Occasionally, Javier Barajas would spot something, stop his pickup truck, step onto the track and retrieve an item only his well-trained eyes could see. “It’s amazing,” Barajas said. “I’m really blind as a bat.”
Barajas, Canterbury Park’s new track superintendent, has the eyes of a predatory bird in situations like this, however, or maybe it’s the experience he began accumulating at age 13, working at his father’s elbow at Arlington International Racecourse, learning how to read a racetrack.
A clod of dirt doesn’t sit quite right. A harrowed line appears broken. There are many signs. Something about the lay of the dirt doesn’t appear natural and catches his eye.
Barajas was making the rounds of Canterbury’s dirt track on Wednesday morning in preparation for Friday night’s season opening card and stopped several times to retrieve what turned out to be pieces of plastic from a snowmobile, leftover from the winter season. Another time a plastic bag flapping against a fence support got his attention. “Things like this have a tendency to spook horses,” Barajas said, retrieving the bag.
Barajas is fastidious about this approach to his work. A missed stone or rock in the soil might spell disaster for a horse galloping over the track, thus he demands such diligence of himself and the men he oversees. “If I ever find someone left a rock on the track deliberately, saw it and didn’t remove it, he no longer works for me,” he explained.
Barajas does not fit the definition of a taskmaster. He is affable, jovial and has a good sense of humor. Miffed as a boy because his father took him away from hot-walking horses to work the turf track at Arlington, Barajas secretly wished to one day become a track superintendent so he could oversee his dad, a thought he defines quite differently today.
“Be careful what you wish for,” he said.
Barajas’ experience tending racetracks and the surrounding grounds goes back to his boyhood in Chicago. He was born in Mexico but moved to Illinois at age five after his dad landed a job tending the turf course at Arlington Park. Tending racetracks has pretty much occupied his life since he was 13 years old. He has worked Retama in Texas, the Fair Grounds in New Orleans and Golden Gate Fields in northern California. “Very nice there,” he recalled. “It’s true, you do leave your heart in San Francisco.”
Barajas, 50, comes to Canterbury Park directly from Meydan Race Track in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates where he recently oversaw conditioning of that track for the World Cup, the richest race in all of horse racing. It was a stressful assignment for numerous reasons, not the least of which was the crew he had to direct.
Thursday morning he stopped here and there at Canterbury to give instructions to one of the men he oversees. A few quick words and the instructions were complete in each case. That was not the case in Dubai.
“No,” he said. “It was different there.”
Quite different. Language barriers abounded. His crew consisted of people from India, Pakistan, the Philippines, Nepal, Indonesia. An interpreter was necessary on a daily basis. “Very stressful,” he said. He has encountered nothing of the kind at Canterbury. “I am forgetting my Spanish, though,” he said with a chuckle.
During the 2008 and 2009 racing seasons, Barajas actually worked two tracks a week, commuting between Arlington in Illinois and the Fair Grounds in Louisiana. “I’d work three days at Arlington and four in New Orleans,” he explained.
Barajas has done the groundwork for four World Cups, actually setting up the race courses at Meydan when it replaced the former track there in 2009. His intentions are to return when the Canterbury meet ends in September, “if something else doesn’t come along.” His wife, Sylvia, and daughter, Liz, who will graduate high school this spring, are in Dubai, but intend to return to the U.S. Javier, meanwhile, is only a six-hour drive from his mother, near Chicago, and his son, Roberto, who is about to complete community college and head to the University of Illinois. Roberto has worked the turf course at Arlington, too, the third generation of the Barajas family to do so.
Javier had stern words for Roberto about the profession, however. “If you tell me you want to become a race track superintendent, I’ll punch you in the nose,” he said. Roberto intends to see stars another way. He plans to study astronomy.
Javier chuckles when he recalls his father, George, working for him at Arlington. He would use a third person to communicate to his dad. “We were always butting heads,” he recalled. Father and son liked different things about racing.
“My father wouldn’t watch the races. He’d say he hated horses, that they always tore up the nice turf course he had prepared for them,” Javier replied. “He worked on that course for 35 years.”
It is different for Javier and you can hear it in his voice whenever he talks about the great horses he’d been around during his long, eventful career. “Secretariat, Cigar,” he said. “But my favorite was John Henry. He had such a heart.”
Barajas had never been to Canterbury Park or Shakopee before taking the job here, and got a true Minnesota reception upon his arrival. “The first week of April and it snowed. From 95 degrees to 25 degrees and I had to plow snow.”
This blog was written by Canterbury Staff Writer Jim Wells. Wells was a longtime sportswriter at the Pioneer Press and is a member of the Canterbury Park Hall of Fame.