Aidan Turnage-Barney wants Virginia to be for lovers of horse racing

by Chris Lomon

Aidan Turnage-Barney always treasures the moment when he sees the smiles grow wider and wider.

It is a scene he has witnessed, first-hand, dozens of times, and will no doubt view countless times in the future. While reactions are nearly identical, Turnage-Barney will never grow tired of watching them unfold.

“My biggest enjoyment is having a new fan come to the track and see them really get it,” Turnage-Barney said. “Whether it’s at Colonial [Downs] or Shenandoah [Downs], taking people to the backside where they can see the horses up close, I find there is always a moment where they get it, they understand what makes our sport so great. To me, it’s the click of them understanding why we all love it so much and why we do it.”

The 24-year-old, who currently holds the reins of marketing and racing operations assistant for the Virginia Equine Alliance and field director for the VHBPA, can certainly relate.

He was once that kid; and still very much is.

“My journey at the racetrack started when I was little,” he said. “I have family down in Virginia and my uncle used to work at Colonial Downs as a host, taking people around for tours and things like that. I grew up going to the races — this is when Colonial had both thoroughbred and standardbred racing — and I loved it all.

“Growing up and going to school — I was a Recreation Management Major at Lock Haven University [in Pennsylvania] — I always loved going to the races. I made a point of trying to get to Colonial Downs every time I was in Virginia.”

Hired as an intern at VHBPA two years ago, Turnage-Barney’s unabashed enthusiasm for the sport is unmistakable.

He has already made significant contributions to the Virginia horse racing industry.

Turnage-Barney, who covers the nine-week summer thoroughbred meet at Colonial Downs, also helps in all departments at the spring and fall Shenandoah Downs harness meets in Woodstock.

“I started working as an intern for the VHBPA,” he said. “I worked for the thoroughbred horsemen’s group at Colonial Downs for that first summer. I fell in love with it right away. Getting to work on the backstretch and meeting so many people, seeing how people — grooms, hotwalkers, trainers — work so hard to get the horses ready to run. It was important for me to see that.

“After I graduated, Darrell Wood offered me the opportunity to come work as a full-time VEA employee. Being involved with the racing at Shenandoah Downs and continuing my work with Colonial, and then everything in-between in the off-season; it keeps me busy.”

All the experiences helped further his passion for the sport and its equine athletes and spurred his dedication to attract more people to the racing offerings in Virginia.

Turnage-Barney would love to see more people in his demographic coming to the racetrack.

“I never understood why it was never a bigger draw for people in my age group,” Turnage-Barney said. “When I was in college, sports wagering was always such a big thing with kids my age. I got obsessed with this idea of getting younger people to go to the races and wagering.”

He would also like to see Virginia horse people earn more recognition for what they do.

“It stuns me every day that there are these people in horse racing who spend their whole lives dedicated to this sport and their craft,” he said. “What they do is magnificent.

“To me, it’s all about spreading the awareness of what goes on in the backstretch. People don’t realize all the effort and commitment that goes into putting on great racing. I know that energy and I have been sharing that ever since.”

Turnage-Barney is also proud to share, unprompted, how he feels about his roles in racing.

What is the best part of his job?

“I tell my friends all the time that I have the best job in the world,” he said. “It’s never the same day twice. One day, I’m in Woodstock getting miniature horses ready for a special race at Shenandoah, and the next day, I am in a horsemen’s meeting.

“I get to be all over the place and see the sport from so many different viewpoints. I soak it all in and try to be the biggest benefit I can to horse racing in Virginia.”

It means a lot of time on the road and meeting a lot of people throughout the week.

“One of the things I do for both breeds is to go around to all the farms to make sure the horses are where they are supposed to be, in order for them to be eligible for our certified programs,” Turnage-Barney said. “I have days where I hop in my pickup truck and drive around Virginia to talk to the farmers and horsemen and do whatever I can do to help them and encourage them to bring more of their horses to the racetracks in our state.

“I love everything I do every day. I’m busy, but I like to be busy. The biggest challenge is that I am always moving, but it’s not a challenge because I enjoy it so much.”

Don’t expect his enthusiasm to wane.

“The thing I think is so unique about Virginia horse racing is the community we have built through all of our organizations; the fluidness between the thoroughbred and standardbred horse people,” he said. “The VEA being involved in all of it bridges all of it together and has led to great relationships with the people who play integral roles in our sport. We all come together and work as a team, to do what is best for horse racing here.”

Creating awareness and enjoyment of the sport remains a top priority for Turnage-Barney.

There is no doubt he has a knack for it.

“Every person I have been able to introduce to our sport, my hope is that we have crafted a life-long fan,” he said.