August 1, 2003

The tracks of history

The photographic and memorabilia exhibit about the Tijuana Race tracks

By Mariana Martinez

“I started my research about the race tracks many years ago thanks to my father, he is the one who used to take me there. They say I have been going to the race track since I was two years old “off course, I don’t remember” but I remember the many times since then. I grew up watching horses and I remember when the race track burned down and when they rebuilt it…” This is the motivation that sent historian David Beltrán on a quest four years ago, and his findings are now in a book called “Historia del Hipódromo Agua Caliente: índice 1929 a 1974 (The Agua Caliente Story)”coming out late this summer.

Beltrán currently lives in Chula Vista and is an international correspondent for By Horse magazine. He often comes to Tijuana with his wife to visit his family and while visiting local bookstores, he was surprised to find no books on the importance of race tracks in Tijuana, they simply didn’t exist, so he decided to write one; the book he thought was missing.

David Beltán with his father.

“At first I didn’t have a clue where to begin, so I started to look on the internet, but then I remembered my Sunday school teacher worked at the race track, so I called her and she introduced me to a trainer called Cliff Clayton who now lives in Otay. He must be a 100 years old, and he gave me programs and gambling forms, ranging from 1964 till 1988 and gave me some names to go by. I then started looking in the phone book, going by the last names, I made many phone calls, but each person I found led me to 4 more so it was like a cascade effect” tells Beltrán, while a smile comes on his face remembering the searching, classifying and buying of expensive pictures on e-bay, sometimes costing him “an arm and a leg” he jokes… “sometimes I got depressed and said – I just can’t go on, but my wife said- you finish what you start, so I did.”

A breakthrough moment for his research was meeting Dr. Jorge Murga, a Baja California veterinarian who had worked at the Agua Caliente Race Track since 1967 until its closure in 1992. He is currently the leading man behind the Old Guard Horsemen from the Agua Caliente, Tijuana Race Track Association. An association where workers from the industry: trainers and jockeys (like the legendary Roberto “Bobby” Magaña) breeders, care takers and office personnel gather with old friends and try to light up the splendor this sport once had, as a way to rescue recent history from the grasp of darkness.

Chepe Márquez, took care of the horses at Agua Caliente in the 1940’s and expresses the sentiment of many horsemen like him saying “The Agua Caliente race track was the home of many horsemen like myself, for ¾ of the century… I’m deeply religious and a family man, and I sincerely ask God for the pure English blood horses to run the track again at the Agua Caliente Race Track.” Unfortunately for him, and many others, the demolition of the building has now been signed, and the land already sold.

The horse breeding tradition in Baja California began long before it was even considered a state; it was just a northern territory under Coronel Esteban Cantú’s command. Under his orders, the boxing tycoon and business men Jim Coffroth successfully built the first two racetracks in the city of Tijuana. The first Tijuana racetrack was built in the early 20th century, where the Morales Vizcarra building, owned by the yellow cab taxi drivers union is today; just by the Tijuana-Tecate train tracks and Juan García street in Libertad neighborhood, one of the oldest in the city.

A view of the Hipodromo Agua Caliente.

According to horsemen Lawrence “Swade” Jenner, the first race track was just 450 feet from the San Ysidro border and opened January 1, 1916 and was totally destroyed ten days later, when the area was hit by thunderstorms, causing the powerful Tijuana river to overflow — back then the Abelardo Rodríguez Dam was not yet built.

The second racetrack was built in an area now occupied by a Padre Kino monument and the Tijuana City Hall. The racetrack operated there until 1929 and then moved to the Agua Caliente racetrack on December 28, 1929. That’s when the tradition grew strong and became a successful English blood horse breading place and home to many editions of the famous annual race called the Coffroth Handicap, with a price of 150,000 dollars.

The racetrack continued operating until May 17, 1992. It had been closed down before, in 1935 by then president Lázaro Cárdenas and then re-opened in 1938, the year famous horse Sea Biscuit won the Caliente Handicap. Sea biscuit is now a US legend and his triumph in Tijuana is part of the just released movie Sea Biscuit, based on the book by the same name by author Laura Hillonbrand.

The book tells the story about a half blind jockey who has to box for a living; a car salesmen who knew nothing about horse racing, named Carl Howard and Tom Smith, a horse trainer who until then never had a winning horse. Together, they conquer the horse racing world with an undersized horse called Sea Biscuit, who –like them– had never been a champion.

Historian David Beltrán had contacted Hillonbrand, she even borrowed a picture from his collection for the collector’s edition of Sea Biscuit that will include a new chapter of pictures from back then. The scenes from Sea Biscuit´s Tijuana triumph where filmed at the Santa Anita racetrack.

The location of the three Tijuana racetracks over the years, was based on the train track patterns around the city. Train travel was crucial for the sport; getting the fans in and out of the city, getting the horses and horsemen in, and getting sufficient supplies was made possible because of the trains. The existence and efficiency of the train system, along with the low maintenance costs and good location made Tijuana a racetrack jewel, but it was high level care taking and world reknown trainers that made racetracks a way of life for many Tijuana families.

The racetrack workers belonged to a time where a job was more than that, it was a lifestyle, and families became part of it by building a community around the workplace and made lifelong friendships that translated in to loving care for the animals. For the Old Horsemen the demolition of the Agua Caliente Race track is the death of their own memories and they watch silently as their eyes fill with tears.

The collection of pictures and memorabilia will be on display at the Tijuana City Hall patio as a part of the celebrations for the 114 anniversary of the city, with support from city hall, the Tijuana historical society and historian Eddie Butler-Bowdon, Victoria Museum representative (from Melbourne, Australia) home of the Australian champion racehorse Phar-Lap, 100,000 dollar winner in the 1932 Caliente Handicap race, in Tijuana.

The exhibit focuses on the period since 1929 until 1974 and was inaugurated Tuesday July 22nd. It is an impressive collection of old newspapers, programs, personal pictures and memories of the many Tijuana people whose lives where build around the sport and where, until now, gathering dust in someone’s drawers for over twenty years.

It is open to the public absolutely free until August 19, when the exhibit will go to the Tijuana Historical Society until October 15, and then to the Tijuana Culture House in Altamira.

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