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Alfred Wright
August 03, 1970
The 'lovely little guy' of San Diego, John Alessio—patron of the arts, friend of the poor and boss of that gaudery of gambling, Caliente—catches a tax rap that inspires some Californians to crocodile tears
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August 03, 1970

Johnny Is In Agua Hot

The 'lovely little guy' of San Diego, John Alessio—patron of the arts, friend of the poor and boss of that gaudery of gambling, Caliente—catches a tax rap that inspires some Californians to crocodile tears

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It is an adventure to send the spirit soaring. It takes not much more than two death-defying hours down the dicey freeways from Los Angeles to the border and then a mere 15 minutes more to the track itself. Those last few miles through the streets of Tijuana offer the ideal overture to the lyric setting beyond. The broad boulevards are lined with the corpses of yesteryear's cars and some of the most irresistibly evil bars and strip joints between Macao and Marrakesh. On a hill south of town—beyond the scaly old jai alai palace, beyond the claptrap bullring, beyond the withered golf course and out of earshot of all the small fry trying to sell their sisters—there looms the magnificently shabby Caliente racetrack itself. In its peeling, neo-Castilian grandeur it is a sight to bring an instant shiver of anticipation. For more than four decades now it has been a glorious monument to the industry of greed.

By late Friday afternoon the traffic has begun to coagulate along the route to Caliente. Those who make it by nightfall can revel in a full card of greyhound racing until almost midnight and, with or without some recreation at the nearby fleshpots, return by Saturday noon for a dozen thoroughbred contests. While the prices on the final horse race are still blinking on the tote board, the quarter-mile track is being wheeled into place in front of the stands for another evening of dogs. And so it goes, day and night, night and day, dog and horse, horse and dog, until Monday morning.

Through it all, an infinity of betting windows offers exotic paths to riches. There is, of course, the routine daily double. There are the quinella and the perfecta and the 1-2-3 and Caliente's own 5-10, in which you are invited to pick the winners of six consecutive races. Although the track carves an initial 25% and more from each pool, the payoffs can be spectacular. A local nightclub character once drew a record $98,063.80 from the 5-10, or so it is claimed.

As if all that were not enough, Caliente's Foreign Book opens in time for breakfast. The side of one entire room is covered with the entries, odds and results on half a dozen thoroughbred racetracks in the U.S. from Monday through Saturday, with betting wickets across the way to handle wagers on these faraway happenings. Every morning 500 or so scrofulous-looking addicts assemble there, their sandwiches and beer and coffee and racing forms spread out on the tables before them. Each spring Caliente also runs the largest winter book on the Kentucky Derby, establishing odds that are accepted from Vegas to Tattersalls. The pitfalls in this sleepless emporium are almost too trivial to mention—such as mutuel clerks who have a sleepy way of forgetting your change until a hostile glance reminds them of their oversight.

Too soon the curtain falls on a Caliente weekend. The Caddies, the dune buggies, the campers and countless items of motorized free-form sculpture line up at the border for immigration inspection. There they are joined by the aficionados from the corrida, the jai alai freaks, the seminude surfers from Rosarita Beach and many other strays who have survived the margaritas, the salads and the friendly señoritas. It takes no more than two or three hours among the fumes of their restless cars before one is homeward bound, officially cleared of trying to smuggle pot to Stateside school kids.

Behind then is the domain of Johnny Alessio, "a lovely little guy," as almost anyone who knows him has sometime said. It is Johnny who has made Caliente what it is today, the largest legal gambling book on the North American continent. Johnny is, indeed, the paradigm of a dying American ethos—shoeshine boy to millionaire. In the expanding country village of San Diego, where he grew up, Alessio has assumed the panache of local folk hero. A couple of years ago he was awarded the honorific Book of Golden Deeds of the Exchange Club, a society of businessmen dedicated to golden deeds. The Jockey Guild of America named him Man of the Year in Racing in 1957 for introducing the plastic safety helmet at Caliente. In 1962 the Border Cities Conference presented him with a citation for "furthering the international relations between Mexican and American people." He was Mr. San Diego of 1964. Happy Chandler once commissioned Alessio a Kentucky colonel because he annually stages "the biggest Kentucky Derby party west of Louisville" at the Caliente track, with special Derby betting windows and closed-circuit television of the race. Bishop Francis J. Furey awarded Johnny an honorary doctorate of law from the Roman Catholic University of San Diego, which is quite a leap from the seventh grade, at which level Johnny abandoned academics to help support his family. His honors are, as the saying goes, endless.

So it comes as quite a jolt to discover that Alessio—the most influential San Diego "corporate head with diverse business interests," as ranked by a group of San Diego graduate students—is suddenly in the grip of the law. Early in April a federal grand jury indicted him for income-tax irregularities of $434,649 over a four-year period starting in 1963. In the same action Johnny's son, Dominic—or Bud, as he is known—and three of Johnny's brothers were charged with more than $861,000 of the same. The Government claims they used a lot of Caliente money for their own private purposes and then failed to list it as personal income.

The most influential "banker with corporate and industrial interests" in San Diego, according to the same students, is C. Arnholt Smith, president of the U.S. National Bank and chairman of the San Diego Padres baseball team. Most of the $10 million for the Padres' National League franchise came from "Arnie" Smith, as he is called by just about everyone around town, and Smith's daughter, Carol Smith Shannon, is president of the ball club. Smith is regarded as the major power in Republican Party politics at the southern end of California, having raised something in the neighborhood of $1 million for President Nixon's 1968 campaign chest, a quarter of it purportedly from Smith's own pocket. At the time that Alessio's indictment was pending—a secret that had been on everyone's lips for months—Smith used his considerable influence in his friend Johnny's behalf. But nevertheless the indictment was filed—just one week before the statute of limitations would have run its course on the first of the four charges.

Thus, in their devious ways, sport and politics and intrigue get all tangled up together in what appears to be about the sunniest, least complicated community on the whole Western shelf. California's thoroughbred horsemen have been suggesting—if not hoping—that this would happen for years, but lots of people thought they were just giving Johnny Alessio a bad time because he was not one of them, didn't cut his jackets out of the same piece of tweed. For instance, there was the time back in the mid-1960s when Johnny came up with a gorgeous plan to take over the Del Mar racetrack, fix up its decaying grandstand, build a beautiful marina nearby and convert the entire place into Fort Lauderdale West.

Ever since it was started by Bing Crosby and his friends back in the '30s, the Del Mar racetrack has operated a cozy little summer meeting with something of a Saratoga social flavor. Because the track is only a skip and a jump from his home town, Alessio began to eye the place as soon as he had built himself a comfortable nest egg at Caliente. There was the urge to run a racetrack on the respectable side of the border, and it would give the good old civic image a boost. At first Johnny tried to buy the Del Mar lease from Clint Murchison Sr. and Sid Richardson, who had been using its profits to help support their charities. The deal for the lease was almost made when those gilt-edged Texans backed off, allegedly under pressure from California horsemen. "I shook hands with Murchison Jr.," Alessio says with heat, "and then they reneged on me."

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