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Finnick the Fierce: Winning Hearts On and Off the Track

Updated: Mar 16

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.