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.