It’s time to place your bets: Legal wagering on harness racing returns to fairgrounds

Laury Fendek and her husband Marty, of Arlington, sit inside the grandstand during the Shenandoah Downs harness racing event on Saturday. Laury Fendek has a ritual of placing her betting ticket in her shoe. Rich Cooley/Daily

For the first time in 100 years, a crowd of an estimated 700-plus was allowed to legally place bets Saturday on 10 harness races circling a recently renovated half-mile racetrack on the Shenandoah County Fairgrounds.

There were racetrack novices like Jamie Koontz, 57, a deputy sheriff who arrived early “to see what it’s all about and support the community and fair more than anything else.”

The first 500 arrivals were treated to a free $2 betting voucher and Koontz said he would use it “but I don’t know what I will do after that.”

Experienced bettors also showed up, like Marty Sendeck of Arlington, who said, “I paid for law school betting on harness racing at Brandywine (Raceway in Wilmington, Delaware). This is now the only place to bet harness racing in Virginia.”

It was an historic day, occurring in the 100th year after the Shenandoah County Fair was launched (one year was skipped during WW II) and following 98 years of non-betting harness races, said Tom Eschelman, general manager of the Shenandoah County Fair.

Harness drivers round the turn during an opening race in September at Shenandoah Downs at the Woodstock Fairgrounds. Rich Cooley/Daily

The enthusiastic crowd appeared to be divided with “one-half local but a lot of people from neighboring towns and cities; West Virginia and Maryland,” said Eschelman, who has theme events scheduled for racing weekends. This past weekend was a Food Truck Festival and next weekend will be Hot Rod Cruisers of Front Royal.

“The local community will benefit through growth in weekend tourism along with increased hotel and restaurant business,” he noted earlier.

Betting started at noon, half an hour before the ribbon cutting and an hour before the first race.

Clinton Miller, of Woodstock, one of five members of Virginia’s Racing Commission, proudly set the stage at the ribbon cutting, proclaiming, “Shenandoah Downs is going to be the home of harness racing in Virginia.”

In the foyer beneath the grandstand, six live tellers accepted bets while other participants placed wagers in 11 self-betting machines.

Robert Click takes a drink of water while his wife Sandy reads her race program. Rich Cooley/Daily

One of the first bettors was George W Cook, 51, a self-proclaimed wannabe preacher from Manassas who won $250 on his $100 bet, having said, “Even if it’s a sin, you’re covered when you ask for forgiveness, right?”

Sendeck, 56, and his wife Laury, 51, settled in early accompanied by two neighbors. His first wagers totaled $16, which he said was “more than he normally bet.”

For luck, Laury, betting more conservatively, put their vouchers in her shoe.

After not cashing any ticket for the first seven races, he finally won betting in the last three, essentially breaking even, while Laury won a small amount.

“It was a great day,” he said. “It was an opportunity for a fun weekend with friends and to support harness racing. We will be back next year.”

Harness drivers pass the grandstand during the first race at Shenandoah Downs last year. The second season of harness racing at Shenandoah Downs begins Sept. 16. Rich Cooley/Daily file

Corey Ford, 38, of Winchester, and his wife Shannon and their two young boys came “for a fun family event. It’s something to do besides watch TV. The boys love horses,” the adult Fords said.

In every race bettors loudly urged their horses on and, despite enervating heat, the good-natured crowd even cheered when a final contestant, left far behind, finally reached the finish line bathed in sweat as if he had contested for the win.

The experience gap included Gene Lachance, 70, a former Quebec, Canada, harness horse trainer who now lives in Aylett, Virginia, who began the day winning $54 on a $20 bet, because he said, “I know how to read the program.”

John Davis, 52, of Dayton, who works in auto restoration, said he came on a whim and only placed $2 bets, “just having fun in a competition with my wife,” and despite losing $20 at the end of the day, he said he would return, as did Lachance.

Horse owners and harness racing drivers (they are not jockeys) who participated in the inaugural races came from Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Florida, South Carolina, Maryland, New Jersey, Mississippi and Illinois.

Allen Moomaw, right, of Orkney Springs, has Audrey Wilson, left, a teller for the Virginia Racing Commission, help him place a bet during the first pari-mutuel harness racing event held at the Shenandoah County Fairgrounds on Saturday. Rich Cooley/Daily

Races were for trotters and pacers (referring to the horse’s gait) with more than 20 drivers, most riding in multiple races.

Competing most often (5 races) was Dr. Scott Woogen, president of Virginia Harness Horse Racing and a still practicing gastroenterologist from Richmond who was exhausted afterward but exulted, “It was fun. I think this will be a very, very successful track. The fans are close to the action and can see every bit of it.”

Traveling down late Friday night to race Saturday was Tyler Stillings, who has a stable of 35 horses at Freehold, New Jersey, |and races frequently at The Meadows in Washington, Pennsylvania.

At age 43, he has followed his uncle in harness racing for the past 25 years and praised Shenandoah Downs’ racing surface, the banked turns and the enthusiastic and supportive crowd.

“They even cheered on the first pass (by the grandstand), it gave me goose bumps,” he said. Earlier, he said his finance “was cheering and we didn’t even have a horse in the race.”

Gene Lachance, of Aylett, Virginia, looks over his racing program during the first day of Shenandoah Downs harness racing on Saturday. Rich Cooley/Daily

Stillings – who came in second in one race and won another -said he made the trip, “to help them get jump started and I wanted to see how the new track runs. It’s an easy place to come to and very accommodating.”

The $700,000 track upgrade and widening now allows eight sulkies to race side by side.

Also praising the track was Betsy Brown, 57, of Woodstock, who has been training and driving in harness racing since 1979 and had six horses she trained in the racing program.

Following the 10 betting races, four non-betting championship races were held for Virginia-bred harness racing horses that have competed at racetracks in other states.

There are 63 tracks conducting harness racing in the U.S. and Canada – and now Shenandaoh Downs makes 64.

Contact Tom Crosby at news@nvdaily.com

Betting on Virginia horse races

By Tom Crosby

Pari-mutuel betting on races is allowed in Virginia under state law when approved by the five-member Virginia Racing Commission.

The racing must be overseen by a tax-exempt, nonprofit organization and may only race 14 days a year. It can be authorized without public referendum.

The commission earlier this year approved Shenandoah Downs holding betting races totaling 14 or fewer days annually under a 20-year lease, renewal every five years, making it the only pari-mutuel betting harness racing track in the state.

The Virginia Equine Association, which runs the racing operation, is a 501 (C)(4), and was formed in 2014 to support horse racing and breeding in Virginia.

In pari-mutuel races, the racing organization takes 20 percent of the money wagered and the remaining 80 percent is dividing among all the betters who hold winning tickets.

The 20 percent is then divided among several entities, including the racetrack, the purse fund, the breeders fund, and the Virginia Racing Commission to support their race oversight costs.

“The future (for Virginia horse racing) was looking bleak when Colonial Downs closed (in 2014),” said Clinton Miller, of Woodstock, a member of the Virginia Racing Commission.

“Everyone wanted a more permanent home,” said Miller. “Shenandoah and Amherst County were the finalists.”

While betting and harness racing is held on 63 tracks in the U.S. and Canada, according to the Internet, the only regular betting allowed in Virginia in the past two years was at Gold Cup events held on two separate days in Warrenton for flat (thoroughbreds) and steeplechase races.

“The number of Virginia bred horses has declined, partly due to concerns about the future of harness racing in the state,” said Jeb Hannum, executive director of the Virginia Equine Association.

“There has been a feeling of uncertainty and instability the last couple of years and I hope this racetrack changes that path today,” he said.

Shenandoah Downs on Saturday became the only betting track in the state for harness racing.

Drivers round the turn before the final line at Shenandoah Downs during a Saturday race in September. Rich Cooley/Daily

Mike Barrett, of Woodbridge, looks through his binoculars at harness drivers during Shenandoah Downs racing. Rich Cooley/Daily

I. Clinton Miller, of Woodstock, a commissioner for the Virginia Racing Commission, speaks during the opening ceremonies for the Shenandoah Downs Racing event Saturday at the Shenandoah County Fairgrounds. Rich Cooley/Daily

Dorothy Racey, of Edinburg, places her bet with the self-service machine under the grandstand. Rich Cooley/Daily

Del. Michael J. Webert, left, and I. Clinton Miller, right, a commissioner for the Virginia Racing Commission, cut the ribbon for the start of the Shenandoah Downs racing season. Rich Cooley/Daily