By Starr Crusenberry
In the sport of horse racing, owners, trainers and jockeys get to enjoy the public glory and prestige that go with racing horses. Horse trainers like D. Wayne Lukas and Nick Zito, and high-profile jockeys like Pat Day and Jerry Bailey, have been made into celebrities by the media. These are the people the press wants to talk to after a horse wins its race, the people they think are the most important. After all, racing is often dubbed the "Sport of Kings".
What many fail to see, though, are the people behind the glitz and glamour, the men and women who are up and at the barn by 5:00 every morning, seven days a week taking care of the horses. These people are otherwise known as grooms.
"Being a groom means more than just tending to the horses and keeping them clean," race horse trainer Jim Find said. Groom is a catch-all word for whatever needs to done at that moment, it could mean anything from mucking stalls to bandaging legs. Anyone who wants to make their way up in the racing business starts as a groom."
At any given time, Jim Find keeps anywhere from four to seven horses at Pimlico Race Course, which is located within the Baltimore City limits. The horses he has are either in training or running in races at other tracks. Right now the horses that are running get entered into races at Laurel Park, which is owned by Magna Entertainment, a company that also owns Pimlico. Because these horses are often traveling from one track to the other they must be accompanied by a groom to ensure they have a safe van ride.
A groom's job responsibilities consist of bathing and brushing the horses, saddling them up for jockeys and exercise riders, leading the horses to and from the race track, cleaning stalls, feeding and watering the horses, riding with the horses during van rides to keep them calm, and most importantly forming bonds with the animals.
Miguel Estada, a groom for trainer Jim Find, tries to make a connection with each horse he cares for. "When you are dealing with a thousand-pound horse that can overpower you at any second, it's good to build up a trust with them. If you respect the horse he will trust you and won't kick or bite you," Estada said.
Still, being a groom can be a dangerous job. "I have been bit, kicked, stepped on and nearly crushed before. Race horses are very high-strung and can be unpredictable. That's why you never turn your back on them," Estada said.
Most grooms today are South American immigrants and young people looking to become exercise riders, but who must first prove themselves as grooms. "I have a lot of buddies that started as grooms like me, but have become exercise riders and jockeys. But I can't be either because you can't weigh much more than 120 pounds, and I'm way over that," Estada said.
Estada's story is not unlike that of many other immigrants who come to America looking for jobs. His story began in his native Ecuador, a place he hasn't seen in 10 years. "I came to this country because there is no way to make a good living where I am from. I had a cousin who was already in America working for a trainer at Bowie [Training Facility] and he told me how much more money I could make up here, so I made the trip and have only been back home a few times since then," Estada said. Since he still has family living in Ecuador, he sends a portion of what he makes back to Ecuador.
"Miguel is a good worker, which can be hard to find these days and even though he didn't know anything about horses when he started working for me he's picked it up quick," Find said.
"It is exciting to be here during Preakness. I have never worked for a trainer that has had a horse in a race like that, but I like hanging out here when everything is going on," said Estada.
The grooms at Pimlico take pride in the horses they care for, sometimes building special bonds because they are present everyday tending to their every need. "When a horse from my stable steps into the paddock and he's healthy and happy and his coat's shining, I feel like I did my little part even if nobody knows it," Estada said.