Harness races to feature free admission in 2017

The Shenandoah Valley-Herald

WOODSTOCK — The second season of pari-mutuel harness racing in Shenandoah County will feature free admission to all races.

The five-weekend racing season at Shenandoah Downs at the Woodstock fairgrounds runs from Sept. 16 through Oct. 15. Each Saturday and Sunday will feature five races, with the starting gun firing at 1 p.m. on both days.

The shift in admission marks a change from 2016’s inaugural season, when all spectators had to pay an entry fee that varied depending on which coinciding festival was being held at the fairgrounds that weekend, regardless of whether they attended the festival.

The new admission policy will allow spectators uninterested in festivals to get into the races for free, according to Darrell Wood, communications director for the Virginia Equine Alliance, which organizes the races.

“It was goofy last year,” he said. “You had to pay whatever the upcharge was for that particular festival. I think some people stayed away knowing that there was that upcharge.”

Admission will still be charged for races held during the Shenandoah County Fair, Eshelman said.

This year’s festivals include the Hops ‘n Hooves Craft Beer and Chili Festival on Sept. 16, the Food Truck Festival on Sept. 23, the Wine and Trotter Festival on Sept. 30, Seafest on Oct. 7 and Autumnfest on Oct. 14.

The food truck and seafood festivals will have free admission, while the other events will charge as-yet-unannounced entry fees, Tom Eshelman, the fair’s general manager, said on Monday.

The VEA signed a 20-year lease with the fairgrounds to hold harness races in March 2016. This year’s total purse amount will be about the same as the $400,000 awarded in 2016, Wood said.

The VEA hopes that this year’s attendance exceeds the 3,000 spectators who filled the stands for the inaugural season, he said.

“We hope to make things more enjoyable, because we’re in for the long haul,” he said.

Another difference from 2016 is that the season kicks off two weeks after the county fair instead of one week like last year, which gives fairgrounds staff more time to prepare the track and grandstand for racers and spectators.

“We had this big fair that we spend weeks getting ready for, and then we had to clean up and turn it around in two days,” Eshelman said. “That about killed us.”

This year’s fair runs from Aug. 25 through Sept. 2.

Besides providing more prep time, pushing the season back a week allows the VEA and fairgrounds to add Autumnfest, the county Chamber of Commerce’s annual fundraising event, to the race calendar.

“That will give us a built-in crowd of a couple thousand people, and we’re going to actively market to those people,” Wood said.

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