07/19/2004 11:00PM

Mick Ruis: 17 and sensational

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"I'm a lot more confident now. I feel like I'm in control of the horse. I'm better at getting out of the gate, better at switching sticks, better at getting in rhythm with the horse. I have a better seat now, and better timing." - Jockey Mick Ruis

DEL MAR, Calif. - Mick Ruis went from wrestling high school kids to wrestling with his emotions last summer at Del Mar. A newly minted apprentice jockey, with considerable backing from Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens, Ruis was supposed to be the feel-good story of the summer. He was 16, bright, eager, and had the hometown fans pulling for him, since he was from Poway High School in San Diego County.

There was just one problem. He looked absolutely hopeless on a horse.

"I didn't have any confidence. I didn't think I had it," Ruis said during an interview this past weekend.

Enough to quit? "Almost," he said.

Ruis won four races at Del Mar last summer from just 67 mounts. When he left this circuit in September for Turf Paradise in Arizona, he had won all of seven races.

Since then, Ruis has won another 192 races. In a remarkable transformation, he blossomed during the winter at Turf Paradise, winning the riding title there with 132 victories. And at the recently concluded Hollywood Park meeting, Ruis won 36 races to finish fifth in the standings, behind only Tyler Baze, Victor Espinoza, Corey Nakatani, and Alex Solis. This year, Ruis has 114 victories, and his mounts have earned $2,414,938, which makes him a leading candidate for an Eclipse Award as champion apprentice jockey.

"I look back at everything, and I guess I just needed experience," Ruis said. "I'm a lot more confident now. I feel like I'm in control of the horse. I'm better at getting out of the gate,

better at switching sticks, better at getting in rhythm with the horse. I have a better seat now, and better timing."

Ruis was a successful high school wrestler. During his sophomore year, he was 30-1, losing only in the California state finals in the 103-pound division. But after moving to the track, he had to endure months of losing.

"I knew it wasn't going to be easy," he said.

After much cajoling from Stevens - who empathized with Ruis because he also wrestled in high school - Ruis decided to follow a career trajectory that had benefited both Baze and Stevens. Few remember it now, but Stevens had a brief, unsuccessful foray to Southern California when he was 16. Stevens went back to Les Bois Park in Idaho, then on to Longacres in Washington, where he set records before returning to Southern California for good. Baze gained invaluable experience five years ago at Turf Paradise, re-established himself in Southern California, and parlayed that into an Eclipse Award as champion apprentice.

Ruis, 17, and Baze, 21, are close friends. During the Hollywood Park meeting, they would carpool to and from the track, with Ruis driving in the morning and Baze on the return trip in the evening. "I make Tyler drive so I can sleep," Ruis said.

At Turf Paradise, Ruis won two races his second day there. "Things just started rolling," he said.

Ruis actually stayed longer at Turf Paradise than his mentor, Stevens, thought necessary.

"He kept calling and saying, 'You need to come back. If you want to win an Eclipse, you need to come back out here,' " Ruis recalled. "I wanted to finish the meet. He gave me one last call on March 10. He said if you don't come back right now, it'll be the biggest mistake of your life."

Ruis came right back.

The difference in Ruis between last year and this has caught the attention of many trainers on this circuit.

"He's kind of like P. Val.," said trainer Jeff Mullins, referring to Patrick Valenzuela, "in that horses just run for him. He doesn't do anything special. It's just a gift. He just sits on horses and they run for him. Not to mention, you get five pounds."

Ruis's five-pound apprentice allowance is scheduled to end on Aug. 15, but he will petition the California Horse Racing Board for an extension.

"He's more patient. He takes his time," said trainer Marcelo Polanco. "He listens more. Before, he wasn't willing to listen. He's very smart. For as young as he is, guys get cocky, and their head gets big, but so far his head's not big."

Ruis has had some contentious dealings with a few people at the track. Trainer Craig Lewis, who rode Ruis often last year but no longer uses Ruis, politely declined to be interviewed for this story. And Ruis has had some post-race arguments with established riders who privately said Ruis needs to listen more and talk less.

Much of that might be the expected relationships arising from a 17-year-old seeking to navigate his way in a grown-up world. To be sure, Ruis is bright. His vocabulary is far more sophisticated than the average high school junior, which Ruis would have been this past year. He is taking home correspondence courses, and will take a GED test in October to get his high-school diploma.

Ruis is the second-oldest of seven children of his father, also named Mick, and Michelle Green. The elder Ruis has a farm in Descanso, Calif., and owns racehorses. Ruis said he has always felt comfortable around adults, and likes being out on his own.

"I've always liked to be independent," he said. "On trips, people get homesick, but I like being away."

Adjusting to life away from home has been made easier by living with his agent, Craig O'Bryan.

"I don't think I would take in any teenager," said O'Bryan, who said of Ruis's development as a rider, "I don't think I've seen anyone come so far in such a short amount of time."

Now, a far more confident Ruis has returned to his hometown track. "I'm really excited. I'm jazzed," he said.