Return of the Fair Hill Races Still on Hold

Originally published in the Spring 2023 Fair Hill Bugle

With discussions ongoing about a memorandum of understanding and land use agreement with the State of Maryland, owner of the Fair Hill property, the Fair Hill Foundation will not pursue the Fair Hill Races card this May, Foundation President Charles C. Fenwick, Jr. announced in mid-February.

The Foundation plans to continue advocating for use of the turf course for training – and ultimately flat and steeplechase racing – as soon as possible.

The equine-events facility at the Fair Hill Special Event Zone underwent a major reconstruction including an all-new turf course, show rings and cross-country course in 2019 and has twice hosted an international five-star eventing competition. The return of training and racing to the property has long been the goal of the Fair Hill Foundation, and that will not change.

“We are disappointed that the progress we made during Gov. Larry Hogan’s administration toward bringing racing back to Fair Hill has stalled with the change in administration, but we understand the need for Gov. Wes Moore’s office to review the formal land-use agreement and other issues such as safety and maintenance related to this project,” said Fenwick. “We are confident the new leadership at the Department of Natural Resources will work with us to reinstate turf and steeplechase races to this historic venue soon.”

The one-mile course was completely redesigned for improved safety with gentler turns, a wider racing area, a sophisticated irrigation system and plastic running rail – all with eyes on expanding the opportunities for Thoroughbred racing on the flat and over steeplechase fences. Racing was not held in 2020, due to the construction and the Covid-19 pandemic’s effect on public events, or in 2021 to allow the new turf to mature. Last year, construction related to the infield show rings necessitated another missed racing opportunity.

The Fair Hill Foundation has been given the eight pari-mutuel racing days allotted to Fair Hill and hoped to offer a mixed card of flat and jump races worth $400,000 on the traditional Memorial Day Weekend slot to celebrate the course’s rebirth.

“Because of the planning involved in hosting the Fair Hill Races, we have made the decision to postpone them again,” said Fenwick. “We simply don’t have enough time to properly prepare for a May 27 meet.”

Before the spring races, to test the course and ensure the safest possible conditions, the Foundation hoped to have the course open to training by racehorses stabled at the adjacent Fair Hill Training Center. In February, DNR officials informed the Foundation that they were not ready to discuss use of the course for training or racing because of concerns around safety and maintenance.

“This disappointing news makes the prospects for racing this year virtually impossible, and most likely the same is true for any training on the turf course,” Fenwick said. “We must persevere, however, and cannot give up. We are the primary advocate for that racing surface, and therefore it is our responsibility to continue to work to bring back racing and training. We are grateful to our donors and feel the frustration of racing enthusiasts with the lack of progress.”

The Foundation, responsible for raising private funds for the property and its continued improvement, and its representatives will continue working with Maryland Department of Natural Resources officials to create a plan to allow racing and training. The most recent race meet happened in 2019. Two limited but successful training sessions were held on the course in 2020. The Maryland Five Star is scheduled for its third renewal Oct. 19-22.

In January, Gov. Moore appointed Josh Kurtz to replace Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio as the Secretary of the Department of Natural Resources. A Maryland native, he has been the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Maryland Executive Director for the last two years.

“Since 1934, the citizens of Maryland and more importantly the citizens of Cecil County have supported Fair Hill activities and principally racing,” Fenwick said. “We feel sure that Secretary Kurtz and Governor Moore will recognize the environmental value of the Fair Hill Natural Resources Management Area and the importance of the 11 acres making up the historic turf course, as well as the economic development potential of this project for the entire State of Maryland. Since the new course was completed, the State has invested in maintaining the course, for which we are grateful, and we hope to be able to use the course again soon.”

Founded by William du Pont Jr. in the 1920s, the Fair Hill property carded its first races in 1934 and was long an important stop on the nation’s steeplechase circuit – hosting the Foxcatcher National Steeplechase over a course compared to the English Grand National at Aintree, showcasing the historic American Grand National Stakes for several years and putting on four runnings of the Breeders’ Cup Steeplechase in the 1980s and 1990s. Purchased by the State in 1975, Fair Hill has hosted numerous stars of American and international jump racing including American Hall of Fame steeplechasers Ben Nevis II, Café Prince, Flatterer, Lonesome Glory, Tuscalee and Zaccio.