Arnaldo Monge often refers to destiny, and perhaps that best explains how he joined Rey Hernandez as unlikely Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve owners with improbable one-eyed starter Finnick the Fierce.
Monge left Trujillo Alto, Puerto Rico for the United States at age 20 to pursue his dream of becoming a veterinarian. It took three attempts for him to be accepted into the University of Florida’s veterinary school. He went on to graduate at the top of his class and has been with Hagyard Equine Medical Institute for the last 25 years.
Hernandez left Guatemala for the U.S. at 17 to pursue a career in the horse racing industry. He worked as an exercise rider at WinStar Farm, spent time as a jockey, and now has built a promising training operation. The star of his stable is a Derby longshot both men so fervently believe in that Monge took a loan to pay the $50,000 entry fee.
Both men express appreciation for how far they have come as co-owners of Finnick the Fierce, a $3,000 purchase who was acquired so inexpensively because he was born with a cataract on his right eye that ultimately led to that eye being surgically removed.
“What Rey and I accomplished here as two immigrants,” Monge said, “I don’t think in any other country we could have done that.”
Not that anything came easily.
Monge, 59, recalled working as a night watchman to earn extra money before he turned around and cared for horses in the barn he had patrolled. He drove a borrowed, beat-up Chevrolet with such a poor exhaust system that he was forced to occasionally stick his head out the window to escape the fumes.
Hernandez, 40, will never forget the trepidation he felt when he left family and friends behind in Guatemala.
“It was tough. I came over at a really young age, and you don’t know what to expect. You don’t know the language,” he said. “It’s really tough to make it, but anything can be possible if you work hard. Everything can be possible.”
Both were driven by the belief that their hard work and perseverance would be rewarded, that they truly had arrived in a land filled with opportunity.
“I don’t know why people complain about this country because no door was closed to me here,” Monge said. “I truly believe this country does not care what color you are. As long as you have good character and will work hard, this country will open its doors to anybody.
“You can tell when I open my mouth that I am not from this country. Nobody cared where I came from. My practice always grew. Nobody ever said, ‘You can’t come here. You’re Hispanic.’ Never, never, never.”
Both men have done everything they can to convey the importance of work ethic to their families. Monge and his wife, Thena, have four children – Aileen, Mariela, Thomas, and Christina. Hernandez and his wife, Minerva, have three children – Harley, Katie, and Rey, Jr.
The two men have grown so close that their interaction far surpasses any business relationship. “We do things more like family than owner and trainer,” Hernandez said.
Monge was drawn to Finnick the Fierce when he examined him hours after his birth. He was able to see beyond the cataract. “He had really good bone and his musculature, he had muscles on top of muscles,” he said. “He was a strong foal.”
When it was clear the cataract would make it impossible for him to bring any kind of return at auction, Monge was able to purchase the son of Dialed In for $3,000. He added considerable value to the package by agreeing to house the mare, Southern Classic, for a year at his Keene Reverie Farm in Nicholasville, Ky., while providing for her care. Hernandez was equally impressed by Finnick and agreed to partner with Monge.
They have been perfect owners for Finnick, a gelding that required great patience. Although he rallied to win his debut at Indiana Grand last June, he sometimes ran with his head cocked in his early races as he strained to see competition to his outside. With lots of loving care, with Thena and other handlers typically working on his blind side to put him at ease there, he made steady progress in acclimating to his new reality.
Finnick holds the distinction of being the only Derby starter to defeat massive favorite Tiz the Law. That occurred when he finished second to Silver Prospector while Tiz the Law could do no better than third in the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes on a sloppy Churchill Downs track last Nov. 30.
Finnick owns one victory in six starts this season, that coming via disqualification in an allowance/optional claiming race at Oaklawn Park in April. He went on to be a rallying third in the May 2 Arkansas Derby behind Nadal and fellow Derby starter King Guillermo in his greatest claim to fame.
Finnick comes off a disappointing seventh-place finish in the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland. He and jockey Martin Garcia drew the unenviable rail position for the Derby, contributing to his early 50-1 odds.
The connections are undaunted.
“I do have a chance. It’s a horse race and it’s the Kentucky Derby and not always the best horse wins. I think I have as much chance as everybody else does,” said Hernandez, voicing the same belief that got him and Monge this far.