Club House and Grand Stand at Race Track, Tia Juana, Mexico
Publisher: M. Kashower Co, Los Angeles (1914-1934)
The first professional race track opened in January 1916, just south of the border gate. It was almost immediately destroyed by the great “Hatfield rainmaker” flood of 1916. Rebuilt in the general area, it ran horse races until the new Agua Caliente track opened in 1929, several miles south and across the river on higher ground.
The Mexican Government has notified that it will not permit the construction of a race track at Tia Juana, Lower California. Several wealthy Americans were interested in the venture. Furthermore, it is stated that it is the intention of the Mexican authorities to close the Juarez track, which has been conducted for the last few years by an American syndicate. The move against racing is said to be the first in a crusade by the Mexican Government against all sport on which money is wagered.
Referee, 29 December 1915
Back in 1909, all horse racing in California fell victim to an antigambling reform movement, and those in the state connected with the sport — inspired by the well-known success of the Juarez track across the border from El Paso — decided to build a track in Tijuana and exploit its proximity to Southern California population centers. A group of men headed by San Francisco boxing promoter James (Sunny Jim) Coffroth undertook the job of construction and management of a new racetrack in Tijuana. . . . Coffroth had little interest in horse racing as a sport, but he had a genius for promotion, plus numerous contacts among horsemen, journalists, businessmen. He obtained a major portion of the financing to build the Tijuana track from Adolph Spreckels, whose family — he was the brother of John D. Spreckels — for decades after made strong denials of the old man’s involvement. Spreckels was a horseracing buff and the owner of the Napa Stock Farm. He felt that Tijuana racing might help to return the sport to California; an added incentive may have been the fact that he owned the railroad spur to the border and needed an attraction like the racetrack to encourage people to make the ride to what was then a “desolate, scattering, wind-swept village,” as a Los Angeles Times writer described it at the time.
At the time the track was being built, General Esteban Cantu was in effective control of Baja California. He had been sent to the area in 1911 by the Mexican government to drive out the Americans who had come to Mexico to assist the revolution. Although the new revolutionary government in Mexico City vetoed the racetrack idea. Cantu, strongly of independent mind, was all for it, so construction proceeded on schedule. On January 1, 1916, the track, with a wooden grandstand, sparkling white fence, and 114-foot-long liquor bar, opened for business less than a quarter mile from the border crossing. (The site of the track is now partially covered by the freeways and by the Tia Juana River canal.) Coffroth’s friends in the press helped publicize the event and 10,000 people showed up on opening day. . . . On the day the track opened, it started raining again after a long drought. At first this seemed an auspicious omen, but the rain didn’t stop. It turned out to be one of the worst floods in Southern California history, which some believed had been brought on by a self-proclaimed magician known as Hatfield the Rainmaker, who had been hired by the City of San Diego to end the drought. The waters rose and the Tia Juana River flooded into the newly opened racetrack. Coffroth was undeterred; he obtained from Adolph Spreckels more money to rebuild the track. “Take it from me,” Coffroth proclaimed to the press, “Tijuana, with San Diego so close, is the ideal place for the Sport of Kings.” The rebuilt track (at the same location in the river bed) was officially called the Sunset Racetrack but usually known simply as “the Tijuana track.”
“The amazing and slightly sordid story of Aqua Caliente racetrack” (San Diego Reader)
It seemed the racing gods didn’t want Tijuana to have a racetrack. The first track, the Tijuana Jockey Club, was destroyed twice in its first year before Adolph Spreckels, who owned the Hotel del Coronado in San Diego, stepped in to save it. . . . The track location was near the U.S./Mexico border, and opening day’s six races drew 10,000 Californians, who were legally denied betting on horse racing at home at the time. The San Diego Union reported, “Surrounded by the mauve hills of old Mexico, as though nature intended the spot for the site, lies the magnificent new Tijuana race course, a miles from the thriving little village.”
It border location was also its downfall, as it was built on the low ground of the Tijuana riverbed. The sparkling new facility was only one week old when the nature that “intended the spot” included heavy rains and the word flooding in 25 years, which destroyed the track. To keep the momentum, the hastily rebuilt and reopened the track. That’s when Spreckels stepped in to help; they reopened the following year. Prohibition in the U.S. had fun-seeking Americans flocking south to newly opened Baja resorts and casinos. In 1928 American entrepreneurs built a beautiful casino at Agua Caliente (hot water) on higher ground on the outskirts of Tijuana. The following year they added the Hipódromo Agua Caliente (Caliente Race Track) on the location. The horsemen from the Tijuana Jockey Club had moved up the hill.
“Baja Legends: The Historic Characters, Events, and Locations That Put Baja California on the Map”, Greg Nieman, 2002, p.62
Your luck will be the luck of “Sure Thing, Johnny.” You will hope with him, you will cheer with him. You will stand with the mob in the Grandstand as tho great race nears Its tremendous finish. For thrilling, fast action romance it is a screen story of intense, spell-binding interest. All the life, all the colour of Tia Juana–America’s classic racing event–is mirrored in this gripping romance.
The Mercury, 18 September 1924
AN AUSTRALIAN IN MEXICO.
On a recent visit to Southern California, I took the opportunity to go south into Mexico, a country I had always, wished to see because of its romantic history. The first Mexican town i encountered was Tia Juana, a place consisting of honkey tonks, dance halls, faro tables, gambling dens, and saloons, chiefly patronised by Americans, who swarm across the border to slake a thirst accumulated under prohibition, and to see the races at the celebrated Tia Juana race track.
In this town can be seen the largest bar in the world, occupying an entire block, and measuring 2llft. of rows and rows of shining bottles. It could be fittingly called the “drunks’ paradise*” .The saloons are run in real frontier style, and most of them have soft-eyed Mexican girls lurking round to coax the unwary, stranger to “loosen up” on his roll. The southern maid is not so hard-faced as her nordic sister, but she prevails just the same. On race days the crowd is cosmopolitan, and of all colours–from the ebon of the negro through shades of tawny and yellow, to the white of the Caucasian. The day I was there Jack Dempsey and Estelle Taylor attended the races, probably to spend some of the cash Dempsey got when he lost the fight at Chicago.
The Australasian, 28 January 1928