By Cindy Rinker
Strong bodies pull against the weight of the carts behind them. Manes flying, nostrils wide, sucking in as much air as possible, the horses follow behind the moving gate waiting for the moment the wings come in and the race begins.
The crowd roars as the race starts and the horses and drivers head into the first turn, jockeying for position. Twice around the track and the winner crosses the line in front of the grandstand to the cheers of the crowd.
Shenandoah Downs at the Shenandoah County Fairgrounds in Woodstock, VA, is the only harness racing venue in the state of Virginia.
For five weekends – mid- September through mid-October, the racetrack is open to harness racers – primarily from mid-Atlantic states. On this Saturday in September, 188 horses are registered to participate in 25 races on Friday and Saturday at the track which recently received $700,000 in improvements to take on the duty of hosting Shenandoah Downs.
Harness racing has been part of the Shenandoah County Fair for more than 100 years. Many local families have participated in the sport over the years as well. One such family is the Lineweavers. Doris “Dee” Lineweaver has been a trainer and driver since she was in her teens and now is the director of Shenandoah Downs. Her young children, Weston and Maggie, help at the Downs, continuing the tradition by working with the horses in their stalls and taking care of them both before and after the races.
“It has been something our family has been involved in forever,” Dee said, from her seat in a golf cart as she watched the horses fly by in front of her.
When Shenandoah Downs was established four years ago, it was announced as a pari-mutuel track which means that race-goers can place bets on their favorite horses. Pari-mutuel is a betting system in which all bets are placed together in a pool; taxes and the house take are deducted and payoff odds are calculated by sharing the pool among all winning bets for that race. Winnings are awarded to win, place, show and exacta in every race.
No entry or parking fee is charged to people who want to come and watch the races. Typical crowds are full of people of all ages who have come to enjoy this historical sport.
To draw larger crowds, simultaneous events are held at the track on race day. The race on Saturday, Oct. 5, will take place at the same time as Autumnfest, a chamber-sponsored event which will feature whole-hog barbecue, chicken barbecue, 35+ crafters, a wood-splitting competition, music and beer, wine and spirits tasting. There is an entry fee to Autumnfest, but none for the racing. The following weekend will have a Breast Cancer Awareness theme with lots of pink, a silent auction and more.
Dee noted that Shenandoah Downs is sponsored by the Virginia Equine Alliance which is a non-profit association comprised of members from the Virginia Harness Horse Association, the Virginia Horsemen’s Benevolent & Protective Association, the Virginia Gold Cup Association, and the Virginia Thoroughbred Association. The purpose of the Virginia Equine Alliance is to sustain, promote, and expand the horse breeding and horse racing industries in the Commonwealth of Virginia.
The Virginia Breeder’s Championships for two and three-year-old pacers and trotters of both sexes will be held on Sunday Oct. 13 in a special non-betting card. The preliminary Breeder’s races will be held the Sunday prior, on Oct. 6.
Standing outside the barn area where the horses are prepared for racing is fascinating and offers an up-close view of these beautiful racers and all that goes into getting them prepared to run. The horses are excited, waiting for their turn on the track. Their ears are pointed and some paw at the dirt in their stall as their harnesses and tracings are checked for a final time. They will get on the track for a brief trot until it is time for the race to begin.
Each racer pulls up behind a car which has wings sprouting from its sides. Inside, the back has two bucket seats facing the horses. The rear driver has control over the wings and the gas. The front driver does the steering. He increases the speed of the car until the race is ready to begin and he draws in the wings as the driver moves off to one side to let the horses pass.
Shenandoah Downs is a wonderful way to spend the day. Races continue through Oct. 13. Gates open at 1 p.m. with racing starting at 2 and ending around 5 p.m. For more information, go to https://www.facebook.com/Shenandoah-Downs or www.shenandoahdowns.com.
Cindy Earehart Rinker writes for Write Words of Shenandoah County.
Cindy Earehart Rinker is a writer and storyteller with Write Words of Shenandoah County.