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Book Bushwhacks Bettor

2 January 2001

What do you do when a book loses a bet but refuses to pay off in a timely manner?

It's not a theoretical question, because the Caliente operation in Mexico is doing just that. There may be other books worldwide following suit.

Caliente is the largest bookmaking operation in Mexico, with around four dozen brick-and-mortar outlets in that country's major cities and tourist destinations. These include the very lucrative books in Tijuana, just a short drive or walk across the international border from San Diego, California. This border area may be the only place in the world where metropolises from the First and Third Worlds meet.

The Caliente operation was founded in 1916 by American entrepreneurs. It began as a racetrack and later, in the 1920s, the famed Agua Caliente Casino was built nearby, and became a "must visit" spot for Hollywood celebrities and European royalty.

(The casinos in Mexico were closed in 1935 by a reform-minded president, and ever since rumors have constantly floated about the imminent rebirth of Mexican gaming.)

One of Mexico's wealthiest and most politically powerful families now owns the Caliente operation. In 1989 they had enough political muscle to get sports betting approved in the country. They then turned to Mike Roxborough -- or Roxy, as he is generally known to the sports betting community -- of Las Vegas Sports Consultants for counsel in operating a book. About six years ago Roxy retired and is reportedly living in Thailand.

The Mexican facilities do not take online wagering, but they do have phone betting. This, theoretically, is available only for calls originating inside Mexico.

However, they have no blocking mechanisms on calls coming in from the United States, and they do have American customers -- mostly from Southern California -- phoning in wagers on both horses and sports. These bettors enjoy the convenience of being able to post up and collect in person, simply by driving over the border. (About a two-hour trip from Los Angeles, a few minutes to half an hour from San Diego.)

It's unlikely that very many serious bettors, those accustomed to wagering four or five figures, are sending it in to Caliente, because of the tax that is placed on each winning wager. For sports, 1.5 percent of the win part of each bet is deducted; for horses 2 percent of the entire payback. A hefty grab for the "privilege" of wagering in sunny Mexico.

For almost four years - a decade ago - I worked for Caliente (it means "hot" in Spanish) as an advisor. One piece of advice I constantly gave them was to find a way to ditch this tax, or to absorb it. They did not opt to do the latter, and the federal agency in Mexico City that regulates gambling in the country wasn't about to loosen its grip on that lovely money machine.

At times, Caliente shows a tin ear when it comes to customer relations. Like some other bookmakers worldwide, they offer odds on many non-sporting events, such as the Academy Awards and the U.S. presidential elections. Shortly before the first debate between Al Gore and George Bush, a friend of mine, an attorney from San Diego, went to Caliente and plunked down $500 on Bush, at +150.

Everyone knows of the long recount, and the court action that ultimately decided the election in favor of Bush. My friend waited until Dec. 18 before trying to cash his ticket, the date when the Electoral College gave Bush enough votes to seal the presidency.

At a branch book for Caliente down the coast from Tijuana they told him the ticket could not be cashed until Inauguration Day, Jan. 20. To no avail, he pointed out that his ticket read "President elect, G.W. Bush." Not "president inaugurated," but president elect. And Bush was the president elect. Even his opponent, Al Gore, had conceded defeat a week prior.

The American attorney then went to Caliente's flagship facility at Pueblo Amigo, a few hundred steps over the border from San Diego. The book manager there also could do nothing, but agreed with the gringo that his company's refusal to immediately pay was outrageous. The manager sent my friend to see the betting director of the entire operation, Sr. Jesus Loya.

Sr. Loya is a long-time employee of Caliente. He was trained to move the lines by associates of Roxy back when the facility initiated sports wagering. Sr. Loya informed the lawyer that his ticket could not be cashed before Inauguration Day, because "Roxy" had so advised him to wait until that date. To my friend's objections, Sr. Loya repeatedly insisted that "Roxy" had set the rules.

I had suggested to my friend that he also posit a scenario: what would happen if Bush died or was otherwise unable to take office on Jan. 20? Sr. Loya stated that would indicate a no-contest, and that all bets would be refunded. The attorney asked -- with a modicum of sarcasm, no doubt -- if they would therefore refuse to pay on a horse wager if the animal collapsed and died a second after crossing the finish line on top, to which the Caliente manager had no response. (And would the Gore bettors get their money back if a Bush death indicated a "no-contest"?)

Las Vegas Sports Consultants, sans Roxy, still counts Caliente among its clients for its odds-making services. A spokesman for LVSC, reached by phone, stated that the presidential election was an "in-house" affair, and "that if it's outside the United States they can do what they want."

He said that Caliente had not asked for LVSC's advice on when to pay such winning tickets, and that if Caliente did ask he would advise them to pay it immediately. And when told of my friend's dead horse analogy the fella from LVSC chuckled and said, "That's a good answer."

Leaders of modern Mexico have often stated that they want to catapult their country into First World status. Perhaps a good start would be to insist that their corporations honor their contracts, including those that promise to pay a gambling win.

Bob Owens has been a freelance writer for 20 years, authoring numerous articles on sports and betting. He's based in San Diego.

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