The sound. That’s the first thing that strikes you when horses gallop past on the new Fair Hill turf course, rebuilt over the last year by the state of Maryland, and used by horses for the first time last week.
Deep and rolling, like somebody maxed out the bass on a recording of far-away thunder, the sound is the unmistakable rhythm of four hooves hitting manicured grass and – apparently – echoing through roots, dirt, sand, growing medium, pea gravel and whatever else is under the 1-mile oval. Regraded, realigned and sodded in a massive construction project overseen by the Maryland Stadium Authority in 2019, the new course hosted four horses from trainer Graham Motion’s barn for easy gallops Wednesday. The same quartet – 2020 Breeders’ Cup hopefuls Mean Mary, Alda and Invincible Gal plus 2019 Breeders’ Cup winner Sharing – returned breezes Saturday morning.
Two-year-old fillies Invincible Gal and Alda went a half-mile together in :49, handling the climb from the backside to the finish, and pulled up on the backside. If they were daunted by the new surroundings, they didn’t show it.
A few minutes later came the main event as graded stakes winners Mean Mary and Sharing stepped on to the turf at the top of the stretch. They cantered past the stands, got an OK from Motion via radio and headed for the backside. Sharing and Elvin Caraballo led the way, with Robbie Walsh and Mean Mary 2 lengths behind. Motion clocked the leader, assistant Adrian Rolls the follower – they still need to figure out how to see the quarter pole, but hey everything is new. Winner of last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf, Sharing set a solid pace and was joined by her stablemate in the stretch. On a long hold from Walsh and even longer strides of her own, Filly and Mare Turf contender Mean Mary drew alongside in mid-stretch and finished a head in front. The daughter of Scat Daddy went 5 furlongs in 1:02 (after a half in :49.20) with Sharing timed in 1:02.60. Their gallop-out might have been better than the work itself as they used most of the long backstretch to slow to a walk.
The work, two weeks before a Breeders’ Cup start for Mean Mary and the beginning of a path back to the races for Sharing (who could try the Grade 1 Matriarch at Del Mar next month), provided plenty of fitness – which was the goal.
“I wanted to do it this week, two weeks out,” Motion said. “In case something didn’t work out today we had some wiggle room. I love to come over here and do this. She had a good work, up the hill, without having to overdo it. From a fitness point of view, for Mean Mary, I like it a lot and for the babies, it’s great. Now I can breeze them next week – a regular breeze – and feel good about it.”
Fair Hill’s turf course, across Maryland Route 273 from Fair Hill Training Center, has long been home to annual steeplechase races and the occasional training ground though it was at the mercy of weather and other factors. Motion prepped Breeders’ Cup runners Animal Kingdom, Miss Temple City and others on the old course – known for long straights and tight turns – and was thrilled to get a chance on the new version.
“Mean Mary had a good seven-eighths breeze last week (on the Tapeta synthetic track at the training center),” he said. “I love coming over here and getting on a different surface, a really good turf surface. Look, this is natural, this is what you want to be running on. This is the best, you won’t find a better surface to train on than what they just breezed on. Where could you breeze on turf like that? There hasn’t been a horse on it. It’s a beautiful turf course, a gradual incline, it’s in beautiful shape because the weather’s been perfect. It’s everything you’d want.”
Under the direction of racetrack designer Greg Johnson, the course was completely rebuilt with a new base, more gradual (and banked) turns, shorter straights and a watering system. Instead of a relatively basic – if perfectly functional – grass oval used for limited racing and even more limited training, the new Fair Hill has the potential to be used more regularly for racing and training.
The chief engineer at Lone Star Park in Texas, Johnson was on hand for Saturday’s training session, and liked what he saw.
“I’ve been involved since 2018 and to finally see a horse running on it is amazing,” he said. “For where it’s at in its growth cycle, I’m very impressed with it. It’s always fun to watch a turf track go through its early stages. I expected more divoting than what I saw because it’s so young and because it was so wet Wednesday. That’s encouraging.”
Johnson repeatedly called the turf course “young” and expects it to improve with time and repeated growing cycles.
“We built this turf course to be free-draining which means we put the grass on top of a free-draining sand so that when you have a rain event you can get right back on it a lot quicker than a traditional dirt-based racetrack,” he said. “With that, the sand doesn’t hold the nutrients quite as well so as this track matures and decays and dies through its seasons, it’s going to create its own soil layer and for the first five years this track is going to get better and better and better and by year six it’s going to be one of a kind.”