I am currently reading a great book that came out in 2004 titled “The Agua Caliente Story, Remembering Mexico’s Legendary Racetrack”. One day when looking for images on the internet of the Agua Caliente Casino I a came across this publication and just by looking at the cover image I knew it was one of those books that promised a factual story, yet I had never encountered it in any bookstore in Tijuana. The book is written in English, published by Blood Horse Publications and authored by David J. Beltran. Beltran, according to the bio in the book, is a former resident of Tijuana who used to live near the Agua Caliente Racetrack and would attend the races with his father since he was two years old. I immediately identified with the author and my respect developed for the book because it is written by a person whith a memory of the racetrack tied to his upbringing, yet the publication is also product of extensive and detailed research allowing a balanced reading without becoming sentimental or biased in a personal way. I was quickly seduced by the book since I also grew up near the racetrack and while very young – maybe 5 or 6 years old- I would go to the races with my father on Sundays. I remember walking into the members club and seeing the tourist and locals drinking their cocktails, wagering on the races, the buzz of the crowds, hearing the detailed relay of the race as it was happening and the televisions transmitting from distinct view points, all of this taking place as my father would be playing a standard on the grand piano in the club. My father was such a passionate race aficionado that he won the famous 5-10 prize one Saturday. These memories I had of the race track became vivid again as I read the book and reminded me why I have been critical of our current city administration and if there is something I detest it’s the destruction (close to a level of urbicide) of the Agua Caliente Racetrack. Unfortunately since 1992 it has become the personal playground of our mayor – destroying one of the most important patrimonies and catalyst of urban growth in Tijuana, because as the author writes concerning the first racetrack of the 1920’s “Without the racetrack, Tijuana would have had a difficult time economically. The growth of this city can be traced to one word, hipodromo, or racetrack”.
It also ascertains a couple of axioms about the origin of Tijuana. As the writer Heriberto Yepez once said, “Tijuana is an American city, governed by Mexico”. Beltran writes that the first racetrack was an American enterprise – conceived and financed by American citizens looking to make a buck when Porfirio Diaz legalized games in the northern states of Mexico. Permits where sold to Americans for the creation of the racetrack and the famous boxing promoter "Sunny" Jim Coffroth became its first administrator of the track – Coffroth was the son of the prominent California Republican Senator James Coffroth. In 1915, when the deal was made to build the racetrack Tijuana had over 1500 inhabitants not enough citizens to support the track therefore American investors and tourists were the main source maintaining the track afloat. “The track initiated a chain reaction to this city: the tourist needed to eat before or after the races. They need a place to stay and they also wanted to buy a souvenir of the trip down to Tijuana” (Beltran 2004). Coffroth also received financial and logistic support from John D. Spreckels – owner of the San Diego and Arizona Railroad – he also was the owner of the Hotel Del Coronado – responsible for the now defunct cable car system of downtown San Diego – once owner of the San Diego Union and Tribune- he build the Spreckels Theater in SD as well as financing the 1915 Panama California Exposition – he basically build San Diego and Tijuana to into cities from the ground up. In 1916 on opening day the racetrack had 10,000 visitors. Tijuana is clearly an American enterprise in Mexican land – a city designed for entertainment, gambling and illicit acts (acts unlawful in the US). A few years ago I re-wrote the history of Tijuana through the concept of illicitness in a text titled "Illicit Acts of Urbanism" and Bernal’s book reassures me that Tijuana was intended to be a place where “reinterpretation” is a key word when it comes to civil law and urban development. The book is full of beautiful black and white photographs of the racetrack and of people who made it a success such as trainers, jockeys, and Hollywood stars that would flock into TJ to have a good time at Aguacaliente and the other establishments (bars, hotels, curio shops, restaurants) that began to appear in and around the track. The story flows as you move along the chapters and the images offer a window to the past. Even though it’s the author first book and I believe he is not a writer or cultural anthropologist, but an employee of a food distribution company from Chula Vista, California, the passion and focus of the research is what makes this an entertaining read as well as a historical research document of a central cultural infrastructure of Tijuana.