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Grand implosion

Charles Town racetrack grandstand comes down

Charles Town racetrack grandstand comes down

June 15, 2006|by DAVE McMILLION

CHARLES TOWN, W.VA.

The willow trees that gracefully lined one turn of the track?

Gone.

The rose bushes that used to be planted around the property?

Gone.

The water fountains that once welcomed patrons to one of the first tracks in the country to have nighttime horse racing?

Gone.

Those visions of Shenandoah Downs racetrack, closed since 1979, have been history for some time, but they were on the minds of many Wednesday as one of the last vestiges of the thoroughbred track fell by the wayside.

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At about 1:30 p.m., 80 pounds of dynamite was detonated in the track's grandstand, causing the massive seating facility to slowly bend to the ground and collapse in a cloud of dust.

Officials with Charles Town Races & Slots, which owns the property off Fifth Avenue, said last year they were going to tear down the grandstand and nine horse barns at the old track to make room for more development at the site.

The last of the barns was razed about three weeks ago, track officials said.

The grandstand will be cut into sections and hauled away, and the site is expected to be cleaned up by the end of summer, said Roger Ramey, spokesman for Charles Town Races & Slots.

"I spent many a day over there," said Dickie Moore, part of a group of track workers and others who watched the grandstand fall.

"It was a beautiful place in its time," said Moore, general manager of racing at Charles Town Races & Slots.

Shenandoah Downs opened in 1959 and competed with what was then Charles Town Races, according to local history on the track. It closed in 1976. In 1978, the Kenton Corp. bought both tracks and reopened Shenandoah Downs. It closed a year later.

Horse owners, jockeys and other people who worked at Shenandoah Downs reminisced about the track as they watched the grandstand being razed.

They said it had a distinct southern look with water fountains, rose bushes that were planted throughout the property and willow trees that took root along one of the track's turns.

Bill Fritts of Inwood, W.Va., said he worked in the valet parking area at Shenandoah Downs for about two years and remembered the track's night racing. It was the first track in the country to have night racing, according to Ann Hilton, who has collected history about the two tracks.

"It was kind of unique because it was the first time I ever saw horses run at night. They always had great crowds here, especially on holidays and weekends," said Fritts.

The recently published book, "Images of America, Charles Town," shows photographs of Shenandoah Downs, including former Gov. Cecil Underwood cutting a ribbon at the new track. Jefferson County was considered unique because it had two horse tracks and there was a joke that there were more horses than people in Charles Town, according to the book.

"It's very nostalgic. Memories galore," Tony Bencivenga said as he watched workers prepare for Wednesday's blast.

Bencivenga said he ran his last horse race at Shenandoah Downs in 1963 and raced there for about two years.

Those gathered said it was sad to see the grandstand go down, and Bencivenga said he wonders why it had to be torn down.

Moore said security operations were removed from the grandstand in the 1980s and people began vandalizing it by breaking windows and stealing valuable materials like copper.

Moore said there was never an interest in refurbishing it.

"I think after it was vandalized, it was too far gone inside," Moore said.

Starting in 1993 and lasting for several years, the site became home for an annual music festival known as Lollapalooza. One year, the crowd topped 40,000.

Track officials said Wednesday they do not have any immediate plans for the site.

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