“I came close to hitting the 5-10; a guy two seats down from me hit it!”
--Anonymous Caliente horseplayer.
--Anonymous Caliente horseplayer.
We get emails announcing its carryovers. Handicappers adjust their playing to take a stab at it. At any racetrack in the United States the pick-6 is now an everyday betting staple. But it was not always the norm.
John Alessio, General Manager and President of Caliente racetrack was always open for ideas, and when the “5-10” bet was suggested, Alessio took notice. It was taken from a popular bet at Hipodromo La Rinconada in Venezuela, the cinco y seis (5 and 6). The object of the cinco y seis was to select the runners of the day’s feature race in running order: first through sixth. Nail down five of the six runners and one received a small percentage of the pool. This lottery type bet paid huge amounts for a tiny investment, and the bet was supported not only by the regulars but anyone who could make it on time to the track and place the bet. Legend has it that the track had a window outside to place the bets.
This wagering format was studied for months by racing officials at Caliente. They planned to make it more playable and to suit the needs for Agua Caliente, which attracted crowds from both sides of the border. At Caliente, the format was changed. The object of the wager was to select six consecutive winners. The bet was placed on races five through ten, hence the name the “5-10.”
On April 15, 1956, Agua Caliente unveiled its new bet, which would turn this tiny track into a powerful weekend magnet for gamblers. The daddy of all the pick-6’s made its debut. That first 5-10 had a pool of just $10,082. Six people hit it with five winners each; five of those simply had $2.00 minimum bets worth $907.20 each. The other winning bettor bought five $2 dollar tickets, which were collectively worth $4,536.
The bet was placed by filling out a double-sided form. Local players quickly named this betting slip “la forma.” One would write out selections in one column and alternate selections in another. This was done in case of a late scratch.
The slip was then stamped at a betting window and sent downstairs to a room where several workers would sort out the tickets with winning numbers as the races progressed. It was fascinating to see the workers quickly sort through stacks of betting slips. Later, Caliente would punch the betting slip and the amount bet on the 5-10 would tally on the tote system, thanks in part to some customers who tried to cash illegitimate or forged tickets.
Alessio had unleashed a monster. This beast would for the next two decades draw an unprecedented flow of horseplayers to the city of Tijuana unseen since the glory days of the Agua Caliente Casino in the 20’s and 30’s. Caliente held all the aces, with no Sunday racing in California and this bet with “get rich quick” possibilities of lottery proportion. California racing was tied to a bland menu of Win, Place and Show betting and could do little to change or compete with the betting format found at Caliente.
Caliente was an innovator, always trying new ideas and betting concepts. At the time, Caliente already had Quinellas and the Daily Double and would introduce the “Perfecta” (Exacta) in the 1960’s. While the regulars at Caliente were very accustomed to the Quinella format, the perfecta offered more of a challenge. In order to win, one had to perfectly select the first two finishers in a race; hence the name, “perfecta.” This new wager debuted in the first race on Saturday, September 25, 1965. When Our Bongo, ridden by Raul Caballero, won the first race over second place finisher, Jolly Caper, with Antonio Herrera in the irons, Caliente made racing history. The first perfecta ever at Caliente paid $32.60 from a pool of over $7,700. It should be noted that the Perfecta is the original concept for what is now known as an Exacta. Santa Anita did not institute an Exacta until 1971, the year Caliente burned down.
To say that the 5-10 wager had an influence at the admission gates would be an understatement. Attendance for a typical Sunday card was roughly 25% more than Saturdays. The handle would double, if not triple on the days Caliente offered the 5-10. And when Caliente introduced the Reserve Jackpot system, patrons could expect to wait as long as three hours at the border crossing just trying to get home after the races. Word spread quickly, and the commute from Los Angeles to Tijuana would start after the last race at Hollywood Park, Santa Anita, or Del Mar. Caliente track management made it easy for the North American bettor to venture south into Tijuana. One could easily book a flight out of Long Beach Airport and land at Brown Field in Otay Mesa, catch a chartered bus across the border into Tijuana where one would receive a free program and Clubhouse admission. After the races, reversing the procedure, one could be at home in the Los Angeles area by 8:00 pm. Caliente would later issue free passes for its regulars. After a time, the track would no longer charge parking or admission fees, for the stands were always full. Under the Alessio regime, Caliente catered to its customers, with free programs, seating and even betting vouchers.
With each succeeding Sunday, the pool for the 5-10 grew at a steady rate. As the pool sizes grew, so did the payoffs. Then on July 15 of that first year, a North American record payoff occurred when a $2.00 ticket with 5 winners paid, $20,088.20. This surpassed what was then a world record payoff for a Daily Double of $12,724.80 set on July 4, 1954 -- also at Caliente. The 5-10’s greatest growth period was when a rule was put into action in which 25% of the pool was set aside. The previous record was always in jeopardy of being broken. What was a record one Sunday could be just a memory the next Sunday. $20,000 turned into $30,000 $50,000 then $60,000.
On September 1, 1957, just 17 months after its inception, more than 22,000 fans filled tiny Caliente. They poured $124,816 into the 5-10 pool. Emerging as the sole winner was A. Thomas King of Los Angeles. On a $2.00 investment, he collected $84,250.80, as the only person who correctly chose all six winning horses. By now the Sunday 5-10 pools were grossing $100,000 or more.
Then on September 14, 1957, it was made available on the Saturday programs as well. It became even more popular. Caliente was filling the void left by its California peers as it attracted players venturing south looking for more action than the limited betting menu offered in the states. The 5-10 created a new breed of handicapper -- not only betting on the horses but trying to eliminate other players by picking long shots. The 5-10 spawned a new sophistication, which was only found in Mexico and the West Coast.
These handicappers were indeed the sharpest of the sharpies. Multiple tickets were the norm. Many serious 5-10 players viewed a straight $2 ticket as merely a backup. The failure of these multiple slips beefed up the jackpot on a weekly basis. The fact that one lost only made one come back in an effort to get even. This would become the mantra for players who pursued the 5-10 dream for years, many without even hitting a small consolation payoff in an effort to find the Holy Grail of horse betting.
Even with all the huge payoffs, the 5-10 was not always life changing. Many times the winning selections were short priced horses, favorites, that were on many if not ALL the betting slips entered that day. Payoffs were commonly as low as of $150; but none was as low as the $5 payoff when 4,163 Caliente patrons picked all six winners. On that day, favorites were the rule of the day.
After the rebirth of racing at Caliente following the fire, the 5-10 grew to monstrous proportions. The pools exceeded $150,000 to $200,000 and more when no one hit all six winners. The reserve jackpot would continue to grow until someone hit it. Ten percent of the regular 5-10 pool was deducted each racing day to accumulate the Reserve Jackpot. Once it reached $250,000, it was distributed one week later on Sunday, unless in the interim there was a single ticket with all correct six winners. One half would then be added to the regular 5-10 pool on “distribution” day, and the remaining half would remain in the jackpot. The amount distributed was the same, regardless if there was one single winning ticket or multiple ones.
It was on days like these that Caliente would host upwards of 12-15,000 fans and handle more than $1,000,000. The start of the fifth race was delayed by a minimum of 20 minutes. The horses would amble to the gate, at times resting under the shade of the many trees that lined the outer rails, just to make sure that everybody got their 5-10 tickets in.
The record payoff at Caliente for the 5-10 was set on November 12, 1977. Ignacio Gomez was the only patron that day to hit all six winners. His payoff was $350,204.40. This caused him to say, “The 5-10 is the best bet in all racing.”
Everyone in Tijuana knew of the 5-10, from housewives that pooled their money to the city’s racetrack regulars. The 5-10 was something to shoot for, at times reaching monumental proportions, for the citizens of Tijuana. Even in “non racing circles” the 5-10 meant good luck or well being. For example, should someone’s daughter marry a man who was well off, the girl’s parents might say, “She got the 5-10 with this one.” The 5-10 was one of many threads that connected the city’s non-racetracker with the hipodromo.
One by one, Caliente’s betting innovations would be absorbed into the North American betting format. In the early days of Agua Caliente Jockey Club, the plush Agua Caliente Casino supported the rich racing meet, which consisted of a $100,000 Handicap and $30,000 Derby in the late 1920’s. That format has now been adopted and even a new term, “racino,” coined. While Daily Doubles were exotic for American tracks, Caliente offered them as early as the late 1930’s after they were introduced at Bay Meadows. Exacta betting was not given a permanent slot in California until the early 1970’s, and the Quinella owes its beginning to greyhound racing, which has been a mainstay in Tijuana since the days of the Agua Caliente Casino in the mid 1920’s. Caliente would even accept bets on North American tracks at the Foreign Book. That concept was also adopted and it is now called Off-Track Betting. Around Kentucky Derby time, Caliente would also host a future book and was the official barometer on the race.
When Sunday racing was allowed in California, the crowds were no longer the same at Caliente. Even the concept of the 5-10 was taken and given a new name… the pick-6.
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. His previous post explored the origins of the Big 'Cap.