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

A rendering from the Maryland Stadium Authority shows the plans for the Fair Hill Equine Improvement Project.

Discussing the renaissance plan for unique public-private partnership

By Betsy Burke Parker | This story was originally published for the Temple Gwathmy Steeplechase Foundation

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.

Cheers for the winner of the last at the 85 th running of the Fair Hill Races on Memorial Day weekend had barely stopped echoing through the grandstand when bulldozers and earth movers roared to life.

Under the theory that you’ve got to break some eggs to make an omelet, the Fair Hill Equine Improvement Project got underway quite literally as soon as the races were over in May, a race against time to deconstruct, and reconstruct, much of the equestrian center at the 5,600-acre facility.

Crews got to work the next morning with a long list in hand – reconfiguring the mile-long turf oval, modifying the three-day Eventing cross-country course, and adding dressage and show jumping arenas on the infield with high-tech, all-weather footing suitable for a top level international championships, all the while remaining conscious of the park’s mission “to promote the management of natural and cultural resources to ensure the continuing benefits for present and future generations.”

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.

Fair Hill Foundation president and Maryland Horse Industry Board rep Jay Griswold says phase 1 of the multi-faceted project will be done by December.

The unique public-private collaboration between Maryland state agencies and steeplechase, flat racing and Eventing horsemen is – at a time when contraction is the norm – a welcome expansion.

“The first part of the multi-phase project is nearly complete,” Griswold says. “They expect to be finished sodding, completing the crossing areas on the racecourse and the cross-country by the first week of December. Phase 2 includes a new, bigger grandstand, tunnels under (Maryland State Route) 273 – there are currently bridges to get from the training center to the steeplechase course side.

“It’s a process.”

Executive Director of Maryland’s Horse Industry Board, Ross Peddicord (shown here with Griswold at the Fair Hill Races 85th Anniversary Gala) is a project cheerleader. “There are 16,000 horse farms in Maryland, contributing an annual economic impact exceeding a billion dollars,” Peddicord notes. “Marylanders have long yearned for a centralized state horse park. Because we already have two major venues at Fair Hill and the Prince George’s Equestrian Center, each with different competition niches, it seemed prudent to make extensive renovations to bring them up to 21st century standards. Fair Hill jumped to the head of the list after it won the bid to host the new 5 Star.”

The nearly-finished project includes three show arenas on the racecourse infield, an improved turf course with wider, more sweeping turns and all new turf – and a discrete turf training strip along the outside of the track, and a new CCI 5* cross-country course.

“The support of the Board of Public Works was a very big step toward sustaining the future of Fair Hill,” Griswold adds. “This is exciting for Maryland and all of our great partners who have been supporting this project from the beginning.”

Race to the races

For 85 years, Fair Hill has hosted a day or two of steeplechase racing, but, otherwise, the expansive turf course has been unused.

With the expansion project, that’s expected to change.

Griswold explains that Fair Hill already has approval from the Maryland Racing Commission for up to eight days of racing, meaning the facility could add a week-long race festival, or a trio of long weekends of racing – or something similar – without further permits.

“Fair Hill has enormous other attributes as well with its spacious grounds, natural beauty and home to a number of field events that include a premier training center, steeplechase, carriage driving, endurance races, foxhunting and trail riding, not to mention three-day Eventing on an international level,” Peddicord says. “It’s a major world equestrian center waiting to happen.

“(The board) has been extremely fortunate that first Sam Slater and then Jay Griswold… seized the initiative and stepped forward to head major private fundraising efforts through the Fair Hill Foundation. The state had the confidence to move forward because of Sam’s contributions and the reputation and respect that Jay and his family have earned through decades of service to Maryland.”

Griswold explains that the Maryland Department of Natural Resources owns the entire Fair Hill property after William du Pont, Jr.’s heirs sold it to the state. “They have fronted the entire cost of what we call Phase 1 of the project,” Griswold says. “This is a multi-year, public-private partnership.

“The DNR has been wonderful to work with, and the Stadium Authority – we never could have done this without them.”

The Maryland Stadium Authority will manage the construction project, which was awarded to Turner Construction Co. of Baltimore.

Chris Deremeik from the Maryland Stadium Authority talks to members of the Maryland Horse Industry Board in October. The Maryland Stadium Authority was established by the General Assembly in 1986. The original mission was to build, manage and maintain quality facilities to retain major league baseball, and return NFL football to Maryland.

Peddicord agrees that encouragement, through state funding, shows that Maryland is vested in the project. “We have had really exemplary public support from our current governor, legislative leaders, county government and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, which manages Fair Hill,” Peddicord says. “Everyone has pulled together to make this happen, recognizing the importance of the horse industry in preserving open space, creating jobs and enriching people’s lives.

“The grounds will be ready to host the 5-star next October, followed by the return of steeplechase and (expansion of) turf racing. The new infield arenas (can) host major show jumping, dressage and hunter shows, and the irrigated one-mile turf course could host flat racing in the European manner.

“Now it’s time has come.”