They’re almost at post: Deal will bring racing, betting to Woodstock

Harness racers make their way along the clubhouse turn in a race at the Shenandoah County Fair last year. A deal is in the works to bring more harness racing - and parimutuel betting - to Woodstock. Rich Cooley/Daily file

Two organizations and the Shenandoah County Fairgrounds are close to finalizing a five-year deal that will make Woodstock the home of Virginia’s only harness racing track that will have parimutuel betting.

The Virginia Equine Alliance and the Virginia Harness Horse Association are working with the Shenandoah County Fairgrounds to bring harness racing to the county seat. Iain Woolnough, VHHA executive secretary, said Thursday that Virginians could start betting on the races as early as this fall.

“I got the draft just now from the VEA. We’re reviewing that to see if there are changes or questions that we have on it. …I think this thing’s going to go through within the next week,” Woolnough said of the deal with the Shenandoah County Fair Association.

Tom Eshelman, general manager of the Shenandoah County Fair, said he couldn’t comment on the deal. He did confirm negotiations are underway with the two organizations.

Woolnough said the organizations started holding harness racing at Colonial downs in New Kent County when that track opened in 1997, but two years ago racing was halted there and they had to look elsewhere.

Last October they held races over four days at Oak Ridge Estate, located in Nelson County. Woolnough noted that after those races they began seeking a more permanent home where they could sign a long-term deal. He said Oak Ridge Estate hosts a lot of other events and that make it tough to race there.

Shenandoah County has had harness racing as part of the Shenandoah County Fair for many years, and Woolnough said it seemed like it would be a good fit for the VHHA and VEA. Eshelman did confirm that harness racing will be held during the fair this year as it has in the past.

Woolnough said they are hoping to run races in September and October and that they hope to have races for eight days starting this fall, but that has not yet been approved by the racing commission.

“With the Shenandoah County Fair, we’ve raced there before,” Woolnough said. “We’re in the process of signing a long-term lease for the place for those dates (in the fall). I think it’s a win-win for everybody.”

Woolnough said they will be making some renovations to the track and that they would pay for it.

“We have the Coon’s Brothers from Kentucky who are the experts on a race track such as that, and the track is in the process of being laid out. It’s going to be wider — enough to start eight horses across.”

Woolnough said that if they would have went somewhere else they would have had to build a new race track, which would have been more expensive.

He said harness racing would be a good boost for the local economy, bringing in more money to hotels and restaurants, and that he he hopes the public will come out to watch the races.

“It’s entertainment,” Woolnough said. “That’s what we are. We’re in the entertainment business for the general public.”

Woolnough said that standardbred horses can race more often than thoroughbreds.

“They are one tough breed,” Woolnough said of horses that run in harness races. “With a thoroughbred 14 days, as far as I’m concerned, is the minimum between races. And in the standardbred’s you can race twice a week.”

He said that the horses and jockeys will come from all over, such as Michigan, Delaware and Ohio.

Woolnough said that he would like to see the races grow over the next few years, and to be able to have more races held in the coming years. He said a lot of that depends on how much gambling is done.

“Not as much as we would like,” Woolough said when asked how much betting is done on harness racing. “The betting generates the handle. The percentage of that goes into the purse accounts, which is what the horses race for. We would like it to be more, but you’ve got to learn to walk before you run. These are new people in Virginia. We’re trying to get the younger people involved. There’s an awful lot of competition around, but we’re doing well.”

Contact staff writer Tommy Keeler at 540-465-5137 ext. 168, or tkeeler@nvdaily.com