Fair Hill Races Plans “Soft Opening” on Memorial Day, Racing on Labor Day Weekend

After a two-year hiatus due to COVID and reconstruction of the new turf course to ensure the highest safety standards for horses, organizers of the 86th Fair Hill Races are planning a “soft opening” on Saturday, May 28, 2022 and a second meet on Labor Day weekend, 2022.

“Nothing is set in stone right now,” Fair Hill Foundation President Charles C. Fenwick, Jr. noted, “but we are convinced there is a real need to have racing return to Fair Hill. We are grateful for the support this project has received from the Hogan administration and we are working hard to make certain the track will be safe. Depending on a number of factors, we hope to have a ‘soft opening’ on Memorial Day Weekend and a bigger event on Labor Day Weekend.”

The new turf track has been realigned to feature a sophisticated irrigation and guard rail system. Following Fair Hill founder William du Pont, Jr.’s lead, the turf has been given time to mature on the advice of experts brought in to consult on the project. Providing banked, wider turns for safety, the track also features three new state-of-the-art arenas for show jumping and dressage in the infield where the inaugural Maryland 5 Star Three- Day Eventing competition was held in October.

The 2022 Fair Hill Races will continue a grand tradition dating from 1934. William du Pont, Jr., seeking to give American horses the experience they needed to compete in the English Grand National at Aintree – considered the international pinnacle of steeplechasing – created the signature Foxcatcher National Cup in August of that year as part of the inaugural Fair Hill Races.

“A mare named Swansea, owned by John Bosley, Jr., of Monkton, Maryland, won the opening event – two miles over brush – by twenty, while others came to grief,” writes Dorothy Ours, author of Man o’ War and Battleship: A Daring Heiress, A Teenage Jockey, and America’s Horse. William du Pont himself owned and rode the winner of the long-distance flat race, and one entry of his sister, Mrs. Thomas H. Somerville (later known as Marian du Pont Scott), won the flat sprint.

An intimidating three-mile course over brush, the Foxcatcher National Cup course, branded “the Aintree of America”, included 19 fences; 12 towered at 5’10” with a maximum height of 6 ft. on the landing side of the fence. But unlike Aintree at the time, the top several inches were deliberately flexible so horses could slide through, jumping closer to five feet than six.

“He cared about safety,” Ours said. “Of course he had an eye toward Aintree and what it would take to be successful there as the ultimate steeplechase. He wasn’t trying to go, ‘Oh, let’s see how many fall down.’ He wanted to encourage the ones who were very skillful to come out and do this but also designed the courses in a way that would help you – that should help the horse to have a good sight line, to have a good chance.”

With nine entries and only four starters, the inaugural Foxcatcher Cup was won by Melita owned by Frederick Alfred Upsher Smith of Lake Minnetonka, Minnesota, who was born in Manchester England 40 miles from Aintree, defeating Mrs. Somerville’s British-bred mare, Liverton Lodge, in a fierce duel.

Quickly becoming a popular among horse people and the general public, the Fair Hill meet drew increasingly broader publicity, larger fields, and greater seating capacity in the Aintree Grandstand constructed to give 2,000 people a view of the entire course. By 1938, an airfield was added to accommodate increased visitors by plane.

“Simultaneously, William du Pont, Jr. gained stature as an authority on racetrack design and Fair Hill’s was one of approximately 25 internationally with his signature. He even wrote handbooks on the matter, but he omitted his name and forwent copyright,” Laura Lemon reported in Fair Hill: A Horseman’s Oasis, in the October 4-11, 2021, issue of the Chronicle of the Horse.

However, by 1958 the massive Aintree-style feature race was canceled due to lack of horses that could complete a track of that nature,” Lemon continued.

William du Pont, Jr. lived long enough to see Fair Hill continue to be a touchstone for American ‘chasers with Aintree ambitions. Marion du Pont Scott’s Battleship, winner of the 1938 Grand National at Aintree, paraded there in 1938 and in 1965 Jay Trump – the first American winner since Battleship, and the first ever with an American rider – did the same.

Mr. du Pont passed away on the final day of 1965. In 1966, J. H. Tyler McConnell, the son-in- law of Mr. du Pont and husband of his daughter, Jean Ellen du Pont McConnell, was elected President of the Cecil County Breeders Fair and served until 1975. One of the first actions McConnell took was to engage Stephen P. Groat as Director of Racing at Fair Hill. During his tenure, Groat established the Breeders Cup Steeplechase race and later became a senior steward of the National Steeplechase Association, from whom he received the prestigious F. Ambrose Clark award for his contributions to the sport. Groat served as Director of Racing at Fair Hill until his death in December, 2012.

“Traces of Mr. du Pont’s intentions survived, even after the State of Maryland bought the property in 1975,” Ours reported. “During the spring of 1976, Ben Nevis won the 3 ½ mile Foxcatcher Hounds Timber Steeplechase at Fair Hill. In 1980, he became the first Fair Hill winner to also win the Grand National at Aintree. Several weeks later, Ben Nevis and his dauntless rider, Charlie Fenwick, galloped between races for a Fair Hill crowd,” Ours said.

“’He was pleased with himself, I could definitely feel it,” Fenwick told The Baltimore Sun. “We jogged past the stands the first time and carried his head high and pricked his ears. Then I turned him around and galloped him through the stretch. He wanted to run flat out, to show the crowd how fast he could go.’”

Since Ben Nevis’ appearance that day, Fair Hill’s history has been marked by many landmarks. The Fair Hill Training Center opened in 1982, the inaugural Breeders’ Cup Steeplechase ran in 1986 and for three consecutive years, and Kentucky Derby winners, Barbaro and Animal Kingdom, trained there with Michael Matz and Graham Motion, respectively.

“All of this potential – and fulfillment – reaches back to 1934,” Ours concludes. This May, 2022, new landmarks at Fair Hill will come to life.