Feature ... Search for a Stable Climate: Todd Fincher’s Rebuilding Year

Trainer Todd Fincher took his stable on the road in 2021, temporarily leaving New Mexico because of COVID shutdowns. He returns to Sunland Park next week when their Meet opens for the 1st time in 2 years.
Trainer Todd Fincher took his stable on the road in 2021, temporarily leaving New Mexico because of COVID shutdowns. He returns to Sunland Park next week when their Meet opens for the 1st time in 2 years.

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High atop the Remington Park Grandstand a series of buttons were pressed. Afterwards, the tote began to flicker, setting up the odds for the night's feature, the Springboard Mile. Todd Fincher already knew that it was just about time. He didn’t even need to look. Probably an innate sense, when it comes to timing was fueling it. Exiting the squeaky double doors that eventually snapped open if you pushed too hard, he sauntered out onto the apron. It was an easy sort of pace, like watching a fella coming into a saloon in one of those old “Spaghetti Westerns,” you know, with Clint Eastwood. Finally arriving in a fixed spot with his hands tucked into the pockets of his creased jeans, he saw his son of Quality Road prancing along … all keyed up. “What are you doing,” he said aloud, but in a low voice, “looking like that.” A wry smile that moved left to right appeared across his face ...

Watching his nicely bred 2-yr-old colt, Bye Bye Bobby, trotting so spritely on his way to the Paddock would make anyone take notice. You have to understand though, when Fincher looks at a member of his stable, it’s like he is seeing something we can’t in the mind of a racehorse. His perspective is just different. In conversations that we have had this past year, I am not exactly sure just how to explain it, but it is. What I do know is that he is constantly tabulating, appraising, judging, and at the same time, keeping his mind wide-open to the possibilities. All these thinking mechanisms form the foundation of a strong constitution for the conditioner, and he has needed all of them because he hails from a state whose Thoroughbred culture has a had a time of it ever since 2020—New Mexico. What a difference a year has made for Fincher’s Stable. How did he weather the storm of COVID? In short, one day at a time … searching, for something stable.

Looking over a trainer’s yearly earnings is a fairly simple exercise, and several quick assumptions can be levied in order to understand the overall health of their organization. When it comes to Fincher’s “bars” on Equibase, we find that 2016 was really the start of something special. Within a single year, he went from $1,843,041 to $2,558,088, and after 2017, he proceeded to climb steadily, until he hit an all-time high in 2019 of $3,225,711. He started 418 runners that year, and won 102 races. It was a remarkable run, and a level of achievement for a person that is so incredibly humble when it comes to a word like that. In fact, I am not even sure if it’s in his lexicon.

Then the tough stuff came in 2020, and we all know the outcome. For Fincher though, with such an expansive stable (which also included Quarter Horses, as well as Thoroughbreds), one of the largest in New Mexico, when everything ground to a halt there were some very difficult decisions to make. The state has a number of tracks (Ruidoso, Sunland, Zia, Albuquerque, etc.), but it was Sunland, near El Paso, Texas, that was running in mid-March. Fincher was readying himself for their Kentucky Derby contribution, a highlight event he last won with the superb Runaway Ghost in 2018. With COVID news running rampant, horses across New Mexico’s “Land of Enchantment” stopped in their tracks. Fincher’s last entry on March 15 was Sheriff Brown, who ran 4th in the Curribot Handicap.

The rest of 2020 was a series of fits and starts, as “Racinos” (tracks that rely on gaming to fuel their purse structure) were summarily closed. Ruidoso and then Albuquerque did get back to business over the summer, but a late fall closing at Zia really put everything in peril for Fincher and all the other trainers whose lifeblood was tied to the Meet. Again, looking at his earnings, they reflected the loss--$1,873,672. As he reminded me, “I just had to take portions of my stable, and ship them elsewhere, we had no other choice, especially when Sunland cancelled its 2021 Meet.” That was a real roadblock, but Fincher audibled, starting back in December, when he sent Grey Storm, Goddard, Our Iris Rose, and a young 2-yr-old named Senor Buscador, to Remington Park. The latter was stupendous in the Springboard Mile, and the homebred owned by Joey Peacock really turned some heads. “You know it is really amazing how much can happen in one year,” Fincher mused, “I can’t believe I am already back here for another try at this one.” The new year … it was going to be a flash.

The mind of a racehorse, examined ... Fincher saddles Bye Bye Bobby shortly before the call for 'Riders Up.” The son of Quality Road was “on his toes” in the Paddock at Remington Park ready to compete in the Springboard Mile on December 17, 2021.
The mind of a racehorse, examined ... Fincher saddles Bye Bye Bobby shortly before the call for "Riders Up.” The son of Quality Road was “on his toes” in the Paddock at Remington Park ready to compete in the Springboard Mile on December 17, 2021.

Packing up a set of strings, Fincher & Co. went where they could. Sam Houston Race Park became a new base of operations, and from there he made trips into Louisiana to Delta Downs to compete in some “Non-Graded” action, winning the Orleans Stakes with She’s My Gem. Though Senor Buscador did not run again after competing ably in the Grade 2 Risen Star at the Fair Grounds, Fincher is hopeful we will see the now 4-yr-old colt at some point in 2022. “He just is a big kid, doing what he loves to do—run,” mused Fincher. Returning to Houston, his stable was more than just game, they won some tough races. One of his entries, Canoodling, who is owned by B4 Farms (the same group that sent him Bye Bye Bobby), scored in a nice Allowance Optional Claiming event. The filly by Pioneerof the Nile, who was originally broken by Fincher, and was recently transferred to Santa Anita to run with Mike Puype’s Stable. She will be entered in Sunday’s Grade 1 running of the La Brea. This has happened before, when the owners wanted her to run at Del Mar.

When I asked Fincher if it is tough to see members of his outfit run elsewhere without his name in the form he said candidly, “That is the way this business goes, so you just want to see them do well and be safe.” That last part is a central theme to this trainer because what he does best is bring young horses along, it is then up to the owners to decide where they want to run them … of course, Fincher hopes it is with him. “I do not get involved in the claiming business,” he admitted, “not because I dislike it, it’s just not what I do—breaking them in—that’s what I do.” The process that he is speaking of is time-consuming, arduous, and is like geology … time and pressure move very slowly within a scope of equine practice that is taught with a good bit of trial and error.

A former Thoroughbred and Quarter Horse jockey (he won more on the former) before he turned to conditioning, you can tell that Fincher really understands the merits of those ideas … time and pressure. Those are qualities that have really helped him out on the road. After Houston came to a close in early April, his “mobile unit” moved to Lone Star Park and Sun Ray Park, until he could get back to Ruidoso, and later in the summer, back to Albuquerque. Talk about a circuit … He wasn’t done yet though. As his “rebuilding” program continued, he had one more trick up his sleeve, and it came at the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, just north of San Diego. With a group that included Sheriff Brown, he entered a young filly named Smash Ticket in a MSW70k going 5 furlongs on the Main Track against 8 others. “I was really feeling the pressure,” admitted Fincher, “I thought she was such a short price at even money, that we just had to win.” She did … by 5 lengths. Watching him in the winner’s circle with a big smile on his face was a gratifying moment.

Fincher is not one to rest on his laurels because there is always more work to be done. “Smash” by Midnight Lute, came back in the Sorrento Stakes, a Grade 3 event, and finished 3rd behind Phil D’Amato’s Elm Drive and Bob Baffert’s Eda. Even though she failed as the favorite, her career looks bright as Fincher has her presently back in-training at Zia Park. We can expect to see her in 2022. Speaking of Zia Park in Hobbs, New Mexico, where he makes his home with his new bride, April (they were married this summer), he just reclaimed his training title during their Meet which just closed last week. It was a solid return. By the end of this year, he has returned to his pre-2020 earnings--$2,860,380. Good news, indeed …

Now, he is looking forward to 2022, and the return to racing at Sunland Park when it finally opens on December 31st, a place where he has had success in droves. But that was back in 2019, and 2 seasons have gone by since. Still, Fincher appears poised, and let’s face it, he has some experiences that have made him an even better trainer. “New Mexico racing has so much potential, when it comes to everything from breeding to the fans,” he said with pride, “I just want to see it flourish and be the best it can be.” When I asked him about the effects of COVID on his staff, the exercise riders to all of the backstretch workers that make a racetrack go, he said, “We have some extremely hard-working and valuable folks, and it’s great to be back.” In other words, the labor and desire are still there.

Fincher isn’t shy about critiquing the New Mexico State Racing Commission, the Governor’s Office, and of course, how the racetracks have handled operations for nearly 2 years. He would like to see more enthusiasm, investment, and the sharing of wealth. “If you are going to have an industry,” Fincher said, speaking plainly, “then you have to do more, especially when people are hurting.” According to him, we will not truly know the effects of COVID on breeding operations for another couple of years. “Promoting horse ownership is No.1,” he said, “I think we have the right climate in the south for running in the winter, and in the summer, the mountain weather is perfect when it comes to turning down the heat.” Fincher’s right, New Mexico does have the best of both worlds, and they have one of their leading trainers continuing to do everything he can to rebuild his stable.

Back at Remington in the Springboard … Fincher saddled his capricious colt, who looked like he was ready to run out of his shoes. The trainer pulled back the curtain for me when he admitted, “You know I never meant for him (Bye Bye Bobby) to be in that Zia Stakes race last month, we just couldn’t find another race that was open, so that’s what we went with.” To put it another way, you make the calls you can make, and then go with what you can. Coming into Oklahoma City, his trainer didn’t know what to expect going around 2 turns for the 1st time. The colt that B4 Farms purchased at the 2020 Keeneland September Sale for $870k may have looked amazing in the Paddock, but he ended up 7th; behind the eventual winner, Saffie Joseph’s Make It Big. Fincher knows though that you cannot define a horse, no matter their age, by one race. Like I have heard him say on occasion, “With a really good horse, you know they are going to try.” That’s why we will hear from “Bobby” again …

The Fincher Stable was summarily knocked sideways in 2020, but that did not keep the New Mexico-based conditioner from expanding his orbit as he acclimatized to new environs. The search? It was necessary, and with so many hands and connections counting on him, he entered where he could. The world that COVID made turned assets like time and pressure against trainers, as they scrambled to make ends meet. Exercising the same amount of strength when it came to patience became the letter of the day. Now, as Sunland Park returns with good draws and lots of options, Todd Fincher has as well … a little bit wiser, well-travelled, and full of purpose. The rebuilding continues, but a more stable climate has returned. He's back to work as the new year turns, especially when it comes to thinking about those wide-open possibilities … after all, it’s the “Land of Enchantment.”

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