During Prohibition, gambling and alcohol were banned in America, meaning those with disposable income who enjoyed such vices had to find a place to satisfy those cravings. Conveniently, just south of the California border, in Tijuana, Mexico, such a place existed. Agua Caliente racetrack and casino featured horse racing, card tables, bars, and later, greyhound racing. Hollywood glitterati were to be found there, enjoying the racing by day and then partying into the wee hours of the morning. In his first book, Tijuana native David Beltran finally releases a lifetime compilation of history of the track he attended since the age of two with his father and older brother.
One cannot accurately discuss Agua Caliente without first telling the story of the old Tijuana track, its predecessor whose first races were run in 1888. In his first chapter, Beltran gives a very brief history of Tijuana and some of the innovations that started there. Tijuana, and later Agua Caliente, are demonstrated to be where the newest ideas for the sport were tested. By being in a foreign country away from the control of the ultra-conservative Jockey Club in New York, they were free to test various ways to improve the sport and prevent cheating. One such rule which began at old Tijuana is the scratch rule, which continues to this day.
Eventually a flood demolished old Tijuana, and racing moved to the sparkling new facility 2 miles east called Agua Caliente. Tijuana's more prestigious stakes events were simply renamed and moved to Caliente. It became the place for new riders to start their careers - jockeys such as George Woolf, Eddie Arcaro, and Bill Shoemaker all started here. As well, longtime racing official Marshall Cassidy first plied his trade at Caliente, where he invented the forerunner to the modern-day starting gate.
Beltran gave a chapter each to the two horses that truly put Caliente on the map, namely Phar Lap and Seabiscuit. Phar Lap was the great Australian gelding invited to participate in the Agua Caliente Handicap in his first race of his American tour. Despite racing on dirt for the first time, carrying 129 pounds giving up to 39 pounds to his competitors, he cruised to an easy 2 length win in track-record time. Sadly, the first race of his American tour was his last. He died shortly after the race and, Beltran wrote, Phar Lap "made his last hurrah in post mortem as his stuffed body made several macabre stops at major American racing venues." Seabiscuit also won the Handicap, in 1938, with Bing Crosby in the winner's circle to present Charles Howard with the huge gold cup.
In the 1950's, "Brother John" Alessio purchased the track and set out to modernize it as much as possible. Among his many renovations, he added infield lakes with waterfowl, removed some of the extra chutes that had been used by Marshall Cassidy's starting gates, and rebuilt the greyhound track such that the homestretch section was retractible. On the gambling side, he introduced such handle-enhancing innovations as the future book, parlay wagers, the quinella, the perfecta (now called the exacta in most jurisdictions), the daily double, and the "5-10", which is now known as the Pick 6. What the 5-10 did was bring in huge crowds of people from all walks of life, trying to hit the big one. By far the best innovation to come out of Caliente has to be the safety helmet. Alessio, against the protestations of the jockey colony, required all riders to wear the newer headgear as protection against injury. John Alessio and other proponents of the helmet were finally vindicated when Eddie Arcaro, wearing the Caliente helmet, survived a spill in the 1959 Belmont Stakes where he was clipped behind the head by a passing horse, an incident which earned the helmet worldwide acclaim and acceptance. A parallel invention to the safety helmet was color-coded caps to correspond with saddlecloth number. This was more for convenience, as most owners did not have caps that fit the larger helmets yet.
Sadly, the original Caliente burned to the ground on August 5, 1971. It took almost three years before the rebuilt facility opened its doors. However, the advantages that Caliente had over the American tracks were gone. Caliente's innovations are now standard equipment at tracks across America if not around the world. The special wagers John Alessio invented can be placed on almost any race on any simulcast screen. And prohibition and Sunday racing restrictions north of the border which helped Caliente flourish in its earlier days, are a distant memory.
Clearly, Agua Caliente is a place rich in history and tradition. Beltran has done an admirable job presenting this great track to racing fans who may not have realized just how important a place Caliente holds in the history of Thoroughbred racing. One need only go to their nearest track to see many Caliente innovations in use today. Beltran, through his book, has ensured that the track which introduced him to the sport will never be forgotten.
The Agua Caliente Story has a list price of $19.95 and can be purchased from Amazon.com.
All Book Reviews
Reminiscing About Old Agua Caliente by Ron Hale, a nice article about Caliente
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