Opening day at San Luis Rey Downs, June 29, 1969. We had about 22 of our own racehorses at San Luis Rey. Helen, my wife, owned a lot of thoroughbreds. They only did so-so. Mostly just so.
I really wasn’t a racing fan. I’d been around horses so much, with my daughter Carol, that I really wanted to distance myself from them. Actually, my brother John got her involved, and I got pulled in on the thing. He owned show horses, like Carol had.
Del Mar was a very fun community in the early days. A lot of Hollywood people rented homes there during the racing season. I had a home there on the beach at the foot of 27th Street. On race dates and after race dates on Sundays, they’d all kind of gather, sometimes at our house, sometimes at others’. Jimmy Durante, Pat O’Brien, Bob Crosby, Desi Arnaz, Lucille Ball, Willy Shoemaker, a couple of songwriters, and many others. They’d start someplace, then all come on over and have drinks and beer and snacks — a traveling party all summer long.
Then when the track came up for renewal of its lease in the mid-’60s, there was quite a group gathered that wanted to front the thing. John Alessio was one of the leaders, but some of the opponents didn’t want him to take an active part in it because he had the track down in Tijuana.
Like today, the track was leased by the agricultural district to a group of operators. The operators’ group had grown around Crosby and Pat O’Brien and that gang, because they were the original initiators of the track. The argument always was that the geographic area of the track was so small, it really couldn't handle all of the crowds and the traffic. It was like the ball-field at the foot of Broadway — initially just kind of thrown together and not very well planned. There was a lot of open water around the track — it was in the middle of that lagoon there — that has since been dredged and filled in. The new group, of which I was a member, had ideas to actually improve it and increase the size of it.
Johnny Alessio was a director of Westgate-California Corporation at that time, and I was chairman, but the group was independent. Hal Jurgenson, who owned grocery stores in La Jolla, Point Loma, Palm Springs, Pasadena, and Beverly Hills, was one of them. Walter Mellott, a builder from Orange County, was in there, and Helen Alvarez, who was eventually my wife, was also part of it. But it really became a donnybrook that the agricultural district didn’t want the track to be taken over and managed by Tijuana interests. Of course, Johnny was offended when that happened because he knew more about racing than the whole bunch put together. And he was very successful in Tijuana, and he had that track down at Juarez too.
Somewhere along the line at about that time, I don’t know how, I was conned into buying a racetrack for quarter horses up in New Mexico. It was actually started by some crazy quarter horse people from Texas, and they had very substantial purses. We thought perhaps that activity could be brought down to Del Mar in the off-season. I had bought that track personally and was just holding it to bring it on down if we got Del Mar. But after that effort failed, I sold the New Mexico track to John Alessio, and he operated it quite a while, brought in some other people, and tied it into his operation in Juarez.
As a result of losing out on Del Mar, John Alessio came up with the idea that we ought to build a new track and really create the basic necessities for a real fine operation that would be run in addition to Del Mar. There was another racing certificate available from the state for having another track in San Diego County. And there were so many people from Los Angeles that came down and supported Del Mar racing; they even ran special trains down. So it made some sense to have a track in northern San Diego County. And also, that would be the location of the state fair, which was held at Del Mar. The fair there was crowded and not very well planned, and we thought we could really lay out a better fairground. We dreamed and believed that north San Diego County would blossom. We turned out to be right about North County, but we were a little ahead of the times.
We did all kinds of politicking with the fair board. The new proposed group was all businessmen who had years of experience with horses. But the original group that had the franchise was a bunch of old buddies who were put together by Crosby and Harry James and O’Brien, just to have fun. And they were able to hang on to the contract.
So Johnny Alessio was commissioned to actually plan and build the track in the San Luis Rey Valley, 12 miles east of Oceanside. We had acquired that valley initially to build a golf course up there, which was underway, and we wanted to develop that area for residential activity, which we did. We bought it originally to bail out Doug Giddings' brother, who had started the golf course on a shoestring and then gotten into trouble. Giddings was an attorney and a director of Westgate and of U.S. National Bank. A lot of the horse people took an interest in it because they thought the Del Mar facilities needed to be rebuilt, and they thought it would be far better to rebuild it in North County, rather than on the beach.
John Alessio quarterbacked the building of one of the finest tracks in the West, but it became a training track. It had one of the first swimming pools for horses in the country. The stalls and stables were all first-class. But we couldn’t get the betting license primarily because of the problems with Highway 76, which was only two lanes. The big hang-up was the roads; we couldn’t get the people in and out.
We thought being a training track was the seedbed, so that once the roads got put in there, racing would follow. But the roads never came. I doubt that could happen now, with all the building they've done at Del Mar. For so many years it was in a holding pattern. It was just like a small fairgrounds kind of thing.
We had about 22 of our own racehorses at San Luis Rey. Helen, my wife, owned a lot of thoroughbreds. They only did so-so. Mostly just so. It was not a good venture. Thoroughbreds are a tough business.
San Luis Rey Downs had about 2500 acres for housing and condominiums and the golf course and racetrack and the stables. My brother did a good job in handling the finances and overseeing the sales of the housing and getting more and more horses shipped in. He bought a house up there and brought his show horses down from El Monte. It was a Westgate-California operation, but he oversaw it.
At first I was kind of nervous about selling all the lots we had laid out up there and the houses. I thought we were going overboard on the volume we were building, but the marketing men we brought down from L. A. kept saying, “We don’t have enough merchandise, we don’t have enough merchandise.” And jeez, how right they were. Everything we did sold out, and we had to stop and go in and do more engineering and probably didn't do as good a job as we would have been able to do if we had listened to our advisors. They brought busloads of people down there by the jillions who bought lots. Five-acre, 10-acre, up to 30- and 40-acre lots. Horse people. Hollywood people. I couldn’t believe it. In a matter of a few weeks, everything was gone.
In 1971, there was a drive on to annex San Luis Rey Downs as part of the city of Oceanside. Some people in the city were hustling for it, and some were opposed to it. Of course, we felt that being part of Oceanside would enhance the value of the property. We’d have help on the schools and everything else that goes with being part of the city. And the acreage and tax income that would follow if it became one of Oceanside’s suburbs would have been tremendous. It became a fight in Oceanside, and it was defeated in a public vote. Some people are against everything. But it would have been a smart thing for the people of Oceanside. The city still doesn’t have a real nice residential section. San Luis Rey would have been like Oceanside’s Beverly Hills.