Pari-mutuel harness racing will return to Virginia this fall and make its debut at Shenandoah Downs in Woodstock over five straight weekends beginning Sept. 10, pending final approval from the Virginia Racing Commission. The meet, presented by the Virginia Equine Alliance (VEA) and Virginia Harness Horsemen's Association (VHHA), will continue every Saturday and Sunday afternoon through Oct. 9.
Non-wagering fair races have been held at the Shenandoah County Fairgrounds for 98 years, and the 99th edition will take place this year from Aug. 31-Sept. 3, then transition into the new meet the following weekend. Pari-mutuel harness racing had been held at Colonial Downs in New Kent from 1998-2014, and at the Oak Ridge Estate in Nelson County last year over back-to-back weekends in October.
The VEA and VHHA worked together with the Shenandoah County Fair Association to come up with a long-term plan and future for standardbred racing in Virginia and as a result, a 20-year lease was signed with the Association and an extensive track renovation project is nearing completion. The $700,000 upgrade included widening the half-mile oval, banking the turns, and relocating what had been a permanent concert stage and tractor pull strip. In past years during fair races, only four or five horses could start behind the gate due to the limited track width. Come September, eight horses will be able to start behind the starting gate and compete over a first-class surface.
Track superintendent J.D. Thomas said 44,000 cubic yards of earth have been moved since the project began and the width of the oval has been increased from 48 feet to 65 feet. The biggest obstacle, however, has been the weather.
"We had equipment on the ground for three weeks before we could even start," said Thomas, who previously managed both the dirt and turf surfaces at Colonial Downs. "We missed 22 days of work on the track due to the wet spring, so we're cutting this project pretty close. I'm confident though we'll get it completed on schedule and ready for both the fair and pari-mutuel races."
Mike Wandishin has been named Racing Secretary and is currently recruiting trainers and stables to race, and is putting together a condition sheet for the meet.
"I'm looking forward to launching a new venture," said Wandishin. "I've worked in Virginia before and have always enjoyed it. It's refreshing to see the enthusiasm behind a harness racing project where the focus is going to be on attracting new fans to the sport."
Wandishin is currently finishing up a stint at Bluegrass Downs in Paducah, Ky.
Dr. Scott Woogen, president of the Virginia Harness Horsemen's Association, commented on the transition of harness racing from Colonial Downs to Shenandoah Downs.
"As a non-profit group, the VEA is in a unique position to move racing forward. All the money generated from live racing, Off Track Betting and advance deposit wagering will be used to create racing opportunities and to promote the sport," said Woogen, who is an active participant in the Billings Amateur Driving Series.
"Colonial Downs was convenient and beautiful, but it was not meant for live harness racing," added Dr. Woogen. "The track was too big and spectators were too far away from the horses. At Shenandoah, fans will be able to see the horses up close, plus the track goes back to the county fair roots of racing. There is significant enthusiasm about this meet from everyone involved."
Tom Eshelman, GM of the Shenandoah County Fair Association, has put together a slate of events at the fairgrounds to complement the fall weekend races and expose those attendees to the harness product. "We've got food and beverage themed festivals planned almost every weekend, where the focus will be on aspects like seafood, chili, craft beer, wine and food trucks., We'll offer race goers an added value to their day too."
For horsemen interested in competing at Shenandoah Downs, stall applications are due by Aug. 8 and are available at http://www.vhha.net/ and at http://www.virginiahorseracing.com/. Up to 150 stalls will be available for horsemen wishing to stable on the grounds. For more information, horsemen can call Mike Wandishin at 302-509-1861.
Woodstock, Va., is located off Interstate 81 at Exit 283, approximately 40 miles north of Harrisonburg and 31 miles south of Winchester. There are plenty of hotels and restaurants directly off the exit and adjacent to the Fairgrounds. The website http://www.shencofair.com/ has more information.