After the fire in August, 1971 portions of the new structure collapsed and had to be rebuilt.
The sun’s early-morning light revealed total destruction: everything that eoald bum or melt or crumble had succumbed to the inferno of the night before. Tijuana’s Agua Caliente racetrack lay in smoldering ruins; the grandstands, offices, restaurants — all had been destroyed. If the track’s popular owner had been there inspecting the ruins, he might have cast off the pall by announcing, in his expansive manner, that he would immediately begin rebuilding, bigger and better than before. But Caliente’s owner, San Diego entrepreneur John S. Alessio, was kept from witnessing the wreckage. He was in prison at the time, serving a three-year sentence for federal income-tax evasion. The grim tableau was complete that August morning almost exactly twelve years ago. Without the guiding vision of its captain, Caliente had foundered and gone down, a complete loss.
Echeverria visited Tijuana in 1972, gazed upon the rubble of Caliente, and pronounced it to be a national disgrace.
But like survivors clinging to bits of debris, the bettors would not give up. A few months after the fire, Caliente’s greyhound track was back in limited operation, as was the Foreign Book (where handicappers could place bets on races taking place at a number of American thoroughbred tracks). The running surface of the track had not been substantially harmed in the fire and its aftermath, and the greyhound aficionados contented themselves with making wagers in a roped-off area near the charred grandstands.
Though very few people knew at the time, arrangements were being made for Caliente’s resurrection even as the last embers were cooling. For nearly a quarter of a century John Alessio and his family had operated the track with unparalleled success. In the course of those years, he had managed to secure from the government the permit, or concession, to run Caliente and had also endured protracted court battles that eventually allowed him to purchase the track’s physical plant and all the surrounding land. His efforts were handsomely rewarded with steady profits and international recognition for the track’s many racing innovations.
Alessio’s concession from the government expired in 1971, the year of the fire. Even if he hadn’t been in prison, however, it’s probable that he would not have been granted a renewal. With the election in 1970 of Luis Echeverria to the Mexican presidency, that country embarked upon a period of nationalism that discouraged foreign ownership of Mexican industries, and horse racing along the border was no exception. That Alessio’s imprisonment coincided with the track’s destruction made transfer of the government concession to a Mexican citizen all the easier, and that is precisely what President Echeverria did.
Published reports at the time noted that Echeverria visited Tijuana in 1972, gazed upon the rubble of Caliente, and pronounced it to be a national disgrace. According to those accounts, the Mexican president returned to the capital having vowed to o something about the embarrassing mess in Tijuana. Supposedly he sought out the help of a friend and encouraged him to undertake the job of rebuilding Agua Caliente. That friend of the president was Fernando Gonzalez, a wealthy and influential newspaper publisher who also owned and raced thoroughbreds. At first Gonzalez is reported to have politely declined and instead suggested to Echeverria that the government ought to take control of the track’s reconstruction and operation, thus bringing economic benefits directly to the national treasury. When Echevema insisted on private enterprise, however, Gonzalez reportedly acceded and began the job of reviving Caliente.
- Carlos Hank Gonzales (Photo:Robert Phillips)
- Jose Lopez-Portillo (Photo:Zeta)
- Jesus Garduno (Photo: Bill Neal)
- Jack Myers
- John Alessio (Photo:Bill Neal)
- Caliente (Photo:Jack Yon)
- Milton Castellanos (Photo:Bill Neal)
- Billy Previtti (Photo: Bill Neal)
- Nelson Fisher
This account, however, is not the entire story of Fernando Gonzalez’s rise to prominence in the world of horse racing. Like so much of Agua Caliente’s sixty-seven-year history, details regarding this episode are more difficult to confirm than winning one of the track’s fabled 5-10 jackpots. But several people who were close to Gonzalez a decade ago tell a slightly different version from the one commonly repeated. One of those people, a former business associate of Gonzalez, says that contrary to reports of President Echeverria beseeching Fernando Gonzalez to assume the job of rebuilding and operating the track, just the opposite was true. This associate recalls that in 1969, while Echeverria was touring the country as the Insitutional Revolutionary Party’s candidate for president (and assured of election), Gonzalez was in attendance, assisting in the campaign. Sometime during his nationwide tour, Echevema was approached by Gonzalez, who asked his friend to give him the racetrack concession at Agua Caliente. This Echeverria did, though it is unclear exactly when the formal decision was made.
Still another version of how Caliente passed from John Alessio to Fernando Gonzalez is related by an intimate friend of Gonzalez. This friend, who volunteered a good deal of information relating to Gonzalez’s involvement with Caliente, has requested anonymity and shall be referred to here simply as Ruiz. According to Ruiz, it was indeed Echeverria who went to his friend Fernando Gonzalez and offered him the concession to operate Caliente. Certainly the choice was a logical one, given Gonzalez’s business success and his intimate knowledge of horse racing, but more than logic was involved in Echeverria’s decision.
- Rejected architectural design
- Tony Esparza (Photo:Bill Neal)
- Ronaldo Pinedo (Photo. Zeta)
- Buck Hopkins (Photo:Bill Neal)
- Roberto de la Madrid (Photo.Zeta)
- Diego Herroz
- Tomas Perrin (Photo: Craig Carlson)
- Fernando Gonzalez (Photo: Victor Avila)
- Raul Baz, Edward Spector (Photo:Patrick Downs/L.A. Times)
- Ernie Myers (Photo. Jack Yon)
In December of 1969, Ruiz says, Fernando Gonzalez had created a scandal among Mexico City’s ruling elite by leaving his wife of twenty-nine years and marrying Diana Gomez Pena, a beautiful woman twenty-six years his junior. (Fernando is now sixty-six years old; Diana is forty.) Echeverria, in a gesture intended to help his friend Fernando escape the scolding eyes of Mexico City and to pursue his love affair with Diana, later offered him the racetrack concession, thus providing a legitimate excuse for moving to Tijuana. (In fact, Fernando and Diana bought a home in Bonita in 1972, where they lived together for five years until their separation in November of 1977.) Gonzalez gratefully accepted Echeverria’s offer, entrusted to his sons the operation of his Mexico City newspaper Ovaciones, and began planning for a new family life and a new career in the racing business.
The terms of Gonzalez’s arrangement with Echeverria were fairly uncomplicated. The concession for Caliente was given to Gonzalez free of charge for twenty-five years, after which time it would automatically revert to the Mexican government. Gonzalez was required to negotiate with John Alessio for the purchase of the physical property Alessio still owned; the price was reported to be $8.3 million. (Alessio kept for himself a parcel of land to the rear of the track's stable area, on which he later built the upper-middle-class development known as Colonia Hipodromo.) Echeverria also promised to Gonzalez assistance in the form of low-interest government loans to aid in rebuilding Caliente. Gonzalez, says his friend Ruiz, proceeded to give about $250,000 to Alessio as a down payment on the land and began making payments on the difference with profits from Caliente’s makeshift greyhound operation amid the ruins. He next obtained about ten million dollars in loans from Chase Manhattan and Bank of America for construction costs, expecting to pay back those loans when the promised government money arrived. He and Diana then left Mexico City and moved to San Diego, where they hoped to live peacefully and raise a family. As befits the tumultuous history of the Agua Caliente racetrack, however, Gonzalez’s story did not have a happy ending.
Fernando Gonzalez now lives apart from Diana, at home on a Rancho Santa Fe estate. He no longer has any proprietary interest in Caliente, though his love of horses and racing has not waned. He reportedly owns more than three dozen thoroughbreds and races them at the top tracks, including some at the season now underway at Del Mar. When reached recently by telephone at his home in Rancho Santa Fe, Gonzalez politely but firmly declined to be interviewed regarding any aspect of his life or his involvement with Agua Caliente. But the existing published accounts of his life, and the personal recollections of several of his friends and associates, reveal a man full of contradictions, bursting with energy, and possessed of a visionary zeal matched only by his headstrong personality.
He was born to a Mexico City family with a distinguished history. Manuel Gonzalez, his great-great-grand-father, was president of Mexico from 1880 to 1884, and other relatives continued the tradition of high government service. According to friends, Fernando was one of ten brothers whose father had lost his business in the turbulent wake of the 1910 revolution, and when the father died, the family was left with a large house in Mexico City but not much money. Fernando was young at the time of his father's death and did his part to support the family by pursuing his interests in writing and horses: he wrote and sold stories about horses and horse racing.
One of Fernando’s uncles, a former director of the Mexican social security system and a founder of Mexicana Airlines, owned several thoroughbreds and encouraged the young man to learn about training them to race. While Fernando worked for his uncle, studying horses and watching them race at the Mexico City track, the thought occurred to him that a good horse in Mexico City might be an even better horse at a lower altitude. (Mexico City sits at an elevation of about 7000 feet.) In a 1972 interview with San Diego Union turf writer Nelson Fisher, he said, “1 studied the Racing Form's American racing manual for comparative running times on North American tracks. When I found they were slowest at the Vancouver tracks, I decided that is where my horses should run. ... I wrote Mr. Randall, the president of the British Columbia Jockey Club, that 1 believed the appearance of Mexican horses would be a stimulation to the interest of his fans. I said I would be pleased to take my horses there if his association would pay the shipping bills.” And Mr. Randall paid the cost of shipping Fernando, twelve horses belonging to his uncle, a jockey, and a groom. Fernando’s hunch was correct; as he told Nelson Fisher, ‘‘We won almost as many races as days we entered horses.”
That 1945 debut in Vancouver was the beginning of a lifelong fascination with North American tracks,.but Fernando returned to Mexico to pursue other interests. He obtained a law degree in Mexico City and then launched himself into the business of publishing when he purchased a little-known newspaper called Ovaciones. At about the same time, he bought another small newspaper, this one with an emphasis on sports. Then he had another fruitful idea: merge the two papers and employ scores of newsboys to hawk the publication throughout Mexico City. The combination of news and sports in one paper proved to be as profitable as that racing season in Vancouver; Ovaciones quickly and dramatically increased its circulation and eventually became the best-selling and one of the most politically powerful papers in Mexico. (Today Ovaciones is estimated to have a paid circulation of close to 300,000, the largest of nearly a dozen daily papers in Mexico City.)
The success of Ovaciones brought to Gonzalez both wealth and influence. His wealth he cultivated by buying more newspapers around the country (including La Voz de la Frontera in Mexicali and Baja California in Tijuana) and investing in various real estate and business ventures, including more thoroughbred horses. His political influence he cultivated through Ovaciones’ ties to Mexico’s ruling party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party, commonly known as PRI. As his friend Ruiz says, “Fernando has been the friend of many Mexican presidents.” Certainly President Luis Echeverria was acting as a friend when he provided Gonzalez with the opportunity to retreat from the social pressures of Mexico City and rebuild Agua Caliente racetrack.
After settling into his new home in Bonita with wife Diana, Gonzalez began in earnest his stewardship of Hipodromo de Agua Caliente, the company he had formed to operate the track. Mexican law requires that corporations formed in that country, known as anonymous societies and designated by “S.A.” following a company’s name, must have at least five principals as stockholders. Among those who invested money and became partners in Hipodromo de Agua Caliente were Baja California Governor Milton Castellanos and Max Paul, a German immigrant who owns Sara International import store in Tijuana. (Paul’s interest in the track was held in his wife’s name; Mexican law also requires that corporation principals be of Mexican parentage.) Another investor, persuaded to participate by Max Paul, was General Hermanegildo Cuenca Diaz, secretary of defense under President Luis Echeverria and later PRI nominee for governor of Baja California. The fifth initial partner was the famous Mexican comedian-actor Cantinflas. (Cantinflas later revealed to Max Paul that his name was attached to the corporation even though he was not an active partner and had never invested any money with Fernando Gonzalez.)
A nationwide contest among Mexican architects resulted in two designs from which Gonzalez could choose to begin rebuilding Agua Caliente. The submission favored by Gonzalez was a modem, angular design that employed a generous use of glass. The other design was a slightly quirky and idiosyncratic amalgam of Spanish and Moorish motifs. Gonzalez sent up the two renderings to Mexico City so President Echeverria could inspect them, and he quickly heard back that, in keeping with the Echeverria regime’s emphasis on nationalism, the Spanish-Moorish design would be constructed; the modern design, Gonzalez’s favorite, was too American.
This minor disappointment did not dampen Gonzalez’s enthusiasm for his new project. He had developed a great love for Baja California and felt that with the proper development and exploitation, the peninsula could become the “French Riviera of Mexico” and bring into the country an enormous amount of tourist money. The new Caliente was to be the first step in this development, and it would not simply be a racetrack but an entire complex, including a major hotel, a miniature version of Disneyland, a replica of a typical Mexican village, shops that would sell a variety of wares and handicrafts from the Mexican interior, and a cultural center that would introduce American visitors to the beauties and treasures of Mexico.
Such grandiose plans called for millions of dollars. Gonzalez initially estimated to reporters that he would need about $11 million to complete construction of the track and several of the auxiliary attractions. His loans from Chase Manhattan and Bank of America, secured by his operating rights to the track, would get him started and give him some flexibility until he received the government loans Echeverria had promised. That federal money was supposed to begin arriving near the end of 1972. It never materialized. According to one of Gonzalez’s closest associates, the reason Echeverria did not release the money to Gonzalez was because of “other [government] priorities and also a communications gap.” Not only was Gonzalez’s personal relationship with Echeverria strained by this development (though they reportedly remain friends today), Gonzalez’s commitments to his commercial loans also became strained. As early as 1973 Gonzalez began to seek more investors to maintain an adequate supply of capital. He turned principally to a friend in Mexico City for help. In exchange for his wealthy friend’s infusion of money, Gonzalez began signing over to the friend portions of his own substantial share of Hippodromo de Agua Caliente. In time this friend, Carlos Hank Gonzalez (no relation to Fernando), would play a fateful role in the history of Agua Caliente.
Reconstruction of the track moved slowly and pressure began to build on Gonzalez from several directions. His initial investors were growing anxious for some return on their money (the greyhound racing and Foreign Book were providing Caliente’s only revenue). In addition, the Sindicato Alba Roja, the powerful labor union representing track employees, was increasingly impatient with the delays — most of the union’s members were unemployed from the day of the fire in August, 1971. Complicating matters were unexpected large increases in the cost of construction; at least twice, and perhaps three times, portions of the new structure collapsed and had to be rebuilt. (According to Gonzalez’s friend Ruiz, the collapses were the result of problems encountered when the forty-five-year-old tunnel connecting the racetrack with the old casino, a half mile to the northwest, gave way under the strain of weight from the new buildings.)
When the track finally reopened in May of 1974, there was no miniature Disneyland (a small children’s playground in the infield hinted at grand plans severely revised), no replica of a Mexican village, no top-flight hotel, no cultural center. There was, however, a small shopping area adjacent to the track. Before long, though, even that attraction had failed, the only survivor among the shops being a liquor store. (Ironically, the liquor store was owned by Fernando’s brother Guillermo.) But at least the track was open for business. After three and a half years, the horses were running once again.
To staff the management positions at the track, Gonzalez brought to Tijuana from Mexico City a number of people who had been employed at one time or another by his newspaper Ovaciones; he also hired other professionals of his acquaintance. All of these new managers had something in common besides their relationship with Gonzalez: none had previous experience operating a racetrack. The San Diego Union's well-known turf writer. Nelson Fisher, asked Gonzalez about the lack of American racing veterans in management positions. Gonzalez told Fisher that he wanted Mexicans in key management positions, but Fisher disagreed, telling Gonzalez that since the track owed its existence to American bettors, it made sense to have Americans in prominent positions. (As if to take up Fisher on his challenge, Gonzalez offered the writer a job as consultant, but Fisher declined.)
Gonzalez was not completely restricted to hiring Mexicans, however. Jack Meyers, who had worked for a number of years with John Alessio as well as at several major American tracks, was hired on as director of racing. Another American who went to work for the track shortly after it reopened was Billy Previtti, who eventually took charge of all the racetrack’s American advertising and who became one of Gonzalez’s most trusted American employees.
Among the Mexicans Gonzalez came to trust most was a young man named Tomas Perrin, who at age twenty-three had been tapped for the position of Caliente advertising manager. Perrin had worked in Mexico City as an account executive with the advertising agency owned by Gonzalez’s friend Manuel Davo. When Gonzalez hired Davo to become the new Caliente’s first general manager, Davo brought Perrin along with him. In time, Gonzalez and Perrin developed close personal ties that bore the classic characteristics of father and son, and Perrin’s duties at the track soon expanded beyond advertising to include confidential and personal business for Gonzalez.
Perrin, who now runs his own printing business in Tijuana, recalls that a variety of problems plagued Caliente almost from opening day. One of those problems emerged when the Fred Harvey Corporation, brought in to run the food and beverage concessions (as they have successfully done at American tourist attractions and racetracks), found themselves bedeviled by the Alba Roja union. For example, the union, Perrin says, insisted that each bartender was to have two assistants. And when the Harvey people wanted to train twenty waiters in proper serving methods at the new restaurant, the union, according to Perrin, would send twenty different people each day, so that everyone at the track would have the opportunity to learn more than one job. Fred Harvey’s company pulled out of Caliente in despair, reportedly taking a substantial financial loss for the time invested.
Among other problems Perrin battled was the budget for his own office. In Perrin’s opinion, the money Gonzalez wanted to spend for promotions and advertising was paltry, not nearly enough to attract the crowds Davo and Perrin thought were essential for economic well-being. Within one year of assuming his position as general manager, Manuel Davo turned tail in frustration and headed home to Mexico City. Perrin says he, too, offered to quit but that Gonzalez persuaded him to stay on.
Though Caliente limped along between 1974 and 1977 without the huge audiences that were customary in the Alessio years, the track reportedly was making a profit over its operating expenses, but the profits were not anywhere near what Gonzalez and his investors had hoped for at the beginning. In addition, there were those large loans from Chase Manhattan and Bank of America, which had to be paid off without assistance from the government. So Fernando Gonzalez continued to return to his friend Carlos Hank Gonzalez for more money in exchange for more shares of the track. By all accounts these transactions between Fernando and Carlos Hank were amiable dealings among friends, even though Fernando surely would have been happier had Carlos Hank’s help not been needed. Carlos Hank, on the other hand, did have some interest in horse racing; he is reliably reported to have failed in his attempts to build a racetrack in Guadalajara and to wrest control of the Juarez track from the Alessio family. Still, Carlos Hank’s initial investments in Caliente could not have amounted to much in comparison to his other business affairs; after all, he is generally acknowledged to be the wealthiest individual in Mexico.
Most Americans first heard of fifty-five-year-old Carlos Hank Gonzalez when the Hartford Courant reported in February of 1982 that he had purchased a million-dollar Tudor mansion in New Canaan, Connecticut and had begun making extensive improvements to the property, including the construction of a high wall to encircle the estate and ensure privacy. Local residents took to calling the barrier the “Tex-Mex Wall.’’ The Courant story received wide distribution through international wire services, in large part because at the time, Carlos Hank was serving as mayor of Mexico City, an important position the Mexican president fills by appointment. The president then was Jose Lopez-Portillo, an old political ally and personal friend of Carlos Hank. Lopez-Portillo’s administration was coming to an end after six years of unchecked inflation and increasing national debt; the peso had already suffered dramatic devaluation, and news stories at the time made note of the large number of wealthy Mexicans who were transferring their assets out of Mexico.
When the Courant story about Carlos Hank’s ostentatious spending in Connecticut was coupled with reports that Lopez-Portillo himself was building an opulent mansion in the hills outside Mexico City, public opinion in Mexico critical of these prominent men grew increasingly strident. But Carlos Hank Gonzalez had relatively little need of favorable public opinion. His vast wealth and political power protected him fairly well.
From a one-truck transportation company, Carlos Hank had parlayed his gains to enormous proportions. By 1980 his financial and business interests included manufacturing plants for steel, tools, moving cranes, automobiles and trucks, and, with International Harvester, the production of vehicles designed to search for and drill oil. He also had a substantial interest in companies that manufactured electric boilers, steam generators, tools for the mining and petrochemical industries, shock absorbers and suspension systems, the distribution of trucks and tractors, and the construction and operation of hotels and other buildings that serve the tourist trade.
Despite this absorbing array of business ventures, Carlos Hank did not neglect his politics. He began in 1955 with PRI-endorsed election to the mayor’s chair in Toluca, capital of the State of Mexico. Then came important federal appointments, followed by election to the governorship of the State of Mexico, and finally, the appointment by Lopez-Portillo to the politically powerful position of chief of the Federal District Department (mayor of Mexico City). Carlos Hank had been helped along by Fernando Gonzalez’s newspaper Ovaciones, which had boosted and applauded his political ambitions. By the time Fernando first approached Carlos Hank for money to put into Agua Caliente, the two men had been friends for many years.
Fernando and Carlos Hank met a number of times in person during the years from 1973 to 1981, usually in Mexico City but also in Tijuana (twice in Max Paul’s executive office at Sara International) and at least once in San Diego. Tomas Perrin, Fernando’s young assistant, was present at a luncheon meeting held at the Grant Grill in downtown San Diego’s U.S. Grant Hotel. Perrin recalls that the conversation was dominated by Fernando’s continued enthusiasm for developing portions of Baja California as major tourist resorts. Also on Fernando ’s mind was yet another project — a documentary film about Baja’s primitive cave paintings that were being discovered and chronicled by La Jolla author Harry Crosby. Perrin says that Fernando asked Carlos Hank for the use of official state helicopters to aid in the filming and that Carlos Hank consented. (The film, Tama Ucambi, was later distributed for educational purposes by the Mexican government.)
Fernando Gonzalez’s interest in film production was not limited to a single documentary about Baja. Earlier he had formed a partnership with Baja Governor Milton Castellanos in the purchase of the huge Rancho Las Juntas, about fourteen miles east of Tecate. Las Juntas was a buffalo ranch at the time, and not long after Gonzalez and Castellanos made their down payment on the property, buffalo meat appeared on the menu at Caliente’s restaurant, More than buffalo, though, the ranch was to be developed as a site for Hollywood film production. A substantial amount of money was reportedly invested in expensive filmmaking equipment, which would be available at no charge to movie producers. Use of the location itself would also be free. What Castellanos and Gonzalez wanted out of the deal was control of Mexican distribution rights to any film produced at Rancho Las Juntas. Tomas Perrin says that several westerns were in fact filmed at Las Juntas, but the project never met with the success either man had hoped for. Gonzalez later sold his interest to Castellanos and put his mind back on Agua Caliente’s problems.
The second general manager to assume responsibilities at the track under Gonzalez was Manuel Ratner, who now lives in retirement in Chula Vista. Ratner had worked as an accountant for Gonzalez at Ovaciones, but at the time he was called up to Tijuana, in 1973, he had been working for Carlos Hank in a government position. In a recent telephone interview from his home, Ratner said that his move to Caliente had the blessing of Carlos Hank. Ratner said he was, in effect, Carlos Hank's man at Caliente, his representative. But four years later Ratner resigned his position, left racing altogether, and permanently retired to his home in Chula Vista — pleased, he said, to be close to Southern California’s coast and away from both Mexico City and the affairs of Caliente.
Next to assume the position of general manager was Jesus Garduho, one of Carlos Hank’s bright young executives. According to Billy Previtti, Caliente’s former advertising man, Garduho was an exceptionally capable general manager, an opinion shared by others who were there during Garduho’s short tenure. When Carlos Hank was appointed mayor of Mexico City, he called Garduho back to the capital to serve in the administration. Fernando Gonzalez, it seemed, could not win the battle of the revolving door at Caliente. And while his professional life must have been frustrating, it was positively calm in comparison to his family life.
In November of 1977, his wife Diana, now the mother of two of his children, filed legal papers for dissolution of the marriage. According to associates who knew him well then, Gonzalez was upset to the point of distraction by the marital problems. (The complicated court proceedings, which dragged on for nearly three years and which fill six thick volumes in the downtown recorder’s office, ended in a sort of stalemate; Fernando and Diana remain separated but also remain married.) Also about this time, according to Tomas Perrin, Gonzalez had taken a bad fall from a horse and was experiencing health problems. Perhaps not surprisingly, amid these troubles, word circulated widely that Fernando Gonzalez wanted out from under Caliente and was looking for a buyer. Gonzalez’s friend Ruiz says that though Carlos Hank would have been an obvious person to solicit, Gonzalez was “too proud’’ to offer it all to his prosperous friend. Newspaper accounts in the Tribune and the Union noted that Baja Governor Roberto de la Madrid was actively participating in arrangements for the track’s sale, either to the State of Baja California, to the wealthy Alfonso Bustamante family (they own propane and butane gas companies supplying most Baja homes), or to a group of friends and associates of San Diegan John Alessio, former owner of the track. (Alessio’s eagerness for a deal in which he would once again oversee the track was apparent when he told the Tribune, “You can quote me as saying I would go back in cooperation with anybody if it is for the betterment of racing and tourism because I have an interest in the track ... I love it. I love racing. I did it for twenty-seven years. You don’t forget twenty-seven years.’’ Fernando Gonzalez let it be known that he expected $22 million, though it was generally believed that the actual price would be much less.
None of the prospective deals came to fruition. For unknown reasons de la Madrid withdrew the State of Baja from consideration. As for the Bustamantes and Alessio’s associates, Gonzalez’s friend Ruiz says, “Fernando was also too proud to sell to John Alessio, and the Bustamantes weren’t offering enough money.’’ Tomas Perrin agrees that Gonzalez had long nurtured a mild jealousy of John Alessio and his great success with Caliente in earlier years, but says that in fact Gonzalez could not have sold the track to Alessio’s group even if he’d wanted to; he couldn’t get approval from the federal government to do so.
Ruiz, Perrin, and Billy Previtti are just three among many people who know Gonzalez well and who greatly respect him and admit openly their loyalty to his friendship. Ruiz says.
“Fernando is a terrific man, a thoroughbred in his blood. He always thought big and he was betrayed by those who could not comprehend his vision.’’ But men such as Fernando Gonzalez, who can summon up such admiration in some, oftentimes can also engender strongly opposite feelings in others. One man who knew Gonzalez well and who today does not hold a particularly high opinion of him is Max Paul, owner of Sara International imports and one of Gonzalez’s original investors.
Paul had built his store on Revolucion at Fourth in downtown Tijuana. Adjacent to it he constructed a multilevel parking structure, which he operated for a time on a concession basis from the owner of the land. In the basement of the parking structure was a large area that seemed to be suitable only for storage and which he had difficulty renting. He had been told that the new owner of the racetrack was seeking a spot downtown to locate Caliente’s off-track betting (the Foreign Book), so he flew to Mexico City to meet with Fernando Gonzalez. “We talked about the lease,” says Paul, “and within half an hour I knew this guy was a millionaire. He told me that I looked like an honest man and said to me, ‘I’d like to be partners with you in this racetrack. It’s a good business, and we can make a lot of money.’”
Paul consulted with friends in Mexico City (he lived there for many years) and they told him that a gambling business always makes money, so he gave Gonzalez more than $150,000 and received in return about five percent of the track. The one thing Paul stipulated as a condition of his participation was that he would become Caliente’s treasurer.
Initially Paul was enthusiastic, so much so that he talked his good friend General Cuenca Diaz into becoming an investor as well. As Paul tells it, a year or so after making his investment, Cuenca came to the track and demanded some interest on his money. Gonzalez (without informing Paul, the treasurer) took 500,000 pesos out of the operating fund and presented the money to General Cuenca as “interest.” A few weeks after this incident, according to Paul, Gonzalez asked Paul to suggest to his friend Cuenca that he make another big purchase of track stock, now that he saw what a fine business it was. Paul, angry about the lack of notification regarding the pesos, concluded just the opposite. A fine business it was not. Within another year, Gonzalez was pressured into buying back all of General Cuenca’s shares and made a partial reimbursement to Max Paul for his shares.
Given Fernando Gonzalez’s silence on these and other matters, confirmation of Max Paul’s accounting of these events will likely remain impossible. But Paul’s bitterness in discussing his involvement with Caliente is clearly apparent. For at least one associate, Gonzalez was not the ideal business partner.
In July of 1981, Gonzalez flew to Mexico City for a meeting with another associate, who may well have also thought, by that time, that Gonzalez was not the best possible business partner. That meeting between Fernando and Carlos Hank is another of those events the details of which may never be known. The result, however, was historic. Carlos Hank Gonzalez now owned Agua Caliente racetrack.
From Mexico City Fernando called Amancio Ortiz (who was then the general manager of the track) and broke the news. No formal announcement was made, but word of the sale spread quickly among Caliente’s managers. A few weeks later Fernando returned to Tijuana and spoke with Billy Previtti. Previtti recalls that Fernando confirmed he’d sold the track to Carlos Hank and said he hoped Previtti would be able to work amicably with the new people, who, he said, would be arriving soon. Previtti says that Fernando confided that Carlos Hank’s people “are not our kind of people.” Previtti now admits that despite his affection for Fernando, this ominous comment was actually somewhat encouraging. Maybe these new people will be better with racetracks, Previtti thought, maybe things will start moving again.
Edward M. Spector reported for work at the Agua Caliente racetrack sometime in the fall of 1981. His title then was “consultant”; today it is “executive director,” and his influence on the operation of the track is acknowledged to be profound. Spector, however, has declined repeated requests for an interview, and thus some details regarding contemporary Caliente in general and his role there in particular remain unclear. In his reticence, Spector is, of course, carrying on a time-honored tradition at Agua Caliente.
Clearly, Carlos Hank Gonzalez was looking for someone with the proper experience to run his new racetrack. He had sent word to the respected Cuban-born horse trainer Laz Barrera that he would appreciate Barrera’s asking around about Ed Spector, the man who had such a good reputation that his name had come to Carlos Hanks attention. What Barrera learned and passed along to Carlos Hank obviously impressed the new owner. When Spec-tor arrived in Tijuana, he soon met Billy Previtti, who recalls Spector telling him that he, Spector, was “calling the shots.” A number of other holdover employees from the Fernando Gonzalez days concur that Spector made it clear he was now in charge and that he was answering directly to the owner, though Spector rarely seems to have used Carlos Hank’s name openly. (While it was well known among management-level employees that Carlos Hank was the track’s new owner, no public announcement was made in the summer of 1981, and to this day spokesmen for Agua Caliente decline to confirm or deny whether Carlos Hank Gonzalez owns Hippodromo de Agua Caliente.)
Spector’s background in preparation for his Caliente job began in New Jersey in 1974, when he joined a firm called National Labor Relations Association, which represents management interests in union bargaining and contract talks. (The company occasionally represents professional employees as well; several years ago, for example, engineers and scientists at Convair here in San Diego asked National Labor to represent them after they had decided to affiliate with the United Auto Workers.)
Spector learned about labor negotiations and about racetracks simultaneously, as his job with National Labor introduced him to racetrack-employee disputes as well as overall racetrack management. By most accounts, he was a quick study to all aspects of labor and racing. Several of the tracks at which he was hired for labor problems subsequently kept him on for some time as a consultant or in a full-time position. In the seven years before he was hired by Carlos Hank Gonzalez to supervise Caliente, Spector had negotiated a number of labor disputes to the satisfaction of racetrack owners and had risen to the position of assistant general manager at Garden State Park racetrack in New Jersey. In addition, he had picked up a scrapbook full of testimonials from others in the business for whom he worked and with whom he was associated. Naturally, he had collected a number of detractors as well, from some who didn’t care for his personality to the more predictable negative reaction of labor union officials he faced across the bargaining table.
In the spring of 1982, there was a great deal of apprehension among certain employees at Agua Caliente, those who had signed on during the Fernando Gonzalez years in particular.
New faces had appeared on the scene from Mexico City, among them Ronaldo Pinedo as general manager of the racetrack and Raul Baz as chairman of the company Carlos Hank Gonzalez created to supervise the entire operation. Between Spector and Pinedo and Baz, those from the old regime now say they didn’t know what to expect. Billy Previtti recalls that Spector had told him he intended to make ‘‘sweeping changes,” and as Previtti and a number of others were soon to discover, Spector meant what he said.
Fernando Gonzalez’s last general manager, Amancio Ortiz, was the first to leave (replaced by Pinedo). Next to go was Billy Previtti himself, who walked out in the middle of a Saturday program after a confrontation with Pinedo and after unsuccessfully attempting to speak with Ed Spector.
Then in June of last year it was the venerable San Diego radio announcer Ernie Myers, who had called the horse races at the track on weekends since 1975. (Myers says that he was asked to retire. “I told ’em, hell no, I won’t retire, so they fired me.”) In the fall of last year, longtime Caliente cinematographer Bill Neal quit instead of taking a pay cut. And finally, veteran racing secretary Buck Hopkins, who had been at Caliente since 1950, left in the spring of this year after a bitter pay dispute. It wasn’t a complete purge (a number of people hired during the Fernando Gonzalez years remain at the track today), but nearly all those ousted agree that their walking papers were delivered gracelessly.
The new managers have, in the meantime, turned their attention to making other changes. The Kentucky Derby Future Book, a popular part of the Caliente lore throughout most of John Alessio’s reign, has been reinstituted this year. Simulcasting of some American races has come to the Foreign Books (bettors can watch their race on television as it takes place). The track’s paddock has been relocated to a position more convenient for viewing by patrons. Purse values have been raised substantially, causing much glee among horsemen. Numerous physical and technical improvements have been completed in and around the track. And even the labor union. Alba Roja, initially hostile in the extreme to Ed Spector (and still constantly suspicious), has reacted positively to some of the changes — for example, the new and profitable Foreign Book that was recently opened in Tecate, and another that is planned for Rosarito.
Spector, Baz, and their associates still face problems, of course, and not the least of them remains with the suspicious Alba Roja union. Diego Herroz, who died recently, had been second in command at Alba Roja. In an interview conducted shortly before his death, he was emphatic in his conviction that his fellow workers would not be intimidated by the presence of a new owner with great wealth and power, nor by anyone hired by the owner. ‘‘We are not the servants of the company,” Herroz said. ‘‘We want fairness. And please, let me make something very, very clear. This Mr. Spector — we do not want to see that man down here.” Herroz then hinted that his union was hopeful for favorable treatment by the new federal administration of President Miguel de la Madrid, the reasoning being that Carlos Hank Gonzalez is not as close to the new president as he was to the old one. Herroz also mentioned a chronic point of contention between his union and the new management. Alba Roja has told Raul Baz that the union would like to buy the permit to run the track. “We would like to have the track, yes,”
Herroz said. “We feel we do have me expertise, the know-how to do a first-rate job. We know the American people and we feel we can bring them back to Caliente, like in the old days. But they [management] keep telling us they can’t give s more because they are losing money. So we say, fine, let us buy the concession, and they tell us. No way!”
Besides the traditional friction that exists between strong-willed management and organized labor, Caliente faces other potential problems. When James Coffroth had the track sixty years ago, his success was largely based upon the fact that there was no horse racing allowed in California at the time. In the Alessio years, Sunday racing and the 5-10 jackpots brought the crowds south of the border. Today there is racing at Del Mar and in Los Angeles. There are continuing complications with Mexico’s economy and the weakened value of the peso. There are the traffic jams at the border crossing. There are new wagering gimmicks this year that could lead to million-dollar jackpots at nearby Del Mar. There is the continuing threat that California will legalize off-track betting — and if that happens, the flow of gambling dollars into Tijuana could dry up like a desert creek in August.
But one bit of speculation deserves another, especially when the subject is a gambling emporium. If Carlos Hank Gonzalez wanted to, he could probably match any exotic betting scheme Del Mar might devise. If off-track betting came to California, Carlos Hank might see to it that the green-felt tables reappeared in Tijuana and a new casino would rise from the rubble of the old. And if Carlos Hank himself should disappear tomorrow . . . well, Caliente will remain. Such is the power of a legend.