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Out to Pasture : Hard Times Spell an End to Horse Racing at Agua Caliente


SAN DIEGO — His face buried in the Daily Racing Form, Kevin Molloy, a 71-year-old retired waiter, paused while scanning statistics and spoke sadly about how different June will be for him and his friends this year.

Normally, at this time of year the racing season is on at Agua Caliente Racetrack in nearby Tijuana. But the horses will not be running at Caliente this year, much to Molloy's disappointment.

Recently, Caliente owner Jorge Hank Rhon announced that a combination of hard financial times and waning interest in the legendary Mexican track has forced him to cancel the horse-racing season, perhaps forever.

"I've been going to Caliente since the late 1940s," said Molloy, who sat on a downtown bench in the bright midday sun. "A group of us have been going down there together for the past 20 years or so to bet a few bucks on the races and have a good time. You know, we never won big. But for us old guys, the races gave us an opportunity to socialize and enjoy ourselves on our Social Security (income)."

But the end of horse racing at Caliente did not come as a surprise to the California racing industry. What was surprising was that Hank had stuck with a losing program as long as he did.

"The horse races have operated in the red here since 1981," Hank said in an interview. "We tried everything, including night racing, to stimulate the crowds. Nothing worked. . . . I love this place. I love the sport. It's the sport of kings. But if the interest isn't there, there's not much else we can do."

Brian Sweeney, chief operating officer of the California Horsemen's Benevolent Assn., wonders whether the track's financial troubles hadn't also dimmed Hank's interest in horse racing in recent years.

"They really weren't all that serious about continuing racing," Sweeney said of Caliente's managers. "It appeared they were making an attempt to organize a racing program. But I think they probably realized they wouldn't have been able to meet the needs of the horsemen."

At any rate, Caliente has been losing its luster as an exotic destination for the last 15 years or so. And in recent years, experts in California racing circles have dismissed the Tijuana track as minor league.

"The quality of the races deteriorated badly, to the point where they became less attractive," said Mike Marten of the California Horse Racing Board. "The horses that ran there were horses who could not compete at tracks like Santa Anita and Hollywood Park. Caliente became a place where owners could take their horses to recoup some of the investment they had in their animals. It was a sad turn of events."

Maybe so, but there was a time when Caliente was the premiere track on the West Coast. Built around the Agua Caliente spa, hotel and casino, the track opened three days after Christmas in 1929. It immediately became a playground for wealthy Americans, Hollywood moguls and stars.

The United States was in the grip of Prohibition at the time, and wealthy Americans were lured to the track as much by its decadence as its horse racing. Tijuana, now a city of nearly 2 million, was a sleepy, wide-open border town when Caliente began holding horse races.

The track's administrative offices are lined with old photos of Hollywood stars and starlets. Actors Cesar Romero and Vincent Price are just two of the many visitors from Hollywood who were photographed at the track.

Throughout its history, Caliente has held a reputation as an innovative track. In 1942, Caliente staged the first $100,000 race--the Caliente Handicap--won by the legendary Australian horse Phar Lap. The electronic starting gate and photo finish were first put in use at the track.

In addition, former owner John S. Alessio invented a jockey helmet in 1955 after a rider died in an accident. The helmet is now standard equipment for jockeys. In 1941, Caliente was also the first significant track to give women jockeys a chance to ride.

The lure of big money continued to attract U.S. bettors to Caliente through the 1960s, buoyed by publicity about a taxi driver winning a $98,000 payoff on a $2 bet in 1960.

But the likes of Sea Biscuit and Round Table, legendary horses who ran at Caliente, have not been seen in years.

"We have stables for over 1,000 horses and used to house between 800 and 1,000 horses every year. In the past year, we've only had between 150 and 280 horses. We simply can't operate as a training facility with so few horses," Hank said.

He declined to say how much money he has lost in horse racing since he purchased the track in August, 1985. "Let's just say that it totals in the millions," he said.

Although Caliente is doing away with horse racing, the track's dog races, which are run daily, and the popular sports book operations will continue. And the track still offers satellite wagering on horse races at tracks throughout the United States.

In addition, wagering is also available on all major U.S. sporting events. Besides Nevada, Caliente is the only place in the world that offers legal all-out betting on U.S. sports other than horse and dog racing. At Caliente, it is possible to wager on dog races and a basketball game at the same time.

Several California racing officials doubt that horse racing will ever return to Caliente. But Hank said he hopes "this is just a temporary suspension."

"I think this will just be for the time being," he said. "When the economy gets better in the United States, I think you'll see a renewed interest in horse racing. When that happens, we'll definitely start racing again. I love horse racing. There's nothing more beautiful than a fast, graceful horse approaching the finish line."

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