Fair Hill seeks four-star future
Looks to upgrade existing facilities
— The Maryland Department of Natural Resources announced this week that discussions are underway to upgrade facilities on the racetrack and fairground portion of the Fair Hill Natural Resources Management Area to improve existing equestrian events, such as Fair Hill International and Fair Hill Races, and possibly
attract even more prestigious ones.
Ross Peddicord, executive director of the Horse Industry Board, said in early November that meetings including legislators, private investors and state officials have discussed land use, environmental issues and public/private funding options. Work continues with stakeholders, park users and the greater community to further develop and refine the proposed enhancements, he added.
“As the process unfolds, we will have time for public comment and engagement,” Peddicord said.
It’s part of a vision to create a Maryland Horse Park System, as proposed in a 2015 study that recommended enhancing existing equine-related facilities all over the state to create a system that highlights Maryland’s horse industry.
Interest in this project was buoyed this month with news that Fair Hill International has applied to be a four-star host site for worldclass equestrian eventing with the U.S. Equestrian
Federation. It is currently a two-star and three-star host for three-day eventing activities each October.
“We are excited by the possibility of hosting a fourstar event,” said Carla Geiersbach, executive director of Fair Hill International. “With only six (four-star) events in the whole world, it would be quite an honor to be selected as the seventh.”
Three-day eventing has been described by some as a triathlon in equestrian sports because it tests the strength and stamina of the horse, as well as the horse’s relationship with the rider. Throughout the three-day Fair High International, horses are tested in dressage, cross country and show jumping in two-star and three-star categories, the second and third highest classes of competition. Four-star competition is the pinnacle of equestrian sports, which would attract the world’s best horses and riders.
“Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) worked with equestrian groups, the sports commission for the state of Maryland and others to ensure the proposal for the fourstar event contributes the greatest benefit to all park users, while preserving and protecting the rural character of the area,” DNR Director of Communications Stephen Schatz said.
Regardless of the outcome of the four-star proposal, DNR Secretary Mark Belton said there remains “tremendous interest and support” to upgrade Fair Hill’s infrastructure. A community-led foundation is also being developed to identify potential funding for the improvements, he added.
Supporters say that improvements to Fair Hill are expected to increase the site’s attractiveness as a venue for equestrian events, as well as benefit all users and visitors.
“The proposed projects at Fair Hill could help establish it as a steeplechase destination throughout the Mid-Atlantic region,” said Bill Gallo, National Steeplechase Association director of racing.
Fair Hill International expects to find out sometime in 2017 if the U.S. Equestrian Federation will recommend the Cecil County site to the international equestrian federation for final approval to become a four-star venue. If successful, Maryland would join Kentucky as the only state to host both a Triple Crown race and a four-star event.
Fair Hill’s push for a fourstar event comes at a time when the Maryland horse industry is making a comeback, as detailed in the results of a recently-released economic impact study.
The horse industry in Maryland is generating $1.1 billion a year, which is a 23 percent gain over 2010 and that figure is expected to increase to $1.5 billion in annual impact by 2020. In 2015, the industry employed 9,100 in full time jobs, earning a total of about $482 million, the study says.
All facets of the industry are showing an uptick in numbers, including breeding, according to the study done by Sage Policy Group.
The industry received a huge boost in 2008 when the Maryland General Assembly approved slot machine gambling at five locations — soon to be six — throughout the state. As part of the legislation, 7 percent of the slots revenue was to be dedicated to increasing the purses at the racetracks and funding incentives for breeding. Another 2.5 percent was dedicated to a racetrack improvement fund.
A rider navigates an obstacle during the 2016 Fair Hill International, a three-star event. Fair Hill is currently working to upgrade its facilities and attract a four-star event.
New facility upgrades could eventually move Fair Hill International to the fairgrounds rather than its current home off Gallaher Road.