When the Agua Caliente Casino and Hotel opened on June 22, 1928, in Tijuana, Mexico it was the perfect place for Hollywood stars to go have some fun. Gambling, liquor, and horse racing were all illegal in California at the time, so being just across the border was very enticing for the likes of celebrities that included Charlie Chaplin and Jean Harlow.

Jean Harlow teeing off on the Agua Caliente golf course.

The laws of California that prohibited these vices caused a trio of American businessmen to see it as an opportunity they could exploit. Dubbed the “Border Barons” Wirt G. Bowman, Baron H. Long, and James N. Crofton bankrolled the development of the entire resort, which included a casino, spa, championship golf, and tennis courts as well as its own airstrip, and a lot of live entertainment.

Rita Hayworth with her father at Agua Caliente

Bowman was the mastermind of the development. He had already created an extremely successful gambling joint called the Foreign Club, also in Tijuana. Baron H. Long’s expertise came in the hospitality department, as he was already a very successful California hotel and nightclub owner. Crofton’s had experience in the horse racing business. These were the right men and they came along at the right time to create this little venture.

19-year-old architect Wayne McAllister was commissioned to design The Agua Caliente Casino and Hotel (he would later go onto design Lawry’s restaurant in Beverly Hills). Stylistically, the resort was a hodgepodge of styles blending Mexican colonial, California mission, and neo-Islamic designs with an Art Deco flair.

Americans flocked to the resort. Everyone from aristocrats and Hollywood stars to movie moguls and mobsters enjoyed the new venue.

Cary Grant and his wife at Agua Caliente

By far the most popular aspect of Agua Caliente was the racetrack. Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, Gloria Swanson, Charlie Chaplin, Bing Crosby, Gary Cooper were all regulars at the track. In addition to horses, ostriches were often raced on the track. This was the first track to feature things that are now commonplace: starting gates, safety helmets, and “pick six” wagering.

In the early 1930s Eduardo Cansino, a vaudevillian performer in Los Angeles and the father of Rita Hayworth, decided to take their act, “The Dancing Cansinos” down to Agua Caliente in hopes that it would propel her dancing career.

The act performed up to 20 times per week. It was a fruitful decision as somebody from fox Film Corporation noticed 16-year-old Rita and signed her.

“I knew if I took Rita by the hand and visited the casting offices we would get nothing but exercise. So, I gave up my dancing school seven months ago and accepted a longstanding offer to dance at the Agua Caliente. Rita was my partner. I knew most of the studio executives visit Caliente from time to time.” – Eduardo Cansino

In 1935, Mexico’s President Lázaro Cárdenas outlawed gambling and the resort, with the exception of the racetrack, was closed. In 1938 the famous horse Seabiscuit also won the Agua Caliente Handicap.

Agua Caliente drink menu

The casino was replaced by a state-run school, Escuela Preparatoria Federal Lázaro Cárdenas, which no longer exists.

Seabiscuit after winning at Agua Caliente in Mexico in 1938 with Charles Howard and Bing Crosby,

As for the racetrack, it burned down in 1971 and was rebuilt. It continues to operate as the Agua Caliente Racetrack and casino.

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