Racing North and South of the Border

Damon Runyon

Wilkes-Barre Evening News/January 6, 1926

Ten years ago, Mr. Jim Coffroth bought into the race track at Tia Juana, sixteen miles below San Diego and just across the Mexican line. Tia Juana, by the way, means Aunt Jane.

Someone else had started the track but lacked the money to complete it. Mr. Jim Coffroth was a pugilistic entrepreneur of some note in San Francisco, when he took up the project with several associates and opened the premises for racing on a modest scale.

His criminal investment was not large, but today Coffroth is rated a millionaire, and racing at Tia Juana has reached such proportions that the future race of the long winter meeting will this year be worth about $55,000 to the winner. This race is called the Coffroth Handicap.

There are about 1,000 race horses in the stables at Tia Juana at this time, and several big Eastern stables represented. Coffroth makes a strong canvass for the Easterners every year, and is gradually drawing them to his track in increasing numbers.

The Eastern trainers do not care to ship so far, but Coffroth points out that horses that have been conditioned and raced in Mexico generally return east in the spring to run good races.

Coffroth had a world of litigation covering several years over the ownership of the Tia Juana track, and it probably cost both sides a lot of money. The legal tale is too long and too involved to be gone into here.

Finally, the Mexican government took title to the land on which the track stands, and Coffroth now pays rent along with his taxes to the government. It is said that this amounts to about $6,800 per day. The admissions and the pari-mutuels stand this off.

The plant survived a lot of political and military uneasiness in Mexico, and several changes in government. The unrest prevented Coffroth from replacing the old frame buildings and stands on the property with steel and concrete, but in the meantime he has managed to beautify the grounds with trees, and flowers and shrubbery.

It is a picturesque place, with rolling hills on every side. A company of Mexican soldiers guards the stables at night against fire and depredation. The stables are pitched on the hills overlooking the track, and all the buildings and the stands are done in white paint.

The track draws for its attendance on San Diego, and Los Angeles. It is a four-hour ride from Los Angeles by special train service and on Saturdays and Sundays and the big holidays, the movie colony at Hollywood is strongly represented.

It is a popular pastime to make the journey by motor car. The roads all the way from Los Angeles to Tia Juana are as smooth as a floor. Everybody has to be back across the border by 9 o’clock at night . Unless they want to stay in Tia Juana all night—and there are few places to stay there.

Thus San Diego is the real seat of the racing operations at Tia Juana and San Diego is one of the loveliest cities in the universe—all white and green and clean—a progressive city that one day may be a large city. Coffroth lives there in baronial grandeur, which reflects the prosperity that has come to him since the days when he was a fight promoter.

He was a good fight promoter at that—the Tex Rickard of the Pacific Coast, so to speak. Now and then when he feels the need of a little extra publicity, Coffroth casually talks of promoting a heavyweight championship at Tia Juana. But I doubt that he has any serious thought of again entering the Manly Art of Scrambling Ears.

His retainers at Tia Juana include many noted old timers of the manly art. However, he showed me the spot at one end of the many bars scattered around the plant at Tia Juana where Tom Sharkey, the old heavyweight is usually standing. Coffroth calls the bars “traps.”

Coffroth said he would have bet 2 to 1 Sharkey would be standing there when we came along. But for some reason the ex-sailor was missing. Coffroth pondered this as a grave mystery for some time.

Billy Roche, once one of the best known referees in the country, is working for Coffroth. I noted my friend, Mr. Frank Eaeppel, on exhibition in a mutuel booth. Lending Broadway atmosphere to the surroundings, high up in a sort of pulpit, writing out tickets, was Mr. Jack Gagliardi, another Broadway-ite.

They use both the mutuels and the old time booking system at Tia Juana. Coffroth refers to these, too, as “traps.” He surrounds the business of horse racing with no illusions.

Those who like horse racing hope that it may one day return to Southern California, with the mutuels, in which event Mr. Jim Coffroth’s Tia Juana track must inevitably pass away.

California was once one of the great racing centers of the world, with several big tracks, and numerous breeding farms, but the game passed from the Coast years ago, returning briefly quite recently when some optimistic sportsmen tried to put on a meet without betting in San Francisco.

The experiment was not exactly a howling success. I hope and trust that the altruists will not take offense. But horse racing without betting is like ham and eggs without the ham. It can’t be done. And I imagine it would take a prodigious effort to get the voters of California to pass a law providing for racing with betting.

Until that is done. Mr. Coffroth will continue to keep his “traps” at Tia Juana properly oiled and always set.

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