First harness racing weekend a ‘huge success’

The Shenandoah Valley-Herald

WOODSTOCK — The first state-sanctioned harness races at Shenandoah Downs were a success, with more races expected at the Woodstock track during the coming weeks, according to officials.

Darrell Wood, communications director of the Virginia Equine Alliance, said 750 people attended the first day of racing on Sept. 10, with 400 attending on Sept. 11.

He added that 97 horses ran in 14 races during opening weekend. Final betting numbers weren’t yet available.

State, county and local officials cut the ribbon on the race track at the Shenandoah County Fairgrounds before the first race on Sept. 10. Tom Eshelman, the fairgrounds’ general manager, said attendance exceeded expectations and the county reaped the benefits.

“We had very good reservation numbers at the hotels,” he said, “and restaurants reported they were busier than normal. It had the impact we were hoping for.”

Parimutuel betting races will be held at the track every weekend through Oct. 9.

In March, the VEA signed a 20-year lease to hold races at Shenandoah Downs. The group spent $700,000 to renovate the venue this year, including widening the track and refurbishing bathrooms.

Wood credited the renovations with making the track an improvement over Colonial Downs, the state’s previous horse racing venue in New Kent County.

“Racers loved the surface of the track, but spectators watched the races through binoculars or a video screen,” he said. “Here, you are literally on top of the action.”

Word of opening weekend’s success is spreading to racers and horse enthusiasts across the state, Wood said, which could attract more business.

“Horsemen are hearing about how good the race track was and how good the vibe was,” he said. “The guys who raced here are telling their friends, ‘This is cool. Come race here.’ There will definitely be an increase in the number of horses.”

To attract more traffic to Woodstock, VEA officials hope to establish two off-site betting centers in the Richmond area this year and one near Hampton Roads in 2017.

The VEA and the Virginia Harness Horse Association are also tracking spectator behavior to improve next year’s races.

“We’re trying to see what’s the best way of going about it,” he said, “including the time of day we’re holding races and whether using methods like having a wine festival or a chili and microbrew festival attract different audiences.”

Wood said horse racing officials are “incredibly excited” to see what the future holds for Shenandoah Downs.

“The fans seem to appreciate the effort breeders and horsemen put into getting horses to the track, where before it may have been just about the betting,” he said. “It’s a unique environment.”

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