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Finnick the Fierce: Winning Hearts On and Off the Track

One eyed racehorse Finnick the Fierce
Finnick the Fierce. All photos courtesy of Jackie Barr

Finnick the Fierce tugged at the heartstrings of horse racing fans while on the road to the 2020 Kentucky Derby. On his left side, Finnick was completely normal. On his right, there was an empty socket where his eye once was. The gorgeous chestnut never let having just one eye deter him; he ran huge in some of the premier stakes races leading up to the Kentucky Derby. Though he had success on the racetrack, his biggest win came in finding a home with Jackie Barr.

The birth of Finnick on April 22, 2017, was the birth of a dream come true for Paige Gilster. Gilster adopted Finnick’s dam Southern Classic from Bowman Ranch in North Dakota with the intention of breeding her first racehorse. Gilster was impressed with Southern Classic’s female line and the heart that this family possessed. She first bred Southern Classic to Iowa stallion Newport and then moved the mare to Kentucky for the following year’s breeding.

Gilster and her father Jeff visited Darby Dan Farm in search of a new stallion for Southern Classic and were immediately taken by Dialed In, the Florida Derby (G1) winning son of Mineshaft. They booked Southern Classic to him and their resulting foal was born beautiful and spunky, but he had a cataract in his right eye. It was decided that the eye should be removed instead of putting the young horse through experimental surgery. Gilster aptly named her gelding Finnick the Fierce. (Kentucky Derby)

The loss of Finnick’s eye was a blow to his commercial value, but his veterinarian Dr. Arnaldo Monge wasn’t deterred. He privately purchased the gelding for just $3,000 and sent him to trainer Rey Hernandez to get his early education. Hernandez also took a liking to Finnick and purchased half an interest.

Finnick the Fierce rewarded Monge and Hernandez’s belief in him by winning his career debut at Horseshoe Indianapolis. He suffered some trouble at the start of his next race, an Allowance at Churchill Downs, and finished 4th. Though he had just two races under his belt, his connections decided to test him in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (G2).

The Kentucky Jockey Club is an early prep for the Kentucky Derby, so it attracted tough horses like Champagne (G1) winner Tiz the Law and Street Sense Stakes winner South Bend. Finnick the Fierce was completely dismissed at odds of 87-1, the longest shot on the board. As they say, horses don’t know their odds - Finnick the Fierce rallied down the stretch to finish second, just ¾ lengths away from victory. In the process, he defeated the future Belmont Stakes (G1) winner Tiz the Law.

It was a very promising finish for the chestnut son of Dialed In, so promising that he traveled to Fair Grounds Race Course in Louisiana for his next start in the Lecomte Stakes (G3). He was 4th there and then 7th next out in the Risen Star (G2). He took a drop down in class to run in a confidence-boosting Allowance at Oaklawn Park and it worked marvelously; he won the Allowance and then ran a good 3rd in the Arkansas Derby (G1).

Finnick the Fierce had officially earned enough points to get into the Kentucky Derby. He raced twice more prior to the run for the roses, finishing 3rd in an Allowance and a tough 7th in the Blue Grass (G2). The disappointments didn't end with his off-the-board Blue Grass run; Finnick was scratched from the Kentucky Derby due to a foot issue.

Finnick returned to the races the following year with a triumph in an Allowance at Turfway Park, but that would be the final time he would enter the winner's circle. He was retired at the end of 2021.

Finnick the Fierce one-eyed racehorse
Finnick the Fierce & Jackie Barr

A Beautiful Life Off The Track

Around the same time Finnick was retiring, Jackie Barr was beginning a casual search for an Off Track Thoroughbred. Barr is a Connecticut native that grew up riding hunter-jumper and studied Equine Management at the University of Kentucky. She gained invaluable experience working the sales, interning at an equine reproduction research lab, and working as a groom at Hilltop Farm in Maryland.

Eventually, Barr’s career in the equine industry led her back to Kentucky to work the September Yearling Sales for Woods Edge Farm, and, in the same year Finnick the Fierce was born, she accepted a full-time position at his birthplace Millennium Farm. Fate, it seemed, had led her there.

Barr's position at Millennium made her aware of Finnick's career. His co-owner Arnaldo Monge was the farm's vet, she was a friend of a friend of his breeder Paige Gilster, and she often heard her colleagues talk about him. When Finnick's retirement was announced around the same time Barr had begun her search for a horse, it was as if the stars had aligned. A friend from Millenium messaged Barr, “we found your horse” - this marked the beginning of something special for Barr and “Finn”.

Barr drove seven hours straight from her Thanksgiving holiday in North Carolina to Arnaldo’s farm to see Finn. She fell in love with the horse immediately and within a week he was hers.

Transitioning Finnick off the track was not a quick and easy process. Barr gave him the winter off to just be a horse. Afterward, her friend Carleigh Fedorka offered to put a few rides on him. Fedroka deemed Finn a “solid citizen” and Barr took him back to her home farm.

“It took a long time to figure Finn out,” Barr explained. “We had a lot of days where he just refused to work, but I also discovered that my long hiatus from riding had killed my confidence.”

Finnick the Fierce one-eyed racehorse and Jackie Barr

“I reverted to more ground work which in the end helped him trust me more, something I’ve found is far more important with Finn than any other horse I’ve worked with,” Barr continued. “His missing eye doesn’t hold him back at all, but he needs to have full confidence in the person guiding him. This challenged me to find a little more confidence in myself. We still have a long way to go, but I’m proud of how we’ve come so far.”

Finn does have some interesting ways to help compensate for his lack of sight. He swings his head from side to side when he plays so he can see what’s on both sides of him. He also has a hard time lunging to the right because he wants to have his eye on Barr in the middle. Barr says he also has a harder time bending to the left when being ridden because he likes to tilt his head to get the greatest range of sight.

Nevertheless, he didn’t let having one eye slow him down on the track and he doesn’t let it bother him off the track either. Barr and Finn competed together in the 2022 Retired Racehorse Project’s Thoroughbred Makeover and though it didn’t go exactly as planned, Barr says it is one of her best horse-related memories.

“If you paid attention to our story at the Makeover, you may have seen that it technically ended with my behind in the dirt. But everything outside of those 30 seconds I was on the ground was amazing,” Barr recalled. “After my first warm-up ride at the Kentucky Horse Park, everything else we did was just an added bonus. He handled things so much better than I expected him to right up until a small rear turned into him falling down a little incline. Talk about embarrassing.”

Barr praises the community that makes up the Thoroughbred Makeover and is thrilled that she and Finn had the chance to participate. “I think he and I both learned a lot from that event. If he was eligible I would definitely try again. Maybe TIP championships one day?”

It’s easy to see that Barr loves Finn as much as he loves her. “He is my favorite horse in the world. I know I’m biased but he is so loving. I truly think he would be happy if all I did with him was run my fingers through his forelock and feed him peppermints. He loves to have his mane played with.”

“He lives in a field with three to four other OTTB geldings and he is at the bottom of the totem pole, but just because he doesn’t want for much,” Barr further explained Finn’s personality. “He’s not pushy. He gets the herd going when he wants to play but easily takes correction.”

Finnick the Fierce’s story is nothing short of inspiring. He was bred by a college student out of an adopted mare. He was purchased by his veterinarian for just $3,000 and though he only had one eye, he earned his connections more than $228k and almost took them to the Kentucky Derby. Now, he gets to live the good life with Jackie Barr.

You can follow Finn’s journey through Instagram - @Finnick_the_Fierce.

Finnick the Fierce at the Retired Racehorse Project's Thoroughbred Makeover
Finn & Jackie at the Retired Racehorse Project's Thoroughbred Makeover

About: Champions of the Track works to create new fans of horse racing through entertaining, engaging, and educational content. Made by fans of horse racing, for fans of horse racing. Powered by KPB Media.

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