After the Racetrack: Finnick the Fierce finds his forever friend

November 1st, 2022

Who says you need two eyes to be great?

Horse racing has seen its share of one-eyed horses accomplish big things. Mighty Heart won two of the three Canadian Triple Crown classics in 2020. Pollard’s Vision had multiple graded stakes victories in the early 2000s for trainer Todd Pletcher.

In 2020, another one-eyed wonder Finnick the Fierce was on his way to the Kentucky Derby (G1), his journey an improbable one. Now, with his racing days behind him, ‘Finn’ has traded the racetrack for the trail, taking Jackie Barr on quite a journey in a short time. Their story shows exactly what a second career can do for a Thoroughbred—and for his human.

One-eyed wonder

Aspiring breeder Paige Gilster found the Canadian-bred mare Southern Classic at a North Dakota rescue center and purchased her for $500. Still in college, Gilster was looking to breed the mare and then sell the foal to help build her business. The young breeder saw potential in Southern Classic’s pedigree, which features horses like Santa Anita H. (G1) winner Southern Image and Prince of Wales S. victor Regal Classic. Gilster sent Southern Classic to Darby Dan Farms and stallion Dialed In in 2016, and was rewarded with a strapping chestnut colt she named Finnick.

RELATED: Kentucky Derby pedigree profile: Finnick the Fierce

Finnick was a gorgeous young horse with a conformation that promised ability, but the foal had a problem: a congenital cataract in his right eye. She sent Finnick to Hagyard Equine Medical Institute, where Dr. Arnaldo Monge saw the eye and recommended its removal. After the eye was removed, Monge told Gilster to give him a call if she ever decided to sell the colt. Knowing that selling the colt, now named Finnick the Fierce, was not going to yield the results she hoped for, Gilster sold Finnick to Dr. Monge. To train Southern Classic’s colt for the races, Monge sent him to Rey Hernandez.

A native of Guatemala, Hernandez had worked his way up from hot walker to trainer and conditioned Finnick for his debut at Horseshoe Indianapolis. Finnick won and then tried stakes company in the Kentucky Jockey Club (G2) at Churchill Downs, where he finished second behind Silver Prospector and earned qualifying points toward the 2020 Kentucky Derby. A third in the Arkansas Derby (G1) behind Nadal and King Guillermo earned Finnick more points, enough to get him in the gate for the Kentucky Derby. Finnick was a long way from that North Dakota rescue center where Paige Gilster found Southern Classic.

RELATED: Kentucky Derby contender profile: Finnick the Fierce

Alas, the Cinderella story was not meant to be. A slight tug on his right side was causing on-track veterinarians concern while training up to the Derby. Monge opted to scratch Finnick out of an abundance of caution and give the horse a break until early 2021. Finnick returned to the races with a win in an allowance, but it was clear that he would not again rise to the same level of competition. Monge, his wife Thena, and Hernandez (who also owned a piece of Finnick) decided to retire him and send him on to the next thing. But what?

Enter Jackie Barr, an experienced horsewoman who was looking to get back in the saddle with the right horse.

The right one

A rider since her earliest years, Barr had started with hunter/jumpers, getting her first horse when she was in fifth grade. That led her to pursue an equine management degree at the University of Kentucky and then a stint at a dressage farm in Maryland and at Millennium Farm in Kentucky, where she worked with foals and rehab horses.

“Finn was born at Millennium. He was a weanling there, but I don’t know if I worked with him or not,” she recalls of her possible early meeting with the Derby contender. Barr’s time at Millennium also put her in contact with both Gilster and Monge, relationships that would lead to something special in late 2021.

After his retirement, Finnick returned to Monge’s farm while Monge and his wife looked for the horse’s next home. They didn’t want to send Finnick to a place where he might be resold; they wanted him to stay nearby so that they could maintain contact. Instead, they gifted him to Barr, who was looking for her first horse since her early years riding. This ‘fierce’ gentleman was the right one from the get-go.

As Finnick the Fierce, whom Barr affectionately calls Finn, got to know his new person, she got the idea to bring him to the Retired Racehorse Project 2022 Thoroughbred Makeover and National Symposium. Since the two were still building their relationship, she opted for the competitive trail riding division.

“I tried to expose him to as much as I could,” Barr shared about the process. “We used flags, fence posts. Anything I could find that could create obstacles for him. We used chicken coops on the farm that are green. I would ride him around those as much as possible. We worked through that, and it went well.” So well, that Barr was excited to try a turn at October’s Thoroughbred Makeover. However, Finn had other ideas.

Spooked by crowd noise as they were preparing for their turn on the course, Finn reared, stepped backward into a shallow ditch, and fell over. Thankfully, both Barr and the former Derby contender were unhurt, but that meant they were a scratch. She was able to walk him around the course, though, another opportunity to bond with the horse that has come to occupy a special place in her heart.

“From start to finish, it (the Makeover) was amazing. The only not amazing part was when I was on the ground. Great people, great horses, all these people who were so happy to be there,” she reflects on their moment. “I got to ride him at the Kentucky Horse Park, which was a bucket list thing of mine.”

At only five years old, Finn has many years ahead of him and Barr is ready to see what they can do next.

A bright future

With the Makeover behind them, Barr is thinking about trying another discipline with her one-eyed gelding.

“I would love to try dressage. I think that’s where we would excel, but that’s only because I’m not sure what his limitations are with his eye,” Barr says. “The Makeover gave me a good idea of what we can handle and what we need to work on. I’m not nervous going forward but I’m also really excited. The more I figure him out, the better it’s going to be.”

For Finnick the Fierce and any off-track Thoroughbred, neither a missing eye nor an old injury changes their ability or their heart. These horses have more to give after their racing days are done, reminders of just how adaptable these talented horses can be. For Barr, a horse like Finn brought her something else she needed: confidence.

“There’s good days and there’s bad days,” she observes, “and those good days feel so good knowing that this is something I worked out and something that I didn’t think I could do, and he’s proved to me that I can.”

A fierce gentleman and his lady, a terrific example of what can happen after the racetrack.