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This photo of Don Juan Avila was digitally reproduced by the USC Digital Library. Photo: Courtesy of the California Historical Society Collection at USC

By Rhonda deHaan

During a recent trip to the library, I found a book about the role of the cattle industry in the state’s history. This may not be the first choice of many people, but I was intrigued. I sat down with it, and the first thing I did was find all references to San Juan Capistrano (of course). I came across a story about Don Juan Avila that I thought would be fun to share.

Avila is one of Southern California’s prominent families, and Don Juan Avila played an integral role in the history of San Juan Capistrano. Juan Avila was a successful cattle rancher, and he and his wife, Soledad, were well known for their generosity and hospitality. It is said that they hosted grand fiestas, and travelers were often entertained in their home.

Horse racing was a popular amusement of the great rancheros during the mid-1800s, and Avila had a passion for it. Former governor Pío Pico was also an enthusiast, and the story goes that there was a great race between “the two most famous horses of the time—Juan Avila’s Coyote and Pío Pico’s Azulejo.”

The terms were agreed to and the stakes were set. And, as the race drew near, excitement grew and wagers were made. Opposing factions published challenges in local newspaper notices and taunted each other into making ever larger bets.

The results of the race were reported in the Los Angeles Star: “a great race came off at San Juan…between Don Pío Pico’s horse Azulejo and Don Juan Avila’s horse Coyote. The race was won by the former. A great deal of money changed hands on the decision.”

It was added that “one backer of Azulejo won at least $8,000 on the race”—quite a tidy sum in those days!

The Don Juan Avila Adobe, as seen today. Photo: Allison Jarrell
The Don Juan Avila Adobe, as seen today. Photo: Allison Jarrell

(The book referenced in this article is: The Cattle on a Thousand Hills: Southern California 1850-1880 by Robert Glass Cleland. The Huntington Library, 1990.)

Rhonda deHaan is a resident of San Juan Capistrano who enjoys sharing fun photographic finds as she continues to learn more about this unique town. She is a proud mother of two, a freelance writer, and a member of the SJC Friends of the Library and San Juan Capistrano Historical Society Board of Directors. She is serving her fourth term as a member of the city’s Cultural Heritage Commission.

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