Thoroughbred Makeover Diary: Understanding the Importance of Small Victories

Aftercare
Author Jackie Barr with Finnick the Fierce, left, and Finn at the end of a lunging session, right. (Erin O’Keefe photo/Jackie Barr photo)

My first draft of this blog started with the sentence, “Comparison is the thief of joy, or so it has been explained to me.” I’m surprised how often I have had to remind myself of that over the last month. I could list all of my excuses here about why I haven’t done nearly as much with Finnick the Fierce as I’ve wanted to but we all know them. We use them in our daily lives to justify why we haven’t accomplished our goals. Yet it has been the struggle of my life to try and convince myself that these are valid reasons. However, once the first Saturday in May came and went, I forgot all about the comparison and started leaning into the joy. 

I went into Kentucky Derby day adamantly rooting for Taiba. In the fall of 2020, he was known to me as “Gunny.” After being laid off due to COVID-19 that summer I spent my days working at BTE Stables where Taiba prepped for his yearling sale. Taiba was the first Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve contender I had ever laid hands on aside from Finnick (who we have now confirmed I worked with at Millennium Farm, where Taiba was also foaled). When Rich Strike crossed the finish line first on Saturday, I was busy looking at Gunny and Mike Smith, now fading to 12th position. 

However, any disappointment I held about Taiba’s finish has been eclipsed by the excitement I feel for Rich Strike’s story. At this point I’ve rewatched that race countless times and every time I think to myself, “hell of a ride.” As most racing fans have done by now, I’ve watched the aerial view and analyzed how Sonny Leon could’ve seen so many steps ahead of him. Those choices made him a superstar overnight in my closest circle, and obviously on the main stage as well.

Leon riding Finnick the Fierce in Kentucky Jockey Club. (Holly M. Smith Photography)

The deeper I dug into his story the more positive tidbits I was able to find: how many firsts this was for everyone involved and how I could see myself in his connections. With each new fact our hearts warmed until we found what, to me, was the ultimate piece of information, something I should’ve noticed ahead of time. Sonny Leon, Rich Strike’s jockey, was the last jockey who rode Finnick the Fierce before he retired. He was the jockey who rode him in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes, where he came in second in front of Tiz the Law, who would eventually win the Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets in 2020. 

I started thinking about the fact that his placing with Finnick in that Grade 2 race could have been the prior biggest accomplishment Sonny would have had at Churchill Downs. Maybe his experience with my sweet boy is a feather in the cap of the most famous jockey in America right now. Above all, I couldn’t help but think about the parallel that was Finnick scratching at the last minute from the Derby, when a last-minute scratch is what allowed his former jockey to finally get a Derby ride and an incredible win. 

After years marred by scandal and uncertainty it felt like the magic of racing was back and to me, the casual racing fan, the community felt stronger than ever. This comes on the heels of the Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event where more than one off-the-track Thoroughbred traversed the 5* competition, cheered on by their racing connections. The Retired Racehorse Project attempts to further that connection between the sport-horse community and the racing community. As illustrated above, for every Derby horse there are hordes of people who worked on the ground with that animal. Whether the horse is training with a world-class trainer or was rescued from auction, I can guarantee you there are people out there who consider the horse “theirs” in one way or another and are wondering where they wound up. 

Once a horse reaches their second career, there is a whole new group of people who take on the mantle of support. You put together a different team of trainers, owners, and caretakers, with a completely different vision for the horse. Sometimes those people overlap with those who knew the horse during their racing career, and in those moments you’re so lucky to be able to piece together the experiences they had. 

These are the people I feel accountable to, so when a month goes by and I’m seeing Thoroughbred Makeover participants already going to schooling shows, doing off-property excursions, and having these incredible moments Finnick and I have not had yet, I can’t help but compare myself and feel like a failure. 

But I must have a little bit of kindness for myself. We have done something. Those “somethings” are things I am proud of. I haven’t trained a young horse since I was in high school, which much as I hate to admit it, was more than 10 years ago. I am having to remind myself how to line drive, and I’m opening myself up to using training tools I have never used before. We’ve had a handful of successful rides and Finn continues to be a game participant in our task of finding a flat-enough spot to school on our arena-less farm. Our biggest win this month has simply been that I can now get Finn to keep moving forward on the lunge line when I ask him to change directions. Where he used to stop and turn to face me, he now trusts and understands he doesn’t have to have his eye on me to keep going. That trust I’ve built with him is something to be proud of. 

I have to remind myself that where Finnick is in his training now isn’t where he will be a month from now … or a year from now. We have plenty of time together, and though the Thoroughbred Makeover puts a timeline on where we need to be in order to compete, there is no timeline on our relationship as horse and rider. He doesn’t need to be a made horse in October. We’re in it for the long haul together, and I look forward to figuring each other out as we go.

newsletter sign-up

Stay up-to-date with the best from America's Best Racing!