Maryland 5 Star equestrian competition brings international attention to Cecil

From Kent County News article

by Matt Hooke

October 22, 2021

Matt Hooke photo

FAIR HILL — After four days displaying the athletic prowess and grace of horses, one of the most prestigious equestrian events in the world, the Maryland 5 Star at Fair Hill ended on Sunday, Oct.17.

The winner Boyd Martin, lives around 25 minutes away from Fair Hill, operating the farm Windurra USA, in Cochranville, PA. as a training facility. The Maryland 5 Star brought over 20,000 people to Cecil County in its inaugural year, bringing international attention to local businesses and institutions.

“Much like Preakness serving as the second leg of racing’s triple crown, the annual Maryland 5 Star will undoubtedly grow in popularity as more people discover Maryland’s equine roots and the beauty of the sport of eventing,” County executive Danielle Hornberger said during Thursday’s welcome event.

Gov. Larry Hogan made an appearance at the event, wearing a tie featuring horses colored with the state flag.

“I think it’s going to make a huge difference,” Hogan said. “And I think it’s going to continue to grow every year.”

There are only seven eventing competitions in the world with the 5 Star designation, two in Great Britain and one each in France, Germany, Australia and Kentucky. Eventing is a horse competition with three separate parts, one is dressage, an activity akin to horse dancing where the animal conducts a prescribed series of graceful movements. The other segments are cross country and show jumping.

Four athletes competing in Fair Hill have won Olympic gold medals. The top-ranked eventing rider in the world, Oliver Townend, along with Zara Tindall, the granddaughter of Queen Elizabeth, competed in Cecil County for a chance to win.

“You’re seeing a whole host of people who, without an event like the Maryland 5 star, would probably not be sitting in Elkton, Maryland today,” Steve Overbay, Cecil County director of economic development, said.

Overbay said the attendance estimate for this years’ 5 Star was between 20,000-30,000 people. Overbay hopes that attendance will continue to grow over the coming years, since the other American 5 Star event in Kentucky draws up to 80,000 people a year. Overbay said the Kentucky event gives the community an economic benefit between $15 to $16 million annually.

The Fair Hill International, an annual 3 Star event since 1989, is now going to be held in conjunction with the 5 Star, with the 3 Star competition in the morning, and the 5 Star in the afternoon.

The quality of the facilities at Fair Hill, which received around $27 million in upgrades last year from state and private investment, could draw other horse events to the county.

“The cross country course here is known as being incredibly challenging,” Overbay said. “Top riders from around the globe are interested in seeking the opportunity to come test their mettle here in Cecil County.”

Martin had especially high praise for the cross country course, calling it a great test of endurance. The cross country course showcased a bit of Maryland flair, with one jump in the water obstacle shaped like a giant crab.

“I think this event is going to evolve in the years to come to be probably the world’s greatest 5 Star,” Martin at a press conference on Saturday.

Maryland 5 Star president Jeff Newman said tournament will look to see how to increase the capacity of the event next year, since once the COVID-19 pandemic slows down there will be an opportunity for more spectators.

“We’ve had really good feedback from the competitors, we’ve had good feedback from spectators,” Newman said. “As a first year event, we’re learning and there’s certainly things to improve on but as a whole we’re doing really well.”

One attendee Mia Francis thought the organizers did a great job, but that they need to prepare for a larger crowd for next year. Francis also felt the walk along the cross country course didn’t have food or water stations.

“We’re here on Saturday to walk the course,” Francis, from Ellicott City, said. “You don’t just sit at one jump you come in and walk it and watch a few horses at each jump. You end up walking four miles.”

Another attendee, Clay Green who previously attended the 3 Star Fair Hill International, said the international presence gives great exposure to the area. Like Francis, he predicted that the tournament will only grow from here.

“This is the smallest it’s going to get,” Green, who traveled from Kentucky, said.

Overbay said the county wants additional hotels to come to Cecil County, which would increase the likelihood of attendees spending their money locally instead of going to restaurants and stores in Delaware or Pennsylvania.

“We certainly look forward to – with The Great Wolf Lodge coming on board – increasing the number of hotel rooms that we have in Cecil County,” Overbay said. “That will allow us to capture even more of the economic benefit of having an event such as this one.”

Hornberger also cited Perryville’s upcoming Great Wolf Lodge as a project that pairs well with the 5 Star.

“The largest Great Wolf Lodge, which is under construction now next to our very own Hollywood Casino, will be the perfect place to rest your head and make memories too in 2023 and beyond,” Hornberger said.

Hogan expressed his support for more hotels to ensure revenue from the 5 Star stays local.

“As you get more lodging and restaurants here people will take advantage of it,” Hogan said. “I think we have a lot of people staying across the line in Delaware.”

Along with the 5 Star, Overbay added that the the Fair Hill Races, events at Calvert Regional Park and the Chesapeake Bay waterfront offer a variety of tourist activities in Cecil County year round, which would help hoteliers survive outside of the competition.

“For hoteliers to be successful, you need to create a year round opportunity for them,” Overbay said. “This is simply a really good weekend when you’re certain that all of their rooms would be reserved.”

Green said Fair Hill could also benefit from a larger campground, not only for the 5 Star but for events year round.

Local businesses such as the Wellwood and Brookbend sold their items at the event. Local farms, wineries, breweries, and distilleries also had a chance to show case their products over the weekend with events on Saturday and Sunday focusing on local food and drink producers.

“It’s going to put us on the map,” Hogan said. “There are people from all around the world watching this.