Fair Hill – Hoping the rebirth of the historic facility is just the beginning

Discussing the renaissance plan for unique public-private partnership

There’s a world-class nature center, and camping, hiking, hunting and fishing along Big Elk Creek. The Cecil County Fair, the Festival in the Country and annual Scottish Games prop up each end of the events calendar.
There is a thriving training center, an elite-level three-day event and schooling shows in a variety of disciplines.
Miles of public trails lace the 5,600-acre facility, and riders from across the east coast flock to Fair Hill year-round to utilize what’s widely regarded as the nation’s most complete equestrian facility.
Eighty-five years of steeplechase meets have been held on the grounds that were initially custom-designed for racing.
Notably absent from the Fair Hill for the next 18 months is racing.
Don’t despair. It’s part of the master plan.
And when it comes back, it’s going to return bigger and better than ever, say equestrian professionals leading the renovation and expansion effort.
Join the conversation with Fair Hill Foundation president Jay Griswold and Maryland Horse Industry Board Executive Director Ross Peddicord to find out what’s in store for Maryland’s world-renowned horse park.
By Betsy Burke Parker
A photo from the grandstands on November 13 shows the newly turfed and irrigated track with wider banked turns, plus two of the three arenas in the infield.
The Aintree link

Fair Hill’s historic turf racecourse, built in the late 1920s and modeled after Aintree Racecourse in England, was designed by William duPont, Jr. duPont designed two dozen racecourses across the east coast, including the Iroquois near Nashville, Montpelier in Virginia and Delaware Park.

Seen here is the infamous "Chinese Wall" on the Fair Hill course in 1937, courtesy of the NSA Archives.
The Fair Hill Point-to-Point

In 2013, steeplechase racing joined forces with the Fair Hill Nature Center to present the very first Fair Hill Point-to-Point races - a part of the Delaware Valley Point-to-Point race series . 2019 proved to be an enormously successful year for the Point-to-Point, with full fields on a 12-race card.

All proceeds from the Fair Hill Point-to-Point benefit the Fair Hill Nature Center , an independent nature center whose work focuses on offering environmental education and outreach programs for professionals, students, and underserved members of the community. The Fair Hill Nature Center is housed in what used to be William du Pont, Jr.'s hunting lodge (pictured, courtesy of the Fair Hill Nature Center) .

The Fair Hill Point-to-Point is actively pursuing a temporary home for its 2020 races, and looks to return to Fair Hill in 2021.
Kentucky Downs serves as a model
With the expansion of Fair Hill’s turf course, officials expect to be able to offer a boutique all-turf race meet in 2021. The plan is similar to the historic development of a former steeplechase course in south central Kentucky.
Built in 1990, Dueling Grounds was initially developed for world-class steeplechasing. The former Sandford Duncan farm, where the track was built on the Kentucky-Tennessee border, was site of numerous duels in the 1800s, because dueling was illegal in Tennessee but not in Kentucky.

Sam Houston took part in a duel on the site, though, fortunately, the “sport” ended in 1827.

Dueling Grounds held what remains the richest American steeplechase – the $750,000 Dueling Grounds International, but switched to flat racing only in 1992.

The name changed to Kentucky Downs in 1997. The track – less than an hour north of populous Nashville, allows for pari-mutuel wagering by a population eager to bet but living in a state without pari-mutuel. The track has a short turf festival meet in the fall, and operates as an off-track betting parlor the rest of the year.
The 2019 numbers from Kentucky Downs are stunning, and suggest the Fair Hill race meet will be wildly popular with horsemen eager for more opportunities to race on the turf. More than $41.2 million was wagered on the five-day early autumn session’s 50 races. A record $11,520,380 was paid out to participating horse owners, with the $2.3 million in average daily purses the highest in the world outside Japan.

Kentucky Downs, in an arrangement with racing horsemen, transferred an additional $5 million in purses to Ellis Park to strengthen the racing product at the Henderson track and the entire Kentucky circuit.
The Fair Hill Training Center
The Fair Hill Training Center was established in the late 1970s, a vision of veterinarian and thoroughbred horseman Dr. John Fisher. Harford County attorney John Clark, owner of Rigbie Farm, had helped the State of Maryland purchase the Fair Hill property from the duPont family a few years prior. Clark brokered a deal between Fisher and Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources to lease the training center land.

Fisher secured investors George Strawbridge and the Gene Weymouth family, signing a 98-year lease for the 350 acres of land the training center sits on.

Governor Harry Hughes was a project booster, tying its development to the goal of making Fair Hill a regional thoroughbred hub. Offices of the Thoroughbred Racing Protective Bureau, the National Steeplechase Association and Fasig-Tipton Midlantic were built by the property.

Construction began in 1983. The center operates as a horse condominium facility – barns are owned privately, with per-day fees for track maintenance, grounds maintenance, overall staffing and property insurance.
Location drove Fair Hill’s instant success – the training center is a three-hour or less ship to Laurel, Pimlico, Charles Town, Delaware Park, Belmont, Aqueduct, Parx and Penn National, a little more than that to Virginia’s Colonial Downs.

Another driver of success is the “horse-centric” design to the complex. Barns are separated by woodlands and open space, each stable has turnout paddocks and the extensive Fair Hill trail system is available for trainers to use for cross-training. Horses can train on the turf on the steeplechase course on the south side of 273, and there are two all-weather tracks on the north side. There are fewer horses than at a racetrack, and though there are distinct training hours, the pace is more relaxed since there is no pressure to prepare the racing surface for afternoon racing on a daily basis.
The Fair Hill Training Center lies just across the road from the new turf track, and features a mile dirt oval plus a 7/8th mile Tapeta track. Horse paths criss-cross the landscape, providing access from all the barns.
Photo courtesy of the Fair Hill Foundation
Bruce Jackson’s state-of-the-art Fair Hill Equine Therapy Center offers the latest in technological equipment, designed to promote rapid recovery from injury.

The facility also brings in revenue from selling soiled straw bedding to local mushroom farmers.

Some 650 horses live on site, with more than 1,000 people employed directly, or indirectly, by the training center.

Fair Hill has been home to two Kentucky Derby winners – Barbaro in 2006 and Animal Kingdom in 2011 , plus 2012 Belmont Stakes winner Union Rags and several Breeders’ Cup winners.
Animal Kingdom training at the FHTC in 2012. Maggie Kimmitt photo.
Temple Gwathmey Steeplechase Foundation | Email Address | Website