This article first appeared in the July 2019 print Equiery
by Katherine O. Rizzo
It started over a decade ago… the idea for a multi-use facility here in Maryland that would rival facilities such as the Kentucky Horse Park. Several years and several studies later, Phase 1 of construction officially began at the Fair Hill Natural Resources Management Area in Elkton on May 28. The multi-phase improvement project will ultimately both enhance what already exists at Fair Hill as well as bring even more world class equestrian sports to Maryland.
William du Pont’s Vision
Fair Hill as a multi-use equestrian facility began with its founder William du Pont, Jr., who in the 1920s, began buying up 8,000 acres of land in order to create a haven for fox chasing and steeplechasing. When the Great Depression hit the rural communities, du Pont saw an opportunity to increase his Cecil County landholdings by purchasing a number of small farms, then offering jobs and housing to the farmers from whom he purchased the land. Little by little, he began to tie together these small farms to form Foxcatcher Farm, Inc., (MD) and Springlawn Farm (PA).
By the late 1940s, du Pont’s holdings were vast. He built a kennel with outbuildings to accommodate the hounds, huntsman and staff, which were the origins of Foxcatcher Hounds. He built coops and other jumps between fencelines to allow for easier following of the hounds. It was du Pont who also built the bridges and tunnels over and under major roads to keep his hounds and staff safe while hunting.
Du Pont’s other equestrian love was steeplechasing. In 1934 the Foxcatcher National Cup debuted at what is now known as the Fair Hill section of his property. The daunting three mile course had 19 obstacles with the lowest fence being 4’8’’ and the highest being 6’4’’. To maintain the sod for the track, he set aside about 400 acres east of Appleton Road to grow the proper sod needed for racing.
Members of the Calvert, Cecilton and Colora Granges met in 1953 to found the Cecil County 4-H Fair. They approached du Pont requesting to use his property for the fair’s location. Du Pont agreed and was extremely supportive of the new fair, sharing expenses of the fair for the first few years. He even donated the funds to build the grandstand and outbuildings needed to exhibit livestock. Du Pont himself was a cattleman as well! The first Cecil County 4-H Fair was held at du Pont’s estate in 1954 as a one-day event with free admission.
In the 1960s, du Pont’s daughter Jean Ellen (McConnell) Sheehan took over hunting his pack and du Pont followed his hounds via a jeep instead of a horse until his death on December 31, 1965.
It was not until 1974 that the State of Maryland purchased the 5,633 acres south of the Pennsylvania/Maryland line for $6 million from the William du Pont, Jr., estate, using Open Space Funds. Under the sales agreement with the state was an informal agreement that various equestrian activities such as foxhunting, steeplechasing and the fair still continue on the property.
The first international level three-day event was held at Fair Hill in 1989. Currently, the property is used for eventing, combined driving, and endurance riding competitions as well as the annual Cecil County Fair and other local horse shows. Steeplechasing continues with multiple race meets each year.
The Maryland Department of Natural Resources assumed responsibility for the operations of the property in 2000.
The 5-Star Bid
In March of 2016, Fair Hill International president Trish Gilbert received a request from the U.S. Equestrian Federation for Fair Hill to bid on a new FEI-sanctioned four-star three-day event. The location already had a proven track record of international caliber eventing at the three- and two-star levels. This October the Fair Hill International even serves as the three- and two-star national championships for the US Eventing Association. When the bidding process began, a four-star was the highest level of competition in the world of international eventing, and the US only hosted one four-star, in Kentucky each April.
During the initial stages of the bidding process, five locations in the US were considered: Fair Hill, Great Meadow (VA), Tryon Equestrian Center (NC), Morven Park (VA) and Ocala Jockey Club (FL). After site visits, the US Eventing Committee narrowed the list down to Great Meadow and Fair Hill, with Fair Hill ultimately receiving the four-star in July of 2017. However, at the same time, the FEI was in the process of changing its star systems, so FHI shifted its plans to aim for a fall 2020 five-star event under the new star system, instead of aiming for a fall 2019 four-star event.
Once the USEF & the FEI signed off on the five-star at Fair Hill, work started in earnest on plans to build a five-star worthy facility, always keeping in mind what other uses these improvements would bring to the park.
Phase I Construction
Although the building process officially started the moment FHI was awarded the five-star, most of those initial steps were tied up in blueprints and permits. “This past year has been so much of the administrative red tape that had to be taken care of before any physical construction could start,” said FHI competition director Mary Coldren.
Due to the various required aspects of a five-star, such as access for camera crews, ability to handle large crowds, etc., the location for the new event is on the Saw Mill/Fairgrounds side of the Fair Hill property, instead of the current three-day location on the other side of Gallaher Road. This is the section of the property where the FHI horse trials are held as well as the various race meets and county fair.
This first part of the construction process is mainly moving dirt. Gary Guigan, senior vice president of the Capital Project Development Group for the Maryland Stadium Authority said, “there is around 300,000 cubic yards of dirt that is being moved and graded as well as digging a large drainage pond for irrigation purposes.” The goal is to have everything done with sod in place by early fall so that the new grass has a chance to really take root before the winter. “Weather permitting, we should be done with everything by December 1 of this year,” he added.
Phase I also includes the building of the five-star cross-country course and three competition arenas, which will be housed inside the new and improved turf track. The turf track is being widened in places and an irrigation system is being installed
RK&K Engineers created the design for this phase of the project and the chief contractor is Turner Construction. Ian Stark, a three time British Olympic team member and international course designer, has been hired to design the five-star course. International course builders Eric Bull and Tyson Rementer have been subcontracted to build the jumps for the five-star, which will also include a new water feature. Altogether, this first phase of the project will cost approximately $20 million, according to Guigan.
During this construction process, most of Fair Hill’s 5,000-plus acres are completely unaffected and all activities for the remainder of the year are happening as scheduled. Emily Wilson, acting assistant secretary of Maryland DNR said, “Only about 88 acres are being closed to the public due to the construction. That includes only one-mile of trail closures.” Wilson encourages anyone looking to visit Fair Hill this summer and fall to contact DNR’s Fair Hill offices for details.
One of the biggest earth moving construction projects is creating a land bridge to connect the Fairgrounds and Saw Mill areas. “It’s going to be huge and crossing that stream to make it easier for people and horses to get from one section to the other,” Coldren explained.
There is a fourth ring in the works as well. “The area for the fourth ring will already be graded and will just be grass until we move into Phase II. But even a level grass ring will be useful in the meantime,” Coldren added. Upgrades to the existing grandstands and other outbuildings fall under future building phases awaiting funds.
The funds for the Fair Hill project are a 50/50 split between private and public funds. Senator H. Wayne Norman (District 35; Harford and Cecil Counties) sponsored a $100,000 bond bill during the 2017 legislative session to go toward the engineering designs for the anticipated improvements at Fair Hill. The bond bill was matched by private donations to the Fair Hill Foundation, currently chaired by Jay Griswold.
“It’s a major project and a 50/50 cost share one too,” he said. Griswold became involved with this project through Maryland Horse Industry Board executive director Ross Peddicord and former Fair Hill Foundation president Sam Slater. “When Sam stepped down, I came in,” Griswold stated.
Beyond the Five-Star
A test event is scheduled for April of 2020 during FHI’s annual spring three-day event. “The test event will be a CCI4*-short,” explained Coldren, adding, “we hope that during this year’s October CCIs we will be able to shuttle people over to the new site to give them a sneak peak at what’s going on.”
Coldren’s personal favorite part of the construction is the arenas, which are being built by Atwood. “Those rings really are the best part of the whole thing. It’s going to open the facility up for all kinds of top notch shows like grand prix jumpers and more,” she said. “It just becomes more usable for everyone.”
“We are all excited about the improvements being made as it will attract even more activities to Fair Hill,” Wilson said. Wilson also pointed out that equestrian use is still the major use of the park, followed by the Scottish Games and Cecil County 4-H Fair.
According to Peddicord, the 5 Star Host Organizing Committee will run the FHI five-star event in conjunction with the Maryland Stadium Authority, Maryland Sports Commission and Fair Hill International. The Co-Chairmen of the host committee are Michael Gill, former Secretary of Maryland Deptartment of Commerce, and Michael Hankin, CEO of Brown Advisory.
“DNR and various partners are working on a facilities/operation plan for the new facility as well as a detailed business plan for users of the new venue which will include, but are not limited to the five main areas; steeplechasing, flat racing, three-day eventing, horse shows and non-equestrian events,” Peddicord explained.
With the rings alone, the possibilities are endless for the facility. The addition of a five-star event is more than just a big deal to the Maryland equestrian calendar, as the tourism dollars it will bring into the state are unlimited. “This project is hugely important for the state and will have a major [positive] economic impact on the state,” said Griswold.
From William du Pont, Jr., to today’s Fair Hill team, the future is looking bright for Maryland’s equestrian community!
Fair Hill Building Timeline
provided by Ross Peddicord, MHIB executive director
2004: At the Maryland Horse Forum, attendees expressed desire for a Maryland Horse Park similar to the Kentucky Horse Park.
2005: The Maryland Horse Industry Board (MHIB) commissioned the Maryland Stadium Authority (MSA) to conduct a study in conjunction with the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development on building a Horse Park in Maryland.
2006: The Horse Park study was released and locations were narrowed down to the Naval Academy Dairy Farm (Gambrills) and Fair Hill Natural Resources Management Area (Elkton). The Gambrills site won because of its central Maryland location, however, due to various circumstances, the park was not built.
2009: At the Maryland Horse Forum, attendees once again expressed desire for construction of a Maryland Horse Park.
2011: MHIB voted to pay for and take another look at the original Horse Park study under the auspices of the MSA to see if still feasible.
2012: The revived MSA study found that, despite the 2008 economic downturn, the state’s equine industry was still sufficiently large enough to support a Maryland Horse Park.
2014: MHIB, with a grant from the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development, resumed the original study, this time concentrating on a Maryland Horse Park System that would refurbish and modernize existing horse competition facilities on publicly owned land. Fair Hill for an equestrian field event venue and the Prince George’s Equestrian Center (PGEC) for an equestrian show/expo venue applied for consideration.
2015: The MSA Report was released in September, advocating for approximately $30 million in improvements at PGEC and $20 million at Fair Hill. MHIB officials began meeting with the management teams at both venues to start discussions on how to go forward.
2016: Bidding process for an additional four-star (now five-star) FEI-sanctioned event in the mid-Atlantic region began with Fair Hill on the bid list.
2017: In July, USEF announces Fair Hill as the five-star bid winner.
2018: Various state agencies and about a dozen Fair Hill stakeholder groups swung into action to work together and gain the necessary permitting and funding for construction. An initial $2 million was raised from the public and private sectors to formulate design, engineering, water and utilities plans.
2019: In March, British Olympian Ian Stark was hired to design the new five-star cross-country course. In May, the Maryland Board of Public Works approved $17 million in funds to start Phase I of construction for the new venue. May 24 was the official ground breaking and construction began on May 28.
2020: April test event over the new cross-country course, with the five-star scheduled for October.
The bid, and subsequent awarding of the five-star, jump starts improvements at Fair Hill. Once Fair Hill has moved further along in the process, then discussions will be needed to restart the improvements at the Prince George’s Equestrian Center.