WOODSTOCK—Hundreds of fans packed into the grandstand at Shenandoah Downs on Saturday as the five-week race series neared its end.
Temperatures cooled after a brutal summer and the free entertainment with betting options on the side drew out the crowds to enjoy the respite from the heat.
Darrell Wood, director of communications for the Virginia Equine Alliance, said the turnout this year was improved from last year, in part, he said, because they moved one of their two betting race days to Friday evening.
“We were running Saturday and Sunday for the first three years and the Sundays just sort of… the potential seemed limited so we switched Sundays to Fridays,” Wood said. “Normally you have an off day betting-wise whether its bad weather, a lot of stuff going on. We’ve not had that off-day yet.”
Friday night races, along with $1 draft beers and hot dogs, drew fans that were unlikely to come last year, Wood said. Students from James Madison University have made the trip up to Woodstock many times this season to take advantage of the cheap beer and small stakes.
Wood also credited the lack of bad days with a general push by VEA to broaden the fan base for harness racing. A big draw this year was the chance to own a horse for a race and take home its winnings.
“There’s a mystique about owning a horse,” Wood said. “It’s something [like] ‘I could never do that. I could never afford that.’”
James Likens, 49, of Winchester, was one of the lucky owners for a race last week and to his surprise, he took home the top prize of $2,000 when his horse won.
“It was interesting I can tell you that,” Likens said about watching the race with so much on the line. “I shift-traded at work so I could make it down that Saturday. I thought he had a chance to get second or third but I didn’t know he would win it.”
Far from a veteran harness race better, Likens said he used to go watch horse racing in Charleston when he was in high school with his uncles and came to Woodstock with them as well. He said he came down a couple of weekends last year and made three of the four weekends so far this year. Winning last week boosted his enthusiasm for the sport, he said.
Taking home thousands of dollars isn’t the norm, Wood said, but VEA did change some of the prices of its bets this year to make it more accessible for newcomers. Giving people options to put as little as 10 cents on a race has moved the series’ betting handle up across the board over last year, Wood said.
Harness racing in Virginia is sparse. The track at the Shenandoah County Fairgrounds is the only track in the state and it drew fans from New Jersey to Minnesota over the last month. Part of the appeal of Shenandoah Downs, Wood said, is the singular focus on the action in front of fans compared to bigger, glitzier tracks with casinos and video betting attached.
“The neat thing about Woodstock here is it’s one of the few places you can come here and bet and only worry about and enjoy the live races,” Wood said. “All the focus is on the live track.”
As the sport grows and more fans flock to the grounds, VEA might consider sending their races out to other tracks or bringing other races in for fans to bet on. But for now, Wood said, they are working to provide experiences to remember.
“I think there’s a lot of harness fans out there that enjoy the experience,” Wood said. “Just having kind of an old school experience.”