Photo credit – Suzanne Bush
Equestrians throughout the region are scrambling to find and preserve open space for horses and equine activities. Meanwhile, the Maryland Stadium Authority (MSA) and Maryland Horse Industry Board (MHIB) are dusting off the welcome mat and looking for ways to expand equestrian activities, attract more horses and horse people, and create venues for more world-class equestrian competition.
They’re responding to a 2016 study of the economic impact of the horse industry in the state. It was an eye-opener. The industry is the source of more than 9,000 jobs, and $1.15 billion—yes, that’s billion—in annual economic activity.
The racing industry is an important part of this calculus. But the people at MSA and MHIB are focusing attention and resources on developing equestrian sports venues in Fair Hill in Elkton and at Prince Georges Equestrian Center.
A First-Class Four Star Venue?
There are currently six venues in the world where Concours Complet Internationale Four-Star (CCI4*) events can be held. Currently the only venue in the United States that can host these four-star events is the Kentucky Horse Park, which hosts the four star Rolex Kentucky Three Day Event. The Federation Equestre Internationale (FEI) has been looking for another US venue for their four-star events, and Fair Hill is one of five US venues that are vying to host a fall 4-star event in either 2018 or 2019. They, along with Great Meadows and Morven Park Equestrian Center in Virginia, Ocala Jockey Club in Florida and Tryon International Equestrian Center in North Carolina are awaiting a decision from the United States Equestrian Federation (USEF), which has been working with FEI to identify appropriate venues. The USEF board was scheduled to make a decision at their mid-January board meeting.
“They’re hoping to narrow the field at that meeting and continue discussions with the narrower group,” Carla Geiersbach says. She is the Executive Director of Fair Hill, and explains that numerous improvements to the Fair Hill venue would be required.
Ross Peddicord, Executive Director of the MHIB says that the improvements would turn Fair Hill—already a spectacular equine facility—into a truly world-class venue. All of this is the culmination of years of study, coalition-building, strategic planning and negotiation. It was a happy coincidence that, a year ago, USEF put out a request for proposal, asking for hosts of three-star events that would like to begin hosting four-star events.
“So, my heavens, we were told this was kind of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. We met with the Fair Hill International board, and they were kind of split whether or not they could handle something like that.” Peddicord says they contacted the MSA for input and advice. He says the MSA was originally created to build and maintain stadiums for professional baseball and football, but in the intervening 25 years, the group has helped universities, local governments and private entities develop convention centers, museums, etc.
Soon after, the Fair Hill International board voted unanimously to develop a proposal for USEF, and committed to significant capital improvements. “They would bring the cross-country (course) over to the race course,” he explains. Right now the two are far apart, and Fair Hill International can’t live- stream events because the course is so remote in the park. “You could have jumps right in front of the stands.” Fair Hill’s race course has some tight turns, and because the base soil is clay, it gets hard enough to seriously limit its use. So, Peddicord says they’ll need to install an irrigation system. “What’s needed is to reconfigure the race track, widen the turns, put the rings for Dressage and Grand Prix jumping into the infield and build out VIP seating from the grandstand.” It’s a tall order, made even more ambitious by the plan to develop a turf racing and training center at Fair Hill.
Making the Dream Come True
Fair Hill Natural Resources Area is home to more than horses. Nearly 100 years ago William duPont began acquiring what would eventually become more than 7,000 contiguous acres of pristine woodland along the Maryland/Pennsylvania border. An avid horseman, he wanted to create a place where he could race horses and foxhunt. He spent years developing the course that would eventually be used for steeplechasing—ensuring that the footing was perfect. In addition to creating a place where he could indulge his equestrian pursuits, duPont wanted to preserve the space for nature. When he died in 1965, the state bought the 5,000+ acres in Maryland and preserved the space forever.
Peddicord says that, in addition to the equestrian enterprises on the site, Fair Hill is home to the annual Cecil County Fair. The Fair organization is among the stakeholders participating in strategic planning for Fair Hill, and they raised the issue of pedestrian safety crossing Route 273, a busy road that bisects the park. He says that a pedestrian/equestrian tunnel under Route 273 is also part of the capital plan for the area.
Fair Hill Foundation
The Fair Hill Foundation will play a crucial role in the future of Fair Hill. “The Foundation’s express purpose is to raise private money to match 50/50 with Maryland State funding,” Peddicord explains. “Studies, test and design work will start this spring, to see whether and if the changes are possible.” He says that they are also working with the National Steeplechase Association (NSA), which is headquartered at Fair Hill. “We want to build an all-weather gallop for the steeplechase trainers and turf gallops,” he says. He visualizes the massive project, with an estimated $24 million price tag, as a two-phase plan. The all-weather gallop and turf gallops, along with reconfiguring and irrigating the race track and the Route 273 tunnel would be Phase one. Phase two would include the construction of the new grandstand.
A Fantastic Area
Geiersbach has been at Fair Hill for about two years, and her enthusiasm for the place is…well…unbridled. “It’s such a fantastic area. You feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere, and we’re all hopeful that we’ll be able to share it with more people.” She and Peddicord agree that the improvements are likely to happen whether Fair Hill gets the four-star or not. “It would be nice if the two projects dovetailed.”
Peddicord says the best thing about all these plans is that they preserve William duPont’s vision. “It incorporates all the natural beauty and sustainable environment with our horse activity,” he says. “it improves the landscape and maintains the natural beauty of the park.” He says the trails will stay the same and all the carriage facilities will stay the same, although he hopes that at some point the riding stable will get some upgrades.
“It’s quite magical and beautiful,” he says.
On January 19, the USEF announced that the additional CCI4* event in the United States would be moved from 2018 to the fall of 2019, and that the list of possible venues had been narrowed to two - Fair Hill and Great Meadow. The 2018 FEI World Equestrian Games™ Tryon remains on September 10-23, 2018, at the Tryon International Equestrian Center in Mill Spring, NC.