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Sense of Place

Caliente: Horse Race Heaven : 'Man, This Isn't a Race Track,' My Friend Said. 'It's an Orgy.'

January 11, 1987|WILLIAM MURRAY | William Murray is the author of "Tip on a Dead Crab" and "The Hard Knocker's Luck."

Several Saturdays ago, I met this fellow I call Dan the Man at the Agua Caliente Race Track, a few miles south of the Mexican border in Tijuana.

He was sitting at the end of the bar in La Cupula, an indoor area from which he had a bird's-eye view of the closed-circuit TV screens in the room. When I asked him how he was doing at the races generally, he told me that he had embarked on a program that would yield him a minimum of $100,000 a year; he was going to bet $200 to show on fast horses in sprint races. He didn't need to buy a Racing Form or even a program, because he could glance at other people's copies. "It only takes me about five minutes," he explained. "I only need to look at a horse's last three races and total up the speed ratings." He had tested the system for 2 1/2 years on a computer and it worked. "Remember, only to show and on sprint races," he reminded me, as the bugler called us to the post. "Money in the bank."

Dan the Man is in his mid-30s, and he sported a mustache and wore blue polyester slacks, a white short-sleeve sports shirt with scarlet flamingos cavorting across his chest, and a red baseball cap tilted high up off his face. Between races he told Polish jokes. He himself is Polish and lives in the San Diego area, where he owns a hardware store. He was planning to come to Caliente every Friday night and spend the weekend at the motel across the street. That would be a little hard on his wife and two kids, he conceded, but they'd understand, once the money started to roll in. I had caught up with him during his third trip to the track. "I'm only ahead $180 so far," he told me. "I got a couple of dumb rides last week, but it's just a matter of time. I have to win. And this is money you can hide from the tax man."

Dan the Man came to Tijuana the night before his weekend betting started because things get under way briskly at Caliente. You can play up to half a dozen tracks across the United States here, and the action from the East sometimes begins as early as 9 a.m. The races, including all of those from Southern California, are beamed in live by satellite and can be seen on strategi-

cally positioned TV monitors. The hub of the action is the Foreign Book, a rectangular stone pavilion in front of the two main entrances to the grandstand, where the punters can see an average of 50 races a day. They can also wager on tracks in Northern California and bet on such future events as the Kentucky Derby and the other Triple Crown races. The entries and results are posted

on a huge blackboard that runs the length of the back wall. The bettors sit at tables facing the wall or simply mill about on the floor under the monitors, and around a bar and refreshment stand at one end. The scene is not reminiscent of the royal enclosure at Ascot. In fact, by the end of each racing day, it has achieved a truly Hogarthian level of sordidness, with the losers shuffling out glumly over a toxic dump of losing tickets, on their way back to the San Ysidro border crossing. The Foreign Book is open every day except Christmas and there are about 500 regulars, mostly Americans, who come every day and who haven't seen a live horse race in 20 years.

This depraved spectacle was not for Dan the Man, who preferred the more gracious surroundings of La Cupula, a large sunken area inside the main emporium that is bathed in comforting gloom and has padded seats and hordes of accommodating waiters. From the outside, La Cupula looks like a miniature cathedral dome tucked up against an Aztec temple. The original grandstand, a much homier affair, was destroyed by fire in 1971 and has been rebuilt as a paean to grandiosity--a massive four-story structure that could easily handle 30,000 fans. The average attendance on weekends, when Caliente puts on its own racing program, is about 4,500.

This is fine for those of us who like to go racing and wager in comfort, a tradition that the new owner, a dashing young Mexican entrepreneur named Jorge Hank Rhon, seems determined to respect, despite some eyepopping embellishments. The entrance to the Turf Club is now graced by floor-to-ceiling, glass-enclosed cages containing about 100 exotic birds, installed there because Senor Hank Rhon is an animal lover. Almost a year ago, some enterprising macaws chewed their way to freedom through the ceiling and roosted in the rafters until caught by an imported team of professional bird catchers. (Senor Hank Rhon reportedly also keeps boa constrictors in his office. "You hope everything's locked up when you go in there," one of his employees told me.)

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