History was made a little after 9 Wednesday morning as Mean Mary galloped deliberately through the stretch to become the first horse to pass the finish line on the new Fair Hill turf course in Fair Hill, Md.
Rebuilt in 2019 and 2020 by the state of Maryland, the historic steeplechase course dating to the 1930s was shrouded in fog but hosted its first racehorses for a gallop as trainer Graham Motion sent out a set of four – 2020 Breeders’ Cup hopefuls Mean Mary, Invincible Gal, Alda and 2019 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf winner Sharing. They went a mile-and-a-half or so, to allow horses, riders, trainers and those responsible to get a feel for the new course. First impressions, positive.
“When we first stepped out on it it felt firm but galloping on it didn’t feel as firm, it's very good,” said Robbie Walsh, who rode Mean Mary and was a regular on the course as a steeplechase jockey. “It’s a huge improvement, a lot better than it was. Galloping on it is one feeling. You’ll get a better feel for it if we work horses on it.”
That’s supposed to happen Saturday, weather, horses and turf permitting.
Motion agreed with Walsh’s assessment, and said he received good feedback from the riders.
“It’s hard to tell from a gallop,” he said. “Robbie has been out there before and after and he felt the inclines and declines were very gradual. That was one of my biggest concerns, and he said the way it’s laid out it’s not shocking when you ride it. He said the turns handled well and it all handled well but we were just cantering.”
As for the turf itself, a Kentucky bluegrass mix installed as sod a little more than a year ago, Motion was enthusiastic.
“There would not be a better turf course in the country right now without exception,” he said in a Fair Hill Foundation media release. “Everyone was very pleased with how it handled, particularly the grade down the backside and up the front side. The turf is in beautiful shape.”
Built by William du Pont Jr. in the late 1920s and modeled after the original Aintree course in England, Fair Hill opened for racing in 1934 and has long been a fixture on the steeplechase calendar. Known for long straightaways, tight turns and adequate – if natural and at the mercy of weather – footing, the course hosted four of the first six runnings of the Breeders’ Cup Steeplechase (1986-88 and 1991), was home to the American Grand National in the 1970s and was the setting of du Pont’s demanding Foxcatcher National Steeplechase in its early years.
The course is part of the newly constructed special event zone at Fair Hill Natural Resources Management Area in Cecil County. Owned by the state of Maryland, the venue also features a new Ian Stark-designed cross-country course, updated timber course and new competition arenas built within the turf track’s infield. The enhanced turf track will offer more opportunities for training, as well as the potential to host more racing days.
In a project that began in late spring 2019, the course was regraded and reconfigured. The straights are shorter, the turns are banked and aren’t nearly as sharp and the turf is state-of-the-art with a drainage system and irrigation system. The course is 90 feet wide and includes new inside and outside running rails and distance markers. The course climbs steadily from the half-mile pole to the finish line, and declines slightly on the backside. The Fair Hill Foundation is leading Proud Past – Infinite Future, The Campaign for Fair Hill, to raise private funding to leverage and match state funds for the $20 million project and continue to upgrade the facility.
The course is across Md. Route 273 from the Fair Hill Training Center, home base of Motion’s stable and other trainers such as Mike Trombetta, Michael Matz, Arnaud Delacour, Kelly Rubley, a division of Hall of Famer Shug McGaughey’s stable and others. Due to the construction, racing was not held on the course in 2020 but plans call for a return of the Fair Hill Races steeplechase meet in May 2021 along with additional flat and/or jump dates. In addition, the facility will host three-day eventing including the new Maryland Five Star (canceled this fall due to the coronavirus) in October 2021.
Overhead image of the course showing competiton rings in the infield, training center tracks in the background.
Below, Breeders' Cup hopeful Mean Mary and Robbie Walsh cross the finish line while galloping Wednesday. (Fair Hill Foundation photos).