Even though horses won’t be competing in Shenandoah County Fair harness races until August 28th — and later in September and October during the Shenandoah Downs racing season — horses were on the track last week, but for a different purpose. The Harness Horse Youth Foundation (HHYF) rolled into town, complete with truck, trailer and five horses, and hosted a day camp for kids on July 8th and 10th in partnership with the Virginia Harness Horse Association.
Area youth got a unique opportunity to learn about the sport of harness racing not just in the stable/barn area, but on the track itself sitting in double seater sulkies and guiding horses around the half mile oval.
Ellen Taylor heads up the HHYF program and brings a stable of five Trottingbreds with her to each stop on the summer tour. This year’s trek includes visits to 14 different tracks and farms including The Meadowlands, Harrington Raceway, The Downs at Mohegan Sun, the Goshen Historic track and of course, Shenandoah Downs.
“The industry needs this,” said Taylor during her recent Woodstock visit. She, along with assistant Katie Eick, educated a dozen kids Monday ages 10 and up on how to feed and care for a horse and how to put on a harness. They went over all the pieces of equipment that go on a horse, in detail and in order. After lunch, activity shifted from the barn to the racetrack itself where one by one, participants sat next to a an experienced trainer and took a couple laps around the half mile oval.
“Humans may be the conduits, but horses are the true teachers,” said Taylor, who has directed the HHYF program sine 1990. “Up to 70 percent of the participants in the day camp program are not from racing families. Our hope is that some day in the future when they drive by a racetrack, they’ll remember their experience here, pull into the racetrack and have a great time with their family and friends.”
Taylor points out that some graduates of the HHYF program have gone on to careers in harness racing at the highest level. This month, 28-year-old driver Montrell Teague became the second person in history to drive a horse to victory in a time of 1:46.0. He won the 2015 Dan Patch Rising Star award after capturing the Little Brown Jug and Meadowlands Pace aboard the iconic Wiggle It Jiggleit. Dave Brower, another former camper, went on to become an oddsmaker, handicapper and TV show host at The Meadowlands for 20 years.
“If we provide the opportunity to expose and educate harness racing to potential new fans, then we’ve achieved an important goal. It is extremely gratifying to see a young person develop an interest to the extent they become active in the business.”