Iowa State Animal Science Graduate Breeds Horse for 2020 Kentucky Derby

September 4, 2020

Paige Gilster and Finnick the FierceThis weekend will mark the 146th running of the Kentucky Derby which is very special for a previous student from the Department of Animal Science at Iowa State University. Paige Gilster is the breeder of Kentucky Derby runner Finnick the Fierce. Finn was born with challenges to overcome less than one month before Gilster’s graduation, but a fighter he was and he will race September 5, 2020 from the number one post position in the Kentucky Derby.

Born a son of Dialed In, the 2011 Florida Derby winner, Finn had a rare congenital cataract and had to have his eye removed at a very young age. Although he is missing one eye, he has proven to be a fierce competitor and earned his name, Finnick the Fierce.

Gilster graduated in 2017 with her B.S. in Animal Science with an emphasis in Equine Management. She has made all her own breeding decisions with a broodmare she decided to purchase when she was a student at Iowa State.

Nikki Ferwerda, assistant teaching professor and equine farm manager said, “I hope all students will take note of where enthusiasm and perseverance can take you. This horse industry requires a lot of dedication and grit. It is not easy, but if it is what you want, go for it like Paige did!”

“I give 100% credit to the Iowa State Animal Science program for starting me down this career path. I decided this is what I wanted to do on my first trip to Lexington, Kentucky with Nikki for a class trip. Nikki helped me get my first internship in Kentucky and also gave me more responsibilities on the equine farm to help fine tune my skills,” said Gilster. She also credits the coursework on equine foaling and reproduction for helping propel her career and the genetics coursework for helping her make sound breeding decisions for her business. “The hands-on experience at the Iowa State horse farm was so beneficial in helping me prove myself in this career.”

While attending Iowa State University, Gilster worked four years at the Equine Farm. She wrote up a business plan for her broodmare purchase, which led her dad to formalize a business with her called Blu-Sky Stables. Gilster later expanded her business plan in the Advanced Equine Management course and still uses that business model today. Although she was on a tight budget, she was able to find her horse at Bowman Second Chance Thoroughbred Adoption in North Dakota. She studied the bloodlines and found Southern Classic, who had a soft-tissue injury that ended her racing career, but her dam had many winning offspring. Her first foal, My Classic Port, was from Iowa State’s stallion, Newport, and was born on campus at the Iowa State Equine Farm. Finn was the second foal Gilster bred.

Jennifer Bundy, associate professor and academic advising coordinator said, “Paige was my academic advisee and I am so excited for her. You just can’t beat a feel-good story of a one-eyed horse, out of an adopted mare, bred by a college student that qualifies to run in the Kentucky Derby.”


Click here to read more from the Kentucky Derby about Paige and Finnick’s story.

For more information on Paige and her career path, please view this video interview from the Thoroughbred Daily News.


Contact: Michelle Hiscocks, Iowa State University Department of Animal Science Communications, 515-294-5517,