BARAJAS KNOWS THE LAY OF THE LAND

Javier-Track Man CBY 8-2-14_660x300

There has been one certainty the last two summers at Canterbury Park whenever either of the two tracks has been the subject at hand.

Horsemen, fans and management always knew the lay of the land, figuratively and literally, under track superintendent Javier Barajas, a man valued for his knowledge, dedication and hard work.

When he took the job in 2013, Barajas brought with him a wealth of experience having grown up at the hand of his father, a fastidious track manager himself, as well as his own learning experiences at sites as far-flung as Dubai, where he oversaw track construction and grooming for the World Cup in 2009 and preparations for that prestigious event each year since.

Barajas impressed nearly everyone around him with his work ethic and attention to detail, On a tractor trip around the main track prior to the 2013 Canterbury opening, Barajas stopped periodically to retrieve a small rock or other object, invisible to anyone without his trained eye for obstructions, no matter how small, to a safe racing surface.

“The two toughest jobs on any racetrack,” said HBPA president Tom Metzen, “are racing secretary and track superintendent. No matter what you do, somebody is going to think it’s not right.”

Now, Canterbury will search for a new track superintendent. Barajas announced last week that he will take over those duties at Keeneland Race Course in Lexington, Ky.

“They gave me such a great offer and package,” he said.

Moreover, the job will allow him to stay put year round and create a more stable homelife, something he has done without for many years.

“My wife (Silvia) and I will be able to spend more time together now,” he said.

That has not been the case in recent years. When Barajas accepted the job at Canterbury, his wife and daughter, Elizabeth, stayed behind in the United Arab Emriates so Liz could finish high school.

There was another period when Barajas spent three days a week overseeing the Fair Grounds in New Orleans and the rest of the week at Arlington Park in suburban Chicago, commuting between the two racetracks.

Barajas agreed to remain with Canterbury through the remainder of the meet, but will start at Keeneland this week nonetheless, directing matters there on the dark days in Shakopee.

The Keeneland job enabled him to give up the assignment in Dubai. “I sent my resignation to them about a week ago,” Barajas explained. 

Despite the kind of scrutiny track superintendents undergo , or _ perhaps more acccurately _ as a target for blame whenever something goes awry with a horse during a race, Barajas has been perhaps the least criticized track superintendent in Canterbury history.

“It’s harder to blame someone when you know how hard they’ve worked at something,” said Eric Halstrom, Canterbury’s vice president of racing operations. “He’s an extremely talented guy. He’s been doing this for 40 years and he outworks anybody you can find. You’re automatically smarter by the time you spend at a job.”

Barajas’s work ethic was never in question. He was often at Canterbury by 4 a.m., to check on track conditions or oversee preparations for the upcoming day. Although not considered a taskmaster, he insisted on hard work and attention to detail from his employees.

“The good news is that he has an extensive web of contacts and will be here to help us find out what to do next,” Halstrom added.

Nonetheless, horsemen know that racing doesn’t abound with people of Barajas’ caliber.

“We really hate to lose him,” said Metzen. “It’s tough to get a good track man.”

by Jim Wells

Video: The Track Crew

Barajas2Canterbury’s Track Crew ensures both the dirt track and the turf course are in the safest and fairest conditions possible. Dirt track maintenance includes watering, blading and constant grooming. The turf course requires proper watering as well as divot repair and an entirely different maintenance program. Javier Barajas, track superintendent at Canterbury Park and Meydan Racecourse in Dubai (home of the richest race in the world), discusses what goes into a track maintenance program.

Video: Michelle Benson

Lessons Learned…

Cowboy_Luke_Papa_Dick%27s_75th_Birthday_Race_06-22-13_CBY_FinishThe adjectives are endless for sizing up the race meet at Canterbury Park this spring/summer/fall/winter. The biggest question has been how to accurately characterize this strangest of seasons.

“I can’t remember a meet with weather this crappy ever, anyplace I’ve been,” said jockey room custodian Jerry Simmons. That covers a bit of ground. Simmons has been in racing 55 years and worked some 40 to 50 racetracks.

There has been water, water everywhere, not terribly different it seems than the scene portrayed by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Instead of “Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner,” however, this bit of poetry is playing out in the stables and racetracks of Minnesota’s only thoroughbred/quarter horse facility.

“Rain, rain go away” has become the silent mantra of trainers, riders, valets, owners and track management itself.

It is hard to recall a race day on which riders have returned to the jockeys lounge without mud caked to their faces and riding silks – aside from winners on the front end, of course.

In spite of rain and storm delays during cards, in spite of enough mud to build a mountain, in spite of wet grounds, soggy turf and raindrops as large as robin’s eggs on occasion, the racing surfaces, main track and turf, have stood up remarkably well to elements heretofore unseen during a Canterbury meet.

“I haven’t seen anything like it,” Simmons said.

Nonetheless…

“Except for the one day we had to shorten the card (the track superintendent was out of town), this track has been superb,” said Ry Eikleberry shortly after winning Saturday’s third race aboard the No. 3 horse, Cowboy Luke.

“The man (Javier Barajas) taking care of this track is worth every penny he gets. He really knows what he’s doing. He has my full respect.”

Despite the tropical conditions, soggy weather is not the first thought on every horseman’s mind.

“Exciting” was the first word from Lori Keith when asked to size up the meet. Reminded of the of the wet conditions, she added, “‘wet summer,’ if I can get two words in.”

Yet ”exciting”, particularly from her viewpoint, is certainly appropriate.

Here is how the day started in the thoroughbred jockeys standings:

Dean Butler 19 wins, Keith 18, Eikleberry 15, Eddie Martin, Jr. 14 and Nik Goodwin 12.

And the winners Saturday from the aforementioned group?

Eikleberry, Butler and Martin.

The track started out “sloppy” on Saturday and was listed “good” as the day progressed.

It didn’t seem to matter to Canterbury favorite Heza Wild Guy, making a return to Shakopee to wind up his career.

An Indiana-bred, Heza has been running at Hoosier Park and Indiana Downs but was brought home by his owners, Jerry Pint and Will Carlson, to complete his career.

After all, ”he’s 12 years old,” said Pint. “We just wanted to bring him home and race him a couple of times and then retire him.”

Pint knew this much about the gelded son of Wild Event:

“He might be 12 but he’ll compete. He still wants to win.”

Heza did just that, challenging for the lead as long as his old legs would carry him. For all of that, the 12-year-old got up for show money.

“He still has the heart,” said Butler, the winning rider.

Mud or water aren’t about to bother a veteran like Heza, who is 32-6-13 from 87 career starts.

There are other Canterbury regulars with their own thoughts about the meet.

First thoughts that come to mind for the Oracle?

“Not as many favorites winning, the mud, new faces , competitive.”

And for paddock analyst Angela Hermann?

“Learning how to make money in the mud,” she said.

Those are life lessons in regard to horse racing for many of Canterbury’s veterans this season.

They are quite different from the lesson learned and overheard by a bystander waiting in line at the admission gate on Saturday.

“It’s been years since I’ve seen you, what, seven or eight?” a woman said to a fellow standing across from her. “I was a little heartbroken, what do you think,” she said.

The outline to the story seems apparent. The details we’ll never know.

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.

An International Track Man

BarajasOccasionally, 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.

An International Track Man

BarajasOccasionally, 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.