Give: The Turf Renaissance at Fair Hill

Turf Racing needs more centers like Fair Hill
Turf Racing needs more centers like Fair Hill

For some time now, I have had designs on hiring a caboose in order to crisscross this nation. If I could, I would hook up to the rear of an Amtrak or even the Santa Fe line would do. I'd embark on an old-fashioned whistle-stop tour, like Presidents used to do 100 years ago before American Airlines and the others started charging exorbitant fees for fizzy drinks, cashews, carry-ons, and tissue paper. I digress…

In every town that had a racetrack nearby I would stop and deliver a William Jennings Bryan-style “Cross of Gold” speech. My topic? The need for more turf racing in America. To channel Howard Dean, I’d go to Gulfstream, Tampa, Colonial Downs, Laurel, Delaware, Monmouth, the NYRA circuit, cross the border to Woodbine, back by beleaguered Arlington, before blazing past Indiana Downs, then down to Kentucky, cross country to Golden Gate, on to SoCal, and through Lone Star, Sam Houston, and the Fairgrounds! Heck, I’d even go to Oaklawn and talk rye, bluegrass, and tall fescue, if I could get anyone to listen.

My point? Thoroughbred racing in America has a massive opportunity to develop and expand upon what it does on the grass. Everyone needs to realize that there is nothing like turf racing. Handicapping it, riding on it, training for it, and even caring for the stuff, takes special attention and skill. I am enamored by running on sod, yet disgusted that the rest of the world seems to be so far ahead of us when it comes to investing in it.

Sojourn to Japan, southern China, Dubai, all of Europe, and both Souths, Africa and America, you will find shapes that undulate like rivers, providing even more of a challenge. I chuckle every time I hear some pundit mentioning once again how unique the pear-shaped track at Kentucky Downs is on television. It is unique to America, not the rest of the world.

We need to remember that investing in turf tracks for flat racing and for training goes back into the American past. We do have that history. Starting in the late 1920s before the country was plunged into the Global Great Depression, William du Pont Jr. made a major commitment to building an extensive turf course at Fair Hill in Cecil County, Maryland. It was part of numerous racetracks he built during his life, along with the major investments he made in the horses themselves. This one was modeled on the English course at Aintree. Since then, Fair Hill has served as a center for conditioners in the Mid-Atlantic region.

Loads of fabulous Thoroughbreds have worked at Fair Hill over the years, Barbaro comes to mind. Names like Graham Motion (whose Herringswell Stables is just minutes away, across the Pennsylvania border in Lewisville), Arnaud Delacour, Michael Stidham, Michael Matz, and many others have called this place home. Over the years, the facilities have grown exponentially with gate schools, a tapeta-based track, and a state-of-the-art equine medical center for treatment and research.

Recently, a major turf expansion project was completed just across Route 273 from the Training Center at the home of the Fair Hill Races, which began holding annual contests back in 1934.  Flash forward to 2016, the Maryland state government and the Fair Hill Foundation have joined forces in a public-private partnership committed to preserving the historic legacy of the ground, and sustaining its future as the Mid-Atlantic's world-class equestrian center.

This year the facility saw major advancements, which will allow Fair Hill to expand racing days and provide opportunities for schooling, flat races, boutique turf meets, and Arabian racing. The state contracted with well-known grass agent, Tuckahoe Turf Farms in Hammonton, New Jersey. They know how individual blades come together having worked for major stadiums throughout the East Coast from Heinz Field in Pittsburgh to Fenway Park in Boston. This time Tuckahoe laid down a new Kentucky Bluegrass mix for Fair Hill. The historic oval boasts advanced irrigation, more sweeping and banked turns, along with a major reconfiguration, in order to achieve consistent width around the course. Now, the mile distance will have an uphill pull into the home stretch as an added bonus.

The grass renaissance at Fair Hill will be welcome news to Thoroughbred trainers in the region. But their connections, the handicappers who look for the “Fai” abbreviations under workouts in the form, and of course, those four-legged magnificent creatures who love to run on that spongy green give will be thankful too.

America’s turf traditions at Fair Hill are alive and well. Maybe the sod news from North America is not all doom and gloom. Soon Fair Hill’s new turf course will take its place among the main centers for this kind of training. Time to line up the dogs!

William du Pont…he would be pleased.

I am still planning my whistle-stop tour. Not done yet.

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