Shenandoah Downs

Tom Eshelman, general manager of the Shenandoah County Fair, stands inside the former Toms Brook United Methodist Church food stand that is one of several structures being demolished to make way for the new seven-lane banked harness racing track at the fairgrounds. The stage area, in the background on the right, is also being razed as part of the new improvements. Rich Cooley/Daily

WOODSTOCK – This fall Shenandoah Downs will be coming to the Shenandoah County Fairgrounds.

Shenandoah Downs will be the name of the series of harness races taking place at the Shenandoah County Fairgrounds each year on weekends starting the week after the Shenandoah County Fair. The Shenandoah County Fair Association reached a lease agreement with the Virginia Equine Alliance and the Virginia Harness Horseman’s Association to host harness horse racing. The deal is for 20 years.

There will be racing for four or five consecutive weekends after the Shenandoah County Fair this year and then for seven consecutive weekends starting in 2017. The annual races held as part of the Shenandoah County Fair will continue each year.

During the weekends, racing patrons will be able to view and participate in pari-mutuel wagering for approximately eight to 10 races per day, including races from other parts of the country.

Shenandoah County Fair General Manager Tom Eshelman said during a press conference on Thursday that they’re always looking for ways to grow and to hold more and more events on the fairgrounds. He said they hold around 37 events on the fairgrounds and this seemed like another great addition. He said it also helped that they held the Wine and Trotter Festival there last summer.

Tom Eshelman, left, general manager of the Shenandoah County Fair, looks at the stage area on Thursday afternoon with Wilson Ryman, center, a member of the Shenandoah County Fair Board, and Greg Trotto, a member of the board of directors for the Virginia Harness Horseman's Association. Rich Cooley/Daily

“We were only racing four days of the fair, other than that the track was getting used for practice and that was a shame. Something that consumes almost 25 percent of our grounds was only getting used four days a year,” Eshelman said. “So we created the Wine and Trotter Festival. The board embraced it. They loved the idea and I think that was actually one of the gauges that we had down at the Virginia Racing Commission, when we went to meetings. That proved to them that it wasn’t just a county fair. That we could also put on racing at other times. We saw the need of the horseman’s group where we had this incredible harness race track and it just seemed for both entities to come together.”

The Virginia Equine Alliance is investing approximately $700,000 into the Shenandoah County Fair Association track and infrastructure. The track will be widened from 45-55 feet to 65 feet, according to Eshelman. The turns are currently flat but will be banked 6 ½ feet high.

Eshelman said that world-renowned track consultant Greg Coon is overseeing the upgrade. Coon has said that once it is completed, the track should be one of the best half-mile tracks in the country.

Some of the other upgrades include electrical and Internet upgrades, restroom renovations and a permanent motorsports track.

The Virginia Equine Alliance was looking for a place to have harness racing after Colonial Downs in New Kent County shut down a track two years ago. Last year races were held at Oak Ridge Estate in Nelson County, but the alliance wanted a place that could make a bigger commitment.

Greg Trotto

The alliance is a nonprofit organization composed of the Virginia Harness Horseman’s Association, the Virginia Horsemen’s Benevolent & Protective Association, the Virginia Gold Cup Association and the Virginia Thoroughbred Association.

“We’re leasing the grounds, but we feel like Woodstock is or the fair is partners with us, not just a place we’re leasing,” said Greg Trotto, a board member with the horseman’s association. “In the presentation they gave us, we felt like they wanted us as much as we wanted them. … We’re very happy to have Woodstock, and very happy to have stability and harness racing for the next 20 years, and hopefully it’s 100 or longer.”

Trotto said the harness racing will definitely bring commerce to the area. He said that when the trainers and riders come they will be staying here all week each week so they will need a hotel to stay in and a place to eat.

The Virginia Racing Commission still has to approve the license for pari-mutel betting, and Trotto and Eshelman said they expect to try to have it approved sometime in June.

Eshelman said there will be some changes at the Shenandoah County Fair with the renovations, and there were some tough decisions that had to be made.

Clinton Miller

“One of hardest things this board struggled with is we had to ask the United Methodist Men of Church building to be taken down. We offered them the opportunity to come across the track — they’re weighing that, but they won’t be doing it this year,” Eshelman said. “Believe it or not, that was one of our larger struggles – change. We’re a county fair. We’ve been this way for 99 years.”

Eshelman also said that the stage was being torn down, but the Virginia Equine Alliance is going to provide the fair with a rental stage for the next two years. Eshelman said the board will have to decide if it wants to bring back a permanent stage or to keep using a temporary mobile stage.

Also, a 600-foot long, 60-foot wide track for the tractor pull and the demolition derby will be built. Eshelman said all of the new renovations now open up a lot of different possibilities and events that can be held there. He said that instead of having concerts on Friday and Saturday of the Shenandoah County Fair they will have a rodeo on Friday and a monster truck show in Saturday.

He said they will also be able to hold other events throughout the year there.

“We’re going to have a flat infield. It’s going to present opportunities, maybe for circuses to come in and operate out of our infield,” Eshelman said. “We’re going to have better lighting, better electricals. It’s a win-win for the facility.”

Trotto said that he expects the horses to go at least 10 seconds faster with the new, improved track. There’s expected to be seven or eight lanes with the widening of the track.

Clinton Miller, a commissioner with the Virginia Racing Commission and a Woodstock resident, said that he expects the quality of the races for the Shenandoah County Fair to improve as well.

“Once the track is put into place you’ll have this track – that’s a state of the art track by the time it’s finished. The races for the fair will be even better,” Miller said. “You’ll have better racing. You’ll have better horses coming to the fair. In fact, if this works out as we envision it, the racing that takes place for the fair, you might have some of the people that are going to be racing (after the fair) come in earlier. Those horses you would assume would be top-notch pacers and trotters.”

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