Kirkpatrick & Co. Presents In Their Care: Future Trainer Estrada Found His Calling In Helping Others - Horse Racing News | Paulick Report

Kirkpatrick & Co. Presents In Their Care: Future Trainer Estrada Found His Calling In Helping Others

“They are always there for you, the horses,” said Johnathan Estrada. “As much as we are there for them, they are there for us.”

Johnathan Estrada feels very much at home at Belmont Park.

His parents worked as grooms there. He is proud to be part of the first graduating class of Anna House, established in 2002 as a daycare and early education center for children of backstretch employees at the Elmont, N.Y., track.

Estrada, 21, has been employed by trainer David Donk for the last four years, first as a hotwalker and now as a groom. He is part of the workforce that lives on the backside. He devotes countless hours to the Racetrack Chaplaincy, helping with teen mentoring and other programs. And if the need should arise, he is not afraid to put himself at risk to rescue horses from a fire.

Estrada was relaxing in his room during the early evening on April 13, 2021, when he thought he heard a loose horse running by. He opened his door in his flip-flops to find three loose horses barreling past. He knew something was very wrong.

Then he smelled smoke. Then he saw barn 60 on fire. He never hesitated. Flip-flops and all, he charged into the rapidly-burning structure and joined workers from other nearby barns in rescuing as many terrified horses as possible.

“People from trainers I didn't even know were here,” he said, “running in and out of the barn and trying to help these horses.”

Fifty-eight horses were saved. American Sailor and Beastie D, both trained by Wayne Potts, could not be spared. American Sailor had won the Grade 3 Troy Stakes on turf the year before. No one will ever know what Beastie D might have accomplished. He was an unraced 3-year-old.

Any parent would be proud to have Estrada as a son. His work ethic and selflessness were recognized not long ago when Godolphin's Thoroughbred Industry Employee Awards were presented at Keeneland Race Course in Lexington, Ky. He received the Newcomer Award, sponsored by the New York Racing Association.

Estrada, whose parents both were grooms, is part of the first graduating class at NYRA's Anna House

“He is a warm, kind-hearted young man who is willing to go the extra mile for so many people,” said Nick Caras, program director for the Racetrack Chaplaincy in New York. “He is always asking, 'What do we have to do today? Who are we helping?'”

No task seems to be too small or too big for Estrada. On a recent day, he removed some seats from a 15-seat Chaplaincy van to create more space for supplies for a holiday party.

He never knows where the course of each day might take him. “He has sat with somebody in the waiting room of a hospital for hours on end,” Caras noted.

Estrada has been part of Donk's team since he was 18. “He's very kind with the horses and he loves the horses,” the trainer said.

Estrada's wonderful demeanor leads him to be consistently paired with fillies. “I'm very kind to animals and fillies like that type of person,” he said. “They like to be handled very carefully and you have to be gentle with them. I guess I have that touch.”

“He's very kind with the horses,” trainer David Donk said of Estrada

Initially, Estrada did not think he could adjust to waking up in time to arrive at the barn before dawn. The long hours were daunting. He briefly moved to California to study in a seminary, but the lure of the horses was too strong. He returned to Belmont after only a few months.

He said of his interaction with horses, “Being able to connect with them and bond with them as you're working, it brings me peace. They are always there for you, the horses. As much as we are there for them, they are there for us.”

He has spent countless hours volunteering since he was 15, helping first at a backstretch social event. “Ever since that day, when I got to see families smiling and children laughing and enjoying themselves, it just clicked in me. I love to help people,” he said.

He has become so indispensable that Caras calls him “part of the Chaplaincy family.”

Estrada's goal is to become a trainer. He learns valuable lessons every day from Donk and his top assistant, Arturo Ramirez. He holds Ramirez in such high esteem that he views him as a “father figure” around the barn.

Donk would like nothing more than for Estrada to realize his dream one day. “Any goal is achievable,” he said. “Anyone this young, it's up to you to learn how to train horses and also learn the business side of it.”

Estrada understands how much he must learn if he is to train on his own. He knows the business aspect can be particularly demanding, and he has recently begun to consider attending college as a way to complement his hands-on knowledge that increases daily.

“It sounds impossible, but nothing is impossible,” said Estrada of his career goal.

Tom Pedulla wrote for USA Today from 1995-2012 and has been a contributor to the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Blood-Horse, America's Best Racing and other publications.

If you wish to suggest someone as a potential subject for In Their Care, please send an email to [email protected] that includes the person's name and contact information in addition to a brief description of the individual's background.

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