For 31 years, the Fair Hill International Three-Day Event served as a much-anticipated goal for the major U.S. eventing season. Run over hilly terrain, in the 3-star division, it offered an indicator of readiness for graduating to the next level, while a horse that could handle the 4-star test usually was deemed a good prospect for the Kentucky 5-star the following spring.
Fair Hill got a leg up after the Dutta Corp. became the title sponsor in 2013. Now it’s time for another big step, as the Fair Hill name will be attached to the Maryland 5-star next year, when the U.S. becomes only the second country (after Britain) to have two 5-star events. Major construction and renovations for the multi-phase project are ongoing at property just a short hack from the current venue east of Gallaher Road. A test event for the 5-star is slated to be held in April at the new site, where the Fair Hill Races have been staged since 1934.
Although another 5-star is a coup for both the nation and the state, the final running of the 3- and 4-star combo at their familiar location sparked some sentimental reflections, as the historic Fair Hill Bronze trophy was given away for the final time over the weekend. This year’s event was the Fair Hill swan song for Derek di Grazia, who has been designing the October competition’s cross-country route since 1999. Ian Stark, who rode internationally for Great Britain, is laying out the route for the Maryland 5-Star at Fair Hill, to be accompanied by a 3-star, but no 4-star, which will now be held at Morven Park in Virginia.
Discussing his feelings as his time at Fair Hill drew to a close, the 2020 Tokyo Olympic course designer mused, “I thought about this a lot during the week. It’s a wonderful piece of ground (that) has educated so many horses over the years. I just feel very sorry we’re not going to be able to use this site again.”
At the same time, he noted, “Ian’s a great course designer and I’m sure he’s going to create something that will be quite good for the horses and the spectators as well.”
The property where the 3- and 4-star ran in the Fair Hill Natural Resources Management Area wasn’t suitable for the 5-star because it has to stay “natural,” and permanent structures can’t be built there. But both Trish Gilbert, president of the International’s board, and board member Tim Gardner believe smaller events can continue to be held at the site, which has a large all-weather arena.
Maryland got the nod for the 5-star over another finalist, Great Meadow in Virginia. It’s easy to see why, considering the state committed to $20 million in improvements from both public and private sources. The Maryland Stadium Authority created the Sport and Entertainment Corporation of Maryland this year to support Maryland Sports, the state’s sports commission.
The first thing it did was to name the Fair Hill Organizing Committee, a different panel than the one that ran the International. In addition to supporting the efforts of Maryland Sports by promoting regional, national and international sporting events in the State of Maryland, the Sport Corp. can solicit and receive contributions from businesses, governmental and non-profit entities, as well as individuals. That has been called a “game changer” for Maryland Sports, as it recruits and retains sporting events.
There are still a number of issues to be decided in the run-up to the 5-star. One involves sponsorship. Tim Dutta said he hasn’t discussed that subject yet, so it will be interesting to see what backers come on board for the new event.
Jeff Newman, the president and CEO of the 5-star organizing committee, said the new venue is “bringing the event from the backyard to the front” in an area that can “accommodate growth.”
Discussing his resume, Jeff said with a smile, “I come from an events background, not an eventing background.” That means event production, such as Washington DC’s Citi Open Tennis Tournament, which he ran for more than 20 years. His game is in event planning, management and corporate partnership; others will run the horse side.
He emphasized the Fair Hill Special Events Zone is about more than eventing. It also includes racing, both steeplechase and on the flat, for which the track si being improved. While the focus now is on the horse side of things, “the hope is that it will have multiple uses over time, but that is to be determined,” he said.
“One of the main reasons of moving over is to be able to accommodate additional crowds,” Jeff explained.
In addition to attracting people from throughout the mid-Atlantic area, “We’re hoping as a 5- star we draw internationally to create the economic impact for not only the county, but the state,” he said.
The event “will be the primary component, but we also want to have the opportunity to draw fans who are interested in other activities and then they become a horse industry fan to help grow the base.” The idea is to “use the event as a hook to get more people to support and be interested in the horse industry.”
Jeff added, “’We’re going to do a lot of focus groups…to find out what people are interested in, what will get them to the event. We want the riders to have a great experience and be able to say `Fair Hill was amazing,’ and keep coming back.”
~ Nancy Jaffer