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 Editorials

Thoughts from our editor, Joe Clancy. For archived editorials click here.

October 2019: The future at Fair Hill

Can you see the future? Squint at Fair Hill with me.
The state of Maryland is building a state-of-the-art turf course on the 5,600-acre Department of Natural Resources property in Cecil County. Home to a steeplechase meet since 1934, the race course sits across Md. 273 from its now more famous neighbor Fair Hill Training Center. The historic course was known for tight turns, long straightaways, firm ground, oddball wagering results (don’t even think about trying to figure out the per-capita), funnel cake, the beer truck, sunburn and a handful of historic racing moments mixed in with some not-at-all historic racing moments.
Old-timers still talk about a fence called the Chinese Wall for its formidable size and scope. Plenty of people rode at least one race there (this writer, for example). Others to grace the course include Hall of Famers Joe Aitcheson, Paddy Smithwick, Dooley Adams, Jerry Fishback plus European greats John Francome, Richard Dunwoody and others. Morris “Pop” Dixon, who won the 1945 Preakness with Polynesian, was a force at Fair Hill. So were Hall of Famers Burley Cocks and Mikey Smithwick. Another Hall of Famer Jonathan Sheppard still is.
Soon, if everything keeps going the way it’s going, Fair Hill’s turf will be known for far more. It will also be part of the future, not just the past.
The project includes a 1-mile turf oval, new lanes that connect to the outer timber course, the potential for turf training and schooling and even show rings in the infield. There will be a watering system, drainage to ensure proper footing, a moveable rail system. The overall vision makes the place home to world-class flat racing, jump racing, eventing and more. On the eventing side, Fair Hill will host a competition with the new (and highest) five-star designation in 2020.
Of course, the Fair Hill of early September 2019 looks a bit more like a desert battlefield. But, through the dust, you can see it. The backstretch looks like a backstretch – one made of sand, dirt, rocks, some plastic caps marking irrigation sprinkler heads. The turns sweep like turns now. There’s still a rocky berm/road through the center for dump-truck access. There’s no grass – anywhere – though sod for the course is expected by early October. The old wooden quarter poles (Fair Hill didn’t mark furlongs) are in a pile off to the side, and the metal finish poles are there too, next to stacks of new plastic rails and fencing still in their packaging.
Basically, the place changes every day. It’s a construction site complete with bulldozers, dump trucks, graders, dozens of people in hard hats, office trailers full of blueprints, computers and other important pieces of the equation. Equipment from Turner Construction and DXI moves all day, and locals are so used to “beep . . . beep . . . beep” by now that it’s more of a soundtrack than mere background noise.
Built by William duPont Jr. in the 1930s, Fair Hill has been a racetrack since then but has never seen anything like this. The plan hatched as part of the Maryland Horse Industry Board’s old horse park study way back in 2005, morphed into a way to concentrate development of an outdoor horse event center, weathered economic and election changes, adjusted again with input from various stakeholders in the horse industry and the community, found more traction with the winning of a bid on the five-star and sprung to life with the state’s commitment in advance of further private contributions to fund the start of a project estimated to cost in the neighborhood of $20 million.
When this first phase of construction ends, Fair Hill will have a turf course on par with any in the country – 90 feet wide, a mile around, with a watering system. It’s not difficult to envision Fair Hill as the home to multiple days of flat and jump racing (current law allows for up to eight days of pari-mutuel racing). Kentucky Downs, now a national destination with a five-day turf meeting not far from Nashville, Tenn., springs to mind. Fair Hill’s ultimate future could go beyond that, given the access to horses at the training center literally across the street and others in Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Virginia and New York.
But here comes the hard part.
Fair Hill will have to fund the purses, operations and management of the racing days and the property itself. All this work will be for naught if that part isn’t organized properly. Consider everything a functioning racetrack has (race officials, gate crew, grounds crew, marketing department, outriders, lead ponies, wagering tellers, security and so on). Fair Hill has none of that.
Maryland owns the land. The Maryland Stadium Authority and Department of Natural Resources are overseeing the construction. The Fair Hill Foundation is charged with raising private money and protecting that investment as the concept matures. Ultimately, to be successful, the facility’s management and direction will require the resources of all of those groups, some I didn’t mention and still more I haven’t thought of. Maryland’s Thoroughbred industry races at Laurel Park, Pimlico Race Course, Timonium and a handful of steeplechase meets now. By 2021, the new Fair Hill will be part of that equation but for it to work, it’s going to take the support of state legislators and governmental departments, businesses, the public, Thoroughbred owners, trainers, breeders, racetracks and more.
And then, hopefully you can stop squinting.

Note: MAT editor Joe Clancy is a member of the Fair Hill Foundation Board of Directors, but would feel the same way if he wasn’t.

September 2019: Aunt Joan, Delaware Park and memories

Delaware Park is such a part of my past that I remember specific days, moments, horses and long-gone locations.
Sleeplytime Gal’s off-the-pace charge in an otherwise non-descript race where Lottie the gambler told me, “Always bet to win.”
The day Spectacular Bid won his comeback race with Willie Shoemaker.
The Delaware Handicap battle between Our Mims and Mississippi Mud.
The hot dog stand at the end of that ramp in the clubhouse (an area open only to employees now).
“Aunt” Millie Hanford working the paddock gate.
Her husband Carl up in the stewards’ stand.
My real aunt, Aunt Joan, getting dressed up and betting the jumpers.
Watching races outside from the stand-up rail on the second floor. Always. We never watched inside.
That bar/lounge around the corner from the betting windows upstairs.
The valets saddling horses and talking smack (though nobody called it that then) to anyone who would listen.
The outdoor ramp to the grandstand.
The Harry M. Stevens cups. The flat soda in those cups.
The ice cream stand on the first floor of the clubhouse.
Those cool red tractors, small compared to anything in use today, pulling harrows on the track.
Today it’s called The Grove, but we just said the playground and it was full of dangerous and wonderful things – rocking horses on coil springs, a dome-shaped jungle gym that felt like it was 100-feet tall, a pump-action merry-go-round that would scare a Red Bull driver and the tallest sliding board I’ve ever been on. Predictably, most of those are gone now.
The track kitchen when we wanted to eat on the grounds.
Mary’s Kountry Kitchen when we wanted to eat off the grounds.
A cast of characters in the clubhouse and grandstand who would have made a great movie. We called them Pizza Man, Ice Cream Man, Hot Dog Man and so on. They bought those things for us, so that’s what we named them. I ran around with Bobby Connors, whose father (like mine) was a trainer. I think the food was in exchange for information about the horses in the barn, but we’ll never know for sure.
Air conditioning. Air conditioning. Air conditioning. In the summer, Delaware Park had its own climate. Cold. Imagine the electric bill.
Announcer Tony Bentley’s calls that ended in, “. . . In front,” or “. . . And they won’t catch her today.”
That paddock, still the best in the country.
The stable-area roads which meandered through and around green barns and bunkhouses – Marvin Kuhn, C.V.B. Cushman, Del Carroll, Henry Clark, Delp, Dutrow, Leatherbury, A.J. Foyt III and the rest.
Roy Orr, the hay man, getting me to drive him over to the track in my dad’s car as the crew unloaded bales from a big truck. I was probably 13.
The rec hall, with its boxing ring and basketball court out back.
The crazy announcements that came over the stable-area speakers: “Cornbread, you have a visitor at the stable gate.”
There are dozens and dozens more.
In the mid-1970s – man I’m old – my family moved to the Brandywine Stable farm within the grounds of the track. The Ross family owned the track and that farm, and employed my father. I was in fifth grade and had the run of the place – racing season or not. In the summer, I’d work in the barn all morning and go racing all afternoon. In the winter, I was somehow permitted to ride a motorcycle on the empty grounds – pretty much anywhere but the track itself. I’d wave to security guards and keep riding. Anyone else who tried this was chased, caught and – as far as I knew – arrested and thrown in jail.
It was a crazy way to grow up, and oddly magical. Pretty much none of that would fly today.
I thought of it all again in August when, after a funeral for Aunt Joan (my father’s sister who died at 86) we went to the races. Yeah, yeah, it sounds weird but it felt natural for some odd reason. We wore dark suits, ties, dresses, heels. We bet some races, showed the youngsters among us around and told old stories about all those places and moments. Some of us went to the casino and played blackjack or slots. Everywhere we went, people stared and asked questions. “Are you guys part of a conference?” the subtle ones asked. “What’s with the suits?” came from the more direct.
We told a handful of white lies to some people, the truth to others and thought about Aunt Joan. She was classy, generous, shy, easily the best-dressed relative we had, a racing fan without working directly with horses. She’d lived in the Virgin Islands for a while, drove a cool car. She helped raise another generation of Clancys – Ryan (26), Jack (23) and Nolan (18) owe their table manners and love of snacks to Aunt Joan. And we’ll all remember her every time we see Delaware Park.

August 2019: Welcome back, Virginia racing

Jill Byrne goes for solo evening runs around the Colonial Downs backstretch and racetrack. She sees progress every day, worries about critters (snakes mostly, but deer and groundhogs were far more common early on) and puts in her miles while thinking about a to-do list that adds one item – at least – for every one she checks off.
But she can’t wait until she’s not out there alone. The Colonial Downs stable area opened July 25 and live racing returns –
for the first time since 2013 – Aug. 8. Welcome back, Virginia racing.
When a racetrack dies, it usually stays dead. Havre de Grace, Bel Air, Shenandoah Downs, Atlantic City, Suffolk Downs and so on come to mind. But not Colonial. The track opened in 1997 to much attention thanks to a 11⁄4-mile dirt track and a 180-foot wide turf course. The latter feature became the track’s trademark, before everything went haywire over racing dates and purse structures, horsemen’s needs, ownership’s goals, Virginia Racing Commission decisions and court cases.
Now, everything is different. Virginia approved historical racing machines (similar to slots) in 2018, Revolutionary Racing purchased the track, expanded the gaming opportunities via the launch of Rosie’s Gaming facilities in the state, hired former Breeders’ Cup executive Byrne and started making plans for the return of live racing.
“There’s a lot to get ready for a track that’s been dormant for six years,” Byrne said during a break in her schedule in early July. “It feels like it’s 24-7. We’ve had a lot of help and everyone has been very supportive.”
Among the upgrades and improvements, Colonial addressed:
• The dirt surface by consulting with Mick Peterson, executive director of the Racing Surfaces Testing Laboratory and the University of Kentucky.
• An improved irrigation system for the turf course.
• A new infield tote board, and paddock tote board.
• Improvements to the paddock’s interior.
• Stable area upgrades including the receiving barn, test barn, individual stalls, dormitories.
• A new jockeys’ room and jockeys’ room kitchen.
“A lot of things just needed cleaned up and fixed because they hadn’t been used in so long,” Byrne said. “It’s a great environment for horses to train and stable and race here. We’ve made a great deal of financial investment to get the facility to be top class. I think people are going to be really excited.”
It’s Byrne’s job to say that, but Colonial’s return adds to the Mid-Atlantic racing menu – providing opportunity to owners, trainers, breeders, jockeys and bettors that haven’t been available in six years. The racing program will include a program for Virginia-bred, -sired and -certified horses, the highest individual mount fees for jockeys in the region via an agreement with the Virginia HBPA and The Jockeys’ Guild. Purses will average $500,000 per day for the 15-day meet and a stakes schedule led by the $250,000 Virginia Derby-G3 and $150,000 Virginia Oaks Aug. 31.
In the past, Colonial entered a management agreement with the Maryland Jockey Club for racing operations. That didn’t come to be this year, so Byrne’s staff includes racing secretary Allison De Luca from Tampa Bay Downs, stall superintendent Carlos Garcia (the retired trainer who also works at Tampa), track superintendent Ken Brown (who was at Colonial before when he worked for the MJC) and others to fill key roles.
“I had people calling me to say they wanted to work here,” said Byrne. “Jeff Wingrove, the racing operations manager, has been a huge resource for me. He was here before and has such a great grasp and understanding of racing overall. He spent a lot of time in the barn area, he knows the mutuels side of it.”
Byrne expects a relatively full stable area, based on stall applications, and expects regional trainers to take advantage of the new opportunities. While starting a racetrack in a time when racing faces criticism for safety issues and horse welfare, she also expects a spotlight.
“When they brought me in, I was adamant about it,” she said of the track’s ownership group and horse safety. “They have a racing background so they know and it’s important to them. I feel like I’ve had to go to them more often than I thought I was going to, but they’ve embraced it. They haven’t batted an eye and we see it as a positive for Virginia, the whole area and racing in general. It’s investing in what’s important for the industry. That matters.”
Keep running.Y

July 2019: Seeing the end, and the means

“. . . the end is not in question. It’s the means – the dreadful uncertainty of the means.”
John Steinbeck was writing about race relations in America in 1962 when he finished a paragraph in Travels with Charley, in Search of America with that. It’s a punch of a sentence, or two sentences I guess. A hard, quick punch. Bap. And then it’s gone. You want to read it again, even though you know you’ll get punched.

Steinbeck had just witnessed organized protests of a single black child attending a public school in New Orleans. He’d talked to people, picked up hitchhikers, taken the pulse of a community even without really trying to do so. While many in the country could not, he could see the end – though you could argue that nothing has truly ended, only changed.
The author’s description made me think of racing. When it comes to reform, the end is not in question. Just the means, and they are full of uncertainty.

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June 2019: Big decision looms for Senior Senator

Now what? If you had something to do with Senior Senator what would you do? The timber sensation tied a record with his third Maryland Hunt Cup win at the end of April and had trainer Joe Davies and owners Skip and Vicki Crawford wondering what’s left on the table.
The Pennsylvania-bred is 9 years old, prime age for a timber specialist, and in top form. Davies, even three years ago, dropped hints about a potential try at the English Grand National at Aintree. Maryland Hunt Cup winners Jay Trump and *Ben Nevis II also won the National, the most famous jump race in the world, to burnish credentials that ultimately took them to Thoroughbred racing’s Hall of Fame. Other Hunt Cup winners have tackled the Grand National with varying degrees of success too, so it’s not necessarily a wild leap into the unknown.

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May 2019: Spring brings hard news

It’s May. How you doing? Can you keep up? Racing, like the world, seemed to be in a great big hurry during the first few months of 2019. News came quickly, and from everywhere.
Breakdowns at Santa Anita. Twenty-two horses died between Dec. 26 and March 14. Everyone in racing knows horses get hurt, but that’s too many to find any comfort zone. The racing surface, the medication rules, the whips, pretty much everything took some blame for the fatalities. Track owner The Stronach Group halted racing, suspended workouts, studied the track, made a joint statement with the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals about use of the anti-bleeding medication Lasix, jockeys’ whips and more. All of it wound up national news for a while. From here, it pointed out the glaring hole in the sport’s makeup – no national voice, and no complete/verifiable/certain uniform best practices when it comes to horse welfare, care or treatment. That should change. Today.

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Senior Senator aims for history in the Hunt Cup

Joe Davies thought himself a competent amateur steeplechase jockey in 1983 so when Joy Slater went down with a broken collarbone a week before the Maryland Hunt Cup, Davies made a phone call.
“Mrs. Fanning, you don’t know who I am but I sure would like to ride Cancottage,” he said.
Trainer Jill Fanning, whose English-bred horse was bidding for his third victory in the race, didn’t really hesitate.
“Well, I already have Charlie Fenwick lined up, but you sound like a nice young boy and if you’re interested you could ride the pony and take Cancottage to the start for us.”

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Big scores boost region

I guess it’s the improbability of it all. Or something like that anyway. People ask me, and I’m sure you too, all the time: “Why horse racing?” Sometimes I struggle for an answer. Other times, I come up with things like Belmont Stakes Weekend turned in by Mid-Atlantic-bred horses.

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