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Although the horses here are not of the best, the Caliente track at Tijuana, Old Mexico nonetheless has a few distinctions of its very own. It once had the distinction of owning the most unambiguous reputation for outright crookedness of any track in the world. The rottenness was everywhere, from management controlled by gamblers to jockeys who pulled horses with shameless consistency.
"Today," says Executive Director John S. Alessio (who, with his brothers Tony and Russ, has been working for the last decade to build up the respectability which Caliente racing has finally achieved), "we know we are running an honest and efficient track. When we think of the past at Caliente we like to think of things of which we can be proud. Such as the first $100,000 race on the North American continent; or of our track as the maturing grounds for Eddie Arcaro, Johnny Longden, Willie Shoemaker and dozens of others; of our development of the jockey's safety helmet—and, naturally, the comforts and conveniences which we increase every year."
The thinking in the Caliente front office is realistic all the way. "Gambling is human nature," says Harry (Coon) Rosen, the Alessios' manager of operations. "Let's face it, people on the average don't go racing to see the races. They go to gamble."
"Taking that as a starting point," adds John Alessio, "Caliente has a particular appeal. Isn't it true in the U.S. that a track customer has roughly 25 minutes between races? Well, we feel that because we're licensed by the Mexican government as a legalized gambling operation we can satisfy our customers by giving them 25 minutes of gambling-shopping time between every race. So, instead of just offering them the regular pari-mutuel system, we give them every kind of betting system we can think of. And they love it."
What Caliente customers have to choose from on their shopping list would knock the eyes out of the Jamaica regular: regular pari-mutuel and daily double; combination 1-2-3 betting on every race; the Quinella betting (so popular at dog tracks) in at least one race a day; licensed bookmakers (the track's own bookies, not competing individuals); and, finally, the new 5-10 system, the most popular new form of gambling seen in many a day. And, to add to this galaxy of facilities for winning—or losing—money, Caliente operates a foreign book, where you can bet any horse on any race track in the United States any day of the week, plus the future book, which is open for betting well in advance of the Santa Anita Handicap, the Kentucky Derby and the Garden State, at odds set up by Pricemaker Tony Alessio two months before the race in question and revised by him each Saturday night up to the week before the race.
As there are races at Caliente only Saturdays and Sundays you might expect the track to look pretty dead most of the time. Not so, although you get a rather weird sensation pulling up to the grandstand at 10 o'clock on a weekday morning when you're not going to see a single horse all day. But that hardly bothers the true gambler (85% of those frequenting Caliente come down what is advertised as "19 short miles south of San Diego on a wide California freeway") who hustles inside to buy his Form and take up position in front of an enormous blackboard on which are listed all entries on U.S. tracks that day. Turning around to look out across the Mexican hills you are startled by the announcer's voice proclaiming, "They are nearing the post for the first at Hialeah." A lone tractor grinds around the Caliente strip, but the noise of its engine is stolen by the announcer again; late scratches at Sunshine, change in track conditions at Fair Grounds, a switch in jockeys at Santa Anita. Study the form over again, bet again and, if you are lucky, when the call of your race comes through you march up to the cashier's window and collect at regular track prices. Your winner may have set a track record, but you won't have seen him.
Sunday is the big racing day and affords the only chance to take a crack at the 5-10 system. The system is a somewhat modified version of the cinco-seis (5-6), which is so popular in Caracas. You are asked to do the virtually impossible: pick the winners of six races (races 5 through 10) on one card and turn that card in 10 minutes before post time for the fifth race. You can do all this for $2 and, because the programs are out by 3 p.m. on Friday, you have just about 48 hours in which to kick over lightly the matter of picking six horses out of a possible 60 or 65. Of course, there's nothing to prevent you, for an additional outlay, from making multiple selections, but this sort of thing can run up the expenses something awful. It gets rough even picking two horses in each race. The cost: $128. If you want to pick four horses in each race it'll only cost you $8,192 but, if you feel that it is absolutely imperative to win at this game, just tote along a bag containing $5,971,968 to cover a field of 12 horses in each of the six races.
The handle in the pool has gone up from $10,000 when it was first introduced last April to an average of nearly $50,000 now.
The payoff on the 5-10 is uncomplicated. The track takes 10% of the pool, and the winner gets the rest. If more than one person picks all six winners the pot is divided. Similarly, if nobody gets a clean ticket, the jackpot goes to those who selected five out of six correctly. The day I was there 18 people (in a crowd of about 12,000) turned up with five out of six winners and won about $2,200 each. Two days before last Christmas a 72-year-old former prospector named George Hall rolled in from Aztec, New Mexico and dug a record $46,287 out of the Caliente 5-10 pool. There is no evidence that Mr. Hall ever struck it so rich on a Sunday afternoon in Aztec.
IS IT LUCK?