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Fair's harness racing evokes memories of bygone era

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Betsy Brown of Woodstock stand beside Western Albert outside the clubhouse at the Shenandoah County Fairgrounds. Western Albert is one of four horses she owns that will be participating in the harness racing at the fairgrounds that starts today and continues through Saturday. Rich Cooley/Daily

By Joe Beck -- jbeck@nvdaily.com

Betsy Brown didn't have to travel far to enter her horses in four days of trotting races at the Shenandoah County Fair this year.

She lives only a mile down the road from the track, a place she takes her horses throughout the year for workouts. She doesn't call it a home track advantage for the race, but readily admits the obvious convenience for training her horses.

"I just bring them in to exercise them in the morning and bring them back to the field later. It keeps them really happy," she said.

Brown counts her move from a Maryland suburb of Washington, D.C. to Woodstock two years ago as a great stroke of luck for herself and her horses.

"You just can't beat Woodstock," she said. "The people, the scenery, it's the best."

The horses and drivers who line up Wednesday for the first race are the last remnants of a sport that was once a big attraction at county fairs rural Virginia. Brown said Woodstock is the only place in the state this year where people can still see county fair harness racing.

Her history with racing goes back to a childhood in upstate New York where her family raised horses on a dairy farm. Training horses is all she has been doing ever since, along with owning and driving them in races as she grew older.

Purses vary according to the track. Tracks at casinos can offer as much $12,000 with half going to the winner, she said, but county fairs typically offer a little more than $1,000, she said.

Brown explains her dedication to harness racing as a passion that runs deeper than making money.

"It's usually feast or famine," Brown said. "You have to love it because it's a lot of work and not a lot of cash, but it's in your blood. It's all I ever wanted to do."

Harness racing requires horses to pull a two-wheeled cart at a gait categorized as either a trot or a pace. Trotting means a horse's legs move ahead as diagonal pairs - the right front and left hind, and then left front and right hind landing on the ground at the same time. A pacer's legs move laterally with the right front and right hind leg together and then the left front and left hind.

Brown and her horses will be joined in the races by other trainers, owners and riders from around Virginia and elsewhere, several of whom were relaxing Tuesday in the shady areas around the horse stables just outside the track.

Roland Offutt of Gettysburg, Pa. said he has vivid memories of the first time he took the reins in a harness race at the county fair in 1962. He won both races and has been returning intermittently ever since.

Offutt said he last participated in the races as an owner about 15 years ago. Nowadays he visits as a farrier, an expert in caring for horse hooves whose work typically involves trimming and balancing hooves and attaching shoes.

Offutt said he enjoys the fair experience for the opportunity it offers to renew old friendships and acquaintances.

"It's more like a family because I've been racing with all these people," he said.

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