By: Ron Hale
Reminiscing About Old Agua Caliente
I was first introduced to Caliente in the summer of 1960 during the Del Mar racing season. I had just turned 14. I had gone to the races for the first time at Hollywood Park in early June, and from the first moment I was there, I never wanted to leave. In mid-June, when school was out, I rode by bike from my home in nearby Westchester (a Los Angeles bedroom community most noted for the fact that it was the home of LAX) to the Inglewood track every racing day. For a couple of weeks, until I got better acquainted with a number of my father's racing buddies, I had to stand outside the gates and find someone to take me in with them. (Admission was free for anyone under 21--later changed to 18--but you had to be with an adult.)
(Just for fun: Hollywood Park prices in 1960: Grandstand--$1.50; Clubhouse--$2.50; parking--25 cents, 50 cents for preferred; Daily Racing Form--50 cents; hot dog--25 cents; soft drink--10 cents small, 15 cents large; hand-carved ham or beef sandwiches--90 cents.)
The Hollywood Park season ended the third week of July (as it still does today). A few of my dad's buddies invited me to Del Mar to stay with them at the old Namara Inn on Camino del Mar (now part of the newer Stratford Inn). I had to sleep in a sleeping bag, but I would have slept on the beach to be at Del Mar. My mother said it was okay "for a few days." I was at Del Mar for opening day and never returned home until seven weeks later, the day before school re-opened. Actually, I did go home one Sunday, but just to get more clothes.
Racing at Del Mar during the days and handicapping and playing poker at nights with some great older guys who loved life and loved racing -- as the saying goes, "It doesn't get any better than this." Some people go all their lives without becoming very passionate about anything. From that summer on, that would never be the case with me.
With racing Monday through Saturday at Del Mar in those days, what about Sundays? No problem. Agua Caliente raced year-around on Saturdays and Sundays in Tijuana, about a half-hour drive from Del Mar.
My experience with different racetracks was extremely limited at the time, but over the years, I came to find that Caliente was not quite like anywhere else. Sure, much had to do with the fact that it was located in another country, but there was something strangely romantic about the place--even with its poor quality of racing. Here was kind of an oasis plopped down in the middle of miles of wooden shacks, broken-down old American automobiles and signs that seemed to be everywhere that read "mofles" (mufflers). I never understood why automobile mufflers were so popular.
Just getting to Caliente was like an "E" ride at Disneyland -- "E" tickets having been born in 1959 when Disneyland opened the Matterhorn. All but the bravest souls insisted on parking their cars on the American side of the border in the broad expanse of public parking lots that existed. From there you walked across the International border (the walk into Mexico taking only seconds, while the walk back at night could take as much as an hour, owing to American Customs.) Everywhere, on both sides of the border, you were bombarded with people trying to give you "passes" to Caliente. As far as I know, no one every paid to get into the racetrack. In fact, most entrances at the track did not even have anyone stationed there to collect tickets or money.
As soon as you crossed the wire fence, you would be confronted by children as young as four or five, pulling at your pant leg and yelling "chick-lay, one penny." They were selling small two-packs of the old square Chicklet's gum for a penny a pack. Seeing their tattered clothing and sad eyes, you usually gave them a nickel or dime for one pack. Not far away, their parents were selling pinatas, ceramic bulls and the like. The asking price was usually a few dollars, but bargaining was always expected.
Soon, you came upon a sea of taxi cabs -- made up mostly of late 1940s and early 1950s automobiles. On one side, the taxis were bound for downtown. On the other were the taxis bound for Caliente. Taxis never left with empty seats. There were always two passengers in the front and three in the back -- sometimes four in larger sedans. If there were fewer in your group, the driver would wait while "assistants" outside would yell for others to fill the empty seats. The fare: 50 cents a head.
I've since ridden cabs in Paris and Rome and driven many times in Manhatten. No where have I ever experienced the kind of driving that one does going from the border taxi stands to the racetrack -- a ride of only 15 minutes or less. The drivers used every inch of the poorly paved roads and thought nothing of taking shortcuts on side streets and alleys. Believe me, going 40 miles of hour down a dirt alley in a car full of people -- a car whose shock absorbers were 20-year-old original equipment -- was always an experience.
Everything was dry, dusty and dirty. You could see wooden shacks clear up into the foothills. Everywhere were small swirls of smoke from fires built to burn garbage. Clothes hung from makeshift clotheslines. Old automobile tires could be seen all over. And everywhere were small, poorly clad children with seemingly nothing to do and nowhere to go.
All of a sudden, you would turn a corner, and there would rise the huge grandstand of Agua Caliente.
Looking at the quality of racing then, it was hard to imagine that here was a track that was running $100,000 races regularly before any track in America. Here was the track where the legendary Phar Lap and Seabiscuit competed. And just a year earlier, Round Table had become a millionaire racing at Caliente.
How? Here at a track where the purse of 10 of the 12 races was now $1,200. The feature race purse was usually $2,000.
Eddie Arcaro rode his first winner at Caliente. George Woolf rode here regularly for a period of time.
Caliente was also at the forefront of many of the major innovations that we take for granted in the sport today. This was the first track in North America to require jockeys to wear safety goggles. Caliente was also the track that introduced the safety helmet and the first to require its use by all jockeys competing in races. Later in the 1960s, Caliente was the first to introduce the roller-extension starting gate. Basically, these were nothing more than the rollers that one sees used to move boxes along an assembly line. Only, they were turned sideways and jutted out from the side of each gate. Thus, horses came out much straighter, avoiding the usual bumping. Unfortunately, other tracks never adopted this starting gate. Trainers claimed that horses came back with skin burns on their flanks. And jockeys worried about another impediment should they be tossed from the horse at the start. Caliente nonetheless used the roller extension gate for years, claiming it was a success.
That first summer at Caliente also introduced me to several things of which I had little knowledge -- exotic wagering. While most tracks in America -- especially in California -- offered only win-place-and-show wagering, Caliente offered WPS, plus quinielas and exactas. And the track's most popular feature was the "Fabulous 5-10," where patrons could win as much as $100,000 or more by picking the winners of the fifth through the tenth race. Of course, this was just a Pick 6 -- more than a decade before it would be introduced in America. And Santa Anita and Hollywood Park wouldn't even offer the daily double until 1962.
There were a number of novel things that one found at Caliente. For one, post time meant nothing. Horses rarely even reached the gate by post time. Then they would circle endlessly until the starter received the signal from the mutuel room. The "off" was usually 10-12 minutes after post time. But, of course, everyone knew this and bet accordingly. Believe it or not, often the delay was to wait until every horse had at least $2 bet to show on the tote board. Honest! Daily handle was often in the $300,000 range and fully a third of this was in the 5-10 alone. Most of the other was in the exotics. Little was bet at the straight, place and show windows.
Also, never ask what the mutuel take was. At the time, it was a better kept secret than the number of women who JFK slept with at the White House. Daily Racing Form, which always prints mutuel take at the top of the daily charts for all tracks, never posted anything for Caliente. Stories in Los Angeles newspapers reported that the take changed regularly, depending on what the track's financial position was on any particular day. Simple calculations on any race showed that the take was usually in the 25% range. That explained the frequency with which one would find as many as three horses going off at 2-to-1 in the same race. But, this was Mexico, and no one expected everything to be on the up and up.
The fact was, beginning late in the 1950s and thereafter, Caliente lost money on the Thoroughbreds. The track made money from the foreign book and the dog races that ran there Wednesday through Sunday. And it got lots of breaks from the federal government in Mexico City because it brought American money across the border.
The foreign book, located in the bowels of the grandstand, was great fun -- especially in my early years when I had limited experience with racetracks across the country. The walls were lined with chalkboards covering entries and results to tracks like Bowie, Tropical and Narragansett. Bets were handwritten. The minimum was $1 on all bets in the foreign book.
Another popular feature at Caliente was the Future Book on the Santa Anita Handicap (then the first weekend of March) and the Kentucky Derby. The Derby Future Book was recognized around the country. Associated Press (AP) and United Press International (UPI) wire stories would regularly cover changes in future book odds, and newspapers across the country would report them, always crediting Caliente. Las Vegas did not catch on to this for years.
Surprisingly, in retrospect, Caliente was also somewhat racist. The Clubhouse was occupied primarily by Amerians and a few wealthy Mexican nationals. Locals were confined to the grandstand. At the crossover, no one every questioned you if you were American. But, Mexicans were regularly turned away and told that the Clubhouse was private. It wasn't until the evening, when dog racing took over, that the two crowds would mingle together -- the action being confined to the Clubhouse.
Betting was in American money only, as were the payoffs.
Eating and drinking were always an adventure. As much as possible, I avoided eating the food. Most of us usually bought sandwiches from restaurants in San Diego. I did drink Coke from bottles, the only difference from American being the words on the bottle, "Hecho in Mexico." Some of the guys who went with us didn't seem to mind--eating and drinking everything. I never remember anybody getting sick.
As for water, there was bottled water everywhere, because Americans were always warned not to drink the water -- especially in Tijuana where the sewers were antiquated, when they existed at all. The water coolers that were everywhere were noteworthy, however, because the bottles were old and dirty, as was the water inside. It didn't take much of a brain to know that all they did was refill the Sparklett's Mountain Water bottles with water from their pipes. No one I knew ever went near the water coolers.
The racing was exiting. Twelve races a day. First post: noon. In between races , a bunch of us would always run down to the foreign book to check the results from other tracks. In the early years, I handicapped only and rarely had anyone bet for me. But that never affected my enthusiasm.
Another treat was going to the ground floor and watching the employees go through the 5-10 betting slips. All 5-10 bets were checked by hand. You would bet on half-page slips -- picking one number in each race and one alternate in the event of a scratch. You turned your slip into a mutuel seller who stamped both the first page and the carbon, returning the latter to you.
There was a large glass window in front of the 5-10 room where you could watch the employees sorting through the 30,000 to 50,000 slips after each 5-10 race. To this day, I still cannot imagine doing this by hand. I never understood their system, but it was fascinating to watch them do their thing.
Since payoffs sometimes went down to those picking five or four winners, it was not just a matter of tossing out the tickets that missed the first race or two.
Interestingly, when Marj Everett succeeded in taking over Hollywood Park in the 1980s, she badly wanted to introduce the 5-10 concept, but none of the tote companies had the software to meet her needs. She had to wait four years before introducing her Pick 6. The carry-over concept of later years was her's, not Caliente's.
Esteban Medina was, for years in the 1950s and 1960s, "Numero Uno" among the jockeys at Caliente. He was the Shoemaker of south of the border. A number of jockeys got their starts at Caliente and graduated to racing on the tough Southern California circuit. Medina tried a few times, but could never duplicate his success north of the border.
Throughout the 60s I probably went to Caliente more than 400 times. There were many breaks in the Thoroughbred season in Southern California, and there was never Sunday racing. I never lost my enthusiasm for a day at Caliente -- even though it meant a long drive down and back from Los Angeles--except during the Del Mar meet. I can still hear the marvelous voice of track announcer Tom Gwynne and his trademark, "Running for the wire..."
Throughout the 60s, Caliente continued to struggle. Its flamboyant executive director, John Alessio--the man responsible for the 5-10, safety helmets and safety goggles--was finally indicted by the U.S. federal courts for income tax evasion and other charges. He eventually spent several years in jail. Attendance and handle continued to decline. Ironically, a lot had to do with the population explosion in Southern California. San Diego was growing as a major vacation spot for Los Angelinos and crowds at the Tijuana border would back traffic up for miles. At times it could take 90 minutes just to get from San Diego to the border parking lots. For most people going to the races, it wasn't worth the struggle. As the American crackdown on illegal drugs broadened, the lines of traffic got even worse.
In August 1971, Caliente burned to the ground. Two years later, California ushered in the era of Sunday racing -- previously the one thing that Caliente could offer that you could not get elsewhere. A group of American and Mexican businessmen finally got the money together to rebuild the track. The "new" Caliente opened in 1974, but it was never really completed. It had promised to be a major shopping, entertainment and racing complex, but it never reached its goals. With the advent of simulcasting and inter-track wagering in California in the 1980s, Thoroughbred racing gradually disappeared at Caliente. Only the dogs continued running.
It is unlikely that Caliente will rise from the ashes again, even if Throughbred racing should through some miracle return to its wonderful, halcyon days in North America. But those of us who spent our weekends growing up there will cherish the memories as long as we live.