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Third-generation track worker learning value of dollar, friendships
By Deborah Donovan | Daily Herald Staff

Roberto Barajas puts a board under the wheels of the starting gate at Arlington Park to prevent the wheels from sinking in.


Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

Roberto Barajas, 16, represents the third generation in his family to work on the turf crew at Arlington Park.


Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

Roberto Barajas' father, Javier, is in charge of the racing surfaces at Meydan Racecourse in Dubai.


Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

One of Roberto Barajas' jobs on the turf crew is to put boards under the wheels of the starting gate.


Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

Roberto Barajas enjoys working at Arlington Park.


Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

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Published: 8/21/2010 12:01 AM

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It was an easy choice for Roberto Barajas - living the good life in Dubai or physical labor under the sun at Arlington Park.

The 16-year-old Palatine High School senior selected a season of hard work at the racetrack, of course.

"I was born and raised here, and I wanted to graduate with the people I know and love," said Roberto. "I'm not materialistic, and in Dubai there are a lot of money lovers. The deal with my parents was I have to get a job."

This makes Barajas the rare third-generation worker caring for the turf in Saturday's Arlington Million and International Festival of Racing.

His father, Javier, worked alongside his own father, Jorge, from about the age of 13, and eventually became track superintendent. Then last year, after 35 years at Arlington Park, Javier Barajas was tapped to take charge of the surfaces at the new Meydan Racecourse at Dubai in the United Arab Emirates in the Middle East.

His family went with him, but Javier and his wife, Sylvia, told Roberto he could return to Palatine for his senior year if he gave Dubai a chance for a year. They also thought it was important that Roberto have a job in the states to keep him busy and to help learn the value of money.

The family maintains a home in Palatine where they spend quite a bit of time, and a family friend and her teenage son will live there with Roberto this year.

Roberto said he loves working at the track.

"These are great guys and hard workers," he said. "Dad wants me to learn from them. I can brush up on my Spanish, and they give me great Mexican food for lunch. People pay attention to the betting and racing, but behind the scenes, we make sure everything is perfect for the races."

And the job is a big responsibility, because a bad track could cause horses to fall and hurt themselves and the jockeys.

So, what are Roberto's chores at the track after he finishes football practice? He moves boards to put under the starting gates. And after each race on the turf, he works with the crews that walk along and use tools to press down any divots kicked up by the horses. On rainy days, hours of pulling weeds inspire Roberto to concentrate on the fact that work brings a paycheck.

Roberto has a second job at a fitness center for days the track is not open and for after the track season ends Sept. 26.

Roberto fears he has fallen behind in his football skills during his year in Dubai, but he's happy he was able to continue wrestling with a Dubai team that offered the perk of a tournament in Cairo. He also hiked in the Himalayas with other Dubai students to deliver money they had raised for a library for Nepalese schoolchildren.

"To me, Dubai is a place you go to vacation instead of to live," said the young man. "I know I'm going to miss my family. But I got homesick a lot in Dubai. I can't wait for school to start next week and see everybody again."

Roberto's boss, Gabriel Ruiz, is also his uncle, and people were surprised he did not find a cushy office job for Roberto.

"He wants to learn," said Ruiz. "I tell everybody he works harder than his father does. He's a very smart guy."

Roberto's father is surprised at how well the teen has taken to the job. And while he has dreams of his son eventually choosing a more professional career, he is happy about the choices he is making.

"I'm proud of him, and I love him," said Javier Barajas in a phone interview from Dubai.