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Official Review by Eric Moreno, Stadium Journey Regional Correspondent
There's something special about a racetrack. The electricity of the crowd; the majestic beauty of a fine racehorse; the air of hope that permeates the atmosphere with each race as everyone with a ticket is sure they've got themselves a winner.
Yes sir, there is something truly special about a racetrack. Just outside the San Antonio city limits, in the town of Selma lies Retama Park. Constructed to mimic the Spanish colonial style reminiscent of “old world” racing venues like Santa Anita and Del Mar in California, the 2016 season marks the 21st racing season at the track. Retama Park, which has turf and track surfacing, enters into its fourth under new ownership and management, it has repositioned itself as a must-visit attraction.
The FANFARE scale is our metric device for rating each stadium experience. It covers the following:
Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
Like most great sporting venues, Retama Park has a nice selection of all the traditional favorites including hot dogs, popcorn, nachos, sodas ($1.50), and domestic beer (starting at $5). There is also a specialty Tex-Mex stand on the turf level. Once you get through the main entrance, you are greeted by the wafting smells of grilling hamburgers (starting at $5) and hot dogs (starting at $2). The burgers are some of the best around. Also on hand is the tasty Pepito's Italian Ice (in a variety of flavors for $5). This stand's frozen, sweet treats are a perfect complement to a hot summer night at the track.
Inside and upstairs, first on the Grandstand Level, that's when the food options really start to expand. At the Terrace Level, you will find more of the traditional fare and also the Sports Bar. Chicken wings, grilled chicken salads, and specialty sandwiches are all on the menu. As the name would imply, a full complement of beer and alcoholic spirits are available. Be warned though, this is one of the most popular spots in the track and it fills up fast.
On the Terrace Level and at the Private Suite Level, the fare gets even better. Both offer spectacular, all you can eat, carved prime rib dinners ($22.95 on the clubhouse level and $39.95 on the press box level). Both of these areas offer exclusive seating; once you have paid for your dinner, your table and unique view of the track is yours for the entire night.
Whether you're a seasoned handicapper of horses or a first time visitor, you will enjoy your visit to Retama Park. Every weekend during the live-racing season (mid June until November), there are special events for patrons of the track. These range from a Comic Con Night to Family Nights (complete with a petting zoo and food and drink specials). These events feed into the overall atmosphere of the track.
A highlight for visitors of all ages is a trip to the horse paddock. Before each race, the horses are brought into their stalls for a rub down before being walked to loosen them up. It's a great chance to get up close and personal to these magnificent animals.
Another unique offering of the track is the Fan Education area. For no cost aside from admission, you can sit in and listen as the track's resident handicapper walks you through the betting process, answers your questions, and bets right alongside you (should you be so inclined). This free education eliminates one of the main barriers that some have for visiting the track. In 2015, a new merchandise stand was set up near the main entrance to purchase Retama Park related apparel and accessories.
One of the best features of the track is the seating. Whether you sit outside in the open seating near the track, up against the fence, or in some of the clubhouse seating, there isn't a bad seat in the house.
Retama Park lies outside of San Antonio proper. It is built in a former industrial area and is set by itself on land adjacent to I-35. However, while it has no "immediate" neighbors, just up the highway is The Forum at Olympia Parkway, a very family friendly shopping center. The Forum is home to large chain stores such as Target, Kohl's, Toys R Us, and Best Buy, among others. Similarly, a vast number of family-style eating establishments are available ranging from fast food places like Chick-fil-A and Subway, to sit down establishments like Red Robin, Chili's Bar & Grill, and Chipotle Mexican Grill.
Heading out the other direction from Retama Park, up Lookout Road, within 10 minutes you will be able to visit Rolling Oaks Mall, which is a mid-sized shopping mall complete with a number of national shopping and dining chains.
With Retama Park being so close to I-35, you can hop on and head south and be at San Antonio's lively downtown in 15-20 minutes or head north and visit the quaint German town of New Braunfels or even, ultimately, be in Austin within an hour.
I think it is fair to say that the best part of the overall experience at Retama Park are the fans. The track is open 364 days out of the year (closed on Christmas Day) and there are a group of hardcore, serious racing enthusiasts who will be there waiting at the gate for the track to open all 364 of those days.
You will see some "colorful" characters on the Track and Grandstand Levels, especially by the TV banks and near the betting windows. You will see men and women in their lucky shirts or hats, carrying their lucky charms, and engaging in "track banter." The fans make the track truly something special.
There are two main access points to Retama Park: I-35 and Lookout Road. I-35 spans the entire city of San Antonio, from north to south and continues. It also connects to every major highway and loop in the city, so you can be virtually anywhere in San Antonio from Retama Park in 30 minutes. Lookout Road connects to another large thoroughfare, Nacogdoches Road. This road also travels a large portion of the city, north to south.
One point of emphasis should be noted; the area of I-35 where Retama Park lies will experience larger than normal amounts of traffic at most times of the day. Loop 1604 intersects with I-35 just south of the track. This often causes traffic to stack up, so be prepared.
The cost for admittance to Retama Park, which opens every day 10:30am, is $5 during live racing season and $2 the rest of the year; children 12 and under get in free. Parking is free (or you can go big and valet your car for $8). A racing program, if you're looking to gamble or if you just want a nice souvenir, is $3 and you can eat and drink very well on $10-$20 per person (or even cheaper on $1 nights, which run the entire summer). Where else can you spend as little as $5 for an event and walk away, conceivably, with thousands of dollars? Only at a good race track, and Retama is just that.
The fans, the atmosphere, the relative affordability of every amenity, the excitement of the crowds, all of these make Retama a great venue to enjoy, either for a single person or a whole family. Getting the chance to see the majestic horses up close in the paddock or along the fence line, is sure to tug at the heartstrings of kids of any age.
Couple these perks with the free fan education forum, the theme nights (Mardi Gras Night is particularly enjoyable), and the chance to mingle with a crowd of interesting people, and you've got a truly special sporting venue. As part of the upgrades that the new ownership (Pinnacle Entertainment) have brought in has been to fully integrate the venue with free wifi. A new pari-mutuel betting app is also available for those who have their lucky spot and don't want to vacate it to visit a betting window.
For casual horse racing fans, first time visitors, or dyed-in-the-wool track folk, you are guaranteed to enjoy your day or evening at Retama Park. The classic old style look, the electricity of a close horse race, the food and drink options, and the beauty of the horses themselves all harken back to a time when horse racing was the sport of kings. You can capture that feeling-and maybe win a little walking around money-with a day or night at the races. If you're in San Antonio or even Austin, do yourself a favor and plan a visit to Retama Park.
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8320 Agora Pkwy
Selma, TX 78154
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