The Fair Hill Training Center – A History

Dr. John Fisher was not only a flat horse trainer, but also a steeplechase trainer and jockey. Here he is winning the esteemed Maryland Hunt Cup for a second time in 1971 (the first time was in 1969) aboard his own Landing Party. ©Douglas Lees
Nearly 36 years ago an idea came to fruition in Fair Hill, Maryland. An idea that a race horse and a trainer could live in a bucolic environment, train how they wanted to train, live in a community they wanted to live in, and race where they wanted to race. That idea was the Fair Hill Training Center.

How it came to be

In the late 1970’s, Dr. John Fisher had a string of race horses at Philadelphia Park. After an argument with track management, Fisher decided he had to make a change. He either needed a Plan B, or he had to get out of the business of training race horses.

His Plan B? The Fair Hill Training Center.

Originally Fisher looked at land next to the New Bolton Center in Pennsylvania. He wanted sports medicine to be connected to his training center vision. The land, however, was expensive.

It was at this point that John Clark, an attorney in Harford County and owner of Rigbie Farm, contacted Fisher. Clark had helped, in the 1970’s, the State of Maryland purchase the Fair Hill property from the du Pont family. He suggested that Fisher look at the Fair Hill property as a training center site, and he assisted in brokering the deal between Fisher and the Department of Natural Resources to lease the training center land.

“This used to be a corn field. It looked flat – Mr. du Pont used to land planes here for steeplechase meets. Little did we know that what is flat enough for an air strip isn’t flat enough for a race track,” said Fisher.

A mid-1980’s site plan shows the proposed sites for barns and paddocks, as well as a sales pavilion and sales barns for 400 horses. The Training Center of today looks a bit different than this map, but the concept remains the same, minus the sales pavilion.
Having found a promising location, Fisher rounded up two more investors in thoroughbred owner George Strawbridge and thoroughbred trainer Gene Weymouth’s family. Monies secured, a deal was brokered and a 98 year lease signed between Fisher and the Maryland DNR for the 350 acres of land the training center sits on.

“DNR was very much in favor of the Training Center,” Fisher said, “and Governor Harry Hughes was also supportive. They made the lease happen.” The training center was part of a state goal to turn Fair Hill into a Thoroughbred hub – the community also houses the offices of the Thoroughbred Racing Protective Bureau, the National Steeplechase Association and Fasig-Tipton Midlantic1

Construction began in 1983. The concept called for showplace barns, two race tracks and enough space for 1,200 horses. The training center would operate as a horse condominium facility. Private individuals would own the barns, and pay per-day fees for race track maintenance, grounds maintenance, overall staffing and property insurance. 2

Soldiering through the lean years

Fisher started the Fair Hill Training Center project at the height of the racing game. “I remember a yearling selling for sixteen million when we first began thinking about a training center,” said Fisher. Just as construction began, the horse market crashed.

“Two things saved us from bankruptcy,” said Fisher. One was John Finney and the Fasig-Tipton sales company. “He came here, looked around, and said, ‘This is exactly where the horse game needs to be,’” said Fisher. Finney moved Fasig-Tipton’s Midlantic office to the Fair Hill Training Center a couple years in to the venture, built a couple barns, and made plans to build a sales pavilion. Fisher credits Finney for one of the nicest clockers’ stands you’ll find. “He said you have to make it nice. Prospective owners and trainers who come need to be impressed. It’s still a great gathering place.”

The second thing to save the Training Center, in the mid-1990’s, was the slots revenue in Delaware. As purses skyrocketed at the track, a mere 13 miles away from the Fair Hill Training Center, Delaware Park ran out of room for all the horses that wanted to stable there. Delaware Park rented two barns at the Fair Hill Training Center, and more trainers came to take advantage of the racing opportunities.

A promotional brochure from the 80s highlights the features of the two tracks at the Training Center. The wood-fiber track has since been updated to a Tapeta track.

Location, location, location

Location has always been a strength for Fair Hill. The Training Center is a three-hour or less ship to Laurel, Pimlico, Charles Town, Delaware Park, Belmont, Aqueduct, Philadelphia Park, Penn National, Monmouth Park and the Meadowlands.2 For trainers looking for a more stability for their families, you can drive six miles to the town of Elkton, the same distance to the college town of Newark, Delaware, or just a couple miles north to the rural quiet of Chester County, Pennsylvania.

Financially, the Fair Hill Training Center would not be as stable were it not for its location in the hub of mushroom country. The Training Center brings in revenue from selling bedding to mushroom farmers. Without that income, says the Training Center’s manager, Sally Goswell, the cost per stall would easily be an extra one to two dollars per horse. As it stands, the cost per stall is $6 a day, just raised three years ago (after decades at $5 a stall) to pay for a renovated race track.  Fisher credits Goswell’s excellent management for keeping the condo fees unchanged for the first 33 years of the Training Center’s history.

Horses and trainers thrive at the Fair Hill Training Center. Trainers thrive because when they stable at the Training Center, they can run at any track they want to – they are not limited just to their host track. Horses thrive because the environment at the Training Center is so conducive to relaxation – there’s fewer horses than at a normal track, plus two tracks, miles of hilly terrain in the country, a seven-furlong turf track across the street on the Fair Hill Races property, and turnout paddocks at every barn.2 Bruce Jackson’s state-of-the-art Fair Hill Equine Therapy Center houses the latest in technological equipment, designed to promote a safe and rapid advancement for horses recovering from injury. It is also frequently home to stakes-winners looking for a few weeks of rest and relaxation, with the added advantage of still being able to keep the horses in training.

A promotional piece from the mid-1980s highlights the convenient location of the Training Center and the vanning times to twelve nearby tracks.

Paying attention to the community

Dr. Fisher said he’ll never forget what Maryland Comptroller Louis Goldstein told him, during the lease negotiations for the Training Center. “He said it’s important to pay attention to the people in Cecil County, and to be sure they are treated correctly.” That sentiment played a large role in the decision to not build housing on site, as is common at most race tracks. “I thought if I didn’t build rooms, employees would want to live locally, and they would then become a part of the community,” said Fisher. “I thought of Comptroller Goldstein during that decision.”

The trickle-down effect has a positive impact on Cecil County, as well. With 650 horses on site, Goswell estimates approximately 1,200 people are employed in some fashion at the Training Center – be it as a groom, an exercise rider, a farrier, or a van driver. The Training Center is a significant employer for the county.

And it doesn’t stop there. Drive a few miles down the road, and you’ll find yourself surrounded by fields of straw. Trainer Chuck Lawrence purchases 600 large bales of straw per year, just for his stable. He purchases as much as he can locally – at about half the price of straw that gets shipped in. Hay farmers, feed dealers, and equipment suppliers all benefit from the thriving hub of horses in training.

Infinite Future

Dr. Fisher is positive in his feelings about the Fair Hill Equine Improvement Project. “I think it’s long overdue,” he said. “Whatever you can do to enhance the horse industry is important.”

Fisher is quick to point out that the current political climate in Maryland is a huge benefit to the Maryland horse industry as a whole. “The Governor sees the Fair Hill Project as an economic engine for rural Maryland. The state hasn’t seen that since around the time we started the Fair Hill Training Center.”

The only thing truly missing at Fair Hill is racing. The historic race course across the street has hosted its steeplechase meet in one form or another since 1934, but the idea of the big-time flat horses stabled at the training center racing on the course seemed far-fetched. Until now. The Fair Hill Foundation and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources are embarking on a major overhaul of the course, with the goal of hosting world-class flat and jump races on the new track in 2021. Call it the next chapter in Fair Hill’s history. We can’t wait to read it.

The Fair Hill Training Center has been home to two Kentucky Derby winners – Barbaro in 2006, and Animal Kingdom (pictured above, ©Maggie Kimmitt) in 2011, plus 2012 Belmont Stakes winner Union Rags and several Breeders’ Cup winners.


For a look at the Fair Hill Training Center of today, check out “A Morning at Herringswell Stables” on YouTube.

Our thanks to Dr. John Fisher and to Sally Goswell for their time and their stories. Thanks as well to Joe Clancy’s articles about the Fair Hill Training Center.

1. Clancy, Joe. “Animal Kingdom: A longer look at Fair Hill.” May 21, 2011.

2. Clancy, Joe. “Fair Hill Training Center – 20 Years Old, and Oh, How It’s Grown.” Mid-Atlantic Thoroughbred, September, 2003.