Getting to Central Texas' newest horse track is easy. From I-35 southbound, take exit 172 (which is actually in Selma; exit 173 is also an easy U-turn). If you get there early, the Selma City Hall Cafe across the highway offers an excellent menu of Southwestern delights. If you stay late, enjoy the music at Cibolo Creek Country Club, a dancehall about one mile west of the track on FM1518.
Modeled after the racetracks of the Old South, the three-story brick grandstand is an inspiring silhouette on the horizon, but, as at any amusement park, prepare to dig in your pocket when you walk in. Parking prices begin at $1 and general admission is an affordable $2.50. Don't be fooled into buying the $3.50 air-conditioned seats; this is a small section of the upper deck and is usually full before the races start at 7pm.
If the heat gets to be too much, the general admission second level is air-conditioned, with lots of tables and chairs, and monitors showing the race in progress, simulcast races from other tracks, and other live sports action. There are bars and restaurants around the perimeter hawking everything from burgers to margaritas.
The ground level of the grandstand is really where the action and fun happen. The open spaces are filled with people milling about, and the smell of food vendors gives the area the feel of a town plaza on Saturday afternoon.
Each evening's race card is filled with nine or 10 races. The crowd, dressed in everything from tight denim to baggy polyester, moves about with the action. First, they gather around the paddocks to watch the horses being groomed, each one looking like a winner. Watching the spirited animals' anticipation of the race only increases the spectators' excitement as they rush to the grandstands to watch the contest.
The trumpet blows and all bets are down. Most of the races are three-quarters of a mile, beginning on the far side of the track. As the horses stampede around the track, a sign with colored lights shaped like horses shows their positions as they round the track. The roar of the crowd almost drowns out the thunder of the hooves rushing towards the finish line. It doesn't matter whether you've placed the minimum $2 bet or a $200 bet; in those final seconds, everyone becomes religious.
Before you get to the track, pick up a daily newspaper to study the night's lineup. The San Antonio Express-News has informative tips in the sports section, complete with pre-race selections by three different sources (the Retama Park expert seems to offer the best advice). Once you get to the park, the Official Track Program is a bargain at $1.50.
There are those who understand the Exacta, Quinella, Trifecta, and Twin Trifecta methods of wagering on multiple races, but I'm not sure that they have any more fun than those of us who go for the excitement and beauty of the athletic competition. If you enjoy the animals, then you might like Saturday mornings at the racetrack watching the horses and jockeys work out. Admission is free until 10:30am, and track professionals are usually available to answer questions. The first 50 registered visitors are given a tour of the barns.
For that special someone who has everything and a birthday coming up, give them a race of their own. For $65, the guest has a race named in their honor, presents the trophy to the winning jockey, and receives a photograph of the event. Races are Thursday through Saturday at 7pm and Sunday at 2pm. For information, call 210/651-7100.
Coming up this weekend...
Blanco County Fair & Rodeo fills Johnson City's fairgrounds with lots of animals and entertainment, Aug.17-19. 210/868-4017.
Grape Stomping Harvest at Fall Creek Vineyards brings hayrides, tours, and music to the winery, Aug.19 & 26. 915/379-5361.
Carver Jazz Festival at San Antonio's Majestic Theater with one of the most prestigious music events in Central Texas, Aug. 24-26. 210/225-6516.
National Championship Barbecue Cookoff attracts the best cooks to Meridian's Bosque Bottoms Park, Aug.26. 817/435-6113.
- Gerald E. McLeod