by Jeremy Martin
Although sports bettors in Southern California and other U.S. towns that border Mexico are well aware of the Caliente Group and its expansive sportsbook offerings, much of America seems to be oblivious. There hasn't been much written on the private company that offers 60 sportsbooks to bettors, including many that are a short trek from cities such as San Diego; Tucson and Laredo, Texas. Caliente boasts 12 sportsbook locations in Tijuana alone, three of which accessible by a short walk across the San Ysidro border crossing.
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American business makes up 15 percent of Caliente's total sportsbook handle, and that number may be as high as 40 percent for the company's Tijuana locations. Nationals who frequent the sportsbooks call them "libro foraneo," the legal name for sports betting operations in Mexico, meaning "foreign book."
"We have a shopping center called Pueblo Amigo that is less than a 100 foot walk from the border," said Victor de la Fuente, wagering director for all of Caliente's sportsbooks. "We have different environments for customers who like horse racing or sports betting. The Race Club specializes in racing and the Sports Center is more for betting on sports. We also have the Centre Book, which is close to the border and a short walk from Pueblo Amigo."Caliente sportsbook has a rich history, as it began operations in 1915 by offering betting on live thoroughbred racing to its customers. A dog track was opened in 1947 and the first libro foraneo began operations in 1948. In the early days, the sportsbook managers posted lines on chalkboards and monitored games via the radio. But presently, Caliente is fully state-of-the-art as it patterns itself after Las Vegas sportsbooks. In fact, top brass take frequent trips to Southern Nevada to get ideas on all of the new trends in the industry and Caliente sportsbook uses Las Vegas Sports Consultants for help on setting pointspreads and the Don Best line service to keep tabs on the mobility of the numbers across the globe. The business even offers a football contest in order to draw clients, much like the casinos in Las Vegas.
Although American business is no doubt crucial to his bottom line, de la Fuente insists that American sports are increasingly well liked among Mexican nationals.
"You name the sport, and it is very popular in Mexico," he said. "Almost every game is shown on commercial TV or cable. You can open up a Mexican newspaper, and out of probably 10 pages of the sports section, five or six will be (covering) U.S. sports. Everyone likes basketball, football, baseball and even ice hockey."
While Caliente sportsbook likes to pattern its books after Las Vegas establishments, there is one facet of the business that is decidedly different: its betting limits. Customers in Mexico can bet as much as $20,000 on NFL sides, which is higher than the majority of books in Nevada. Limits for NFL totals and college sides are $5,000 while college sides max out at $1,000. But de la Fuente, who profiles all his top customers, will raise his limits if he feels comfortable with a particular bettor. While Las Vegas receives tons of press when a sportsbook takes a $1 million bet on the Super Bowl, not many people know about the time Caliente had to pay out seven figures to a Mexican National who cashed in on a $50,000 futures bet on Winning Colors in the 1988 Kentucky Derby. Regardless of the big payout, de la Fuente said he would take the risk again if it came from the right bettor. "If we know the customer, he will probably get special treatment," he stated.
Despite the high limits Caliente sportsbook offers, the wagering director said that he doesn't do too much business with professional bettors. One of the reasons for the lack of sharp players in Mexico is because there's just one line at each of Caliente's 60 sportsbook locations. This reduces the option of shopping around for numbers as well as the opportunity to manipulate the numbers with a syndicate. Although the betting conglomerate does have some competition in Mexico, it still controls more than 60 percent of the marketplace, including most of the sportsbooks located at lucrative border locations and vacation travel destinations.
"There are several other companies in Mexico that have a license, but they are smaller" said de la Fuente. "There are probably, as the competition, 25 to 30 locations all through Mexico. It's very difficult to get licensed. We don't have too many (professionals). But we try and remain as open as possible (to them). I don't think anybody wants them. We don't limit them, but we are careful when they appear."
During football season, business doubles, according to the wagering director. And despite the interest in American sports from locals, there are a variety of Latin sports that are offered on the Caliente board. Mexican and South American soccer are especially popular with local bettors. The operation has a team of six that works on in-house lines for games that are not covered by consulting services in the U.S. For American sports, de le Fuente and his team determine their lines based on consultant recommendations in addition to customer betting patterns. For football, Caliente releases its lines on Tuesday morning in order to escape any early volatility of the numbers.
"You have to wait for the announcements of all the different injuries in order to be honest with the line," said de la Fuente. "We always say in our business that you have to be very serious about what you are doing. It doesn't matter if you come out with the first line if you are not taking limit bets. So we put (the line) out a little after that to be honest with our customers."
Posting solid numbers is so important to de la Fuente because his lines do not see much movement during the week, especially in football. It takes at least three limit bets to move the number, with no action on the other side, according to the wagering director.
Between parlays and straight bets, Caliente sportsbook holds six to 6.5 percent of its handle, states de la Fuente. Although his main goal is to get 50/50 action on games in order to ensure reduced liability of losses, he does admit that the business has a vested interest in 35 to 40 percent of all games.
Caliente offers a wide variety of parlay cards to its customers. In addition to football, cards are offered on soccer, basketball and baseball. Horse racing parlay cards are even in the works. As mentioned earlier, the books offer a Pigskin Football Contest, which has the look and feel of a Las Vegas contest. Weekly prizes are offered in addition to $25,000 for the season.
Americans who are worried about cashing their tickets can breathe easy. Caliente will mail checks to the U.S. for payouts under $1,000. Any larger amount must be cashed at one of the sportsbook locations in Mexico.
Although the company has an Internet presence, bettors from America and Canada are barred from using the service, according to de la Fuente. The online book takes only 25 percent of posted sportsbook limits. Eighty percent of its Internet business comes from Mexico, with the other 20 percent coming from South America, Asia and Europe.
The long-running company was taken over by George Hank, a tourism magnate, in the mid 1980s. Hank, the majority owner, and de la Fuente had been friends for more than 30 years. During a chance encounter in Mexico City in the early 1990s, the old friends met and de la Fuente was offered a job. The current wagering director, who was living in the city at the time, was fed up with the problems associated with living in such a big metropolitan area and was sick of his job in the trucking industry. He quickly took Hank up on his offer and moved to Tijuana, which is the company's home base.
"I liked sports very much, but I didn't have any experience with betting," added de la Fuente. "Part of our philosophy in the company is that you have to bet to learn, so I was required to (wager) part of my salary for the first two years to understand the mentality of the customers."