Admission Will Be Free To The Harness Races At Shenandoah Downs This Fall

The following appeared in the Northern Virginia Daily on June 25th. It was written by Tommy Keeler.

The second season of pari-mutuel harness racing at Shenandoah Downs, the harness racing track located at the Shenandoah County Fairgrounds, starts on Sept. 16, and there will be one big change this year. Admission to the racing will be free.

Last year there was a charge to get onto the grounds that also included different festivals that were going on at the same time.

“You learn from your first experience,” said Darrell Wood, communications director for the Virginia Equine Alliance. “We’re going to have a free admission and free parking policy. We had free parking last year. (Shenandoah County Fair General Manager) Tom (Eshelman) does a number of events on the weekends, and so what we’re going to do is that people that just want to come to the races will get admission for free. And if they want to do the wine festival or beer festival they can pay the upcharge instead of paying for the festival to just get onto the grounds to just see racing.”

Harness drivers pass the grandstand during the first race at Shenandoah Downs last September. Photo by Rich Cooley/NOVA Daily

Sept. 16 is the first weekend of harness racing at Shenandoah Downs and there will be five consecutive weekends of racing. With each weekend there will also be a festival held at Shenandoah County fairgrounds. Eshelman said unlike last year, the festivals will only be held on Saturday but the racing will be both Saturday and Sunday each weekend.

Hops ‘n Hooves, a craft beer tasting event, will be held at the fairgrounds on Sept 16. On Sept. 23 is the Food Truck Festival, followed by the Wine & Trotter Festival (Sept. 30), Seafood Festival (Oct. 7) and Autumnfest (Oct. 14).

Eshelman said that the Autumn Festival, which includes live music and log-splitting competitions, will be put on by the Shenandoah County Chamber. He said the Kansas City Barbeque Society will be there on Oct. 14 as well with over 40 competitors in their event. He said that the Food Truck Festival and Seafood Festivals are free for everyone, except the food that the patrons buy. For the Hops ‘n Hooves and the Wine & Trotter Festival there will be an arm band that patrons can buy to go to those events.

Last year was the first year for Shenandoah Downs, after a nearly $800,000 renovation was done to the track. Last March the Shenandoah County Fair reached a 20-year agreement with VEA and the Virginia Harness Horseman’s Association to lease the fairgrounds.

Wood said that with last year being the first year they weren’t sure what to expect, and he said they were a little worried they wouldn’t have enough interest to fill up all the races for the five weekends. He said that after the first weekend of racing those concerns disappeared.

“There was so many positive comments from horsemen about how nice the track was and everything else and how nice the whole setting was,” Wood said. “We started getting interest from horsemen in neighboring states and that really helped fill races the second, third, fourth and fifth weekends. It was really not just in Woodstock and the Shenandoah Valley creating a presence for fans but it was also creating more of a regional and national interest in Shenandoah Downs to try to recruit horsemen to race at that track over the five weeks.”

There will be the usual harness racing held at the Shenandoah County Fair from Aug. 30-Sept 2. It is the 100th anniversary of the Shenandoah County Fair. The featured fair event is the Virginia Breeders prep and elimination for the 2- and 3-year old pacers and trotters of both sexes on Sept. 2.

The estimated $400,000 championship for each division will occur during the Shenandoah Downs meet itself. The 2 year old finals are scheduled for Sept. 16, while the 3 year old finals are scheduled to be held on Sept. 24. A total of eight divisional titles will be up for grabs over the two weekends.

Eshelman said they did the same thing last year, where they hold races during the fair that qualify horses into Shenandoah Downs.

“This way it provides a little higher quality race from the standpoint there’s meaning to it in addition to winning purse money,” Eshelman said. “Our purse money is nowhere near what they offer the five weeks of Shenandoah Downs.”

Last year there was only a week between the Shenandoah County Fair and the harness racing at Shenandoah Downs. This year there will be two weeks in between. Wood said that it will be nice to give everyone that extra week to have a breather from the racing.

“I think we’re a little bit more excited about that,” Wood said of the change. “That we can get people a breather. Get back into the post Labor Day, back to work, back to school type schedules. And then come Sept. 16, hopefully we’ll be starting fresh.”