Shenandoah Downs Harness Racing Will Happen Without Spectators

The following appeared in the Northern Virginia Daily on August 19 and was written by Tommy Keeler Jr. . Two meets will be held at the Shenandoah County Fairgrounds in Woodstock in the coming days. A “VHHA Matinee Meet” will be held Sept. 2-4, and the traditional Shenandoah Downs meet will be held Sept. 18-Oct. 17 . Both will be spectator-free.

There will still be harness racing at the Shenandoah County Fairgrounds this year but there will be no fans or wagering this year.

The Shenandoah County Fair, which was canceled last month, will have racing on Sept. 2, 3, and 4. Those races will be used as qualifiers for the Shenandoah Downs races, which are still scheduled for each weekend from Sept. 18-Oct. 17.

Shenandoah County Fair General Manager Tom Eshelman said that due to all of the COVID-19 precautions they felt it was best to not have spectators.

Only horsemen and essential racing personnel will be allowed on the grounds during the harness racing meets this year. Photo by Rich Cooley of the Northern Virginia Daily.

“They’re keeping it low key,” Eshelman said. “They wanted to open it to the public but ultimately there’s just some crazy stuff going on out there. You don’t know from week-to-week what’s going to happen. Once you plan something and then the rules change. They kind of decided to keep it low key and manage it.”

Last weekend Colonial Downs, located in New Kent, canceled the remainder of its racing schedule due to multiple COVID-19 cases.

Eshelman said that the harness racers have held meetings and have done their due diligence as far as precautions they would need to take due to the pandemic. Eshleman said that it’s important for the harness racing industry to try to have an event like Shenandoah Downs.

“They’re racing for the racing industry, quite frankly, the trainers and the owners,” Eshelman said. “Fortunately, there’s some purse money out there and they’re needing that to keep up their craft. It’s expensive to do what they do. So they’re going to go ahead and race, so there’s the opportunity to have some race winnings to keep them going and functioning and keep the sport alive.”

The races on Sept. 2-4 will start at 2 p.m. but will not be simulcast anywhere. Eshelman said that there has been some talk about simulcasting the Shenandoah Downs races that will be run every weekend from Sept. 18-Oct. 17, but that nothing has been decided yet. Those races will also start at 2 p.m.

Eshelman said that while there will not be spectators for the Shenandoah Downs races, fans could get the chance to announce a race card. They are looking for 10 fans to announce races on Friday and Saturday each weekend. Each fan would announce one day’s worth of races, which are generally 10 races.

12-year-old Morgan Marston, a 7th grader at Peter Muhlenberg Middle School in Woodstock, will call races on Friday October 2. On the following day, 10-year-old Dylan Dougherty will handle announcing duties.

According to a news release, it doesn’t matter if the fans have experience with announcing or not. The announcer will be situated near two judges, a chart caller and a camera operator in the “crow’s nest” overlooking the start/finish line.

Anyone interested can contact Darrell Wood, the communication director for the Virginia Equine Alliance, by email at

“We’re not going to throw anybody to the wolves,” Wood stated in a news release. “We’ll give each race caller an introductory chalk talk, make sure they have a comfort level and check in periodically, but otherwise they will be on their own.”

The idea to have fans announce came from Eshelman at one of the meetings recently held about the event.

“We were talking about announcers and with the expenses,” he said. “Obviously, everybody when they’re putting something on, we’re trying to save money and keep expenses down. There really wasn’t going to be a public there that really needs valuable precise information. …So it’s a cool opportunity to call some racing. I’m excited about it.”

Eshelman said that it’s a great opportunity for someone who wants to do that as a career and it could prove beneficial for the track down the road.

“I wish the public could hear it, but for all we know we may gain a new announcer for next year,” Eshleman said.

– Contact Tommy Keeler Jr. at