Ruis had wanted to name the new horse after himself, but then remembered that he had already named one of his earlier racehorses after himself, so the name was no longer available. Dismayed, Ruis gave the Greens the responsibility of naming his new prized purchase, and Aidan chose Bolt d’Oro, after the horse’s sire and the Jamaican track star Usain Bolt. Shortly after Bolt d’Oro arrived at the ranch, Green put him out in the pasture to run. “You could see the way he moved against the ground that he was superior to the other horses. It was effortless. He just floated across the ground there,” Green said. “He sort of trained himself. He didn’t just run around, he did it like he was training.”
Aidan Green would send videos of Bolt d’Oro to Mick Ruis in California, the eager young horse all alone in the pasture, running as fast as he could from one end to the other, the Rocky Mountains towering behind him. “It used to make me cringe,” Ruis says. He had surrendered to the idea of breaking the horse in Montana in principle, but in practice it was harder to handle than he’d thought.
Typically a yearling is given weeks to get used to their equipment, bearing weight on their back, and accepting a rider, spending a few days getting used to each new development in the process. They will have a rider sit on them as they stand still in a stall, and then graduate to walking slowly in a shedrow with a rider on their back. Some trainers will even gently flop themselves over a horse, their bellies laid across the horse’s back, to get the horse used to bearing weight before they attempt to sit on them. Ike Green doesn’t bother with all of that. “I just get on.” With Bolt d’Oro, Green was on the horse’s back and riding him around the ranch within a few days of the first time he saddled him. “I’d ride him up around lakes, through trees, on trails,” says Green. “Horses that don’t have class do a lot of stupid shit. Buck, flip over. But Bolt took to it pretty quick.”
That winter, while most of Bolt d’Oro’s contemporaries were being led carefully around a shedrow in balmy Florida, “bubble-wrapped” as Ruis likes to say, Ike Green was riding Bolt d’Oro through wooded trails in the frigid mountain air, where Green would hunt whitetail deer or watch bears roaming the mountainside. While other yearlings-in-training were being gently patted on their noses and having trainers calm them with soothing whispers, Bolt d’Oro was carrying Green alongside roaring tractors and herds of cattle on neighboring working ranches. Green rode Bolt d’Oro for 45 days before finally giving the horse a month and a half break in the pasture.
“A lot of these yearlings go from the sale to the stall,” says Green of other trainers’ methods. Not every trainer wants to give a horse time in the pasture where they can recuperate and grow, where they can simply be a horse. “They sit there until they put a quick 30-day breaking on them and straight to breezing an eighth of a mile. They don’t grow as good. Everything about it is better this way. We turn ’em out for a few days after they get here. We put 45 to 60 days on ’em riding, turn ’em out, let ’em grow for 90 days around the ranch and the countryside.”
Green says this gives Ruis’s horses an additional advantage over their opponents. In addition to being physically tougher from growing up in the harsh Montana winters, they have a psychological edge as well. “Our 2-year-olds are a lot more well behaved than these guys who break ’em in at Ocala at these training centers. Our horses have seen a little bit of everything. You see these horses get to the races, the big crowd around the paddock, they get all worked up. None of our horses have ever turned a hair in the paddock.”
Ruis agrees with Green. “I think they mature in a better way, they grow up in a different environment. If an owl flies out of a tree or a rabbit down the trail, that’s not spooking them,” Ruis says. The more typical racehorse is more easily set off. “If you have a windy day on the track and a trash bag blows across the track the horses freak out. They’ve never seen it before. They think it’s a monster.”
Other trainers, though they wouldn’t themselves break and train their horses in Montana, can see the logic behind Green’s philosophy, particularly when preparing a horse for something as uniquely grueling and chaotic as the Kentucky Derby. “I thought it was a little different when he bought that farm up there,” says Alex Hartman, a trainer based at Turf Paradise in Phoenix. “When you get to $400,000 or $600,000, that’s a big investment. You can’t take a shot at them getting hurt or nothing. It’s freezing cold in Montana. They might get a snowstorm. They don’t get the blankets. Guys in Kentucky would be throwing a blanket on them every time they turn around.”
JB McKathan, who broke the Triple Crown winner American Pharoah at McKathan Brothers Training Center in Ocala, says that it’s true horses like cold weather. “We have cold mornings in Florida, and the horses love it. They’re up bucking and farting and raising hell.” But McKathan believes there’s a limit to how much cold a young horse will tolerate. “It can’t work in Montana the whole time. The climate will not allow you to get a young horse ready.”
McKathan also understands the logic behind wanting to give young horses some room to run. “In the early breaking phases it makes a huge difference in a horse’s temperament than being in the stall all the time,” he says. But in contrast to Green turning Bolt d’Oro loose in the Montana wilderness, the McKathan brothers keep their horses close. “Our paddock is small so they can’t go too far or too fast. It’s a 130-by-130 field, not a wide-open field. It’s all about safety. You don’t just take a bunch of horses and turn them out in a hundred-acre field and think it’s gonna go great. You have to have control.”
The Santa Anita–based trainer Eric Kruljac says the jury is still out on whether or not Montana bent grass and snowstorms would make for stronger horses. Ruis’s ranch is still relatively young. “You’d need at least 20 or 30 foals a year over a longer period of time to know,” Kruljac says. He believes Green is crediting Montana for elements of Bolt d’Oro’s success when Green rightly deserves the credit. “To me it’s just animal husbandry. A good horseman catches an illness early or an injury in the minor stages. I think you get that with Ike and Aidan. They are true horse people through and through.”
Once Bolt d’Oro had his six weeks off playing in the grass, Green put the horse through an exercising and conditioning program. By the end of 2016, Bolt d’Oro was ready to race, and Green sent him to California in January 2017 so that Mick Ruis could begin training the horse for the racetrack. It was a bittersweet departure, because Green knew that his star pupil was destined for something great. In preparation for his first race, Bolt d’Oro worked out for Ruis by running 5/8ths of a mile in 59 seconds, the fastest time of any of the 93 horses that worked out at that distance at Del Mar that morning. Bettors noticed the speedy workout, and made Bolt d’Oro the odds-on favorite in his debut race, which he won handily. Ruis immediately entered Bolt d’Oro into a Grade I race, the highest level of competition in horse racing, and he won again. After winning his third race in a row, Ruis entered Bolt d’Oro in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, effectively the World Championship for 2-year-old horses. Bolt d’Oro stumbled at the start of the race and still managed to close enough ground to get third. The horse that won that race, Good Magic, edged out Bolt d’Oro in the voting for the Eclipse Award for Two-Year-Old of the Year. The ever-competitive Mick Ruis wasn’t happy. He told BloodHorse, “Five minutes after they announced the winner, my competitiveness said, ‘I just want to know where Good Magic is coming back, because that’s the race I want to ship into.’”
Entering 2018, Bolt d’Oro’s 3-year-old season, Ruis gave the horse some time off to rest and recuperate from soreness. A rematch with Good Magic, who was sent to Florida to race at Gulfstream, would have to wait. In his first start of the year, the $400,000 San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita in March, Bolt d’Oro would face another up-and-coming star, McKinzie, who was undefeated in three starts and trained by the superstar Bob Baffert, who also trained the Triple Crown winner American Pharoah. In that race McKinzie, not Bolt d’Oro, was the betting favorite. The two horses battled in a furious and physical finish, racing side-by-side in the stretch. At the wire, McKinzie finished a head in front, but the stewards disqualified the horse for bumping Bolt d’Oro in the final 16th of a mile, which they ruled as interference.
Baffert, who has won the Kentucky Derby four times, called the ruling “bullshit.” Ruis said it wouldn’t have mattered to him either way. “This wasn’t really the race we were pointing for,” he said, referring to the Kentucky Derby, which is run the first Saturday in May.
Disqualification or not, after the San Felipe, Bolt d’Oro sat atop the list of the best 3-year-olds in the United States and was made the betting favorite to win the Kentucky Derby, right above McKinzie and Good Magic. Three weeks later, Baffert announced that McKinzie had injured his hock, possibly while in his stall. The injury wasn’t serious but it would require rest, forcing Baffert to pull McKinzie from early April’s Santa Anita Derby, where he had hoped to rematch with Bolt d’Oro in a final prep before Kentucky. In his place Baffert brought another of his stable of elite contenders, Justify, who had run only twice but had won both of his races. Justify won the race wire-to-wire, with Bolt d’Oro finishing right behind him in second. No other horses in the field ran anywhere close.
After the race Baffert gave Bolt d’Oro credit. “Those two beat the rest of that field by a wide margin, so they’re serious horses. You just need racing luck [to win like that]. You’ve got to have the racing luck. Justify and Bolt are the two best horses, and you have to give credit to Bolt. He doesn’t quit. He’s right there every time.” The stunning finish, however, led the betting public to make Justify the new favorite to win the Kentucky Derby.
Bolt d’Oro came back to the barn after the Santa Anita Derby with a bloody hoof, having clipped his front and hind hooves together. “We washed it off and checked it out. It was like getting a splinter,” Ruis said after the race. “In three days you won’t even know it’s there.” Unlike his rival Baffert and his horse McKinzie, Mick Ruis isn’t pulling Bolt d’Oro from training, and he plans to be in Kentucky. “We’re ready to rock ’n’ roll,” he said.
Alex Hartman says he expects the horse will be ready for the Kentucky Derby. Already Bolt d’Oro has bounced back from difficult races and injuries that would have sidelined other horses, and Montana likely has something to do with it. “I think it gets them fit naturally. Bolt’s a little stronger because he’s been out there training on dirt paths and hills and stuff. Bolt is tough, he’s solid. You gotta say that Montana has done some good.”
On Derby day, while Bolt d’Oro attempts to make history, Ike Green won’t be in Louisville. He will be watching on television from home in Montana. While breaking a yearling in the fall, he was thrown off the horse’s back. Green’s foot was stuck in the stirrup, and the horse dragged him while she ran, fracturing Green’s tibia and fibula. He hasn’t been back on a horse since and still can’t feel anything from the ankle down. The injury likely precipitated a rift between Green and his boss. He says Ruis has reneged on their handshake agreement that Green recieve 1 percent of everything Bolt d’Oro earns, and that he’s now earning “minimum wage.”
When asked about his agreement with Green, Ruis didn’t respond. Whatever their arrangement, and whatever the circumstances, Green admits he didn’t have a contract. “I gave him a handshake and he gave me the finger.” It was a rookie mistake, and one Green says he should have seen coming. Even Mick Ruis Jr. had encouraged Green to sign a contract. The senior Ruis had a reputation for being a tough businessman, especially when it came to his horses. In 2016, before Ruis had his trainer’s license, his daughter Shelbe trained his horses until they severed their business relationship over “a difference of opinion,” and Ruis moved his horses from his daughter’s barn to the trainer Craig Dollase. “It wasn’t fun for any of us, for her or us,” Mick Ruis said at the time. It all appears to be water under the bridge. Today, Shelbe works as Mick’s assistant trainer, continuing the work that Green began with Bolt d’Oro in Montana.
On the last week of 1886, Noah Armstrong was visiting Spokane Falls, Washington, when he received a telegram that a colt had been foaled on his Montana ranch. During his visit, Armstrong had heard a local legend that lingered with him, and it made the news that much more meaningful. Some 30 years earlier, a U.S. Army colonel named George Wright had led 700 troops into battle against the Palouse tribe, which earlier that year had defeated 152 American troops. As Wright pursued the Palouse, he and his men rounded up 800 of the Palouse’s horses, and Wright ordered they shoot and kill every horse. The slaughter took a day and a half to complete, and when it was finished the soldiers rode on, leaving the mass of carcasses to rot into a sea of bones.
The legend told to Armstrong was that the Palouse believed that one day a spirit horse would return and possess all of the speed, endurance, and strength of the dead, and this spirit horse would conquer all of the horses of the earth. Armstrong believed his Montana horse was that spirit horse. After winning the Kentucky Derby, Spokane went on to win the Clark Handicap and the American Derby, a feat never before accomplished. He was forced to retire early, however, after turning over in his own stall and injuring his spine.
Despite all that has transpired between Green and Ruis, Green’s opinion of Bolt d’Oro hasn’t changed from the day the horse arrived on the ranch. One day in 2016, while riding the $630,000 horse down a dusty country road from the Bigfork ranch into town, a neighbor stopped him and complemented his good-looking horse. Green told his neighbor he was looking at the 2018 Kentucky Derby winner. The neighbor likely thought Green was joking, but two years on it looks like the prophecy could come true.
Bolt d’Oro may not be a spirit horse, but he had eaten the same bent grass and roamed the same mountain trails as Spokane, and had been prepared for battle in a manner unlike any he will face in the Kentucky Derby. Ike Green may not be a Flathead medicine man, but he had sat upon as many Montana racehorses as anyone, on the track and trail alike, and he knew Bolt d’Oro was truly a thing of equine beauty.