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'We have a 10,000-acre ranch an hour and 20 minutes away from Ensenada," says Ernie Preciado of the San Antonio Ranch in Ojos Negros, Baja California. "It's a valley, and it's hot. If you've seen Dances with Wolves, it's basically the same type of deal. There's no development whatsoever, just a small two-room house." Preciado helps organize the San Antonio Poker Run, an event that combines off-roading and gambling. The run will take place at the ranch on the evening of Saturday, September 22. The track is two miles long. Participating drivers are given one playing card in a sealed envelope each time they reach a checkpoint. Preciado shuffled and individually sealed 208 cards. "After you do five laps, then you turn [your sealed envelopes] in to the judges, and whoever has the biggest hand wins."

There are hundreds of "poker run" events every year in the States, a handful of which take place in San Diego. San Diego Harley sponsors the Tour de San Diego Poker Run every year, raising money for the Children's Hospital cancer center. Boaters can race and play cards in the annual Bayfair Thunderboat Poker Run that begins and ends in Mission Bay. Scooter enthusiasts can try their hand in the San Diego Mini Motorsports Poker Run.

On the San Antonio Ranch, cars can take as long as they want to complete the run. "It doesn't matter if you do five laps in five minutes -- you win if you have the lucky hand. If you try to race, you're going to ruin your car, and you put more people at risk," says Preciado. He explains that in a race, cars would be required to have roll cages and drivers would have to wear a helmet. Any vehicle that "can survive a good trip at night" can enter the poker run, except for motorcycles. "Motorcycles are allowed on the track, but not at the time of the event. Motorcycles and cars do not combine -- we don't want to have any accidents."

Anyone who pays the $2 admission fee can explore the track and the campgrounds as early as Friday night. At 6 p.m. on Saturday, only those cars that have been entered in the run for $35 (which also buys the driver a T-shirt, a burger, and a beverage) can be on the track. The checkpoints close at midnight, and at 1 a.m. there is a ceremony to announce the winners. The person with the best hand receives $500; second place, $300; and third, $200.

Preciado says a minimum of 18 inches of ground clearance is required to clear the roughest parts of the track. "It could be a VW bug or a brand new Hummer," he says. Some will drive Rhinos, an all-terrain vehicle. "A Rhino is a side-by-side, made by Yamaha, like a quad, only a lot bigger. Two people fit in it."

The ranch's landscape includes hot springs, rugged desert, a riverbed, and "pieces like jungle" with oak trees. Preciado explains, "We have a piece where it's a fast area, a couple of rivers, and dry rock, an area [on which] you have to drive slow and be able to maneuver wisely through small rocks. You put your four-by-four knowledge to the test.... If you have a two-inch lift or big 33-inch off-road tires, that will make things easier. It's not intended for a Grand Cherokee that is completely stock and not a four-by-four."

Four police officers will patrol the area during the event. Wristbands are given to attendees. "We want to have an inventory of people there. That way nobody will get lost, because it's still Mexico." Last year 78 cars participated in the run, with 300 additional cars at the ranch for the weekend. Preciado estimates nearly 1000 people attended the event.

"While cars are going round and round, people can see other stuff." A giant screen in an outside theater will play videos of off-road racing. Local rock band One in the Chamber will perform onstage. Following Mexican law, anyone 18 or older can purchase beer, which will be sold for $1. As with any camping trip, Preciado recommends bringing food. "There could be some guy that brings in a lunch truck, or other vendors, but I'm not sure."

According to Preciado, his ranch in Ojos Negros is the closest, "truly off-road" track for all-terrain vehicle enthusiasts in San Diego. On the ranch, there are few obstacles and no jumps, but Preciado says that's not what off-roading is about. "It's going out in the country and having a 360-degree view of beautiful scenery." -- Barbarella

Rancho San Antonio Poker Run Saturday, September 22 Registration from noon to 5 p.m.; event begins at 6 p.m. San Felipe Highway 3, Ojos Negros junction Ensenada, Baja California Cost: $2 general admission, $35 to participate Info: 619-962-1091 or www.rsa.com.mx

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