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Longtime Arlington Park track boss begins new life in Dubai
By Mike Spellman | Daily Herald Staff

Arlington Park's former track superintendent, Javier Barajas, walks the turf track of Kentucky bluegrass and Rye mixture inspecting it for and bare spots in the early morning before opening day. Arlington Park opens Friday, and Barajas has taken over new duties in Dubai.

 

Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

Javier Barajas

 

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Published: 4/30/2009 12:09 PM | Updated: 4/30/2009 3:45 PM

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He still has his first paycheck stub from Arlington Park in the mid-1970s.

The pay rate for working those long, hot summer days on the lush Arlington turf course? $2.50 an hour.

While Javier Barajas was spending his formative years working outside alongside his father, Jorge, his teenage friends were spending their summers being, well, teenagers.

"I wanted more time to spend with my friends, and it was hard because I was staying busy working from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. back then," Barajas said. "They were out going to Great America, saying, 'Javier you want to come?'

"I had to tell them, 'No, I can't.'"

So he continued working, continued grooming, continued caring for Arlington's world-renowned turf course, eventually working his way up to track superintendent in 1996.

"(Former Arlington president) Steve Sexton used to say if it starts raining I'm always covering it with anything I can," Barajas said with a smile. "You grew up with it, taking care of it. I call it my baby."

And he never stopped fussing over it, continuously learning what it took to keep it thriving.

For Barajas, it's always been about learning.

"I enjoyed it so much; it didn't feel like it was hard work," he said.

Just a few days ago, following a brief return to Arlington, the Palatine resident boarded a plane for Dubai, where he will begin a new phase in life. He will be in charge of the racing surfaces at one of the most expensive, most ridiculously beautiful racing facilities in the world, Meydan Racecourse (check out the preview on youtube), scheduled to open next year.

He no doubt will be making more money than he ever has in his life, but -

"I don't really think about that," Barajas said. "The money is not the issue. It's the learning experience that I'm going to have that is more important. It's true. Going to different racetracks helps you learn so much.

"Every day you learn something; you can't stop. Once you know it all, then what the heck is the sense of living?"

When former Arlington Park general manager and multitasker Frank Gabriel left for a job with the Dubai Racing Club a few years ago, the rumors of Barajas eventually following began.

"Everybody expected it," Barajas said. "Almost every year they'd be like, 'has Frank called yet?' Everybody would ask that.

"Years later I did get a call from him. I've worked with him for 15 years; he knew what he was getting."

But why the delay?

"He was concerned about the culture and my kids, he really cares about my kids; that's why he hesitated so much in calling me," Barajas said. "He took me over there and wined and dined me and told me I was going to enjoy it. I believed him. Frank is a real honest man."

While his wife Sylvia and 14-year-old daughter Elizabeth will live in Dubai with him, his son Roberto, a sophomore at Palatine High School, will remain here.

"He loves football and wrestling so much, and they don't have that in Dubai," Barajas said. "I hate to take that away from him."

But not getting to see his boy too often -

"Oh, that's going to be hard," Barajas admitted.

"I think it was selfish of me because I want to learn a lot more. It will be great for my daughter to be around different cultures and different people."

After spending nearly two months in Dubai before a brief return home, Barajas has no doubt that he and his family will fit right in.

"It's real westernized," Barajas said of Dubai, which averages less than 10 inches of rain per year, the majority of which falls in the winter months. "The great thing is you see people from India, Africa, the Philippines - so many different countries. And everyone speaks English. Not too much Spanish (laughs). I've met three.

"A lot of people think, 'Oh man, you're going over there, aren't you scared?' I never thought of that. Frank wouldn't take me to a place where I'm going to get hurt. I thought it was amazing; the people are great."

But the extreme heat there will take some getting used to.

"It's unbearable in July and August - it's 120 degrees, you can't even be outside," he said. "You're even sweating at night. But from November to March it's mid-70s and goes down to 50s in evenings.

"It's kind of different because it's a desert. It's like I'm in Mexico - but with money."

Sounds like the perfect place to end one's career, right?

"I hope not," Barajas said. "I want to learn as much as I can there, and then bring it home and then go to a different race track and learn again."

No surprise there.

If you go

What: Opening weekend for thoroughbred racing at Arlington Park

Season: Runs May 1 - Sept. 27 (98 racing days)

Opening weekend: First post is 2:30 p.m. Friday with a 10-race card on the docket. Fans can also watch and wager on the Kentucky Oaks from Churchill Downs.

On Saturday: Live racing continues at 12:15 p.m., with a simulcast feed of the Kentucky Derby (5:24 p.m.). The first 2,500 fans who purchase tickets online (arlingtonpark.com) will receive a commererative Kentucky Derby glass.

Sunday: First post is 1 p.m.

Racing days: May 1- June 30 Thursday through Sunday; July 1- Aug. 31 Wednesday through Sunday; Sept 1-27 Thursday through Sunday.

Post times: 1 p.m on Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday, Sunday. Friday's times vary throughout season.

Admission: $7 general, $6 on line, $5 Twin Spires Club, $5 Value Wednesdays. $3 for seniors on Thursdays

Parking: General (free), preferred ($5) and valet ($10)

Mark your calendar

May 23: The American 1000 Guineas Festival, four races with purses totaling $600,000.

June 20: Prairie State Fest, six $100,000 races (horses bred or foaled in Illinois)

July 11: Over $1 million in purse money is up for grabs on Million Preview Day. The Grade 2 American Derby highlights a card with three Grade 3 races.

Aug. 8: The centerpiece event of the 2009 meet, highlighted by the Arlington Million, the Beverly D. and the Secretariat Stakes, all Grade 1 events.