Don’t sell long shot short

One-eyed Fin­nick the Fierce has over­come greater odds to get where he is

Chicago Sun-Times - - SPORTS - BY JA­SON FRAKES

Ar­naldo Monge can re­cite the date — April 22, 2017 — like he would any other im­por­tant birth­day or an­niver­sary.

It’s the day he met a new­born thor­ough­bred who even­tu­ally would be named Fin­nick the Fierce.

A thor­ough­bred who even­tu­ally would have his right eye re­moved, who even­tu­ally would fin­ish ahead of one of the best horses in the United States, who will ful­fill sev­eral dreams when he runs in the Ken­tucky Derby on Satur­day at Churchill Downs.

‘‘I was in love with him from the first time I saw him,’’ Monge said.

Fin­nick the Fierce drew the No. 1 post po­si­tion and is a 50-1 long shot in the morn­ing line for the Ken­tucky Derby, but he al­ready has over­come greater odds.

Monge was a vet­eri­nar­ian for Mil­len­nium Farms in Lex­ing­ton, Ken­tucky, in April 2017 when he got a call from Paige Gil­ster, then a ju­nior at Iowa State.

Gil­ster’s mare, South­ern Clas­sic, had just foaled a chest­nut colt sired by Di­aled In. The new­born had a rare con­di­tion — a con­gen­i­tal cataract — in his right eye.

Gil­ster had pur­chased South­ern Clas­sic for $500 from a res­cue cen­ter in North Dakota. Still a col­lege stu­dent, she dreamed of ‘‘get­ting a good foal, work­ing my way up and then sell­ing it to keep try­ing to build my busi­ness.’’

Gil­ster loved the new­born but knew the eye con­di­tion would make it tough to com­mand a big price in the auction ring.

‘‘He was so big,’’ said Gil­ster, who now runs Blu-Sky Sta­bles in Lex­ing­ton with her fa­ther, Jeff. ‘‘I’m 5-8, and this foal was al­most at my waist when he was born and had to be 150-plus pounds. I was floored by how gor­geous he was.’’

By the time Fin­nick the Fierce was 6 months old, Gil­ster knew she was likely out of op­tions. That’s when Monge stepped in, bought the colt for $3,000 and took him to have surgery on his eye at the Hag­yard Equine Med­i­cal In­sti­tute, where Monge is a doc­tor.

‘‘As soon as the eye was re­moved, he was a dif­fer­ent horse,’’ Monge said. ‘‘He was in a lot of pain for a long time.’’

Why did Monge buy the horse?

‘‘I told my wife, ‘Come and see this baby,’ ’’ Monge said. ‘‘We thought it was one of the nicest ba­bies we’d seen. He had great bones, great legs, great mus­cle tone and def­i­ni­tion. In my eyes, he ex­uded class.’’

Once Fin­nick the Fierce had re­cov­ered from his surgery, Monge went to Rey Her­nan­dez to be­gin train­ing him. He later sold a 50% own­er­ship share of the horse to Her­nan­dez for his orig­i­nal cost of $3,000.

Fin­nick the Fierce won the first race of his ca­reer in June 2019 at In­di­ana Grand. He later fin­ished sec­ond in the Grade II Ken­tucky Jockey Club at Churchill Downs. The third-place horse in that race was Tiz the Law, who is un­de­feated since then and the 3-5 morn­ing-line fa­vorite for the Derby.

Fin­nick the Fierce will en­ter the Derby af­ter a sev­enth-place fin­ish in the Grade II Blue Grass on July 11. Monge de­bated whether to en­ter the horse in the Derby but even­tu­ally left the de­ci­sion to Her­nan­dez.

‘‘It’s amaz­ing he’s taken us this far,’’ Her­nan­dez said. ‘‘Horse rac­ing is an up-and­down thing, and you just kind of go one day at a time . . . . We didn’t make him do any­thing he didn’t want to do, and that was the key. He’s a sweet horse. The more gen­tle you are with him, the bet­ter he will do things.’’

Horse rac­ing brings to­gether peo­ple from all back­grounds, and Fin­nick the Fierce cer­tainly has ac­com­plished that with Monge (Puerto Rico), Her­nan­dez (Gu­atemala) and Gil­ster (Min­nesota).

Fin­nick the Fierce will be the first Derby horse for all three, and they couldn’t be more ex­cited.

‘‘The more this ex­pe­ri­ence pro­gresses, I get more hum­bled by it,’’ Monge said. ‘‘I’m not an overly re­li­gious per­son, but it’s like di­vine in­ter­ven­tion. There were so many ob­sta­cles. I just have to thank God for this chance.’’

Ken­tucky Derby en­try Fin­nick the Fierce takes part in a work­out Wed­nes­day at Churchill Downs. He drew the No. 1 post po­si­tion for the race Satur­day.

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