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2020 Race Meet Report

This report was given at the Virginia Race Commission meeting on December 16, 2020

Virginia was very fortunate to be able to have thirteen days of harness racing during September and October of this year. Three days were during the VHHA matinee meet, which replaced the Shenandoah County fair, and ten days during the Shenandoah Downs meet. Both meets were held without spectators and wagering due to Covid related precautions. Luana Murray, who usually oversees the pari mutuel side of the meet, volunteered to take on the duties of overseeing all the Covid procedures and requirements. The VEA and Horsemen followed these strict safety protocols and there were no Covid related issues that materialized during the meet.

The Shenandoah Downs meet was the first harness meet of 2020 that was able to race all the days that were planned and with a special grant from the VEA of $300,000, we were also able to distribute overnight purses and Breeders’ fund purses as planned. Again, something that had not been done at any harness track this year. There were horsemen from twelve different states, plus Canada and even one owner from England who participated. While many of these were our regulars from previous years, some of these were new faces such as Brandy Wine, Jennifer Sansone, Mario Desseureault, Gaston Lareau and Bill Popfinger, who has previously won the prestigious Little Brown Jug, New drivers included established names like John McDonald and Fern Paquet, Jr, who was the driver of the meet. All of these new participants were impressed with our meet and are making plans to return next year. The VEA continues to get enthusiastic feedback about the track which was kept in excellent condition as always, by track superintendent JD Thomas and his staff.

There were a total of 131 races over the ten day meet, including days with 15, 16 & 17 races respectively. No day had less than 10 races and the average number per day was 13. Race secretary, Dee Lineweaver, did an excellent job handling all of them. There was $943,725 in purses paid out, including $363, 575 during the 23rd annual Virginia Breeders’ Championships. The event featured eight divisional finals for two and three year old trotters and pacers of both sexes as well as three Virginia Breeders aged races. Another $17,800 was paid as a $100 stipend to owners of horses that finished, 6th, 7th or 8th.

Ten different novice race callers were given a chance to announce a complete card of harness races. This turned out to be a great PR opportunity and created a lifetime memory for each. The Virginia Breeders Championship day featured a ten year old announce from Pennsylvania and our opening day announcer drove from California to participate in this unique chance. We are now considering bringing back one of the announcers on a permanent basis to be the “voice of Shenandoah Downs.”

Several of the horses that were part of the Virginia Breeders’ races this year, have also competed and won stakes races in Maryland and Delaware. Horse owners Amanda Jackson, Jane Dunavant, Elwood Tignor, Beverly Fletcher and Leon Harris all had success in neighboring states.

Woodstock resident Betsy Brown scored the major accomplishment of her 500th driving win during the matinee meet. 17 year old Maryland high school student, Cole Olsen, got his first driving win ever during the matinee meet.

Heather Vitale came on our opening weekend and did some live social media broadcasts and interviews. This was her second year visiting Shenandoah Heather is a media superstar in the harness world as well as having connections to some of the major horses in our industry. Heather has traveled all over the country, Australia and Ireland visiting tracks and promoting harness racing. She says that Shenandoah Downs is one of the best tracks that she has visited. From our views of the mountains on the track to the welcoming, family atmosphere on the backstretch, there is no better place to race. Heather said that she is often asked about our track as she travels. She feels that Virginia racing and Shenandoah Downs are, to quote her, “becoming buzzwords in the industry.”

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