None of the riders in a stellar international field were quite sure what to expect when they showed up for the first Maryland 5 Star at Fair Hill.
The event, which wrapped up Sunday, became only the second 5-star in the western hemisphere and the seventh at that level in the world.
The Maryland fixture was popular with competitors from abroad due to Burghley’s pandemic-related cancellation for the second year in a row. It drew a 45-horse field that included some of the sport’s biggest stars, including world number one Oliver Townend of Great Britain with two-time Kentucky 5-star winner Cooley Master Class, and world number three Tim Price of New Zealand riding Xavier Faer, as well as British stalwart Harry Meade on Superstition and 2016 Olympic team gold and individual silver medalist Astier Nicolas of France with Babylon du Gamma.
They all raved about the event and the facility, even though some of the logistics were still a work in progress. But in the big picture, those were small things.
“This has been fantastic, and it’s going to get better and better every year,” said Zara Tindall, the former world champion who is the daughter of Princess Anne and course designer Mark Phillips. Since she’s also the granddaughter of Queen Elizabeth, spectators sought her out and she graciously greeted them, complying with requests for photos.
Zara, who finished 30th on the still-developing Class Affair, explained why the globe’s newest 5-star is important. “It’s great to have the variety of the big tracks if you have a horse that can do that and isn’t going to go to championships. There are still incredible horses that can’t get on the team,” she explained. “To have the big five-stars is why we all do it.”
Fair Hill is the former estate of William DuPont Jr., a member of one of America’s wealthiest families. It is now a 5,656-acre Natural Resources Management Area with undulating terrain that provided an extra challenge to the cross-country course designed to good effect by Ian Stark.
In 2019, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources partnered with the Maryland Stadium Authority to design and construct the Fair Hill Special Event Zone, equipped to host multiple equestrian disciplines. Phase One of the project, completed in 2020, included construction of not only the cross-country course, but also new dressage and show jumping arenas, as well as upgrades to a historic turf course.
“I think this event’s going to evolve in years to come to be probably the world’s greatest 5-star.”
“I love this venue,” said the USA’s Boyd Martin, even before he won the event after overnight leaders Oliver Townend and Tim Price each dropped a pole in the show jumping phase, while he went clean despite rattling a few rails. The top three had all been within a rail of each other after cross-country.
According to Boyd, the venue has “that aura of a championship with the racetrack and the beautiful rings for the dressage and show jumping. I think this cross-country course was fantastic. I think this event’s going to evolve in years to come to be probably the world’s greatest five-star.”
Canadian Karl Slezak, 28th on Fernhill Wishes, liked the event where he accomplished his first 5-star completion, but added, ”We didn’t really know what we were preparing for. Obviously, being the first year, everything was unexpected. The hills were definitely more than I thought they were going to be.”
Discussing his horse, Karl said, “I thought he was fit enough, but he got to the top of the hill and thought that was a long pull. He was a little slow going down the hill again.“
“It’s pretty rad to have another five-star in North America, especially at the end of the year, so we don’t have to go overseas.”
Riders were well-cared for, although there were issues with logistics, transportation for spectators, ticketing and other items that will be sorted for 2022. As Karl noted, “There’s always going to be kinks for the first year, but they did a good job and I look forward to it next year.”
While he said that Badminton and Burghley are on his bucket list, “I definitely don’t need to go there anymore. Between this and Kentucky, we’re pretty much set.”
As Hawley Bennett-Awad observed, “It’s pretty rad to have another five-star in North America, especially at the end of the year, so we don’t have to go overseas for it, which is really cool. The place has so much potential. I think there needs to be a few little tweaks, but it’s pretty hard to organize your first five-star.”
Her mother couldn’t come from Canada to see her because of Covid restrictions, so she got as close as she could by watching the livestream.
Hawley, the highest-placed Canadian at the event, was 20th on Jollybo, who has finished her 11th 4- and 5-star event. While others were intimidated by Ian’s cross-country route, Hawley took it in stride because he designs regularly in California, where she is based.
Jessica Phoenix, 21st on Bogue Sound, believes having the new 5-star “will definitely up our game in North America. They did a phenomenal job running this event. They’ve done everything they can to make us as comfortable as we could be. I think the venue is second to none and they made you feel at home. Even just the treats they give to the horses, it’s pretty exceptional.”