When Einstein crossed the finish line to win the 2009 $1-million Santa Anita Handicap, he added his name to a list of champions that have made it Santa Anita’s signature race. Many people don’t know that the concept for the storied Big ‘Cap actually has its roots in Mexico, with the Coffroth Handicap.
A crowd filled the stands of Tijuana Racecourse for the 1924 Coffroth Handicap.
The Coffroth Handicap, started at Tijuana Racecourse, was named after the track’s president, San Francisco boxing promoter James "Sunny" Coffroth. The first running of the Coffroth only held a purse of $5,000 to the winner, but soon the race would increase in value when it was suggested by Tijuana’s presiding steward, George W. Schilling, that the purse should increase by $10,000 each year.
Outside of Oriental Park in Havana, Cuba or The Fair Grounds in Louisiana, winter racing at the time was non-existent in the United States. There was a revolution simmering in Mexico, and the Juarez racetrack had closed its doors. Tijuana racetrack was poised for serious growth thanks in part to a supportive social and governmental environment. First there was no competition from any other racetrack that operated during the winter months. Secondly, Prohibition had inspired many an American to venture into Mexico to misbehave, spend a little money and gamble at the various casinos that dotted the U.S-Mexico border. And with the Mexican government declaring the northern region of Baja California a free trade zone, American investors were able to set up business to support the border region of San Diego/Tijuana as a winter vacation getaway. With Coffroth’s Blue Fox Casino funding the racetrack venture the value of the Coffroth Handicap seemed to have no limits.
The early runnings of the Coffroth Handicap featured the best local runners from the current winter meet, but it was not until 1924 that the first BIG horse was lured into Mexico. His name was Exterminator -- the winner of the 1917 Kentucky Derby. “Old Bones,” as he was affectionately called, made a devastating debut south of the border to win an allowance race and was heavily favored to win the $40,000 Coffroth Handicap, but the best he could manage was a fourth-place finish.
With each subsequent running, the Coffroth Handicap not only increased in value but in the fields it attracted, such as top handicap horses Atherstone, Sunspero, Carlaris and Princess Doreen. The race reached its goal of $100,000 in 1928 when Crystal Pennant beat 17 rivals.
Crystal Pennant after winning the 1928 Coffroth Hadicap.
The following year, Golden Prince took home the $113,000 prize when he forged home ahead of 21 competitors. Sadly this was to be the final racing season at the old Tijuana racecourse. The racing permit was bought out by the management of the Agua Caliente Casino and Resort, and racing was to be held at the new $2.9-million dollar Agua Caliente Jockey Club.
The “new racetrack” simply transferred over the old racing calendar and proceeded. The inaugural running of the Agua Caliente Handicap in 1930 attracted 1928 Preakness winner, Victorian. Highweighted at 126 pounds, Victorian did not find the weight an obstacle as he went on to an easy victory.
Post parade for the first running of the $100,000 Agua Caliente Handicap, March 23, 1930.
The inaugural meeting at Agua Caliente proved to be a success, and the 1931 running offered a first place prize of $100,000. Entered was America’s top handicap runner, Sun Beau. Like Exterminator, Sun Beau prepped in an allowance race early in the meet and was heavily favored to win the big race. In a field of 10, Sun Beau found traffic early in the race. Once in the clear his rider made the decision to try and steal the race with five furlongs to run. Leading into the stretch, Sun Beau began to fade from his early efforts when he used himself up evading traffic. With nothing left, Sun Beau finished fifth, beaten by the unaccomplished Mike Hall.
The following year was perhaps the most famous of all Agua Caliente Handicaps. It was the race in which Phar Lap made his only North American start. Phar Lap was a managerial coup, and the Agua Caliente promotional machine was revving its engines in hopes of having The “Terror of the Antipodes” make one start before the big race. But the hyped International Handicap between Phar Lap, American Derby winner Reveille Boy, Preakness winner Dr. Freeland and local favorite Scimitar never left the drawing table. Phar Lap had suffered a quarter crack in one of his hooves and was sidelined for most of his stay in Mexico.
Phar Lap's trainer, Bobby Woodcock trained the horse by keeping him moving in long walks. The day of the big race finally came, and Woodcock feared that his horse would not only be a target of gamblers but the riders in the race. To throw everyone off, Woodcock brought Phar Lap over from the stables and saddled him two hours before post time.
In the race Phar Lap broke slowly then was taken in hand and out towards the center of the course to prevent him from being boxed in or crowded. As the field made its way around the clubhouse turn, Phar Lap was well behind the field. When the field straightened out on the backside, Phar Lap made one gigantic run at the leaders. Making the lead with a half mile to run, Phar Lap coasted until Reveille Boy made a run at him and seemed well on his way to overtake Phar Lap. But the great Aussie champ turned it up another notch and won drawing away.
Phar Lap in the winners' circle after the $50,000 Agua Caliente Handicap. Pictured are trainer Tommy Woodcock and jockey Billy Elliot.
Fourteen days after this great victory, Phar Lap would die under mysterious circumstances at a ranch in Menlo Park,California. Emotionally stirred by this tragedy, many believed the great horse was poisoned, but in reality Phar Lap died of a rare form of colic.
The Agua Caliente Handicap was caught in the rigors of the Depression, and the purse was reduced to $25,000. The 1933 and ’34 runnings were won by Gallant Sir, ridden by George “The Iceman” Woolf and John “Red” Pollard of Seabiscuit fame, respectively. 1935 saw the end of the great racetrack in Tijuana as a new president of Mexico, Lazaro Cardenas, sought to close the gambling empire run by Americans. It was not until 1938 that both Agua Caliente racetrack and its signature race joined forces in an effort to revitalize racing in Northern Mexico. Seabiscuit made his only start outside of the United States as he scored an easy win in the $12,500 race.
With the opening of Santa Anita in 1934 and the lifting of Prohibition, Agua Caliente racetrack no longer had the stronghold it had during the early 1930’s. Agua Caliente was reduced to an arena for lower level horses but remained a popular attraction for horseplayers during the 1950’s and 60’s. Caliente offered a varied betting menu, which made its Anglo neighbors seem drab in comparison. With Quinellas, Perfectas and the 5-10 (racing’s first pick-6) Caliente lured the American bettors into Mexico for the only Sunday racing in the Western region.
Run by John Alessio, Caliente saw an opportunity to make racing history by reviving the Agua Caliente Handicap and luring the great Round Table. At the time, Round Table was $30,000 short of being racing’s newest millionaire, and the winning share of the Agua Caliente Handicap would put Round Table over that mark.
Round Table winning the 1958 Caliente Handicap.
Assembling a host of local runners, Caliente assured trainer William Molter that Round Table would not carry more than 130 pounds. More than 30,000 people crammed into Caliente that day. Round Table, ridden by William Shoemaker, had a close call on the clubhouse turn as Shoemaker found himself in a tight running position. But “Shoe” was able to get the big horse out in the clear and won the race with a decisive move on the far turn. Round Table won by nine lengths in track-record time for the 1-1/16-mile distance.
Round Table in the winners' circle with trainer William Molter, Jockey Bill Shoemaker and Caliente General Manager John Alessio.
After the 1958 running, the Agua Caliente Handicap would never be run again. While the Santa Anita Handicap has seen monumental growth from its birth in 1935, the great race has its roots and owes its very concept to the great tracks of Tijuana, Mexico.
Author's Note: Agua Caliente was destroyed in a 1971 fire. Rebuilt, the “new” Caliente opened in 1974 and eventually closed its doors in 1992. Today Caliente is no longer the racetrack it used to be and has been converted into a private home of a failed local politician, its infield retrofitted with a soccer stadium.
All photographs property of David Beltran Collection.
David J. Beltran was born in Chula Vista and raised in San Diego and Tijuana. He has been attending the races since he was an infant, both at Caliente and the Southern California race tracks. Beltran is the author of the book The Agua Caliente Story (Eclipse Press 2004), a correspondent to Caballo, a racing magazine in Mexico, and a writer for the Argentine racing daily, Turf Diario. He recently published an article in HorsePlayer magazine covering betting on South American imports. Beltran also breeds Thoroughbreds and is a blood-stock agent specializing in Argentinean racing and breeding stock. He lives in Chula Vista with his wife, daughter, and two dogs.