El Cerrito Kennel Club
When the work was started on the construction of the dog-racing course in September of 1932 by Wembley Amusement Corporation, it was the hope of the corporation to be completed and ready for service by the 15th of October. John J. Jerome, who was in charge of the construction of the track, had the men work in two shifts starting out at six in the morning and continuing until six in the evening. An unemployment list was compiled by the city of El Cerrito and placed in the hands of the corporation as 200 men were employed during the construction of the track and all local help was being used for the construction of this course.
This track was situated south of Fairmount Avenue between San Pablo Avenue and the Santa Fe Railroad tracks and had a seating capacity of over 3,000 people. [Editor's Note: BART now runs where the Santa Fe tracks were located.] The El Cerrito Kennel Club was run by "Blackjack Jerome" and the reason he picked up this name of "Blackjack" was because he was a streetcar strike breaker in Denver, Los Angeles and Oakland.
The track was oval and they had a stuffed rabbit protruding out over the track on a long arm and powered by electric control. The dogs would break out of the chutes and try to catch the stuffed rabbit which would travel about 35 miles per hour. They did not have the pari-mutuel machines at that time and the bettors purchased the option tickets when making their bets. [Editor's note: regarding the "pari-mutuel machines" and "options". This is a terrific example of how a great legal mind can outfox the law. At the time, betting on dog races was patently illegal. Yet the El Cerrito Kennel Club was a wildly successful dog racing and betting institution, known all over the west. In essence, each dog was a corporation. Before the race, an "investor" could purchase options to buy the stock of that "corporation". If the corporation performed well (if the dog finished first, second, or third), the value of the option to purchase stock went up and the investor could sell the option for a profit. If the corporation performed poorly, the option was worthless.]
They usually had ten races a night and usually 8 or 10 dogs in a race. Occasionally, they had monkeys ride the hounds, and as an added attraction, they had ostriches race around the track. The dogs, before the race, would be brought out upon the track by the grooms. Each groom would march with his dog along side of him on a leash and muzzled. Leading the grooms was Victor Belfils, who was drum major and his job was to see that the grooms took the proper precautions with the dogs and marched in lines
After the dogs passed the finish line and the rabbit had passed the curtain, the strong canvas curtain would be pulled across the track to stop the dogs so the grooms could rush out and get their proper dog.
After the last race they would have an added attraction, either wrestling or boxing match to amuse the crowd. Occasionally, they would have a mutt race, which consisted of any old dog other than greyhounds. Another attraction to draw the crowds to the track was the drawing of tickets to give away new cars weekly. It has been said that once during a race someone had thrown a cat upon the track causing the dogs racing to start chasing the cat instead of the rabbit.
When they had the monkey race, pockets were sewn into the dog's blankets and the monkey placed upon the dog's back. His legs and feet stuck down into the pockets and a strap was cinched to keep the monkey from pulling his feet out. The monkeys when racing would wrap their arms around the dog's neck to hold on and looked just like jockeys in action. All dogs when in action were required to wear muzzles after they left the paddock. The grooms at the track hated the monkey races, as before the races the grooms had to stand at attention in front of the grandstand with the dogs at their side for the spectators to look them over. The monkeys, when the grooms were at attention, would torment the grooms by pulling the groom's belt straps, pulling their coats, reaching in their pockets, or nipping at the groom's hand, to the amusement of the crowd.
There were a number of outstanding dogs that raced at the El Cerrito track, such as War Cry, owned by Louis Randall, and Happy Laddy, owned by Oliver Jones.
During the real early days, Emeryville had dog racing, but it was quite different then. At that time they would put a collar around two dogs with a choke wire between them. A live rabbit was turned loose and the dogs were each released at the same instant to start chasing the rabbit. Every time the rabbit turned and the dogs turned at the same time, they would receive so many points.
When the ostriches were led out at the El Cerrito track, they were blindfolded with a sack over their head and the sack was removed just before the race. The ostriches were very large birds and when in a race were ridden by people about the same way as one would ride a horse. Both the ostriches and the monkeys were trained for this type of race and traveled from track to track as an added attraction.
The grooms had to put in some long hours for the $4.00 per day they received and later attempts were made to cut the wages to $2.50 per day. They were employed from 7:30 to 11:30 in the evenings but also had to go there and to school, or train the dogs during the day.
Mr. Thompson would go to Richmond every evening to the Mechanics Bank and pick up the money and transport it back to the track. With him was a caravan of automobiles consisting of three cars, one in front with officers from the track, then one for hauling the money, followed by another car full of officers. Occasionally, they were escorted by the local police department.
Kids would go over the parking lot area picking up empty whiskey flasks the next day after the races and sell them to local bootleggers who purchased them for a few cents each which were used for re-filling purposes.
The track was finally closed down in 1939 after the lease was revoked.
After the closing of the track along came the war and on April l, 1943, about 250 trailer units were in readiness at Fairmount Trailer Court, with Judge Joe Martyn Turner as manager of the Federal Housing Project. It was estimated 2,000 persons would accommodate the planned 660 units when completed. The rental rates for trailer applicants had been set at $4.00 per week and only certified employees of the war industries were allowed to be housed at the trailer park.
The old dog grand grandstand was demolished on May 10, 1948 and a permit for a drive-in-theater applied for on May 25, 1948. This drive-in-theater was later demolished to make room for the El Cerrito Plaza Shopping Center.
During construction of the initial El Cerrito Plaza Shopping Center in 1958, and where building B now stands, the contractor digging for the footing of the proposed House of Fabrics, dug up two wooden caskets. [Editor's Note: Trader Joe's now stands about where the House of Fabrics was located.] Prior to the construction of the El Cerrito Plaza Shopping Center, all of the bodies had been moved from the burial grounds on the Victor Castro property. The private burial place had been behind the adobe building which was built around 1839 and had been torn down after a fire, to make room for the center. These two wooden caskets had been opened at sometime and the bodies removed as there was only a few small bones left with traces of fabric inside the casket.
Copyright Mervin Belfils, September 1975
PO Box 304, El Cerrito, CA 94530