Press Box: With Course Designer Hired, Fair Hill Advances Five-Star Vision

Trish Gilbert with Ian Stark

By Bill Ordine

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In a flip of the now familiar phrase, “build it and they will come,” a major international sports event is coming to Maryland and the important building will start soon.

The event is a major equestrian happening — a five-star Three-Day Eventing competition scheduled for October 2020. It’s set to be the seventh such event in the world and one of just two in the United States.

Three-Day Eventing is often described as a “triathlon” for horses and riders consisting of three disciplines: dressage, which demonstrates horse-and-rider nimbleness and teamwork; cross-country racing, a challenge of speed and power; and show jumping, a stage coming after the other two phases that tests a horse’s resiliency and athleticism.

The five-star competition will be held at Fair Hill in Cecil County, a state natural resources management area that sprawls more than 5,600 acres. In the spotlight right now is the portion of Fair Hill that will be the site of the five-star Fair Hill International Three-Day Event.

Fair Hill International, which has held a three-star competition for decades, along with the Fair Hill Foundation successfully spearheaded the effort to get the higher classification event beginning with efforts in 2016. The green light came in 2017.

With the more prestigious classification in hand, plans to create a sports venue worthy of an international event have been moving ahead with assistance from the Maryland Stadium Authority.

A recent development was the hiring of Ian Stark as the designer for the cross-country course that will be integral to the Fair Hill International Three-Day Event. Much like a golf course designer who brings together existing terrain and imagination to create a challenge for players, Stark will lay out a nearly four-mile course that will include 40 to 45 jumps for the cross-country component.

“My job is to frighten the riders while letting the horses get on with their job,” Stark said wryly.

Stark certainly has the pedigree for the task. The Scotsman is an Olympic Eventing medalist who has been inducted into several halls of fame, including the British Horse Society, Sporting Scotland, Scottish Borders, and the Event Riders’ Association. While this is his first design for a five-star event, he is highly regarded for his previous course designs.

The jumps for the cross-country design will be of several varieties.

“Some will be single-rail, some will be brush, some will be solid and some will be a combination of water and banks,” he said.

Depending on the length of the course, horses can be expected to complete the course in 12 to 14.5 minutes.

Stark viewed the area that will be the canvas for the cross-country course earlier this spring.

“There’s a lot of good terrain from a course designer’s point of view,” he said, adding, “We hope to make a great course that will attract riders from all over the world.”

As Stark works on the course layout, a builder will be selected.

Some modifications to the terrain — called “landscaping” or “ground work” — will be necessary.  Some areas will need to be widened, and footing for the horses will be improved. That work will begin in early June. The work should be finished by October and then the course will have a year to mature.

In some instances, the work has to be done with environmental issues in mind, such as being sensitive to wetlands.

“If you do things the right way, you can actually make environmental improvements by creating habitat for frogs and toads and other critters,” Stark said.

Of course, making the event spectator-friendly is also part of the equation.

Two components of Three-Day Eventing, dressage and open jumping, are held in a ring so fans can watch the action easily from the comfort of their seats. The cross-country runs are different, as horse-and-rider gallop off into the distance.

Stark will make sure the course begins and ends at the competition ring, and a shuttle will take fans out to a particularly picturesque vantage point called the Saw Mill Field where they’ll be able to take in a water jump.

“Plus, you’d like fans to walk some of the course,” he said. “It’s magnificent to get up close and personal to watch these wonderful horses galloping at 20 miles an hour.”

As evidence of how special it is for Maryland to get a five-star Three-Day Event, there are only six others in the world: England (two), France, Germany, Australia and Kentucky.

Trish Gilbert, president of the Fair Hill International board of directors, said the cross-country course is part of a master plan for improvements at Fair Hill that will extend beyond the five-star Three-Day Event.

A new turf course will be realigned for more comfortable turns. There will be improved irrigation and superior bluegrass mix sod installed. A timber course will be altered to better integrate with the turf course. Three new competition rings with artificial footing will be installed on the infield.

And, of course, there will have to be upgrades to internet infrastructure to accommodate the demands of the 21st century.

“This is a great experience for spectators,” Gilbert said. “We’ll have something like 75 vendors selling all kinds of things related to horses. We’ll have craft beer tents and pubs. And at the five-star, you’ll see some of the best horses and riders in the world.”