For young trainer Shelbe Ruis, the year 2016 may end up being her most memorable… or close to the most memorable anyway, as in just under five months, the 25-year-old went from obtaining her trainer’s license, to saddling her first winner, to standing in the winner’s circle with her first stakes victor following Union Strike’s impressive 2 ¼-length score in the $300,000 Del Mar Debutante (GI).
After serving as an assistant to veteran trainer Cliff Sise Jr., Ruis decided earlier this year it was time to strike out on her own. In April, she obtained her trainer’s license and with the backing of her family — including her father Mick and her brother, former jockey Mick Ruis Jr. — in the form of support and the horses to train, by May 15 she’d saddled her first winner. On Saturday, she saddled her first stakes winners in one of the biggest races of the Del Mar meeting.
“This is literally a dream come true,” an emotional Ruis said. “We are so lucky to even be here, let alone win. I am so excited.”
Under jockey Martin Garcia, Union Strike stalked the early pace of :22.16, :45.25 and 1:10.13 set by the speedy Morganite, with the favored American Cleopatra following close behind. Then, after being forced to round the final bend while four-wide to avoid running over her tiring rivals, she was straightened out for clear running room out toward the middle of the track. The daughter of Union Rags roared down the stretch while furthest out from the rail and, soon after Garcia dropped his whip just before the eighth pole, Union Strike began to draw away for the victory, stopping the clock in 1:23.22 for the seven-furlong distance.
At odds of nearly 8-1, Union Strike returned $17.40, $7.80 and $4.40. Favored American Cleopatra held on for second as the 8-5 favorite, returning $3.60 and $2.60 while Sorrento Stakes (GII) winner Champagne Room was a nose back in third, paying $2.40 at odds of nearly 3-1. The $1 exacta was worth $26 and the 50-cent trifecta paid $68.55.
Noted and Quoted, Miss Southern Miss, Morganite and Holy Mosey rounded out the order of finish.
Union Strike was the only maiden in the field of seven, having finished second to American Cleopatra in her only previous start July 31. She earned $180,000 for her Debutante victory to bring her career earnings to $192,600. The flashy white-faced filly is the third maiden to win the Debutante, joining Cindy’s Hero (2000) and Sweet Catomine (2004).
“She’s a nice filly and everything went pretty smooth getting her ready for this race,” Ruis said of the Union Stike, who is owned by her family. “Her only issue was the gate. She broke slowly in her first race, but we worked on it and she broke good this time. She gets a little nervous in there, but I think the outside post really helped too. We always thought she’d turn out to be a really nice horse and she has so far. We didn’t have any worries going up against those other horses. They had all the pressure. We were the longshot, but we knew what we had, so we were really excited.”
Union Strike, who is out of the Smart Strike mare Classic Strike and, therefore, a half-sister to grade 2 winner Handsome Mike, was bred in Kentucky by the partnership of Pollack Farms, Brian Kahn and Taylor Brothers Property, et al. She was purchased for $375,000 as an April 2-year-old in training at the Ocala Breeders’ Sales Spring Sale of Two-Year-Olds in training earlier this year on the advice of agent David Meah, who liked her pedigree and conformation, but more so because there was just “something about her.”
“I knew the family from when I worked for [Handsome Mike’s trainer] Doug O’Neill,” Meah said. “I wasn’t even looking at her, but when she went by me I saw her and thought, ‘Wow she’s nice.’ I love working with the Ruis family, they are so good for racing. They got in on the Pegasus Cup. They are looking for good horses and they want to race. They told me to find some good ones and she was one of them.”
Next stop for Union Strike, according to Ruis, will likely be the Chandelier Stakes (GI) at Santa Anita on October 1 with the ultimate goal being the November 4 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies (GI).