‘They’re off’ at Shenandoah Downs in Woodstock, Va.

Gwen Woolf

Pari-mutuel harness racing in Virginia has found a new home at Shenandoah Downs at Woodstock. For five consecutive weekends, Sept. 10 through Oct. 9, horses from across the country will compete on a newly remodeled track at the Shenandoah County Fairgrounds.

“We’re really excited about it,” says the fair association’s Tom Eshelman. “I feel very strongly we’re going to have one of the premier half-mile tracks in the country.”

The Virginia Equine Alliance and the Virginia Harness Horsemen’s Association will present the United States Trotting Association-sanctioned races on Saturdays and Sundays starting at 1:00pm.

“We wanted them. They were looking for a home. It’s going to be a great marriage,” says Eshelman.

According to the alliance’s Darrell Wood, harness racing took place at Colonial Downs in New Kent County from 1998 to 2014, and, after that track ceased operation, races were held last year at Oak Ridge Estate in Nelson County. Now the plan is for Shenandoah Downs to be the new location.

While this will be the 99th year the Shenandoah fair has run non-betting harness racing during fair season, the updated site will have a refurbished track and five pari-mutuel betting options: Win, Place, Show, Exacta, or Trifecta. Pari-mutuel bettors place wagers against each other instead of the house and, if lucky, could double or triple their investments.

The alliance, which took a 20-year lease on the property, has poured nearly $750,000 into a
major overhaul, widening the oval track from 48 feet to 65 feet, banking the turns, adding fencing, and relocating a concert stage and tractor pull strip. Spectators in the grandstand will have a close-up view of the horses warming up and racing.

“It has a grassroots county fair feel to it,” says Wood.

Harness racing involves standardbred horses called pacers and trotters who race with specified foot motions or gaits under the guidance of drivers seated on two-wheeled carts called sulkies. Eight horses can compete at a time. Races are usually two minutes or less, and the driver’s strategy is important.

“To me — and I try to relay this to newcomers — the beauty of watching harness racing is to see good trotters compete,” says Wood. “The diagonal gait is tough to get accomplished at, especially at a young age (2 and 3 years old). When you compare the differences between a pacer and trotter, and notice the leg movements, that is something special.” 

The fair is doing its part to attract patrons to the track, holding special events on many race weekends, such as a Food Truck Festival, Hops and Hooves Festival, Wine and Trotter Festival, and Seafood Fest. Race admission is free on weekends when there are no additional events.

This year’s fair is Aug. 26–Sept. 3, with the non-betting racing Aug. 31–Sept. 3, transitioning into Shenandoah Downs’ inaugural five-week season. A longer season is envisioned next fall, according to Wood.

The fair will also feature concerts by Scotty McCreery and the Brothers Osborne, as well as a rodeo at the fairgrounds off I-81, Exit 283, at Woodstock.


Taste of Shenandoah

To soak up more of the scenic Shenandoah Valley, check out the 2016 Taste of Shenandoah on Oct. 15 from noon to 4:00pm at Cave Ridge Vineyard in Mount Jackson. With the backdrop of the vineyard, mountains, and live music, sample 15 pairings of locally produced cuisine and wine, beer, or cider. There also will be prepared meals for sale.

The farm-to-table event will have even more vendors than last year and will spread out to the lawn from around the courtyard, according to Vicki Ruckman, of the Shenandoah Forum. The nonprofit raises funds through the event to support the agricultural and historic character of the county. Tickets are $25. (caveridge.com)


Learn more:

Shenandoah Downs: shenandoahdowns.com; virginiahorseracing.com
Shenandoah Co. Tourism: visitshenandoahcounty.com


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